Take a bready bite into Vietnam’s history
Some foods are meant to be. Case in the point: Vietnam’s humble banh mi sandwich. It may be scant comfort for decades of colonial rule – as part of French Indochina (1887– 1954) – but locals adopted their invader’s affinity for baking, the delights of which were then passed on to visitors.
In those dark days, bread was reserved for Vietnam’s colonial rulers. Only after most of the French left to fight in the First World War did it take off here. Foreign ingredients – cold meats, mayonnaise and paté – were adapted to local tastes with coriander, pickles, daikon and cucumber, and the banh mi was born.
Soon, this simple meal started to filter down the classes, and by the time Vietnam gained independence it was the king of roadside eating. Tour the country today and you’ll find fillings are as flexible as they are numerous. Up north, in Hanoi, they love a meat feast of pork and paté, while veggies and herbs spill out of baguettes in coastal Hoi An ( see right), and in the south it’s the full works.
Locals have even tinkered with the dough, mixing native rice flour with European wheat, making the bread stronger and all the better for piling up fillings. And in the fallout from the Vietnam War, millions fled abroad, taking their prize snack with them – rather fittingly, it even found its way as far as France.
Today, banh mi is the poster snack of Vietnamese street food, adopted by locals and travellers alike. It’s a creation of many layers – in every sense – and nothing sums up Vietnam’s past and present quite like it.