The queue in front of me spills out onto the street. Families with young children, couples and twenty-something backpackers crane their necks in anticipation as they edge closer to what they all have separately searched out to find: the best pork roll in Vietnam.
We are at Madam Phuong Banh Mi restaurant in Hoi An, a small town in Quang Nam Province, on the country's central coast. The old quarter of this former Chinese and Japanese trading port is heritage-listed and in excellent condition, thanks to co-operation on both sides during the American war.
Today, squadrons of cyclo drivers pedal selfie-stick wielding tourists down its enchanting, narrow streets. An array of tailors and dressmakers tout the same holiday makers pot luck replicas of famous fashion labels and strings of colourful bamboo lanterns hang everywhere (also for sale, if you're interested).
But Hoi An is increasingly drawing visitors for its food. Although a long way from the rich Mekong River food bowl in the south, this relatively sleepy town has developed a reputation for local delicacies, such as translucent "white rose" dumplings, pork cao lau noodles and com ga (chicken rice); decent local and tourist-friendly restaurants and cooking courses abound here, too.
An accompanying surge in food blogging, travel apps and social media now means visitors are eager to ensure they can boast about having tried the "best" place for this dish or other. Consequently, trails to certain street food vendors increase, driving more tourist traffic, leading to more Instagram posts and so it goes.
Which brings us back to Madam Phuong's. If you ask a taxi driver where the best banh mi in Hoi An is they will mention this spot at 2B Phan Chu Trinh Street and one other: Madam Khanh "The Banh My Queen", an octogenarian who owns a popular stall at 115 Tran Cao Van Street. Banh mi eaters are divided as to which is better, although on the internet, Madam Phuong generally wins out, thanks to a mention on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations television series (he described her banh mi with the lot as a "symphony in a sandwich").
When I finally make my way to the front of the queue I am confronted by five ladies working in seemingly fast motion behind a glass counter. They diligently avoid eye contact as they put together orders in a blur of chopsticks and ingredients: pate, mayonnaise, coriander, pork cold cuts, roasted pork, pickled daikon and carrot, chilli, sauces and, of course, stacks of golden bread rolls. As tourists pose for photos with their famous sandwiches, I smuggle mine outside, away from the gastro-paparazzi. Biting through its brittle outer crust it shatters, giving way to a fluffy white, almost otherworldly interior. Flavours zip and sing on my palette – savoury pork, fresh coriander, crunchy cucumber – and then the chilli hits, like an old, welcome sparring partner. It's good. It's very good. But is it the best?
Literally translated, banh mi means "bread" or "wheat cake". What most Westerners recognise as a Vietnamese pork sandwich here is called banh mi thit ngoui ("bread, meat and cold cuts") or banh mi dac biet ("the special"). Its evolution is a fascinating tale, spanning Vietnam's French colonial past and three bloody conflicts.
In a condensed version of a 10,000-word treatise on the subject ("The Sandwich That Ate The World", published in digital travel magazine Roads & Kingdoms), writer Simon Stanley traced the modern origins of banh mi to an address in Ho Chi Minh City's District 3. Run by a Hanoi family who fled to the southern city (then known as Saigon) when the country divided in 1954, Hoa Ma is believed to be the first banh mi shop to reduce the size of their rolls to the now familiar 20 centimetres; they also substituted vegetables for expensive meats, to make the sandwiches more affordable for Saigon's working men and women. "It's a leap to say that they invented the banh mi," says Stanley, 33, who was born in London but now lives in Saigon. "But I think as far as what you see and eat today, it's very likely that they started putting that together first."
Stanley's research shows that the banh mi story truly began when the French arrived in Saigon, in 1859. Along with military rule, they brought French cuisine, although for many years European food was strictly for the European rulers, who believed that meat and bread kept them "stronger" than their Asian subjects, who lived mostly on a diet of fish and rice. A popular dish at the time was known as casse-croute ("to break the crust"): a traditional French baguette served with a plate of cold cuts, pate, ham, cheese and butter. This was the deconstructed precursor of the modern banh mi.
In 1914, World War I changed everything. First, the two German-owned main importing businesses in Saigon were seized and for the first time cheap European foods – cheeses, meats and bread – flooded the local (non-European) market. Second, war disrupted shipping lines, making these staples increasingly hard to come by. Industrious Vietnamese people responded by baking their own bread. Soon, everyone was hooked on wheat.
Andrea Nguyen, a Vietnamese American chef and author of numerous books including The Banh Mi Handbook, says the buns baked in Vietnam today are much lighter than those early offerings. "And also, there are these additives in the flour and the dough that Vietnamese bakers learned to use over the years because they needed that dough to rise in tropical humidity," she says. Today, you'll see banh mi sellers around the country taking multiple deliveries of fresh rolls during operating hours, which are typically for a few hours in the early morning and again in the late afternoon.
The common claim that rice flour is the magic ingredient that makes the rolls fluffy is a myth, says Nguyen. While wheat flour may sometimes be "cut" with less expensive rice flour to save money, its gluten properties are more likely to make the bread heavier in texture.
Back in Hoi An, I cycle through the backstreets to sample Madam Khanh's famous banh mi. It is a completely different beast: rich and hearty, it oozes a kind of gravy sauce that runs down my arm as I eat. It's delicious, but as I wipe the grease from my chin I wonder, "Is it better than Madam Phuong's?"
In truth, the perfect banh mi is a kind of mirage. After three months of travelling the country, the best sandwich I taste is from a roadside vendor in Danang. We had just arrived by plane and had somehow managed to skip lunch, so this crunchy, chilli-laced mini-missile was, well, perfect. But I won't tell you the address (it was near the beach). Instead, I encourage you to go in search of your own, personal banh mi. It's a lot of fun, and tastier, too.
Five of the best banh mi in Vietnam
1. Madam Phuong Banh Mi, 2B Phan Chu Trinh Street, Hoi An
A fresh-looking roll, popular with Western tourists because it featured on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations television series.
2. Madam Khanh "The Banh My Queen", 115 Tran Cao Van Street, Hoi An
A rich, sauce-heavy roll that leads to messy but extremely satisfying eating.
3. Hoa Ma, 53 Cau Thang Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Come here to pay homage to what may be the origin of the modern banh mi.
4. Nhu Lan, 66 Ham Nghi Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
This popular bakery is perfect for trying your first Vietnamese-made banh mi.
5. Banh Nam, 151A Xo Viet Nghe Tinh Street, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City
The future of banh mi? Modern, sleek shop fit-out but traditional recipes.
Several airlines fly from Melbourne and Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City or direct to Danang, where a 20-minute taxi ride to Hoi An costs about $US20. See virginaustralia.com, thaiairways.com, vietnamairlines.com, qantas.com.au, flyroyalbrunei.com and jetstar.com.
In Hoi An we stayed at several homestays, the best of which was Palm View Villa, a small, four-room property with a pool, within 15 minutes bike ride of the old town. Rooms start from $US45, phone +84 510 3 922 227 or see palmviewhoian.com. In Ho Chi Minh City we stayed at Huong Sen Hotel, a three-star hotel with a pool in the centre of the city. Double rooms start from VND 2,100,000, phone +84 838 291 415 or see huongsenhotel.com.vn
Peter Barrett travelled at his own expense.
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