“ Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” - Gustav Flaubert
Banh Mi, the Vietnamese submarine sandwich, is such a delicious meal for sandwich lovers who also love that Asian twist. It is a symbol of multi-culturalism and cultural appropriation. I love extrapolating narratives from tasty food. In this case, French were former colonizers of Vietnam, so the bread used is based on the French baguette. But the Vietnamese made it better - to be able to handle the pickled and fresh vegetables as well as the meats and pate', also from the French. (Not all banh mi include the pate', in case you are pate' resistant.) The quality of the banh mi, in my opinion, is judged by the bread, which varies from place to place.
On Anthony's Recommendation
We had developed a passion for banh mi as we met weekly at home in Guam to prepare for our trip to Vietnam. So naturally, going to Vietnam had to include partaking in banh mi. We had heard about Hoi An's Banh Mi Phuong, acclaimed by Anthony Bourdain. On our first attempt, following google (and me as a failed navigator), we just couldn't find it, and ate at a place nearby. (It was okay, but not banh mi). The next time, I refined my navigation skills, and actually found it. It even had a sign with her name as the one made famous by Anthony Bourdain. It was streetside outside a food market and it was lunch time but no one was there. (on Tieu La). Since we were hungry, we went inside and ordered it from the closest place inside. Mistake. A local who spoke good English saw what was happening and told us that there is another Banh Mi Phuong in another location. Our new friend told us that where we were was not known for the banh mi, but more for the other dishes. True, it was unremarkable. One of us did not even eat hers after a bite. It had a red sauce that seemed to ruin it.
Our third time looking for it, we found a place that was also on our recommended list, Banh Mi Queen. We decided to eat there rather than walk further to get to the Phuong. We were happy with this choice, which was only 20,000 VD ($1 or so). On our last night in Hoi An, we had arranged to have dinner with a local friend, who treated us to Chicken Rice (com ga). As we were walking around afterwards, we walked by the other Banh Mi Phuong on Phan Chau Trinh, and true to the description, there was a line (which is a good sign). Next time in Hoi An, I'll be able to find it. Advice: there are 2 sites, and if she's not at one place, she's at the other. I am not sure about the hours, but my advice is, go to Phan Chau Trinh first if it is around lunch time. And if she's not there, go to the other. They are not far away from each other.
Shout out to our hotel
Our hotel, the Villa Orchid Garden Riverside, by the way, served breakfast for a reasonable price. Among the menu choices was banh mi (photo at top of this post). I have no complaints about their take on it: the bread was good, the meat was good, the vegetables were good, no pate'. It was decent and basic.
Search Continues in Saigon
We did not have a banh mi adventure in Hanoi. When we got down to Ho Chi Minh City, we resumed our quest. I googled "best banh mi in Saigon" and came up with Huynh Hoa Bakery. Also, I had met a local on the airplane, and this was her recommendation as well. Problem was, it opens at 2:30. The plan was to spend the morning at the Ben Thanh market, and then go back to our hotel (Alagon), then go to this banh mi place. It is all walking distance. I was the leader of the pack, and I am a walker, and it didn't seem a long distance to walk. Apparently, my companions thought otherwise, and when they saw a banh mi cafe (Charm Bakery) that was air-conditioned with dining indoors, this was a more attractive option than standing in line. Two of us went on to complete the quest, two went into the cafe. The line at Huynh Hoa went fast, we returned to the cafe, and ordered a banh mi there too. For the a/c? For the solidarity? For the seats? The banh mi here was good, basic. Nothing that stands out except the bread was a little dry. It was great to have a comfortable place to sit down.
When we got back to the hotel, my quest companion and I ate the Huynh Hoa banh mi in the room. Mmmmm. It does deserve its accolades. If bread is the main ingredient that determines quality, this one wins hands down. The bread held everything together, but was not soggy. It was full of ingredients, especially meat, and not just typical Vietnamese cold cuts. I swear, I tasted something that tasted like pepper salami.
Banh Mi at Home
In the end, we now know that there is no ONE typical banh mi. It's a sandwich, and sandwiches are handheld food creations, subject to variations. We also realized that right here in Guam, we can get banh mi that satisfies just as well as the best of Vietnam. (Ma's Kitchen, KN Sandwiches). Also, I also regularly partake in banh mi in Hawaii, at the Bale Restaurant chains found all over the islands, and especially in my hometown of Kona. There's something satisfying about knowing that. Yet, I want to continue this quest and try the Banh MI Phuong in Hoi An and beyond. Next time.
I have traveled quite a bit, and am using this page to record some memories. Travel is a wonderful education, expanding your view of the world, of other cultures, of the beauty of diversity.