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 Wikipedia.com

Street vendor pho ga in Ha Noi. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.com

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.

42 comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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

    Hello,
    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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

    http://realfoodrealpho.blogspot.com/2013/04/real-food-real-pho.html

  6. 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 lovingpho.com 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 lovingpho.com 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.

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