Two Bowls of Pho

DOAN KHANH (DK), Class of 2020

Vietnam

Two skinny high school students with bewildered faces walked with their fathers across the Nguyen Trai street. This street was well-known for cheap room rental in Hanoi. They came from a small village in the countryside which was far away from here. The fathers took their son to Hanoi for the university entrance examination.

“Tomorrow, the exam will begin.”

They passed by a Pho restaurant. Suddenly, the four men stopped to deliberate. One of the fathers asked his son something. They took a few minutes to discuss. Finally, they decided to enter the Pho restaurant and sat down at the unstable plastic table. The young waiter ran to their table, wiped it down, and asked: “What would you like to eat?”. The four of them looked around, looked at other tables, looked at each other before finally looked at the big menu which was hung on the front door.

“Beef Pho, yeah? Well-done or medium rare? Poached eggs, as well?” the father asked

The two sons slightly nodded their heads, “Yeah, anything is good.”

One of them started to order:

“Give us 2 bowls of beef Pho – well done! And 2 poached eggs!”

The young waiter stared at four men for a minute. It seemed like he wanted to ask: Why only 2 bowls for 4 people? He ran to the owner, with loud voice:

"Two bowls of well-done beef Pho!"

The shop owner was standing between two burning charcoal stoves and two pots of boiling soup – one for beef bones broth and another for boiling noodles. A dark grey towel lies on his shoulder, waiting to swipe the sweat off his face. The same old condensed beef broth with charred aromatics, seasoned with fish sauce. The rice noodles were soft, fragrant, with no trace of formaldehyde. He took out a big chunk of beef and served thin sliced medium rare flank steak on top of the noodles. Finally, he added a few drops of lemon juice and freshly cooked scallions. After a few minutes, two bowls of Pho with steamy bone broth were served.

“Enjoy it, son!”, one of the two fathers spoke up.

Then two fathers pulled the chairs out a little bit and whispered to each other. They talked about crops, farming, lower prices for lychee because of bad weathers. Then, they complained about how expensive to rent a room in this city:

“We should check out the room early tomorrow or otherwise, we will be charged for another day. We will wait the kids outside their examination rooms. Then, we should head to the bus station right after. Everything here is too expensive.”  

Halfway through, one of them remembered something. He put his hands in the pockets. Two crumpled cigarettes dropped out. He gave the other man a cigarette and passed the lighter. Two sons ate in silence while their fathers were inhaling the smoke, gazing up at the city lights glowing beneath Hanoi's summer humidity.

The life here was very different from where they lived, where they only cared about lychee harvesting season, about preventing their cows – their most valuable property from sickness. They had stayed here for only a couple of days but it was as if a decade for them. Both farmers wore their best clothes that they had.  The cotton fabric was faded from the original color. The loose khakis pants which can be easily rolled up. In the countryside, they only wore them for important occasions such as weddings or traditional festivals.

        The two sons were still focusing on their bowls of Pho. They didn’t say a word. They didn’t even complement such thing like: “Pho is delicious”. Four men sat in a corner of the noisy Pho restaurant. The fathers would wait until their sons finish the last spoon of soup, then slowly took out the wallet made of cheap fabric from pocket. It was a handmade wallet made of recycled rubber tires.

Both sons stood silently by their fathers. They looked at the 1000 Vietnam dongs, 2000 Vietnam dongs, 5000 Vietnam dongs flying away from the wallets. The lychee harvest season had been spent for their meals. The hard works in plowing and digging from their fathers in the last 3 months had gone. The worry and the anxiety appeared on their faces. Their family would not have meat for dinner in the following month. Their siblings would not be able to pay for tuitions. The water buffalos back home would be fed only 2 meals per day instead of 3. Everyone was scarifying with best expectations for that two high school students. The exams, the life paths were ahead of them.

They owned their fathers 60,000 dongs that day.

In this life, they were owning their family much more.



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