Charlie and I took two major trips together over the past few months. In retrospect, the timing was probably a little aggressive, both for our work schedules and our budgets. But one of the things I love most about our relationship is a shared practicality-proof wanderlust. And since we’re bad enablers of each other, the travel bug took us to Vietnam for the holidays and Kenya for my friend Salima’s wedding last week.
In many ways, traveling with someone is the truest test of a relationship, even a platonic one. There are certain friends I’ve built an amazing backpacking rapport with over the years, and others with whom I barely want to navigate the outer boroughs of New York.
Charlie and I tested the waters in Greece last Spring, which was a relatively safe place to start. For the most part, the Greeks in Hydra spoke English, served table wine, and ran on a laid back timetable that was perpetually 30 minutes behind schedule, which meshed nicely with Charlie, who showers and gets dressed on “island time” year round.
In Hydra, we discovered our shared love of forgoing the cartoon hotel map and, instead, finding the tastiest tourist traps on the water by subtly stalking rich people getting off their yachts. We were on the same page about 6pm pre-dinner siestas, purposely ordering one too many entrees, and chasing the radioactive Greek table with olives.
But it wasn’t until Vietnam, where there was little English and no table wine, that our travel compatibility was really tested. And while most of our separate adventurous spirits lined up, our comfort zones did not cross when it came to street meat.
I’m not really one for organized tourism, but after my pintxos experience in San Sebastian, I realized how great it is to get your bearings on a local food with people who know their way around. So I lined up a street food excursion for us on our first day in Ho Chi Minh City with Back of the Bike Tours.
Over the course of the afternoon, they took us through terrifying street traffic to 5 different districts, where we ate some amazing local specialties and learned practical insider tips like that the word “yum” means horny in Vietnamese. I could tell Charlie was a little skeptical of the raw papaya salad at our first stop, but he seemed to get cheerier about the cuisine when our next vendor, the Bun lady, asked if he was a movie star.
By 5pm, the motorbikes seemed to be moving a little bit more slowly under the duress of the 5 pounds of food we had just eaten, so we returned to the hotel, crawled into bed and called it quits for the day.
The next morning, still high on crab curry and tapioca noodles, I was determined to track down some authentic pho for breakfast. Charlie had clearly had enough street noodles with ambiguous hygiene for one trip. But I made him forgo the pristine hotel buffet anyway and accompany me on my mission. After winding through the streets of district 1 for long enough to make Charlie want to kill me, I chose a stand that was festively covered with bunches of scallions and forced him to squat on the plastic stools and join me for a bowl of chicken pho with just enough bright lime juice and fiery chiles to snap us out of our jet lag.
Trouble started the next day, when it became clear that our shared travel bug had become a very real critter in Charlie’s intestines. Anything could have been the culprit, but I knew deep down he blamed the pho. I spent the rest of the trip eating summer rolls and vermicelli salads, while Charlie picked at white rice and ginger porridge, and feeling nearly as awful in my heart as he did in his stomach.
Despite the health setbacks, we had an amazing trip. And though we were down one bottle of Cipro on the return, at least I manage to pick up this chicken pho recipe in the process. It takes a bit of time and love to make the broth from scratch (the longer it cooks, the better it will be). But by making it at home, you have the added benefit of ensuring your scallions are washed properly and have not been hanging from the side of a street cart all day.
Charlie knew better this time around, and got his (Montezuma’s) revenge when my flippant approach to raw produce in Mombasa landed me on a 20 hour plane ride home with raging food poisoning. I’m settling in back in New York, and ironically the only thing I want to eat is a clean ginger broth with simple rice noodles, chicken, and perhaps a few chopped scallions, because I’m still a little crazy like that.
I’ll have more belated Vietnam recommendations and pictures for you soon. In the meantime, enjoy this easy chicken pho recipe with some fresh (clean!) green veggies and herbs on top.
Easy Vietnamese Chicken Pho with Bok Choy and Herbs (Pho Ga Recipe)
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 2 pounds bone-in chicken thighs
- Sea salt
- 1 small onion halved
- 4 garlic cloves crushed
- 2 inches ginger sliced
- 1 cinnamon stick
- ¼ cup fish sauce
- 2 scallions thinly sliced
- 10 ounces thin flat rice noodles
- 2 baby bok choy thinly sliced
- Basil leaves
- Cilantro leaves
- Fresno or serrano chiles thinly sliced
- 1 lime cut into wedges
- In a large stock pot, heat the oil. Season the chicken generously with salt and brown over medium-high heat until the skin is crispy, about 3 minutes per side. Remove to a plate. Add the onion (cut side-down), ginger, and garlic. Cook for two minutes, until the onion is charred. Add the chicken back to the pot along with the cinnamon stick and 4 quarts of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer until the chicken is fork tender, about 30 minutes, then remove to a plate. Shred the meat and set aside. Return the bones to the pot and continue to simmer until the liquid has reduced by a third, about 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, cook the rice noodles according to package instructions. Arrange the garnishes on a plate.
- Strain the broth through a fine mesh sieve and return to the pot. Stir in the fish sauce and taste for seasoning, adding more salt as necessary.
- Divide the rice noodles and shredded chicken between 4 bowls. Ladle the broth on top and garnish with the herbs, bok choy, chiles, scallions, and lime wedges.