As popular as pho is today, restaurant-goers have little idea about its complex history, which almost directly reflects Vietnamese history during the last century. However, pho tells a story of fierce Vietnamese survival with three distinct chapters, specifically French colonization, civil war, and globalization.
Before French colonization, Vietnamese people ate chicken and pork during holidays and celebrations. Cows were valuable beasts of burden. The French, on the other hand, liked beef, and demanded that local butchers carry it. Vietnamese culture taught to waste nothing, and the urban poor, a growing population under French colonial rule became omnipresent street vendors, selling leftover scrap soup, with noodles and herbs of their own. It became a success with their French masters. The inception of pho is a perfect example of Vietnamese survival skills, demonstrating the resourceful resilience of the growing urban working-class Vietnamese population, despite the changes French colonists brought.
During the Vietnam War, pho became a symbol of the Southern, Democratic cause. Pho had spread from the northern city of Hanoi all over the country, aided in large part by the very displacement the revolutionary war created. People all over Vietnam liked pho, and as pho carts became pho stores, pho itself became a national symbol, representing to Vietnamese people that they could have the best luxuries: warm soup, silky noodles, and fresh flavors, all in one bowl. It was a delicacy at the start of the war, something common people could afford once a month, but it went as soon as it came. The civil war left Vietnam desperately poor, and the North relied on potato flour shipments from the USSR to survive. It was a jarring transition. Prominent Northern essayist Nguyen Tuan wrote pieces specifically about pho, humiliating his government by arguing it could not its people enough meat to make even a single a bowl of pho. Vietnamese people used pho to challenge oppressors, even when it was inaccessible.
Pho continued to empower Vietnamese people after the war. In the years since the fall of Saigon, Vietnamese refugees have settled many parts of the world, bringing and selling pho along the way. Unlike the twentieth century French, Western audiences today enjoy the concept of chicken noodle soup. Chicken pho is thought provoking given its history, but vegan phos are possibly even more interesting. Despite wartime scorn of meatless phos, they are no longer a symbol of poverty. Today, they often symbolize a different privilege, the wealth to plan meals and choose vegetables. Ironically, Vietnamese people worldwide, having reclaimed their pho once again, now deviate more than ever from the original dish tailored to French tastes. They have continued to reimagine and reincarnate pho on a global scale, finding renewed pride in their national treasure every time.
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