“Nhập gia tùy tục” — that is the Vietnamese equivalent of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
In the eyes of global sociologists, the Vietnamese society is a highly collectivistic one. So it’s true that people here make a point to exercise this principle wherever in the world they wander.
However, if there’s one thing most Vietnamese themselves can’t quite settle with, it’s the idea of another region’s phở being better than a bowl from that one stall just footsteps away from their childhood home. Growing into other phở recipes can be a hard limit, regardless of whether one has made the decision to travel more than 1000 km from Hanoi in the north to Saigon in the south (or vice versa) and settled there for a while.
Ethnocentrism plays a significant role here, indeed. Arguably, though, for the typical Hanoian taste bud, Saigon phở can just feel like... too much. Then it’s the opposite for Saigonese: most are of the opinion that the Hanoi version is rather bland and lackluster.
Perhaps the international community will find this amusing, considering that phở is a celebrated emblem in Vietnamese cuisine. With the dish’s ubiquitous presence across the country, it’s not hard to assume at first glance that phở isn’t connected to any specific region. But those in the know will agree that the distinction runs much deeper than a mere matter of preferences.
When taking into consideration the fundamental geographical and cultural differences between Hanoi and Saigon, a few contrasts are in fact inevitable.
There are several different tales about the origin of the quintessential Vietnamese noodle soup, though it is most commonly believed to have dated back to the colonial French period of the 20th century and taken inspiration from a beef dish called pot-au-feu, or “pot of fire”. This was a beloved stew that the settlers had brought with them from France to Indochina. After all, if you speak both languages, “feu” and “phở” do make a convincingly identical sound.
Much like phở, the standard pot-au-feu would feature vegetables with inexpensive beef cuts requiring longer cooking time, some kind of cartilaginous meat like oxtail, and be infused with charred onions and cloves in order for the broth to have its smokey brown color. Though, in place of a baguette, the Vietnamese incorporated a staple to really distinguish this dish as their own: rice.
The French were based in northern Vietnam during the early 1900s, which is how this region came to be known as the home of phở. While Hanoi is largely credited with the finessing and popularizing of phở, it is Nam Dinh province that’s considered by most to be the birthplace of the earthy bowl.
Phở made its way to the rest of Vietnam following the fall of French Indochina in 1954, when an influx of migrants fled the communist north mostly for Saigon. Perhaps little did they know then about the adaptations that would eventually be made to the original recipe and win over the fresh Saigonese palates, hence elevating phở’s status to that of a national symbol.
Today, almost anyone across the globe can get a taste of Vietnam in a piping hot bowl of phở. The rustic noodle and broth concoction took its official leap into the world about twenty years after venturing outside of northern borders, in a later migration wave following the departure of American authority in the south which consisted largely of Saigonese. This was also what marked their phở rendition’s rise to global stardom, arguably recognized and enjoyed for its liberality by a larger population compared to its Hanoian counterpart — the authenticity of which is most dearly cherished on its home ground.
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Herbs and spices
It’s pretty simple for even a novice phở fan to tell apart Hanoi and Saigon representatives by appearance, which alone is a promising feast for the eyes.
In the capital, presentation is refined. Standard phở bowls are lightly garnished with just enough sliced onions, spring onions and cilantro. The ideal broth would be so clear like rainwater that one could actually make out the assembly of flat noodles underneath.
Common meat cuts offered are well-done beef flanks and rare slices, though chicken phở is another comparably popular specialty in the region if you’re looking for something a little lighter.
Don’t forget to help yourself to as much fish sauce, chili sauce, pickled garlic or fresh lime and chilies as you’d please before diving into your Hanoi phở. Many locals also like to complete their order with a side of quẩy, also known as bagel twists.
On the contrary, phở vendors in Saigon tend to pack their heart into a bowl — a noticeably bigger one, that is — which is typically pricier than a serving in Hanoi, too, even though the noodles are thinner and closer in texture to that of hủ tiếu strands.
And Saigonese diners could never enjoy phở with the same gusto if it doesn’t come with a generous helping of herbs: mint, basil, culantro, bean sprouts, rice paddy herbs and more, on top of the onions, cilantro, lime and chilies also enjoyed in Hanoi.
As for seasoning, fish, chili and hoisin sauces can’t be missing from the table, to further enhance the bold flavors of the fatty and cloudy broth.
The cut selections are also more liberal, where a bowl of beef phở đặc biệt (special/assorted) would feature up to five options: minced rare, flanks, tendons, briskets and meatballs.
Sweet and savory
Now, it’s evident that notes of differences between the taste of the two phở start to kick in as soon as you have a spoonful of each broth. Interestingly though, it could also be reckoned that the distinct flavor profiles are reflective of Hanoi and Saigon people’s somewhat contrasting nature and lifestyles.
The subtlety and intricacy in the everyday Hanoian way of life shine through in their cuisine, and phở is no exception. From its glassy broth to modest assortment of meat and greens, Hanoi phở represents the purity and sophistication of mother nature’s offerings, however limited, especially during wartime and winter. The elements join each other in both the bowl and the bite, bringing harmony to the dining experience, where no particular flavor overpowers another while still staying true to the savory theme. As the cradle of Vietnamese culture and proud origin of phở, the northern provinces and Hanoi in particular set out to preserve authentic flavors that have stood the test of time.
It’s a sweeter tale down in the south, where the sun shines brighter, the livestock more abundant and the lifestyle more vibrant. Saigon phở is all about packing diversities to the heart’s desire into a bowl. The bountiful dish is a monument to the benevolence and extravagance of the Saigonese people, coated in an unparalleled, literal sweetness: sugar is generously added when cooking, along with the common use of chicken bones to sweeten the broth of even beef phở. Being the melting pot of east-meets-west influences it is, Saigon certainly knows how to put its own twist on a classic.
Featuring central phở: the best of both worlds
Phở is a household name across the entire country, and that certainly includes the central provinces.
Central phở takes the north’s savory with the south’s sweet and spicy up a notch by adding locally-enjoyed condiments like fermented shrimp paste and red cashew oil, much like how they enjoy their own regional delicacies such as bún bò Huế and mì Quảng.
Such competition leading to a smaller demand on the market is possibly why phở isn’t as integral a part of central cuisine as compared to the north and south. Instead, it stays a borrowed dish that the region has embraced over time.
Phở may look and taste a little different in Hanoi compared to Saigon, but it’s worth taking a step back to remember that the dish is, after all, a national pride — plus CNN's pick of the year as the world's second-best soup!
Wherever it's from and however it's served, a bowl of phở never was and never will be a dividing factor in a country that celebrates diversity as much as oneness.
That being said, there really isn’t a point in crowning one winner, is there?