In search of the best Pho Bo in Vietnam

Question: Are you a backpacker, or a flashpacker?

I have to say I will be the latter one. I am definitely not in the “young” age group anymore. (“Shut up, Yas!”) Just the thought of communal shower room terrifies me. Having said that, I absolutely enjoyed the communal hot spa at the capsule hotel in Japan though. Then the airfare, isn’t AirAsia the greatest thing ever invented?! But of course there is a downside of using budget airline. During my four week trip, I’ve flew 14 times! Yes 14! Including 6 times that I totally felt like in groundhog days, flying in and out from Kuala Lumpur to each country repetitively. Well I just consider it as downtime and recharged myself before the next haul of my journey. Needless to say I had such a great time visiting SE Asia, and the food! The glorious food! So let’s give Malaysia a break, and start on my whirlwind side trip.

First stop – VIETNAM!

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After a short two hours flight, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City alone… well not quite. In the last minute, my brother-in-law (Let’s call him Lee) has decided to tag along and wants to find out what does a foodblogger’s gastronomical journey entail. As soon as we dropped off our backpacks at Nguyen Khang Hotel, a family-run budget hotel tucked behind the busy backpackers Pham Ngu Lao in District 1 , we set off immediately to look for breakfast and the only thing I have in mind – Phở.

On your first morning get up early, take a deep lungful of lead at a busy intersection, and get it out of your system.

I couldn’t agree more with Travefish‘s wise advice in their Saigon travel guide. But as a food lover, I’ll say down a bowl of pho immediately once you set foot in Vietnam definitely sounds more appetising. I am such a noob, because all this time I’ve been pronouncing Pho as “Fo”. My mistake was soon corrected by my brother before I arriving in Vietnam. And in no time, I was ordering this delicious Vietnamese national beef noodle dish like a “pho-pro”. Soon it has become an obsession and I set myself a mission to hunt down the best bowl of pho throughout our journey. Oh, and by the way, Pho is pronounced as “Fur”. If you still pronouncing it as “Fo”, I don’t want to be friend with you! :D (*joking*) Oh what a “Fur-snob” I have become…

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Our first bowl of Pho is at Pho Quynh restaurant. The friendly staff at our hotel suggested this place as she thinks the serving is much bigger than the one at Pho 24. Bigger portion eh? I think she is trying to tell me something. *~evil stare back at her* Pho Quynh has several restaurants scattered around Saigon and of course the closest Pho Quynh will be the one in a big bright yellow building in Pham Ngu Lao. Pho Quynh apparently is famous for its Pho Bo Kho, a tomatoes soup base beef stew with pho noodles. I decided to start from basic for my very first meal in Vietnam, and ordered a Pho Bo Dac Biet. This “special” pho beef noodle dish comes with the lot, a generous portion of raw beef slices heavily covered in black pepper is slow cooked in hot broth, beef tendons bobbing around in the bowl of pho noodles.

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Plates of garnishes and sauces are spread over the table and I had a quick taste of the soup (“Yep, is a keeper!”), before I have my bowl of pho covered in holy basil, Chinese coriander, beansprouts, green chilies; a squeeze of lime juice, hoisin sauce and Sriracha as the final touch. The green chilies are quite something, they are extremely hot despite its innocent light green outlook. I soon opt them out for the next many phos to come. The beef slices are tender on each bite and the soft gelatinous tendons simply melt in the mouth. The Vietnamese rice noodle is firmer and not as smooth as Chinese version, but it doesn’t stop me loving my very first bowl of Pho Bo Dac Biet in Saigon. The prices are certainly aimed towards tourists as the bowl of pho costs 40,000VND, and with two coffees, our bill comes to a total of 100,000VND.

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The very next morning, we decided to look for a place for pho that is more low key, somewhere locals can just grab a stool and sit down with their arms rested on their knees and start slurping up a bowl of hot noodle soup. We don’t have to look far and as soon as we spotted a granny across the street from our hotel, slicing the most beautiful beef brisket behind the glass display in a tiny dingy shop, we know immediately that we are in for a treat. A few locals outside are sweating over a bowl of hot pho is always a good sign. The granny seems to know what we are looking for, quickly ushered us to sit down on the baby stools outside. Being a giant asian at 6’2″ tall and over 200lbs, sitting on a flimsy tight fit plastic stool; it is a death defying circus act and disasters bound to happen in any second.

Our decisions to eat here have not disappoint. The bowl of Pho Bo is filled to the brim with a dark soup broth, topped with an abundance of marinated raw beef, two slices of beef briskets on each side, chopped scallions and shallot shoots whereas the noodles are totally buried underneath. My nose is first hit with the aromatic soup stock as soon as they brought out the dishes to our table. The soup is so rich and robust from hours of boiling using pork bones, as I can clearly see tiny lumps of pork fat goodness are still floating on the surface. A quick sip of the soup is telling me all the extra sauces are not needed and only garnished with some holy basil and chinese coriander. The beef is also in darker colour and definitely more flavoursome than the normal raw beef slices.

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We also asked for the Vietnamese coffee to go with our meal, but soon realised our noodle-granny doesn’t serve drinks but only the complimentary cold chinese tea. However, she volunteered to order the coffee for us from the drink stand in the alley next to the shop. Unfortunately my very small handful of vocabulary in Vietnamese had our friendly granny confused and ordered the hot coffee (Cà phê sữa nóng) for us instead of the cold one (cà phê sữa đá). The coffee lady soon comes back holding two tall glasses with silver pots on top, and a jug of condensed milk. The Vietnamese coffee is definitely not for the impatient, it takes about 10 minutes for the coffee to drip from the pot into the glass to form an inch thick of concentrated espresso. When this strong vanilla flavoured coffee touches your lips, you will know instantly it is well worth the wait. This time, our meal including two bowls of pho bo, and two coffees only come to 60,000VND. So far, noodle-granny is ranked no. 1 in my food diary as the best pho in Vietnam.

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The pho hunt continues in the center of Vietnam — Hue, where used to be the royal imperial capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty back in 18th century. The hotel we stayed at in the backpackers area is also conveniently named Pham Ngu Lao street, clustered with hotels and mid-range restaurants catered for tourists without venturing too far. We settled at a restaurant named USHI, but this time only Lee is ready for another dose of pho bo while I am happy to try some other special local dishes.

The mi hoac pho voi bo dish ordered is actually served in instant yellow noodle instead of the common rice noodle. There is no garnishes on the side, as the dish is already topped with beef stew, vegetables and tomato chunks. I assume this is perhaps the Hue version of the pho bo, but my gut feeling is telling me this is a totally different noodle dish all together. Nevertheless, it looks very appetising and Lee assured me it tasted just as good. At 25,000VND, it is reasonable priced.

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Then our Pho Bo hunt goes all down hill from here. Most of the Pho Bo we’ve tasted in Hue and Hoi An are nothing special but just another staple bowl of noodle soup. Have to say the one I am most unimpressed with was at Khanh Hoa II restaurant in Hoi An. The whole dish looks rather uninviting with only a few beef strips resting on a huge amount of noodle, soaked in a questionable orange tint clear soup stock; even the chopped shallots on top are scarce. Again, no side garnishes given. This bowl of pho bo in my opinion is 20,000VND down the drain wasted.

On the last day before Lee flying back to Malaysia while I continue the rest of the journey alone, we decided to hit the noodle-granny shop at Pham Ngu Lao in Saigon for that best bowl of Pho Bo one last time. As we walked in, it is like seeing an old friend again. It was so embarrassing as she quickly asked a girl who is sitting outside and still eating her bowl of pho to move and share a table inside, so she can accommodate us.

Overall, through my Pho hunting experience, the best ones are still the ones from the noodle shops and noodle stands on the side streets where locals hang out. And you knew I am going to say that! But hey, mingle with the locals over a bowl of pho bo is half of the fun! But according to Killian Fox‘s the 50 best foods in the world and where to eat them at The Observer, the best place to eat Pho is at Pho 24 restaurant in Vietnam. Mmm… I think a lot of people will not agree to that. There are Pho 24 restaurants in Sydney, Korea, Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia, but why the best pho has to be at Pho 24 in Vietnam? And if you really want the best bowl of pho in Vietnam, I can guarantee you it is definitely not from the Pho 24 restaurant.

Now be honest, do you always call it “Fur” or you are a noob like me and call it “Fo”?

Address of restaurants I've visited:

Pho Quynh
323 Pham Ngu Lao, District 1
Saigon, Vietnam.
T: (08) 836 8515
Directions: Right at the corner of Pham Ngu Lao & Cong Quynh,
in a big bright yellow building

Noodle Granny (No shop name)
Cong Quynh, District 1
Saigon, Vietnam.
Directions: Between Pham Ngu Lao & Bui Vien, opposite of Volcano Bar

USHI restaurant
42 Pham Ngu Lao Steet
Hue, Vietnam
P: 054 3821143

Khanh Hoa II Restaurant
88. Ba Trieu Street,
Hoi An, Vietnam
P: 051 0917765
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