The distinguished and well known Vietnamese sandwich Banh Mi is a traveller’s best friend—reliable, safe, transportable, and commonly found around the majority of towns and cities in Vietnam. While Hoi An is a relatively small city in the grand scheme of things, it is host to some very reputable vendors when it comes to this masterpiece of culinary fusion.
The hard question is if there is a best one? Between personal favourites, TripAdvisor reviews and celebrity recommendations, we put them to the test! In this guide, we give you an understanding of the revolutionary sandwich, as well as the best banh mi Hoi An stands, our favourites, and where to find them. There’s more than you think behind this snack.
The history of banh mi
It’s hard to believe that this small sandwich can hold so much more than the filling inside. The history of banh mi is one of the more recent times and speaks of freedom and independence for Vietnam, along with the death of colonialism.
The history begins with the colonialism of Vietnam by the French in the mid-1800s. Wanting creature comforts and familiar foods, the French brought with them a number of food items to the region, such as carrots, coffee, cheese, deli meats, and wheat. However, cultivating wheat proved to be incredibly difficult in the tropical climate, with diminishing yields and poor quality protein. With that, the only way to fill the demand was through the importation of the flour and grains from Europe.
Through the period of French occupation, a poor pseudoscience was adopted by the French—the belief that bread and meat made you strong, while the local diet of rice and fish made you weak. With this false idea, coupled with the high cost of wheat imported from Europe, bread was unattainable by the local people of Vietnam, unless wealthy and powerful.
It wasn’t until WWI that shipments were disrupted, and with needing to fill the gap for wheat, some bakeries began incorporating inexpensive rice flour into the recipe. The yielding result was a baguette that was fluffier and lighter with a thin crisp crust, compared to its dense and chewy French counterpart. Along with that, two of the leading import companies in Saigon were German-owned and were both seized by the authorities. With the French sailing off to war, large amounts of perishable goods were left behind in the once German warehouses. These goods then flooded the Vietnamese markets in Saigon and were affordable to the locals. For once, the Vietnamese working class could afford cheese, pate, deli meats, bread, butter and condensed milk. However, bread still appeared as it always had, accompanying a platter of cured meats and cheese, or in the form of a jambon-beurre. The only real local creation that was seen was a breakfast version for the Vietnamese, called Bánh mì bơ—butter and sugar.
The true birth of the banh mi came about in 1954 in Saigon, after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. Up to this point, Vietnamese people were not allowed to alter the food of their colonialist masters. After the withdrawal of the French, the Vietnamese were free to customise the food using local ingredients and tailor the flavours to the local tongue.
It wasn’t until the fall of Saigon in 1975 that banh mi travelled internationally. South Vietnamese people fled as refugees, seeking a new home. They may have travelled with few physical possessions, but they were plentiful with culture and tradition, of which banh mi was a part of.
Banh mi ingredients
The components that go into a banh mi vary from a wide assortment of items—only restricted by one’s imagination. For this instance, we’ll be going through the fillings more commonly found if you’re walking up to a stand and ordering a banh mi. Some of the more established stands that are frequented by foreigners will have menus in English, but the majority do not. Just don’t let this list lead you into thinking there isn’t more out there in terms of combinations and variety.
Bread – The bread used in banh mi is a relative of the baguette from colonial times. It’s lighter and less chewy with a thin and crisp crust. Some may argue that it’s the most critical part of the sandwich, but it’s not. However, it does make a big difference in the result. The bread in Hoi An is far better than bread found elsewhere in Vietnam.
Pate – Chicken or, sometimes, duck livers are used in making this French spread. It adds a subtle flavour that is hard to pick out in the sandwich when you’re not looking for it—but the importance of this rich and savoury paste is paramount.
Mayo – Mayo is most commonly used, although margarine or butter can also be found. These are used to provide a richness in the sandwich and to protect the bread from moist ingredients and sauces.
Sauces – Most places will employ the use of one or more homemade sauces, oils or pastes to add moisture and flavour to the banh mi. At the very least, Maggi sauce will be used (usually found at smaller banh mi stands), which is a soy and vegetable protein based sauce from Switzerland.
Vegetables – Strips of cucumber are common, along with shredded pickled carrot and papaya or daikon. They provide the banh mi with a good layer of texture, while the pickled vegetables are a great way of adding some acidity to balance the richness of the fillings.
Herbs – The herbs help elevate the sandwich with wonderful floral and medicinal flavours. Coriander and Vietnamese mint are the most common.
Proteins in banh mi
Cha Lua – Ground pork that has been seasoned and packed tightly in a banana leaf and steamed. Usually seen as thin slices in the banh mi and is one of the more commonly seen ingredients in the sandwich.
Thit Nguoi – It usually consists of cubes of meat that can be layered with strips of fat that are cooked and set in the shape of a log. The flavour is similar to cured ham and is a common and tasty filling found in banh mi.
Gio Thu – The Vietnamese version of headcheese, where parts of the animal that are less desirable such as the tails, skin, tendon, and meat from the head are cooked down to release their gelatin. When cooled, the resulting Gio Thu is sliced thin and used as a cold cut.
Thit Nuong – Pieces of pork are cut and marinated and then grilled over charcoal. The meat can come from different parts of the animal and are dependent on the chef. The texture is dry, and the flavour is sweet and savoury with a wonderful flavour from coals.
Xa Xiu – Barbequed pork that is very similar in style to Chinese char siu. Once again, the cuts of meat used depend on the chef.
Nem Nuong – Ground pork is mixed with seasonings and aromatics, formed into small patties or sausages and grilled over charcoal.
Bread is better in Hoi An
The bread used for the banh mi is not the be all and end all of the sandwich, but it does make a big difference. As we said earlier, in the past, some banh mi bakeries would incorporate rice flour to reduce the cost of production. While this is still sometimes used, it’s less common as wheat flour is now more easily attainable within the country. Along with that, most bakeries will bake twice a day, sometimes more, due to the short shelf life of bread in the tropical climate.
The bread in Hoi An is light, with a thin and crisp crust that’s pointed at the ends. The loaf is scored once lengthwise and forms a small bread ear when baked. Most consumers may overlook the bread ear, but it’s a sign that dough has been properly kneaded, shaped, and baked—though this doesn’t apply for all types of bread. When heated again for service, this ear quickly toasts up and adds a great texture to the roll.
So why is the bread better in Hoi An compared to other areas of Vietnam? A lot of bakeries say the reason is because the French first left recipes in this area from when they began trading in Hoi An and Da Nang in the mid-1800s, and bakeries haven’t bothered changing what they’ve learned. Additionally, bakeries in towns north and south of the area have tried to copy the recipes without a full understanding of how to use them. It’s a possibility that some bakeries are still even using rice flour or inferior wheat flour.
Another reason comes from the standard of the banh mi stand, with ensuring that the bread is adequately toasted before handing it over to the customer. While you may think that this is a no-brainer, there are still stands out there that deal up untoasted rolls that lack the crunch of a toasted one.
At the end of the day, the answer is that it’s better because…it just is. It likely all stems from one good recipe left years ago that has been adopted by the five bakeries within Hoi An. There are no gimmicks here, no filler, and no rice flour, just water, salt, and yeast—and you can’t forget the three types of carefully measured wheat flours.
Where to find the best banh mi in Hoi An?
Hoi An has it’s fair share of banh mi stands set around this ancient city. While none of them are particularly bad, there are a few that rise above, being known for a top quality sandwich. Since each stand usually offers a number of different kinds of banh mi, we’ll be basing our descriptions and opinions on the traditional style banh mi that is served. It’s worth noting that most stands do offer vegetarian versions, not only for the influx of tourists but for the local vegetarian community as well.
Banh Mi Phuong
Address: 2b Phan Chu Trinh – Opening Hours: 6:30 a.m – 9:30 p.m. Monday – Sunday – Cost: 15,000 to 35,000 VND (0.65 c to 1.50 USD)
Behind the well-stocked glass counter, five to seven employees assemble banh mi non-stop for the hordes of people that flock to this once small stand operation. Phuong is one of the hardest to miss banh mi businesses in Hoi An, mainly due to the queue that spills out onto the street for the majority of the day.
The banh mi with pork, ham, and pate (or number nine on the board) is filled to the brim with grilled meat, Vietnamese sausage, and loads more. Their pate with whole pieces of black pepper is fantastic, not to mention their secret meaty sauce. Another great aspect is that the bakery that provides them with their bread is just next door. Their baking schedule ensures that fresh bread comes out periodically throughout the day.
Hidden Hint: Banh Mi Phuong was made famous after appearing in Anthony Bourdain’s – No Reservations and is the reason why they now mainly operate out of their new location. If you’re up for a small adventure, head to the east side of the Central Market and locate the original stand. It’s a small stand with no queues that is open in the morning and evenings; however, hours do fluctuate slightly.
Phi Banh Mi
Address: Cam Pho tp – Opening Hours: 8 a.m – 8 p.m. Monday – Sunday – Cost: 15,000 to 35,000 VND (0.65c to 1.50 USD)
Phi Banh Mi has been in business since 2013 and is still new to the scene, considering the other banh mi veterans in town have been around for decades. However, in the short period since opening, Phi Banh Mi has achieved a higher rating on TripAdvisor and have equalled or exceeded their popularity with locals, expats and travellers. Phi and his wife Tau run the business, and they’re located at Phi’s parent’s home just north of the Old Town.
Phi offers a slightly smaller banh mi than other stands for a lower price, and it’s perfect for pretty much any time of the day. Their traditional banh mi comes with slices of five spice braised pork belly, Vietnamese sausage, pate, cucumber, slaw and herbs. It’s a tasty sandwich that is well-balanced within the bun. They also have an excellent selection to choose from on their English menu, with a delicious option to add avocado to your banh mi for a small extra price. Additionally offered are two great vegetarian banh mi’s which include cheese or seared tofu—and the staff are happy to do a vegan version if you ask.
Hidden Hint: For the price point and quality, Phi’s cheese banh mi is a great choice to fill up on when going out for the day. Try to avoid meat-based banh mi’s in these situations, as they’ll spoil faster in the heat if not consumed soon after.
Madam Khanh – The Banh Mi Queen
Address: 115 Tran Cao Van – Opening Hours: 7 a.m – 7 p.m. Monday – Sunday – Cost: 20,000 VND (0.85c USD)
One of the Hoi An powerhouses of banh mi, Madam Khanh – The Banh Mi Queen, has been constructing banh mi gems for over 30 years and has been selling street food for over 50. The business is named after her husband, who can usually be found quietly walking through the restaurant assisting customers. The storefront is only a short distance north of the Old Town and can easily be missed by passersby if you’re not paying attention.
The Queen’s banh mi stands out from the crowd with easily distinguishable fillings and sauces—It’s saucy, rich, sweet, and savoury. This may sound like a regular banh mi, but it’s not. Inside the sandwich, you’ll find roast pork or chicken depending on your choice, Vietnamese sausage, the usual herb and vegetable mix, as well as a strip of well-seasoned omelette. The highlight, though, is their secret sauce that’s slathered in just before placing the filling. This incredible sauce is a huge part of the flavour profile of the final banh mi. While most stands provide a number of choices, the Queen specialises in only this one, along with a vegetarian version.
Hidden Hint: The Queen does have pre-made banh mi for people looking for a takeaway order. While the banh mi is good, the texture isn’t as nice as a freshly made one. If ordering one for takeaway, asking for a fresh one is advisable. If you have time, sitting in the restaurant is the best choice to get the best quality banh mi from The Queen.
Banh Mi Lanh
Address: Cam Chau – Opening Hours: Advertised as 6:00 a.m – 9:30 p.m. Monday – Sunday – Cost: 20,000 VND (0.85c USD)
This is a seemingly non-descript banh mi stand that can be driven past all day long without a second glance. What many people don’t know is that Lanh serves up a fantastic banh mi that’s worth the trip or the stop if driving down Cua Dai Road. Banh Mi Lanh isn’t on TripAdvisor or found dominating social media or guidebooks, but it’s a hot spot among the local community and is preferred by many over the other banh mi juggernauts in town.
While the stand doesn’t have a selling point or major stand out feature to set itself apart, it’s almost impossible to find a fault in the sandwich. One of the exciting choices is that their pate is wetter than some of the ones used by other stands that can sometimes be on the dryer side. At one bite into the roll, we know you’ll agree Lanh is worth the stop.
Banh Mi Chay
Address: Phan chau trinh and Nguyen hue – Opening Hours: 6:30 a.m. – 10 a.m (or when she sells out) – Cost: 12,000 VND (0.50c USD)
While vegetarian and vegan banh mi’s may be scoffed at in other countries, they’re perfectly acceptable in Vietnam. There is at least one stand dedicated to this speciality in every town—Hoi An is no exception. A very kind woman named Hoi runs the stand located in Old Town. Although she doesn’t speak English, she does her best in trying every time. That being said, not much needs to be said as she only does one kind of banh mi—and quite honestly that’s good enough!
Her vegan banh mi is filled with flavourful diced mushrooms, marinated tofu, slaw, chopped peanuts, herbs and a flavourful liquid that is drizzled in the sandwich to moisten the bread. Apart from it being a great banh mi in terms of flavour, the price is only 12,000 VND (0.50c USD), making this a tasty steal within Hoi An.
Hidden Hint: If you pay an extra 5,000 VND (0.20c USD), you can get additional fillings in your sandwich.
Drunk Banh Mi Stand
Address: An Hoi – Opening Hours: After 9.30 p.m. unfixed days – Cost: 25,000 VND (1 USD) – 30,000 VND (1.30 USD)
The following stand may be a strange choice to include in an article outlining the best banh mi, however, for those caught in the late-night hunger game—the struggle is real. Hoi An isn’t known for its late-night scene, but those who do take to the bars until close will find themselves released into a land where food is near impossible to find in the early hours. Fear not, there is a banh mi stand located right across from Tiger Tiger Bar on An Hoi that appears in the late evening and will stay open until the last of the befuddled patrons have moved on. This stand isn’t out there to corner the banh mi market and rise into the elite status as some of the others in town; they’re there to provide late night revellers with the food that they need.
They have a good selection of choices to cover your cravings—from pork, rotisserie chicken with cheese, to egg, and more. On the window of their stand is an English menu to help you with your decision.
After considering all the factors, including bread, fillings, and physical locations, as well as excluding TripAdvisor reviews and celebrity mentions, we at Hidden find it impossible to name a banh mi to stand above all others as the best.
At the end of the day, the banh mi is a sandwich of preference, and preferences vary widely between people. Additionally, looking past the lines and tour groups, each business has a loyal local and expat following that equals the next. For the price point and size, it’s possible to try them all. However, if you’d have to choose we recommend aiming for Phi, Queen and Phuong banh mi. These three will give you the best representation of the banh mi spectrum in Hoi An.