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History of Phở ● National Dish of Vietnam ● From Red River Delta to Mekong Delta to the World


"The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl". Camila Gibb, The Beauty of Humanity Movement.

Cantonese style beef flat rice noodle soup in Hong Kong

The origins of pho, the national dish of Vietnam, is a little obscure. Some believe it could be derived from Cantonese 牛肉粉 "ngau yuk fun" or beef rice noodle soup from China's Guangdong province.

In the "ngau yuk fun" theory, pho is the Vietnamese word for  fun, the Cantonese word for flat rice noodle

Along with beef noodle soup, the Chinese have chicken, pork, and even duck noodle soup. Today's Vietnamese beef pho could have its roots in the humble Chinese rice noodle and beef soup dish brought to the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam from Guangdong, China.

Northern Vietnam and southern China are closely intertwined since ancient times.

In ancient times (204 - 111 BC), the Nanyue kingdom stretched from today's Guangdong province in China, through Guangxi and Yunnan to the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam.

The jade and silk burial suit of emperor Zhao Mo who ruled the Nanyue kingdom from 137 - 124 BC is one of China's national treasures.

Since the Qin dynasty (221 - 206 BC), the boundary of Nanyue ebbed and flowed throughout its history, at times entirely absorbed into Han Chinese empires.

The Red River Delta came under various Vietnamese dynasty control from 968 until it fell under the French in 1884 and became Tonkin (as part of French Indochina).

While "ngau yuk fun" is an ancient Chinese dish, its derivative, Vietnamese beef pho of today is a relatively new creation.

French conquest of Nam Dinh in 1888

The rise of pho is also often attributed to the French who first came to Vietnam in the 1850s. The French only managed to subdue Vietnamese resistance in 1887. The French came to Nam Dinh province in numbers when they established textile factories there.

In the pot-au-feu theory, pho came from feu, the French word for fire

The French love "pot-au-feu" which is their national dish. Naturally, the French brought "pot-au-feu" to Nam Dinh and its prevalence made beef and beef bones readily available in the Red River Delta.

The Vietnamese used leftover beef bone and marrow to make a better beef soup emulating the French broth (bouillon) from "pot-au-feu" which literally means "pot on the fire". It is a French technique of slow boiling beef and vegetables for many hours. Other French influence include use of root vegetables such as large onion and blackening them for more flavour before boiling.

French love of bovine dishes brought a cultural shift in northern Vietnamese diet which before colonisation don't include much beef. Cattle (water buffalo) were beasts of burden to work the fields rather than raised for meat. However, beef pho gradually superseded chicken, pork and duck noodle soup as the preferred dish of the Vietnamese in the Red River Delta.

French author Jean Marquet mentioned a dish known as "Yoc Feu" in his 1919 novel Du Village-à-la Cité. "Yoc Feu" sounds like 肉粉 yuk fun in Cantonese.

Red River Delta

Whether pho was "ngau yuk fun" or "pot-au-feu" or a fusion of Cantonese and French, it is unanimously agreed that pho came from the north of Vietnam, specifically Hanoi and Nam Dinh along the Red River in the Red River Delta.

Nam Dinh - The Birthplace of Vietnamese Pho

The first pho hawker stall is said to be from Van Cu village in Nam Dinh province in 1925. Mobile Vietnamese beef noodle sellers who sold their food in two baskets slung from a pole across their shoulder brought beef noodles around the Red River Delta.

While pho was born in Nam Dinh, it took hold of the Vietnamese psyche in Hanoi. 

Image by Jakub Kapusnak for

Northern beef pho is mildly savoury, clear and relatively simple with just beef and rice noodles. The options include stir fried, dried, boiled or rare beef slices allowed to cook in the bowl of hot broth. 

Northern beef pho uses minimal garnishes, often just slices of ginger and stalks of green onion. The noodle soup uses minimal seasoning and is eaten with lime juice and green chili. Hanoi beef pho is often eaten with “quẩy” (a form of Chinese fried cruellers or you char kway). Reminds me of how I must have my fried cruellers with bak kut teh (pork soup).

Renowned Vietnamese authour Thach Lam declared in his 1930s book Ha Noi's 36 Streets: "Pho is a special dish of Hanoi, not because only Hanoi has it, but only pho in Hanoi is the most delicious... . The broth is clear and aromatic; the flat rice noodle is soft but not over-done; the brisket is not chewy; Pho also needs lemon, chili, and onions to finish tastily."

Even the French who were not partial to Vietnamese cuisine in general took to beef pho which they called "soupe Tonkinoise".

Phở Gia Truyền Bát Đàn is one of the most famous old school pho shops in Hanoi. But, there are literally thousands of pho shops in Vietnam, hundreds in Hanoi. Vietnamese are as passionate about their pho as Singaporeans are about their chicken rice. Everyone has their personal favourites which they fervently support often through generations.

Phở Gia Truyền Bát Đàn is located at 49 P. Bát Đàn, Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội and operates from 6:00am - 10 am, takes a break and opens again from 6:00pm - 8:30 pm for dinner service.

Beef pho remained principally a Red River Delta (northern Vietnam) dish i.e. a regional dish. Ironically it was from 1954, after the partition of the country into North Vietnam and South Vietnam that beef pho travelled south along with migration of northerners - the first step to being a national dish.

As the beef pho travelled southwards, spices such as cardamon, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, etc., were added to the soup.


When pho reached the Mekong Delta, rock sugar and spices were added to the beef broth so it became savoury sweet in taste profile. It is also eaten with a bouquet of fresh leafy greens such as mint, Thai basil, cilantro, sawtooth coriander, etc., and bean sprout.

Southern pho is also eaten with sriracha sauce and hoisin sauce either as a dip or added directly into the beef soup. 

Bun Bo Hue, the central region pho has both beef and pork combined in the soup which is spiced up with chili and lemongrass

Different names emerged for the regional variations: Pho Bac (northern pho), Pho Hue (central pho) and Pho Saigon (southern pho). While pho unites Vietnam, the dish is the subject of passionate arguments over which region has the best pho.

Today's pho besides beef slices has a range of options such as rare beef (tái), flank (nạm), brisket (gầu), tripe (sách), tendon (gan) and meatballs (bò viên).

After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the Vietnamese diaspora to USA, Canada, France, Australia, etc was mainly from the Mekong Delta - the international face of pho is thus mainly represented by pho from the south.

Initially established by Vietnamese refugees to eke out a living in a foreign land, their main clientele were fellow homesick refugees. 

Acceptance by Americans was gradual until the dish was thrusted into the limelight when US president Bill Clinton visited Ho Chi Minh City in year 2000 and ate in a pho shop there.

Toronto, Canada

Soon afterwards pho became a mainstream dish in America and wherever the Vietnamese diaspora made their home.

Personally, my all-time most memorable pho experience anywhere was at Pho An (now known as An Restaurant) in Bankstown, Sydney, Australia back in the 1990s. I remember the mind blowing rich, beefy, sweet soup that came out from huge steamy 44 gallon type pots (drums). I love the unlimited bouquet of fresh, aromatic, bitter, sweet leafy vegetables and the premium quality, rare beef slices.

An Restaurant is now at 27 Greenfield Parade, Bankstown NSW 2200, Australia. It opens from 6am - 9pm daily. Telephone +61297967826.


The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl" says Camila Gibb in The Beauty of Humanity Movement. Pho reflects the intertwined history of China, France, USA, Vietnam and the global Vietnamese community.

Suggested protocol of eating pho to get the maximum out of the dish


Before you start, take a few moments to smell the steamy rich beefy soup before you even touch the dish.

Next, take a spoonful of broth and savour the steamy hot soup for its depth of beef and spice flavours as well as aroma.


With an appreciation of the original soup, tune your bowl to your personal preference. Add fish sauce for umami savouriness. If that is not enough, add hoisin sauce for more umami savouriness and sweetness. Add sriracha sauce for spicy kick. A squeeze of fresh lime adds a spritely zest.
Personally, I wouldn't do anything to completely throw off the original beef soup taste profile but many people love it this way 🤷  However, I would use the sauces as dips and even then, sparingly. It is just a matter of preference. As in many things in life, there is no single right or wrong way.


This is the part I love most about southern pho, the heap of leafy fresh vegetables at the side. I will heap these into my bowl, especially the coriander, sawtooth coriander, Thai basil, mint, and bean sprout. They add crunch, juice, flavour and aroma to the beefy soup, beef and slurpy rice noodle. 
Bon Appétit (French is so appropriate here).

Written by Tony Boey on 18 Jun 2023


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