A new arrival to the hectic, madcap, loving city of Hanoi sits for their first bowl of pho and decides abruptly whether this will all be a love affair or a lesson in endurance.
There's a choice to be made - greet the warmth and honesty of the pho with reciprocative feelings. Or, react to the directness of the dish, city and people with a corresponding curtness. If you don't get on with pho, you won't get along with Hanoi. Historically, romantically and pragmatically intertwined, the two are one and the same.
The global culinary diktat ordains the truly transcendent plate comes to an accord with the state of mind of the consumer. That country and culture, currency and currentness, the city, chef and diner are all represented. Pho manages to do all of these things and goes beyond, resolutely. Profoundly. No dish in the world is more profound.
Of Place and Time
The origins of pho are contested with the same mercury raising as a Hanoi summer's day. The issue is contentious and the people proud. It's a discussion for another time, when our mouths are not full, and hearts not warmed through by soup.
Whatever the truth, Hanoian history and identity is in every bowl. Struggle, and fortitude in the face of it, is writ all over the city and dish's visage. Wars have failed to alter the identity of Vietnam as the enemy had wished, and the best pho recipes have remained staunchly the same - and secret - for just as long.
The best (ducks for cover) pho - that is, the northern style - stays obstinately, stubbornly spartan. The frivolous, loose and unscripted Southern rendition seems to echo the stereotypes of Saigonese character bestowed on them by Hanoians. The Vietnamese preserve tradition through pho, and the best recipes move for absolutely no one.
Hierarchies of the Pho Shop
You get a sense of the unique history of each pho vendor just by taking the time to look up from your broth. Pictures of the family, both past and present, adorn the walls. If you are loyal to a particular purveyor - and let's be honest, all pho lovers are - you can track the progress of each family member in the shop as the years pass and Hanoi's towers rise. Their subservience, role in the chain of command and level of energetic output is reflective of their place in the hierarchy.
In turn, you can track your own place in the customer pecking order through the occasional, modest gesture of gratitude for your patronage. A free tea here, a knocking off of 5000 Vietnamese Dong there, the moving of your motorbike into shade from the sun or shelter from the storm - always subtle, never showy. Little touches of class and respect which the Vietnamese sprinkle over everyday interactions so elegantly.
For a nation who spend so much of their time in the public sphere, where you can't buy a new T.V without your neighbour knowing, where on the street you'll find everyone chatting over tea and sunflower seeds, pho is a deeply private, personal affair. It is a moment's solitude - penetralia in the face of daily prying. No phones are used at the table but perversely, little conversation occurs. It is polite practice to lower your head reverently and slurp in silence.
Maybe it's no coincidence that the marrowy Vietnamese language echoes the ideal bones used for the broth - shin, oxtail, anything gelatinous enough to provide the much sought after mouth-feel. The language, like the dish, relies on few flourishes - its majesty utilitarian and breviloquent. While the great cuisines and languages of Europe exploit flowery adornments and objectify embellishment, pho exerts a brusque dignity.
Making a Case for the World's Greatest Dish
There is a sense in Hanoi, and large swathes of Asia, that strife and skirmish are rewarded, that luxurious surrounds rarely equate to the finest food. The best pho is earned through a long journey in extreme heat, traffic, choking dust or soaking rain. You order through a ridiculous dance of universal body language and pointing. You may receive a dressing down, though the cadence of tonal language could be read as gentle joshing or genuine ridicule, equally. Crushed between jostling customers, leaning over each other for condiments, ducking a few inquisitive stares and dishing out a few of your own, all sins are purged with a bowl of noodles and soup.
Pho is, above all else, one hell of a leveler. Suits rub shoulders with young hotrods having a pit stop; families gather, grandparents take turns cradling babies while parents imbibe. All spill indiscriminately. It is egalitarian - enjoyed by and available to all. If you make the effort to scratch the surface just a little, caress curiosity and dive in, you will be embraced and rewarded. Everyone leaves the pho shop a little warmer.
Much the same could be said of its mother city - the beautiful, regal Hanoi.