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. Cuong Huynh 6 May, 2010 at 23:22 Reply

    Hi Alice: Ouch, Cringe, Ouch! I guess this is the risk of going mainstream, isn’t it? That is to say, once a certain ethnic food is heading toward being accepted by the mass outside of that ethnic community, then really anything goes. I like a lot of things the Food Network “experts” do, but there are times when authenticity is out the door giving place to entertainment value, or “education” to the mainstream. Thanks for stopping by with your comment!

  2. Ryan 27 May, 2011 at 17:17 Reply

    Hey cuong pho is my favorite food and I liked how u broke down what is an isn’t pho makes me wonder why a lot of pho shops in the bay area make seafood soup an call it pho I’ve counted 3 so far. I would like to ask you if it is really true that in vietnam the fat noodle is more popular in pho? because my friend lived in central vietnam for a short time and said that all they served. I also wanted to know if that is even considered pho? Another pho fail is at one of my favorite pho spots called pho 99 my lil brother ordered chicken pho an it looked good but the broth seemed to dark to b chicken stock so I asked if the broth was chicken an it wasn’t they used the same beef broth is that common in chicken pho all over?and if u eat there u gotta try the fried chicken wings appetizer that’s what keeps me goin to that pho spot. And the last thing I wanna put on here is a suggestion for everyone when eating pho u need to order white onion and vinegar on the side top with sirachi or rooster sauce what ever u like to call it an mix it till the onion is red then squeeze lime on top of it u put it on ur spoon with ur noodles and its compliments the dish well an another suggestion is for everyone to atleast try its some kind of oil with big onions in it an u poor it into ur pho I love it but some might not it changes the dish all together and if u could give the names of these 2 side dishes for ur readers that would be great I’d attempt it but I’d jus make a fool of myself great website by the way keep up the good work

  3. Cuong 5 June, 2011 at 21:05 Reply

    Hi Ryan: Wow! so many questions in so few sentences 😉 I’ll try my best to answer them.

    Seafood pho: There is no seafood pho traditionally. My guess is restaurants made up seafood pho to serve those non-Viet clients who request something other than red meat or chicken.

    Fat noodle: The fat or wide noodles are popular in certain regions only, and are not used throughout Vietnam. In the North the wide banh pho (the pho noodle) is used mostly, whereas in the South Vietnam the narrower banh pho is more popular.

    Chicken pho with beef broth: I would say this shows the laziness/lack of care on the restaurant’s part to properly prepare and serve the proper chicken pho.

    Side dish of white onion/vinegar: This is certainly popular for many to enjoy their pho with. Personally I don’t care much for it, but others swear by it each and every time they eat pho.

    Oil with big onions: I’m not sure what this is that you described. Maybe you can elaborate on the oil and the big onions. I’ve never heard of or seen it.

    Thanks for visiting lovingpho.com!

    • Cracker 27 April, 2016 at 02:09 Reply

      Side dish of white onion/vinegar: what do others do with this. put it in the bowl of pho, or eat as separate mouthfuls? I put vinegared garlic slices in mine every morning

      • Cuong 29 April, 2016 at 18:03 Reply

        @Cracker: not sure what you meant with vinegared garlic slices, but with respect to vinegared onions, I think it’s just a way for people to tone down on the strong onion taste, or for some reason they like to add sour element to pho. For me, I don’t see a reason for it and I think it doesn’t add anything to improve pho. It just makes pho unnecessarily elaborate and complex.

  4. jessicaindenver 27 August, 2011 at 14:03 Reply

    Hi there. I was introduced to Pho about a year ago after a Vietnamese coworker of mine persuaded me to give it a try. I’ve been hooked ever since. Considering I’m in Colorado and am plagued with colds and flu a lot…I decided to see if it would cure my ailment…and it seems like it works ever time. My question to you is…does Pho have any health attributes??

  5. Cuong 5 September, 2011 at 01:03 Reply

    Hi jessicaindenver: Pho having health attributes? Hmmm hard to say. I don’t think there’s any scientific proof in any way. No one can claim that pho can help with your health, but one thing for sure: pho is an excellent hangover cure! Many college students and others can attest to it, but again, no scientific proof 😉 But seriously, to me, pho is hearty, wholesome, and full of goodness that when I finish a bowl of pho, I always feel great and revitalized regardless of how I felt before eating it. And that’s good enough for me. Sounds like pho did the same thing to you.

  6. Jacki 2 May, 2012 at 02:51 Reply

    i have never had pho with beef or chicken, i prefer to get shrimp…im more into the broth and rice noodles and the thai basil(i think thats the name) and bean sprouts with some of chili sauce (no lemon for me) its just simply delicious i love it! and i love how its servered very hot other wise i think it would just not be the same….maybe im eating it wrong but i love it! im hispanic and want to learn how to make it but even i know that it wont be the same lol but i can try 🙂

  7. Cuong 3 May, 2012 at 20:53 Reply

    Hi Jacki: You should try to make it yourself, it’s not that hard to do. It may not be that much more difficult than some of the Hispanic soups or dishes that you may have made. With respect to the shrimp, it’s probably just a topping ingredients you’re referring to. Granted there are many Viet restaurants offering shrimp pho, but really, they’re just some shrimps on top of chicken or beef pho instead of the chicken or the beef. The idea for pho is chicken pho has chicken broth and chicken meats, and beef pho has beef broth and beef meats. Vietnamese do eat noodle with shrimp in broth and they are called hủ tiếu (see my article on Hu Tieu or Hủ Tiếu – Paying Respect to Pho’s Cousin). In any case, we do have customers who love to order pho with beef broth and vegan toppings. So customer preference can run the gamut given the choice. Looks like you found your choice.

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