Phở is the national dish of Vietnam, and this noodle soup has captured the hearts of many epicures.

If you travel to Vietnam, you’ll notice that Phở varies significantly between the North and the South. Foreigners often find it confusing to distinguish between Northern and Southern Phở (Phở Bắc and Phở Nam), while foodies in Vietnam have strong opinions on which version is better.

I was born in the South to Northern parents. Having tried both versions and loving each, I’d like to break down the differences and share some insights about these two versions of Phở.

Northern Pho Vs Southern Pho

A Glimpse of Phở in both North and South

Up until now, there has been an ongoing debate in Vietnam about the origins of Phở. This dish made its way to Vietnam during French colonization in the early 1900s.

Some argue, like Bánh Mì Sandwich or Vietnamese Coffee , Phở was a French-Vietnamese fushion , while others think it originated from noodle soups in Southern China.

In the North, there are two main styles of Phở: Hanoi Phở and Nam Dinh Phở, and people still debate over its exact homeland.

Pho Hanoi
A pho peddler in Hanoi in 1940s

Phở holds a special place in the hearts of Northern Vietnamese. In Hanoi, it is almost a culinary religion—warm, hearty, and flavorful, it’s a beloved breakfast for locals, especially on autumn and winter mornings.

Hanoians appreciate both beef and chicken Phở equally, though chicken Phở is less popular in the South.

For many Vietnamese, when they think of Phở, they think of the Northern Phở. Phở is seen as representative of Northern cuisine, whereas Bún Bò Huế and Mì Quảng are associated with Central Vietnam, and Cơm Tấm and Hủ Tiếu with the South. Some even disregard Southern Phở as not genuine.

Personally, I don’t care much about this ultra-regionalism. As someone from the South, I appreciate Northern cuisine, especially Hanoi-style Chicken Phở and Bún Chả. However, Southern Beef Phở holds a special place in my heart—it’s my nostalgic comfort food.

Broth

The broth is the heart and soul of Phở. It can be made from beef bones or chicken bones, and sometimes pork bones are added for more umami flavor.

In the North, the broth is more delicate, savory, and light. A Northern trick to enhance the umami flavor is adding Sá Sùng (dried peanut worms).

Besides, Northern people also tend to use more MSG to season the broth.

A delicious bowl of Pho Bo, Vietnamese beef noodle soup with tender beef, rice noodles, and flavorful broth, garnished with thinly sliced onion and chopped scallions.
Northern Phở

In the South, the Phở broth is cloudier, bolder, richer and fattier. Like many Southern dishes, Southern Phở broth tends to be sweeter than the Northern version since locals add more rock sugar and charred daikon.

A tempting bowl of Pho enjoyed in Paris, featuring steaming rice noodles, flavorful broth, tender beef, fresh herbs, and vibrant toppings.
Southern Phở

Spices

Besides the broth, the spices for Phở in the North and South are also different. In the North, people tend to use fewer spices for Phở. The main aromas come from peppercorns, charred ginger, onion, and shallots. Star anise, cinnamon, black cardamom, and cloves are used sparingly.

For Chicken Phở, the spices are even milder than for Beef Phở. In Hanoi-style Chicken Phở, the dominant flavors come from coriander seeds, coriander roots, and lime leaves, rather than the popular spices like star anise or cinnamon.

In the South, the spices for both Beef Phở and Chicken Phở are a bit more intense. In addition to the traditional spices, the locals also add dried tangerine peel and fennel seeds.

Noodles

Phở refers not only to the noodle soup but also to the rice noodles used in the dish, more precisely called Bánh Phở. In the North, the rice noodles for Phở are flat and wider, while in the South, they tend to be thinner and chewier.

In some South Central provinces like Nha Trang, my hometown, the rice noodles for Southern Phở are even thinner and chewier, resembling Hủ Tiếu tapioca noodles.

Meats

Let’s talk about Beef Phở first.

In the North, the cuts are simpler compared to the South. Popular beef cuts in Northern Phở include:

  • Rare steak: tái
  • Flank: nạm
  • Brisket: chín
  • Fatty brisket: gầu
  • Shank: bắp

The most favorite beef cuts of local people for Phở is beef heel muscle (bắp lõi rùa). Besides, phở tái lăn (pho noodle with wok-fried beef) from Phở Thìn is also a specility in Hanoi.

Pho with Fatty Brisket
Pho with flank and fatty brisket (phở nạm gầu)

In the South, the influence of the Chinese community on Southern cuisine is more prominent with many Chinese-Vietnamese fusion foods like Bò Bía spring rolls and Cơm Gà Hải Nam (Hainanese Chicken Rice). This trend is also reflected in Phở.

In addition to the traditional cuts, locals enjoy Phở with extra toppings such as:

  • Tendon: gân
  • Tripe: lá sách
  • Beef meatballs: bò viên
  • Oxtail: đuôi bò

For Chicken Phở, both the North and the South love to cook Phở with Vietnamese indigenous free-range chicken (gà ta), known for its chewy texture and bouncy skin. In the North, they sometimes add Mọc (pork meatballs) to Chicken Phở.

Herbs & Accompaniments

Herbs and garnishes for Phở are a perpetual topic of debate among foodies in Vietnam. Northerners prefer to keep the garnishes simple to accentuate the taste of the soup.

In Hanoi Beef Phở, the only herb used abundantly is green onions (hành lá).

In the South, Phở is served with a diverse array of herbs . Essential for Southern Phở is Thai basil (húng quế), alongside sawtooth herbs (ngò gai) and paddy herbs (rau om).

Pho Herbs
A plate of herbs for Phở

Bean sprouts are a popular accompaniment for Southern Phở, though many Northerners don’t like them since they think sprouts dilute the broth’s flavor.

Northerners don’t eat Phở with bean sprouts, but they love to enjoy Phở with a poached egg (trứng chần) and Chinese fried doughnuts (quẩy/dầu cháo quẩy).

Quay for Pho
Chinese fried doughnuts (quẩy) for Pho

Sauces

Even when it comes to sauces, Northerners are also much more traditional. The Beef Phở broth is usually simmered for at least 7 hours, and Northerners believe that preserving its original flavor shows respect to the cook.

When Northerners enjoy Phở, they typically season their broth with fish sauce and garlic vinegar (giấm tỏi) for Beef Phở, or lime for Chicken Phở. Some people also add homemade fermented chili sauce or sliced chili for extra spice.

Garlic Vinegar for Pho
Garlic Vinegar (Giấm Tỏi)

Southerners have a more laid-back approach—they simply enjoy Phở as it is. In Southern Vietnam, you’ll find a wider variety of seasonings available on the table: fish sauce, lime, chili sauce, hoisin sauce, and sometimes Sa Tế Sauce (lemongrass chili sauce).

Personally, I like to season my Phở Northern-style because I enjoy the authentic broth flavor. However, I also love creating a dipping sauce with the condiments on the table to complement my favorite meats.

Outside Vietnam, you’ll often encounter Southern-style Phở, which is served with sriracha, hoisin sauce, and green jalapeños.

Variations

Beef Phở and Chicken Phở are the most traditional and well-known versions, but Phở has evolved into many variations in both the North and the South.

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is also the capital of Phở. The other types of Phở are quite lowkey and mainly enjoyed by locals. For a food tour in Hanoi , I highly recommend trying at least one of them:

In the South, people sometimes enjoy Phở noodles with Vietnamese beef stew to create Phở Bò Kho . You might also encounter Phở Sa Tế (Spicy Beef Satay Phở), which has a closer connection to Teochew cuisine.

More authentic Vietnamese recipes

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Bánh Xèo (Vietnamese Sizzling Pancakes)
Banh Cuon (Vietnamese steamed rolls)
Bánh Cuốn (Vietnamese Steamed Rice Rolls)
Vietnamese dipping fish sauce 1 edited
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Canh Chua (Vietnamese Sweet & Sour Soup)
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Bún Mọc (Vietnamese Noodle Soup with Meatballs)

You can discover a compilation of Vietnamese recipes on my blog and subscribe for new updates. Furthermore, explore Beyond the Pho to delve deeper into Vietnamese & Asian cuisine and culture.

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