Miss Ba’s Old Saigon Pho

When I first came to Saigon in the early 1990s I found a charming and slow moving little low-rise city whose tallest building was the then 10 storey Caravelle hotel. Clerks in the then few banks spoke French and closed up shop from noon to two for “le dejuner.” But soon the leisurely lady bestirred herself and began to rise. Office and hotel towers shot up like bamboo and sugar cane, seemingly overnight. In a twinkling of history’s eye the sleepy town of a thousand charms transformed herself into a city of big shoulders and pounding energies. Urban canyons began to muscle out the leafy villas and the quiet cul-de-sacs. And the acres and acres of sidewalk eateries, the clusters of bistros and bakeries, improvised com (rice plate) and pho (noodle) and mobile sinh to (smoothie) stands served their last, tipped their caps, and then succumbed to urban progress. No doubt the populace is materially better off.

But where went the city’s charm? Especially its edible and drinkable charm? Watch this space. I’ll be tracking it for you. The city’s gastronomic charm is still to be found, in places high and low, old and new. It’s available for anything from a few coins to a gold card. But one of the best places to find the old city’s charm is in the hems, those tangles of dark and narrow alleyways that in every neighborhood conspire to form a mini Casbah.

Delve into one of these urban cave complexes. Choose any one, wherever you see a shadowy portal quietly beckoning. Perhaps the ensuing lane is so narrow that opposing balconies on the second floors are close enough that neighbors can shake hands or borrow a cup of sugar. You may see little shops, little hotels, little cafes, little dwellings, little everything. For here, despite the city’s staggering increase, the human scale is maintained. In these living grottoes you may hear the clatter of mahjong tiles, kids shouting in their play, the music of caged song birds, and the clanging banging glorious sounds of cookery. You may smell the urgency of garlic, the sting of chili and the insistence of durian and the flower of coriander. Here is where intimate dining takes place. Here is where little knots of alfresco diners gather as families, friends or couples to commune at a tiny table with tiny chairs at the tiniest restaurants in the world. Yes, here in the little nooks and crannies of the big big city there is always something good to eat, and a good and welcoming place to eat it.

The Pham has a Casbah that you can easily find. It snakes through the blocks from Cong Quyenh to Nguyen Thai Hoc. Most of it is between Do Quang Dao and De Tham, but a few paces east of De Tham is “Mini Hotel Alley.” If you know Asian Kitchen or Bread and Butter (or the back side of Le Pub) you know the alley. At the southwest corner of the alley, where it spills out onto Bui Vien, you’ll find Miss Ba, the Pho Lady of the Pham.

In the day time this is just an empty spot on the shoulder of the road. But for 20 years, along about sundown most days, Miss Ba has wheeled her battered old charcoal burning push-cart kitchen into place here. If you come in or out of the alley here of a evening and the breeze is with you, you can catch a whiff of what might be the best pho in town. It’s redolent of star anise and good beef bones, suggestive of cinnamon, and assertive of the care of a good cook who worries over it for hours before offering it to you.

I like to take a battered little stool next to a battered little table and lean against the adjacent building for a bit of back support. She sells nothing but pho, but she’ll nip round the corner for a beer or soda if I wish. On a recent night I sat watching her at her timeless task. A brand new shiny BMW was double parked next to her ancient humble cart. How will that thing look in 20 years? And will it bring as many people as much pleasure? Across the narrows of Bui Vien a new, bright and tall boutique with big picture windows looked down its lofty modern nose at her anachronism. She will still be here when the boutique is yet another souvenir shop or art gallery or Indian restaurant. The neon flashed at GO2 and the music thundered at Crazy Buffalo. I remember when the former was a spring roll shop and the latter was a little restaurant that killed its chickens to order. In full view of the diner. And Miss Ba was here.

How she and the Casbah have survived the radical and on-going transformation of the Pham I don’t know, and I do care. I want her to bottle the secret and sell it.

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