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. 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.

  2. 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.

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

    hi
    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..

  4. 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 LovingPho.com 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.

  5. 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. http://www.lasanmossard.org/thegioiinternet/2012/nguoimepho

    • 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.

  6. 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.

    Regards

    • 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.

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