Phở can be pronounced like “phuh” in English, but a better approximation would be feu as pronounced in French. To correctly pronounced Phở like a Vietnamese person, you must learn about the 6 Vietnamese tones .
Click the green play button above to listen to Phở
If you think phở sounds funny — you’re not alone. Even to Vietnamese people, it sounds kind of silly, despite its supreme status as the ultimate meal in north Vietnam.
The word has its origins in feu which means fire in French (read more about the history of phở).
Does Phở Sound like “Fuh”?
There are two important things to know about the ở sound. First, the Vietnamese letter ơ is not an “o”: it is like a French “u” as in “fur” (learn more about Vietnamese vowels ). Secondly, ở has the diacritic ̉ which indicates is must be spoken with a specific “tone”.
Tones, or pitch dynamics, are very difficult for Anglophones to hear and pronounce. This is because English (like most languages) is not a tonal language. Anglophones use pitch to convey emotion, or to ask a question (e.g. an upward pitch at the end of a question).
However, in Vietnamese, there are 6 recognized pitch changes that alter the meaning of words. The ở tone is the strangest of the 6 Vietnamese tones. Listen to these two comparisons between the “ở” tone and the “flat” (or natural) tone.
If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that the ở tone has a strange pitch dynamic: it starts at a mid-pitch, descends slightly, and then rises again. If you can’t hear it — don’t be dismayed, it takes a lot of practice to hear this tone. Check out our guide to the 6 Vietnamese tones to listen to more examples.
What if I Mispronounce Phở as Phò — Beware!
“Phở” can sound similar to “phò“, which has a different diacritic (` vs ̉ ). The former signifies a down-tone, which is a long downward change in pitch (like a “sad” voice). However, phở means a noodle-dish, whereas phò means a “lady of the night”.
This is a hilarious mispronuncation that is common among expats in Vietnam.
What Does Phở Mean in Vietnamese?
Phở is just a type of Vietnamese noodle dish, with large flat noodles in a broth. It originated in Northern Vietnam. Hanoi is famous for its Phở and is generally regarded as having the best.
Phở is one of the most beloved Vietnamese dishes because it is so difficult to make — especially the broth. Restaurants carefully guard their secrets to making Phở broth, which can take as long as 12 to 24 hours of slow, careful simmering. It is very difficult to make correctly.
Other than the broth, Phở comes with a wide variety of other ingredients.
What Are the Different Types of Vietnamese Phở
The essence of Phở are the phở noodles and the special difficult-to-make broth. Other ingredients and the shape of the noodle can vary widely.
- Phở Bò – Beef phở. The quintessential Hanoi-style soup dish. Minimalist and focused on a carefully cultivated beef broth.
- Phở Gà – Chicken phở.
- Phở Chiên Phồng – “Pillow phở”, not a soupy noodle dish, but thick layers of noodle that, when fried, expand into tasty little “pillows”.
- Phở Cuốn – “Rolling phở”, where the noodles are not cut, but kept as sheets for rolling, like savory crepes.
Phở chiên phồng, in particular, is our favourite dish to eat in Hanoi. If you visit Hanoi, you absolutely must try Phở chiên phồng at the famouse Ngũ xã street, near Trúc Bạch lake Hanoi.
Phở – A Once Luxury in Vietnam
In the 1990’s, before Vietnam’s free-market reforms, Phở was a luxury. Many people would only eat Phở when they became sick — it was analogous to Canada’s “chicken noodle soup” remedy, whereby Phở was believed to help sick people recover.
“When I was a child, I always wish that I were sick so my mom would buy phở for me.” — such is the memory of a Vietnamese woman who was born in the 1980’s under socialism. Their statement is remarkable because it speaks to Phở’s importance in Vietnamese culture, as well as a time-capsule about how much Vietnam has changed in the last 20-30 years — a once luxury is now a staple of the culture.
Phở Funny Expressions
“Chán cơm thèm phở”
“To get bored of rice and to crave for phở.”
The expression refers to a man who gets bored of his wife and has an affair, i.e., he eats rice every day and gets bored of it, while his mind wanders and begins to crave Phở, the rare luxury.
History of Phở
Phở is like the national dish of Vietnam. But historians suggest that it is relatively new, dating to approximately 1900 — and may even have its origins in France.
Linguistic evidence suggests that Phở was a new word around ~1915-1930. It started to show-up in dictionaries as a “soup-noodle made of rice-flour, with a slow-cooked beef-broth.” Prior to that time, there was no references to Phở, nor was beef commonly eaten by Vietnamese — eating buffalo/beef in soup would have been unthinkable for the vast majority of the culture, given how important buffalo was as a precious beast of burden.
But, under French colonialism, the Vietnamese in France and in the French foreign service learned a taste for beef-broth.
The story of the origins of Phở is linked to a Vietnamese chef in the French service. He would yell Feu! Feu! when starting his cooking-fire to make a beef-broth (feu is French for fire). He would prepare this make-shift meal to help his fellow soup-loving Vietnamese — it was something familiar, as opposed to the bread-heavy/dried-good meals of the French canteen. Over time, the beef-soup became more elaborate and spicy (source).
RELATED: More Vietnamese words with French origins
When the chef returned to Hanoi, the technique spread and the name Feu become Vietized to phở. Phở is still very popular in Hanoi. The technique slowly spread across Vietnam, with evidence of its arrival in Dalat in 1930, and Saigon in 1940 (now Ho Chi Minh City).
The Original Street-Food
Today, Phở is served in nice sit-down restaurants. But at its origins, it was also a street-food. Men would cook the broth overnight and prepare the noodles. These would be kept separately in two vessels, and carried over the shoulder to walk around and find patrons on the street (see photos below). When someone ordered the food, the mobile chambers could be put down, the noodles and broth mixed together, and voila: street phở!