Teaching English in Vietnam | It’s ‘PHO-nomenal’

Article by: Peter Goudge, Jun 15, 2020

From the very beginning of this short piece, I want to confess to an abject failing on my part during the 14+ years that I’ve spent teaching English in Vietnam and running my business, AVSE-TESOL. Here it is! I didn’t take to eating (or slurping) Pho until very recently. Putting together this article was the impetus for my change of heart. I suspect my dislike of Pho over the years has something to do with a medical condition called Misophonia. Folks with this condition have profound and negative reactions to the sound of other people eating. I can feel my blood-pressure rising at this moment just thinking about slurping, chewing and suchlike. While I’ve never been diagnosed with Misophonia, I am very familiar with the symptoms. The good news is that I found the perfect antidote, but more of that later.

Now that I’ve bared my soul to personal shortcomings when it comes to Pho consumption, let’s turn our mind to the purpose behind this article. The Story of Pho! What’s the origin of Pho? Why is Pho considered to be ‘PHO-nomenal’ by every Vietnamese person I’ve ever met, including people in my extended family and every foreigner I’ve met through my work teaching English in Vietnam? Where will Pho be in 2040 – how ‘Pho’ will it go (sorry, I couldn’t help myself)? We’ll finish off this piece with the ‘Ultimate Pho Recipe’ for you to try at home.

Origin of Pho

Prior to doing some background reading, I was under the impression that Pho dated back to the time when King Hung was a mere twinkle in his mother’s eye during the legendary Hong Bang period, centuries ago in Vietnamese history. No, this is not the case. Pho only dates back to the late 19th century. Gosh, what a surprise! In stark contrast, the famous Aussie Meat Pie dates back to 9500BC during the Neolithic Period. The Ancient Egyptians even ate a version of the Aussie Meat Pie according to archeologists.

Pho as we know it today gained popularity in the north of Vietnam in the mid-1880s. It brought together the key ingredients of Chinese and French cuisine at the time. Keep in mind that the Chinese have tried on a few occasions throughout history to occupy Vietnam. The French colonised pretty much the whole of Vietnam (and neighbouring Cambodia) for more than 100 years until the decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 heralded the end of French occupation. The Chinese influence on Pho includes noodles, rice, vegetables and various spices. The French contribution came in the form of red meat.

Over time Pho made its way from the north of Vietnam to the country’s southernmost point in Ca Mau Province located in the Mekong Delta. On its north to south journey and with the passing of time, the original version of Pho has evolved into a contemporary ‘dish’ that’s available in restaurants of all sizes and traditional street food outlets the length and breadth of Vietnam. It’s served up to visiting Kings, Queens, Presidents, Prime Ministers and even the occasional dictator. There’s a terrific photo on the internet of Bill Clinton eating Pho at a restaurant in downtown Ho Chi Minh City during an official visit. Certainly, it’s a staple food of most people that I’ve come across who are teaching English in Vietnam and of other expats.

Why is Pho considered to be ‘PHO-nomenal’?

From my observations over the past 14 years, Vietnamese people and foreigners I’ve met through my work teaching English in Vietnam enjoy a decent bowl of Pho for the same reasons: 1. it’s cheap; 2. it’s quick; and 3. it’s consistent with a balanced diet and healthy living.

There is no question – Pho is cheap. At a ‘half-decent’ inside restaurant a bowl of Pho in Ho Chi Minh City will ordinarily cost you no more than US $2.00 to US $3.00. If you’re happy to sit on a small plastic stool at a small plastic table (almost universally blue in colour for some reason) and eat your Pho with shared chop sticks in a shared plastic bowl then the price will be not much more than US $1.00. The good news is that the shared utensils and bowls are washed between customers or at least they should be. Vietnamese customers don’t seem to care. They simply take a napkin and give the utensils a quick wipe and then ‘hoe into’ their meal. Expats teaching English in Vietnam and the like tend to a bit more discerning. I’ve seen expats bring their own bowl and utensils to an outside Pho stall – to the delight of locals – or ask to rinse what’s provided with boiling water. It’s probably wise, but I can imagine that I’d be bothered going to so much trouble.

Anecdotally (with my Vietnamese wife as the source), it will take an average person no more than 5 minutes to pull together a bowl of Pho assuming the ingredients have been prepared beforehand, chopped, diced, boiled and suchlike. In a restaurant, it typically takes less than 5 minutes.

An average-sized bowl of Pho contains 350 to 400 calories, which equates to 20% of the recommended daily intake for an adult. Is Pho as healthy as people suggest? The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. ‘Yes’ in the sense that – if light on noodles and salt, heavy on vegetables and you opt for lean meat, it equates to a nutritious meal. ‘No’, if the bowl of Pho is dominated by noodles, subject to a ‘heavy hand’ with sodium and has other undesirable additives for colour or flavour. Truth be told, I have seen someone add sugar to their bowl of fully-prepared Pho, but I don’t think this practice is commonplace.

Where will Pho be in 2040?

When it comes to history and fast food, Pho clearly has a long way to go to match the ‘reverence’ of the Aussie Meat Pie, which as noted earlier dates back to pre-biblical times – and for that matter, even the love that French folks have for snails. Personally, I have always found it to be one of life’s ultimate contradictions that the French version of ‘fast food’ is the ‘snail’, but I digress.

While Pho has inroads to make, quite literally of biblical proportions or perhaps I should say ‘portions’ given the context, make no mistake, it has ‘rusted on’ support. These days, those who love a good-sized bowl of Pho go well-beyond local people, Vietnamese living abroad, tourists and expats teaching English in Vietnam. Business conglomerates – large multi-business and multi-national companies – are ‘gobbling’ up the ‘Pho Market’ in Vietnam and elsewhere. Pho 24 (Vietnamese owned) now has more than 50 Pho restaurants across Vietnam and abroad. Pho Hoa (2018 Top Global Franchise List – Entrepreneurs Magazine), 70+ locations, Pho Que (rather unfortunate name) Huong is another North American Pho Business with a sizable international footprint.  

So, where will Pho be in 2040? I expect it will be every bit as popular as it is now, but increasingly it will be consumed in fast food chains rather than at small food stalls found on the street. Just as the proliferation of large shopping malls spelt the end of ‘mum and dad’ grocery shops, it looks to me that the Pho Fast Food Franchises spell the end of the small, blue plastic stools and tables and the shared utensils that I referred to earlier.  

The Ultimate Pho Recipe

After an exhaustive search online, speaking with Pho connoisseurs, taking advice from my circle of friends most of whom are teaching English in Vietnam and trying various concoctions in my own kitchen (while wearing ear muffs – note my earlier comment about an antidote to Misophonia), I reached the conclusion that the ‘Ultimate Pho Recipe’ belongs to a quirky Vietnamese / Canadian chap named Quang Tran. While I have never met or spoken with Mr Quang, his version of Pho scores 10/10 from me, which shouldn’t be underestimated given my eating affliction, although ear muffs make a world of difference. More importantly, my extended Vietnamese family – all life-long Pho eaters – also gave Quang’s Pho recipe a perfect score. You will find Quang Tran’s Pho recipe on his YouTube channel found here.

Summary

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this piece – we’ve ventured near and ‘Pho’ (again, I couldn’t help myself). I’ve bared my soul in relation to the sound of chewing and slurping. We’ve looked at the origin of Pho and noted that it only goes back 120 years or so. Surprising for sure! We’ve turned our mind to where Pho will be in 20 years from now, concluding that the blue plastic chairs and tables (and shared utensils) are under threat from business conglomerates. It has been determined that the Ultimate Pho Recipe belongs to the engaging Mr Quang Tran. This occurred after an extensive research and consultation process including crawling the internet, reaching out to foreigners who are teaching English in Vietnam and pursuing other professions here. Arguably of most importance, it’s been determined that ear muffs allow folks like me to enjoy a good bowl of Pho.

About the writer: Peter Goudge is the Managing Director (and owner) of AVSE-TESOL in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Phnom Penh. For more than a decade, AVSE-TESOL has been providing aspiring ESL educators with the skills, knowledge and certification they need to land well-paid jobs teaching English in Vietnam. Check out the AVSE website: www.avse.edu.vn

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