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The history of Pho

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Contributed by Pho Saigon Pearl

Vietnam is a beautiful country with a rich history stretching almost four thousand years. To the general public, one of the very first things that comes to mind when speaking of Vietnam is the country’s iconic dish, or bowl to be technical, named Pho. Surprisingly, Pho is a relatively new food concept, considering the many years the country has been around. It is uncertain how exactly ‘pho’ started, with varying theories & stories that were passed down by word of mouth. However, most people would agree that the birth of “pho” started somewhere in the beginning of the twentieth century near Hanoi, which happens to be the capital of Vietnam. Many would also agree that Pho evolved from other similar ethnic dishes, prior to the turn of the century.

It was also noted that villagers in Vân Cù and Dao Cù (or Giao Cù), say they ate pho long before France colonized Vietnam. But it wasn’t until sometime between 1900 and 1907 in Nam Dinh province (SE part of Hanoi) that the modern form of Pho finally emerged.

In 2010, a historical essay titled “100 years of Vietnamese Pho, “written by a historian & researcher named Trịnh Quang Dũng, explained that the modern Pho beginnings originated from various historical and cultural factors in the early 1900s.  These numerous factors include more access to beef, due to French demand, which in turn produced beef bones that were bought and sold by the Chinese, where they made a dish, which is similar to pho, called ngưu nhục phấn.

The Chinese workers eventually grew to liking “Pho”, especially the ones working in the provinces of Yunnan and Guangdong at the time.  So, Pho became more popular w/these workers because it was the closest thing to what they ate back home. Eventually, the general population of Vietnam became more familiar with Pho and hence, Pho continued its popularity later all throughout the country.

Originally, Pho was sold from morning until night by street vendors, who walked around carrying their mobile kitchens on the ends of their wooden poles (gánh phở) on their shoulders. From these wooden poles, hung two wooden storage cabinets on each end, one carrying a cauldron to cook over a wooden fire, while the other was for carrying ingredients, noodles, cooking utensils, and space to prepare their bowls of pho. Males always carried the heavy (gánh) pole. And to avoid the sun and chilly weather, they kept their heads warm with unkempt fabric hats called mũ phở.

Vietnam’s first two stationary pho stands (or kiosks, as we call it today), were a Vietnamese-owned stand called Cát Tường on Cầu Gỗ Street and a Chinese-owned stand in front of Bờ Hồ tram stop. In 1918 more Pho carts opened on Đồng Row and Quat Row. A man named Van from the Vân Cù village opened the first “Nam Định style” pho stand in the city of Hanoi in 1925. By then, the heavy shoulder carrying (Gánh phở) drastically diminished in numbers around the end of the 2nd World War, in favor of Pho stands and shops.

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