Phuong Nguyen knows his banh mi. That might not sound new in a country that claims to make one of the best sandwiches in the world, but in Hanoi, where banh mi is far more ubiquitous than pho, Phuong’s sandwiches are causing quite the stir.
From his humble stall, Banh Mi 25, located in the heart of the Old Quarter at 25 Hang Ca, Phuong has been doing a roaring trade since opening just three months ago. In fact, Phuong’s banh mi has garnered so much attention that Banh Mi 25 has since sailed to the top spot on TripAdvisor, outperforming the top eateries, bistros and street food haunts in the city.
So what does Phuong think of his newfound success? “To me it doesn’t matter whether we’re number 5 or number 50, the only thing I care about is that I’m making people happy with my food,” he says with a subtle smile sneaking across his face. Describing his customers as “happy” is probably an understatement when it comes to the reaction Phuong gets from his bangin’ banh mi.
26-year-old German traveller Jorg Oberlander, who has spent the last 8 weeks travelling from Saigon to Hanoi, says Phuong’s banh mi day du is the best banh mi he’s tasted in Vietnam. “The bread is incredible and the filling inside is so much better than anything else I’ve tried in a banh mi — and for only VND20,000, it’s amazing!”
So, what distinguishes a good banh mi from the rest?
“The bread is really important,” says Phuong. “With most banh mi you get, the bread is way too big.”
His answer to this problem is a sensibly sized baguette custom-made to specifications and using a jealously guarded family recipe. The smaller variation bread also provides the perfect foundation for the high-hitting ingredients, ranging from handmade pates and sausages, to specially cured French ham and barbecued pork. The finishing touches of vegetables and specially made sauces (derived from the fat that sizzles off the pork when it’s barbecued) tie all of these elements together into one formidable banh for your buck.
“The most popular option among my Vietnamese customers is the banh mi xa xiu (pate, barbecue pork and vegetable; VND20,000), whereas foreigners really like the banh mi day du (pate, barbecue pork, French ham, sausage and vegetable; VND25,000),” he says, pausing to chat with a group of curious pedestrians.
But it’s not just the sandwiches themselves that are proving a hit with Phuong’s customers. Phuong’s family, who have made banh mi in the same spot for nearly 80 years, are also a big drawcard for foreigners wanting to get a ‘local’ experience.
“My family has been running their businesses here for nearly 80 years,” says Phuong. “My father used to make banh mi after learning how to make meat and bread from the French.”
In addition to Phuong’s banh mi cart, the modest tubehouse is also home to Phuong’s mother’s lock shop and his uncle’s tea shop — which offers diners free tra da with their banh mi. Did we also mention that you get a free banana for dessert?
Not bad for VND20,000. Not bad at all.
— David Mann