New York subs, Italian Panini or Lebanese shawarma might have their advocates, but Vietnam can lay strong claim to be the head of the bread when it comes to sandwiches.
The French colonial era may have been largely disastrous for the people of Vietnam, but the bread culture it bequeathed upon the country is a particularly delicious saving grace.
The humble banh mi – a French style-baguette made with both rice and wheat flour – has long been one the stars of the Vietnamese street food and is fast becoming an international phenomenon due to its growing popularity and availability in western countries.
Although banh mi (literally flour cake) refers to the bread itself, the phrase is generally used to describe the sandwich itself. When it comes to filling the baguette the possibilities, in Saigon anyway, are seemingly endless.
You’ll find a banh mi vendor on practically every block with their speciality sandwich printed in bold letters on their cart. The classic sandwich is banh mi thit nguoi, which involves cold cuts such as chicken, pork or head cheese bolstered by a slathering of a pate-like substance (not to this writer’s taste and thankfully optional), pickled daikon and carrots, cucumber, cilantro and hot chilli peppers then topped off with a dash of soy or chilli sauce.
This version is the most common, but other fillings are legion. The most popular include banh mi ga (chicken), banh mi trung (scrambled or fried egg), banh mi thit nuong (grilled meat), banh mi xiu mai (crushed pork meatballs), banh mi thit heo quay (roast pork) and banh mi cha ca (pressed fishcake). All varieties come with the accompaniments described previously so if you don’t want slightly questionable-looking pate or fiery chilli peppers on your roll then it is incumbent upon you to engage in negative gesticulations with the vendor as he/she reaches for the offending ingredient.
Since great sandwiches are everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City, it is difficult to recommend one vendor in particular – just follow your eyes and the sweet smell of pork being grilled on the street. A long-established favourite, however, is Nhu Lan. Beloved of both Vietnamese and foreign customers, the restaurant cum bakery does a great line in banh mi (slightly more expensive than normal at 20,000VND ($1) rather than 10,000VND) and other local specialities.
With Vietnamese baguettes being of such an exemplary standard, you’d think that other sandwich varieties would struggle to get a foothold in the market. There are, however, many fine places to indulge a craving for a western-style sarnie. These include Au Parc, Juice and, most notably, Annam Gourmet which has the best selection of European meats and cheese in the city.