Pho is so elemental to Vietnamese culture that people talk about it in terms of romantic relationships. Rice is the dutiful wife you can rely on, we say. Pho is the flirty mistress you slip away to visit.
I once asked my parents about this comparison. My dad shook his hips to illustrate the mistress. My mom laughed and quipped, “Pho is fun, but you can’t have it every day. You would get bored. All things in moderation.”
The soup first seduced me in 1974, when I perched on a wooden bench at my parents’ favorite pho joint and wielded chopsticks and spoon with dexterity and determination. The shop owners marveled; Mom and Dad beamed with pride. I was five years old.
The fragrant broth, savory beef, and springy rice noodles captivated me as I emptied the bowl. I was comforted, enriched, just like countless others who’ve tasted the national dish of Vietnam. But when we immigrated to the States in 1975, there were no neighborhood pho shops to frequent in San Clemente, California, where my family resettled. My pho forays were often homemade, for Sunday brunch.
Pho became an extra-special food that we savored. My mother brewed beef or chicken pho on Saturday. Then, the next morning, she’d marshal us kids into a pho assembly line. Our homemade soup was accompanied by fresh chili slices and a few mint sprigs. The simplicity reflected my parents’ upbringing in Northern Vietnam, where purity and plainness prevail. They’d lived in liberal Saigon for decades, but they didn’t allow pho embellishments like bean sprouts, Thai basil, or lime wedges. And definitely no sriracha, which Mom deemed un-Vietnamese.
As a college student in Los Angeles, I went to pho restaurants that served up giant bowls with plates piled high with garnishes for diners to personalize flavors. Flummoxed at first, I learned to loosen up, even at the sight of someone squirting hoisin and sriracha into their bowl. I practiced making my own, developed recipes for my first cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (2006), researched and wrote articles on pho in Vietnam, answered reporter and blogger queries, and taught pho classes to countless cooks.
I figured that I knew what pho was all about until friends, Facebook fans, and then my publisher suggested that I write a pho cookbook. Seriously? What was there to present beyond the familiar bowl? As it turned out, a lot. It didn’t take me long to realize that the world of pho was unusually rich with culinary and cultural gems.
Vietnam is a country with a history spanning more than 3,500 years, but pho is a relatively new food. It was born at the beginning of the twentieth century in and around Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, located in the northern part of the country.
The magical moment happened prior to 1910, as evidenced by images of pho vendors published in Technique du Peuple Annamite (Mechanics and Crafts of the Vietnamese People) (1908–1910), by Henri J. Oger. As a colonial administrator posted in Hanoi, he commissioned artisans and wood-carvers to document life in the city and the surrounding countryside. Their multivolume effort included more than four thousand scenes, two of which were of pho vendors.
But what was the source of the original pho? Some say that long before pho was popularized on the streets of Hanoi, it was being prepared in Nam Dinh, an agricultural province located about fifty-five miles southeast of Hanoi. The village and province produced generations of pho masters, many of whom relocated to the capital to open well-regarded pho shops. Other theories exist, but what is certain is that pho was created from a collision of circumstances.
A reasonable explanation of pho’s origins was presented in “100 Nam Pho Viet” (“100 Years of Pho”), a historical essay by Trinh Quang Dung. In the Hanoi area during the early 1900s, there was a lot of interaction between the Vietnamese, French, and Chinese from the neighboring Guangdong and Yunnan provinces. The French, who officially occupied Vietnam from the 1880s to 1954,
satiated their desires for tender steaks by slaughtering cows, which the Vietnamese traditionally used as draft animals. The leftover bones and scraps were salvaged and sold by a handful of Hanoi butchers.
Locals hadn’t yet developed a taste for beef, and the butchers had to promote it via special deals and sales. Street vendors who were already selling noodle soup recognized an opportunity to offer something new.
At that time, a noodle soup called xao trau was very popular. It was simply made, with slices of water-buffalo meat cooked in broth and rice vermicelli. Vendors began swapping beef for water buffalo and trading flat rice noodles for round rice vermicelli.
The new noodle soup was often prepared and sold by Chinese food vendors who roamed the streets looking for customers. Many of the initial pho customers were Chinese workers whose livelihoods were tied to French and Chinese merchant ships that sailed up and down the Red River from Yunnan Province past the edge of Hanoi into the Gulf of Tonkin, connecting a diverse group of people.
French and Chinese merchant ships employed many Yunnanese, who likely identified nguu nhuc phan as being akin to Yunnan’s “crossing the bridge” noodles (rice noodles, super-hot broth, meat, and vegetables). The beef noodle soup caught on with the Chinese workers and, soon thereafter, with workers hired by Bach Thai Buoi, a legendary Viet industrialist who favored employing ethnic Vietnamese as an advantage over his Chinese and French competitors. The popularity of the dish spread as the number of street-food vendors rose in response to Hanoi’s colonial urbanization, according to historian Erica Peters. The initial pho shops opened in the bustling Old Quarter (the main commercial hub). Nam Dinh–style pho shops showed up around 1925, when a skilled cook from Van Cu opened a storefront in Hanoi. Soon thereafter, pho could be found throughout the city.
So how did nguu nhuc phan become pho? It is likely that as the dish caught on, the street hawkers became more competitive and abbreviated their distinctive calls as a means to attract customers. “Nguu nhuc phan day” (“beef and rice noodles here”) was shortened to “nguu phan a,” then “phan a,” or “phon o,” and finally settled into one word, pho. In a Vietnamese dictionary published around 1930, the entry for pho defined it as a dish of thinly sliced noodles and beef, its name having been derived from phan, the Cantonese word for flat rice noodle. It’s been suggested that pho arose because when phan is mispronounced or misheard, it can mean “excrement.”
The term pho is not French in origin, despite claims that the pronunciation bears resemblance to feu (fire in French, as in pot au feu). A more plausible Franco-Viet connection is the technique of charring ginger and onion or shallot for pho broth.
One last note about terminology: pho not only refers to the noodle soup, but is also shorthand for the dish’s flat rice noodles, banh pho. The word’s dual culinary meanings are telling. Pho is not only about the soup, but also about the rice noodle and its many glorious manifestations.
Protest and Political Pho
Foreign occupation, the French–Indochina War, civil war (the Vietnam War), reunification, and rebuilding: the twentieth century was tumultuous for Vietnam.
During the 1930s, many authors and poets in Hanoi resisted the French occupation with their pens. In 1934, one of the country’s distinguished poets, Tu Mo, published “Pho Duc Tung” (“An Ode to Pho”). A nationalistic satirist, Tu Mo wanted to convey Viet pride and eople’s desire for justice and self–determination. After espousing the unique deliciousness of pho, how it arouses the senses, and how its bone broth nourishes the rich and poor as well as artists, singers, and prostitutes, he concluded with these lines, which I have loosely translated:
Don’t downgrade pho by labeling
it a humble food,
Even the city of Paris has to
Compared to other international foods of note,
It is delicious yet inexpensive,
and is often crowned the best.
Living in this world without eating pho is foolish,
Upon death, the altar offerings should include it.
Now go savor pho, or you shall crave it.
When the French Colonial period ended in 1954 and the Geneva Accords partitioned the country into North and South Vietnam, about a million Northerners migrated southward, heralding the arrival of Hanoi-style pho to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Saigonese were familiar with pho by 1950, but proud Northerners like my mother say that pho wasn’t popularized there until they showed up. Restaurants named “Pho 54” give a nod to that important marker in Vietnamese history and cuisine.
In the agriculturally rich and freewheeling South, pho broth developed a sweet edge as cooks added a touch of Chinese rock sugar. Southerners also liked a lot of accessories: bean sprouts, Thai basil, chili sauce, and a hoisin-like fermented bean sauce. Northerners were aghast. The new additions desecrated their well-balanced, delicate soup. To this day, the regional pho fight between Hanoi and Saigon (North versus South) rages on.
At the same time, the late 1950s were cruel to pho in Hanoi. The Communist Party nationalized many businesses for the sake of social reform. The Soviet Union sent economic aid, including a lot of potato and wheat flour. Xuan Phuong, a former Party loyalist, recounted that era’s pho in her compelling 2004 memoir, Ao Dai: My War, My Country, My Vietnam:
The supply service even prohibited restaurants from making real pho under the pretext that it wasted rice.
The soup that was presented to replace it was made of rotten rice noodles, a little bit of tough meat, and a tasteless broth. Even so, it was necessary to line up in order to get any. Oftentimes, the woman who served you would just dump the soup ladle into your bowl and shower your clothes.
To avoid people stealing spoons, someone even came up with the idea of piercing a hole in the middle of them: the soup had to be gulped down very quickly, for if not, it all dribbled out before it got into your mouth. The chopsticks were never washed and tables were never cleaned. From there on, to designate something that was dirty, one would say, “It’s disgusting, like the state pho,” although, to tell the truth, we considered ourselves already fortunate enough to have the means to buy any. As for the small street peddlers, they no longer had the right to sell pho, but instead, a vile soup in which there were noodles made of potato flour. Fortunately, the people of Hanoi were too bent on trade to endure this for long.
Little by little, the rules were overlooked. To deceive controllers, the street merchants placed a small basket of those shriveled-up noodles on display. But the pho, the real stuff, was underneath. It was almost as good as it had used to be and hardly more expensive than the substitute. We all passed on our list of secret addresses. “I would like a bowl of soup with potato flour noodles,” we would say out loud, just in case any state
officials were hanging around. The merchant would understand immediately. But then the pho had to be downed very quickly to keep the unfortunate man or woman from having his or her equipment seized, as well as a fine to pay.
During the Vietnam War, a different kind of pho underground operated in Saigon. Starting around 1965, a Viet Cong spy cell operated out of Pho Binh (“peace noodles”). The seven-table joint was the Communist nerve center for carrying out the city’s part in the 1968 Tet Offensive. According to a 2010 Los Angeles Times article, Pho Binh was a hub for organizing and transporting weapons from secure northern sources to bunkers in Saigon.
In Hanoi, wartime scarcity forced state-run pho shops to make the soup without meat. In 1962, after the U.S. began sending unmanned reconnaissance planes to photograph North Vietnam, locals mockingly called their meager soup pho khong nguoi lai, literally “pho without a pilot.” A bowl of pho noodle soup is defined by its protein (you order pho by the cuts of beef or with chicken), and meatless pho seemed as surreal, if not as absurd, as a drone aircraft.
Wartime pho in Hanoi was served with leftover cold rice, baguette, and fried breadsticks (banh quay) in place of rice noodles. My cousin Huy Le Do, a Hanoi native in his late fifties, recalls the state-run pho shops as producing deplorable soup, whereas street pho operators were much better, though at a steep price. The breadsticks, he noted, were procured by Chinese vendors who spotted an opportunity to inject some richness into an otherwise sad pho experience.
Huy and his friend, a poet named Giang Van, lived through those hard times, as well as the lean years after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. The nation was reunified as one, but its economy was in shambles. Food was rationed and people stood in line for nearly everything, including pho. Over tea at Giang Van’s literary café, they wistfully discussed their longing for the elegant simplicity of Hanoi foodways: smallish portions of flat rice noodles, savory yet slightly sweet broth, and sliced cooked beef. “No fried breadsticks, condiments, or other extra things. Traditional Hanoi style is pure and delicate,” Giang Van said.
Culinary and Cultural Pho
Pho is about tradition as much as it is about change. It comforts as well as provokes.
The original pho was a simple bowl of broth, noodles, and boiled beef. Then cooks began offering slices of rare beef as an optional add-on. In the late 1920s, people debated the merits of pho featuring Chinese five-spice, sesame oil, tofu, and ca cuong (a pear-scented water-beetle pheromone). Around 1930, pho xao don—pan-fried pho rice noodles topped with a saucy beef and vegetable stir-fry—was introduced and received well.
Things got heated in 1939, when pho restaurants began selling chicken pho (pho ga). It usually happened on Mondays and Fridays, and was likely due to the government forbidding the sale of beef in order to control the slaughtering of draft animals for food. Purists initially decried chicken pho as being un-pho-like, but in the end, it prevailed as a worthy and tasty preparation in its own right. In fact, some pho shops eventually decided to specialize in pho ga.
Other versions of pho, such as pho with beef stewed in red wine (pho sot vang) and sour pho (pho chua), never totally caught on. Indeed, beef pho remains the favorite, and chicken pho ranks second, but Vietnamese cooks are always innovating. In Hanoi, family-owned, multigenerational pho shops do a brisk business, but young people are keen on nontraditional preparations, such as fresh pho noodle rolls, chicken pho noodle salad, and deep-fried pho noodles.
In Saigon, where there are pho concerns large and small, happy customers slurp away morning, noon, and night. Tourists flock to Pho 2000, where former president Bill Clinton ate, while locals patronize favorites like Pho Le and Pho Hoa Pasteur. Arty and modern Ru Pho Bar presents pho made with brown rice noodles. Customers at Pho Hai Thien may order pho with a rainbow of noodles tinted by vegetable juices.
Reunification of North and South Vietnam via the 1975 Communist takeover led to a mass exodus of refugees, many of whom settled in North America, France, and Australia. Like my family, they reinforced their cultural roots through pho, opening and patronizing small joints in Little Saigon enclaves, cooking up their own at home, and introducing the noodle soup to new friends. Viet-owned pho restaurants present traditional broths and freshly made banh pho noodles, but also try out new ideas, such as crawfish pho, sous vide beef pho, and pho fried rice.
Mainstream supermarkets in the U.S. carry pho kits and instant pho bowls. Non-Vietnamese chefs are serving pho in restaurants while home cooks try their hands at making it themselves. The widespread availability of fish sauce and rice noodles at markets, ethnic grocers, and on the Internet makes DIY pho doable.
Meanwhile, novelists and artists around the world produce pho-focused and pho-infused projects. In The Beauty of Humanity Movement, Camilla Gibb’s story about art, love, and politics in Hanoi revolves around the life of a pho vendor. In Australia, community arts organizer Cuong Le curated the multimedia I Love Pho exhibit. On Kickstarter, experimental artist Sabzi rapped “Wassup Pham” for a campaign to create a pho-inspired pop-art series called “Pho 99.” Omid Sadri crowdfunded a clever stackable pho bowl called “Lantern.” In 2014, Richie Le released “The Pho Song,” featuring a YouTube video of young Asian-Americans telling the story of pho and the Vietnamese diaspora.
As the saying goes, my relationship with pho began as a dalliance—a sometimes indulgence. When I first started writing about pho, I didn’t know how much I would have to say. Now I can’t stop talking about it.