There is something about a first meal in a new country: you’re tired, and perhaps disoriented. The days of your vacation stretch ahead, a blank canvas. You look for food, because it centres you, allows heart and mind to settle. In Vietnam, we decide this moment calls for bánh mì.
Costing on average 30,000 Vietnamese ng, the bánh mì is a glorious deal – despite the alarming zeros, it actually amounts to just around 300 Sri Lankan rupees. Not bad for what is often celebrated as one of the greatest sandwiches in the world.
I do not know this yet, but a bánh mì stands and falls by the quality of the baguette used to make it – after all, the literal translation of the name is bread or wheat cake. The best loaves are golden and crusty on the outside and riven by shallow craters running along their length; within, the crust yields to an interior that is soft, almost fluffy. The most serious bánh mì sellers keep their bread warm for you in a hot oven behind the counter.
Across Vietnam, there are hundreds of thousands of bánh mì stands, and likely as many versions of the iconic sandwich. While vegetarian options are available incorporating avocado and tofu, this meal is chiefly a carnivore’s delight, centred on roast pork laced with melting lines of fat.
Much variation comes from the selection of spreads, cold meats and vegetables included in the dish. Some sandwich makers opt to begin not with butter but with creamy golden chicken fat or homemade mayonnaise; inside they might layer cold meats, ham or sausages; there could be sprigs of fresh coriander or tart pickled carrot and daikon, raw cucumber for crunch and jalapeños or chili paste for heat.
We eat our first bánh mì in Hanoi, buying it from a small shop on the side of the road, all but squatting on the child-sized miniature chairs crowded into a small room. From our vantage point, we can watch the bánh mì constructed with brisk precision. It is warmed in a toaster and then handed to me wrapped in paper. Several quick mouthfuls later, I am an ardent convert.
As we travel from Hanoi in the north, down to Ho Chi Minh in the South, we make it a point to eat bánh mì every day, even finding room for three each when a particularly famous stall seems to call for it.
Eating is for me at the heart of travel. Food inspires curiosity, is a source of joy and comfort; it tests my willingness to immerse myself in the unknown, to share a table with strangers. And in Vietnam, nothing feels more natural.
Before we left on holiday, I asked friends who knew the country what I should do and see…and they came back to me with lists of food. These included (but were not limited to) white dumplings with translucent ‘petals’ like white roses; thick noodles fermented and steamed three times; charred, melting pork served with noodles and vegetables in a broth;delicate snails cooked in butter. There was also egg coffee, which feels like the most decadent of desserts with a shot of bitter espresso hidden beneath a towering cap of sweet froth. We ate and drank all this and more, but to me bánh mì seemed to offer a profound insight into Vietnam’s history, and a glimpse of one way in which the country had made peace with its past.
One could trace the origins of the sandwich to the first sighting of French gunships in Saigon. The three-decade long war which followed would swell to encompass Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. When the dust settled, it was on the new federation of Indochina. That was in 1887 but the region would know little rest: two world wars, a long struggle for independence from the French and then a final civil war would keep conflicts raging.
Today, as you drive along the city’s wide tree-lined avenues, you can still see the stately European mansions, their windows adorned with wooden carvings and guarded by narrow wooden louvers so reminiscent of the French. Within these homes too, the French sought to distinguish themselves from the people they ruled. And one place to do it was in the dining room.
What you found on your plate became a tangible reminder of the difference between the invader and the native. The French claimed that bread and meat made them strong, while fish and rice made the Vietnamese weak. As an extension of this belief, culinary boundaries between the races were set and adhered to. Bread, in particular, was considered even more of a luxury because the country’s climate did not nurture wheat and imported flour cost more than your average Vietnamese person could afford.
It was during the First World War that a surplus of European perishables meant Vietnam’s middle class were for the first time easily able to partake of luxuries like European beer, cheese and meat. Those who fought in Europe during the World Wars also had their chance to sample the continent’s cooking. Back in Vietnam, boundaries blurred further as French imports thinned out thanks to attacks on shipping routes, and more colonisers began eating local.
Later, after the defeat of the French and the rise of Ho Chi Minh, the civil war came to an end with the fall of Saigon. Vietnam entered a period of communist austerity. Those fleeing the South on American planes found their way to California, and there bánh mì found new fame and, eventually, a global following.
I am glad that the first time I eat this amazing sandwich is in Vietnam. In each city we find something to love, and a unique spin on this classic dish. An unassuming little cart, Bahn Mi 25 in Hanoi, is our introduction. Then we meet the trio of women who run an assembly line style bánh mì cart at Bánh My Sum in Hoi An (don’t forget to add a bottle of cold pressed tender corn milk to your order). The incredible stick bread and pork floss at Ba Lan in Danang wins our hearts, and we come away panting from the burn generated by a generous portion of green chilies.
Finally, in Saigon, we find ourselves in the birthplace of bánh mì. It is also home to one of the most famous bánh mì joints in the country: Bánh Mì HồngHoa. They bake their own bread, and racks of it are stacked in a long room behind the display – couriers arrive regularly to carry away armloads for other bánh mì shops. Despite their fame, they are not purists. The bánh mì chàbông, filled with pork floss or the bánh mì xiumai, made with meatballs, can also be found on the menu.
On the day we leave, we eat our last bánh mì with gratitude. We have learnt a few things: some of the best bánh mì joints are small and out of the way –finding them is half the fun. We’ve learned never to trust the tourist version with its supersized portions of meat, instead the layers of a bánh mì must be perfectly balanced. And when they ask you if you want chilli? Say yes.
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on May 12, 2019. By Smriti Daniel.