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Home / Travel Blog / Vietnam / A Guide to the Vietnamese Street Sandwich – Banh Mi

A Guide to the Vietnamese Street Sandwich – Banh Mi

Article | August 5th, 2020 | Maya

Vietnam's signature breakfast – Banh Mi

One of our local partners in Vietnam asked me what I ate for breakfast today. Today, I ate a slice of banana bread. As I am originally from Japan, it could be a bowl of white rice & pickle, and shake (salmon filet in Japanese). Since I live in the United States now, this morning was handmade banana bread, which is a popular breakfast item here in the US. Every time I travel, I always look forward to my first breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day to keep us healthy and energetic, and simultaneously, it often represents a country’s signature dish. How about you, what did you have for a breakfast, Vicky? She said "bánh mì" (it's pronounced "bun-mee). “Bánh mì” – the word always reminds me of a woman with a cart overloaded with exotic ingredients selling crusty sandwiches on a street in Hoi An.

House-made baguette – very crispy on the outside with a delicate interior.

Bánh mì means "bread" in Vietnamese, but it also refers to a baguette sandwich with savory fillings such as pâté, pickles, and coriander leaves. In Vietnam, you can find the warm, crusty sandwich at a bánh mì stand on almost every street corner or local cafe. It is Vietnam's staple food rather than just breakfast. There is no right time to eat it; you can eat it all day.

Hoi An oldtown

Although bánh mì can be found throughout the country, Hoi An is recognized as a center of this savory sandwich. Bánh mì was brought to Vietnam by French expats in the early 20th century when the country was occupied by France. My coworker, Vicky, who is a Hanoi native, also regards Hoi An's bánh mì as the best in Vietnam. There are several theories about the origin of bánh mì, but it is believed that the first recipe was invented in a Hoi An bakery by French people as Hoi An was being developed as an international trading port. Now, the city is home to reputable vendors selling the best bánh mì in Vietnam. Even Anthony Bourdain – TV host, beloved chef, and traveler – had visited one of them!

You can find banh mi vendors on every corner in Vietnam. Usually, you can choose ingredients from a vendor's cart.

At a local bánh mì stand, you can choose ingredients from the vendor’s cart. Street vendors usually carry pork liver pâté, grilled pork, grilled chicken, grilled beef, sausage, sweet and sour vegetables (thinly shredded carrot and papaya pickled in sweet vinegar – very similar to pickles, but it tastes more pungent), cilantro, and some vegetables such as tomatoes, and cucumbers. If you are vegetarian, you could go all-veggies, or add crispy tofu. Then, with the ingredients you chose, the vendor assembles your sandwich with supersonic speed.

A food stall in Hoi An

If the stuff in the sandwich is only common ingredients that seem to be found any grocery store or market across the country, why do locals appreciate Hoi An’s bánh mì?

Vicky says that the biggest regional difference is its sauce, and the sauce makes a big change to the flavor of bánh mì. Although some people enjoy bánh mì without sauce, most places use one or more house-made sauces. There are many sauce recipes by region, and the locally created sauce makes the Hoi An sandwich outstanding. Every bánh mì shop in Hoi An crafts the sauce based on their own special recipe. From thick to chunky, there are some key ingredients that are used, such as nuok mam (Vietnamese fish sauce), scallions, and red chili flakes. The flavors are incredibly unique and usually not able to be recreated at home, so it's best that you travel to Hoi An if you haven’t tried it yet!

Ever since the period of French occupation, the Viet-French sandwich gained nationwide popularity and has been developed to make various styles that were influenced and localized with regional flavors. In Ho Chi Minh City, locals like to add mayonnaise into the sandwich. The Saigon-style sandwich features a layered sweetness that reflects southern Vietnamese fare. In Hanoi, nowadays, vendors are creating new fusions of bánh mì alongside the classics. You will enjoy some of the wildest bánh mì in the nation's capital... bánh mì doner kebab or bánh mì nem khoai (nem khoai: mix of French fries & sausage) anyone?

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