The history of Vietnam’s famous ‘banh mi’

The history of Vietnam’s famous ‘banh mi’

If you’ve ever visited Vietnam, you’ve surely walked past a ‘banh mi’ stand. It’s the most famous street food in Vietnam and is loved by both the locals and international travelers. For those who don’t know what it is, it’s basically a baguette filled with all kinds of delicious things such as herbs, patés, eggs, different types of meat, vegetables, sauce… You name it! It’s cheap, quick to make and incredibly delicious. If you’re curious about the history of Vietnam’s famous ‘banh mi’, you must continue to read.

The history of Vietnam’s infamous ‘banh mi’ started as early as the 17th century, when the French missionaries tried to convert people to Catholicism in Vietnam. However, the local authorities were not as eager and grew wary of foreign influence. When the Vietnamese Emperor Tu Duc executed two of the Spanish missionaries in 1857, the French punished the Vietnamese by attacking Tourane, present day Da Nang. The French wanted to force the emperor to allow Catholics to practice their faith, but the emperor refused. The French then continued to attack parts of Saigon, but the emperor held his grounds. However, after the French had attacked China in 1860, it continued to attack Vietnam and over the course of two years, they took over all of Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding area. This is how the birth of the French Colony of Cochinchina began.

When the French settled in, they were still longing for their own diet. But instead of shipping large quantities of food all the way from France, they started to introduce the Vietnamese to their European diets. Things like milk, coffee and deli meats began to pop up. However, wheat did not grow in Vietnam and had to be shipped in. Therefore, only the French could afford it.

The French Cochinchina falls

The Vietnamese diet didn’t change much, since most of the locals could not afford the European diet. But when the war broke out in Europe, the stores of goods flooded the markets in Saigon, leading to a deflation of prices. All of a sudden, many Vietnamese could afford eating cheeses, baguettes and cold cuts. This marks the beginning of the ‘banh mi’, when the French was defeated and the Vietnamese in the south was able to change the French dishes to include local ingredients. Instead of the cold cuts, vegetables were introduced and mayonnaise replaced butter. What used to be a luxurious dish became affordable for everyone, since the introduction of local ingredients. The banh mi sandwich originated in Saigon, when the Vietnam war began and northerners began to flee south. Mr. and Mrs. Le were amongst those who fled south and they were the ones who started what we now call the banh mi sandwich, by putting the ingredients inside the bread so customers could easily carry it with them. Remember, this was a time when plastic and styrofoam didn’t exist. You can still meet that family, who runs a small restaurant called Banh Mi Hoa Ma in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.

Banh mi today

When the Americans started to ship wheat to Vietnam, the banh mi sandwich became increasingly popular. You could see charts popping up all over Vietnam that sold banh mi. Not only stands, but also bakeries that started to supply the bread. All of a sudden, it became one of Vietnam’s most popular dishes. Today when you walk around the country, it’ll be impossible for you to not see a banh mi stand. Everyone has their favourite, although most would argue that the best banh mi can be found in Hoi An, in “Bánh Mì Phượng” where Anthony Bourdain went to and dubbed it ‘the world’s best banh mi’.

The popular dish has even spread around the world, with Vietnamese refugees moving to different countries and introducing their food to the world. What’s so good about the banh mi is that you can choose whichever ingredients you want and there’s even several completely vegan banh mi sandwich stands in the country. So everyone can enjoy it! Although history has been tumultuous and the road to success hasn’t always been easy, the banh mi still withstands and is now more popular than ever.

If you’re traveling to Vietnam in the nearby future, make sure that you remember to apply for a Vietnam visa in good time. Most nationalities are required to apply for a Vietnam visa, however, there are exceptions. If you’re one of those who needs a visa, you can get it either online by applying for the ‘Visa on Arrival’ or the ‘e-Visa’ (only eligible for 81 countries), or you can go to the Vietnamese Embassy or Consulate and apply with them. You will have to book an appointment and bring all the important documents with you. However, it’s advisable to apply for the visa online since it’s both more convenient, cheap and fast to get.

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