Pho: Common “name card” of Vietnamese

Just as Italy has spaghetti, France has croissant, and China has dim sum, Vietnam has pho as a delicacy to offer to the world’s gourmets.

A bowl of pho – one of the best Vietnamese food (Photo: saigontravelguides)
A bowl of pho – one of the best Vietnamese food (Photo: saigontravelguides)

Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup usually served with beef or chicken, came into existence in North Vietnam in the early 20th century and then spread to the South in mid 1950s. The soup includes rice noodles and is often served with basil, lime, bean sprouts, and peppers that are added to the soup by the eater.

National dish

While a distinctive Vietnamese dish, pho is said to have French and Chinese influences, according to two theories that both explain the origin of the word “pho.” Nguyen Tung, a Vietnamese anthropologist based in Paris, supports the theory that says the name originates from “fun” in Chinese (Cantonese), which means noodle.

Under this assumption, it was likely that Chinese refugees who flocked into Vietnam in the late 19th century brought pho with them, as well as many other dishes which were later Vietnamized, including “hủ tiếu” (kuyteav), “hoành thánh” (wonton), “xá xíu” (char siew), “lạp xưởng” (Chinese sausage), “nước tương” (soy sauce), and “lẩu” (hot pot ), etc.

Meanwhile, the other theory speculates the name comes from the French “feu” (fire), as in the dish pot-au-feu French troops brought into Vietnam in the late 19th century. The supporter of the theory was R.W. Apple, Jr., the late correspondent and editor at The New York Times, who wrote about war and revolution, politics and government, and food and drink.

I, the author* of this article, still wonder which theory is closer to the truth. The noodle soup of the Chinese does not pay much attention to the quality of the stock, while the pot-au-feu of the French has good broth but it uses vegetables instead of rice noodles. Is it likely that the Vietnamese made the best use of both of them to make the unique pho for their own? Anyway, pho has long become one of the best traditional food in Vietnam and can be enjoyed anytime and anywhere.

Half a century ago, writer and gourmet Nguyen Tuan (1910-1987) wrote: “Morning, noon, afternoon, evening or night can be an excellent time for having pho. During the day, eating a bowl of pho is as enjoyable as drinking a cup of tea while talking with close friends. Pho is so delicious that hardly anyone would refuse an invitation for a pho. For low income people, they can easily entertain their friends to it without the worry of being out of pocket.”

Thus, pho can be regarded as the soul and symbol of Vietnamese cuisine in anywhere in the world, from small eateries in Hanoi, the cradle of the noodle soup, to large shopping centers in the US’s Orange County or the Left Bank of Paris, France. Nowadays, pho is not only a popular dish for Vietnamese people but also among the choices of gourmets in many other countries at any time, day or night. Moreover, pho has also become an entry in both English and French dictionaries. 

Pho follows Vietnamese migrants to the world

In a certain extent, the spread of pho around the world had a connection with the country’s history in the 20th century. It appears that pho came into existence in Vienam in 1910-1912, right before many Vietnamese young people were forced to emigrate to France to help the "mother country" fight against Germany during World War I.

About thirty years later, when World Ward II came to its end, many Vietnamese soldiers in the French army were naturalized in France and then settled down in France or its colonies. It was the second generation of Vietnamese immigrants who brought pho to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and even Micronesia, an island country in Western Pacific region. By the 1950s và 1960s, it was not difficult to find a Vietnamese restaurant with pho in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Pondichery or New Caledonia.

In 1954, when the Geneva Accord was signed, dividing Vietnam at the 17th parallel, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people moved from north to south and vice versa. Northerners introduced their flavored noodle soup to Southerners who then modified the specialty by adding sprout, basil, thorny cilantro, and some other spices. 

During some years after 1975, when the Vietnam War ended, millions of people left Vietnam to settle down in many other countries. Today, there are about 4 million overseas Vietnamese, or around 5 percent of the country’s population of 86 million. Over half of all overseas Vietnamese are living in the U.S., where a great deal of pho restaurants owned by Vietnamese immigrants has contributed to bringing the Vietnamese traditional dish to the American gourmets.

However, it is not only in the US but also in other countries where there are Vietnamese communities, from Denmark to New Zealand or from Japan to Israel, that pho has emerged as one of the favorite dishes of local people. 

* The author of this article: Vu Duc Vuong, a writer and teacher in California, the U.S.

Other news