Andrea Nguyen, author of The Pho Cookbook: Easy to Adventurous Recipes for Vietnam's Favorite Soup and Noodles, is no stranger to eating her way through Vietnam. “It’s practically a Disneyland of incredible eats,” she says. “There’s freshly-made food all around you, and there are street vendors and restaurants that specialize in just one dish. They perfect it because it’s their craft and livelihood.”
She’s also no stranger to phở. Nguyen is a master teacher when it comes Vietnam’s national dish, and in her new book she provides meticulously clear instructions for every imaginable variety—we recommend you cook through every chapter.
According to Nguyen, pho and the way it is prepared in different parts of the country reflects Vietnam's distinct regional cuisines. The North is “physically and culturally closer to China, so the cuisine favors black pepper and ginger,” while the South utilizes more chilis and fresh produce. Broths in the North are salty, while southern soups are sweeter. Hanoi and Saigon, the metropolitan centers of the two regions, are cities Nguyen describes as “equals and rivals” in the pho game. “That regional pho fight mirrors some of the differences between the two regions,” she says.
Here, Nguyen's tips on where (and how) to eat pho in Hanoi and Saigon:
How to Eat Pho
Before you begin, Nguyen suggests following a few key rules:
- “Pace yourself. There’s a lot to eat.”
- Find out when your restaurant opens—some dishes, especially pho, can sell out quickly.
- If you’re having trouble choosing where to eat, trust the locals: “Look for where the ladies eat. They know where the good food is.”
According to Nguyen, beef pho is the standard—elaborate toppings and flavors are more common abroad than in Vietnam. Here’s her guide to ordering:
“cooked beef = chín ( pronounced “chinn?”): Slices of chewy-tender beef (lean brisket or other tough cuts) that are simmered in the broth.
rare steak = tái (pronounced “tie?”): Thinly sliced beefsteak cooked by the hot broth; it’s usually a very lean, mild-tasting eye of round.
fatty brisket = gầu (pronounced “gow”): Rich sliced brisket with a generous layer of fat, though it can sometimes be the same meat as chín.
meatball = bò viên (“bah vee’en”): Springy meatballs (sometimes with tendon bits) that are usually halved or quartered for easy retrieval.”
“The capital tends to be more traditional and conservative in its food—there’s more charming rusticity in Hanoi, particularly if you explore the Old Quarter," says Nguyen. "Restaurants tend to be smaller than those in Saigon. With regard to pho, a bowl in Hanoi is moderately sized and served with few herbs and garnishes—it’s meant to be savored for its pure elegance.”
Where to Eat:
Phở Sướng - Ngõ Trung Yên
“Smaller than a one-car garage, Phở Sướng is open in the morning till around 11am (when they sell out), then reopens around 5pm or 6pm for nighttime pho eaters," Nguyen says. "Simple, balanced, beautiful soup. Add a deep-fried breadstick to dip into your bowl if you want the full Hanoi experience.” 24B Ngõ Trung Yên, Hoan Kiem Hang Bac, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
Quán Phở Huyền
“Excellent chicken pho. You can order it with offal and poultry parts that you didn’t think you’d ever eat or enjoy—like the crunchy cockscomb. Across the street is the Hanoi Cooking Centre, which conducts street food and market tours of the area.” 31 Châu Long, Trúc Bạch, Ba Đình, Hà Nội
Phở Gia Truyền - Bát Đàn
“Subsidy-era beef pho—it hearkens back to the time when Hanoians had to line up with ration tickets for food. You stand in line, order, pay, wait for your bowl, then carry it to your table. There’s a proletarian quality about it. The pots are powered by coal!” 49 Bát Đàn, Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
Phở Trộn - Phố Lãn Ông
“This spot, in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, is only open at night. There’s just one dish that everyone orders: phở gà trộn (for which there's a recipe in the book), a bowl of bánh phở rice noodles generously topped with poached chicken, fried shallots, herbs, green papaya shreds, and a tangy, salty sauce.” 65 Lãn Ông, Quận Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
“In Saigon, things are socially more progressive and economically wealthier," Nguyen says. "Restaurants are more polished and cosmopolitan. Southern Vietnamese dishes often make me pause and ponder—some would say the food of the South is more fussed up, but that’s because it’s a hot and fertile place. Pho is served in large bowls with platters of produce, alongside bottles of chili and hoisin-like sauces.”
Where to Eat:
Phở Hòa Pasteur
“They have all kinds of add-ons on the table," Nguyen says, "but I usually just go for an early breakfast: a đặc biệt special combo bowl of beef pho, and coffee with condensed milk.” 260C Pasteur, phường 8, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh
“My cousins suggested we go here after some sad, pricey pho elsewhere. Very good beef pho, and locals love it. I ordered the cooked fatty brisket (gầu) bowl and it was dynamite.” 413-415 Nguyễn Trãi, Phường 7, Quận 5, Hồ Chí Minh
Ru Phở Bar
“The chef and owner is an artsy fellow, who uses brown rice noodles and Australian beef. Healthy-ish pho in an upscale setting; you don’t have to eat pho at a storefront every time.” 27E Trần Nhật Duật, Tân Định, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh
Of course, pho is just the beginning. What else does Nguyen recommend eating on your culinary journey of Vietnam?
“Bánh mì sandwiches, bánh xèo (sizzling rice crepes), bánh cuốn (steamed rice rolls filled with pork and shrimp), cá kho (fish simmered in caramelized sauce), chả cá (Hanoi-style turmeric fish with dill and funky shrimp sauce), bánh khoai (rice flour pancakes). I can go on and on. Each time I travel to Vietnam, I discover some other incredible dish.”