Toasted baguette, fresh herbs, crispy pork, creamy pate -- this is a banh mi. Vietnamese food-lovers all across the globe are falling in love with the tasty sandwich, and rightly so. With a myriad of combinations to choose from, and completely customizable, the banh mi can be a delectable snack, a cheap and filling breakfast or a satisfying lunch on the go. Regardless of the time of day, hungry travellers and locals can be found chowing down on this iconic street-food.
This tasty favourite hasn’t always been a go-to dish in Vietnam. Here, let’s breakdown the history of the well-known banh mi and where you can find the best ones around the country.
Photo courtesy of @heyk.k
What is a banh mi?
A banh mi, (banh which is the Vietnamese word for bread and mi the Vietnamese word for wheat) has become synonymous with a fluffy and crunchy French baguette, filled with regional favourites, which usually always will include, fresh herbs, and meat or pate. Sold across the country, a banh mi has become a worldwide phenomenon and a staple of Vietnamese cuisine, but this wasn’t always the case. Here are the interesting origins of the humble sandwich.
Photo courtesy of @2uang_
A short History of the banh mi
The history of the banh mi dates back to the 1800s when French missionaries landed on the shores of Vietnam. Determined to spread the word of Christianity throughout the country. During this time Vietnamese nationals began to become distrustful of the foreign missionaries and ended up executing two. This prompted retaliation from France, and war broke out between the two counties.
The French ended up claiming rights to much of the country and held power over three of the nation’s seaports. This was the beginning of the French Indochina era. With the influx of French people, their tastes came with it. Coffee, meats, pate, and cheeses were grown in the country, but wheat did not enjoy the humid weather. It was only imported in, making the prices too high for the average citizens to afford.
During World War I there was a large influx of soldiers, who recently took control of German warehouses full of western ingredients. This surge of products lowered the price of cold cuts and bread-making it available for everyone.
Later on, bakers were able to combine cheaper rice flour with wheat, thus furthering the cost productivity of the banh mi, making it one of the cheapest food options available. During this time it was customary to just eat the bread for breakfast with sugar or butter.
Saigon Old Market, 1962. Photo courtesy of Roger Viollet Collection / Getty Images
It wasn’t until the Vietnamese pushed the French out in 1945 that they were able to modify the baguette, changing how it was eaten and with what. The more expensive ingredients like butter were substituted with mayonnaise, and cold cuts were replaced with fresh veggies and grilled meat. This, along with the hustle and bustle of life in Saigon in the 1950’s which forced fast-paced people to take their food with them, is how the modern-day banh mi was born!
Until 1975 the banh mi was a well-kept secret, contained and eaten only in Vietnam. But after the fall of Saigon during the American War, many nationals fled the country bringing their own banh mi recipes all around the world.
Banh mi's vendor around Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City, in 1956. Photo courtesy of Three Lions
Noteworthy spots to get a banh mi
Banh mi’s now, vary widely depending on which region of Vietnam you are in. In the northernmost provinces, it is customary to eat your baguette with pate, grilled pork, lemongrass and other herbs, whereas in the central and southern provinces additional ingredients like green papaya, mango, spicy relish and cheese are added. Every banh mi chef has their own spin and special technique which makes their sandwiches stand out from the crowd.
Where to find the best banh mi in Hanoi:
Banh Mi 25
With humble origins, Banh Mi 25 started as a roadside stall with a small menu and has expanded to three different locations and a large menu. Here you can find traditional combo’s along with westernized favourites like cheesesteak and chicken and avocado.
Banh Mi P
This sandwich shop is a local favourite of Hanoians. These fluffy baguettes are jam-packed with Vietnamese style cold cuts, and grilled meats. With a savoury mayonnaise sauce, it is a must-try while in the city.
Banh My P, located at 12 Hang Buom Street, Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Banh My P
Where to find the best banh mi in Hoi An:
Banh Mi Queen + Banh Mi Phuong
These two eateries are serving up traditional central style banh mi’s, the likes of which have attracted foodies from all over the world like Anthony Bourdain. Locals and travellers alike with have a favourite between the two, but you’ll have to try both and make your own decision.
What makes these tasty sandwiches stand out, are the additions of laughing cow spreadable cheese, green mango, sauteed spring onions and spicy chilli oil. Yum!
Banh Mi Phuong, located at 2B Phan Chu Trinh, Hoi An. Photo courtesy of @sunflower_snaps1
Where to find the best banh mi in Saigon:
Banh Mi Huynh Hoa
What makes this banh mi special is the sheer amount and size. It’s jam-packed with delicious layers of meats. It’s also layered with cilantro, cucumber and onions.
Banh Mi Hong Hoa
The most notable thing about banh mi’s from Hong Hoa is the bread. The freshly baked baguettes are delightfully crunchy and the meat and veggies are fresh and evenly ratioed.
Spice Viet Saigon
For a truly beautiful eating experience, try banh mi at Spice Viet Restaurant, located inside ÊMM Hotel Saigon.
Photo courtesy of @adegray73
Spice Viet Saigon, located at 157 Pasteur, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Though it has a complicated past, the Vietnamese banh mi has become a worldwide phenomenon, capturing the hearts, and tastebuds of millions. Where have you tasted your favourite banh mi? Let us know!