January 5th, 2008 - Twenty years

rice stall in Hanoi - Christmas '07

In 1987 I tasted pho for the first time. I'm dating myself. I was in the first year of my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. Chinatown, which had originally largely been centred around Dundas Street and Spadina Avenue, had crept north up Spadina as far as College Street. Some of the first Vietnamese restaurants in Toronto were found on this fringe of Chinatown, and where U of T students tended to frequent Saigon Palace,* just south of College, and apparently still do, the introvert in me, and the "girl," perhaps, (she who feels self-conscious eating on her own), ventured half a block further.

North Vietnam House beckoned: quieter, darker, less flashy and more anonymous than its neighbour, it suited me.

Was I conscious of having made a choice between North and South? I was completely clueless. My perspective on Vietnam was that of a Canadian child. I knew there'd been a war with the Americans and that some Americans had dodged the draft and fled to Canada.

Canada had also offered refuge to thousands of boat people, who began to arrive here in 1979. In my 11-year-old brain, these poor people had floated all the way across the ocean on boats to reach Canada. And because my parents and I had emigrated from England a few years earlier, that ocean was necessarily the Atlantic. This was the picture in my head: 100,000 Vietnamese people crammed into leaky boats disembarking on the barren, wind- and wave-lapped shore of Newfoundland and Labrador. Paint an iceberg or two in the background.

8 years later I found comfort in North Vietnam House under the attentive care of its owner, Mr. Nguyen. He was a formal and patrician man, elegant in the extreme, always dressed in a suit and tie, unfailingly polite, rarely smiling. It broke my heart to think of Mr. Nguyen dodging icebergs off the shore of Newfoundland and Labrador.

For the first time I could associate "Vietnamese" with a face and a name. And I had met someone who could gently correct more than just a few misconceptions. He was not a boat person. He was from the north. He missed home very much but he could no longer live under the Communists. He did not seem particularly happy in Canada.

"I love your food," I told Mr. Nguyen one day.
"But how do you know?" he said. "You've only ever eaten one thing."
It was pho, pho bo, one to three times a week for four years. Occasionally, I added a spring roll - nem ran - to my order.

If he asked me today how I knew I loved the food I would say: "Because pho is the heart of it all. Hanoi pho bo."

The vast majority of Vietnamese restaurants in the diaspora are southern. The flavouring is more colourful, often sweeter, and the ingredients more complicated and varied largely because of the influence of Chinese immigrants. There's an austerity to northern cuisine, a puritanism and pride that references tradition. But the relative simplicity of its spicing and ingredients has as much to do with poverty as it does with tradition, a poverty that extended to the south in 1975 with the "liberation" or "fall" of Saigon (depending on your perspective).

Perhaps he succumbed to outside influence, but in 1991, Mr. Nguyen got flashy. He installed a wide-screen TV and a karaoke machine. I assumed the place filled up with willing participants during and after dinner. I was strictly a lunch patron, but still, in the nearly-deserted space of the early afternoon, the music blared and the ball bounced over the walls of that screen.

That would be the end of my pho-splattered-textbook days. I continued to have lunch at North Vietnam House but with neither the frequency nor the same enthusiasm as before. The karaoke machine did not seem to make Mr. Nguyen any happier.

I left the city to go to graduate school in England the following year, and when I returned home between terms, I found North Vietnam House closed. The sign remained for some time, until a new restaurant took over the space. I didn't have the heart to enter it, despite, or perhaps especially because the new restaurant had "pho" in its name.

I think about Mr. Nguyen quite often. At first I thought I could find him. That was before I realized that Nguyen is the most common Vietnamese name there is, shared by as much as 40% of the Vietnamese population. But any Vietnamese restaurant with an obviously northern name will evoke hope, will lure me, will disappoint.

I hope he smiles more often now. I hope he has the success he sought. I hope he has been reunited with whatever and whomever it was that he was missing in Vietnam.

* reputedly the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in Toronto - established 1979

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