The origins of pho have long been debated by historians, a debate that has led to two theories about the emergence of Vietnam’s national dish.
The less popular theory is that Chinese immigrants working in Northern Vietnam sold a similar dish called ngu’u nhuc phan which translates roughtly to beef and rice noodles. Later to gain the attention of potential Vietnamese patrons, street vendors abbreviated the name to pha or pho.
The other theory suggests that pho is an adaptation of the French beef stew, pot-au-feu (pot on the fire). Eating beef in Vietnam wasn’t popularized until the late 19th century. Prior to this cattle were used in Vietnam to work the land, and were deemed too valuable to eat. Yet the French colonialists of the era ate beef frequently, and the Vietnamese soon acquired a taste for it.
Pot-au-feu is a quintessential French dish and the central components are similar to pho. Like pho, pot-au-feu uses beef bones which are stewed for hours to extract a richness of flavour. With the names of these two dishes having the same sound, and the cooking techniques being so alike, it is hard to discount the idea that this is in fact, where pho originated.
Pho or Feu
It was with this story in mind that Vietnamese artist Nguyen Da Quyen and French native Julien Brun decided to create a photo exhibit to celebrate the fusion of their two cultures. The project began back in 2011 when the artists had the idea of highlighting the linguistic connection between French and Vietnamese.
They started by listing all the 500 or so Vietnamese words they could find that had a French root. This alone took nearly a year. From there they began creating a selection of photos that showed the words in their everyday physical presence on the street. The purpose, says co-creator Nguyen Da Quyen, was to show how many loanwords there are in Vietnamese, words that have become so commonly used that Vietnamese forget or don’t know they are borrowed from French.
“Vietnamese are well aware of the era of French colonization,” says Quyen. “Yet younger generations may not perceive the way both cultures influenced each other, and what is left over from this from this era.”
The result is a collection of 38 different black-and-white photos from all over Vietnam showing the various French-influenced words in the Vietnamese language as they appear on the street. While the main image is in black and white, the part of the image’s name which has a French root is pictured in colour.
Showcased throughout April at Toong Co-Working Space in Ho Chi Minh City, all the photos were exhibited without a title, challenging visitors to guess which objects or people in the photos had names or descriptions coming from French. The exhibition is now over, but the cultural resonance remains.
Despite the harshness of French colonization, the Vietnam of today seems to have left the past very much in the past.
“Julien, my partner on this project, is French and has been living in Vietnam for 13 years,” says Quyen. “He has never felt any resentment referring to the history between our two countries, and it’s certainly the same for me. “
She adds: “What happened decades ago is not the responsibility of people today. We can condemn colonization without attributing any blame. It’s a part of a history that both Vietnamese and French must not forget. But now we must allow ourselves to create new, balanced, and fruitful relationships.” — Paige Hoblak
There are 500 French loan words in everyday Vietnamese. Here are some of the more common ones.
bánh mì — from the word pain, meaning bread
thịt ba tê — from the French word pâté
búp bê — from the French word poupée, meaning doll
giày xăng đan — from the French word for sandale, meaning sandals
fi lêt — from the French word for filet steak
rượu vang — from the French word vin, meaning wine
ban công — from the French word for balcony, balcon
xà bông — from savon, the French word for soap
va li — meaning suitcase, from the word valise
phẹc-mơ-tuya — from the word fermeture, meaning zipper
mùi xoa — from mouchoir, meaning handkerchief
(áo) sơ mi — from chemise, meaning shirt
bê tông — from béton, meaning concrete
(đèn) pha — phare, meaning headlamp
phanh — frein meaning brake
pho mát or phô mai — fromage, the French for cheese
phở — most likely from the French dish pot-au-feu
ga — from the word gare, meaning station
For more information on the exhibition and to see more of Nguyen Da Quyen’s work, click on daquyen.com.