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The Delicious History of Phở in 10 Facts

Michele Debczak
Phở is a dish with a fascinating history.
Phở is a dish with a fascinating history. / SamuelBrownNG // iStock via Getty Images Plus
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Phở is a delicious dish, but it also tells us a lot about the history of Vietnam, and about how cultures collide. Here are a few facts you can drop the next time you enjoy a bowl.

1. The name phở might have French origins.

Feu is the French word for fire, and pot-au-feu is the name of a rustic beef stew in French cuisine. Some people argue that the similarity of phở and feu shows that the Vietnamese soup was directly inspired by the French.

It’s easy to see why they’d draw that conclusion. France colonized Vietnam from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century, and it had a big impact on Vietnamese cuisine, from the baguettes used for banh mi to the Vietnamese names for ingredients the French introduced to the country. Potatoes, for example, are known as khoai tây in Vietnam, which can be translated as “Western yam.”

2. Or phở could come from Cantonese—it’s kind of complicated.

Not everyone is convinced that phở comes from the French, though. Before phở, a noodle soup known as xao trâu, made with slices of water buffalo meat, was already popular in Vietnam, according to an essay by Dung Quang Trinh. Because so many of the street vendors selling the soup were Chinese, a Vietnamese-Cantonese name for the dish, ngưu nhục phấn, or “beef with rice noodles,” was often used.

Trinh suggests that, over time, that name may have been shortened to phấn a or phốn ơ, and finally settled into one word, phở. One reason why it wouldn’t go by phấn? It might sound a little too much like phân, which means poop. Not a very appealing thing to be yelling out to attract customers.

So while Chinese and French culture might have both helped influence phở, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the word came from.

3. Phở is a melting pot, in more ways than one.

Before French colonization, beef wasn't very common in Vietnamese food. It was more common to have cattle work the fields than to slaughter them for dinner. When the French arrived, they brought with them their love of beef, and it became a lot more widely available. Using the bones that were left over from beef production was a simple and economical way to infuse flavor into a dish. The addition of rice noodles and aromatics like onion, ginger, star anise, and cardamom help transform the simple beef broth into a complex and comforting meal.

4. It’s a Northern/Southern thing.

The early phở that originated in Northern Vietnam is called phở bac. It consists of rice noodles, a clear broth made from beef and spices, and some thinly sliced beef on top.

Phở nam, or southern-style phở, didn’t appear until South Vietnam was split from North Vietnam in 1954. Southern Vietnamese cooks are generally a lot more liberal with their garnishes and condiments, which can include Thai basil, cilantro, lime, bean sprouts, chili peppers, fish sauce, and hoisin.

5. Phở ga came around later.

Perhaps the biggest change South Vietnam brought to phở was the introduction of phở ga, or chicken phở. There are still probably people who will tell you that phở bo, or beef phở, is the only authentic version of the dish, but today, regional variations on phở are embraced throughout Vietnam, including duck phở, grilled liver phở, and even red wine phở.

6. Vendors once sold secret phở.

In the 1950s, the Communist Party took over many businesses in Vietnam, including phở stalls. At the time, the Soviet Union was sending potato and wheat flour to Vietnam, and government authorities decreed that all noodles had to be made with one of these flours—rice flour was off-limits. The food writer Andrea Nguyen tells the story of frustrated phở fans and the cooks who catered to them. Some stalls apparently developed a system where they presented the potato noodles up front to avoid unwanted attention from the authorities, but circulated instructions to customers on how to order from their secret stash of rice noodles.

7. Some American soldiers during the Vietnam War unknowingly ate phở at a secret meeting place for the Viet Cong.

During the Vietnam War—or the American War, as it’s sometimes known in Vietnam—Phở Binh was a popular place to grab a hot bowl of traditional phở bo. The restaurant was just a few hundred feet down the road from the U.S. Military Police headquarters in what was then Saigon, and U.S. soldiers were known to sometimes eat there.

What those soldiers didn’t know was that one of the servers ladling out their beef noodle soup was Ngo Toai, a leader of the Vietnamese resistance. Toai had established the floor above the restaurant as a secret meeting place for the city's Viet Cong. The Tet Offensive, one of the largest and most important military campaigns of the war, was in part planned there in 1968—all while U.S. soldiers were downstairs slurping their noodles, none the wiser.

8. War changed phở.

During the war with the United States, meat was scarce, so phở shops in Vietnam began serving up vegetarian phở made with MSG-seasoned broth. It was dubbed phở không người lái, or “phở without a pilot,” a reference to the unmanned reconnaissance drones used by the U.S. Air Force.

9. The end of the Vietnam War was a new beginning for phở.

Following the fall of Saigon in 1975, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Vietnam. When they settled in countries like Australia, Canada, and the United States, their career options were often limited. Opening a restaurant required fewer credentials than other industries did, so it became a common path for many Vietnamese immigrants who needed to make a living.

The first phở shops that opened in the so-called Little Saigon communities of places like California mainly catered to other immigrants in the area. The dish didn’t really take off with America’s broader dining public until the end of the 20th century, when American tourists began visiting Vietnam in greater numbers. Then president Bill Clinton expedited the rise of the dish in the West when he ordered a bowl of chicken phở on a trip to Vietnam in 2000. Today, phở is a household name in America, even if many Americans still can’t pronounce that name right.

10. Phở is popular around the world.

Even McDonald’s has its own take on the recipe: a phở burger that was added to the menu of its restaurants in Vietnam in 2020. The item consists of two beef patties, a McMuffin-style egg, and herbs like cilantro. The beefy condiment that comes with the burger is supposedly phở broth that’s been reduced down to a thick sauce.

This list has been adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.

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