Pho — It’s What’s For Dinner

“So, what do you feel like eating tonight?”

“I dunno. How about some fur?”

“Ummmm. You want to eat… fur?”

“Yeah, you know. Vietnamese noodle soup!”

Pho - Vietnam's Famous Noodle Soup

Just say NO to fur! (This message may or may not have been approved by PETA)

You know you’ve had this conversation before. No matter where you live, chances are, there’s a pho restaurant near you, complete with a stainless steel chopsticks holder, laminated menus with prices whited out, fake wood laminate tables and a sullen, pimply faced teenager waiting to take your order.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love pho. I mean, what’s not to love? Steaming hot and filling, a mix of broad rice noodles, broth that’s been simmering for hours, crunchy vegetables and herbs and loads of beef in all its forms (even the forms we don’t normally or necessarily want to see).

Alien molt or tripe (aka beef stomach, a pho staple)? You be the judge!

As a kid, I’d love it when my mom made pho. The smells of ginger and onions roasting over the fire wafted throughout the house. The unbearably long wait to simmer the beef bones to extract all their marrowy goodness. The constant skimming of the broth to remove the scum, ensuring the broth was beautifully light and clear.

But the last time I was home for a visit, things weren’t quite the same. Instead of a 3 hour wait for pho, my mom simply went into the pantry and armed with a can opener, cracked open a tin of instant pho broth. I never thought I’d see the day…

Pho - Vietnam's Famous Noodle Soup

Sorry Mom, she's got you beat... (sad face)

Update: Just a day after posting this, a very talented reader produced her own painting of the above picture. How cool is that? See more of her artwork here.

From talented reader Gwen Healy

But now that I’m in Vietnam and there’s often a pho restaurant across the street from another pho restaurant, I’m in Pho Heaven. (Pheaven?)

Pho - Vietnam's Famous Noodle Soup

Smile! You're in Pheaven!

Actually, when researching an article on pho, I went to my favorite pho restaurant in Binh Thanh, Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a nameless, menu-less place down a side street but cooks up some of the most flavorsome pho I’ve ever had. While the cheapest pho place I’ve found was VND 25,000 (USD 1.20), this place was reasonably priced at VND 35,000 a bowl. Run by 5 sisters who took over the restaurant from their father, himself a Northerner who came to Saigon when it was still called Saigon, the restaurant is a neighborhood institution.

Pho - Vietnam's National Noodle Soup

Two of the Five Sisters. Vietnam's version of the Redenbacher family, really.

What was a grown man doing asking about how to make pho? Nga, the fourth of five sisters, was tickled when she heard I wanted to write an article about what’s been called Vietnam’s national dish. Originating in Hanoi at around the turn of the century, pho’s origins may be Chinese or French, depending on who you want to believe. Either way, it started as a peasant dish and has now made it to the big leagues.

Pho 24, an international chain which started in Vietnam, claims to put in 24 ingredients and cook it for 24 hours.

Pho - Vietnam's national noodle dish

As closely guarded as the Colonel's original recipe

During our hour-long conversation, I asked her what to do with all those pesky herbs (answer: tear them all up and throw them all in), what’s changed about pho in the 30 years she’s been making it (answer: it used to be considered a breakfast food but now people stop in for a bowl after work and after a night of drinking, no longer hampered by the nighttime curfews of the war years) and whether she ever gets sick of pho, literally being around it 20 hours a day, 7 days a week (answer: no).

Pho - Vietnam's National noodle soup dish

No ketchup?

In fact, as she was talking about the history of pho, when it included carrots and radishes put in by the farmers, it reminded me not a little of the old story of Stone Soup.

While I’ve had pho in Bangkok, Honolulu, London and Prague, it’s still the best here in Vietnam. Cheap, delicious, filling. Pho. It’s what’s for dinner.

For the full text to this story, see my feature article in Bootsnall, an awesome site for indie travel.

What do you think? Is pho good enough to be considered Vietnam’s national dish?

Photo credits: Tripe, pho spices

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17 thoughts on “Pho — It’s What’s For Dinner

  1. gwen healy

    I don’t know about Vietnam but I sure would like to make it my personal favorite dish. My mom used to make a soup like this during hard times, she would just throw everything in it and simmer it and feel the house with some of the most wonderful aromas, that filtered into every fiber of your being, yum! A national dish is one that everyone can relate to on an emotional level, conjuring up memories of family, community and love. This fits the bill.

  2. Fay G

    As I look at the pics, my tastebuds sure wanted to dance. Hope it would not be long before I sample this dish….. 🙂 Definitely on my high-priority list… Vietnamese restaurant here in the States…..

  3. Helen

    I remember the first time that I made Pho (sorry no Viet font) . . . I started cooking it around midnight and had to get up every hour to remove the scum off the top of the broth as it cooked (my instructors orders) . . . I invited 12 “real” Vietnamese over to eat it . . . they approached it very cautiously (well, hey, I am from a foreign culture) . . . and then ate it up! My first try successfully passed the discriminating taste buds . . .

    1. James Post author

      Great story and kudos for making this rather labor-intensive dish! I could NEVER see myself making it when it’s so plentiful here. The Vietnamese have an expression: “Dem cui ve rung”, or “Bringing wood back to the forest”… ie. why bother? I’m still trying to get to Laos, but if I knew a bowl of Helen’s pho was waiting for me, that might just be the impetus I need…

  4. Ruth

    I didn’t know that about Pho 24! Not that I’ve ever eaten there… When I first got here I used to eat pho near daily but nowadays only 1-3 times a week. After a couple of bad experiences with broths flavoured with dried squid, I’ve been frequenting the same breakfast lady and night eatery for over a year! My favourite place costs 24,000 (though my cheapest place is still just 20,000) and the broth’s so good I usually drink it all. Yum!

    1. James Post author

      24,000! Steal! I’ve actually only been to Pho 24 twice. It’s a bit too sanitized for me, except for the one in District 1 (near Dong Khoi) which is really small so it doesn’t seem so cafeteria like… The other time I went was in the Manor. While the pho is above average and they did have a decent special on at the time, I wouldn’t go out of my way to go there. Give me street pho or family-style pho any day!

  5. Christy @ Technosyncratic

    Mmm, we love pho! In San Diego it’s what we always ate when we were sick, and in Vietnam we ate it every day. Some of the meat variations were a little strange (we’re used to lean chicken pho), but it was fun to try as long as we didn’t think about what some of the meat cuts were.

    1. James Post author

      Thanks! I rarely deviate from my “pho tai chin” with very identifiable cuts of meat. Every now and then (when I’m feeling especially dangerous), I’ll order the “pho dac biet” or “special pho” and spin the Meat Roulette Wheel. Yum.

  6. Bach

    My favorite pho variety is PHO GA (chicken pho) and my favorite pho restaurant is SON NGA (it is a family chain of about 20 restaurants specializing in chicken dishes: mien ga, xoi ga, com ga, goi ga besides pho ga).
    The price list for a bowl of pho ga: 23000 VND for a regular version, 28000 VND if you want brown meat. Special versions with various parts of the chicken, including eggs still inside the chicken before they are laid, go for 40000, 50000, up t0 70000 VND.


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