Someone wrote on Quora asking the question:

Why didn't Vietnamese use the "Vietnamese Soup" or "Vietnamese Noodle Soup" names for their pho when they brought the delicious food into the US?

I know I know. Questions on Quora can be pretty stupid. On the other hand, there may be gross ignorance or misconception behind a question, so there's real opportunity to provide good information and context so that others may understand the topic better. So here are my views on this question.

There are really 2 separate things going on here.

Pho is it noodle or soup

Why Call It Pho Instead Of Vietnamese Soup Or Vietnamese Noodle Soup?

Firstly, “soup” is more of a Western concept. In Asian cuisines in general, and Viet cuisine in particular, almost all of these noodle-in-broth dishes are really noodle dishes. They are mainly a meal in themselves, whether you have pho, or bun bo Hue or bun rieu. Not many Vietnamese actually have one of these bowls, then order another main dish. The noodle bowl was, and still is, the meal.

In Vietnamese, there is a thing called “canh”, a catch-all broth dish of countless variations that is normally served at the table among the other communal dishes. While some individuals may eat canh all by itself (maybe with some rice or noodle added if that’s what they want/have), most Viet enjoy canh during or to end the meal.

When the French came to Vietnam way back when, they had “soupe”, and we naturally use “súp” as the Vietnamese version of it. When the American came, the English “soup” became again just “súp”. Very convenient. To be clear though, having some soup before the main course is again a very Western concept.

By the way, noodle houses can be found in Asia, but probably never in the Western world, or maybe even anywhere else.

The point of all this is, to Vietnamese people, pho is not a soup dish the way Westerners may think of soup as.

Now on to the second thing.

Once Vietnamese refugees came to the U.S. beginning in 1975, Vietnamese/pho restaurants were opened to serve mainly the Viet community. There was no need to call pho anything other than pho, and in these early days, many restaurants didn’t even need an English version of their menus. Viet people did bring pho to the U.S., but only by accident, and definitely not to sell to Americans as a goal.

To be sure, there were American-born and non-Viet customers, including Vietnam vets, who did know about pho or were adventurous enough to enter a Viet restaurant and tried it. But their numbers were miniscule in the grand scheme of things.

Fast forward to around 25-30 years later, in the early to mid 2000’s. This was when the Internet and personal blogging boom occurred, which gave pho much wider visibility and publicity. Subsequently, the foodie movement played a major role in bringing and promoting pho (and many other obscure dishes) to the mass. And with publicity comes more curious customers and fans.

This is where we are today. You can find pho restaurants in all corners of North America, Australia and Europe. You can find pho restaurants run by non-Viet owners. And you can find “pho-inspired” and “banh mi-inspired” influence in many non-Asian dining establishments. And of course you can find menu descriptions to suit the expanded customer base. Hence "Vietnamese Soup" or "Vietnamese Noodle Soup”.

It’s still one of my pet peeves, but there you have it.

Would love to hear your comments and feedback below.

6 comments

  1. SouptionFL 23 June, 2019 at 10:47 Reply

    Very thorough writeup. I learned some new things today. haha

    Totally agree about pho not being a soup. I have friends who actually order pho, plus a main course type dish like a rice plate or pan fried noodle, sometime banh mi. They always end up taking the leftover home.

    • Cuong 24 June, 2019 at 15:29 Reply

      Yes I have seen people do similar things. One time someone complained why the soup is huge and because of that, he can’t even start eating his main course. Another time, I see a sort of fusion/fine dining restaurant (non-Asian) that has a cup of pho in their Soups section. I had a good laugh LOL.

  2. kinokox 17 August, 2019 at 14:41 Reply

    well, specific dish have it specific name.
    Like in case you know someone name, you call them with their name.
    You not call them by something like: every Asian girl is “Asian girl” or call every American girl is “American girl” (in case you KNOW their name!)
    However i still don’t know how the word “pudding” in UK work!? XD haha, a lot of dessert but they all called “pudding” =))

    • Cuong 19 August, 2019 at 22:55 Reply

      @ kinokox When it comes to a lady’s name, regardless of where she may come from, I’m always extra careful to get it right for sure. And I’m glad not to have to worry about British pudding very often.

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