This is Inside the Breakfast Bowl, a series in which Eater profiles breakfast soups and porridges from around the world. Next up: pho.
Vietnam rewards an early riser. Slip out before 9 a.m. and you'll get to explore the frenetic motorbike-choked streets of Vietnam's biggest cities at their most peaceful. It'll still be hours until the heat and humidity of the afternoon drenches the clothing on your back. And there will be pho.
Easily the most famous dish of Vietnam, pho — which at its most basic consists of a clear beef- or chicken-based broth, rice noodles, herbs, and thinly sliced meats — is also this Southeast Asian nation's preferred breakfast. From the rustic northern provinces to the cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City in the south, old-school vendors rise before dawn to tend to their long-simmering broth. Hit the streets after 9 a.m., and that hole-in-the-wall everyone raves about may have already sold out.
"The soup itself tells you so much about Vietnamese culture."
Mornings are historically a special time for pho in Vietnam. But these days you can increasingly find this iconic noodle soup at any time of day as shop owners lengthen their hours across the country. How did it come to be that way? Where is pho's role as a quintessential breakfast dish headed?
The history of pho is imprecise. Experts and obsessives have floated a number of theories tracing the first invention of this soup. Some believe pho originated on the streets of Hanoi, while others argue it was actually about 90 kilometers to the northwest in the Nam Dinh province.
What everyone can agree on, though, is that pho was originally a northern dish created sometime in the early 20th century. Originally, pho was often sold by street vendors who would carry bowls of broth on shoulder poles. Tracey Lister, chef and director of the Hanoi Cooking Centre, says pho was an ideal breakfast for those who worked in the rice fields and at other physically challenging jobs. Pho was heavy enough to get those workers through the morning and light enough that it wouldn't weigh them down. "A lot of Vietnamese don't feel [pho] is substantial enough for lunch or for dinner," Lister says.
Since its creation, pho has always reflected the cultural, political, and socioeconomic changes in Vietnam. Andrea Nguyen, the author of the indispensable Into the Vietnamese Kitchen and The Pho Cookbook, says that Vietnam has two distinctive pho cultures that were shaped by the country's turbulent history. In the 1950s and 1960s, the traditionally northern recipe made its way to Saigon, when the country was split in two and nearly a million Vietnamese moved south to escape the communist north.
Once pho hit the streets of Saigon, it morphed. "The southern Vietnamese palate is sweeter, spicier," says Chad Kubanoff, chef/owner of the now-shuttered Same Same and co-owner of the popular Back of the Bike street food tour company in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon). While pho in the north retained a purity and rusticity that mirrors Hanoi's own sensibilities, Nguyen says its broth took on this ramped up flavor profile once it hit Saigon. It also became more customizable with sauces and piles of herbs, Nguyen says. Shops became more polished, more colorful, more like the capitalist southern city itself. "The soup itself tells you so much about Vietnamese culture," Nguyen says.
Now, pho is mostly sold out of open-air storefronts that line the streets of its cities, particularly Hanoi. These shops often extend out onto the sidewalks with squat tables and milk crates for seating; they're essentially street food restaurants. There's usually not a walk-in or storage area; ingredients are bought fresh that morning. "Vendors sort of know that they can sell 300 bowls that morning and that's what they prepare," Lister says. After they sell out, there simply isn't a second shift until a new batch of broth can be made.
And so Vietnam's culinary rhythm goes something like this: Vendors rise early to get their ingredients and start their broth around 2 a.m. (if it hasn't already been simmering since the night before), open shop around 6 a.m., sell out by around 10 a.m., and get started again either for that evening or the next morning. Perhaps not coincidentally, Kubanoff points out that these are the coolest times of day. With Vietnam's mostly tropical climate, it's common sense to eat hot soups, including pho and the nearly as beloved bún bò Huế, in the mornings and evenings. And in northern cities like Hanoi, where it can be downright chilly, a bowl of pho in the morning is warming, too.
"It grounds you... it gets me into the groove of what the country is about. It’s a morning country."
But there's also just something special about pho in the morning. "Long before there was bone broth, there was this soup," Nguyen says. People crave pho when they're sick or hungover because it feels restorative. It's hard to pinpoint, Nguyen says, but there's something comforting about the way rice noodles and a flavorful broth combine in a bowl of pho. "It grounds you," she says. "That's what it does for me emotionally and physically. It gets me into the groove of what the country is about. It's a morning country."
In busy cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the early hours are more relaxed. "You feel very comfortable in the morning, so having pho for breakfast just fits right in there," Nguyen says. "It's like this ritual thing." That's why even though pho is also a nighttime phenomenon, you'll still find very old-school shops and carts open only in the early mornings.
But even in traditional Hanoi, you can find pho just about whenever you want it now. When Lister moved to Hanoi from her native Australia about 15 years ago, pho shops closed by 10 a.m. or earlier. Some of those did reopen in the evenings, but generally pho was most popular for breakfast. Now that's only true of the older, more traditional shops, Lister says. Newer enterprises stay open all day. Meanwhile, Kubanoff says that the hours for pho in Ho Chi Minh City have generally always been a bit longer, but are also stretching out as pho vendors seek to make their pricey rent payments.
The rise of the Vietnamese middle class might have something to do with the emergence of lunchtime pho.
"The Vietnamese are really good business people. They're entrepreneurial," Nguyen says. Though it's difficult for anyone to pinpoint why pho has become more widely available for lunch in the afternoons, or when that started happening, there's a handful of possible reasons. For one, Vietnam's economy has grown so steadily that Bloomberg described it last month as one of the fastest-growing markets in the world. There's opportunity for more business, and Nguyen posits that the country's pho vendors are among the many rising up to meet that opportunity.
Lister also muses that the rise of the middle class might have something to do with this whole lunchtime pho thing. Working habits are changing, and with that comes a necessary tweak of the culinary rhythm. For the many Vietnamese who now work out of offices, there's no need to make lunch a heavy post-labor meal. And if that office is air-conditioned, then eating hot soup in the middle of the day in a tropical country is no longer such a terrible idea.
Tourism from western countries might also play into pho's new all-day schedule. But Nguyen points out that the reverse is just as likely to have an effect: Vietnamese people are traveling the world now and bringing back ideas, cultures, and business savvy.
Still, as ever, habits are slow to change. Though the pho shop across the street from the Hanoi Cooking Centre is now open all day long, Lister says they sell more than half of their 400 daily bowls before 10 a.m.
Pho — especially the more brash southern-style — came to America after the fall of Saigon in 1975, as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people fled their country. In recent years, it became a bona fide food trend in cities across the nation. But mornings that begin over a bowl of pho while seated on a low stool in a crowded open-air shop are still distinctively Vietnamese.
When Kubanoff opened Same Same in Philadelphia's Northern Liberties neighborhood in 2015, he designed the restaurant to stay as true to Saigon as possible, including a Sunday brunch that began at 8:30 a.m. and included pho on its menu. But no one showed up for brunch until 11:30 a.m. — and, when they did, they weren't there for the pho. "There was no reaction, no interest, nothing," Kubanoff says. He ended up axing brunch entirely.
Yet across town, there's a South Philly enclave filled with Vietnamese restaurants, bakeries, and grocers known as Little Saigon. Pho 75 is one of its most popular destinations, with a beef broth that's arguably the best in the city and a daily 9 a.m. opening hour. On a snow-dusted morning last week, customers filed in for breakfast. Many were Vietnamese-American, but not all. Most were dining alone. Jacey Cao and Kenny Lam were there instead of their usual Chinatown dim sum breakfast because it was cold and they wanted soup.
Victoria Vo waited on her takeout order. She's here to eat pho because it warms her up on a cold day and because it's good for her health. But she also eats pho for breakfast because it's a tradition from home.