Adapted from Chinese baozi or dim sum, banh bao are steamed dumplings typically filled with pork, sausage, egg and mushroom. However, their contents are usually a mystery until you take your first bite. In Mandarin, the characters for dim and sum mean “dot” and “heart” respectively, so as per tradition, buns are usually garnished with an orange dot of crab roe or carrot at the centre of the bun’s twisted top.
Banh in Vietnamese means bread or cake, so naturally there are many dishes within the banh family. While banh bao is certainly not as popular as its cousin the banh mi, the dish can usually be found all over the city in travelling food stalls on busy streets. Look for a plume of steam escaping a metal pot to point you in the right direction.
20A Doc Tam Da, Ba Dinh
If you’re not keen to bike around aimlessly until you find a banh bao stall, there are some permanent places to find the dish. Tucked away in a tiny enclave at 20A Doc Tam Da in Ba Dinh is a woman who makes delicious banh bao. Ingredients vary slightly from day to day, but you’re always guaranteed some kind of egg (chicken or quail), pork and mushrooms. If you’re lucky, you might also get glass noodles. As the name suggests, the dough is a cross between bread and cake — soft and slightly sweet. There are no set prices, but generally one dumpling will cost no more than VND10,000.
Her shop is only big enough to accommodate a chair, a fan, and a steamer, so customers must take their banh baos to go. If you’re looking for a scenic place to munch on your dumplings, you’re in luck. Nearby you can either enjoy your snack with a lovely view of West Lake or on a bench in the botanical gardens just down the road.
51 Yen Phu, Tay Ho
Unofficially stationed on the sidewalk near 51 Yen Phu in Tay Ho, you can usually find two women in folding chairs serving banh bao hot out of the steamer. Not only are their dumplings excellent, but these women are always extremely amiable and appreciative of your business. Usually, these banh bao are filled with pork, egg, mushroom, and some kind of dried fruit to add something sweet. Again, these snacks don’t have a set price, but they typically ring in at about VND10,000.
If you’d rather not stand on the sidewalk and eat your dumpling, you can walk a few buildings down to Café Duy Tri at 43A Yen Phu. Here you can enjoy your banh bao with a strong coffee and a second-floor balcony view of the bustling street.
71 Yen Phu, Tay Ho
Occasionally the women at 51 Yen Phu will run out of banh bao, but luckily there is a permanent shop nearby at 71 Yen Phu that sells a variety of snacks, including dumplings. Here you can find dumplings on display in an enclosed glass box. Prices are fixed at either VND12,000 or VND15,000 depending on the size. The larger dumpling has all the typical fixings — egg, pork, and mushroom — with one unique addition, cinnamon.
Disclaimer: Do not be alarmed by the texture of a steamed egg. For those of us accustomed to fried or hard-boiled eggs, the powdery consistency of a steamed yolk can feel strange, but this is normal — you’re not eating a bad egg.
Photos by Julie Vola