There are many speculations about the origin of phở, one of the most common theories found on the internet is that phở originated from French cuisine due to the presence of French culture and culinary throughout one hundred years of colonization in Vietnam. They argue that phở was created from the French Pot-au-feu because the pronunciation of feu is very similar to phở along with the technique of caramelizing to brown the onion and ginger in phở’s preparation.
However, this claim is not persuasive because pot-au-feu is a French vegetable beef stew that does not look or taste anything like phở. (See photo) Further, the spices used to prepare phở, except onion, are not used in French cuisine. As a matter of fact, they are mostly Chinese herbs that have medicinal value used in Chinese herbal medicine.
Another popular theory is that phở comes from ngau yuk fan 牛肉粉 , the beef rice noodle in soup from the Cantonese migrants in Vietnam at the end of the 1800’s. Early Chinese immigrants to Vietnam were the Ming dynasty’s loyalists, who participated in the political movement of 反清复明 “Fǎn Qīng fù Míng”, literally means “Oppose Qing and restore Ming”. As the rebellion failed, they came to seek asylum in Vietnam in 1670. These military immigrants contributed significantly to the land expansion in the southern end of Vietnam as well as the socioeconomic growth of important cities like Ben Nghe (Saigon), My Tho, and Cho Lon.
The multitude of Chinese soup merchants in the north and south of Vietnam in the 19th century were etched in The French colonial photography and Franco-Vietnamese arts and literature of the era which illustrated the images of the Chinese soup merchants in some cities like Hanoi (North Vietnam), Saigon, Cholon and Cap St-Jacques (South Vietnam). The oldest drawings of Chinese soup merchant was from the book Technique du Peuple Annamite ( The technique of the Annam people) by Henry Oger-published in 1909.
The soup merchants carried the cook stove and the soup pot trappings on both end of a bamboo pole slung over their shoulders, trailing from one neighborhood to another, while occasionally calling out the name of the food to entice the customers. In regard to the etymology of phở, Greeley (2002) quotes Bich N. Nguyen, a Vietnamese scholar, who says that the name of phở derives from the Mandarin Chinese Character “fen”, meaning “rice noodle”. It is recorded that the Chinese soup merchants called out ngau yuk fan in Cantonese, “ngau yuk fa….a…a”, Nguyen explains that the Chinese soup merchants would not call out fe…n which means excrement in Vietnamese. Gradually, it was shortens to “yuk fa.. a.. a”, then, it was shorten to “fa…a…a” which sounds like phở in distance and thus, a few decades later, the name “phở” was born.
Although, it is difficult to challenge the Chinese root in the origin of phở, based on its spices and name, it is important to point out that just like Pot-au-Feu, the existing Chinese 牛肉粉 ngau yuk phan, does not share any similarity in taste and in vision of phở. Thus, it can be acceptable that phở is only a variation of Chinese ngau yuk phan, created and evolved over one hundred years with the uniqueness of Vietnamese cuisine (particularly, the use of fish sauce).