In a series from Buffalo Tours’ resident foodie and local Vietnamese food expert, Thu Phan breaks down what you need to know about what you’re eating, how to find it, and what to know before you dig in. This installment is all about the country’s most iconic dish: pho!


Pho is easily Vietnam’s most famous and foremost dish that’s adored by almost every food lover in the world. It has topped Business Insider’s40 Meals You Should Eat In Your Lifetime” list, and is served in most Vietnamese restaurants around the world.

But having tried pho overseas, I know that there’s nothing that beats the original. After all, my home country is where it all started, so it’s no wonder that the best of pho is in the bowls of local Vietnamese.

As it turns out, Vietnamese locals’ ways of enjoying pho are plenty different from the simplified Western style. If you’ll go so far as to travel to Vietnam just to get a taste of the real thing, you’d better be prepared to eat pho like the locals do. The question is this: how to do it?

I’ve eaten pho around the world, but most importantly, I’ve enjoyed a bowl of pho across Vietnam, too. I know a thing or two about how to enjoy pho like a local throughout the country, where styles and tastes differ from city to city. For hardcore foodies intent on getting a taste of culture and culinary specialties, this is what you should know about enjoying a bowl in the country’s biggest foodie cities.

Homemade chili sauce and vinegar
Homemade chili sauce and vinegar

Hanoi

Pho might have originated from Nam Dinh, but it was the Hanoians who made it popular hundreds of years ago. In the north – specifically in the country’s capital Hanoi — the broth is clear with a lighter taste than its Southerncousin. When you go out for pho, skip the soft drinks for a tra da, or iced tea. The light taste goes well with pho, which would easily be drowned out by sugary drinks.

On the table, you usually find seasonings, chili sauce and fresh chili, lime, and some form of vinegar. But before you reach for the condiments, taste the broth first! It’s exactly how the chef intended, so drowning it out with too many extras could mean you’re ruining a perfectly good bowl. Only then, after a taste, should you add bits to taste to enhance the flavor, not change it.

My personal favorite combo is chili and lime, but plenty of locals like a bit of Siracha, too. You ought to try homemade sauce, as well, since it was usually created specifically for pho! Each restaurant has a different recipe, but a good pho shop always comes with an equally tasty sauce.

For alternatives to lime, you can try the homemade vinegar. Many prefer how the distinctive smell compliments pho. Although it might not appear like your typical bottled vinegar, it is just a mixture of rice vinegar, chili, garlic, shallot and seasonings.  My advice: Try everything, you are on holiday!

Quay with Pho - Source: wikipedia.org

Quay with Pho – Source: wikipedia.org

I am usually good to go after this, but for a full Pho experience, order the fried dough sticks – or quay, pronounced “kway”. Dip it in the broth but don’t leave it there for too long, unless you like soggy quay (which I actually do, but it’s not for everyone!).

Now, to really show off your local knowledge, ask the waiter for an extra bowl of soft boiled egg (trung tran). It’s served with the broth and vegetable herbs. Order only when you have room for more.

Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City

Saigon’s pho originated from Hanoi, when people from the North moved down South after the French War, and made the noodle soup popular. It is served with chili and vinegar, too, although the condiments in the south are Saigon’s own interpretation of the Hanoian versions.

Southerners prefer things sweet, which is why their pho broth has a more sugary, dense and greasy, achieved by broiling chicken bones and dried squid. That’s unlike the North, who only use bones, oxtail and flank to flavor their broth.

Bean sprouts, cilantro, Thai basil, and pickled onions - Source: wikipedia.org
Bean sprouts, cilantro, Thai basil, and pickled onions – Source: wikipedia.org

Despite its already rich flavour, some locals in Ho Chi Minh City like their pho with a bit of hoi sin sauce (called tuong den in Vietnamese, meaning “the black sauce”). In classic Saigonese style, it sweetens the already flavorful broth even more, so add with care or you might over do it.

Ordering your pho in Saigon also comes with a veggie dish piled with bean sprouts, cilantro, Thai basil, and pickled onions. With the bean sprouts, it is usually nicer to have them parboil, rather than raw. Submerge your bean sprouts when your Pho just arrived and is still hot. Rip the other herbs and sprinkle on top of the soup afterwards.

Pho ingredient bone nuoc beo
Ingredients of “Nuoc Beo” – Source: Yeutretho.com

Many locals eat pho with a bowl of nuoc beo, meaning fat, which is created when simmering the bones and flank.

Now that you have equipped yourself with basic Pho knowledge, be confident when you visit Vietnam. Pull up a chair (or plastic stool), make your order, sit down and be ready to show off how you eat pho like a local!

Savour the iconic flavour as you eat pho like a local with Buffalo Tours on a Hanoi Street Eats Tour!

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