Friday, April 10 2020


A bowl of pho, a cauldron of stories

Update: January, 05/2015 - 15:24

Hearty cow: A bowl of beef noodle soup in a light broth makes for a colourful mouthful.

by Ngan Binh

My husband gave me that "are you crazy" look, holding nothing back.

"At this time of the night?" he asked. It was 1.30am. I had just returned home from a 10-day business trip to Beijing.

I am not prone to going "crazy" very often, but my cravings were not to be ignored. I just had to have a bowl of pho from a family-favoured stall on Tran Phu Street.

"At this time?" he asked again. "Are you sure they are still open now?"

Long story short, he took a food container and left. About 15 minutes later, he returned and a tangy aroma wafted into the room, soothing yet sharpening my appetite. Slowly, I had a spoonful of the broth... It would not be an exaggeration to say I was transported to another world. The broth was meaty and rich, the white rice noodles were smooth and the green herbs fresh and fragrant.

Whoever called it a "bowl of heaven" knew her/his business.

If I can go "crazy" after just 10 days of being away from home, what about those who live abroad for years, or even decades, at a time?

I do not have to hazard a guess. Been there, done that. Hence this story, and many others that I have "collected" over the years.

When I was working as a Vietnam News Agency correspondent in the UK, this was a question that cropped up very often when Vietnamese friends met: What would we like to eat first as soon as we returned home from a long trip abroad? The answers differed, usually – nem (fried spring roll), bun rieu cua (field rice crab with fresh vermicelli), or bun cha (grilled belly pork with fresh vermicelli), but the winning dish by a fair stretch was pho, the rice noodle soup with beef or chicken that has become an internationally renowned national icon.

Nguyen Van Phu, a doctor who often accompanies sportsmen to competitions abroad, told me that after trips lasting around 10-15 days, his group rushed to a familiar pho stall from the airport (often very in the early morning) before they went home. He recalled a trip to Finland when he and his teammates travelled miles to reach a pho restaurant in the northern part of the country, only to have a bowl of instant pho noodles with some fresh spring onion. During the London Olympics Games in 2012, I happened to be in the UK, and he was over the moon when I took him to have a really good bowl of beef pho at a Vietnamese restaurant in central London.

Pho facts

The Huffington Post, an American newspaper, called pho a "bowl of heaven" when listing it as one of the 12 most delicious foods people should discover when travelling abroad.

CNN placed pho No 28 in the list of the world's 50 best dishes saying "some dishes you eat to stay alive, while others you eat because to not eat them would be a crime."

In June last year, Business Insider, a New York-based news website, listed Ha Noi's pho a "tangy beef noodle soup" as the first of "40 meals you should eat in your lifetime".

The list chose 40 dished that are "worth traversing the planet for, which culinary enthusiasts will want to add to their list of travel destinations".


Beef noodle soup shops:

10 Ly Quoc Su St.

Pho Vui, 25 Hang Giay St.

Pho Suong shop, 24 Trung Yen Lane, Dinh Liet Street

49 Bat Dan Street

Pho Co, 48 Hang Dong St.

Pho Thin, 13 Lo Duc St.

34 Au Trieu St.

Chicken noodle shops:

63 Yen Ninh

38 Le Ngoc Han

31 Chau Long

1 Hang Dieu

23 Hang Hom St. (evening only)

9 Hang Buom St.

63 Hang Luoc St.

42 and 158 Quan Thanh St.

Not surprisingly, famous writers have not failed to wax eloquent about this incredible dish. Thach Lam, Vu Bang, Nguyen Tuan and Bang Son come to mind immediately.

Nguyen Tuan (1910-1987), wrote about missing pho when he was in Finland to attend a conference. The trip was full of good food, beautifully decorated tables and cozy ambience with soft music. But he and other people in his group had been away from home for a few weeks, and they were losing their appetite. On the banks of the Otaniemi Lake one day, one member of the group, suddenly shouted out aloud in desperation that he would finish six bowls of pho if a stall were to appear suddenly in front of them.

Eighty-four year old Nguyen Xuan Quang, a painter, is also a self-confessed pho addict. He and his friends gather at the pho stall for all celebrations, Quang said.

The late Vietnamese writer Thach Lam had asserted that pho is better in Ha Noi than anywhere else." Many people, including yours truly, would agree without any hesitation.

When I told Kim Cuc, the owner of the Pho shop at No 3 Tran Phu, about my thirst for a bowl of pho on returning from Beijing, she smiled broadly and told me that many of her clients had similar stories to tell. She said many young students who study abroad and... return home for the holidays have asked their parents to take them directly to her shop from the airport before going home, although their parents had prepared big dinners already.

Everybody can cook pho, but it is not easy to cook a really tasty one. The broth is the most important part, using just the right amount of cinnamon, star anise and black cardamom that are roasted, not to mention charred ginger and onion. Leg and knuckle bones are the best to make the broth.

Cuc said the recipe could vary, but for her to have the concentrated broth of beef pho while retaining a clean and clear stock, she got all beef meat off the bones before they are boiled for around eight hours. She has been selling the soup for nearly 20 years, taking over when her mother retired after decades of serving the dish at No3 Tran Phu Street. One of the secrets she learned from her mother is to boil good quality fish sauce with some salt in advance. Then she pours the liquid into the broth just before she opens the shop, usually at 6pm. She closes the shop at 2am.

More than a dish

For my generation, having experienced the difficulties and hardships of a country at war as well as its difficult aftermath, pho means much more than a delicious dish.

In the early 1980s, Viet Nam had to undergo severe economic austerities. We, students of English at the Ha Noi University, had lessons both in the morning and in the afternoon, once or twice a week. We brought our lunch to school plain rice, vegetables and some peanuts or an egg, rarely having any meat. Remember that during these years, before doi moi (renewal), we had a quota of 300 grammes of meat per adult a month. In winter, our food (cooked early in the morning at home), became cold and hard. In this situation, the aroma of beef noodle soup coming from the canteen was maddening. We could not always afford to buy a full bowl of pho. We would yearn for some hot broth in order to mix it with the rice to warm us up. The problem was that the canteen did not sell the stock alone. We hit up on a plan. We asked Quoc Hung, a tall, very good-looking male student in our class to go flirt with the salesgirls and get them to sell him some broth. It worked! They not only sold him a full food container of broth, but also generously added some thin beef slices and some herbs. Oh the joy of that meal!

Many of my friends and I have more than once wished to be sick so that our worried mothers would buy a bowl of pho for us. In those days of privations, it was a luxury.

Cluck-cluck: chicken slices, a handful of herbs and a dash of chilis pile atop of the famous pho noodle

Vu Thang, Editor-in-Chief of the Culture and Gastronomy Magazine, likes to tell the story of how he had pho for the first time about 50 years ago, when, as a young boy, he came to Ha Noi from the countryside. He had made the discovery of a lifetime. Later, when he worked in the city and could have the soup more often, it was mostly pho khong nguoi lai (only broth with rice noodle, without meat) because he was broke. On payday, Thang and his friends went to a pho stall and treated themselves to a full bowl.

Nguyen Bich Hang, owner of a famous chicken pho soup on No 38 Le Ngoc Han Street, has been selling the food for nearly 30 years. Many, many years ago, she made the important decision to spend a lot of money to learn how to prepare the soup at a famous shop in Ha Noi. She has not looked back since. Pho lovers, both Vietnamese and foreigners, come to enjoy her offering from 7am till 10pm.

Hang says she orders chickens twice a day, between 70-80kg each time, so that the meat is fresh. She boils the chickens, separates the meat, and puts the bones back into the broth. She never uses pork bones. The chicken must be weighed around 1.7-1.8kg after laying some eggs to ensure the best quality of meat for pho. It takes two hours to boil chickens and she has her own secret touches in the recipe.

Nguyen Thi Tien, a regular client of Hang since the latter set up shop, says : "I really enjoy the purity and aroma of the broth." Her customers' loyalty is a major motivation for Hang.

Pho spices and other ingredients are on the top of the list of things Vietnamese people buy when they have to stay abroad for a long time. So I cooked pho very often for guests in the UK, and one of whom was a Vietnamese woman who'd married a British man. She warmed the cockles of my heart when she said: "I feel like I am back home now, sitting on a small plastic chair on a pavement in Ha Noi's Old Quarter, smelling the fragrance of beef stock with cinnamon and coriander."

Later, after I returned to Viet Nam, she wrote to me, quoting her husband Colin as saying: "If Binh had not cooked pho for me, I would never have known such a dish exists on this earth." — VNS

Recipe for beef noodle soup

(From Hoa Sua School restaurant)

serves 10


  • Flank steak or rump steak 0.7kg
  • Ox bone 1.0kg
  • Rice noodles 1.5kg
  • Dried shallot 0.1kg
  • Fresh ginger 0.1kg
  • Onion 1
  • Green onion 0.15kg
  • Coriander and Vietnamese basil a bunch of each
  • Red chili 5
  • Lime 3
  • Star anise some
  • Black cardamom some
  • Cinnamon some sticks
  • A cloth bag
  • A roll of thick thread
  • Seasoning powder
  • Fish sauce 10 spoonfuls


  • Clean and dry ox bone and steak.
  • Marinate steak with ginger juice and seasoning powder. Tightly tie beef with thread.
  • Wash herbs. Vertically slice white parts of green onion; mince green parts. Cut coriander and basil into two or three parts.
  • Peel onion and thinly slice half.
  • Slice red chili.
  • Cut limes into wedges.


  • To make broth, bring bones and beef to a boil and add fish sauce to taste.
  • Char other half of onion with shallot and ginger.
  • Roast and crush star anise, black cardamom and cinnamon.
  • Put all ingredients into cloth bag and add to broth.
  • Get rid of the scum and simmer for 4 hours. The lower the heat, the less scum you have. Season to taste.
  • Remove beef after an hour boiled. After it cools, get rid of thread and thinly slice.
  • Put rice noodles into boiling water and dry just before serving.


  • Bring broth back to a boil.
  • Place rice noodles into a bowl with green onion, coriander, basil and sliced onion.
  • Top with sliced beef and ladle broth over the top.
  • Serve immediately with lime and chili to taste.

Recipe for chicken noodle soup

(From Hoa Sua School restaurant)

serves 10


  • Chicken fillet 0.7kg
  • Chicken bone 1.0kg
  • Rice noodles 1.5kg
  • Dried shallot 0.05kg
  • Fresh ginger 0.1kg
  • Onion 0.2kg
  • Green onion 0.2kg
  • Lime leaf a couple of leaves
  • Coriander and Vietnamese basil a bunch of each
  • Red chili 5 -Lime 3
  • Fish sauce 10 spoonfuls
  • Seasoning powder 10 spoonfuls
  • Cloth bag


  • Clean and dry chicken bones.
  • Wash herbs. Vertically slice white parts of green onion; mince green parts. Cut coriander and basil into two or three parts.
  • Thinly slice lime leaves, discarding stem.
  • Slice red chili.
  • Cut limes into wedges.


  • Fill a large stockpot with cold water and boil chicken bones until temperature reaches 80oC. Empty it, clean bones and bring fresh water to a boil. Add chicken fillet.
  • Char dried shallot and ginger. Peel and smash. Put in cloth bag and add to stockpot.
  • Char onion. Peel and add to broth.
  • Add fish sauce when broth is almost cooked.
  • Simmer for 4 hours. Season to taste.
  • Remove chicken fillet after boiling for 30 minutes. Let cool and slice thinly.
  • Put rice noodles into boiling water and dry just before serving.


  • Bring broth back to a boil.
  • Place rice noodles into a bowl with green onion, coriander, basil, julienned lime leaves and sliced onion.
  • Top with sliced chicken and ladle broth over the top.
  • Serve immediately with lime and chili to taste.

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