So... What Else Besides Pho?

food - Vietnam: July 30, 2018

Pho is usually the first thing that comes to mind when Vietnamese cuisine is mentioned. However, pho is to Vietnam what pasta is to Italy, pad thai is to Thailand and fish and chips is to England. Yes, they are the most widely-exported dishes from their respective countries but certainly not the only ones you can find there.

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This article is all about the ones in the shadows, the dishes you may have heard of but haven’t had a chance to try. Or perhaps you’ve tried them all and possibly even rate them higher than pho.

Regardless, of your experience level now is the time to dig in and slurp up those noodles with gusto.

The Different Types of Noodles

Vietnamese noodles usually come in two forms, tuoi (fresh) and kho (dried). They are also categorised by the ingredients they are made from. Two of the most common noodles in Vietnam are bun, which is made from rice flour, and mi, made from wheat flour.

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Other types of noodles you can find include banh canh, which look a lot like Japanese udon and are made from rice or tapioca flour, and mien, which are made from canna starch and are known as cellophane or glass noodles in English.

Now that you have a slightly better understanding of the naming conventions, let’s dive into the rich, savoury goodness of noodle soup dishes.

Hu Tieu Nam Vang

This dish, which comes in both soupy and dry versions, is one of Saigon’s most popular offerings. Originally created by Teochew Chinese migrants in Cambodia, hu tieu nam vang is made up of thin rice noodles served in a broth made of pork stock and topped with minced pork, pork slices and shrimp. You can find this dish anywhere from dedicated restaurants to street vendors all over Saigon.

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Bun Bo Hue

Depending on who you ask, this dish is known as the best alternative to pho, with some (like me) preferring this over the former. Bun bo hue is a beef noodle dish that originated in Hue. It is made up of bun, served in a broth made of beef and lemongrass and usually topped up with slices of beef, tendon, crab balls and in some places, congealed pig’s blood.

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Bun Rieu

Known for its red tamarind-based broth and its unique taste, bun rieu is a rice vermicelli soup that’s served with meat, tofu and tomatoes. The three most common variants of this dish are bun rieu cua (crab), bun rieu ca (fish) and bun rieu oc (snail).

If you are living in Saigon, you can find really good versions of this dish at Bun Rieu Nha.

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Banh Canh

This dish is more of a sub-category rather than a dish on its own. It’s made up of udon-like noodles and there are many variants of this dish featuring different key ingredients. The most common version of this dish you can find in Saigon is banh canh cua, which consists of a thick broth and a generous dose of crab meat.

If Vietnamese food were Pokemon, then banh canh da cua Hai Phong in the below video would probably be Mew, the rarest of them all. Only found in Hai Phong City, the noodles are red in colour, and the dish is a specialty there. So head down to Hai Phong if you really want to “catch em all”.

Video source: Helen's Recipes (Vietnamese Food)

Mien Luon

If you ever find yourself in Nghe An province, you have just walked right into the best place in Vietnam to find dishes made of eel. Mien luon is glass noodles served with fresh or fried eel. The broth is made of eel bones and ginger and this dish has a slightly sweet taste.

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Bun Mam

As far as ingredients go, there are many different combinations that go into a bowl of bun mam. From shrimp, pork belly to catfish, there isn’t really a clear standard recipe for this dish but what is consistent among all variants, is the broth itself.

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Made of fermented fish or shrimp paste, and depending on who you ask, it could fall anywhere on a scale of “I will never go anywhere near this thing again” to “the best umami experience in my life”.

In other words, it’s an acquired taste especially to foreigners but once it’s acquired, there’s no turning back.

Bun Oc

Snails are a pretty big deal in Vietnam and you can find many dishes featuring these tasty shelled gastropods.

Bun Oc is a simple tomato-based broth with rice vermicelli featuring chewy chunks of snails and topped with scallions. It’s another common offering across Saigon from restaurants to hole-in-the-wall establishments around the city.

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Bo Kho

Although not really a soup dish, bo kho is usually commonly found in places that also sell pho. The only difference is that bo kho is essentially a stew and goes really well with either bun or a baguette.

For those who like their noodles dry, these are some of the more popular dishes that you can find around the country.

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Mi Vit Tiem

Translated to yellow noodle soup with roasted duck and Chinese broccoli, mi vit tiem can be found in many parts of Saigon and Hanoi. The noodles in this dish are made from wheat flour and eggs, also known as egg noodles. This type of noodle is commonly found in Chinese cuisine across Southeast Asia and Taiwan.

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This dish threads the thin line between dry and soup because it depends on where you go. Usually, it’s served dry, although some establishments add a small amount of broth to it.

Bun Dau Mam Tom

Just like bun mam, this is a highly-contentious entry, especially for foreigners with a very sensitive sense of smell. Bun dau mam tom includes fermented shrimp paste. Here it is served as a dip, together with pressed rice vermicelli, fried tofu and meat.

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Bun Thit Nuong

If you deconstruct a banh mi and replace the baguette with bun, you get bun thit nuong. This is a cold dish that consists of noodles with grilled pork, pickles, scallions and goes really well with fish sauce mixed into the bowl.

Speaking of fish sauce…

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Bun Cha

One of the most popular dishes to originate from Hanoi, and made especially popular by former US President Barack Obama, this dish is served with a plate of rice vermicelli, grilled pork, vegetables and a bowl of fish sauce which is used as a dip.

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A common add-on to both these dishes are slices of deep-fried spring rolls, which will provide a savoury and crunchy experience to your already delicious meal.

Hu Tieu Xao/Kho

The stir-fried dry variants of hu tieu, the difference between these two is that hu tieu kho is usually stir-fried with sauce whereas the hu tieu xao is just a clean stir-fry with the ingredients.

By ingredients, it can be anything from beef to seafood, depending on the establishment you’re at. This is one of the most versatile noodle dishes in Vietnamese cuisine and is served up by plenty of street vendors.

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Mi Kho/Mi Goi

Another versatile pair, mi kho is stir-fried egg noodles and mi goi is stir-fried instant noodles. Both these dishes are also prepared with a variety of ingredients from chicken to beef and seafood.

Mi goi xao bo (stir-fried instant noodles with beef) is commonly found in most late-night street stalls and is an excellent choice for supper.

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Mi Quang

A signature dish from Quang Nam province, this dish consists of yellow wheat flour noodles served with various meats and herbs and usually contains a very small amount of strong flavoured broth.

The noodles are made with turmeric, giving it its yellowish hue and are usually served with peanuts and toasted sesame rice crackers.

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With all these excellent alternatives to pho, now you can walk into a Vietnamese restaurant anywhere in the world with confidence. It’s time to take the less-trodden path by indulging in any of these dishes which are still largely unknown outside the country, but passionately devoured by Vietnamese and foreigners alike in Vietnam.

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