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. Joe 4 January, 2013 at 22:11 Reply

    Cuong, the oil and onion stuff Ryan is talking about is the fat from the meat broth and chopped green onion …I’m not sure how to spell it but it’s pronounced ahn bayo

  2. chuynh 4 January, 2013 at 22:45 Reply

    Joe: YES OF COURSE, it’s nước béo hành trần, which is “fatty broth with blanched onions” normally served in a smaller bowl on the side. I’ve mentioned this briefly in the article Tips on Ordering Pho Your Way: Just Tell Them What You Want, and provided pronunciation of nước béo as #20 in the article Pho Pronunciation – How to Order Pho in Vietnamese. Thanks for clarifying this mystery Joe.

    Traditionally, a complete Vietnamese meal normally consists of a vegetable main dish (normally stir fried but not always,) a “salty” meat/protein main dish (chicken, beef, fish, etc.,) and a soup/broth dish to be enjoyed by itself or over rice. As many may already know, Vietnamese meals are normally communal in nature where the main dishes are placed in the center of the dining table (or floor, depending on if you’re poor or rich or somewhere in between) and each person would have his/her own rice bowl while they share these “entrees,” taking what they need as they enjoy the food.

    The soup/broth element becomes popular especially when you have non-soup entrees in a restaurant, from vermicelli with grilled pork, to broken rice with anything. It helps to wash down the main course with some nice hot soup. This practice is carried on over to pho, and while it is not really necessary to wash down pho with another bowl of soup/broth, the nuoc beo does allow those who love the fatty and tasty beef flavor to enhance their pho. I did love this myself, but stopped this practice in an effort to keep my pho on the healthy, lower fat/cholesterol side ;).

  3. dhalsim2 15 May, 2015 at 13:33 Reply

    I’m Catholic and on Fridays either
    * abstain from eating meat including soups made from meat, OR
    * offer some other comparable sacrifice

    Today, I went out to lunch with my Vietnamese bros. I ordered the “shrimp pho” in hopes that I was abstaining from meat. Would this broth still be made from meat or is it completely meat-free?

  4. chuynh 15 May, 2015 at 13:41 Reply

    @dhalsim2: Shrimp pho and seafood pho are not standard pho types. They don’t exist as a pho dish. They are created by enterprising restaurateurs to sell more pho to people who don’t eat red meat. Sorry to say, what you got in you shrimp pho is anyone’s guess. If I have to guess, it’s probably using either beef or chicken broths. I would suggest the next time you go, ask for the vegan option/broth (of course if they have it) and specifically inquire about what’s in it.

  5. dhalsim2 15 May, 2015 at 14:23 Reply

    @Cuong,

    Thanks for the prompt advice. I’ll do some other sacrifice. It was tasty, and I tried my best based on my knowledge, so I have no regrets. It _did_ taste like the beef broth that I normally get, so I think that your guess is right.

    Thanks again!

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