Many people were dubious when I told them I was going in search of pho ganh, that is, pho sold from a cart. As the dish’s reputation has grown, it is more likely to be found in air-conditioned restaurants than from pots slung between two bamboo poles.
Or perhaps the reason is that new trends in street food have made selling pho ganh a tough business, especially as its sellers get older, and Saigon’s unpredictable weather gets no better.
But occasionally — it may be on Mac Dinh Chi or Nguyen Thai Hoc — you can find the survivors keeping this old tradition alive.
Once upon a time
In poorer times, bamboo poles were the way that pho was originally introduced to Saigon, as the sellers back then designed their carrying poles with specialised bamboo boxes to carry the whole ‘restaurant’ on their shoulder. Also, pho, as old as it is, did not start with a lot of adds-on in the bowl. Pho ganh’s sellers used to simplify the recipe by keeping only the main ingredients, using nothing but vegetables for the broth and making it easier to move around with less kitchen tools.
This lowered the price of a bowl of pho and at that time, pho was affordable, tasty and nutritious, making it the best friend of blue-collar workers. Some vendors were strong enough to carry a small bench or some stools, but some did not even have these things, so customers had to eat pho standing up.
One of the most successful pho places in Saigon that still remains popular among foodies communities is located on Mac Dinh Chi. The chef there is full of interesting stories.
“My father started off selling pho on a cart with four wheels,” the chef says about Phon, the founder of the restaurant and also the man who adopted her. “Despite rolling the cart around every day without staying at any particular spot, his place used to have all kinds of customers, from office workers to American soldiers.”
“My father says pho ganh and the pho cart faded away from Saigon streets because most sellers are not young any more to carry on such a business that depends too much on the weather,” says the chef while preparing me a bowl.
And still going
I was also lucky, on my motorbike one rainy night, when a pho ganh seller chose a spot on Nguyen Thai Hoc street to place her stall, right under a rusted roof of a closed mobile phone shop. I remember how the heat from the steam pot and the slices of chilli warmed me up.
That night brought me the chance to experience something that most people thought had disappeared forever from the Saigon street. It might not be exactly the same as the first pho ganh or pho cart on Saigon’s streets, but I am sure the feeling of living in the old days could not get any better.
If you are into this back-to-the-past adventure, check out the pho carts on Hong Bang, Q5 and down the alleys of Ngo Gia Tu, Q10. Also, if you are lucky, you might find one on the sidewalk opposite 39 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Q1