Banh mi/my evolved at some uncertain point in time, first as something sold indoors, then later as a street food. These days, it’s hard to imagine street snacking without this post-Subsidy Era street eat.
So what’s next?
Doner kebabs have infiltrated the street cuisine of Vietnam, to the point that more Vietnamese frequent the purveyors in the tourist areas of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi than westerners. This seems the dish likeliest to make the leap, even if it lacks a snazzy Vietnamese name (unless you want to stick on ‘banh mi’ to the start, as is official protocol). In fact, according to preliminary Wikipedia research, Vietnam is one of the only countries in Asia where the doner is eaten by more locals than expats and tourists, and uses an adapted version to reflect local tastes.
(Read More: Get your taste buds going with Defining Street Food, a journey into the change world of grub in Vietnam)
Hanoians seem to have taken to the doner a little more swimmingly than the Ho Chi Minhites, and their superior offerings of banh my Tho Nhi Ky reflect it. There’s even a few scattered outside of Hoan Kiem (try Berlin Doner Kebab, 208 Tay Son, Dong Da, Hanoi), but most laymen end up with the power pita sold on the corner of Ma May and Dong Thai in the Old Quarter. At VND30,000 — a couple thousand VND more expensive than the southern version — it dwarfs Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacker alternative, the serviceable yet unspectacular Doner Kebab (118 Bui Vien, Q1). Both versions employ pork instead of the traditional lamb or beef, and mayonnaise and chilli in place of the West’s garlic sauce, tzatziki and hot sauce.
In the Western Corner
Colin Coats thought that meatballs might work on Ho Chi Minh City’s Bui Vien. With an official-looking presence on the walkup to one of those souvenir shops, Nana Marie’s (60 Bui Vien, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City) two-burners-and-coldbox setup still relies on walkby traffic. “It’s something you can eat while you walk,” Colin says. “It’s a one hand job, maybe two hands.”
Colin’s enterprise is a bit more technical than your average banh mi. “I take a lot of time with my sauce,” he says. “I make my sauce, make my own meatballs. The bread I buy, but it’s a specific bread. I can’t buy any other bread.”
(Read More: Try a taste of the hottest sauces (literally) in Vietnam, with Some Like It Hot)
The backpackers aren’t killing themselves to get at Nana Marie’s delicate meatball offerings — a firm and surprisingly lively nugget of beef and pork. At prices ranging up from VND60,000, it’s not the cheapest eat on the street.
For Colin, this is a labour of love, supported by his other labours. He’s willing to give it some time to find its niche. “[Vietnamese people] aren’t my main market,” he says. “My main focus is on the backpacker and expat community here. I haven’t started delivery here yet, which is the main expat business.”
In the Vietnamese Corner
Jackson “Tini” Quan set up his lemon tea-and-crepes stand, Tini’s Crepes (Hem 276 Bui Vien, Q1), three months ago.
At first, Tini pulled in the westerners, but after the first month “they never came again”. Now, his business mostly comes from Vietnamese students.
And he’s doing a fair trade with the late-afternoon, afterschool traffic. He has grown on these kids with his sweet and savoury offerings, all under VND20,000. “The first thing they try is the fried egg,” Tini says. “It’s very easy to eat. Then they will try the crepe, which is a very new flavour for them. They love it.”
(Read More: Change things up with something a little different, with a journey into the Best BBQ in Vietnam)
Tini’s crepes use the staples of Vietnamese street cuisine — as far as the veggies and sauce the savoury ones hold. But otherwise they are recognisably crepe-ish. “They are the same as western style, not Vietnamese,” Tini says, judging with his one-year line cooking experience on Costa Concordia cruises.
Tini’s success with Vietnamese people isn’t accidental, but the result of a new twist on a time-honoured formula.
“You will see everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City,” Tini says, “everyone only [has] potato chips, French fries and lemon tea. But I have changed it a little bit. Crepe and lemon tea, that’s new for everyone.”
If you’ve driven down Phan Xich Long in Ho Chi Minh City’s Phu Nhuan, or perhaps steamed down Tran Nao in District 2 on a late afternoon, then you may well have seen Xuc Xich Leon King replete with a lifesize cardboard cutout of the sausage ‘vua’, Klaus Rutt. Leon King is Klaus’s son.
Rutt has taken his barbecued-on-the-spot sausages to the streets of Ho Chi Minh City in an attempt to sell his own version of the German sausage to the general public.
That he is expanding suggests that his curbside exploits have been a success. And that it’s no longer just Klaus himself taking care of the barbecue portends well for the future. But as with all novel ideas in this country, true success takes time. Let’s hope that Leon King’s path to sausage heaven isn’t made at a crawl or found stuck in traffic. Otherwise he could be occupying curbs for a long, long time to come.
To see more of Leon King, search for Xuc Xich Leon King on Facebook
Pho Mai Que
It was a trend that started last year in Hanoi, and there are no signs of it abating. To go along with the deep fried sausages, fish balls and meatballs, you can now buy mozzarella breadsticks, known otherwise as pho mai que.
The obsession apparently started on Ta Hien in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, but quickly spread. The mozzarella is covered in a common batter made from a combination of flour and cornmeal, and the resulting ‘stick’ is similar in appearance to your average fish stick. It’s typically served scorching hot, and upon being bitten into, its inner cheese oozes out. But why it has become an obsession is a bit more difficult to ascertain.
Apparently, Korean burger chain Lotteria started selling it first, but it was only when a Ta Hien entrepreneur got hold of the idea and put it on the street, that it really went out to the masses. And as any pho mai que fan will tell you, the obsession is probably just because it tastes good.
By all accounts, the mozzarella cheese stick is here to stay. You can even find it in Saigon — just do a search on foody.vn to get your fill.
Still Hungry? Check out our other cover stories about the best of Vietnam's Street Food
Get your taste buds going with Defining Street Food, a journey into the change world of grub in Vietnam
Test your culinary skills with Learning to Cook Street Food, an exploration of how to whip up the delicious Vietnamese delicacy of Banh Xeo
Try a taste of the hottest sauces (literally) in Vietnam, with Some Like It Hot