Asia, Food, History and Culture
Hanoi pho is more than just a food. It’s a beloved symbol of Vietnam that captures over 100 years of Vietnamese heritage and tradition. It’s a dish that unites Vietnamese locals to tell their stories before they head to work or over lunch.
This flavoursome and delicate soup has recently started to conquer the world. Pho restaurants are cropping up everywhere, bringing the most famous dish in Vietnam to a much wider population. But though you can easily try pho back home, there’s no better place to experience the soup than its birthplace in Hanoi.
Read on to learn more about the history of pho in Hanoi, when and how to eat it, and where to find the best pho in the city.
The History of Hanoi Pho
Experts agree that pho originated in Hanoi, sometime in the late 1880s during Vietnam’s unification under French rule. Vietnam already had noodles, introduced during the around 1000 years of Chinese occupation. They also had beloved draft oxen which they used to draw ploughs and help farming in the rice paddies.
Rumour has it that the word pho, comes from the French: au feu, meaning fire. The dish may in fact be an adaptation of French soup (pot au feu) or beef stew. But we do know the French introduced to the Vietnamese the idea of slaughtering the local oxen for beef.
Nobody knows exactly when pho bac (pho of the north) emerged, but it’s thought to be at some time at the beginning of the 20th century in Hanoi. Some believe that before it became popular, locals were cooking it up in the nearby village of Nam Dinh. Back then it was called ngưu nhục phấn (from Chinese). It’s also possible, therefore, that pho is just a shortened form of the word phấn.
Chicken pho (phở gà) emerged in 1939 when the government started to control the slaughtering of oxen for food by banning shops from selling beef pho (phở bò) on Mondays and Fridays. The soup wasn’t popular at first, but later caught on as locals added more flavour to it.
Then, in the 1950s, The Communist party restricted the sale of “real pho”, since it was seen as wasteful. Locals had to water the ingredients down, resulting in a “tasteless broth”. During this time, pho also moved south towards what was then Saigon, where the broth became decorated with ingredients such as chilli, beansprouts, fermented bean curd, hoisin sauce and Thai basil. While southern pho became richer, pho of the north got even worse.
During wartime in 1964, Hanoi pho gained even more restrictions and pho shops were forced to cook the soup without meat. This is when the breadsticks, banh quay, appeared. These taste similar to Spanish churros, without the sugar, and you can still find them in pho restaurants today.
It wasn’t until 1975 that Hanoi pho started to regain its flavours. It returned to its traditions, remaining simple yet delicate. Now, this lightly decorated, flavourful dish is much the same as you would have found in Hanoi over 100 years ago and beloved by the Hanoi people.
Other than beef, fish sauce is the main ingredient of Hanoi’s beef pho (phở bò), together with spring onions, ginger and various other spices. The beef is thinly sliced and, when done well, will curl at the edges with the heat of the broth. The truth is, though, that every restaurant will have its own recipe for pho and so the taste will vary wildly as you travel Vietnam. Even with Hanoi pho, you’ll notice subtle variations in taste as you hop from restaurant to restaurant.
Chicken pho is also immensely popular and now often comes seasoned with lemongrass and ginger. I’ll talk about other variations of pho in a minute.
Pho is also incredibly cheap. Expect to pay 30,000 VND ($1.30/£1.00) in local restaurants and double that in higher classed establishments.
When to Eat Pho in Hanoi
Throughout Vietnam, pho is typically eaten for breakfast. In Hanoi, if you’re an early riser, it’s not uncommon to see locals sipping from their bowls, sitting on low seats on the pavement at six in the morning. This is also when you can get the best pho, served after stewing since 2 a.m. in a massive steel vat, with pieces of beef inside sliced close to the bone.
Hanoi pho also makes a great breakfast: slightly salty with plenty of fluids to ward off morning dehydration or hangovers, and the protein you need to start the day.
Over the last 10-years or so, serving times for pho have changed. Nowadays, you can find pho at all times of the day in larger cities of Vietnam. But be warned, many restaurants may stop serving at around 2 p.m. and reopen again at 5 p.m.
Still, the earlier you get your bowl of pho, the better your experience will be. You’ll have a chance to interact with the locals and eat this wonderful dish the way it’s meant to be eaten.
How to Eat Pho in Hanoi
Hanoi pho is served straight from the vat, usually into a large bowl. The soup will most usually be minimal with round vermicelli, strips of beef, spring onions, maybe some chives, and the broth. Of course, it’s the broth that contains the flavour.
Many of the spices float to the top, so locals counter this by plunging the chopsticks to the bottom of the bowl and mixing the ingredients. Restaurants will also give you a variety of condiments. Typically, you’ll find limes from which you can add juice, chillies and salt. Other additions might include chilli oil, dried onions, garlic, fish sauce, and soy sauce.
This allows you to adjust the soup according to your taste. But try the soup first and see how you like it. Oh, and remember, Hanoi pho is generally saltier than other varieties of pho, so go easy on that salt.
Usually, Hanoi pho is served in a single bowl, but you can also order banh quay to dip into the broth. Oh, and when eating pho in Vietnam, it’s okay to slurp.
Types of Pho
The first varieties of pho you encounter in Hanoi are likely to be beef pho and chicken pho. As you’ll explore, you’ll encounter others. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common.
Beef Pho: Pho Bo
Phở bò is the quintessential Hanoi pho, with over 100 years of tradition. You’ll find this pretty much on every street corner in the city and many restaurants serve only this one dish.
Chicken Pho: Pho Ga
Phở gà is pho, but with chicken instead of beef. Despite its unpopular beginnings, Chicken Pho has also found its fans in Hanoi. Typically served with a lemongrass, Pho Ga tastes a like Thai soups without the spiciness.
Pork Pho: Pho Thit Heo
Although not as good as pho bo, in my opinion, pho thit heo is an alternative if you don’t eat beef for certain reasons. You won’t find this in many restaurants, but there are shops in the old quarter which will serve this when asked.
Pho Sot Vang
Pho Sot Vang is pho with white wine — a more recent variation served by some of the larger pho chain restaurants, such as Pho Ly Quoc Su (see below). This gives pho some extra flavour for those who find the broth a little bland (or just want to try something new).
Stir Fried Pho: Pho Xao
If you’re not a big fan of soup but still want a taste of pho, pho xao version has the ingredients of pho without the broth. Instead, everything’s stir fried under high heat then served up on a plate.
Typically, flat noodles are used for this, as well as onions and choy sum (like chard). Fried pho can make a good hearty lunchtime or evening meal, great for those travellers on a budget.
Where to Find Pho in Hanoi
Pho as a Street Food
You can find pho everywhere in Hanoi, with signs advertising it in big letters. Shops typically have low seats laid out on the street side, or underneath a tin roof with the front opening out onto the street.
Although these places may look a little rundown at first, I encourage travellers to try them. They’re a great way to interact with locals and give back to the local community. In fact, you might even discover some interesting stories this way.
For example, when we first moved to Hanoi, we stayed at an Airbnb near the military hospital, just west of the Red River. There, we went downstairs every morning for a bowl of pho served by an elderly couple. They’re both retired doctors who didn’t want to stop work after retirement. Since they liked working with people, they decided to open up a local pho restaurant. Now, they serve bowls of pho and fish noodles to a small community in a back alley off one of the main roads.
As you explore Hanoi, you’ll discover also discover local communities. Reaching out to them and integrating as much as possible, is a great step towards building meaningful travel experiences.
Most of the times, we’re happy to eat pho in mom-and-pop shop street side restaurants. However, my inspiration to write this post has motivated me to try some of the more famous pho joints. Unfortunately, I’m writing this in Tet (Chinese New Year) period when a lot of restaurants have closed.
So, I’ll update this guide as I discover more pho places. Here’s my list so far.
Pho Ly Quoc Su
Pho Ly Quoc Su is a chain of pho restaurants expanding throughout Vietnam (I just spotted one in fact in Ninh Binh, where I’m writing this blog post from). Here, you can see the chefs prepare the pho in the kitchen and they offer many different varieties, if you think you’ve tried them all. They serve the beef either slightly rare or well done, depending on your preference. Here, you can also find phở sot vang (pho with white wine).
Admittedly, I’ve not eaten at Pho Thin yet. But numerous Hanoians have told me that you can get the best Hanoi Pho here. I’ll head over there in the next couple of weeks, once it opens again and give it a try.
Famously, this restaurant stir-fries the beef before they add it to the broth. It’s quite a small place, but still attract a large gathering every day. I’ve heard that it gets incredibly busy at weekends.
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Thank you for reading my post on Hanoi pho. What’s the best bowl of pho you’ve ever had? I’d be happy to hear about it in the comments below.
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