“Phở”-How to eat Vietnamese noodle soup


I’ve been going on and on about Vietnamese food and how delicious it is. And every now and then I mention in my posts about “phở”- the most famous Vietnamese noodle soup. Many of my foreign friends and guests fell in love with “phở’’ when they discovered that traditional food of Hanoi. Phở is no doubt the most shining star in Hanoi’s food map. Ever wonder what is the right way to eat phở? Who doesn’t know about phở you said? You have eaten phở many times and you can eat it even with your eyes closed? Well it is not that easy to eat this brilliant Hanoi dish.


I’ve seen many people having no idea what to do with that hot bowl. Some use chopsticks to fish the noodle out of the bowl. Some never know what chili and lime are for. Some just don’t even know the broth is delicious and eatable. To fully enjoy a bowl of phở you have to know the basic rules.  I’m now going to share with you about how Hanoian people eat phở traditionally and the best way to enjoy a bowl of phở.



Queuing to order a bowl of phở



“Phở”- Vietnamese noodle soup and the way to eat it properly


What makes a bowl of phở? Basically there are 5 ingredients: fresh  rice noodle, good cut meat (beef or chicken) hot broth, fresh herbs and the right spices. All those 5 combined in the best balanced way to make a good bowl. The first rule of a good bowl of noodle is: phở has to be served in ceramic bowls. It will taste like junk if served in plastic or glass bowls. The bowls to serve have to be medium sized not to big not too small. If it is too big there is too much of phở and you will lose your appetite.


Because phở is supposed to be a side dish or a small meal only. If is it too small the broth will cool down to quickly causing the dish not tasty anymore. Also in a tiny bowl you cannot put enough of right quantity of noodle, meat and other spices in.



Species to cook phở: Onion, start anise, cinnamon, ginger, cardamon…



The second rule is to use a spoon together with chopsticks when eating phở. In Vietnam you’ll see a big variety of chopsticks: plastic one, metal ones…and bamboo chopsticks. The most suitable for eating noodle is a pair of bamboo chopsticks as they are light, easy to grip. When using chopsticks fishing the phở out of the bowl, use a spoon to spoon some broth in the same time. You then eat the noodle and drink some broth out of the spoon.


By doing it that way the bite in your mouth combines everything: some noodle, meat, herb and the broth. It will be much more juicy and delicious than when you eat the noodle only. Some may choose to eat the noodle first then drink the broth directly from the bowl. But the best way is to combine chopsticks and spoon. That’s the reason why you’ll always see a spoon being served together with chopsticks.



Always use a spoon and chopsticks to eat phở



Now when this dish has become so popular all over Vietnam, you’ll see phở being served everywhere: from the narrowest street alleys to the most expensive franchises and hotels. Should you eat phở in a hotel? Will a big restaurant as good as the one on the street? The place to eat phở is also very important. If you expect to have a good bowl of phở in a big restaurant or hotel you may be disappointed. In those places phở is just one dish among the many choices in the menu.


And people never go to a big restaurant to eat phở only. Thus they don’t invest enough time and work to make the best noodle soup. Instead go to a phở only restaurants. Only a phở-only restaurants they put enough time and work to serve you the best bowl. As because to make the good broth they have to cook cow and pig bones for around 10 hours over a coal stove. The pots used to cook broth have to be big enough to contain enough broth to serve the whole day. When you come to a phở-only restaurant and you see a huge pot of about 1 meter tall right in front, that’s when you’ll have chance to get a good bowl.


That’s the reason why you can hardly find a good bowl of phở in a restaurant where they are not noodle experts. So next time you eat phở, choose a street side phở-only restaurant over a fancy all in one restaurant. You are likely to get a very much better bowl of this special dish.



It tastes the best in a traditional street “phở only” restaurant



How many kinds of phở are there and what are the best? Originally there are only 2 kinds: with beef or chicken. Nowadays to please eaters they can even create phở with pork, shrimp or whatever their customers want. In some way I want to blame those restaurant for destroying the traditional Noodle soup. Phở is only good when it is served with either beef or chicken. Putting any other kind of meat into this dish is a wrong way of eating phở.


And it is simply not phở anymore. And my recommendation is: when you know your preference beef or chicken, you go to the restaurant who serve either beef or chicken, not both. That’s because when they have only one thing to do, they tend to do it the best. Noodle restaurants who offer you both kinds beef and chicken there will be likely less chance for you to have the best phở of the day. So how can you tell if they use the best ingredients?


Good phở restaurant invests a lot of time to prepare the best meat for their customers. They will have to wake up very early in the morning to go to the markets just to buy the best fresh cuts from butchers’. Chickens have to be the Vietnamese free range farms and are raised in natural conditions. Farm chickens in big quantity are never used to make a good bowl. The raw beef should be lean and looks deep red and fresh. Together with the broth, meat takes an important role in making a good bowl of phở.



Phở bò- Vietnamese beef noodle



I’ve seen many tourists eating a bowl of phở and drink a Hanoi beer at the same time. It can be good only for taking some photos of you eating then show your friends. Beer never makes a perfect pair with phở. Worse there are people eating phở with a Coca cola, tea, coffee or other kinds of soft drinks. When eating this dish you don’t have to drink anything together. If you want to drink do it later when you’re finished.


The only drink acceptable here is a small cup of Vietnamese rice wine. It will increase your appetite when eating phở. But since Vietnamese rice wine is so strong (about 40 percent alcohol) you should not combine it too much with phở. Otherwise it could erase your taste away.



Phở gà- Vietnamese chicken noodle



When is the best time of the day to eat phở? Well of course you can eat it anytime in the day and it is served the whole day: for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even supper. But to my experience phở taste the best in the morning, for breakfast. That’s when you’ve woken up from a long sleep and your stomach is empty. Phở being served as a complete small meal will fill you easily. And in the early morning the weather is still cool not too hot you’ll find it easier to eat a hot bowl. As I said earlier phở has to be eaten supper hot. You will not enjoy it too much when it is almost 40 °C outside.


The last factor to make a perfect bowl is the side species. You will often see noodle restaurant display fresh chili, chili sauce, lemon or lime, pepper and garlic soared I vinegar on every table. When a hot bowl of phở comes, you then squeeze some drop lemon in, add chili or chili sauce to your taste, pepper if it is beef noodle. The pickled garlic with vinegar can be used instead of lemon. Now mix everything well and drink a spoon of broth to make sure your bowl is now perfectly spiced. It’s now time to enjoy the most popular dish of Vietnam.


Book your Hanoi Food Tour and follow our foodie to try the traditional Pho in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.





Pham Tuyen