My name’s Quyen, and I’m 22-years-old. I’ve been selling pho for five years now. This is a traditional family business. My dad started the restaurant, and now my brothers and I are helping him run it. We’re from Dong Son Village, in Nam Dinh. Nam Dinh Province is known as the birthplace of pho, so that’s why so many restaurants say they sell “traditional Nam Dinh beef pho.” Almost the entire population of my village sells pho. You may come across people selling pho from other villages, or even from other provinces, but at least in Hanoi it’s mainly people from Dong Son. When you’re making pho, the most important thing is the broth. Before we can sell a single bowl of pho, we have to cook the broth for an entire day and night, so we have the fire burning and the broth boiling 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The broth you’re eating right now had already been cooked for 24 hours before we poured it into that big serving pot over there to continue boiling. When a customer orders a bowl of pho, that’s the broth we use. We use that broth the whole day, and if there’s any left over at the end of the day, we dump it.
Nam Dinh beef pho is not much different compared to other pho. In the past, pho noodles from Nam Dinh had to be dried by hand, but we don’t have to do it that way anymore. Now, people dry it by machine. The main difference is that it’s part of a tradition that’s been passed down from one generation to the next. Each pho shop has its own flavor; it’s only when you eat it that you can tell the difference.
Selling pho is a funny thing. Sometimes, we run out of pho in the middle of the day; other times, there’s still plenty left at the end of the day. Even on a day when there’s plenty of broth left over, we throw it away; we have to. I know some pho shops put their broth from the day before in the refrigerator to use again, but I can guarantee that no Nam Dinh pho shop would ever do that. Every day is the same: I work from dawn to dusk. My only time off is at Tet; that’s when I go back to my hometown on the 30th and come back to work in Hanoi on the third day of the new year. On other holidays, like Independence Day, I still have to work while other people get their day off. But I’m used to it. Once in a while, one of my friends asks me to hang out in the afternoon when we’ve got fewer customers; other times my brothers and I switch shifts for each other. My family may work for the rest of our lives, but I can’t imagine us ever buying our own house in Hanoi.
Enough to Eat
My family didn’t open a shop in our hometown because people in Nam Dinh don’t have enough money to afford pho. So six years ago, my dad and my brother came to Hanoi, rented this house, and opened the shop. I came here one year after they did. I live in the shop. I’m the youngest; my oldest brother doesn’t live here so usually it’s only my other brother and me. Every day is the same, looking at the streets of Hanoi; it’s the same. I guess it’s because I’m used to it. This shop is my dad’s, I just help him. Business isn’t growing much. To tell you the truth, life here is only a little better than life back home in the village. The price for one bowl of pho keeps going up because the price of everything else keeps going up. Six years ago, we rented this house for VND6 million, and now the rent is VND12 million. That’s just in six years! And aside from rent, we also have to pay tax: VND300,000 each month. We don’t make much profit; it’s only enough to eat.
And as for me, I don’t actually get a monthly salary because I’m working for the family, you know? If I ever decide to do anything else later, I’ll ask my family: if they have money they’ll give it to me, if they don’t, then I’ll just have to accept it. I’m not sure what my future will be like, but if there’s an opportunity, I might change my job. If not, then I guess at some point I’ll have to break away from the family and open up my own pho shop. Before this, I was studying in the village high school but I had trouble keeping up. And anyway, my family didn’t have the resources for me to continue school, so I quit and came to Hanoi to sell pho.
To tell you the truth, I want to become a car mechanic. Ever since I was a kid I’ve always played with cars, and back home in Dong Son I would sometimes practice fixing cars. I don’t really like selling pho, I like working on cars better. I told my parents about my dream several times but I know it’s not easy. Going to school and getting training costs money, and I’d have to ask my parents for it. And as you can see, we don’t make much money selling pho, so I don’t feel comfortable asking them for money. Sometimes at dinner my parents will say, “It’s up to you, if you want, you should go to school,” but I keep thinking about it and it just doesn’t feel right. I don’t have enough passion to pursue school. And if I do end up going to school, there won’t be enough hands to help out in the shop, so we’ll have to hire someone else. It’s complicated.
Additional editing by Gerard Sasges Excerpted from It’s a Living: Work and Life in Vietnam Today, available in paperback on Amazon or as an e-book on iTunes.
Interviewed by Mai Nguyen, Truong Minh Giang, Carol Nguyen, John Tran, Do Thu Huong
Images by Ngoc Tran