The hundred-years-journey of Pho

3 years ago 3394

A steaming bowl of pho (“phở” - kind of Vietnamese noodle soup) is definitely a stunning highlight of any Vietnam tour. Pho appears popularly in all travel guides as a must-try or not-to-be-missed-dish in Vietnam. It always comes out on top of highly recommended list by the locals, a signature dish for foreign tourists to explore the superb fusion of Vietnamese cuisine. 

But have you ever curious about how pho was before its unique and fabulous flavor was defined as today? Let follow us to track back the earlydays of its hundred-years-journey of development. 

Origin of pho

Some think the former of pho is a kind of beef noodle soup  called “牛肉粉” which originated from Guangdong (China). “粉” means rice noodle which pronounces “fen” similarly to the word of “phở”. 

Beef noodle soup (“牛肉粉”) from Guangdong (China)

Others think the name pho (pronounced fir) came from a French dish called “Pot au Feu”.

 "Pot au feu" or French beef stew

In a seminar themed “Vietnam Heritage: Pho” (2002), Mr. Nguyen Dinh Rao, Chairman of UNESCO Vietnamese Cuisine Club assumed that Phở orginated from Nam Dinh Province. According to him, 70-80% of stores selling pho in Vietnam are centralized in Van Cu Village, Nam Dinh. Elders living in this village said that pho has appeared very long time ago there but only became famous during the French colonical period. Hawkers carried two wooden boxes: one to store bowls, cooking ingredients and the other to put a big hot spot of soup on firing stove. The special broth was made of bones, prawns and a kind of marine worm called “sá sùng” (peanut worm). In 1925, Mr.Van was the first Nam Dinh person move to Hanoi to open a store selling pho near by the Sword Lake (“Hồ Gươm”).    


Hawkers with their carriers

A mobile vendor selling pho

In the book named “Stories of hundred-years-old Thang Long – Hanoi”, the author Sieu Hai (born in 1924 in Hanoi) wrote: “The former of pho is a dish called “xáo trâu” or “bún xáo trâu” (rice vermicelli with buffalo meat) which was popular to the commoners in rural and poor hamlets of Hanoi.” According to his explanation, at that time, Vietnamese preferred to foods made of pigs or chickens. Only French had beef as food. Therefore the price of beef was very cheap. To cut down costs, hawkers started to try beef to replace with buffalo meat. But beef seemed not to get well as combining with rice vermicelli so they tried with steamed rice paper (“bánh cuốn”) instead. Surprisingly, the new combination was welcomed by eaters and became more and more popular.

Though, there are many different theories of the origin of “Phở” to come into the inclusion but certainly that there is no doubt about the unique vibrant cachet of Vietnamese cuisine reflecting in the dish.  

History of development

At the beginning of the 20th century, water navigation was very developing with many routes from Hanoi to Hai Phong, Nam Dinh and Phu Lang Thuong (Lang Son). Following was the increasing numbers of hawkers centralized in river ports. And “Xáo trâu” or “Bún xáo trâu” (rice vermicelli with buffalo meat) is the most favourite one. The image of hawkers with mobile carriers of phở became popular in Hanoi then other nearby urban areas.

Before 1930, the name of “Phở” was officially appeared in a Vietnamese dictionary.

At the beginning, pho was served with well-cooked beef but then gradually changed to rare-cooked beef. After 1954, well-cooked beef rice noodle soup was given way to rare-cooked one, the most common and favourite version of pho.

Also, there was some innovation trying applied during this period to create new flavor of pho but unfortunately most of them were failed.

Beef stew in red wine having with “phở” was one of a few interesting and accepted combination. In 1939, some stores started trying to replace beef with chicken. Some also tryied with pho in stir-fried version.

Beef stew in red wine rice noodle soup ("Phở bò sốt vang"), an interesting combination of Western and Asian cuisine

As results of war incidents and the movement waves of immigration, pho was introduced to the southern. Southern-style of pho defined its own charateristics by adding bean sprouts, cilantro, cinnamon basil, hoisin sauce and hot chili sauce.

Southern-style of "Phở" with beautiful garnishes

In the aftermath of Vietnam War (after1975), it was remarked a new development period of pho – Globalization. As the arrival of Vietnamese Boat-People in new countries, pho began to enter overseas markets such as Paris, major cities in the United States, Canada and Australia.

Pho today

In the early 21th century, many restaurants specializing in pho appeared providing new experience for fans of pho. Proffesional image including elegant decoration, air-conditionors rooms and identical signboards; and especialy food safety are significant factors these restaurants chains would like to offer their customers.

As time went on, an evolution of pho was seen either inside or outside of Vietnam. Although the basic ingredients were retained, the recipes were adapted to suit whatever ingredients were available. Pho has taken on an adaptive nature. You even can find a new version of Pho having with ostrich fillet or seafoods.

But for connoisseurs, any changes far away from the traditional recipes would not appeal its distinct and layered flavors. There is no doubt that you can only find the great and authentic tasting of pho from local street vendors.


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Did you know?

Cape Ca Mau (Ca Mau Province) is not the southernmost point of Vietnam mainland anymore due to the upland or landslide varies. The new defined point is at Khai Long Beach (Ray Hamlet, Ngoc Hien Dist.) , about 10km away Cape Ca Mau.