Multiple Grasshopper Adventurer Chip Silverman shares his encounter with the Queen of Banh Mi and subsequent mouthwatering discovery in the streets of Hoi An, Vietnam... Warning to those reading on an empty stomach.
After six weeks traveling Vietnam from the Hai Giang plateau of the far north to the Mekong Delta in the deep south, I can tell you without hesitation that a delicious meal is never too far out of reach. And perhaps none is more satisfying than a Banh Mi.
Westerners may know the Banh Mi as a sandwich but I assure you, a mere sandwich it is not. The Banh Mi is a reflection of Vietnam - a tantalizing combination of flavors, textures, and colors (meats, vegetables, egg, sauces & spices) that reflects the country's complex history, diversity and agricultural bounty. When served properly on a fresh baguette it’s also highly addictive.
The best Banh Mi I tasted in Vietnam was made by Nguyen Thi Loc, better known by the name of her small street cart, Madam Khanh the Banh Mi Queen. This 80-year-old mother of five children and grandmother to ten knows her way around a Banh Mi. For over thirty years she has been making Banh Mi her way, which is undoubted, the old fashioned way.
Waking each morning at 4 am, she and her husband prepare each of the ingredients and sauces before welcoming their early morning regulars at 6:30 am. At that hour, the mainly local crowd consists of men and women on scooters on their way to work, and children on their way to school by bicycle. While Vietnamese prefer to eat Banh Mi for breakfast, when the bread was traditionally the freshest, tourists typically enjoy it for lunch or later in the day. For this reason, Madam Khanh stays open until 8 pm. Rest assured that no matter the time of day, Madam Khanh assembles the ingredients and sauces for each sandwich herself before handing it to one of her daughter’s nephew’s or nieces who proudly collect the 20,000 VND ($1) in return.
In Hoi An, a city revered throughout Vietnam and the world for its outstanding cuisine and street food, this is one delicacy that you have to try at least once. Though I'll warn you ahead of time, you will not be able to eat just one. I went to get my fill from the Banh Mi Queen each of the seven days I stayed in Hoi An.
Madam Khanh also sells cold drinks and tall glasses of traditional Vietnamese iced coffee. If you go, don’t fret about the menu as Madam Khanh makes only one thing, her famous Banh Mi. You can carry it away to eat under the shade of a beautiful tree in the Old Quarter or grab a small stool at a metal folding table and enjoy dining as the locals do … while watching the world whiz by.
Chip Silverman lives in NYC, will attend Cornell University Graduate School of Business in the fall. In 2016 he joined Grasshopper Adventures on tours in Myanmar, Cambodia & Vietnam.