What I Learned About Eating Pho in Vietnam

published Oct 11, 2016
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(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Last year I spent part of my honeymoon traveling through Vietnam, starting in Hanoi (the birthplace of pho) and slowly snaking our way south to Ho Chi Min City. I considered these two weeks to be the ultimate pho-eating marathon, a chance to experience and enjoy this traditional noodle soup on a daily basis.

And aside from eating the best beef pho of my life, I also learned a few important lessons.

The best comfort food is found at breakfast.

On our second day in Vietnam, we were up early and, transported by rickshaw through a maze of streets, arrived at a well-known soup shop just minutes after it opened. A line was already starting to make its way down the block, as I learned it did nearly every day. While it is served throughout the day, hot beef pho is the most-beloved breakfast food in Vietnam.

This was a breakfast routine I had no trouble getting used to. I was more than happy to trade yogurt and oats for the comfort of a hot bowl of beef pho. The combination of the rich broth, slices of beef, sprouts, onion, and fresh herbs was easily the most soothing wake-up call I’d ever experienced. A day that starts with comfort food is bound to be a good one.

The best pho eaters are ambidextrous.

Pulling my plastic stool up to the communal table, I learned just as much (perhaps more) from observing locals eat pho as I did savoring its flavors myself. Noodle soup can be a confusing thing. What do you go for first — the noodles or the broth? Both?

Turns out the very best way to eat pho is with two hands: a spoon in one and chopsticks in the other. This approach, which took some getting used to, guarantees a little bit of everything — noodles, broth, and garnishes bite after bite.

The pho I make will never compare — and that’s OK.

A really good bowl of pho hinges on the broth. It’s the backbone that makes this comfort food stand out. Making it happen is quite the process. At best it takes hours, although more commonly a day or two of slow simmering to develop a broth full of rich flavor. As much as I love pho, I simply do not have that kind of patience.

I haven’t tried to replicate the beef pho that fueled my mornings in Vietnam, and I doubt I ever will. Instead I’ve settled on a quick and easy broth that relies on store-bought stock, bolstered by charred vegetables and toasted spices.

Get a shortcut recipe for pho: How To Make Quick Vietnamese Beef Noodle Pho

I’ve focused my efforts of using good-quality rice noodles, cooking them so they retain a chewy bite, buying the right cut of beef to slice into my soup, and always having enough garnishes handy. The pho I make certainly isn’t the same, but because it requires little effort, I’m inclined to make it much more often.