Discover the incredible variety of dishes in Vietnam with our Street Food Guide. Today Ed Pettit serves up the facts of slurping pho bo in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon!
Vietnam is a diverse country. Over 1,500 Km from north to south, any journey in Vietnam will take you through handfuls of landscapes and cultures. This is part of the charm of travelling here – it is never dull and it is never quite the same! One of the best signs of this diversity is of course cuisine. In each town and city you will find a specialty – a unique ingredient in a classic dish, or simply a reputation of excellence that spreads the length and breadth of the country. With all this variety there is one constant – Pho, the noodle soup mainstay of Vietnam. If you have been to Vietnam and not tried Pho, then something has gone horribly wrong and you should start looking for a return flight right away. It is simple, tasty and cheap – the perfect breakfast, lunch or dinner. The classic version is Pho Bo – beef noodle soup.
But Vietnam’s love affair with Pho Bo isn’t all roses – it is the scene of some fierce regional rivalry, of which I am about to plunge right into the heart of.
I am lucky to live in Hanoi, a city with outstanding dishes on every corner – the capital of street food and a glutton’s dream. Upon arrival into Saigon you will notice things are slightly different. Gone are the hundreds of pop up restaurants and cafes replaced by something altogether smarter. But look closely and you will see things are thriving just below the surface with Banh My sellers in every alleyway and of course restaurants full of Saigoners devouring bowls of Pho Bo.
The Pho Bo of Saigon is quite distinct from the northern version I am used to. Different herbs, a richer soup and pre-cooked beef make it feel like a totally new dish. Gone is the boiled beef of Hanoi, replaced by thick cuts of succulent meat. At good restaurants the flavour of the meat is amazing and easily stands up to a Sunday Roast back home in the UK. The portion of meat seems to be more generous as well, so you leave thoroughly full up – something that isn’t always the case in the rest of the country. So all in all, in my opinion you simply can’t beat a bowl of Saigon Pho Bo. As a resident Hanoian I am risking a lot saying this, but my taste buds don’t lie.
How to order Pho in Saigon?
Most of the Pho Bo restaurants in Saigon are walk in places with long shared tables. Grab a seat or if space it tight the waiter/waitress will direct you to a spot. Herbs, Quay – fried bread sticks and sauces are to share so don’t be worried about reaching over a fellow eater to get hold of them.
- How many? One or two? (Mot or Hai in Vietnamese). If all else fails just hold up the right number of fingers.
- You just need to say Pho Bo (Pho is pronounced more like “fahhh..”)
- Quay – fried bread stick should be on the table already – but if not just call over the waiter and ask for one. They come in strips and you can either dunk them in the soup or tear them into pieces and place them in.
- You can also order your drink – Tra Da – is iced green tea.
Order in Vietnamese:
“Hai Pho Bo, hai Quay, hai Tra Da” means “Two Pho Bo, two fried bread sticks, two Iced Tea”
How to eat?
First things first, tear off some of the herbs on the table and mix them into the soup. Don’t worry about using your chopsticks for this! I like to add some of the chilli sauce, but I think I might be in a minority with that. Don’t forget to squeeze some lime in the soup to add a little sourness. Finish up by tearing your Quay into the soup and dig in!
How much is it?
Expect to pay between 25,000 – 60,000 VND for a portion of Pho Bo, Quay and a Tra Da. The famous Pho restaurants add a premium – but it is well worth it!
If you want to experience Saigon’s Pho Bo as part of your city tour then no problem – it can easily be included either for lunch or just a snack along the way!