What the pho? Or, how to order beef noodle soup in Vietnam

I’m generally pretty good with languages, and often have few problems communicating the basics in a new country after I’ve been there a few weeks. I thought this skill was relegated to the romance languages only, but when I traveled solo in China, necessity forced me to pick up a sizable chunk of Mandarin.

So when I left China for Vietnam, I was feeling fairly confident in my language abilities. And I was also hungry for some phô. For those of you who haven’t tasted this beefy delight, get thee to a phô shop immediately! (In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s a chain called “What the Phô.”) In this dish, beef is simmered in broth with cinnamon, star anise, rice noodles, and a bunch of other savory stuff, then served to you with a side of fresh sprouts and herbs. Fill your bowl with these, some chiles and fish sauce, and you’ve got the best bowl of soup you’ve ever had.

You’d think I could master the simple phrase “phô bo” (beef noodle soup) — pronounced in English as “fuh buh.” I had a month in Vietnam to perfect it, and I ordered the soup daily, yet I could never get it right. Vietnamese has 6 tones that go up,down and around — as far as I could tell — and every time I ordered pho bo (with different tones each time) I was met with confused looks. I tried rising, then falling: “Fu-UH BU-uh” Nope. Short, then long: “Fuh Buuuuuuuuh.” Huh-uh. Even though I was at a noodle shop that served only pho, even though I was getting all the consonants right, they still had no clue what I was saying. Thankfully, most of the vendors seemed to understand “beef noodle soup.”

And that’s about as far as I got with Vietnamese.