Pho is often the first thing that comes to mind when Vietnamese food is mentioned. Pho (pronounced “fuh” with an upwards inflexion) is such a part of the culture here that the Northern Vietnamese have coined the phrase “chan com them pho” . Which translates to “tired of eating rice, craving pho.” This is said because rice is common, easy to make, and eaten several times a day. Whereas pho is labour intensive, takes a long time to make, and not eaten very often. You can see why there’s tough competition looking for the best pho in Hoi An.
This iconic dish originates from Nam Dinh in Northern Vietnam and has since infiltrated the entire country. Each region adding their unique twist to the dish. In its simplest form, it’s a hot bowl of beef or chicken with rice noodles in a rich, yet light soup. But in the north, pho is saltier. In the south, it is sweeter. In Central Vietnam, more specifically Hoi An, pho is a compromise between sweet and salty with pickled vegetables served on the side. This makes pho here very unique, tasting wildly different from other regions.
In this article, Hidden looks into the history of pho, how it’s made and where to find the best pho in Hoi An.
The History of Pho
Pho is a Northern Vietnamese dish, originating from Nam Dinh city (80 kilometres south of Hanoi). Some say the origins of pho are Chinese with a slow adaptation into Vietnam. It’s not hard to believe as the Chinese ruled Vietnam for over a thousand years, with Vietnamese writing even incorporating Chinese characters. It wasn’t until French rule that modern Vietnamese writing was converted into the Roman alphabet.
Some theories suggest that the name “pho” came from the French word “feu” meaning fire.
Food wasn’t always as abundant in Vietnam as it is today and there is a belief that when the French discarded beef bones and unwanted beef parts from their table, the Vietnamese used them in their cooking which may have played a role in the invention of pho bac (bac meaning north). With the influx of Vietnamese refugees after the war, small pho restaurants were opened using cherished pho recipes from the motherland to share this dish in the West. The recipes used by Vietnamese refugees abroad typically come from South Vietnam (pho nam, with nam meaning south).
Today the popularity of pho continues to grow through recognition from world-famous chefs like Andrew Zimmerman and Anthony Bourdain (who visited Vietnam over 20 separate times!). In fact, Anan restaurant in Saigon has now made its own 2,500,000 VND (100 USD) version of pho, adding ingredients like black truffle and Australian beef. You need to call the restaurant a day in advance, and pre-order the $100 pho, or you could just have a simple bowl of pho on the street for 50,000 VND (2 USD). Vietnam certainly gives you choices! You can read more about other street food options in our article here.
Regional Variations of Pho
Northern pho is saltier than other regions of Vietnam. Like Chinese food, Northern Vietnamese food focuses on salt as its primary seasoning. The broth is clear, and the pho served with green onions, some basil and a slice of lime. That’s it. No beansprouts, no extra sweet sauces to add to your bowl. If you want they have thinly sliced green chillies on the side for additional spice. In addition, some northerners eat it with quay, a Chinese doughnut, to make it more filling. Northern Vietnamese pho is the most simple.
Central pho is sweeter than northern pho. Here they add a satay peanut mix to the pho. Served alongside a variety of pickled onions, green papaya and beansprouts. They like their pho a bit on the sour side. The pho noodles here are dried (called pho kho) and then cooked again in the hot broth. Giving the noodles more bite and texture than what you might find in other regions.
Southern pho is the sweetest pho in Vietnam (it’s still not actually sweet though!). Pho down south is slightly stronger in flavour. Here they like adding sweet chilli sauce as well as Hoisin sauce to the pho, making it even sweeter. Served with beansprouts and a variety of delicious smelling herbs. Southern Vietnamese pho is what most people around the world are used to eating when they go to a Vietnamese restaurant outside of Vietnam.
Pho is a simple dish with simple ingredients. The only secret to making great pho is time.
Noodles – rice noodles (banh pho). The North and South of Vietnam use fresh noodles, while local places in Hoi An use dried pho noodles.
Spices – cinnamon, cardamon, cloves, star anise, fennel seed, and black pepper.
Vegetables – onions, ginger, and shallots provide depth and familiar Vietnamese flavour.
Herbs – green onions, cilantro and peanuts (only in Hoi An) added to the dish at the end to add colour, garnish, and a fresh flavour.
Meat – depending on the kind of pho you’re making it will contain oxtail and beef bones or chicken. Many different cuts of beef are offered with phở bò tái (thinly sliced rare beef) being the most common.
The menu at a pho restaurant might have dishes like this:
Phở bò chín: with well-cooked brisket. Or Phở bò tái: with thinly sliced rare beef. Phở bò cầu: with fatty brisket. There’s Phở bò gần: with beef tendon. This is a tough part of the meat, high in collagen, and it becomes very tender and gelatinous when cooked slow and low, like a lamb shank.
Phở bò sạch: with tripe. Phở bò viên: with Vietnamese meatballs (it will say “beef balls” on the menu)
Combination Pho is Phở Đặc Biệt Xe Lửa:, with everything but the kitchen sink!
The Five Best Pho Restaurants in Hoi An
The Vietnamese typically lead a leisurely life, operating in short shifts, leaving time for midday naps. Specific dishes are eaten at particular times; lighter foods like noodle soup (pho, bun) are typically enjoyed for breakfast while heavier foods like rice are consumed for lunch and dinner. As pho is a breakfast food, some pho restaurants may not serve it after 10:00 a.m.
Here are our picks for the best pho in town:
Address: 51/7 Phan Chu Trinh
Business hours: 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Price: 25,000 VND (1.10 USD)
Pho Tung (pronounced “Too-ng”) is constantly at the top of locals recommendations on where to get pho. Hidden deep in one of the alleys in the Old Town, this little gem is open from 7:00 a.m. until noon. There’s a small entrance with a blue sign outside with the restaurant’s name pasted on the yellow walls. You walk in through a small gate and see metal tables with matching stools covering the area and the kitchen on the left.
The broth here is most similar to what you would find in the north; however, the Hoi An touch does transform it into a more unique bowl. They add all the typical elements of Hoi An pho (satay peanuts, bean sprouts and pickled green papaya). A lovely old couple runs the place, and they will show you how to eat your pho, going as far as making you a mint herb salad with chilli on the house. Get away from other tourists at this lovely, local, authentic spot with excellent service and good food.
Address: 25 Le Loi
Business hours: 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Price: 40,000 VND (1.75 USD)
A popular spot for both locals and tourists, Pho Lien (pronounced “Lee-uhn”) located in the heart of the Old Town. This restaurant has a huge sign making it hard to miss. Once you enter, you’ll see several women working and lounging in front. The place is very Vietnamese: gritty with metal tables and metal stools for seating, so it’s definitely not known for its ambience but very authentic. The napkins are recycled paper (that’s how you know it’s very local). You can get a bowl of pho with prices ranging from 35,000 to 50,000 VND (1.50 to 2.15 USD), depending on what you want in your bowl.
Hidden Hint: Their speciality “banh mi chien” means “fried bread.” A slice of bread with a thin spread on top, deep fried to dip in the pho. Similar to how Northern Vietnamese dip quay in their pho.
The pho at Pho Lien is quite sweet, and their noodles are harder and chewier than others. In other words – this makes it more appealing to some. It’s easy to find and order, offering very authentic Hoi An pho, loved by locals and foreigners alike.
Address: 11 Tran Cao Van
Business hours: 6:45 a.m. to 8:15 p.m.
Price: 30,000 VND (1.30 USD)
If you started your journey in Hanoi, then you might miss the taste of Northern Vietnamese pho. Luckily, Sen Viet is a restaurant that serves authentic, northern style pho with quay (extra 5,000 VND). The broth is clear, simple, and exactly how they do it in the north. In addition, the restaurant itself gives off a welcoming vibe with the yellow walls, hand-painted artwork, and real red brick lining half the restaurant. There is outdoor as well as inside seating, and the restaurant is spacious enough that it doesn’t feel stuffy. Additionally, this street is laden with small shops, cafes, and restaurants that make it easy to grab a smoothie or coffee after your meal. Overall, Sen Viet has a great pho in a welcoming environment for a meagre price.
Vy’s Market Restaurant
Address: 3 Nguyen Hoang
Business hours: 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Price: 65,000 VND (2.80 USD)
Vy’s Market is a restaurant that serves up fresh food as well as housing a cooking school. Beautifully decorated, inspired by traditional Vietnamese architecture, and lined with lanterns of all sizes. Vy’s Market Restaurant is an upscale, hawker-style restaurant, allowing you to walk by each stall and look at all the food available for you to choose from. With an all English menu, presented on a digital tablet with pictures of each dish, makes this place as tourist-friendly as it gets. Their pho is delightful, a perfect combination of Northern, Central, and Southern Vietnamese pho. The broth is mild, they use regular banh pho (not the dried kind) and top off the pho with a bit of peanut satay. Above all – a delicious pho in a comfortable environment, Vy’s Market Restaurant is the perfect place for first timer’s to try pho in Hoi An.
Address: 35 Phan Chau Trinh
Business hours: 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Price: 45,000 VND (2 USD)
This small, locally run restaurant is consistently busy, sometimes with a queue outside in the evening. Very popular among Korean tourists, Pho Xua is a delicious, well-run restaurant with a good selection of very fairly priced food. Unlike other restaurants, Pho Xua offers pho in two sizes, medium and large. Their beef pho focuses more on the herbs and spices in pho like cinnamon, cloves and star anise, making this pho taste more earthy than others found in Hoi An.
Service is quick, therefore giving this place a slight “eat and go” feel as it’s limited on space and packed with customers. Visit this place for delicious, authentic, well priced Vietnamese food, in a very rustic feeling, Old Town Hoi An restaurant.
So these are Hidden’s top picks for the best places to eat pho in Hoi An. Each has their own charm and taste; and depending on the type of pho you want, they will satisfy a different need.
For a more local, authentic Hoi An pho, Pho Lien, and Pho Tung are both great choices. Loved similarly by the Vietnamese and tourists alike. But Pho Tung closes before noon, so remember to get there early!
For those looking for a more traditional pho, Sen Viet has a wonderful northern style pho that will satisfy your taste buds. For a more “earthy” pho that seems to be popular particularly amongst Korean tourists, Pho Xua offers a great pho inside a busy restaurant. Lastly, Vy’s Market is a beautiful setting, tourist-friendly, with great food.
Hoi An has its own unique style of pho that is well worth trying out. With a low price point, pho is worth trying at all the locations mentioned above to give you insight into how complex, different, and delicious this national food can be in Hoi An.