Banh mi is a popular Vietnamese sandwich that has been gaining popularity around the world. Endless combinations of flavors, textures, and aromas make it a truly delicious and satisfying dish. So, let’s take a look at the history of this beloved sandwich and explore how it has evolved over the years.
The history of Banh mi, Vietnam
With the French presence in, and eventual occupation of, Vietnam, came wheat – and therefore bread. For centuries, the Vietnamese carb of choice has been rice. Therefore, Banh mi was a novelty when it first appeared on the scene. While classic French baguettes are long and staff-like with rounded ends, the Vietnamese Banh mi is short, thick, and tapers off at the end. Enterprising bakers added rice flour when there was a wheat shortage, creating a lighter and crisper variation that marks its deviation from the French version.
To make a Banh mi, the vendor slices from top to bottom of the bread, cutting into the crisp, crunchy golden crust while taking care not to slice it in half, then fill it to bursting with delicious ingredients that may be polar opposites yet complement each other. It typically consists of one or two proteins, paired with fresh and/or pickled vegetables, plus a sauce, depending on availability, region, style, and customer preferences. This dish is beautifully customizable, and has quickly become a favorite for a portable, fast, filling meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner alike.
Note that the word Banh mi itself simply refers to the kind of bread. Therefore, not all Banh mi are sandwiches – the baguette can be dunked into various soups, sauces, and fried egg yolks. Some of the places on our list to explore later simultaneously offer sandwich-style and dip-style Banh mi.
The three main variations of Banh mi (in its sandwich form) are Hanoi, Saigon, and Hoi An style. While all three can be found in the same city courtesy of immigrants, we suggest trying the types on your visit to their places of origin. Let’s explore some of your best options in enjoying this classic meal in the three regions.
Where to eat Banh mi in Hanoi
Banh mi Pho co – Old Quarter Banh mi
Address: 38 Dinh Liet Street, Hang Dao Ward, Hoan Kiem District
Opposite a mì vằn thắn noodle restaurant famous in their own right, this Banh mi stand offers additional delicacies such as bao buns or skillet Banh mi. However, the main attraction here remains the classic version with ingredients such as homemade jambon, pate, and char siu at an affordable price compared to the rest of the touristy Old Quarter. For a more intense flavor, you can ask for their sauce made with the family recipe.
Banh mi Dinh Ngang – Famous for delicious sauce
Address: 30 Dinh Ngang Street, Cua Nam Ward, Hoan Kiem District
Trâm’s earned its spot on this list, even though the shining stars of this eatery are Banh mi dishes served, not sandwich-style, but with its ingredients on a plate with oozy egg yolks and plenty of sauce and the bread itself on the side to dip, because of its quality. They also offer Banh mi with a Bordelaise beef stew, soy milk made Vietnamese-style with more flavor than the typical Western boxed fare, and tào phớ, a soft and sweet tofu dessert.
Where to eat Banh mi in Saigon
Banh mi Huynh Hoa – Traditional Vietnamese Banh mi
A loaf of Banh mi here can weigh up to 500g (a pound), befitting the Saigon style of overloading the bread. Returning customers, curious locals, and foreign adventurers queue up to buy their daily bread, creating lines that flow from the sidewalk into the street itself. On average, it’s 2-3 times more expensive than “regular” Banh mi elsewhere. The fresh and homemade ingredients – pork pie, jambon, pork floss, pork, vegetables, pickles, butter, and pate – make it more than worth the investment and the wait.
Banh mi Hong Hoa – A Solid Option for Vietnamese Sandwich
Equally popular with Viet people and foreigners, Hong Hoa even offers a menu in English for easier ordering. Their motto of “If you’re satisfied, shout us out to everyone; if you’re unsatisfied, have a quiet word with us,” certainly helped their ascension to become a powerful player in the field of this favorite “handheld meal” of the Vietnamese.
Banh mi Hoa Ma – The best breakfast in HCMC
Many patrons of Banh mi Hoa Ma go here to find memories of their past as they enjoy a simple, timeless menu. For three generations, this eatery has been serving up a classic Banh mi chảo in skillets and the perennial favorite Banh mi thịt nguội loaded with cold cuts. One “for here”, the other “to go”, it covers all the bases for the workers and students wanting a quick meal to eat on the way, and people who can afford the time to sit down over a steaming skillet laden with cold cuts, fried eggs, and sausage.
Where to eat Banh mi in Hoi An
Banh mi Queen Hoi An – Our Favorite Banh mi Sandwich
Even though her shop emblazons the epithet “Madam Khanh, the Banh mi Queen”, the elderly proprietor and the sovereign in question is actually named Nguyễn Thị Lộc. (Khánh is her husband’s first name). Mrs. Loc earned her royal title with a concoction of char siu, pâté, fried egg, sausage, pickles, green papaya, carrots, parsley, plus a combination of chili, soy, and a secret sauce. Since 1985, she has been making up to 200 Banh mi daily. Many of them were sold to grateful hungry travelers, whose letters she displays behind glass for new clients to see (and perhaps inspire even more letters).
Banh mi Phuong, Hoi An – A Must Try Banh mi Sandwich
Anthony Bourdain, food and travel icon, has given this place a rave review in his show No Reservations, filmed on location here in Hoi An. He called its offerings “a symphony in a sandwich”. Their signature is the Banh mi thập cẩm, an “assorted” sandwich with every ingredient on offer. Vegetarians can enjoy a puffed tofu version in place of animal protein. Visitors can even make their mark on the place by sliding a passport-sized headshot of themselves underneath the glass tables!
Beyond its delicious taste, the Banh mi is a story of cultural exchange and adaptation. It is a symbol of the way different cultures can come together to create something new and exciting, and a story of how disparate elements can combine together to make a whole much greater than the mere sum of its parts. While the dish has come to Vietnam in less-than-ideal conditions, it has become symbolic of the ingenious Vietnamese spirit, willing to adapt, improvise, and overcome, yet staying true to their origins and preferences.