Man pho all seasonings

From Saigon to Cebu: up close with a Vietnamese student turned cook

Text: Deneb R. Batucan
Images: Allan Defensor

 

WHEN Vo Huan Thu, or Xavier, came to Cebu to study English, he became so homesick, having been away from his hometown in Saigon, Vietnam, for the longest time. He missed his family, friends, and most especially, the amazing Vietnamese food.

He looked for a Vietnamese restaurant in Cebu, but it didn’t hit right with his taste buds. The taste of home still lingered in his mind, and having no one to make the food he longed for, he decided to make his own.

Now Xavier was no cook. “It was my first time to cook when I was here in Cebu,” he said. But he remembered how they used to make it back home. So he searched for the ingredients—thankfully they were readily available — and made his beloved Vietnamese pho or beef noodle soup. It was like he was home again.

Wearing a traditional Vietnamese attire, Vo Huan Thu (left), with his assistant, prepares a bowl of pho.

Months later, after Xavier finished his English course, he decided to open up his own Vietnamese restaurant. “I want to enjoy the food I cook and I want to introduce Vietnamese food to Filipinos, especially the people in Cebu,” he said.

So Xavier opened Saigon O’i, a tribute to the delicious food that originated in his hometown. Saigon is south of Vietnam and produces a different kind of pho from that of Hanoi. “The people from south of Vietnam like to eat like the people in the Philippines — a little sweet, salty and sour. A lot of customers enjoy my pho because the taste is the same as the Filipino taste,” he said.

Xavier uses beef backbones in creating the broth, which he boils up to 10 hours. Using the backbones makes the broth sweeter.

Guo Cuon

Aside from the broth, pho is made of Saigon cinnamon, star anise, roasted ginger, roasted onion, black cardamom, coriander seed, fennel seed, and cloves. The rice noodles, or banh pho, is added as well as onions, chili peppers, cilantro, lime and bean sprouts.

Xavier says he has many “suki” because of how his food tastes similar to what Filipinos like — savory sweet and with just the right zing. Aside from the pho, Saigon O’i also has the gou cuon or Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls and the Bun Bo Hue or spicy beef and pork noodle soup.

Saigon O’i is open on Thursdays to Saturdays from 5 to 10 p.m. at the Sugbo Mercado Garden Bloc, IT Park. Catch Xavier make fresh Vietnamese food in his traditional garb and enjoy a bowl (or two) of this heavenly and filling Vietnamese staple.

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