Vietnamese Pho, Phở Bắc (Northern Style Pho) And The Reality of Pho

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Pho Bac (Northern Pho) and the reality of Vietnamese phoJust received a comment from a passionate reader Trang over at the post The History and Evolution of Pho: A Hundred Years’ Journey. She says:

This is such a wonderful article !! I came across one of the most exciting article I have ever read !! I’m vietnamese myself but I do not know most of the stuff you mention above ( What a shame :) but thanks to this, I learned many new things today and discover this wonderful blog. It is true that to a purist and Pho connoisseurs, the south Pho literally taste like hell. The southerner put way too many sugar in every of their dishes, and that, include Pho. Pho in the States taste like trash to me… as a Hanoian, it taste nothing like the Pho I had back home, and sometimes I came across menu that have Seafood pho, I’m just completely speechless. Not to mention the thickness of the noodle is different too. To me, if one hasn’t tried the North Pho, then they have not yet eaten the real thing :) but let’s be honest, the North Pho is way better!

So here's my reply to Trang:

@Trang: Thank you for the comments. You sound like a pho purist and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, without purists, who knows what will happen to Vietnamese pho right? Also I’m totally with you on the seafood pho thing.

I must say though, the Southern style pho was what started this wave of pho popularity around the world in the first place. Without Southern Vietnamese refugees, I doubt if pho can become as popular as it is today outside of Vietnam. Vietnamese from South Vietnam were the ones taking pho to America and to other parts of the world back in 1975, and many of the subsequent generations don’t understand this. The reality is it makes total sense that Southern pho is growing strong, and most Americans do like this pho because they “grew up” with it in America.

I do like the Northern style pho myself. But as a restaurateur and a pho consultant, I’d have to say that the Southern style pho has much more mass appeal. The Northern pho needs some serious marketing before it comes to anywhere near the volume the pho from the south is doing. Still, I don’t think it can unseat what’s already considered the Vietnamese pho that’s served in the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries.

So what do we do?

There's little argument that Pho came from North Vietnam. Personally I like Northern Pho very much. It has its purity, simplicity and deliciousness all its own. But the state of pho today is what it is, that is, many people around the world know the Southern pho as the de facto Vietnamese pho. Many non-Viet diners actually grew up eating this style of pho. A few people may visit a local pho restaurant that claims to make Phở Bắc, or actually visit North Vietnam and Hanoi on their travel and have a chance to eat Phở Bắc there. So it really doesn't matter because the vast majority of pho restaurants around the world serve the Southern style.

I'm actually in the same boat as reader Trang in a way, and have a similar conundrum. Where pho purists (read, northern Vietnamese) feel ashamed of and maybe even irritated at what's happened to their beloved pho, I also have to cringe every time I think or hear about where pho is heading with all the seafood pho and "fusion" pho being offered by Vietnamese restaurants, or similarly about the many non-Viet food establishments offering their own versions of Vietnamese "banh mi".

The fact that I and many other Viet have to accept is, once an ethnic cuisine has gone mainstream or somewhat mainstream in America, it's really out of your hands. It now belongs to the mass and you can't do anything about it. Vietnamese Pho is the exact food that is going through this transformation.

What's your opinion? Please take a poll and share your comments below.

Have you eaten Phở Bắc, the Northern Style Pho?

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4 comments

  1. David 11 June, 2016 at 00:54 Reply

    You probably haven’t been to Europe because here in Germany the northern pho (with more substance and less unnecessary ingredients) is the main type that’s served. The world isn’t just America you know 🙂 I cringed when I got a bowl of pho in NYC Chinatown too. Luckily when I visited the Bay Area there are tons of northern style Vietnamese restaurants with very authentic taste. The last time I visited Ho Chi Minh, the northern style was surprisingly served everywhere too.

    One interesting fact to mention: the most popular Vietnamese dish in Europe is bun cha (another Hanoi favorite). You probably heard of it from Obama’s trip there last month.

    • Cuong 13 June, 2016 at 18:31 Reply

      @David: Thanks for your comments. Time has changed quite a bit actually. Up until recently, pho outside of Vietnam have been made and served strictly by refugees and Vietnamese who left the country and communism. Pretty much all of these restaurateurs are from South Vietnam, and therefore they make the commonly known southern style pho to sell in North America, Australia and Europe.

      I see the recent proliferation of Northern dishes to other countries are the result of 2 things. One, competition is stiffer now in a given market to serve new and more interesting food, so restaurateurs want to differentiate themselves from the rest of existing Viet restaurants with “new” dishes from North VN; and two, diners outside of Viet Nam are now more knowledgeable and accepting of new types of cuisines, and this includes North VN cuisine.

      Time will tell what will stick and what will go away. One thing I know for sure, Vietnamese food still has a lot to offer the world, and this may be a start of another “wave” of Viet foods going abroad.

  2. Jachym K. 15 June, 2016 at 17:38 Reply

    – To David’s point I can confirm that pho restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City where I live now all follow the Hanoi style.

    – Also Europe, especially Germany, Poland and Czech Republic, seems to have more Northern Vietnamese immigrants who came as guest workers during the Cold War. They have spread across Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I have never been to a Vietnamese restaurant in Europe that did not serve the Northern cuisine.

    – I can also confirm that at least in Prague, bun cha was very popular while few people know pho.

    • Cuong 17 June, 2016 at 19:10 Reply

      @Jachym K.: I’ve not been to Saigon in the last few years, but I think pho restaurants there “all follow the Hanoi style” is a bit of an exaggeration, don’t you think?
      I don’t dispute the fact about Viet people in Soviet bloc countries during the Cold War, but the fact is those “guest” workers were probably mostly Northern Vietnamese, so if they had a chance to open restaurants after the downfall of communism there, they would naturally serve Northern Viet food. I think this is true of all people any where. However, because your first point is somewhat questionable, I would say your second and third points are a person’s opinion and not necessarily the fact.

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