Forget Me Not
“Ah, the glorious aroma of Vietnam!” I feign reverence for the odor that swirls around me and my two children as we trudge down the muddy path that leads into the fresh market in Thanh Hoa. It’s been two years since my last visit and I’d forgotten just how pungent the smell can be: a mix of nuoc mam, grilled meat and rotting fruit from the trash barrels that sit just across the narrow road from the open-air shops. There is nothing else quite like it—sweet and sour—and it makes my eyes water with fond memories.
It had been here that I’d had my first taste of pho. I was working at Hong Duc University for a semester as an English teacher, bringing my kids along for the adventure. Directly across from the university gates sat the fresh market; the barn-like buildings away from the busy road, hidden from passing view by the hordes of motorbikes that park in front and by food vendors that set up shop between street and market. Like a holiday bazaar, the sellers were packed together, one running into the other. Each sold a variation of the ubiquitous noodle soup—pho—or the grilled meat and noodle combination known locally as bun cha.
Unlike so many other foreigners, I’d never had pho before. It had been a purposeful decision to avoid it in the months preceding our visit. Instead of prepping our taste buds with Vietnamese dishes before leaving the States, I’d wanted to wait for the real deal. But in the dirty market, the smell of chicken broth and onion and a hint of basil pulled me in. My clean-freak son eyed the preparation area, unsure. Stuart has always been the one to be extra cautious and this didn’t look like the kind of restaurant we’d normally frequent. Audrey, only nine years old was in awe of the roasted chickens perched upside down across the table, heads and feet intact.
“What do you think?” I asked them both. “Wanna give it a shot?”
Stuart shrugged, not quite willing to give it a yea vote, but not vetoing it either. “I suppose.” He turned to Audrey, hoping for some back up. “Do you want to?”
Eyeing the grease-stained table, none of us were exactly eager to venture under the awning to try the national soup, but there was something about it that beckoned. I figured that this was as good a time as any. If we were going to live in this town for the next few months, we’d better get used to it and the quicker the better.
The narrow benches sat too close to the tables for the legs that make up much of my 5’7” frame, so I straddled the bench facing Audrey. Stuart stepped over and sat, his teenager legs too long as well, spreading his knees against the box that was doubled as a table. Before we could get settled the woman was in front of us, leaning over the table to get a closer view of our strange little threesome.
“Hai pho ga,” I told her in rudimentary Vietnamese, holding up two fingers to indicate the number of bowls and hoping that she’d understand the request for chicken rather than beef. A quick nod was all I got in response before she was off to the prep table that sat in the middle of her unmarked territory. While she dipped the dry rice noodles into the broth for a quick boil, we marveled at the table´s accoutrements. A small plate of four lime wedges looked as if they were holding their breath, drying in the summer heat. There wasn´t any juice left within them to squeeze over our soup. The fish sauce that defines Vietnam, mixed with garlic and chilies, half-filled an old screw-top jar. From the strawberry image barely visible on the worn label, I assumed that in its former life, the jar held jam and not nuoc cham. A plastic bucket held chopsticks, darkened by innumerable bowls of soup, and the local version of table napkins, small rectangles of rough, colored paper.
Stuart pulled out a dark teal sheet and did as we´d seen others do: pinch the chopsticks between the doubled-up paper and rub-rub-rub. I doubted that it disinfects them in any way, but it rids the wood of splinters that had developed and overt signs of decay. Somehow the action placates the fear of using another person’s eating utensil. It gives some sense of cleanliness. As we furiously rubbed, the woman presented us with two bowls of chicken noodle soup. Awkwardly she held them before us, seeming confused at the disproportionate number of people versus bowls. I pointed to Stuart and she put it down, spilling the steaming broth onto the plastic tablecloth. Then I tapped the table between Audrey and me. This time she took a bit more care and nary a drop fell from the bowl.
It didn’t look anything like the chicken soup my mother makes. Her homemade egg noodles are wide and thick and slightly yellow. Her soup is chock-full of carrots, celery and onion. This soup is pale broth and thin white rice noodles topped with a small hill of shredded chicken meat. There are small bits of green onions, but the only other vegetables are piled onto a plate that she set down between the bowls of soup. Basil leaves shade the bean sprouts, but we found both and added a bit to our soup. I sprinkled some of the salt and pepper mixture over the broth, stirring it in with a pair of chopsticks. The aroma of the basil, the chicken, the unknown spices swirled with the smell of the trash pile less than fifty feet away. Carefully, I pulled the noodles out of the near-boiling broth, blew a little and sucked them in. I immediately understood why people are passionate about this soup.
Returning two years later, the woman who had served us that first bowl of pho, and the hundred or more bowls that came over the next three months, is gone, replaced by another whose soup is just as good as I remember. Her lime wedges just as dry. This new one is careful to not give the kids a lot of skin. It´s a kind acknowledgment of our Western ways and, for my daughter´s sake, I appreciate it. As we wander through the market, hoping for familiar faces, the smell is overpowering. We´d been able to bury our faces into the pho, blocking out the adjacent odors to enjoy the herbs and chicken as we ate. Now, it´s intensified by the fish and shrimp that fill the back of the market building. I´d forgotten just how strong it can be.
Rounding the corner, we finally see someone we know from our first time in Thanh Hoa: our favorite fruit seller. She´d been kind enough to teach me the Vietnamese name for my favorites, both new and old. Xoai. Chuoi. Dua hau. Tao. Dua. She´d introduced me to crazy new fruits like custard apples, rambutans and mangosteens. We never could converse besides the obligatory greeting—xin chao—and the farewell—tam biet, but when my teaching semester was over, it was difficult to say the final goodbye. I didn´t know if we´d ever see her again.
But here she is, still in the same location with the same array of fruits, looking exactly as I´d remembered. Her eyes widen as she sees us, recognizes us after all this time. She scurries out from behind her cart to hug them, to hug me. Through hand motions, she awes at their growth; Audrey now stands nearly as tall as her. Stuart is several inches taller. And her smile is as broad as my own. Here in the cool shade of the market, the miasma of Vietnam surrounding us, I find myself thrilled to be remembered.