Today, we finally enjoyed pho at a local spot called Pho Thin in Hanoi. We’ve been fortunate to stay at beautiful hotels with lush and extensive breakfast buffets complete with local Vietnamese dishes including pho, but I really had a need to try pho in at least one spot in the north during this trip. Pho is said to have originated in the north, somewhere near Hanoi. From what I have studied, both in eating and in reading, I’ve learned that there are two types of pho, northern and southern. Both region’s basics are the same in that they use the same spices, the same charred onions, and cook their bones down to nothing so that their soups are fully flavored, but the difference is in the level of sweetness and the herb additions. In the south, a sweeter broth is preferred, so a tad more rock sugar is used. In addition, herbs like bean sprouts, basil, and Vietnamese greens are added to the noodle soup while at the table. The northern pho stands alone with perhaps a sprinkling of green onions and a squeeze of lime on the top. Since the majority of the Vietnamese who fled Vietnam were from the south who now reside in the U.S. or in Australia, it then makes sense that the pho we are accustomed to is the southern style soup.
From a historical perspective, it’s been said that the regional differences of pho have to do with what was available in each region. In the north, food scarcity was at many times an issue. In Vietnam overall, beef is considered a luxury meat vs. pork or chicken. Whereas in the south, food has always been more plentiful, perhaps due to the warmer climates and the terrain. This resulted in the additions of many herbs and vegetables in the southern pho, and even variations of beef, including tripe and other cow parts.
I did a lot of food research on this trip, and Pho Thin was supposed to be one of the top local favorites for pho, and since, has been discovered by tourists, as well. Pho Thin was kind of what I imagined it to be. We arrived at around 9am (as pho is typically eaten for breakfast in Vietnam; some popular places close by 9am because they run out of noodles and broth!) to a crowd outside, waiting for their bowls of pho bo, plus a fully packed dining room of boisterous and soup-serious slurpers. This little hole-in-the-wall is bare-bones with little decor, long metal tables, and short stools. The front is open, with the workers busily stirring and scooping out the broth, noodles, stir-frying the meat, and dishing out long, fried Chinese donuts so that diners can enjoy their rich broth with a dip of crunchy fried savory donut. You line up at the front, place your order (you have the option of pho bo, pho bo, and pho bo. Oh, and if you want the donuts, you have to tell them. But they don’t speak much English at all). You pay, they give you your change, then you find a seat inside, where they will bring you your pho. We shared one bowl after a hotel breakfast, and as soon as it came, I knew it was going to be a delight. The top of the broth had a nice film of beef fat (my mother would not approve; she would have taken a spoon to that and quickly scooped it all out to dispose of it), a thick layer of chopped spring onions, and lean stir-fried beef on the top. The first thing I did was put my spoon in and take a taste of the broth. It was full bodied, rich, complex, and fragrant of beef, star anise, and charred onion. I could really have sipped that soup all day long; it was so good. These are the moments I’m so happy I have not given up meat. The noodles were fresh, not dried, and were soft and springy, but with a little bite. We devoured that soup in just a few minutes. And then it was gone.
As we left, I took photos of the outside and watched the workers in the front scoop out the broth from one vat to the next. I saw another worker quickly speed walk and deliver steaming hot bowls to diners two storefronts down. Another was barking out orders for the server to bring to tables. This is my kind of eating when I’m in Asia; quick, delicious, cheap, no frills, and all about the quality of the food. One does not go into Pho Thin for the ambiance or to socialize. Nope. They go there to inhale the pho, have zero conversation while eating, and leave. Your company is really just the pho, your chopsticks, and the spoon. Your dining partner, if you have one, is just a silent partner in eating.
I have only made pho ga (chicken pho) and not pho bo given the amount of effort it takes. But maybe now that I have an Instant Pot, this will finally be my chance to take a stab at my absolute favorite soup in the world. I’m going to remember this visit for a long, long time.