10 Delicious Soups in Vietnam that aren’t Pho
Pho-get About It
Everyone knows about the Vietnamese beef noodle soup phở. Vietnamese restaurants around the world have it on their menu. Pho is good. Sometimes it’s great. But there are plenty of other delicious bowls of broth in Vietnam. A lot of them won’t show up on a Vietnamese menu overseas. I suspect some may not even be considered edible to someone that hasn’t grown up with the particular flavors, and isn’t open-minded enough to really give it a chance, but I insist you try these if you get the opportunity. You might find a new favorite Vietnamese soup. I know I have.
These are my top ten soups in Vietnam. If pho was on the list, it would probably sit somewhere around #7. I had to seriously think about this list for a long time. There were some fights. For example, bún bò Huế took serious offense to being ranked so low. It stormed out of the room and cháo, being the most empathetic soup in Vietnam, went after it. Tears were shed, and I seriously considered not publishing this article, but in the end bun bo Hue said it was the right thing to do (bun bo Hue secretly hates pho).
PS. I hope you appreciate the fact that this isn’t one of those annoying slideshow articles. #SlideShowMoreLikeSlideBlow
#10 Bún Mắm – Fermented Fish Soup
If this soup was music it would be funk. The fermented fish or shrimp paste used to make the broth gives it a very umami taste that isn’t for everyone. You can reduce the strong flavor by squeezing in some lime juice or adding some chili paste. The soup is commonly served with a tamarind dip that is very sweet and helps to balance the flavors. Search the murky broth and you’ll likely find seafood like shrimp, squid, and fish, as well as some thick vermicelli noodles.
#9 Canh Chua – Tamarind Broth Soup
Although the name literally means sour soup, I find this dish to be more sweet than sour. At any rate, there is a tang to canh chua that you won’t get with anything else on the list. This is because of the tamarind infused broth, along with chunks of tomato and pineapple. Elephant ear stalks are often included because they soak in the delicious flavors. Usually, the protein is fish, but it’s also possible to get pork and shrimp versions. Surprisingly, canh chua doesn’t contain noodles. It’s usually served with rice that you can dip by the spoonful into the broth.
#8 Bún Bò Huế – Hue-style Beef Noodle Soup
This is probably the second most popular soup in Vietnam. Many pho places will also serve bun bo Hue, but the two soups are very different. It’s spicier than pho. There is a lemongrass flavor that pho doesn’t have. The noodles in bun bo Hue are much thicker (and slipperier). Along with slices of beef, you’ll likely get some pork in your soup — most often slices of Vietnamese pork loaf (cha lua). There may also be some congealed pork blood, which is much more delicious than it sounds. This soup originated in the former capital of Vietnam, Hue. Get a bowl of it there for authenticity-sake.
#7 Bún Riêu – Crab Noodle Soup
This might sound a little horrific… Take a bunch of freshwater crabs. Smash them to bits. Strain their juices into a boiling pot of water. Viola! You have a delicious broth for bun rieu. A lot of the bun rieu I’ve had doesn’t even have crab meat in it. Only the broth is made with crab. Pork is usually the main protein. Tomatoes are the underrated co-star that add a nice tang to the dish. If you find this in an overseas Vietnamese restaurant it won’t likely be authentic, so be sure to try it on your next trip to Vietnam.
#6 Cháo – Rice Porridge Soup
Perhaps you know this dish as congee. It’s basically rice boiled in water for a long time. Versions of it are available all over Asia. Most of them are pretty similar, but there are some unique flavors in some of Vietnam’s chao. Specifically, the use of pandan leaves to add a subtle fragrance. Chao is the soup you eat when you’re feeling sick. There are many different versions of it, but probably the most popular version in Vietnam is cháo lòng. It contains everything from intestines to heart. It’s known to be a blue collar worker’s breakfast — probably because it is a very inexpensive. Chao long is far from my favorite version of chao though. I much prefer chicken, beef, seafood, or duck chao.
#5 Bò Kho – Vietnamese Beef Stew
Bo kho is chunks of beef cooked for a long time in a broth that includes cinnamon, lemongrass, star anise, ginger, and more. Meat-eaters across the world will like bo kho. It can be served with noodles, or with a small baguette that begs to be dipped. When bo kho is done right, with giant hunks of lean tender beef and not too much oil, it’s a thing of magic.
#4 Hủ Tiếu – Pork and Noodle Soup
It’s difficult to describe hu tieu. Mainly because it’s so varied. The soup originated in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. The large Khmer population in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta popularized the dish in Vietnam. Over the years, new versions of it have been created. Sometimes this is specified on the menu. For example, hu tieu My Tho is the version from the city My Tho, which tends to have slices of pork feet in it. If the recipe is served similar to the original Phnom Penh version, it will often be called hu tieu Nam Vang (Nam Vang is Phnom Penh in Vietnamese). This version is usually a hodgepodge of seafood and pork. All versions will have a pork-based garlicky broth and rice noodles. One of my favorite kinds though is hu tieu hoanh thanh. Hoanh thanh is what it sounds like: wantons. Pork-filled pillows that will cheer up even Snow White’s grumpiest dwarf — which, not knowing the dwarves personally I’m going to have to guess… maybe Grumpy?
#3 Bánh Canh – Thick Noodle Soup
Banh canh is all about the noodles! Banh is a much-used Vietnamese word that roughly translates to cake. Banh mi (bread) literally means wheat cake. Banh can be used to describe types of pancakes, dumplings, cookies, even balls of rice. In this case, it’s used to describe the type of noodle in the soup (canh). The thick noodles are made with tapioca flour (sometimes cut with rice flour). The soup itself can vary depending on what area of Vietnam you are from, but fish seems to be most widely used. If you don’t like fish, watch for pork, crab, and shrimp versions. Like I said, it’s all about the noodles, so try and find a place that makes them fresh. This might be hard to tell initially, but you’ll definitely taste the difference.
#2 Mì Quảng – Quang-Style Noodles
Some may argue that this is a noodle dish and the broth is really more of a sauce. I guess it depends on who’s serving it, and how much liquid is in the bowl. The first thing to note about mi quang is the large rice noodles that resemble egg noodles. They are made with turmeric. Which adds a nice flavor and makes them slightly denser. The noodles are places in a broth (which also has turmeric in it) with meat (pork, beef, or chicken) and usually 1 shrimp and 1 quail’s egg. Hungry for it already? Well, we are just getting started here. Peanuts are sprinkled on top, which needless to say is totally awesome. More crunch is added with the crispy rice paper that can be broken up and dropped in the bowl. Herbs like mint add flavor, and vegetables like lettuce make it healthier. I love this stuff. When I eat it, I have to close my eyes or my senses will malfunction.
#1 Bún Mộc – Pork and Mushroom Meatball Soup
Pork. The most delicious of all the meats. Yes, the BEST piece of beef is better than the best piece of pork, but overall pork is better. I mean – bacon, ham, pulled pork, tenderloin, pork chops, pork sausage – c’mon! Bun moc is a pork broth with hunks of pork in it. The star is the little pork and mushroom meatballs, but the cha lua, the slices of trotter, the pork ribs, the deep-fried chunks of pork skin! These make up the delicious ensemble. I live 100 meters from an amazing bun moc place. Perhaps I’m spoiled with my bun moc, but I can’t not put it at number 1. It would be a slap in the face to my taste-buds, to pigs around the world, to the friendly man that makes it (I like to call him a moc-star). The type of pork you get will vary from stall to stall, but the soup should always contain vermicelli noodles and moc-balls. In Saigon, there’s a popular bun moc place that is one street west of Ben Thanh Market. Skip the market and get the moc. You can thank me when you come out of your food coma.