While certainly not Vietnam’s only outstanding dish, pho can certainly be considered it’s most iconic. The signature noodle soup, which is pronounced ‘fur’, has been a staple dish of the Southeast Asian nation for over 100 years and many claim its origins come from French influence while the dish also has undertones of Chinese cuisine.
Eaten mainly (but not exclusively) as a breakfast dish, the iconic noodle soup was originally sold by mobile vendors who would wander the streets of Hanoi flogging bowls of the fabulous noodle broth. The first fixed pho stands to pop up were reputedly on Cau Go Street and next to the Bo Ho tram in the early 1900s, though it’s thought the dish originated in the villages of Van Cu and Dao Cu.
Links have been made between pho and the dish pot-au-feu which French settlers introduced to Vietnam. Some suggest that the name pho was taken from feu, which means ‘fire’ in French, while it’s also notable that Vietnamese seldom used beef in their cuisine before the French arrived, favoring cheaper meats like chicken. While the origin may be contentious however, opinion on the deliciousness of pho is rarely contested.
Modern-day pho dishes differ between north and south, but mainly consist of lashings of rice noodles, an abundance of fresh herbs (in the north) or vegetables (such as spring onions in the south) and tender meat in a base broth, similar to French consommé, which provides the robust flavor. Indeed, it is the broth that makes or breaks pho.
Pho bo tai (made with rare beef), pho bo chin (with well-cooked beef) and pho ga (with chicken) are the most commonly consumed pho varieties, and a different stock is required for each, made by simmering parts of the cow or chicken for hours to create a full-flavored broth.
Once a steaming bowl of pho is served, each eager diner then has the chance to garnish their dish to taste, adding a variety of extra herbs, spices, sauces and vegetables, such as Thai basil, lime, bean sprouts, chili, culantro and onion in the south (lime & chili in the north) which are readily available on each table as standard condiments.
This is the key phase of creating the perfect pho, and something which many travelers find difficult at first. Of course, there’s no wrong way to garnish – personal taste is an individual thing, and everyone likes a different balance of sweet and spice.
To mix the perfect combination of garnishes may take each traveler a few attempts – experimenting is the key to success here – but the most important step to remember is to taste the broth first, before you begin to season. After all, if it already tastes great, there’s little need to improve it!
“Pho is certainly one of my favorite dishes,” said our Vietnam Travel Specialist, Truong Thu Lan, when we mentioned the famous noodle soup. “Personally I love pho bo tai, cooked with rare beef. I go to a small shop on Bat Dan Street as, for me it’s the most special recipe in Hanoi with a rich, perfectly seasoned broth for around US$2-3 per bowl. Sometimes you have to queue at the counter to get your hands on a bowl of the good stuff, but for me – and obviously many others – it’s worth it!”
If you’d like to try a steaming bowl of fantastic pho, you can include the experience in any one of our Vietnam tours. As our tours all include an local guide, you will not only have an expert to guide you to the best off-the-radar shops, but also someone to help you understand how to flavor and season your soup to perfectly match your preference.
Simply get in touch with one of our Travel Specialists in Hanoi to find out more!