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Hanoi pho story transcends poverty and gourmet

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Hanoi’s centuries-old hometown specialty noodle soup, pho, is not only delicious, but a vehicle by which class lines can fade, according to a history of the dish published last year.

Trinh Quang Dung, a 71-year-old scientist at the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, embarked on a research journey tracing the roots and socio-historical evolution of Vietnam’s most famous and ubiquitous dish, culminating in his 2022 book “One Hundred Years of Vietnamese pho.”

Dung spent decades gathering and studying historical records to shed light on pho’s intriguing past and present.

His research revealed a debate surrounding the birthplace of pho: Hanoi or its neighbor Nam Dinh Province. According to the book, early in the 20th century, pho peddlers from Nam Dinh brought their dish to Hanoi. At the same time, a pho variant emerged from Di Trach Commune, Ha Dong Province, which is now part of Hanoi.

Nonetheless, Dung’s book firmly asserts that Hanoi was the epicenter of pho’s evolution.

He argues that the reason is because the capital had the most thriving market for the dish.

Pho then became increasingly popular in a growing number of regions of Vietnam. In Hanoi, the beef (or chicken or sometimes rarely even port) noodle soup had been considered a luxury. But as the soup became popular in other regions, both rich and poor began sitting together to enjoy the dish on the streets.

And then in another turn, still the dish never lost its original reputation:

Even when an influx of nearly-destitute Nam Dinh textile factory began eating the dish ubiquitously, pho retained its status as a luxury treat in rural Vietnam. Dung gained this insight into Nam Dinh’s pho culture from dialogues with an elder from Van Cu Village in Nam Dinh.

In the historian’s own words during an interview with VnExpress: “Van Cu village was home to the Co family, which had the highest number of individuals engaged in pho vending, with approximately 75% of those who had previously been farmers transitioning to selling pho. Over time, other families began to venture into the pho business, and Hanoi emerged as the prime hub for this craft.”

The researcher noted that the current generation of Vietnamese youngsters may not be drawn to the traditional characteristics of an “old-fashioned” bowl of pho.

During the war Hanoi residents frequently evacuated to the countryside to avoid indiscriminate deadly carpet bombing by the U.S., leading to a more rustic way of life and dining habits, according to Dung’s book. His research also asserted that this could have led this generation’s “pho culture” towards “less refinement than their predecessors.” The fact that these shifts in society directly impacted both the modern and traditional pho experience we enjoy today – and the variations our predecessors enjoyed – is the thrust of Dung’s work.

The most noticeable change in traditional pho, according to the book, is the modern transition away from the rustic bowls of Bat Trang pottery and the traditional kilns the dish used to be served and cooked in. These unique bowls featured a flared mouth and a tapered bottom that reduced surface area, keeping the broth hot until the last spoonful. These smaller bowls reflected the idea that pho was a snack, not a full meal.

“Pho as a rice substitute emerged later as life became less traditional and societal changes disrupted many of Hanoi’s cherished traditions,” Dung said.

The researcher emphasized that Hanoi connoisseurs of pho in the past had discerning palates. Many patrons brought their own limes to the restaurant, believing they enhanced the flavor better than store-bought limes.

In his book, Dung describes how Hanoi pho enthusiasts insisted on savoring the luscious broth created from stewed beef bone marrow secretions, resulting in a delightful combination of richness and sweetness.

In the past, the noodles were wider, almost the size of a man’s little finger. These broader noodles had the capacity to capture more broth, allowing patrons to relish the broth’s sweetness primarily through the noodles.

While eating, people would pick up the pho noodles, thinly slice the meat, and add a bit of broth to their spoon. Slowly, they would savor each small bite gently.

Dung stressed that good pho must be served steaming hot. The introduction of air conditioning negatively affected the pho’s taste, he argues. During his research into historical documents, Dung pointed out that the late writer Nguyen Tuan had consistently emphasized this aspect.

“The hotter the pho, the more delicious it becomes because it is not overshadowed by the flavor of beef fat,” Dung said.

One aspect of Hanoi pho’s essence that has dwindled over time is the decreasing number of pho peddlers, who without fail always prepared each bowl individually. When customers ordered, they would assemble the toppings, slice the meat, and serve each ensuing bowl guaranteed steaming hot.

What Dung himself dislikes most are the so-called “high-end” pho versions, featuring imported beef and extravagant ingredients, resulting in excessively high prices. In his book, Dung also stresses that the ambiance in which pho is enjoyed is significant. He believes that this cuisine should be savored in a regular space rather than a lavish establishment.

To quote journalist Pham Chu in a pre-1975 Saigon newspaper, “If you want good pho, you also need the right setting. You have to enjoy it right at the eatery, and if the place’s a little scruffy, that’s even better.”

However, Dung acknowledges that this perspective may only apply to the past, as modern tastes differ, and dining standards have evolved.

In reality, Hanoi’s pho enthusiasts primarily focus on the quality of the pho rather than the eatery’s decor and presentation. Old establishments like Thin Bo Ho and Tu Lun continue to thrive despite their unassuming appearance. Nam Dinh pho restaurants in Hanoi, as well as in many other locations, typically adhere to a humble and occasionally untidy style.

Dung validated this through discussions with Co Nhu Hung, the former chairman of the Thanh Nam pho restaurant owners’ association. Hung stated that the air-conditioned pho eateries, a trend introduced from Ho Chi Minh City, have not been as well-received in Hanoi.

Dung also pointed out that one factor contributing to the transformation of traditional pho is the use of MSG and sugar to enhance its sweetness, a hallmark of pho during the times of economic hardship.

“It was a time of scarcity. Where could one find meat and bones? When making pho, MSG was the savior,” Dung wrote in his book.

During the subsidy era, MSG was a precious ingredient. A bowl of pho with added MSG could command prices as high as VND1,000, in stark contrast to the typical few hundred dong for a regular bowl during that period. During those times, a unique pho variant emerged in Hanoi, featuring no meat, only steaming water and MSG, served with noodles.

The scarcity of the subsidy era significantly influenced the eating habits of Hanoi’s older generation. Dung noted that this period led to innovative adaptations like mixing pho broth with rice, or serving pho with bread. This style of pho gained popularity as it offered a satisfying meal, particularly when hunger was a constant companion.

Consequently, it retained its status as a “distinguished dish” when compared to other varieties, such as serving pho with wheat flour cakes. While this manner of dining has gradually faded away, a version that continues to endure and thrive is the practice of enjoying pho with fried dough.

“True pho connoisseurs reject the hurried and noisy eating habits that rob this dish of its noble taste,” Dung wrote in his book.

Dung mentions that the pho during the subsidy era reflected the ruralization of Hanoians forced to move to the countryside to escape American bombings. In these pho eateries, customers had to serve themselves and queue up for their bowls. The staff paid minimal attention to patrons, and napkins were considered a luxury item. Many customers would wipe their mouths using chopsticks, reminiscent of rural traditions often seen during festive meals back in the time.

Dung emphasized that he prefers not to dine at traditional restaurants that require customers to queue and serve themselves, regardless of how delicious the pho is. The people of Hanoi enjoyed a leisurely dining experience without the need for queues. However, he also stressed that these preferences are subjective, and he refrains from making judgments.

Society has evolved, and individuals like Dung, who represent the old Hanoi, are slowly disappearing. The traditional experience and the refined dining customs of the past belong to a bygone era, which young people, even when hearing about it, might find challenging to grasp, he remarked.

By Tu Nguyen – – November 4, 2023 

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