Bánh Mì is the classic sandwich of Vietnam and mean a lot of different things to different people over the years. Many shops baked twice a day in Vietnam because bread tends to go stale more quickly due to Vietnam’s climate. Baguettes were mainly eaten for breakfast with some butter and sugar. The most important thing about Bánh Mì is the bread which has to be fresh — crispy on the outside and soft on the inside hence no sandwich can really compare. It’s pure fusion food, where every bite of its complex ingredients of light-flaky baguette, cold cuts or grilled meats with a savory tang of Maggi sauce, a softening mayo, and cilantro as well as the distinctive crunch of pickled cucumber, radish or carrot.
The Bánh Mì has becoming a global phenomenon over the last 10 years. The history of the Bánh Mì sandwich is part of the modern history of Vietnam. It began, oddly enough, with the spread of Christianity in Asia. From as early as the 17th century, French missionaries were in Vietnam spreading Christianity to the people.
When the Emperor Tự Đức executed two Spanish missionaries in 1857, the French happened to have a military fleet in the region fighting China in the Second Opium War. To punish the Vietnamese, the French attacked Tourane, which is present-day Da Nang. They wanted to force the emperor to allow Christians to practice their faith which the emperor refused to comply with French demands. The French attacked and held parts of Saigon, but still, the emperor refused to be swayed.
When the French military force complete their mission with China in 1860, it attacked Vietnam with 70 ships, and over the course of two years, they took control of Saigon and the surrounding area. By 1862, it was the French who define the terms. They felt they were owed substantial payments for their costly war, so they demanded three provinces and free use of trading ports throughout the country. This was the beginning of French Colonialization in Indochine.
In those days, it wasn’t feasible to send a large amount of food all the way from France, so the new authorities introduced crops and livestock to Vietnam in order to keep up their European diets — things like coffee, French vegetable crops, butter, milk, and deli meats, etc. However, wheat is unable to be harvest in Vietnam. It had to be shipped in, and only the French could afford it. They used this inequality to reinforce their notions of European superiority. Initially, these bread loaves were filled with the priciest of meats, becoming exclusively a rich person’s sandwich known as bánh tày, or “western bread and the locals weren’t worthy of bread.
The Bánh Mì sandwich was born in Saigon in the late 1950s when Vietnam was split into two regions, the north and the south in 1954 which approximately one million northerners fled south. Street vendors were the first people to put the ingredients inside the bread so the customers could take it with them. This was long before plastic and styrofoam made everything portable.
The word Banh is a generic term used to describe food made with flour. It’s usually associated with French foods such as bo, pho-mat, and bit-tet, which themselves are Vietnamese pidgin terms for beurre (butter), fromage (cheese) and biftek (beef steaks). By 1945, ‘Tay’ was replaced by ‘Mi’ to become Bánh Mì . This literally means ‘Bread made from wheat’ (as Mi mean wheat flour). This was a significant development in gastronomic terms because rice had, for so long been the staple food.
After the French left, Vietnamese in the south were free to modify French dishes to include local ingredients and Bánh Mì morphed into a dish everyone could afford. Thanks to American wheat shipments and the change to local ingredients, and Bánh Mì sandwich grew immensely popular. It was — and still is — an affordable meal, rich in both flavor and calories. New food carts and restaurants popped up all over the Republic of Vietnam, which was then the name of South Vietnam. Bakeries opened as well to supply the bread, creating an entirely new industry to cater people with Bánh Mì sandwiches.
During the so-called “subsidy period” (“thời bao cấp”) from 1975 to 1986, state-owned Phở eateries often served bread or cold rice as a side dish, leading to the present-day practice of dipping quẩy in phở. During this period, food, goods, and services were purchased with coupons or food stamps. Those with a position in the government received more coupons and had access to special shops. For those without special status, they could expect to spend almost a day waiting in line to buy rice and other basic commodities. Everything was controlled by the government. In the 1980s, Đổi Mới market reforms led to a renaissance in Bánh Mì, mostly as street food.
Following reunification in 1975, many Vietnamese people fled to Europe, Australia, and the US. Some set up bakeries and delis in order to cater to their communities’ tastes. However, when locals got wind of Banh Mi, its popularity soared. Today, Bánh Mì shops can be found throughout the world. Hundreds of restaurants and cafes either serving Bánh Mì baguettes or offering fresh ingredients to those who would like to make the sandwich themselves.
So Bánh Mì has come a long way since its humble inception. Although it retains certain French influences, the minimalist ingredients and fillings have been enhanced by Far-eastern infusion. The end result is a sandwich that successfully marries western colonial influences with oriental dynamism.
Saigon is a great city to sample a wide selection of the best food in Vietnam. The following are picks for banh mi store recommendations:
- Bánh Mì Hòa Mã
53 Đường Cao Thắng, phường 17, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh
- Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa
26 Lê Thị Riêng, Ben Thanh, District 1, Hồ Chí Minh
- Bánh Mì Tấn Phát
115 Hai Bà Trưng, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh
- Bánh Mì Hồng Hoa
62 Nguyễn Văn Tráng, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh
- Bánh Mì 37 Nguyễn Trãi
37 Nguyễn Trãi, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh
- Bánh Mì Bảy Hổ
19 Huỳnh Khương Ninh, Đa Kao, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh