Beware faux pho in Vietnam

chef cooking in hanoi street vietnam

Even if a language is tricky to learn, you’ve got nothing to lose by trying. In John Kirk’s case his cocky attempt at Vietnamese did lead him down the wrong path initially, but it was smiles all round when he discovered that pho doesn’t always mean noodle soup…

“If you’ve ever tried to speak Vietnamese, then you’d know it is not an easy language to learn. It is a tonal language and there are six tones for each syllable. Change the tone and the meaning of the word changes. I found this out with hilarious results on my second trip to Hanoi.

A colleague and I thought we’d show off our local knowledge and speaking in terrible Vietnamese, we asked two cyclo riders to take us to “Pho Pho”, the street with all the noodle soup stalls. We knew that pho, pronounced Phur (not Fo or Fow), was the word for noodle soup and with a slight change of tone it was also the word for street.

The cyclo riders were highly amused and took off in entirely the wrong direction. We protested, but they laughed and chattered away as we made our way along some increasingly dodgy back streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Eventually we arrived, not at the noodle soup street, but in an alley in the red light district!

Our two cyclo comedians were adamant that this was “Pho Pho”. To our embarrassment and ultimate amusement, they explained with delight that pho pronounced with a slightly different tone to the noodle soup version, also meant prostitute!

The cyclo riders guffawed at our mistake, knowing all along where we really wanted to go – it was their idea of a joke! After much laughing and backslapping, we were soon whisked away to the pho stalls, where we parted company with our pranksters and enjoyed a hearty serving of Vietnam’s national dish!

Many years later when I returned to Vietnam to lead trips for Intrepid, a smile would come across my face whenever I walked past Pho Street in Hanoi. It was still there, doing its usual roaring trade, and I’d explain to my travellers what can happen if you order the wrong pho!”

Got your own travel blooper to tell?

* photo by David Green – Intrepid Photography Competition

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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It’s neither phur nor far. I know someone who likes to use it in place of an offensive word that starts with the letter f as it is more similar to that.'

We were told, in Vietnam, that the pronunciation for the soup is actually closer to FAR.

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