What is Vietnamese Pho: Think You Know? Think Again

Updated 01-05-13. The other day I was chatting with my Phở buddy Tim and something interesting came up. The subject was pho obviously, but the context was "what is pho?" or more precisely, "what Vietnamese soupy noodle dish can be considered pho?" Because there are so many varieties of Vietnamese noodle dishes, many of them using the same noodle and similar looking broth, it can be confusing for newbies. Well I'm here to set the record straight once and for all.

Here's one of the most important statements I'll ever make:

Not all Vietnamese-noodle-in-hot-broth-in-a-bowl dishes are Phở.

That's right. This simple phrase will alert non-Vietnamese to the possibility that what they're looking at may not be pho at all. If you remember just this phrase, plus a couple of tips I'll give at the end of this post, then you'll stay out of pho hell for sure, plus you'll be able to identify pho or otherwise a different type of noodle dish like a pro, or a true Vietnamese, or a pho connoisseur, whichever applies. Let's look at a few examples below, but don't look too long because you'll get nauseated knowing you can't have a bowl right now.

Below are pho bo and pho ga (beef pho and chicken pho).

These are pho bo (beef pho)

These are beef pho.

These are pho ga (chicken pho), side chicken optional

These are chicken pho - side chicken and dipping fish sauce optional.

And these below are not pho. They're various other kinds of noodle with their own names such as hu tieu and bun bo Hue. They cannot be called pho, in the same sense that sashimi cannot be called sushi.

These are not pho. They're hu tieu (same noodle as pho), and bun bo Hue.

These are not pho. They're hu tieu varieties (same noodle as pho, light broth), and bun bo Hue (round noodle, dark broth.)

Since you're viewing this post on a computer and they haven't yet invented a way to smell/sniff what you're looking at on the screen, too bad we can't decide based on aroma as an indicator (although if you can, it's one of the best way to identify pho even with eyes closed). You can't mistake pho's aroma. One little whiff and you'll know it's pho.

So here are a few general, but reliable, tips to identify if it's pho or not (with exceptions as noted below):

  1. If you don't have beef or chicken, then it's not pho.
  2. If you have fish, shrimp, pork, octopus, goat, etc., then it's not pho.

Exceptions:

  • Pho can be ordered without meats, or with meats on the side (e.g., rare beef, chicken or beef balls) in which case you'll need to validate by some other ways.
  • Pho chay (vegetarian pho) which is normally served at Buddhist temples, vegetarian restaurants, or at many regular pho places. Pho chay looks and tastes somewhat different from the real pho, but it is considered pho regardless.
  • If you're at a restaurant and the menu specifically says such pho dish is a specially created dish, or otherwise acknowledging in some way that it's not a regular pho, because they have meats other than beef or chicken in it, then conditions 1. and 2. above can be relaxed. The idea here is a chef has every right to be creative with his/her food, and if the chef makes a clear distinction of what is authentic pho and what falls under the creative license arena, then it is totally acceptable. For an example of such case, head on over and read Tim's post on Baltimore Pho. You'll enjoy it.

So there you have it. I think it's important to distinguish real pho from the misunderstood pho, because authenticity is important for cultural, social and institutional reasons. By the way, hu tieu and bun bo Hue are also two of my favorite Vietnamese noodle dishes - love to eat them every chance I get.

What's been your own experience on pho-looking pho and non-pho looking pho? (hope that makes sense). Share with us your opinions.

24 comments

  1. tmckague 17 February, 2009 at 12:09 Reply

    Great post Cuong! This is very informative as even I didn’t know the difference until you educated me. I just recently visited a Pho restaurant in Atlantic City that had chicken “hu tieu.” I would have never known this wasn’t considered Pho.

  2. Cuong 17 February, 2009 at 12:38 Reply

    Thanks Tim. Maybe I’ll post one about hu tieu, as they’re many types as well. Hu tieu can be considered a cousin of pho, originating from the south as opposed to pho from the north. Hu tieu varieties are very good too. Too much good food, too little time.

    But be careful. You may want to try it, then like it too. After your experience with pho in Atlantic City who knows what will happen?

  3. kim 3 December, 2009 at 21:16 Reply

    this noodle is not pho is more like mien bo the noodle is look clear like the glass noodle not opaque kind like i am use to i think this lady does not understand an authentic pho noodle look like or even cook it right as far as i can remember my mother cook with beef or ox tail bone for the broth and as for the noodle we cook in plain water or submerge it in hot water for the noodle to be pliable and dip in the broth. this lady video of making pho is not authentic pho is look to me like mien tai

  4. Cuong Huynh 3 December, 2009 at 23:09 Reply

    I agree with you Kim: she’s using the mien glass noodle. I don’t think there’s a name for what she’s making though. Of course there are other videos of bad pho, but I found so many things wrong with this one so that’s why it is featured here.

  5. Alice 6 May, 2010 at 23:01 Reply

    I just saw Rachel Ray do a pho recipe on her talk show recently! I believe it involved pork and angel hair pasta, haha. She called it Vietnamese on her show, but her website says it is a “Thai-inspired soup.”

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