Before our trip to Vietnam, we were not especially familiar with Vietnamese cuisine. We knew that we liked it, but could not name very many dishes, regional styles, or preparations. We did know one thing, though: We love Vietnamese phở. And we would not waste the opportunity to gorge on it.
For those not familiar, phở is a Vietnamese noodle soup, made with a (typically) beef-based broth, rice noodles (called bánh phở), various herbs, spices, hot sauces, and meat (also typically beef, sliced, shaved, and/or ground). We love it because the broths are light and complex, and pho makes heavy use of coriander and lime. It is served with a generous side of fresh vegetables which can be dipped into the broth. We knew that it is very popular in Vietnam, but were pleasantly surprised to learn just how widely available it really is. Read: it’s everywhere.
Traveling through the country, we learned about and tasted 3 distinct regional varieties: North/Hà Nội, Central/Huế, and South/Sài Gòn. In Huế, the famous dish is not actually phở, but a related noodle soup called bún bò. Bún, referring to the rice noodle which is thinner and more round than bánh phở, which is flat. Bò means beef.
We tried 13 noodle dishes from 11 restaurants in 14 days. Below you can find information about the shops we visited and what we thought. But before that, let us return to the first point, and share that Vietnamese cuisine really was one of the major highlights of our trip so far. The quality, variety, and focus on regional/local ingredients can stack up to any. We’re looking forward to learning and tasting more !
➣Hạ Long city #1 - Thanh Cong
We needed a quick lunch before boarding the bus to our boat at Hạ Long bay, so lucky for us that there was a delicious smell emanating from the roadside stall behind the bus stop. With no English menu at Thanh Cong, we had to go off-menu for our order, so we pointed at the packaged rice noodles, the beef behind the counter, and successfully conveyed what we wanted to eat.
The bún was served in a thick broth that included diced tomatoes and was heavy on the spice. The flavors were strong and the beef cooked in the piping hot broth after being served. Running out of time, we packed it in to boxes and finished our delicious noodles on the bus.
Beer pair: N/A
➣Hạ Long city #2 - Phúc Khái
Before our bus to Hà Nội, we got our first proper phở of the trip. We stumbled on to this restaurant, and were very glad we did - Phúc Khái remains Ayumi's favorite noodle of the trip.
Phúc Khái goes heavy on the coriander and lime. The broth was strong and balanced, not very fatty but packed with flavor. The right amount of undercooked sliced beef was served on top, and we let the broth finish the job.
Beer pair: Bia Hà Nội
➣Hà Nội #1 - Phở Xào Phú Mỹ
For our first lunch in Hà Nội, we simply made a left from our hotel and walked down the street until we came across a crowded phở shop. We took a couple chairs at a sidewalk communal table at Phở Xào Phú Mỹ, seated across from a group of friendly Hà Nội residents who provided guidance. They explained that the restaurant offered 2 dishes: first, a classic-style soup, and second, a rice noodle stir-fry. Naturally, we ordered both to share.
For the soup, the beef-based broth was definitely the heaviest that we tasted, akin to a tonkotsu style ramen broth. It also came loaded with sliced and shaved beef, and plenty of veggies. This was Joshua's favorite phở. The stir-fry was also delicious, a heaping pile of sliced beef atop a heaping pile of fried noodles, washed down with cold beer.
Beer pair: Saigon Special
➣Hà Nội #2 - Phở 10 Lý Quốc Sư
Day 2 in Hà Nội, more phở for lunch. Our research revealed that this local chain was a must for all first-time visitors to Hà Nội. Crowded with visitors and locals alike, we again sat down at a communal table and followed the lead of the couple seated across. They had ordered a side of something fried, but that's about all we knew. It turned out to be fried bread, which was dipped in to the light broth and eaten with chopsticks.
The striking thing about this restaurant, aside from the light and delicious soup, was the organization. Definitely the cleanest and most organized of the phở restaurants we would visit. The staff even had uniforms - bright orange polo shirts with the restaurant name printed prominently on the back. With 6 months of traveling to go, we didn't need more t-shirts, but please pick one up for us if you happen to go !
Beer pair: Bia Hà Nội
➣Phong Nha #1 - Thang Nhung
Arriving by bicycle on a hot, sunny day meant that by the time our food arrived, we were famished. Thang Nhung was recommended to us by our host at the homestay as the "best phở in the village" and we'd like to pass the recommendation on.
The broth was on the spicy side, and it was heavy on the scallion, but this is just what we needed to rejuvenate for the afternoon.
Beer pair: Bia Saigon
➣Huế #1 - restaurant unknown
We arrived to Huế tired, but very hungry. So we ventured out of the home stay to look for our first bowl of bún bò, and it did not take long to find. The neighborhood main street was lined up and down with shops selling the famed dish.
As expected, the noodles were longer and thinner than found in traditional Vietnamese phở. This particular broth was also spicy - we would find that to be the norm. Overall, this small street stall in a quiet residential neighborhood offered a nice introduction to bún bò Huế.
Beer pair: N/A
➣Huế #2 - Đông Ba market stall
Đông Ba market is the central market in Huế, located along the Perfume River. You can find a wide array of goods, fruits, and spices on offer, but we were interested only in the bún bò Huế available in every corner of the market.
We settled on a stall more or less at random - the shopkeeper knew exactly what we were after. Again the broth was spicy, the beef fatty. We shared one bowl, which was served very quickly and cost us less than $1. But we saved our appetites to try some other options that afternoon.
Beer pair: N/A
➣Huế #3 - Chính Gốc
Our research into the best bún bò Huế led us out of the city center, towards the main train station. We arrived and found a dilemma. There were two restaurants both hawking bún bò Huế at the address. The only solution ? Try them both.
Chính Gốc offered a light and nice broth, little bit spicy. We loaded up with bean sprouts and enjoyed. It turns out that this was not the famous restaurant we were seeking, but probably a copycat with a well-picked location. Our final bún bò Huế of the day would be the highlight.
Beer pair: no photo evidence
➣Huế #4 - Bà Xuân
As mentioned above, we did eventually realize that Bà Xuân was the famous shop we had researched about, and it did not disappoint. This was by far and away the best bún bò that we tried.
The soup was complex, and the ground fish meatballs were light and tasty. We paired it with Huda, a local brew. This was the classic dish we were after, and we recommend anyone visiting to Huế to give it a try.
Beer pair: Huda
➣Hội An #1, #2 - Phan Ngô
Our first breakfast in Hội An featured a bowl phở (Ayumi's order) and a bowl of cao lầu, one of Hội An's signature noodle dishes (Joshua's order).
The phở was very sweet, with a decidedly homemade flavor.
Cao lầu is made with chewy wheat noodles, sliced chashu pork, and local greens, alongside a tangy sauce. The sauce is poured over the noodles, and eaten with chopsticks. This single dish illustrates the many influences, particularly Chinese, that have infiltrated Hội An over the years as a port city.
Beer pair: N/A
➣Hội An ##3 - Phan Ngô
For breakfast the following day, we had to try the other local noodle dish, this one called mì quảng. Short, chewy, yellow noodles were served below a large bed of greens and roasted shrimp - actually as much a salad as a noodle dish. Another delicious addition to our growing knowledge of Vietnamese regional dishes.
Beer pair: N/A
➣Sài Gòn #1 - Phở Cao Vân
Our final noodle in Vietnam was to be in Southern city of Sài Gòn. Phở Cao Vân is an old shop dating back almost 100 years, and offers a great introduction to the Southern style. Lots of lime, several varieties of beef, and a plethora of local greens including some new flavors like mint. This was both Ayumi and Joshua's second favorite phở of the trip.