Rice noodle soup (pho) is a favourite dish for Vietnamese. In the Lao capital of Vientiane, pho shops are meeting places for Vietnamese expatriates and locals alike.

Every weekend Nguyen Van Thuan drives to Pho Mai-Hanoi shop in Naxay Road in Vientiane, to have a bowl of pho with half-done beef (pho tai) and savours the taste.

The 45-year-old, from Nam Dinh Province, has worked as a civil engineer in Laos for a year. It's his favourite time, after a hard day's work, to enjoy his pho and chat with his countrymen.

"There's not much difference between pho in Laos and that which I was used to in Vietnam," Thuan says. "It tastes just like home. Rice noodle, spring onion and parsley all are available here."

"I miss my family and pho so much. I'm lucky to have every thing here where pho stalls have mushroomed."

For 1km, Naxay Road is known as Vietnam Town. It is crowded with Vietnamese restaurants and cafes, but the majority are pho stalls.

Each shop has its own style, depending on where the Vietnamese owners come from: the north, central region or south. However the basic pho recipe consists of broth cooked from a mixture of boiled beef's bones, cardamon and cinamon. Noodles are made from starch and cooked rice.

There are full noodle soup varieties, including pho ga (with chicken), pho xao (stirfried beef and noodle) but pho tai (with half-done beef), pho chin (well done beef) or tai chin (mixed well-done and half-done beef) are often ordered.

Among the shops are Pho Sai Gon Cafe and Pho Mai- Hanoi (Mai's Hanoi ), the latter being a hot favourite.

Owner of Pho Mai, Nguyen Thi Mai, said she used a recipe she picked up from leading cooks in Hanoi .

"Sorting out materials carefully is an important step to making the best soup," Mai, 50, said. "Bones must be scraped clean of meat before boiling through the night with anise seeds, cardamon, ginger, grilled dried onion and cinamon."

"The broth must be clear and tasty, but not too fatty. We also make our own rice noodles to ensure the pho is the best."

A Vietnamese resident in Laos for 20 years, Tran Manh Chien, said he had pho almost every morning so he had managed to sort out the best to his taste.

"I like to eat Hanoian pho at Mai's stall because of the flavour. It makes my mouth water just thinking of it, even though I was not born in Hanoi ," Chien said.

The 56-year-old businessman, who owns a silverware shop at Talat Sao (morning market), says he has tried pho at many different shops.

"Pho at Thong's stall comes in a bigger bowl with more beef and noodles, but it is too salty and has too much monosodium glutamate, while pho at the Sai Gon restaurant has too much sugar, in the southern Vietnam style."

At the opposite end of Naxay Road , Lao people cook pho in their own style.

They don't use ginger, cinamon and dried onion as the Vietnamese do. Their soup is stewed bones with little spice, but the bowl is bigger and Lao people use it to eat with different vegetables.

Stall owner Xixangga Thonvilay said even Vietnamese go there to eat pho.

"There is a difference between Vietnamese and Lao pho. Lao eaters like it spicy. They have pho with vegetables: bean sprouts, cabbage, eggplant and Chinese pea, plus basil," Xixangga, 30, said.

"Sugar, fish sauce and soya sauce are the main flavours to Lao pho. For the Vietnamese customers, I don't add boiled beef blood, dried squid and mince."

She also added that pho had somewhat changed lunch diets for local public servants.

Xunthon Ratthavong, a patron of Xixangga's restaurant, said he loved to have pho for lunch.

"I eat pho at lunch time rather than sticky rice, papaya salad and grilled fish as is the Lao tradition. I have traditional foods with my family for dinner," Xunthon says.

Xixangga says Lao people enjoy the new taste of pho, but they still prefer traditional foods./.