Ho Chi Minh City is famous for many amazing things but this bustling city wasn't built on an empty stomach. A warm bowl of Saigon noodle soup has been at the heart of daily life for centuries.
Vietnamese food is essentially homemade and the techniques to cook it have been honed through generations of passionate local people. When comparing cuisines it's immediately obvious that Asian recipes tend to shy away from highly processed ingredients.
A culture that is known for its healthy and delicious cuisine also has many dishes to choose from and it's difficult to know what you are really eating just from the name of the recipe. Vietnamese noodle soup includes an array of chicken, pork, and beef broth in addition to fish sauce soups and other seafood concoctions.
This guide will walk you through 11 0f the most popular Vietnamese soups, rich in both culture and flavor, and the best local places to enjoy them. But first, let's clear up some of the confusion behind these iconic recipes.
What is the difference between pho and noodle soup?
Phở is actually the name for the specific kind of noodle that is used and does not refer to the soup. Pho noodles are made from rice and are flat and thick, similar to the noodles in Thailand's national dish, 'Pad Thai'.
Are pho noodles bad for you?
The definitive answer is no. Fresh ingredients are used to drive up nutrition, beef delivers a protein boost, and the dish is rich in calories. That being said, portion size can vary in the city and an extremely large bowl of anything can be unhealthy.
Other types of noodle
The kind of noodle that's used in the dish is usually in the title. Like in the case above: pho noodles make the whole dish pho. Other styles of noodles could be used but then that's a different recipe and therefore a different dish. However, restaurants are always tweaking their recipe or being creative with other ingredients that are to hand. Here are the most common noodles you will encounter:
Bánh: This is essentially any noodle that is thicker or flatter in the case of pho. they can be made exclusively from rice or from a tapioca flour mix, the flour making the consistency chewier.
Bún: Meaning rice vermicelli, it is airy and light enough to enjoy in a refreshing breakfast soup. It is also seen in cold side-salads in Asian culture
Hủ tiếu: This term is more of a general word that can mean the thicker tapioca noodle or the thinner flatter variety used in pho.
Mì: These noodles originate from China and are made with either whole wheat or egg. They often come fresh and then braised in the soup. Restaurants will rarely use the dried and packaged version which is found in ramen.
What is the Vietnamese soup called?
The soups themselves are referred to in the second part of the title of the dish. Pho gà means pho and chicken, and pho bò means with beef, though the broth is largely kept the same in each recipe. A little confusing but it becomes easy to understand after a few bowls of the different concoctions. If you're not sure where to start, here are 11 of the best:
Though first originating in the north of Vietnam, this humble soup has become known worldwide for its elegant flavor and tantalizing appearance.
This dish starts life as a broth of beef stock cooked for several hours with spices that include star anise, whole cloves, cinnamon sticks, and coriander seeds. Flat rice noodles are braised in a pot of pho broth and absorb the fragrance before being served in a steamy bowl.
When served, thinly sliced and succulent pieces of raw beef are layered in the steamy hot soup and become cooked to perfection. Or ask for chicken and it is boiled first in the fragrant water to tenderize the meat and suck up all that lovely juice.
Popular toppings include bean sprouts, sliced lime, green onion, fresh chili, and sometimes even a dash of fish sauce. It's understandable if you want to stop reading now because you are too hungry to focus. So here are some of the best places to fix that craving with a steaming hot bowl of pho:
- Phở Tàu Bay - 433 Lý Thái Tổ, District 10
- Phở Dậu Cư - Hẻm 288 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, District 3
- Phở Hoà - 260C Pasteur, District 3
2. Bánh canh cua
Seafood enthusiasts should look out for the 'cua' variety of this soup as this simply means 'crab'. But what you'll get is much much more.
The broth is thick and rich in detail and the crab meat drips with decadence. The dish is often assembled with delightful extras such as crab meatballs, thick and juicy prawns, pork, quail egg. A little sprinkle of green onion on top completes the ensemble and the jazzy bright green color visually induces hunger.
In this seafood slurp-worthy dish, the noodles, 'Bánh' which means 'cake', are actually made from tapioca flour with a consistency much like Japanese udon noodles. This gives a slinky smooth mouthfeel in the otherwise thick and juicy water of the broth.
Here's where to go for the best of the best of this Saigon noodle favorite:
- Bánh canh cua Huỳnh Văn Bánh - 514/53 Huỳnh Văn Bánh, Phú Nhuận District
- Bánh canh cua Tôn Thất Đạm - Số 8, Tôn Thất Đạm, Nguyễn Thái Bình, District 1
- Hoàng Lan - 484 Vĩnh Viễn, District 10
- Bánh canh cua chợ Hòa Bình - 45 Bạch Vân, District 5
- Út Lệ - 204 Tô Hiến Thành, District 10
3. Bún mọc
The history of this soup can be traced all the way back to the village of Nhân Mục in Northern Vietnam and the recipe has stayed true to its heritage as it was traded further south.
Pork bones are slowly cooked in water and sugar to make a tasty base while minced pork meatballs provide the punch. The fragrant soup is served with raw vegetables such as sliced onion, mushrooms, and a side of lettuce. It's no wonder that Vietnamese food is one of the healthiest cuisines in the world!
Thin and delicate vermicelli are the noodles are used and the gentle taste of the soup makes for a refreshing meal that is a common breakfast choice for many Vietnamese people
Bún mọc is perfect for any meal of the day. Here is where it is served perfectly:
- Thanh Mai Chợ Bến Thanh - 14 Trương Định, Phường Bến Thành, District 1
- Bún mọc hẻm Trần Khắc Chân - 58 - 62 Trần Khắc Chân, District 1
4. Bún Bò Huế
From the quiet little citadel of Huế comes this explosive recipe bringing together the 5 fundamental tastes of the Vietnamese palette. Sweet, sour, salty, spicy and a dash of lime for bitter are delicately harmonized in a broth that was intended for the Vietnamese kings of the past. Huế being the old capital of an ancient Vietnamese culture, this dish is dripping with history.
Rice noodles accompany beef bones and beef shank that are boiled to tender perfection, while tofu-like cubes of congealed pig's blood provide a texture and taste sensation fit for the royal family. Raw veggies such as bean sprouts are always on side to freshen up your palate.
Old, perfected, and teeming with heritage, treat yourself like royalty with this rich beef broth recipe at the following locations:
- Đông Ba - 207B Nguyễn Văn Thủ, District 1
- Út Hưng - 6C Tú Xương, District 3
- Hạnh - 135 Bành Văn Trân, Tân Bình District
5. Bún mắm
Die-hard seafood fans will attest that bún mắm offers an out-of-this-world culinary experience down to its prized ingredient: fermented shrimp paste, known locally as mắm tôm. This word can strike fear in those who can't stand the taste but for the more decerning folk who grew up on this stuff then all taste buds will be ablaze with the taste complexity generated by this rich substance.
Do not attempt to try this ingredient outside of the soup as it would certainly overload your senses beyond repair. What it will do is provide a full-bodied, complex, and heady flavor.
The water of the broth is complemented with fresh shrimps, roast pork, and chunks of boiled eggplant. This is then balanced with cilantro, Thai basil, and fresh lettuce.
You will either love it or hate it but you have to try it. And like radioactive material, let the professionals handle it:
- Bún mắm cửa đông - 22 Đường Phan Bội Châu, Phường Bến Thành, District 1
- Bún mắm 44- 375 Lê Quang Định, Bình Thạnh District
6. Hủ tiếu nam vang
Though imported from Cambodia over a hundred years ago, Hủ tiếu nam vang is now firmly a signature Saigonese dish. It gets its name 'nam vang' from the phonetic pronunciation of Phnom Penh, the capital city of Khmer culture in Cambodia.
Pork bones are boiled in water to deliver a broth rich in natural sugar while pork mince, heart, and liver make up the substance of this soup. Minced garlic, celery, and bean sprouts keep it healthy and the majority of restaurants will add seafood such as shrimp to sweeten the deal.
Chewy rice and flour noodles complement the tender meat. It's not especially spicy but like in most Asian cuisine, you are free to add your own herbs and sauces to tweak the flavor in your favor.
When you're ready to chow down and experience some cultural cuisine of the ancient Khmer region check out these local Nha Hangs:
- Ba Hoàng - 48a Võ Văn Tần, District 3
- Thành Đạt - 34 Cô Bắc, District 1
7. Hủ tiếu bò viên
Similar to the nam vang variety, this noodle soup differs in the choice of meat and therefore the stock also. Ladles of beef broth come with steaming hot beef meatballs for a protein injection that many Vietnamese contend will fire-up your day with the energy of a young buffalo.
The meatballs of beef are not like the Western kind and are prepared differently. The meat is tenderized into a thick paste and mixed with herbs before being rolled into a ball, as opposed to Italian meatballs that stay quite chunky in texture.
Small and thin rice noodles balance the palate against the weighty flavor of the beef and the water of the broth is light and fragrant. Fresh chives, lettuce, and bean sprouts make the dish as healthy for the body as it is vibrant to the eyes.
Slurp your way through bowl after bowl of Hủ tiếu bò viên in various street food restaurants around the city but don't forget to try our favorites:
- Chú Tư Già - 40 Trần Quang Khải, District 1
- Trường Thạnh - 145/6 Nguyễn Thiện Thuật, District 3
8. Hủ tiếu bò kho
Comfort food to the max. Braised beef in rich gravy makes bò kho a warm hug in a bowl. On those cold late nights, bò kho can put fire in your belly after a frigid drive home. It's very similar to a beef stew in western cooking. Some Vietnamese families take great pride in their household recipe and everybody's mum has the best recipe. Beef bones are cooked for hours, while chunks of meat marinade in the sauce. Carrots are braised and the broth takes an orange tinge. Choose to add a Bánh mì as a tool for dipping and soak up all that sustenance.
Noodle style can vary from place to place. Ask for fresh egg noodles, though a rarity in most other Saigon recipes, they add a Chinese twist that goes so well with the other deep flavors.
Bean sprouts are served to quench a thirst for crunchiness. Roadside vendors simmer the soup for hours and home cooks can feed their family for days on a single batch that sits in its juices and marinades itself.
Bò kho recipes are exclusively non-seafood though home cooking is always pushing the limits of these soups by blending dishes and styles.
Get cozy with a bowl of the rich beef broth of Hủ tiếu bò kho in some of our favorite gems:
- Tròn - 706 Trường Sa, District 3
- Gánh - 29 Lô H Chung Cư Ngô Gia Tự, District 10
9. Bún riêu
Bún riêu has a sour flavor and is a cultural favorite in the summertime. In Saigon, a popular tweak to the basic recipe sees crab meat being boiled to make the stock. The shells are removed first and then ground and added back into the mix to add more seafood madness.
For a more decadent experience, a sausage of congealed pig's blood is an optional extra in some places. For the more vegetarian, fried tofu and a braised tomato are also common ingredients that you will encounter.
Viccimili rice noodles are commonly used for carbs and keep the dish light and airy in the face of the heavy crab meat broth.
Bún riêu is one of the more complicated homemade dishes, but the following restaurants are the best in the local business:
- Gánh chợ Bến Thành - 4 Phan Bội Châu, District 1
- Thu Nga - 64 Nguyễn Hữu Hào, District 4
- Bún riêu Cua Ốc Võ Văn Tần - 287/66 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, District 3
- Bún riêu hẻm Ông Tiên - Hẻm 96 Phan Đình Phùng, Phú Nhuận District
- Tư Lan - Vườn Chuối - 413 Vĩnh Viễn, District 10
10. Canh bún
Snails and crab join together in seafood harmony with turmeric, utilizing the salt, bitter and spicy pleasure centers of your brain. Acidity is sharpened with tomatoes and spinach is flash boiled in the broth before serving. Many side dishes include more salad items such as lemon, bean sprouts, and chili.
Mắm tôm, that explosive shrimp paste we talked about earlier, is also an additional side condiment for the brave and the taste professionals. Add this sparingly at first but once you acquire the taste, then prepare to revel in its seafood zest. It's not uncommon to see local people heaping spoons of shrimp paste into their bowl, or using it as a dipping sauce for chunks of meat.
Rice vermicelli sits in the water and soaks up the delicate flavorings ready to be slurped.
If you have the hunger for a dish that is exotic and eye-catching, then look no further than our recommended restaurants:
- Thiên Thanh - 232 Bắc Hải, Tân Bình District
- Cần - 115/47 Lê Văn Sỹ, Phú Nhuận District
11. Bún măng vịt
Duck and bamboo sprouts are key to the unique flavor of this rice noodle soup. The edible bamboo is thick and juicy after being first stir-fried then braised in the soup. Duck meat ensures the dish is sweet and fish sauce is an excellent side dish and that will add saltiness to the light broth. A little sliced ginger is thrown in the pot to deepen the recipe.
Vermicelli noodles keep the dish even lighter and fresher so it's not surprising to see Vietnamese locals slurp this up from morning to evening.
Our favorites spots for this fresh and healthy dish won't disappoint the decerning:
- Bún vịt Lê Văn Sỹ - 281/26/9 Lê Văn Sỹ, Tân Bình District
- Thu Nga - 108 Bình Quới, Bình Thạnh District
Can I change the taste? What can I add at the table?
You can absolutely add your own ingredients. As mentioned before, restaurants will offer a range of condiments for you to choose from.
Fish Sauce: A thin but pungent sauce that is made from fermented fish. It will pack a punch when tried individually but a few drops in the bowl will add saltiness without the strong seafood smells. A good fish sauce takes years of fermenting before it's packaged up and sent across the globe. Vietnam is famous for the manufacturing plants that extend across the coastline. A great place to go and visit this process in making is in the southern city of Can Tho.
Bean Sauce: Made from soybeans, this thick paste is akin to hoisin sauce from China. Use it to make your flavoring darker and bolder. It is commonly used in Pho.
Chili Sauce: The standard Vietnamese chili sauce is sweet, tangy, and not too hot. Some places will offer Siracha but others use more of the homegrown Vietnamese variant.
Veggies and Others
Fresh Chilies: Always available on request, the typical chili of the Saigon restaurant is bird's eye. Packing a heat that can blow your head off if the quantity added is a little overzealous
Sliced Lime: Squeeze the juices of this fruit on the top of your bowl and stir to give a tangy kick. Lime is a great taste enhancer that doesn't add any extra fat or calories and reduces the need for salt.
Bean sprouts: Feel free to dump these in your soup from the get-go. There is always more where they came from.
Pickled garlic: Sliced garlic and a little sugar is pickled in vinegar. Sometimes a little chili is added and sometimes the mixture is 50-50. Be careful of the chili variety as the heat only becomes more emboldened as time goes on.
Satay: Essentially a slightly processed form of fresh chili seeds, this condiment is a sure-fire way to boost the heat. A great choice for all the chili-heads out there.
To round up
As you can see from the fresh ingredients that make up these recipes, everyday Vietnamese dishes are some of the healthiest in the world. With all these options it's possible to treat yourself to a diet of silky smooth noodles in rich bowls of nutritious broth day-in-day-out.
The best way to fully understand Vietnamese cuisine is to experience it firsthand. Only then can you comprehend the homemade masterpieces that put Vietnam on the map. Simple street vendors will cook the stock in the early hours of the day, marinating in its juices, and waiting to be ladled in the lunchtime rush.
A large pot brimming with Saigon soup is waiting around every corner in this bustling and awesome city. So get out there and don't forget to try our recommendations for the most delicious noodle experiences.