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The truth about Phở – from a different angle

The truth about Pho
Last Update: September 2020
4 minute read


The national dish of Vietnam is globalized. Everybody knows Phở, everybody loves Phở. Instagram is flooded with the steaming bowls and a trendy, cool, young crowd consuming it with chopsticks and a Chinese soup spoon. Phở is hot!

I won’t deny it, like anyone else I also like a good hearty bowl of the fragrant deliciousness. However, I’ve noticed that with increased popularity the BS increased as well. I don’t understand the hype. After all, isn’t Phở just noodle soup?



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Origin of Phở


So much is written about Phở and a lot of it is contradicting. Of course the hype needs an interesting origin story. In the case of Phở, there are several.

First, one source says that the dish was introduced in the North of Vietnam by a small community near the Red River.

Another source claims that the French, during colonization, indulged on beef stew (pot-au-feu), leaving only bones and scraps for the poor local population. The locals used the bones and scraps to make a soup and named it Phở, which is pronounced “fuh”, much like the “feu” in the French dish “pot-au-feu”.


The truth about Phở
Phở sellers used to carry their their makeshift kitchen on their shoulder

Finally, a third source talks about Chinese workers bringing the soup to Northern Vietnam early 20th century. Because the Chinese were already eating noodle soup for ages back home, they developed a craving for the soup when they migrated to Vietnam. So, they started to cook with local ingredients and Phở was born, named after a corruption of the Chinese “ngau yuk fan”, meaning “cow meat noodles”.

The latter claim seems most likely, since Chinese migrants introduced noodles and noodle soup in about every other South East Asian country as well. Flavors evolved according to the region, because one had to work with ingredients that were locally available.


The best Vietnamese food is to be found in Vietnam itself (duh!). To get to Vietnam is easy, since both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have international airports with regular flights from all directions. Check the Skyscanner website for the full schedule of all incoming and outgoing flights.

For international and domestic busses/trains to Vietnam’s major cities it’s best to use 12Go.com to book your tickets online. Skip the lines at the bus station!



Globalization


In a way, noodle soup is like pizza or hamburger. All three of them are globalized dishes that are more or less the same anywhere in the world. Even if there are differences in toppings and recipes, they are still named pizza and hamburger everywhere. Noodle soup however, has a different name in every country or region.

  • Cambodia: Nom Banh Chok (fish based) and Kuy Teav

  • Malaysia: Laksa

  • Thailand: Kuai Tiao Ruea (boat noodles)

  • Myanmar: Mohinga (fish based)

  • Laos: Khao Poon


The truth about Phở
Thai boat noodles – It looks like Phở, smells like Phở, even tastes like Phở.

Is Phở better than other noodle soups?


The above leads me to the following question. If Phở is just another noodle soup, why is it hyped so much, instead of for instance Laksa or Thai Boat Noodles?

Does it have more historical value than noodle soup from other countries? Not so much. Again, noodle soup already existed a long time before Phở came along.

Does it taste better? That’s a hard one, since taste is subjective and influenced by the chef and locality. I would answer this with “not really”.

Is it of higher quality? Well, there certainly is high quality Phở around, as there is abominable. Exactly the same can be said for local noodle soups in just about any country.

So , the question still stands. Why is Phở hyped so much?



Marketing


Actually, my observation is that the hype started when Bill Clinton visited a Ho Chi Minh City eatery in 2000. Then president Clinton and his daughter Chelsea ate a bowl of the soup there. Ever since that heavily marketed event the global hype for Phở took off.

You think that’s far fetched? Next time you’re in Ho Chi Minh City visit the now renamed eatery “Phở 2000” and witness the huge (American) crowds that flock there. Incidentally, the Phở there is terrible.

The same thing happened again with another Vietnamese dish. In 2016, then president Obama and Anthony Bourdain attracted a lot of media attention when they sampled Bun Cha (grilled pork over noodles) at restaurant Bun cha Huong Lien in Hanoi.

Hence, the restaurant is now overrun by instagramming Americans and Bun Cha is a complete hype.




Conclusion


Phò comes in many varieties. Some are good, some are better, others are definitely not. The same goes for noodle soup all over South East Asia.

Phở is just another noodle soup after all.




Do you know of a good Phở place in your hometown? Share it with us in the comments below so we can visit next time we’re around. For the best Phở in Phnom Penh (my hometown), you should check out Phở Fortune.


“Laksa” is the noodle soup in Malaysia and Singapore. Read more about the distinctive flavors of Laksa in my article “Peranakan and Nyonya Food“.


Safe travels!


RJ


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4 Responses

  1. Annie Vo says:

    Hi RJ,
    Please edit this post. What you wrote means whore in Vietnamese . The correct spelling for the dish is phở. It’s pretty sad that you’ve done all the research yet failed to research the proper spelling of the Vietnamese word for the dish. If you were to spell it please leave out the tone marks. https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/ph%C3%B2
    Thank you,
    Your Vietnamese gal .

  2. Martin says:

    Another interesting article. It’s really interesting to read the origins.

    I’ve never got pho. Maybe a part of it is this hype you talk about. Maybe my expectations of this now mythical legendary soup were so high that it was never going to satisfy?

    I’ve had pho both here and 3 times in Hanoi and each time left disappointed. I mean, it’s fine but nothing more. There are better soups around the world and in Vietnam itself! I continue to try it though, waiting for my Damascus like conversion to this soup. I’ll certainly have it again.

    • Thank for your taking the time to read my article Martin and thanks for your comment.

      I have the same opinion. Heard so much about it only to think “is that all there is” after my first taste. Over time, I did notice that there’s really a difference in taste between establishments. Even had a few very tasty bowls as well. Usually at eateries that were very, very crowded with locals in the morning.
      It’s a bit intimidating to step in to such a place as everyone stares at you and they hardly speak English. I just point at someone else’s bowl saying “fuh” and then they smile.

      So as you say, keep trying and use the condiments to spice it up a little.

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