*to be read in David Attenborough‘s voice*

I love you. Eat me as soon as possible.

Day breaks over the delta and marshy southern lands of Vietnam. The smells of frying pork, breakfast stews, and freshly caught fish begin their outward trek from market and front gate alike, reaching families preparing for the days hustle. Children mount their parents’ backs and bikes, and, together, across this fair land, breakfast awaits for the hungry traveler. This is a Banh Mi Guide, as narrated by me, David Attenborough.

The newborn baguettes, golden and fresh out of the oven minutes ago, soak up the early rays and shed their blankets, their crusty exteriors jostling for a view of the passing pedestrians. In a matter of minutes, bakeries are sending these out to stalls across the land, awaiting their chewy fate. They are unaware that they are, simply put, lambs… to the slaughter.

To complete their day’s chores, no matter the stratus of hierarchical society these diligent citizens occupy, they crave a fuel that will awaken their body and their mind. The Banh Mi Sandwich is one such creation. Young and old, poor and rich, there are few that can resist what some expert* has labelled the Ultimate Sandwich. (*I’m that expert)
On paper, it looks simple.

“Surely, it’s just a baguette,” Kyle proclaimed, on his recent tour of the city, pre-Banh Mi. “A baguette with some stuff in it… right?”

Surely, Kyle. Surely it is.

And yet, this humble baguette and its cargo amounts to more than the simple sum of its parts. For in mixed meats, pates, homemade mayos, fresh cucumber and cilantro, pickled daikon and pickled carrot, divinity appears. Behold, nature’s most scurrilous creation, the human, has, in his unending search for higher meaning, created the perfect sandwich.

We are indeed the better for it! Yum.

A perfect banh mi (Vietnamese for merely ‘bread’) sandwich (latin: Breadus Sandwichus) is universal in tone, in texture, in taste. It contains within itself a perfect galaxy of complementary flavors, textures, and even colors.

Let me, David Attenborough, explain for you.

The baguette itself, some of the best baguette outside of France (thanks to the French Indochina period), is flakey and crispy on the outside, yet pillowy and chewy on the inside. It’s golden haunch provides both sweet and salty notes.

Ben’s favorite Heo Quay stand. The BEST pate.
Le Van Sy, D3, next to the gas station, but not on the convenience store side.
Like, across the gas station from the store. 15k. The chilis are extra spicy.
Sometimes near a Che stand operated by a friendly woman.


…You know where I’m talking about, right? Yeah? Ok then.

The lone child on his parents back pauses in traffic and bites into his breakfast. A shower of golden flakes flies into the wind, quickly gone in the haze and bustle of morning traffic as a hundred scooters roar back to life. He is off to school, yet isn’t physically moving. A study in contrasts.

Inside a perfect Banh Mi, this study in contrasts continues.
The savoriness of the meat is lent a counterpoint in the flashy, fresh greens. Cilantro, cucumber, and occasionally spring onions (Onionus Notearus) provide a sharp relief from the sweetly sour pickled carrot and daikon. The sweet cheeses, creamy in nature, meld them into one.
These fresh meats and vegetables are well placed, held in place by a slather of homemade mayo on one side, and pate on the other. My favorite pate is pig lung and heart pate, because it’s sweet – we notice, as does the child with braids skipping to class, a banh mi in one hand and a Red Bull in the other, that the sweet pate is balanced out by the decidedly savory mayonnaise.
We take from this creation a lesson: that in the Banh Mi, as in the circle of life, there is balance.
There exist in the wild various kinds of Banh Mi. Their coats may be identical to the naked eye, but all it takes is two hands and some gentle pressure to see their insides laid bare. Their true natures reveal themselves, and we can appreciate them in all their exposed glory, for no two are exactly alike. The inside of a Banh Mi is lunch’s snowflake, unique in every way.

(Trung) Op La (Fried Egg)

Op La with sardines. By far the wettest banh mi I’ve ever had.
Perhaps the only female of the species observed in the wild, this Banh Mi sports an egg and a homey atmosphere reminiscent of Sunday breakfasts – bacon included. The one or two fried eggs within, when they aren’t going solo, are usually complemented with either a porcine product or sardines, and some stands have been known to throw caution to the wind and add a wedge or two of laughing cow cheese – which makes this mighty beauty a little soggy, but a creamy, breakfasty ride.
This stand got the sautéed onions juuuuust right!

Ca (Fish, either Tuna or Mackerel)

The habitat of the Banh Mi Ca is easy to spot:
They used the whole can.
The prey captured by this particular variety of Banh Mi is a whole canned fish, whose habitat lies, sadly for them, upon the shelf above their bready predators.
Yup! Half a fish!
Opened up, we not only see the freshly swallowed mackerel, complete with a completely natural mackerel sauce. A fresh wedge of cucumber provides some extra crunch in this variety, and the daikon and carrot make up the rest.

We move on. This next specimen is not nearly as rare:

Heo Quay

Gotta start thinking about that high blood pressure. Eesh.
Pieces of fatty, crispy-ended pork belly make up this variety, an extra tender, and exceptionally delicious, example commonly found in the city habitat. Near ubiquitous, their numbers are in no danger of dying out anytime soon. Fatty Pork for World President has a been a much heralded underground cry for some time now, according to fatty sources* to will remain unnamed, for journalistic purposes.

(*it was me.)

Thit Nuong

BBQ on the street!
Like their more generously endowed cousins before them, the Pork BBQ Holy Bomb Sandwich, this Banh Mi Thit Nuong does not stop shaking what its creator gave it, but it’s much more street smart. It’s a sandwich that is easier for the on-the-go customer to enjoy.

This particular portable specimen has captured 5-6 street-fried pork cutlets, and is complemented by the standard garb of Banh Mi culture – the cucumber, cilantro, chili, onions, carrots, and daikon, on top of mayo.

Nature truly astounds. And trust me on this, for I am David Attenborough.

Pate Ga (Chicken with pate)

I can forgive the dryness because it’s just so darn healthy.

 

Here we can see the inside of what makes a Banh Mi tick. Behold, the Pate Ge, or Shredded Chicken with Pate. It is a beautiful thing: a colorful, food pyramid rave.

As chicken devouring monkeys, we can all agree that it’s very easy to dry a chicken out. This chicken is good, but even the extra smear of pate can’t save this from being one of the drier varieties of Banh Mi.

And yet, a Banh Mi most graceful, stuffed with vegetables to its gills. Chilis! Banh Mi flavor crystals, unite!

Chay (Vegetarian)

But what is it??

The elusive Banh Mi Chay, caught on tape in the summer of 2014. An extremely rare Banh Mi, this appears to have feasted upon chicken most shredded in recent meals… but wait! Is that really a meat within? This specimen seems leaner and more inclined to congregate in areas with high counts of buddhists…

Let’s compare with another, similar exhibit:

TOFU! Love you, Vegetarian Vietnam!

Yes, there it is. The slightly squiggly shape of the ‘meat ribbons’ observed along the top crust gives it away: we’re dealing with a vegetarian herd. Mockmeats are not at all uncommon here, year round.

Classic Banh Mi attendants, such as cucumber, cilantro, pickled daikon and carrot, are joined by shreds of marinated firm tofu. A tofu so savory, so tender and yet meaty, that your own tongue knows not the difference between truth and fiction!*

(*A lie. But it’s still an excellent sandwich)

Thit Nguoi

My current lunch obsession.
“But where,” some might cry, “are the cold cuts?!” Cold cuts abound, friends. Is it possible to have a sandwich culture that does NOT include cold cuts?
These specimens host a variety of sausages, with whatever is made that day, often in-house. These silky slices lend a creaminess and enveloping meatiness to the traditional, more crunchy, innards. The cilantro, cucumber, daikon and carrot slam that sucker home into one, big, delicious study in contrasts.
Is this the end?
No.
No, of course not. But it’s all we have time for on this programme. As we have observed here today, Banh Mi is nature’s way to skin a feline: no two are alike, and each purchase is a small, but worthwhile, gamble.
For the Banh Mi never stops evolving, and what we have today will be complemented with more variety in the future – befitting its status as the Ultimate Fusion Food, the Banh Mi has started to take small steps into fusion with other cuisines. The portability of the French baguette has proven to be the perfect edible container.
So go. Gamble on those Banh Mi. And post pictures of them on Ben’s site.
So say I, David Attenborough. Thank you for joining us today.
The End.