“Chili!” says the elderly Vietnamese lady, ushering me closer. She seems eager to help and apparently already knows what I want. Taking one of the pre-made sandwiches from the counter, she slips off its paper wrapping to reveal the short, golden bun inside. Its crackled crust is splayed to demonstrate its contents. After two years in Vietnam, and countless banh mi breakfasts like this one, it seems I still look like a tourist.
“Chili,” she repeats. “Chili okay?”
Several slices of fire smile up at me from between the folds of meat, paté, pickled vegetables, and cilantro.
“Ớt được,” I reply in my mangled Vietnamese. “Chili okay.”
I’m at Như Lan, a restaurant, bakery, delicatessen and Ho Chi Minh City institution, having served homemade banh mi, among other local specialties, from its busy downtown kitchen since 1968, when the city was still officially known as Saigon (a name still used today) and the war with the North was raging. Almost 50 years later, helped by the West’s growing infatuation with the Vietnamese sandwich, Như Lan remains one of the most popular spots in the city for foreigners and locals alike seeking that authentic banh mi taste.
I’d never tried a banh mi before visiting Saigon two years ago. But I fell in love with the city and the sandwich and never left. When a local magazine asked me to find the best in town, my bond with the ubiquitous street staple was forever sealed. For an entire week in 2015, it was pretty much all I ate, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The floor of our apartment was covered in breadcrumbs, my notebook filled with flecks of coriander and errant tasting notes, the greasy smears of paté and mayonnaise still visible on its pages today.
Afterwards, I was contacted by a local food and beverage company to write the full history of the banh mi. Three months later, after contacting food historians in America and national libraries in France, after dragging Vietnamese friends to banh mi shops on the other side of Saigon with the promise of a free breakfast and the hope that their translation skills may solve one more piece of the puzzle, I filed a 10,000-word treatise on Vietnam’s sandwich of record. In the time since the manifesto, my appetite for banh mi shows no signs of waning.
A banh mi sandwich from Nhu Lan, with fresh chili slices. Photo: Vinh Dao
I take a seat in Như Lan’s large dining area. The breakfast crowd has dispersed but the unmistakable early-morning aromas of phở linger, another of Như Lan’s offerings. A group of Western tourists crashes in, each clutching a banh mi. Their tattered copy of Lonely Planet gets splayed on the table. I know that book well, though it offers no more insight into the banh mi’s story than the obvious comparison to a French baguette.
France brought all manner of new and exotic items to Vietnam during its colonization of the region, from beer to bread, carrots to coffee, but didn’t hand them over willingly. The story of how the modern banh mi came together, the sort of banh mi you can pick up today at a farmers’ market in London, or from a food truck in Los Angeles, recounts 160 years of Vietnam’s history in one single, fiery package.
In unison, the visitors bite down into the bread’s fragile outer shell. A few fire off selfies as the customary explosion of crumbs covers the table. This is how all banh mi experiences begin. The bread gives way to the paté, then homemade mayonnaise, tender ham and cold cuts of pork. Pickled carrot and daikon add sweetness, cucumber brings a cool crunch. Cilantro. Unmistakable. A dash of Maggi Sauce for depth. Every taste bud gets hit. Then comes the chili, like a short, sharp slap in the face. “Wake up sunshine,” it says. “You’re in Vietnam now.”
Nhu Lan is famous for its homemade delicatessen ingredients. Photo: Vinh Dao
Recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011, and the American Heritage Dictionary in 2014, the term ‘banh mi’ has officially entered the lexicon of the English-speaking world. But in Vietnam, it refers only to ‘bread’, or ‘wheat cake’, when translated literally. The pork, paté, and pickles combination now familiar to the West is known as a bánh mì thịt ngoui, ‘bread, meat and cold cuts’, often referred to as the bánh mì đặc biệt, ‘the special’, the one with everything. This is what every meat-eating traveler comes to Vietnam craving.
Như Lan may be an institution in Saigon, but the banh mi’s tale neither starts nor ends here. Its journey to international fame began 250 yards down the street, on the banks of the Saigon River in 1859, when the first French gunships and troops arrived to storm the city and begin the 30-year conquest of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, eventually forming the federation of Indochina in 1887. From here it would take another 70 years, two world wars, a long and bloody war with the French, the civil war that followed, and a young family fleeing the communist takeover in Hanoi to create the sandwich we know today.
When war broke out in Europe, the culinary boundaries separating French food from Vietnamese were shattered
By the early 1900s, Saigon’s grand, tree-lined avenues carried all the hallmarks of a fledgling European city, boasting ostentatious, neo-classical architecture, Parisian-esque cafes, and luxurious restaurants and hotels to serve the expanding population of colonial elites.
Not only did France use its wealth and technology to reaffirm and justify the colonial hierarchy and its assumed superiority over the Vietnamese, food formed another important line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. “Bread and meat make us strong, rice and fish keep them weak,” was a common adage at the time, backed by centuries of absurd pseudo-science which suggested that the rice-centric diets of Southeast Asia made its people somehow predisposed to imperial subjugation. And for a time the colonists stuck to it, rigidly, maintaining a European diet while disapproving of any French who ate Vietnamese food, and any Vietnamese who ate French food.
As an almost sacred component of French cuisine, bread became the foundation on which this notion could stand. The Vietnamese called it bánh tày, ‘Western cake’, an expensive foodstuff reserved solely for the foreigners. Wheat simply won’t grow in Vietnam’s climate, and the cost of importing flour made bread prices far higher than the average citizen could afford.
Baked long and thin, like the French baguette we know today, bánh tày were served in the classic French style, alongside a plate of ham, cold cuts, paté, cheese, and butter—a ‘casse croute’, as they called it, meaning to break the crust.
When war broke out in Europe, however, the culinary boundaries separating French food from Vietnamese would be shattered forever.
Saigon’s core is still dotted with French colonial buildings, such as the Notre Dame cathedral. Photo: Hieucd/Commons
An elderly bread seller rolls slowly past on his bicycle, a basket of fresh rolls stacked high on the back and a crackly cassette recording looping out his call. “Bánh mì nóng giòn! Bánh mì nóng giòn đây!” ‘Hot crispy bread! Hot crispy bread here!’
Bread doesn’t last long in Saigon’s heat and humidity. For the banh mi shops that don’t bake their own, it’s not uncommon to see two or three deliveries like this arrive in the space of a morning.
The basket wobbles as he rounds the corner and his recording tails off behind the roar of Saigon’s seven million motorbike engines now tearing up the street. I check the address again. 511, Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Now a modern residential block, it was on this plot, in 1958, that a small family-owned snack bar known as Hoà Mã first appeared. The family left the premises in 1960, moving to another location just a few blocks away—my next stop—but it was here that the modern banh mi was born.