Whilst I was travelling through Central and South America last year, there was one thought that would plague my mind on a regular basis: Vietnamese food. Not a day would go past as I was sitting at a restaurant and eating a menu del dia thinking to myself “Oh boy, the things I could do to smash a bowl of steamy pho or a crunchy banh mi right now.” I’m not entirely sure how I managed to last over eight months deprived of proper Vietnamese food.
Apart from visiting family, the other priority for me in spending time in Vietnam was to eat all of the foods from the north to the south and to eat as many different dishes as possible, but I knew that of all of the dishes I would eventually try, I would probably be eating banh mi the most. One thing I knew about the food in Vietnam was that the specialties, style balance of flavours change as you move throughout the country. The thing I didn’t realise was that this also applied to banh mi and as a result, I’ve had to adjust my expectations accordingly as I’ve spent more time here.
Hanoi – Not all banh mi are created equally.
At the start of each day, most people think about their schedule for the day ahead. For me, I think about what food I’ll eat and where I can get it. So as I was boarding the plane at Luang Prabang airport in Laos to head to Hanoi, I had already decided that a banh mi was to be the first thing I would try when I touched down on Vietnamese soil.
As soon as I was checked into the hostel, my banh mi quest had already commenced and I was on the streets in search of that crispy, meaty, pickly and rich parcel of flavour. I had a mental image of Vietnam being in the home of the banh mi, and that on a pilgrimage to pay my respects and to try one “at the source”. I already had an idea of what I was aiming for in terms of what makes a quality banh mi, but my first one in Vietnam turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. It was small, hollow and lacked any freshness. Apart from a few slithers of cha lua (like devon) meat and pate, there were a few small batons of cucumber and pickles. Chilli sauce that didn’t have the colour of chilli sauce was also used every time which was disappointing for me as I’m a huge fan of heat from fresh chillies.
I spent a total of four months in Hanoi and it took me at least a month to develop an understanding and appreciation of the Hanoian cuisine. It’s a lot simpler on the palate to that of the southern food which is what I’ve been more exposed to back in Australia. Try and do too much to the food and people question what kind of trickery is being performed.
One banh mi which I found myself eating the most were grilled skewers of marinated pork. I had a regular street side stall (only opened later afternoons) on Lương Ngọc Quyến where I’d get get my fix every couple of days. On many occasions I’d try to find out what the marinade was that made the meat so tender and delicious but the owner would never tell me. Although she’d have no difficulty in telling me on every occasion that I should be finding myself a wife and that she’d introduce me to some potential suitors. Of all of the Hanoi Banh Mi, I preferred this one the best.
One type of banh mi which was I wasn’t expecting to see was the kebab banh mi. Like most kebabs you’d see around the world, slabs of pork are stacked onto a rotisserie and thin slices would be added with the standard pickles and sauces in some kind of middle eastern/Vietnamese fusion. I had it a couple of times in Sapa but didn’t crave it often at all.
A meeting with royalty in Hoi An.
Well, not quite royalty, but I’m a sucker for marketing and if somebody is titled “King” or “Queen” of something then surely they must be half decent at pulling it off am I right? On more than the odd occasion, my friends had praised the quality of banh mi that was produced by the Banh Mi Queen in Hoi An. Also known as Madam Khanh, her humble little store has become a bit of a must visit place in Hoi An along the Vietnam trail.
As soon as we arrived, we’re ushered inside to escape the heat, and like most local commercial establishments, the sitting area is comparable to being in somebody’s living room. It takes quite a while for two people to assemble two sandwiches as they’re meticulous in the process and actually added egg with pork; a combination that I’ve never had before. Not being one to sit and watch, I shift my location to their mobile banh mi counter to observe and Ms Khanh is more than happy to pose for a picture. She actually insisted on a photo – Clever little marketer she is.
The banh mi comes out and It’s steaming hot. First observation is that the roll is longer and thinner than usual. There’s the presence of more pickles and the filling is generous. Thin slices of pork belly, braised in some sort of red broth which is also used as a sauce to provide additional lubrication and a reminder of the meaty goodness that is being consumed.ating.
Overall, I loved the generosity and flavours of the roll and it ticks all of the boxes in leaving me satisfied. Even my travelling companion, who is staunchly committed to a paleo diet was tempted into trying one, eventually sending her into a banh mi addiction for the remainder of her time in Vietnam. The only downside to the banh mi was with the heat of the eggs. I felt it muted some of the flavours from the pickles, but the overall experience was still enjoyable.
Lesbian Banh Mi in Saigon.
Where I am staying in Saigon, I never have to go more than a hundred metres to find a banh mi shop or cart. Within a 200m radius of my apartment, there are five places where I can procure a delicious banh mi of various flavours and at a starting price of 10,000VND (50c), the return on investment makes it a no brainer. I’ve probably had a banh mi once every two days. Some vendors just provide the standard cha lua, chicken and omelette in their banh mi, but I’ve seen fish cake included as well which I find a lighter alternative if I’ve been eating too much meat.
Overall, there’s a better balance of flavours and textures in the Saigon banh mi. The pickles are well pickled and the generosity of green onion and coriander mean that you don’t feel bogged down in the meat and pate. Also, the addition of pork floss ensures that the bread roll doesn’t become soggy. Each day, I write from various cafes in Saigon and whenever I decide on a new cafe location, I’m always considering the location of a banh mi vendor nearby. As usual, there’s always more than one option.
If you follow me on Facebook, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been on a bit of a banh mi quest in Saigon. Of the fifteen different places that I’ve tried, the best would have to be at Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa, also known as Lesbian Banh Mi. Don’t ask me why as I haven’t gotten around to finding out why. It pretty much ticks all of the boxes when it comes to the perfect banh mi. The bread is light and crispy, the filling is generous, the pate is moorish and not overpowering and fresh chilled are used and will guarantee the chilli hiccups.
It’s the roll with the most amount of filling that I’ve seen in Saigon, but it isn’t overflowing from the roll. The thing is that I’ve realised that there will never be a banh mi here like the ones that we get in the western world, where there is the addition of lettuce and onions as filler so that it’s considered “meal like”. Like most food servings here, you’ll always be satisfied but never left feeling completely stuffed. That’s ok though – it leaves more room to eat plenty of other delicious foods. You’ll never go hungry living in Saigon.
Do you love banh mi as much as I do? Share your favourite banh mi places in the comments section and I’ll add it to my global quest!
If you’re looking for accomodation in Vietnam during your own Banh Mi Quest, consider booking through Bookings.com (I get a small commission and it helps me continue bringing more useful information like this)
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