Saigon falls, Pho popularises. [Vietnam]

Enough about the war. Let’s dig into Vietnam’s national dish of Beef Noodles Broth- Pho.

Born in the North of the country, Pho originated in the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Symbolic 1954

It was in 1954 when the French Colonial period drew to an end and the Geneva Accords divided the country into North and South. When Saigon (South) fell, many Northerners migrated southwards, annuoncing the arrival of Northern-style Pho to the South.

The Southerners were actually familiar with Pho by 1950 but the Northerners claimed that Pho did not really popularise until they brought the dish over to other regions from the time of the country’s division.

There are even restaurants named “Pho 54” that verify the year of 1954 being an important marker of Vietnamese history and the popularisation of Pho.


Pho’s Origins

Here’s a fairly sensible explanation of Pho’s origins that 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.”

Differences of Pho in the North and South

The Broth is a crucial component of the dish- it is the body to the dish. In the North (Hanoi) and South (Saigon) of Vietnam, there are distinguishable traits in the Broth, as well as in other elements of the dish’s preparation and serving.

Hanoi, North

  • Boiling of only beef bones to make a clearer broth.
  • More seasoning is added into the soup which makes their broth ‘salty-tasting’ to those in the South.
  • No options of noodle type when ordering Pho in the North.
  • No beansprouts and basil available.
  • You’d almost never get to see just beef bone in their Pho.

Saigon, South

  • Boiling of beef bones, and sometimes, even chicken bones or dried squid to make the broth even more flavourful
  • This broth tastes ‘too sweet’ to those in the North.
  • You get to choose a thinner variety of noodles.
  • A plate of various kinds of vegetables is served with Pho
  • You get to choose if you want the meat to be cooked rare, medium or well-done.
  • You get to choose what kind of meat you would like such as fillet, meat with bones or bone only.


For a more in depth understanding on the History of Pho, check out Andrea Nguyen’s research on the dish.


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