The unofficial national dish of Vietnam and arguably the most famous worldwide has to be Phở. The hearty meal can be found at every corner of Vietnam from humble plastic chair eateries in the street to swanky five-star restaurants. Formerly a breakfast dish, it’s now served at all hours and can be eaten at any meal. Every cook has their interpretation of a recipe, so it’s no surprise how much the comforting bowl of noodle soup varies from the north to the south!
Phở Bò or beef noodle soup is the most commonly found version on the Hanoi food tour and throughout Vietnam. The term Phở refers to the noodles rather than the soup. Phở Bò consists of three essential elements beef, broth, and noodles. It’s deceivingly simple appearance masks a complex mix of sweet, salty, spicy and citrus flavors. The star of the show is the savory beef broth, sipping the clear broth feels like a warm hug running down your throat. The bulk of the dish is made up of the fresh rice noodles and then topped with melt in your mouth slow-cooked beef.
Phở Nam (Source: Internet)
The history of Phở
There are fierce disputes over the origins of the first Phở. A widespread belief is that it was created just southwest of Hanoi in Nam Dinh, around the time of French colonization in the late 1800’s. A theory suggests that the name Phở (pronounced Fuh) is a corruption of the French word feu. Pot au feu is a French soup dish which has many similarities to Phở. The same processes are utilized to boil and simmer the bones in water for hours and the way ginger and onion roast in an open flame. Before the French colonized Vietnam it was unheard of to slaughter cows for meat. They were considered only working animals and used to till rice fields. During this time food scarcity was a reality for many northern Vietnamese residents. To combat this, they resourcefully used the French’s leftover beef parts and bones for their Phở.
When communism hit in 1954, many northerners fled down south, taking their treasured dish with them. Once Phở arrived in the south the recipe was evolved into what is now known as Phở Nam, while the northern variety is Phở Bac. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, many Vietnamese people fled in search of refuge to neighboring countries and across the globe. Along with what possessions they could carry they also took their southern version of Phở, which is the style of Phở widely served globally.
During the French colonial times (Source: Internet)
Phở was initially a street food, so there aren’t many complex rules for eating this traditional meal. You don’t have to worry too much about slurping up your noodles. It can be viewed as a sight that you’re enjoying your meal.
Off course chopsticks and a soup spoon are the best utensils for your Phở. Often Vietnamese people will wipe down their chopstick before a meal, this is an old habit that doesn’t necessarily reflect on sanitation of the restaurant. The best way to finish a meal in Vietnam is to place your chopsticks across the top of your bowl to signal that you’ve completed.
Street food in Hanoi (Source: Internet)
The Northern vs. Southern style
On the Hanoi food tour, you can expect your steaming bowl of Phở to be somewhat more straightforward than the southern method. Phở Bac is thought of by some as the authentic way to make Phở. It is arguably a very different dish than Phở Nam.
The first notable difference between the two is the broth. The Hanoi variety is made from only boiled beef bones while in the south they sometimes include chicken bones and dry squid to infuse the soup with a richer taste. The Hanoian soup has a fresher saltier taste and a more transparent appearance. The north also adds seasoning such as star anise, clove, and cinnamon. The south adds hoisin sauce, fish sauce and chili sauce creating a fishier sweeter taste.
The noodles also vary from dish to dish, in the north they use only one noodle, a large in width but thin in depth rice noodle. In the south you have a little more choice over your noodle preference; either the Hanoi variety or a thinner version.
Phở Bac is garnished with cilantro, green onion, and thinly sliced white onion. Phở Nam comes with baskets of Thai basil, bean sprouts and various other herbs that they use liberally. Other widely used condiments include pickled garlic, lime, and finely chopped red pepper. Real Phở enthusiasts will recommend tasting your broth before adding any extras.
Regardless of its colonial influences Phở is a reflection of Vietnamese heritage and steeped in tradition. A definite must try on your Hanoi food tour. It’s hard to describe the intense essence of beef that the hours of boiling and simmering create in the broth, the distinctive aroma, and the perfect mixture of chewy and tender textures. In regards to which Phở is better, north or south, residents of either will proudly claim theirs is superior. It’s something you’ll just have to experience for yourself!
Phở Bac (Source: Internet)
Must try Phở in Hanoi
Thought of by some as the best Phở in Hanoi, Phở Gia Truyền often has a queue of eager customers waiting outside, so you know it’s good! The service is fast and efficient so you won’t be waiting too long to try the secret broth recipe that they perfected back in the 60’s!
Price: 40- 50k VND
Location: 49 Bat Dan, Old Quarter, Hanoi
Due to their popularity, this restaurant has three locations in Hanoi, but the best is still the original on Ly Quoc Su Street. They offer six different types of Phở. Customers can watch the Phở being prepared by the chefs through a glass door.
Price: 60- 85k VND
Location: 10 Ly Quoc Su, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
Must try Phở in Ho Chi Minh City
The friendly and prompt service at Phở Dậu is the best-kept secret in town. The understated restaurant offers an authentic bowl of Phở and is popular with locals and tourist alike. You’ll have to be there early though as they are only open from 6:00 am – 12:00 pm.
Price: 70k VND
Location: 288 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Down this little alley, you’ll find an unusual bowl of traditional, flavorful vegetarian Phở. The small restaurant has been open for over 30 years and only serves vegetarian or ‘Chay’ dishes as this is the diet upheld by Buddhist monks. The massive but cheap portions will satisfy even the biggest meat lover.
Price: 40k VND
Location: 54 Truong Quyen, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City