A staple of the Saigon street food world is banh mi (pronounced bun-mee), or Vietnamese baguette sandwiches. These tasty sandwiches are extremely popular and can be found all over the city, and make a perfect meal on the go if you’re walking around the city. Knowing what to order from a cart, however, can be tricky for a first timer.
Street carts selling banh mi are easy to spot: they usually have banh mi plastered across the front and the top shelf of the cart will be filled with baguettes. At any given street cart you will find a variety of fillings available: cha lua, a thin-sliced Bologna-like pork roll, and thit nguoi (tit-no-e), a cured pork cold cut similar to pork belly, are the most common of the meat choices. Ga, chicken, is also common, as is trung chien (chung-chi-en), or fried egg. Grilled pork, or thit nuong (tit-nun), and other hot meats are less common at the street carts.
The adventurous traveller could always ask for the banh mi dac biet, the cart special, where you will usually get ‘the works’. Occasionally you may be questioned about how much of a particular topping you want — such as eggs, about which you’ll be asked if you’d like one or two. I’d recommend going with two.
Once you pick your filling, your sandwich maker will show you the sweet science of banh mi preparation.
First, they break into the bread creating a baguette bowl. A home-made mayonnaise is spread along the inside of the bread, before a thick coating of pate, made of duck or chicken liver, is also smeared inside. Next, cucumbers, pickled carrots, pickled daikon, and some seemingly random fresh herbs are crammed into the baguette, then your banh mi filling of choice is added. I tend to go for the fried egg, especially in the morning, which should be added next. And finally, you get the option of adding chillies or hot sauce, and then your banh mi is finished with a generous squirt of soy sauce.
Your sandwich is then partially wrapped with a piece of scratch paper, which can be anything from cut up newspaper to graded school assignments, rubber-banded and popped in a small plastic bag. The final price depends on the toppings you’ve chosen — a sandwich with one egg would cost 7,000 VND while one with two eggs will cost 12,000 VND, but they usually run between 5,000 and 20,000 VND.
Banh mi are so delicious that banh mi shops are finally popping up all over the Western world. But, just like most Vietnamese cuisine, it’s simply better here in Saigon. So enjoy while you can!
By Angela Schonberg
Last updated on 27th December, 2015.