I've strayed from phở in these pages for three years. I'm not sure, however, if it would be possible to stray from it for that long in the streets of Hanoi. Pho's everywhere, still. And I'm still eating it. In the soaking sweat of mid-summer, phở makes me feel cool...once I've stopped eating it. That moment when I down the chopsticks, swipe the flimsy serviette across my perspiring brow and catch the draught of wind from the rotation of the fan; that moment is often the coolest moment of a hot Hanoi summer day, a sensation difficult to communicate.
But it is true that phở captures my imagination moreso in the cooler months of the year. When the sun's warmth is negated by morning mist, when the steam rising from pot and bowl seems more pronounced, when the padded jackets are donned in the year's first cold snap; this is when there is more anticipation, even glee, at the sight of Hanoi phở being set down before me. And when it is from a newly discovered phở vendor, throbbing with a crowd of knowing locals, well...intensify the anticipation by ten.
In the Old Quarter's north, in the nippy shade of the railway viaduct, phở has been reborn to me. To blue formica, set up on both sides of this tradeway leading ulitmately to the Đồng Xuân market, the bowl comes. Big spring onion tadpoles lay on the surface of the broth, over two kinds of beef: slow braised pieces of brisket that lusciously break up when pushed by the tongue to the roof of my mouth and thinly sliced rare steak cooked under the pour of the ladle. A clump of fresh rice noodles sits inert beneath these ingredients and a perfect beef broth, slightly dark but clear.
A Hanoi phở table will not be aggrandized with a garden plate of Saigon herbs and sauces. That would be vulgar, according to the locals. A squeeze of lime and the heat of a chili is bastardization enough. With those, I round out my flavours before freeing my noodles from their knot by lifting and releasing them with my chopsticks a few times.
The anticipation stops. The reality starts. I'm now reassessing my Hanoi phở ratings.
Tuan Ha Phở Bò
34 Hang Giay (Cnr Gam Cau)
Old Quarter, Hanoi