In 2016, I was able to combine my two favorite types of tours, walking tours and food tours, into one enjoyable walking tour sampling street food in Hà Nôi, Socialist Republic of Vietnam (Hanoi). The tour lasted three hours and made stops at several local street food establishments. The main attraction for me was pho, a dish I’d never tried. the famous Vietnamese soup that usually consists of bone broth, spices, herbs, noodles, and thinly sliced meat.
The walking tour was a small group affair – only about 12 tourists and an English-speaking guide. We met at the tour office at 19:00. As we set out on foot, the guide provided some useful information about pho and the places we would visit.
History of Pho
Food historians say Pho, pronouced like duh, originated in Nam Dinh province in northern Vietnam, in the late 1800s when the French colonized Vietnam. The word “pho,” it is believed, is derived from the French “pot au feu,” a beef stew the French brought to Vietnam. The northern Vietnamese used beef parts and bones the French didn’t want and added local herbs and sauces.
Pho comes in two basic variations. There is the original version prepared in the north. It is called “pho bac.” The version that is popular in the south is called “pho nam.” That version developed when people from the north moved south after 1954 when the north became a communist country.
Differences Between Pho Bac and Pho Nam
The two types of pho are distinguished by the noodles, broth, sauces, meat, and toppings. Generally speaking, northern pho features a clear and mild broth, and noodles are wider than in the south. Pho bac is now usually made with chicken or thinly sliced beef and is topped with generous amounts of green onions.
Pho nam from the south uses thinner noodles and is usually made with beef. It is slightly sweeter and bolder than pho bac and is flavored with with lime, hoisin sauce, chilli sauce and fresh sliced chillies. It is usually topped with bean sprouts and flavored with a variety of herbs, including basil and coriander. Both versions use rice noodles and are gluten free.
As Vietnamese people have settled in other countries, the basic ingredients of pho were retained, but the recipes were adapted to suit whatever ingredients were available locally and include seafood and pork versions. Traditionalists may not consider those variations to be pho in the strict sense.
Learning about street food on the tour was great. Eating it was even better. Here are photos from the tour.
I’ll start with what I thought was the worst part of eating street food in Vietnam – those damn tiny stools. Many “old fart” Westerners, like me, have a hard time siting that low to the ground.
But it is better than sitting on the ground. And all of the places we visited had tables. Some street food vendors only offer chairs.
We tried a variety of dishes. Spring rolls for starters.
Eating pho was another challenge. It requires skill that I’m still developing. It seems impossible but Vietnamese can eat pho with one hand.
Pho bac with chicken was delicious.
In addition to pho, I tried a couple of versions of what I believe is a dish called bún riêu. The soups are prepared with crab paste and are served with vermicelli noodles and various toppings such as crab meat, pork, tofu, and tomatoes.
Later in Ho Chi Minh City I tried pho nam. I made it myself from ingredients on the buffet at the Park Hyatt Saigon. I’m sure the Vietnamese would do a better job. Still, my version tasted good.
This is a rice dumpling filled with some type of meat.
In 2017, Anthny Bourdain had lunch with former President Obama in a small restaurant in Hanoi. It made for a terrific episode of his show. Below is a Bourdain video explaining his love of street food in Hanoi. I wish Bourdain was still with us and exploring more parts unknown.
If you would like to try Hanoi street food, a tour serves as a good introduction. If you prefer, ask for recommendations from your hotel, or try your luck with any place that looks good. Street food walking tours in Hanoi are fun and a great bargain. Prices currently range from $20 to $40 depending on the number in your group and include a number of tastings and beverages that vary depending on the tour.