The Vietnamese bánh mì is a product of French colonialism in Indochina, combining breadstuff from the French with native Vietnamese ingredients.
The bánh mì is the Vietnamese term for all kinds of bread. Bread (or more specifically the baguette) was introduced by the French during its colonial period. The bread most commonly found in Vietnam is a single serving baguette and this bánh mì is usually more airy and has a thinner crust when compared to sandwiches in western countries. Nowadays, the bánh mì has became a mainstay in general Vietnamese cuisine and is a product a lot of people associate with the country.
In the western hemisphere, especially in areas with substantial Vietnamese expatriate communities, the term is used to refer to a type of meat-filled sandwich on bánh mì bread, found in Vietnamese bakeries. Typical fillings include duck, pork belly, Vietnamese sausage, grilled pork, grilled chicken, fried eggs, and tofu. Accompanying vegetables typically include fresh cucumber slices and pickled carrots. Common condiments include spicy chili sauce, sliced chilis, and grated cheese.
In the Vietnamese language, these sandwiches would be referred to as “bánh mì xíu mại” for a baguette with crushed pork meatball, “bánh mì pâté chả thịt” for a baguette with pâté and Vietnamese sausage and meat. Almost all of these varieties are innovations introduced in Saigon and they are sometimes known collectively as “bánh mì Sài Gòn“.
The classic version, bánh mì thịt nguội (or “special combo”) is made with various Vietnamese cold cuts, such as sliced pork bellies, chả lụa (pork sausage), along with the liver pâté and vegetables. Some restaurants also offer bánh mì chay, a vegetarian option, made with tofu or seitan. Throughout Vietnam, however, vegetarian sandwiches are rarely found on the streets, but they are prepared specifically at Buddhist temples during special religious events.
Another option is the breakfast bánh mì, with scrambled eggs served in a baguette. The version eaten more widely for breakfast in Vietnam is eggs fried sunny-side-up with onions, sprinkled with soy sauce and served on a fresh (and sometimes buttered) baguette.
An ice cream sandwich called “bánh mì kẹp kem” is commonly sold on the street as a snack. It consists of scoops of ice cream stuffed inside a bánh mì, topped with crushed peanuts. In all my travels around Hanoi and central Vietnam I didn’t see once these ice cream sandwiches, which was a great surprise seeing as I spent a while by the seaside!
Walking through Hanoi’s Old Quarter earlier this year was a great place to find some authentic bánh mì, and the Saigon variety was very delightful, although my absolute favourite would have to be filled with scrumptious duck and leek! The sellers of bánh mì are usually sat beside their roadside vans and smile politely at you as walk by, as if to entice you with the fresh smell of their bread (and meat).
These sandwiches are extremely cheap, and are so typical of Vietnam: you cannot come to the country and not experiment with these all-day baguettes!