I’ve been following the social media exploits of my pal Jenny Miller whose trek across Southeast Asia has included stumbling into a Cambodian prison and spying such delightful venues as Chuck Norris Dim Sum. In this guest post she recounts discovering the world’s Vietnamese sandwich in a most unlikely setting.
Hoi An, Vietnam, is not a place that screams “authenticity.” After this tiny former trading town, with its neat streets of wooden shophouses situated charmingly at the mouth of the Thu Bồn River, proved irresistible to visitors, it’s been virtually theme-park-ized in recent years, so that every single business in the center of town now caters to tourists and an admission ticket is required to see the main attractions. In case you fail to get this memo, there are loudspeaker announcements several times a day informing you of this and other rules.
Disappointed with the town itself, I figured I’d spend my two days there focused on eating—always a good backup plan in Vietnam. After hitting the main market for the local specialty, cao lao (chunky gelatinous noodles, thin-sliced fatty pork, fried wontons, and greens in a tiny bit of broth), I did a some digging and decided I’d try a banh mi shop that was recommended on several different traveler’s blogs.
After finally tracking down Banh Mi Phuong (Google Maps had it pinpointed wrong, probably because it used to be located at the market but has since moved to a storefront a few blocks away), I scanned the sandwich fillings arrayed and knew I had to taste the pinkish, wobbly, glazed-looking pork the sandwich matron, Mrs. Vy, was coaxing into bacon-like slices—so, pork and pate, it was. As I sat at the shop’s one sidewalk table and cracked open a Saigon beer, I scanned the laminated menu and noticed that none other than Anthony Bourdain had endorsed this place, on an episode of No Reservations I apparently forgot to watch. I was feeling slightly disappointed that Phuong had already been big-time discovered—and then my sandwich arrived.
Since I get a bit squeemy watching people manipulate headcheese and globs of mayonnaise, I hadn’t watched as the sandwich matron worked her magic behind the counter. Now her petite, almost dainty handiwork appeared before me, a beauty of a sandwich packed into a crisp, crusty baguette roll—the most important ingredient, as any banh mi obsessive knows. She’d added cucumbers, pickled radish, fresh sliced tomatoes—an usual addition—and, to my whitey-whiterson delight (just try getting anyone to believe you want something “seriously spicy” with this Anglo-Saxon face), heaping spoonfuls of the homemade ground chili paste I’d begged her to slather on. As I bit into that perfect arrangement of crisp bread, lightly sweet, tender meat, crunchy vegetables, and the kick of the chilies, I instantly knew I’d never had a finer bahn mi.
The next day I went back to Banh Mi Phuong (how could I not?), and decided, for variety’s sake, to branch out and try a different sandwich. The barbecued pork looked like it had been moving briskly that day, so I decided I’d try it. This time I took my sandwich to go, and by the time I’d gotten situated down by the river at least 20 minutes had passed. I don’t know if it was that time lapse, or the inferiority of this sandwich filling compared to yesterday’s marbled meat, but this sandwich didn’t quite live up to the one the day before. Truth is, I think I committed the cardinal banh mi sin and let it get soggy. Or maybe it was just that in life you usually only get one chance at the kind of perfection I’d experienced the day before—the perfect sunset or kiss or birthday or tropical island, or in this case, sandwich—and everything after that is bound to be at least a little bit of a disappointment.
And this perfection cost all of $1, the price I’d seem mentioned online and which I was surprised Mrs. Vy hadn’t raised, given her apparent fame. Often in Asia, something gets a nod from Bourdain or Lonely Planet and the price instantly doubles. That Mrs Vy hadn’t done that showed real integrity—not something I was expecting to find in this touristy-to-the-max town.
Bahn Mi Phuong, Hoàng Diệu, Sơn Phong, Hội An, Vietnam