If you’ve eaten banh mi, Vietnam’s famous sandwich, outside of its homeland, it’s fair to say that you already have a rough idea of what to expect in Ho Chi Minh City. Most of the world’s Vietnamese emigrants hail from the country’s south, including the city formerly known as Saigon, and they have carried their culinary traditions and sensibilities with them.
In terms of banh mi, this means, put bluntly, massive sandwiches filled with lots of stuff. But it’s not all about excess. In an ideal HCMC-style banh mi, the copious meats, herbs, and condiments — even seemingly lackluster bread — come together as a cohesive entity, one that is greater than the sum of its (admittedly many) parts, in what is undoubtedly one of the greatest sandwiches in the world.
What is a Ho Chi Minh City-style banh mi?
Wheat-based, oven-baked bread was introduced by the French, who had been visiting Vietnam since the 17th century (long before they colonized the area in the 19th century). But according to Andrea Nguyen, author of The Banh Mi Handbook, the term “banh mi” didn’t appear until 1945.
The style of banh mi that emerged in Hanoi, in the country’s north, was a minimalist affair that had much more in common with its French roots: with bread, a bit of protein, and one or two seasonings. But when the sandwich arrived in HCMC around 60 years ago, the city made banh mi its own. “People in HCMC like to live large, so the sandwiches tend to be bigger and more loaded up than elsewhere,” says Nguyen. Today, banh mi is arguably more beloved and ubiquitous there than it is elsewhere in Vietnam.
HCMC-style banh mi are typically immense, combining as many as eight types of meat and a smear of pate, a generous helping of crunchy pickled vegetables, a tangle of fresh herbs, and lashings of mayonnaise, soy sauce, black pepper, and perhaps even chile sauce, all in a crispy, shell-like roll (baguette isn’t really an accurate descriptor anymore) bulging like Popeye’s arms. In addition to girth, a particularly good HCMC-style banh mi should have equal parts crunch (from both the bread and pickled vegetables) and meat, with the condiments and seasonings providing a pleasant but not overwhelming counter to the proteins.
“The classic Hanoi-style banh mi bread is chewy, heavy, closer to a French baguette,” says Peter Cuong Franklin, the Vietnamese American chef-owner of Anan and Nhau Nhau in HCMC. But this loaf underwent some significant changes in Ho Chi Minh City. “In Saigon, it’s all about speed, time, and money,” says Cuong Franklin. “[Bakers] need to get [the bread] out as soon as possible.” This means loaves that are baked with lots of water, leavening agents, and stabilizers at a very high temperature, with little variation among vendors or bakers.
The result is the standard HCMC-style banh mi roll, a downright blimp-like loaf with three slits that allow maximum expansion while baking, a thin crust that shatters when you bite into it, and a light, airy crumb.
And although baking snobs may scoff at banh mi bread, former Pok Pok chef-owner Andy Ricker, who has been obsessed with baking the perfect roll for years now, says, “The ethereal loaf does exactly what it is made for: delivering the stuffing without interfering in the flavors, offering little more resistance to your bite than a slightly crunchy cloud.”
According to Cuong Franklin, in the north, banh mi was often served at charcuterie shops, which focused on very choice, select meats, leading to relatively minimalist sandwiches. “[In Ho Chi Minh City], it’s the other way around,” he says. Instead of charcuterie sellers bringing in bread for sandwiches, “[banh mi are found at] bakeries [that] buy their charcuterie from outside.”
In place of a small menu of French-style meats, HCMC’s vendors serve a massive spread of long-lasting, quick-serve thịt nguội, Vietnamese cold cuts. A single bánh mì thịt nguội, sometimes shortened to bánh mì thịt, can include pork liver pate, chả lụa/giò lụa (steamed sausage, made with or without pepper), giò thủ (headcheese), and an array of other meats.
“It takes a lot of work to prepare quality Viet charcuterie, from pate to headcheese,” says Nguyen, who adds that her ideal banh mi order must include these items. “I want to see how good the banh mi maker is.”
Other popular meats are xíu mại (pork meatballs, served plain in a tomatoey sauce or in a broth with bread on the side), thịt nướng (grilled pork patties or skewers), and gà xé (chicken floss). You may also see xá xíu (Chinese-style roasted pork), chà bông (pork floss), cá mòi (sardines), chả cá (deep-fried fish cake), and bì (strands of pork skin). If you’re overwhelmed by the choices, opt for đặc biệt, the “special,” which typically means more meat. “I’m often ordering bánh mì đặc biệt in Ho Chi Minh City to get a fully loaded banh mi,” says Nguyen. “It’s the works, and that’s what I’m in town for!”
Along with proteins, you may find pickled carrot or daikon, along with fresh vegetables like cucumber, onion, chile, green onions, and/or cilantro. Other accompaniments include some combination of mayonnaise (often made in-house), pepper, Maggi seasoning, soy sauce, and only occasionally in HCMC, a sweet chile sauce.
Often overlooked in the banh mi canon are the sandwiches that revolve around eggs. It doesn’t get much simpler than bánh mì ốp la, a crispy, puffy Ho Chi Minh City roll served with a couple of fried eggs, inevitably drizzled with Maggi, and supplemented with a few pickles and perhaps a sprig of cilantro.
Even better is bánh mì chảo, a deconstructed sandwich of sorts that Nguyen calls the Denny’s Grand Slam of banh mi. The meal combines eggs and some kind of protein (a slice of peppery steamed sausage, a dab of pate, or even a hot dog) fried in a tiny skillet, paired with garnishes and sides that can range from mayonnaise to pickled vegetables, with bread on the side.
Where to eat banh mi in Ho Chi Minh City
In Ho Chi Minh City, banh mi is almost always sold to go. “[Banh mi] is like energy bars! You can hold it, walk around, take it back to the office,” Cuong Franklin says. With the exception of places that sell bánh mì chảo, the deconstructed egg banh mi, you’re not typically going to find seating.
Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa
Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa, arguably the city’s most famous banh mi vendor, is all about excess. The standard sandwich here is positively massive, stacked with six types of Vietnamese-style cold cuts, as well as pate, chicken floss, and the usual vegetables, herbs, and seasonings (it also costs about 50 percent more than the average banh mi). You’ll inevitably have to queue behind dozens of tourists and motorcycle-delivery guys, and the sandwiches are to-go only, but it’s worth the wait for a banh mi that functions as an entire meal.
26 Lê Thị Riêng, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Bánh Mì Chảo
There are more famous vendors of bánh mì chảo, the deconstructed egg banh mi, but this alleyside stall in District 1 is a convenient and cheery place to try this unique dish. Order the everything version, and you’ll get a tiny skillet with two fried eggs, a meatball, and a dab of pate. Mayo, pickled vegetables, and bread arrive on the side, and don’t forget to season your spread with a few drops of Maggi sauce, a constant companion to egg dishes in Southeast Asia.
6 Đặng Trần Côn, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Concealed in a sleepy courtyard just off a busy road in central Ho Chi Minh City, this vendor does one of the most unique versions in town. Known as bánh mì bò nướng bơ Campuchia, “Cambodian-style grilled beef banh mi,” the sandwich features chubby toasted rolls slathered with a honey butter-like condiment and paired with slim skewers of spiced, grilled beef and crunchy strands of green papaya. Make your own sandwich, or dip into the elements separately; if you’re a fan of sweet flavors, it’s a lot of fun.
171 Cống Quỳnh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Bánh Mì Hồng Hoa
Hồng Hoa offers one of the city’s better all-around banh mis. The bánh mì thịt nguội, called “extra mixed meats” on the handy English-language menu, has a bit of everything: a schmear of peppery pate; crunchy, barely sweet papaya pickles; Chinese-style roasted pork; Vietnamese-style steamed sausage; salty chicken threads; and more. On the opposite end of the banh mi spectrum, the bánh mì ốp la, with fried egg, is minimal and delicious. The place mostly sells items to go, but there are a few plastic chairs. Hồng Hoa doubles as a bakery, so the bread is always fresh.
54 Nguyễn Văn Tráng, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Cuong Franklin has become famous for his $100 foie gras and caviar banh mi at Anan, but for something more accessible, head upstairs to Nhau Nhau, where you can indulge in one of the chef’s mini banh mi for less than a tenth of that price. Served on smaller, chewier Hanoi-style baguettes that Cuong Franklin commissions especially for the restaurant, the wagyu version is impossibly tender while the foie gras is uncompromisingly rich.
89 Tôn Thất Đạm, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Quán Bánh Mì Heo Quay Phúc Hải
A clever twist on the traditional banh mi, this version revolves around Chinese-style roasted pork belly. A small amount of crispy, fatty heo quay, as it’s known in Vietnamese, is chopped, drizzled with a chile-studded brown sauce and a splash of soy, and topped with slices of cucumber and lots of cilantro. For HCMC, it’s relatively light and simple, and it’s utterly delicious. To go only.
3 Nguyễn Thượng Hiền, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Austin Bush is an American writer and photographer based in Lisbon, Portugal. He was previously based in Bangkok, Thailand, for more than 20 years, from where he contributed to just about every major food and travel publication, as well as to more than 30 guidebooks for Lonely Planet. In 2018, he wrote and photographed the James Beard Award finalist, The Food of Northern Thailand.