Pho—Vietnam’s unofficial national dish—might look like a run-of-the-mill noodle soup. But the flavors and the history are as complex as the country itself.
Many Vietnamese culinary experts believe pho is a unique adaptation of “pot au feu” (“pot in the fire”), introduced during the French colonial period in the late 1800s.
Today in Vietnam, everyone eats pho from sunup to sundown. Neighborhood food stalls, pushcarts, restaurants, and fancy bistros serve up steaming bowls to workers, professionals, schoolchildren, and seniors alike.
“Pho is like the soul of our people. It is our heritage,” says Nguyen Thanh Van, the executive sous chef at the Hanoi Metropole Hotel. “From the moment our feet first touch the earth, our parents take us, with the whole family, to a pho shop. And even when we’re sick, old, and bedridden, we will be served steaming pho by our [loved ones].”
“When we travel abroad, we miss our pho like we miss a person,” she adds.
The key ingredients are simple: flat rice noodles in a rich beef or chicken stock. But there is nothing simple about creating the complex flavors of the perfect broth.
The broth must be clear for both pho bo (with beef) and pho ga (with chicken).
For pho bo broth, cartilaginous, marrow-rich beef bones are left to simmer in a cloth bag for at least eight hours. The foam and grease are discarded. For pho ga, the chicken carcass is simmered for about three hours.
Fresh ginger and onions are roasted over an open flame before they are added to flavor the broth. A variety of other spices may become part of the mix, including star anise, coriander, fennel, cardamom, and a dash of fish sauce.
Pho is often accompanied by sliced lime, fresh red chilies, Thai basil, bean sprouts, and chili sauce. These condiments are served on the side so that seasoning is an individual choice.
Pho noodles must be made of the highest quality fragrant rice: a little sticky and very white in color. Fresh noodles are painstakingly produced in home workshops and have a slightly sour taste.
Here are a few standout places to taste or learn about pho in Hanoi:
Spices Garden: This gracious restaurant in the historic Metropole Hotel serves authentic Vietnamese cuisine, including phenomenal pho, to famous visitors and local VIPs who keep their monogrammed ivory and inlaid-pearl chopsticks in a mahogany case at the entrance.
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Pho #10: Located at 10 Ly Quoc Suin in the Old Town, Pho #10 is crowded with families, couples, and singles, and is consistently cited as the place to find cheap, fresh pho. Inside the garish orange façade are bubbling vats of aromatic stock and cold beers to welcome foodies.
#49 Bat dan Street: Recommended by locals as the “best beef pho” in Hanoi, expect a long line and sit on a squat child-size plastic stool on the street. This is the kind of pho a Vietnamese grandmother would take all day to prepare.
Noodle Village tours: Located 12 miles south of Hanoi, Cu Da Village makes the white and yellow noodles used in many noodle dishes and in fried spring rolls. A private guide can arrange a tour of small home-based rice-noodle workshops to see families churning out handmade pho noodles.
Freelance writer Marybeth Bond contributes to National Geographic Traveler, National Geographic Books, and other publications in addition to keeping her Gutsy Traveler blog up to date. Follow her on Twitter @GutsyTraveler and on Instagram @MarybethBond.