Skip to main content

Friday Night IN: The Scent of Green Papaya and Phở Bắc Súp Shop

April 2, 2020

Trần Hoàng Long is a first-year graduate student pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies at UW.  His research interests involve Vietnamese history, history of the war in Việt Nam, and Vietnamese cinema.  We are delighted that Long has agreed to serve as our film and restaurant reviewer this week.  The restaurant he’s selected, Phở Bắc Súp Shop, is in the Little Saigon area of the International District.  A list of additional restaurants in the area open for take-out and delivery was compiled by Friends of Little Saigon.

Phở Bắc’s phở sườn bò (“short-rib”) in its famous metal serving bowl.

Trần Anh Hùng’s The Scent of Green Papaya (Mùi đu đủ xanh) (1993) presents a poignant, elegant, powerful, dramatic narrative film that centers upon the coming-of-age of a servant girl, Mùi (“smell” in Vietnamese), who is hired to work for a troubled, wealthy family.  The film was the debut feature for Trần, the Vietnamese-born, French-raised auteur, and earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film along with an award at Cannes. Set in 1951 Hồ Chí Minh City (formerly Sài Gòn), the film paints a slice-of-life profile of Mùi. Audiences are allowed a window into her journey of discovering the beauty of the world around her as she is caught between the chaotic nature of family life that plays simultaneously with themes of womanhood, motherhood, infidelity, romance, and love. However, amongst all of these complex themes, the simplicity of Mùi’s fascination with nature, food, and a particular male-specimen is articulated best through the deliciously beautiful shots of food, especially đu đủ xanh (“green papaya”), which is another lens through which one is able to be immersed into Vietnamese culture.

Keeping with the topic of food, Phở Bắc Súp Shop on Jackson in Little Sài Gòn, International District, hands down, has the best phở (“beef noodle soup”) in Seattle (besides my mom’s). I’ve gone here for dates, hangouts with friends, family dinners, and even my own birthday: it’s that good. Việt Nam-born and Vietnamese-American alike have praised this restaurant for the high-quality, authentic offerings, which are served in their famous metal bowls. Phở sườn bò (“short-rib”) is literally my favorite thing in the world, but you cannot go wrong with the yummy, Vietnamese-flared appetizers, including but not limited to chicken wings and french fries. I highly recommend trying this place out if you want the best of Vietnamese beef broth. They are currently doing take-out orders and are open from 10 A.M. to 9 P.M.  Check out the menu offerings and order online for pick-up. They also offer vegetarian dishes, desserts, and beverages like cà phê sữa đá (“Vietnamese iced milk dripped coffee”).  You will not be disappointed.

Although we live in troublesome times, I hope we can find beauty and peace as Mùi did through her maturation into a young woman. She faced many hardships, but set a positive example through her interactions. Like Mùi, we should remember that food brings people together. In such divisive times, although we must maintain social distance, sharing a meal with one another, whether that be through Zoom, Facetime or six feet away at the dinner table, is a way to escape from all the noise for a while. The Scent of Green Papaya is a beautiful film that emphasizes the importance of family and gestures to the importance of togetherness—solidarity, as Mùi did not have the privilege of living with hers. The film is openly available on Kanopy, which is free through most educational institutions and libraries.  You can also watch it on Alexander Street through UW Libraries.  Moreover, consider buying a takeout container of phở to enjoy while watching this film to show your support during troubling times.

With that, I’d like to leave you with a Vietnamese idiom to remember,

Ở hiền, gặp lành, which roughly translates to live to be good to others and you shall receive good in your own life.