When it comes down to Vietnam’s most internationally recognized dishes, banh mi is undoubtedly one of its top contenders. This delectable baguette sandwich is renowned for its crispy, airy bread filled with fresh herbs, vegetables and meats.
Often referred to as the Vietnamese version of the sub sandwich, banh mi comes in just as many variations as its western counterpart and boasts a seemingly endless list of scrumptious fillings.
History of the Baguette in Vietnam
Unsurprisingly, the baguette is a legacy of French colonial rule which began with the annexation of Cochinchina (South Vietnam) in 1862. After decades of conflict, their dominance over the region was solidified in 1887 with the formal establishment of French Indochina, which included Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (later added in 1893).
Along with French nobility came the introduction of dietary staples such as coffee, butter, cheese and wheat used for baguettes. But because these delicacies had to be imported by sea from halfway around the world, they were generally reserved only for the wealthy.
It wasn’t until the late 1910s, when global trade was heavily disrupted by World War I, that bakers were forced to substitute local rice flour for imported wheat flour. This resulted in not just a lighter, airier and crispier bread texture, but it also made the baguette affordable for the masses.
Banh mi, however, was still consumed by both the French and Vietnamese mostly with spread such as mayonnaise, butter or liver pâté. Its evolution from simple baguette to the beloved national sandwich did not occur until the French were ousted in 1954, which essentially gave locals free reign to improvise and consume banh mi however they wished.
Still operating today in Saigon’s District 3, Banh Mi Hoa Ma is widely credited as the inventor of the tasty sandwich in 1958. The Vietnamese baguette quickly exploded in popularity, forever cementing itself as one of the country’s most prominent street foods.
Ingredients and Types of Banh Mi
Inexpensive, rich in calories and eaten on the go, perhaps one of the sandwich’s main draws is its rich contrast of sweet, spicy and savoury flavours; hot and cold ingredients; and soft and crispy textures.
Banh mi fillings typically consist of:
- Julienned vegetables (radish, carrots, cucumber)
- Green onion
- Liver pâté
- Optional condiments such as fish sauce, Laughing Cow cheese or Maggi seasoning
By itself, banh mi merely translates to bread. Thus, it is followed by the type of protein filling. For example, the most prevalent type of sandwich, banh mi thit nguoi, is bread with cold cuts (ham). Other common varieties include:
- Thit nuong: grilled pork patty
- Cha ca: fish cakes
- Cha lua: sliced pork roll
- Cha bo: sliced beef roll
- Op la: fried egg
- Ga xe: shredded chicken
- Xiu mai: pork meatball
- Heo quay: roasted pork
Vietnam’s Most Famous Places to Get Banh Mi
There are four undisputed kings of banh mi in Vietnam, a pair each in Saigon and Hoi An.
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City): Birthplace of the Vietnamese baguette sandwich
- Banh Mi Hoa Ma: Opened in 1958 and home of the very first banh mi sandwich. Though they still offer a mixed meat baguette, instead opt for their signature banh mi chao/op la (same dish, but refers to either the skillet or fried egg). This breakfast specialty is the Vietnamese version of an American or English breakfast in a hot skillet, with bread served on the side to soak up the egg yolk and meaty flavours. Open only for breakfast from 6 AM to 11 AM (53 Cao Thang, District 3).
- Banh Mi Huynh Hoa: Popular with both tourists and locals, this spot only serves takeaway banh mi thit nguoi (cold cuts). Jam-packed with not only flavour but also generous portions of meat, this is likely to be the country’s heartiest banh mi (26 Le Thi Rieng, District 1).
Hoi An: Most travellers agree that, flavour-wise, the best banh mi can be found in Hoi An. Votes are evenly split between a pair of friendly rivals, both opened for over 30 years and located within blocks of each other in the UNESCO-designated Ancient Town.
- Banh Mi Phuong: Achieved legendary status appearing on the late Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. Offers a wide selection of sandwiches (2b Phan Chu Trinh).
- Madame Khanh – The Banh Mi Queen: Like its main competitor, offers up a large menu of variety of fillings to go with their piping hot bread, still fresh from the oven (115 Tran Cao Van).
Discover Vietnam with a Heritage Line Luxury Cruise
Why not supplement your discovery of Vietnam’s best banh mi with a Heritage Line cruise? We offer journeys aboard our luxurious boutique vessels in two of Vietnam’s most captivating destinations: