The simple banh mi, a baguette stuffed with anything from grilled pork, cold cuts and cucumber slices, to cilantro, pickled carrots, liver pâté and a swipe of mayonnaise, is possibly one of the first things you should try if you want a true taste of Vietnam.
And apart from the flavor, the best part is the convenience – no need for a bowl or even a table.
Vietnamese banh mi, and especially those found in Saigon, have developed since colonial times to earn a place on the global food map.
The world’s largest travel site Fodor’s Travel last November put Saigon’s banh mi, which it described as “mouthwatering”, in its top 20 street foods from around the world.
So let’s follow the Saigonese, to whom a banh mi is simply the perfect choice at any time of the day, and check out their favorites.
Huynh Hoa banh mi
This is a good example of following the crowds.
The shop at 26 Le Thi Rieng Street in downtown District 1 stands out with long lines of tourists and locals taking up part of the street. It’s open between 3 p.m. and nearly midnight, serving the full dinner take-away.
The banh mi here is possibly the most expensive in town at VND37,000 ($1.63), but it still wins loyal bellies for its layers of meat, cold cuts and generous sprinkle of pork floss. Some also say they’ve fallen in love with the special mayonnaise mix.
The shop is recommended by many top food bloggers as the best in the city, and possibly in Vietnam. “It was incredibly good, and incredibly meaty and rich,” said American blogger Mark Wiens who is based in Bangkok.
The shop is almost always packed and the hungry owls are not very keen on queuing, so customers are advised to be a pushy and persistent with their orders.
Nguyen Trai banh mi with grilled pork
On the alley at 37 Nguyen Trai Street, also in the downtown, and you will find another crowd surrounding a lady serving banh mi with her signature twist from a pushcart.
Customers wait around the banh mi pushcart on Nguyen Trai. Photo by VnExpress/Huynh Duyen
The round pieces of pork, fragrant and a slightly burnt, are taken directly from hot coal in a small oven. Regular customers say they love how the grilled pork has remained tasty after so many years, and some are willing to wait for half an hour.
Many Saigonese have developed a loyal taste for this delicious grilled pork. Photo by VnExpress/Huynh Duyen
The woman is only open between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., charging VND18,000 apiece.
Bay Ho banh mi
Another pushcart on the sidewalk at 23 Huynh Khuong Ninh Street in District 1 has been standing strong for nearly 80 years. It used to open in the afternoon but now its morning service only.
A woman stuffs a Bay Ho banh mi with fresh ingredients. Photo by VnExpress/Khanh Ly
Most of the fillings are made following special family recipes, such as the pâté which is steamed and grilled. The ingredients are prepared just before serving time so customers can leave with a piping hot baguette. Prices start from VND12,000.
The four-generation banh mi
This pushcart at the start of Huynh Van Banh Street in Phu Nhuan District has been open from morning till night for around 60 years. Unlike the cold cuts you can find anywhere, the banh mi here is stuffed with slices of pork thigh stewed in herbs and seasoning to give a taste similar to curry, but not as spicy.
A banh mi filled with stewed pork thigh on Huynh Van Banh Street. Photo by VnExpress/Thien Chuong
The cart has been passed down through four generations of women in the family, starting with Huong who is now a great-grandmother of more than 80 years old. Expect to pay VND15,000 a portion.
Banh mi with a sizzling pan
Hoa Ma at 53 Cao Thang Street, District 3, somehow preserves the western way of eating banh mi: slowly at a table. But the thing that makes it stand out is it puts that etiquette in a typical Saigon context, with customers sitting on plastic stools along an alley lined by tattered walls.
Customers enjoy banh mi along an alley at Hoa Ma. Photo by VnExpress/Huan Phan
Dig into the banh mi along with a sizzling skillet loaded with fried eggs and an assortment of meats. The eggs are usually served runny, allowing customers to mop up the near-orange yolks with their bread.
Banh mi with a sizzling pan at Hoa Ma. Photo by VnExpress/Phong Vinh
The shop opened in 1958 and moved to its current location two years later about a three minute motorbike ride from Ben Thanh Market. The shop is open from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Each serving costs around VND44,000.