The History and Evolution of Pho: A Hundred Years' Journey

Beef pho noodle with garnish on the side

Beef pho noodle with garnish on the side

Updated 04-17-19Among all the Vietnamese dishes that came to the attention of the people in the western hemisphere, nothing else has received such tremendous acceptance as pho. Pho is considered as the national dish of Vietnam, and it has captured the fascination of so many people in the west because of its deceptive simplicity and its complex flavors. Pho is the perfect comfort food - warm, hearty and deliciously refreshing. In Vietnam it's the common people's food. It's street food.

Pho can also be seen as a mirror that reflects Vietnamese heritage and way of life. A dish that is steeped in tradition, pho is closely tied to Vietnam that the history of pho can read as a parallel to the history of its country of origin itself in the last hundred years. With the migration of Vietnamese across the globe after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, the national dish of Vietnam came to grace the tables of people of different heritages, thus leading to the colorful evolution of pho throughout the years. In this article I'll discuss pho, its history and what makes pho many people's favorite dish.

Looking for a solid beef pho recipe? Check out Lovingpho’s own Beef Pho Recipe infographic.

What Is Pho?

Of course, before I go into the history of pho, we should first tackle a more fundamental question about pho, namely: What in the world is pho?

Many readers know exactly what pho is. Articles on pho that you find around the Internet define the dish simply as Vietnamese noodle soup, traditionally made with beef or chicken broth that is flavored with various spices and topped with various herbs. But this definition seems far too simplistic because it does not really capture the rich and intense essence of beef in the broth that can only be achieved by simmering marrow-rich beef bones on low heat for many hours. It does not describe the complex layers of flavor created by the herbs and spices in pho. It does not illustrate the many textures created by the square rice noodles, the tender beef slices and the crunchy bean sprouts in the soup.

At the very least, the description "noodle soup" may be a misnomer. Soup implies that the dish is a side dish, but in fact pho itself is the main course. Pho is a noodle dish, and not a soup dish. So if you catch the phrase "noodle soup" somewhere on this site then it's only because I let my guard down for a moment there. Pho should be called "Vietnamese noodle" or "soup noodle" because it is a noodle dish.

You cannot expect two bowls of pho made in two separate kitchens to ever taste the same. There are many recipes of pho existing out there, with each recipe somewhat different from each other. But those are only the published ones. There are countless others that are closely held by professional chefs running popular pho restaurants, and we'll never know what they are. So techniques in cooking and preparing pho vary from chef to chef. Variations can also depend on what type of pho is being prepared. For instance, pho bac, which is pho from the northern regions of Vietnam, is made quite differently from how pho is prepared and served in southern Vietnam.

The history of pho stretches only a hundred years back in Vietnam's recent past. But just as those hundred years have shaped Vietnam into the country it is today, so do those hundred years have shaped the way pho has become. Three events in Vietnamese history have marked the history of pho. They are

  1. The unification of Vietnam under French rule in 1887,
  2. The splitting of the country into North and South Vietnam in 1954, and
  3. The Fall of Saigon in 1975.


Editor's Note: Here's an article on "What is Vietnamese Pho: Think You Know? Think Again," which discusses what is and what is not pho.

The Murky Beginnings of Pho: a French Connection?

Eating pho in the streets of Saigon

Eating pho in the streets of Saigon

Despite the fact that pho is a reflection of the culture and history of Vietnam, no one really knows how pho came to be. Restaurateur and author Mai Pham's research on pho, as cited in Vietnamese culinary expert Andrea Nguyen's blog, stated that there is nothing written about the early history of pho. All there is left are oral traditions handed down by elders. It is, however, agreed upon by many experts in Vietnamese cuisine, including Ms. Pham and Ms. Nguyen, that the history of pho began in Nam Dinh/Hanoi region in northern Vietnam and that it started around the time when the French colonized the country in the late 1880s.

In the SpiceLines interview on Ms. Nguyen, she said that before the French conquered Vietnam, the Vietnamese people did not slaughter cows for food. Instead, they used these animals to till their rice fields and as beasts of burden.

The general theory held by most Vietnamese culinary experts is that the word "pho" is a corruption of the French "feu" or "fire." Pho could be a Vietnamese adaptation of the French soup "pot au feu" or French beef stew, which the French brought to Vietnam when they came to rule the country. But let me take this theory further into something more concrete to possibly reflect facts. It is this: Vietnamese love to take foreign words and use them as our own, but with a Vietnamese accent. Thus "feu" became "Phở." But there's more. It's always been a popular knowledge that the French, specifically a man named Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes in the country between 1624 and 1644, helped convert Vietnamese written language from a variant of Chinese characters into the modern age with translations using the Latin alphabet system. So the French connection to pho and Vietnamese language is much more intimate than casual, and it's not unthinkable that pho did come from feu. Read more on the Vietnamese alphabet.

"Pot au feu" literally means "pot on the fire," signifying the long hours required to create the soup. Just like with pho, cartilaginous, marrow-rich beef bones are used to make the broth of the pot au feu. These bones are left to boil and simmer in water on low heat for at least three hours, and the scum and foam formed by excess grease from the bone marrow are skimmed and discarded.

Another similarity that pot au feu shares with pho is the fact that ginger and onions are also roasted in an open flame before they are added to flavor the broth. Vegetables like carrots and turnips are used to top pot au feu. In pho, these vegetables are replaced by bean sprouts and herbs, with a little lime juice added in for taste.

Pho Bac: Pho of the North

Street vendor pho ga in Ha Noi. Photo courtesy

Street vendor pho ga in Ha Noi. Photo courtesy

Another theory that Vietnamese cuisine experts agree on is that the birthplace of pho is northern Vietnam, near Hanoi. Given the theory that pho is a Vietnamese adaptation of the French pot au feu, it is not surprising to think that pho originated from the north.

Hanoi has always been the center of political power in colonial Vietnam, with only a few short interruptions. The city has always been the seat of Vietnamese kings and emperors since 1010, except during the rule of the Nguyen dynasty, when the capital was moved to Hue. When the French conquered Vietnam and established the colony they called the French Indochina, they made Hanoi their capital city.

The French brought pot au feu to Vietnam and introduced the idea of slaughtering cows for food to the Vietnamese of the north. The northern regions of Vietnam are not as rich as those in the south, and food scarcity may have been a way of life in a northern Vietnamese household. The northern Vietnamese get their food where they can find it, and they learned to take the beef parts and bones that their French conquerors did not want for their table. It is widely believed that this is how pho of the north, called pho bac, came to be.

Editorial note: I want to clarify here that, all this is a generalization. Of course Viet people had beef on their menus. But the fact is, beef is an expensive food ingredient for many Viet people. Even in the early 1970, our family, which I would describe as “middle-class” in Vietnam at the time, had beef maybe once per week on the average in our meals, not more. In general, for the very well-to-dos and during festivals and celebrations, slaughtering cows or other animals is part of the tradition. It should also be noted that, we use both water buffalos and cows to till the land, with water buffalos being the more dominant in this role and cows also for food. As a result, it is less likely to find water buffalo meat as an ingredient in everyday Viet cuisine.
Pho bac has an intense and delicate flavor that is entirely different from pho nam, which is pho of the south. The focus of pho bac is on the taste of its clear and simple broth. The star anise and other spices commonly used in pho serve as subtle undertones of flavor rather than complex layers. The main ingredients in pho bac are the rice noodles and the thinly sliced rare beef cooked quickly in the hot broth. You would not find a bowl of pho bac topped with the popular herbs and garnishing found in pho nam or in pho outside of Vietnam.

Even today, northern Vietnamese and pho purists consider pho bac the true pho. It is not uncommon to find a person from northern Vietnam or a pho purist to turn away from lavish preparations of pho nam or from pho that is not made from beef stock. A few purists may even find such preparations shocking and disgusting.

Pho Nam: Pho of the South

French rule did not last in Vietnam. The Second World War saw the country known as French Indochina fall under Japanese occupation, although the new Japanese rulers retained their French administrators. But France was not to regain her full political influence on Vietnam. After World War II, a series of events led to the splitting of Vietnam into North Vietnam and South Vietnam in 1954. North Vietnam, which is Communist country, kept Hanoi (Hà Nội) as its capital. South Vietnam is a democracy centered on Saigon (or Sài Gòn).

Thousands of North Vietnamese fled the Communist rule, and escaped across the border to South Vietnam. These refugee families took with them their cherished pho recipes and introduced pho to their brethren in the south. Here, pho is to make a turn that eventually shocked pho purists from the north.

Unlike in North Vietnam, food is rich and abundant in South Vietnam. Herbs and other ingredients are used liberally. The Vietnamese of the south put their taste for the lavish on the frugal pho bac to create the classic pho nam. They put more spices in their pho than their northern counterparts. They experimented with other beef parts, and even used other ingredients such as chicken and tripe. They added bean sprouts and herb garnishing as topping on the soup. They were also very liberal about the use of fish sauce and hoisin sauce to flavor their pho.

Pho flourished, and due to its versatility and popularity, Vietnamese eat pho everyday, at any time during the day. Pho vendors do business everywhere, from pushcarts to neighborhood street stalls, from pho restaurants to elegant bistros. But most importantly, pho is the food of the working people.

The Fall of Saigon and the Evolution of Pho

Conflicts between North and South Vietnam continued long after 1954. These conflicts were fueled by the Communist superpowers, namely the Soviet Union and Communist China, who gave their support to Communist North. Into the fray also came the Americans, who favored the Democratic South Vietnam. The conflicts became known as the Vietnam War, which raged full scale from 1963 to 1973, and ended in the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

The Fall of Saigon saw masses of Vietnamese refugees flee for their lives to various corners of the world; I'm one of those refugees. Many were accepted to the United States in the few years immediately after 1975, while many others tried to escape in rickety boats as "boat people" for 15 or more years to come. These Vietnamese boat people created colonies in neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, although some even reached as far as Australia and even Europe.

Among the treasures that Vietnamese refugees brought with them from their homeland were their cherished pho recipes. South Vietnamese (including Northern Vietnamese who fled to the South in 1954) were by far the majority of the refugees and what they brought with them was the Southern style pho. Before long, restaurants serving pho emerged in the communities these Vietnamese migrants established in their country of exile, and these restaurants introduced pho to their non-Vietnamese neighbors.

As time went on, an evolution of pho was seen outside of Vietnam. Although the basic ingredients were retained, pho recipes were adapted to suit whatever ingredients were available locally, and to also cater to local tastes. Non-Vietnamese who attempted to create their own versions of pho also used techniques and ingredients that are far away from the traditional methods of creating pho.

One cannot stop evolution. Personally, I admire the creativity of these chefs, but if you want good pho, then go where the crowd eats. Chances are they eat the more authentic kind.

Vietnamese Pho Today

Pho Is Comfort Food and Street Food: People Enjoying Pho In The Street

Pho Is Comfort Food and Street Food: People Enjoying Pho In The Street

Many Vietnamese, myself included, are taking upon ourselves to help pho retain its traditional identity. Pho has nonetheless taken on an adaptive nature both inside and outside of Vietnam. Many versions of pho have emerged to contain seafood and pork and are called "pho" by their creators. To me they are not pho; they're just marketing schemes to sell non-red meat alternatives to customers and/or just offer more choices for the sake of more choices.

The fact remains that pho has captured the fascination of people from all over the world because of the appeal of its distinct and layered flavors. There's no question you'll find great tasting and authentic pho in many local pho shops near where you live. Wherever you are in the world - whether in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia or other Asian countries - you are sure to find a Vietnamese restaurant that serves good, authentic pho.

Undoubtedly, pho will continue to naturally and organically evolve both inside and outside of Vietnam. No one can stop this process from happening. I'm just proud knowing that, from all the wars and conflicts and colonialism that Vietnam people have had to endure, Vietnamese pho has become a comfort food that millions throughout the world enjoy.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article and welcome your comments, corrections and suggestions. Share them with us in the comments below.


  1. Understanding the Pho Menu: No More Ordering Pho by the Numbers - Vietnamese Pho Noodles 29 May, 2009 at 21:24 Reply

    […] The two main types of pho are pho bo and pho ga, or beef pho and chicken pho, respectively. Depending on the restaurant you choose, you may also come across vegetarian pho, and semi-vegetarian pho dishes such as seafood pho or shrimp pho, as called by a few restaurants. In actuality, these non-beef and non-chicken soup noodle dishes are really “hu tieu” and not pho. For a good definition of pho, read the articles “What is Vietnamese Pho?” and “The History and Evolution of Pho.” […]

  2. Pho in France - Petit or Grand Pho, It'll Be Just Like Home - Vietnamese Pho Noodles 2 July, 2009 at 02:15 Reply

    […] Many Vietnamese culinary experts believe that pho is actually the Vietnamese version of the pot au feu, the French beef stew. Renowned French chef Didier Corlou describes certain similarities between pho and the pot au feu, such as the use of beef marrow bones to create the broth, the time it takes for the broth to cook, and the charring of garlic and onions to add a sweet, roasted flavor to the dish. View an in-depth discussion of “The History and Evolution of Pho.” […]

    • Minh Khoi 19 January, 2017 at 18:42 Reply

      Đúng. Phở của người Việt mình ngày nay biến thể từ súp “Pot-au-feu” của người Pháp do ngưòi đàn bà có tên là Ba hay Nàng Ba, làm người ở cho một sĩ quan người Pháp nấu cho vị sĩ quan người Pháp này dùng (khi ông này bị thương nặng và bị sốt mê sản miệng nói lãm nhảm “Pot-au-feu…” , Cô Ba người ở không biết thế nào ,… tìm một cha sứ người Việt kể lại thì được biết Pot-au-feu là món Súp của nhiều gia đình trung lưu người Pháp hay dùng: nấu gồm Thịt Bò cùng hạt ngò, đinh hương , cần tây, Củ cải rốt… hầm cho mềm thịch. Cô Ba người ở mới về nấu (không có gia vị đủ) Cô thay thế gia viẹ Việt Nam và nấu chín cho bánh Đa vào cho người Sĩ quan ăn (ông ta thấy ngon và hương vị cũng giống Pot-au-feu Cô nghe thế nên gọi “Tô-Phơ” . Sau khi lành bệnh và về nước Ông Sĩ quan biếu tặng cho Cô Ba một ít tiền… và không biết làm gì để sống , nên Cô Ba nghĩ ra cách nấu Tô-Phở gánh đi bán dạo và rao Tô Phơ…. Tô Phơ… người Việt miền Bắc mình ăn thấy lạ và ngon, nhất là vào mỗi sáng mùa đông Hà Nội có Tô Phở ăn thì ngon lắm, nên Tô Phở gọi tắt là Phở…. và có tên Phở từ đó.
      Lâu quá quên năm nào! (từ khi người sĩ Quan Pháp Về nước. Tài liệu xuất xứ của Phở này của người sĩ quan Pháp ghi lại là đúng, tôi nghĩ bên Pháp có).
      Google translates the following (I think not literally correctly):
      Right. Pho Vietnamese people themselves today soup variations from “Pot-au-feu” of the French by the woman she called Three or Three, domestic workers for a French officer cook this French officer user (when he was seriously injured and a fever delirium mouth mumble “Pot-au-feu …”, she Three people do not know how, … find a Vietnamese father recounts his angels shall be Pot-au-feu know the soup dish of many middle-class families or used French: Beef cooked with nuts include coriander, cloves, celery, beet stew until soft carrots … thud. She three new of cooking (no spicy enough) She replaces part VIE Vietnam and majority cake cooked for the officers to eat (he found the same delicious taste and Pot-au-feu She listened so called “Fill spectrum “. After he healed, and the officers donated water for a little money … She Ba and did not know what to do to live, so she devised three ways to cook Tokyo Noodle burden went peddling and Bowl Ad Phnom Phnom …. Su … his North Vietnamese who see strange and delicious food, especially in the morning winter Hanoi Pho Bowl food is delicious, so Bowl Noodle Noodle called …. and thus named Noodle.
      What year is too long forgotten! (From when the French officers returning to the country. Where is this Noodle origin of French officers recorded is correct, I think the French have).

      • Minh Khoi 20 January, 2017 at 03:07 Reply

        Xin gởi kèm theo dưới đây một link của Chef Luke Nguyễn (Chef người Úc gốc Việt). trong đoạn video clip này ở phút 6 trong lúc làm nước màu kho cá trong bếp, người bạn của Luke có đề cập đến chuyện một người lính già Pháp cho biết vá xác quyết một cách chắc chắn Phở của người Việt Nam bắt nguồn từ súp “Pot-au-feu” của người Pháp… xin xem link đính kèm. M" rel="nofollow ugc">

      • Cuong 20 January, 2017 at 10:04 Reply

        @Minh Khoi: Theo như tôi được biết, lịch sử của phở với mức độ chi tiết mà bạn đã kể lại thì rất là hiếm. Bạn có thể chia sẻ nguồn tài liệu của câu chuyện này? Thật ra, đây là một bản sao giống hệt như của một bài (bao gồm cả lỗi chính tả) bởi GCdialinh trên video YouTube bạn đã kèm kế theo ở trên đây. Mà video này cũng không có gì liên quan đến phở hết.

        English translation: As far as I understand it, the history of pho to the level of detail you’ve described is very rare. Can you share your reference source for this story? In fact this is an exact copy of a post (including misspellings) by GCdialinh on the YouTube video you included in the comment above. And the video itself has nothing to do with pho either.

    • Joe Nam 11 April, 2019 at 06:57 Reply

      I question the idea that pho came from France. There are several variations of beef noodle soup in Southern China right next door to Vietnam that have existed for hundreds of years before Europeans ever came to Vietnam.
      And these soups use some of the same spices used in pho- star anise and cinnamon to be precise. None of these in pot au feu!
      To say that beef soup automagically stops at the border while spring rolls, noodles, dumplings, rice cakes and many other foods make it across by accident is not very reasonable.

      As far as the income excuse goes- China for the average person until recent times was even poorer and hungrier than Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, etc. That’s why Chinese migrated to Southeast Asia but the reverse almost never. And yet they still had several versions of beef noodle soup. To say Vietnam shares many cuisines with our neighbors but automagically are gifted pho by racist colonizers from above is… lazy and self hate to be generous. Note the fact that nobody knows exactly where pho came from. Let’s keep it that way and not give credit where it isn’t due.

      • Cuong 11 April, 2019 at 11:13 Reply

        @Joe Nam: You may have misread or misunderstood what was written in the post. I don’t think there’s anything that says pho came from France. That would be an extremely incorrect proposition from any perspective.

        Care has been taken to ensure that it’s clear that pho has a murky beginning, meaning exact documentation may be nonexistent. I think the statement: “Pho could be a Vietnamese adaptation of the French soup “pot au feu” is pretty clear of its meaning. I guess you can take the view that an “adaptation” means “it came from” but that’s really taking it too far beyond the meaning and spirit of what’s written.

        Your statement “To say that beef soup automagically stops at the border while spring rolls, noodles, dumplings, rice cakes and many other foods make it across by accident is not very reasonable.” may have been a response to another article you’ve read. It’s hardly relevant to the topic at hand.

        Similarly for your last paragraph, I’m not sure if you’ve been reading a different article elsewhere. Your statement “To say Vietnam shares many cuisines with our neighbors but automagically are gifted pho by racist colonizers from above is… lazy and self hate to be generous.” is again off topic.

        Love the generous use of “automagically”, but sorry trolling is not welcome here.

  3. Hanh 23 December, 2010 at 00:58 Reply

    Hello Cuong Huynh,

    Thank you for an informative article on Pho. I am making a documentary on Pho and would love to have an interview with you. Please let me know if you’ll be interested.

    Thank you.

  4. Van 12 August, 2011 at 07:57 Reply

    Wow! I’m very fascinated by this article. I find it truly informative. It explains the background of “PHO’ to a whole new level. I too would also like to post this in my restaurant for everyone to see. Please tell me your thoughts.
    ~ Van

  5. Johnny 2 November, 2012 at 21:14 Reply

    Interesting ariticle and facts.
    If I am not mistaken by Vietnamese history, the majority of the Northern immigrants that escape South due to the Vietnamese nationalists’ persecutions as being traitors were among the well to do population.
    Beef is something that only well to do people can afford at the time. Why do you think that the French is the only one who wanted to slaughter cows for food, when cows are the “work horse” so to speak for majority of the population then. Hanoi populations are the polititians, the traders, and the ruling class. Hence, they used to eat Pho as a treat at the time. When the Northerns came south bound and had to start again from scratch, Pho was re-created to firstly appease the sense of home for these people and secondly a way to make a living. Take a look at Saigon now or before it became Uncle Ho’s city, and you will understand why. Pho has always been a type of food that only well to do or upper class people in vietnam can afford. The cost of a bowl of Pho before 1975 can easily equated to lunch and dinner for a typical family in Vietnam as the time. Entrepreneur is always a great trademark for all Vietnamese here in the states or at home in Vietnam.

    The Southerners are not that crazy over Pho now or ever, because it is not within the range of theirs taste buds. Nevertheless, there are a few that would have a try at Pho. “Common People Food” is a relative term, depend on how you look at it. Common to the Northerners in the south would be more fitting. The differences between North and South Pho stock preparation are most likely due to the Entrepreneurism.

  6. Cuong 2 November, 2012 at 22:06 Reply

    Thanks for your input and comments Johnny. Northerners had pho, and the Southerners had hủ tiếu. That is, until they brought it to the South, then there were more choices for the South, but Northerners (and therefore pho itself) came to Saigon mostly. As a result, Southerners outside of Saigon did not get much exposure to pho itself. And you are right, many Southerners do not prefer pho over hu tieu, they prefer their hu tieu. I love hu tieu myself. It is a beautiful dish; there’s something beautiful about such simple soup noodle in look and preparation (which use pork and/or seafoods.) If we Viet don’t have pho, I would eat either hu tieu or the more spicy Bun Bo Hue any day.

    With respect to the rich and the well-to-dos and the educated who emigrated to the South with pho, I would say that beef would not have been a staple food ingredients in Vietnam anyway before Western influence came into the country (I will have to check this fact so please do not hold me to this 100%, but I’ll go ahead and make this point now). Having money is one thing, but tradition would not have beef as part of a Viet’s daily diet. Of course for the well-to-do, beef, venison, snake or any other “exotic” meats can be had for a price and they can afford them. That’s why they are called the affluence. But one thing for sure, the Viet affluence can definitely afford Western/French influence such as western culinary (and beef as an ingredient,) ballroom dancing, music, western clothing, and many other “foreign” things brought into the country just because by definition, the affluence and the educated had a business to know, to learn and to enjoy such things.

    With respect to “common people food,” I would say that one can find a version of pho in Saigon, then and now, that will fit any budget. And by “common” here I meant “poor” or “working people,” not “mass popular” although sometime the two can be the same 😉 In any case I do not disagree with you, just offering my own take in response to your excellent and thoughtful comments.

    And don’t start me on what you call “Entrepreneurism.” I love and admire a good entrepreneur (because I am one) but in my opinion, some just go too far and mess up a good thing like pho.

  7. Ly-Huong 1 May, 2013 at 15:57 Reply

    I surfed to your site while looking up pho origins. I’m looking forward to reading all the amazing content. I appreciate the summary you gave of what Viet American chefs think to be true and I want to offer a different geneaology for pho. Please check it out:

    And if you ever want to cruise down to San Diego and try authentic thit tai, let me know and I will email you the names of the parishes that sell it.

  8. troubles with soup. 7 May, 2013 at 14:22 Reply

    […] with an A&T representative on the phone for an hour, a medium-sized (read gigantic) bowl of Pho became a complete necessity.  Phone billing debacle = Pho emergency???  Yes. Well, my very sunny […]

  9. Cuong 15 May, 2013 at 19:07 Reply

    @Ly-Huong: Thanks for sharing the interesting article. The topic of pho in Vietnam and in America is a very complex one, with multitudes of viewpoints offered my many experts, so-called or real. I think we’ll have many theories for continued discussion for a long time to come, and I do not think we’ll have a resolution any time soon. The most important thing, for me anyway, is to not knowingly or unknowingly misinform, and to make sure what we do and say is honest and sincere based on our own knowledge and experience. That’s the respect that pho deserves and it’s a goal of It’s hard enough to deal with the many facets of pho, it’s even tougher to correct thing that are not quite correct especially on the Internet.

    I wish I have enough fundings and time to do a complete research on the subject matter. The way I see it, like many other things in this world, the longer we let pho go undocumented, the higher risk that we will lose what we had. We as a people have this amazing national dish, yet we do not attempt to document it, protect it, nurture it, and promote it the way it should be.

    On another note, I do live in San Diego, so thanks for the tip about the parishes. But what is the point of “authentic thit tai”, and why are parishes selling “authentic thit tai”? In the context of pho, thit tai is whatever lean beef (at various quality levels and cuts that one cares to pay for) that you prepare raw to be enjoyed in beef pho. That’s all it is, right? Am I missing something? Please do explain.

  10. Van 4 June, 2013 at 12:34 Reply

    I was wondering if these were real facts. I’m not saying that they’re lies, but I want to use this article as one of my sources for a research paper and don’t want to be penalized for having invalid statements.

  11. Cuong 4 June, 2013 at 12:49 Reply

    Hi Van: Thanks for considering this article as a source of your research. As in any good research work, you should always practice due diligence in your independent research and fact checking.

    This is a subject matter that is dear to my heart, and clearly historical documentation is very much lacking. A complete research must include visits to Nam Dinh in North Vietnam, and that has not happened yet. I have myself spent many hours in my own research, but I will admit that there are many more questions and clarifications that I’d still like to pursue, personal resources permitting.

  12. Cuong 20 August, 2013 at 12:08 Reply

    @latiesha: It is difficult to specify and for everyone to agree on a national food for a country. I guess one definition might be a dish that is popular within a country and also well-known outside of that country. And it obviously must include the unique way it is prepared and served, the indigenous ingredients that it contains, or the tradition that it represents, or all of the above. For Vietnam, pho would be one as it is unique to our country, but then there are numerous other dishes that are also unique and popular in Vietnam as well.

  13. Languages in Conflict 17 January, 2014 at 16:53 Reply

    […] architecture can be seen in buildings such as the Hanoi Opera House, and famous dishes such as phở and banh mi combine French and Vietnamese influences. Perhaps ultimately, Francophonie and its […]

  14. sebcolin 10 May, 2014 at 12:37 Reply

    your article is very interesting but there are so many mistakes about history of this vietnamese soup.
    1)Alexandre de Rhodes hasnt As a teacher at Inalco (history of Asia) in Paris, i would like to tell you that the pho has nothing to do with ” le pot au feu”.Pho has nothing to do with fire (feu). Pho means rice noodles in vietnamese! If you read vietnamese novels and poems, you can find traces of this pho from the 14th century before Alexandre de Rhodes and missionnaires came to Vietnam.
    Since then it has evoluted. And the more sophisticated is the pho you find in the south. The northern pho is very simple and you eat only in the north. The southerners add different herbs and sauce that brings to this soup so many tastes. The southern pho is the one that you can eat all around the world today!

  15. Cuong 10 May, 2014 at 13:28 Reply

    @sebcolin: Thanks for leaving your comments. I wouldn’t characterize the article to have “so many mistakes” as you described. I’ll address or clarify the points as follows.

    Your first point is not quite clear about Alexandre de Rhodes and the word feu. Did you try to link the 2? If so then maybe you have misread the point. Alexandre de Rhodes was mentioned because he was the major influence to initiate the conversion of the Viet language from Chinese-like characters to Latin script, or Vietnamese alphabet. He had not much to do with feu or pho.

    With respect to feu, I don’t think I indicated anywhere that pho is fire, or pho has something to do with fire. But then most cooking do use fire. And especially when it comes to pot of feu and pho, they are both simmered over fire for a long time. So the connection/similarity clearly exists.

    The point is the word “pho” may be an adaptation, a corruption, or an alteration of “feu” with traditional Vietnamese accent given to it. It’s pretty much like “xe tăng” (the tank) for the battle field vehicle, or “nhà băng” (the bank) for the place where people keep their money. These are just a few of the numerous examples of western words being adapted by Viet people to conveniently describe things that don’t exist in Vietnam at the time they were introduced. I don’t doubt we Viet may have had rice noodle banh pho going way back before Alexandre de Rhodes. In fact we have so many varieties of rice noodles to be proud of. I’m not a reader of Viet novels and poems, but would love to check them out if you can provide sources or references. I would postulate that they may have been a distant cousin of “hủ tiếu” due to Chinese influence, where instead of using Chinese egg noodles, we used rice noodle in our hủ tiếu.

    To recap in one paragraph: the connection points being made are as follows: we had rice noodle (maybe for a long time), and we may already have had something like hu tieu, then a Frenchman converted Chinese-like characters to Viet alphabet, then the French brought over pot au feu, which we may have liked the way it’s made with beef parts, so we created pho or modified hu tieu to make something called phở. The theory is, without those events mentioned, we may not have pho today.

    On your point of southern pho being around the world today, I do strongly agree. Obviously, after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the people who left Vietnam were mostly from the South (including Northern Vietnamese who fled to the South in 1954.) And what they brought with them was the Southern style of pho. I will clarify this point in the article. Thank you for your input.

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  17. Shrimp Pho - Vietnamese Noodle Soup Recipe - The Lemon Bowl 14 October, 2014 at 18:13 Reply

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  18. Ly-Huong 18 November, 2014 at 15:17 Reply

    Hi Cuong,
    It’s been a while since I visited this page and didn’t see your question about thit tai until now. My maternal family is from Nam Dinh which is considered by the Vietnamese government to be the birthplace of pho (Hanoi is the birthplace of pho restaurants which were created by migrants from Nam Dinh). In my blog post (link below), I recount a different, non-French genealogy for pho with links to my research (I am a research analyst and I was trained as an anthropologist). I mention the tradition in Nam Dinh of slaughtering trau/water buffalo for feasts, a tradition shared with other ethnic minority tribes that were not Francophiled (in other words, eating trau is a tradition that pre-dates French colonization). With all due respect, this truism that keeps getting repeated to justify a French influence that “Vietnamese do not eat trau because they are sacred work animals”, is absolutely FALSE, an urban legend that rural people have not had the opportunity to refute. I really do wish we still had the photos of when my ong ngoai returned to Nam Dinh in the 90s and they slaughtered trau to feast him; they were very similar to the pictures from the Ba-Na tribe in slaughter and preparation though not in ritual (no dancing in Nam Dinh).

    Thit tai is not primarily for pho. To believe that is to ignore/disrespect the Viet ancestral foodways and cultural history that pre-date French occupation. In Nam Dinh, thit tai is a dish served on special occasions after the trau is slaughtered. I explain the method of slaughter and preparation of thit tai in my blog post. Thit tai is served with a sauce made of tuong cu da, thinh, me (sesame seed), and ot. Thit tai is only secondarily used for pho as leftovers when the bones are cooked the next day. My grandfather revived this tradition in San Diego and his former parish Holy Spirit–which has a lot of people from Nam Dinh–now sells thit tai regularly as a fundraiser. Meaning they slaughter a cow and prepare it in the traditional manner. I don’t even think they bother to make & sell pho because that was never the purpose of slaughtering trau/cow, it was just a by-product.

  19. Cuong 23 November, 2014 at 11:51 Reply

    @Ly-Huong: Thanks for your input. I can tell you are very passionate about setting things right, and I totally appreciate such passion. In the thick of passion, however, it is very easy to lose track of the larger picture. For me, seeing the forest first before paying attention to the trees is very important. So I’ll clarify some of the points here.

    Granted, there are many inaccuracies out there on the Internet about phở that deserve correction or at least a counterpoint. This is one main reason why I created in the first place; so I totally understand the intent of your article. But first let’s leave aside what you call the “mythos” of the French connection or lack of understanding of Viet history for a moment, and just look at the reference to the “slaughtering of cows” or the lack of it in my article above. This statement has more to do with illustrating the point that, in general, beef is an expensive ingredient in Vietnam and many could not and still cannot afford it in their daily diet. It’s just like saying “everyone loves sushi in Japan” or “Viet people like eating dog.” Now you and I know these are not true, and the meaning of the statement needs to be taken into account within the context of the subject matter being discussed. I can see how some reader may take my statement too literally, so I just added an editorial note to clarify it. The main points of the article stay intact however.

    Secondly, I don’t think I ever wrote anything remotely related to “Vietnamese do not eat trau because they are sacred work animals.” I’m not sure where this statement comes from, and don’t think it helps solidify your point.

    In the same vein (no pun intended,) your reference to thịt tái (sliced rare beef) is kind of puzzling to me. I don’t think I have ever insisted that thịt tái is primarily for pho only, so I’m not sure where your statement “To believe that is to ignore/disrespect the Viet ancestral foodways and cultural history that pre-date French occupation” come from or has anything to do with this article.

    Thirdly, con trâu (water buffalo) is not the same as con bò (cow.) In your comment and your blog post, you merge the line of difference between the two or at least you seem to use trâu and bò interchangeably to make your point. I think this is not a fair use to make an argument. In Vietnam, the water buffalos are used mainly for working the fields, while the cows can be used to work the fields and to provide food. Oops, I just made another generalization. But again it’s to make a point.

    There is no doubt trâu bò and other animals are slaughtered during special events, rituals and celebrations. But that’s exactly the point: they are for the special occasions, not an everyday occurrence.

    By the way, I don’t want to be political about it and is never about politics, but I strongly disagree with your statement of “American occupation in 1954” in your post. We are creatures of opinions, and as much as I admire your knowledge on the subject matter of pho in Nam Định, I find this one a little off-base and off-reality.

  20. Trang 28 April, 2015 at 20:25 Reply

    This is such a wonderful article !! I came across one of the most exciting article I have ever read !! I’m vietnamese myself but I do not know most of the stuff you mention above ( What a shame 🙂 but thanks to this, I learned many new things today and discover this wonderful blog. It is true that to a purist and Pho connoisseurs, the south Pho literally taste like hell. The southerner put way too many sugar in every of their dishes, and that, include Pho. Pho in the States taste like trash to me… as a Hanoian, it taste nothing like the Pho I had back home, and sometimes I came across menu that have Seafood pho, I’m just completely speechless. Not to mention the thickness of the noodle is different too. To me, if one hasn’t tried the North Pho, then they have not yet eaten the real thing 🙂 but let’s be honest, the North Pho is way better!

    p/s: your writing style is very admirable. I would love to write like you someday.

  21. Cuong 2 May, 2015 at 10:04 Reply

    @Trang: Thank you for the comments. You sound like a pho purist and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, without purists, who knows what will happen to Vietnamese pho right? Also I’m totally with you on the seafood pho thing.

    I must say though, the Southern style pho was what started this wave of pho popularity around the world in the first place. Without Southern Vietnamese refugees, I doubt if pho can become as popular as it is today outside of Vietnam. Vietnamese from South Vietnam were the ones taking pho to America and to other parts of the world back in 1975, and many of the subsequent generations don’t understand this. The reality is it makes total sense that Southern pho is growing strong, and most Americans do like this pho because they “grew up” with it in America.

    I do like the Northern style pho myself. But as a restaurateur and a pho consultant, I’d have to say that the Southern style pho has much more mass appeal. The Northern pho needs some serious marketing before it comes to anywhere near the volume the pho from the south is doing. Still, I don’t think it can unseat what’s already considered the Vietnamese pho that’s served in the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries.

  22. fero 29 December, 2015 at 03:23 Reply

    I personally do not think that Pho is from Hanoi, if you go anywhere in Hanoi or northern vietnam and you ask them where Pho bo(beef) came from… they would say Nam Dinh… but there is no historical evidence about this…
    Also be careful about adaptation of words . Northern Vietnamese do not use “nha bang” they use ngan hang…. that word is southern word.
    I personally do not think pho comes from french word. I know that vietnamese people have adapted some words but only for inventions what french people brought into Vietnam such as cars, pate, french etc… but what you have researched is quite interesting! However, the most interestingly is that France have influenced mostly central part of vietnam… thats why there are many students studying french in Hue or people who can speak french yet Southern vietnam influenced by the U.S but nothern vietnam ? i have no idea… french were there, chinese were there as well..

  23. Cuong 29 December, 2015 at 09:56 Reply

    @Fero: Very interesting viewpoints. With respect to where pho came from, it’s probably true it was Nam Định which is about 50 miles from Hanoi. For a global audience especially back in 2009, North Vietnam and Hanoi were probably more recognizable than Nam Dinh. In 2013 and 2014, in a few conversations threads above, I did mention that Nam Dinh should be the place to visit to learn more about pho. I think, like in any product and market, if I have something good to sell, I’d take it to where the big money and large market is. In the case of pho, if it actually initiated in nam Dinh, then I would take it to Hanoi, or maybe some entrepreneurial Hanoians visiting Nam Dinh took it back with them. It’s time for me to update a few sentences in the article.

    With respect to word adaptation, Vietnamese language actually has at least 2 forms, one of casual usage and the other, more formal and classical chữ Nôm or chữ nho. To me Northern Vietnamese use more of the formal/traditional words and Southern Vietnamese use more of the casual variety in everyday communication. In your example, “nha bang” is actually the casual type and “ngan hang” is the more formal form, Chinese-based chữ Nôm used in all places.

    But even more importantly, one must also consider the strong fact that, until very recently, North Vietnam has not much influence from the outside (much like North Korea now) and South Vietnam specifically Saigon was the hotbed of culture, business and educational influence and exposure from Western ways. Saigon was even called “Pearl of the Far East” or “Paris of the Orient” or some combination thereof before 1975. So to me it makes total sense that most Hanioans say “ngan hang” while most Saigonese say “nha bang” in the street.

    There is no question about Chinese influence which is still everywhere in the Vietnamese language today. With respect to your point about “many students studying french in Hue or people who can speak french” in Central Vietnam, I think it may be true today or in some cases but not always before. French was the “official” second language or (third, depending on how you look at languages in Vietnam) since the French came in and even during the Vietnam War when English was introduced in mass. Most Vietnamese (North, South, Central) did speak French fluently including myself and many people I know. I remember many people including myself attempting to learn English as the second foreign language in school. And after 1975, France was one of the most popular places for refugees to request to go.

    • Cuong 4 February, 2016 at 09:38 Reply

      @Jeff: Thanks for your inquiry. You can refer to this article or quote a part of it, as long as you cite and attribute to and Cuong Huynh as the original source. I wrote this article based on my own knowledge and research, and I’m not interested in listing out all references at this time. Thanks again for your request.

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  25. Tuan Tran 5 October, 2018 at 13:21 Reply

    “The focus of pho bac is on the taste of its clear and simple broth.”

    “The main ingredients in pho bac are the rice noodles and the thinly sliced rare beef cooked quickly in the hot broth.”

    This is wrong. The 2 sentences do not belong to the same paragraph. There’s no way you can have clear broth with rare beef unless clear as mud is what you meant by “clear.” The main protein ingredients in pho bac is brisket. That’s all. I suggest you read this well written article to get an idea.

    • Cuong 5 October, 2018 at 13:53 Reply

      @TUAN TRAN: Regarding your comment “The 2 sentences do not belong to the same paragraph”. I’m the author of this post so of course I can include these sentences in the same paragraph. That aside, I think you’re missing the point about clear pho broth. The clarity of the broth is only a requirement when it’s still in the pot. It’s a sign of a good quality soup stock being made. Needless to say, once served in a bowl with other things added and mixed in, anyone would agree that it’s not realistic and reasonable to demand the broth to remain clear right? Hope this clears it up for you, pun intended.

      The referenced article is an interesting read, but it’s from the perspective of a single person. For this reason while I respect its points and passion, I wouldn’t consider it a leading authority on pho.

      • Tuan Tran 5 October, 2018 at 14:36 Reply

        @Cuong: Yes you are the author so you can include them but that does not make it right. Again, we are talking about Pho Bac here and being Pho Bac, there’s NO other things added in. Pho Bac is served with only onion and ngo. There’s no hoisin sauce, sriracha, basil added in after. You eat it as it’s served.

        Another thing about rare beef is that besides making the broth looks like sewage water is that it alters the favor profile of the broth. The broth is a delicate balance between body and flavor. You get the body from the bones and you get the flavor from the meat. The ratio between bones and meat is very important because it gives the broth its distinct goodness. That’s why real pho bac should and must be cooked with bones that has been scraped off clean of meat lest it affects the delicate balance of the broth .

        • Cuong 5 October, 2018 at 23:24 Reply

          @TUAN TRAN: Thanks for the additional detail about pho Bac. You definitely have some extreme and narrow viewpoints. I’ve never had someone describe pho broth with rare beef looking like sewage water in a serious conversation.

          Not sure how you came about the information in the rest of your post but there are some major issues with them as well. I may address them in the future, but for now, I won’t give any rebuttal unless someone specifically requests one.

          This thread has run its course. Future posts will be moderated.

  26. Jean Wan 25 February, 2019 at 22:09 Reply

    HI Cuong

    I’m currently doing my Masters and have chosen to explore the history of Pho and how it has changed over the years including its migration to NZ . After some internet searches, I came across your article and it’s a great start.

    Are you able to share your resources please? It would be a great help for my research.


    • Cuong 28 February, 2019 at 09:17 Reply

      @Jean Wan: Thanks for reaching out. I’d be more than happy to discuss anything relating to pho, but resources are not for sharing without my having a clear understanding of your project, its goals, and what it aims to accomplish. If you want to share in detail what you want to do then I can start steering you in the right direction. If there’s a need to communicate in private about the subject matter then I can do that.

  27. Henry Trieu 18 March, 2019 at 14:54 Reply

    By the way, Alexandre de Rhodes gets all the credits on creating modern Vietnamese but he was working with Portuguese missionaries who started it first. Many influences in Portuguese can still be seen in the Vietnamese language.
    Example: the word for soap is Vietnamese is xà bông. That is from Portuguese sabão, not the French savon.
    Vietnamese’s name for days of the week begins with thứ hai, thứ ba… Meaning second day, third day… Mirroring Portuguese names for days of the week: segunda-feira, terça-feira and not French lundi, Mardi…

    • Cuong 18 March, 2019 at 22:52 Reply

      @Henry Trieu: Thanks for your input and views. I’m sure no one can achieve anything ALL on his/her own, without direct or indirect assistance, involvement, or the knowledge of others. I am not familiar with historical accounts of who else may have assisted Alexandre de Rhodes, but with all the European missionary activities going on in Vietnam during that time, it would be reasonable to say that Portuguese missionaries also left influence in the country.

      Vietnam was a colony of France for almost 70 years (ending in 1954) so the amount of influence French language and culture had on Vietnamese people was enormous. Whatever influence the Portuguese left in Vietnam before the French came would have become insignificant by 1954 and after.

      Your theories about xà bông and days of the weeks are interesting. I don’t have time to research with enough detail to agree or disagree with your theories, but it seems logical that French ways went pretty deep in Vietnamese life back then, including things like soap and days of the week.

  28. Phang Kuan Hoong 1 November, 2019 at 17:23 Reply

    Help convert their language? more like banned and wiped it out completely. Vietnam had a written language before the French. They destroyed it in the name of white man’s burden.

    • chuynh 2 November, 2019 at 11:18 Reply

      Fair comment. However the real question is, how far would/should one go back in history and apply today’s standards. There are some things we’ll want to make sure will not happen again in the future (like slavery in America) and there are other things we don’t want to or just can’t go back and fix (like Vietnamese language conversion).

      I think you may be taking issue with the word “help” and that is also a fair point. On the other hand, in recounting of historical events, the word “help” is generally and acceptably used to mean “contribute” or “play a major part in” making something happen. It’s the same as saying certain events had “helped” Hitler and the Third Reich come to power before WW2. It does not necessarily mean to praise or give support to such events or the people involved.

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