The Dark and Complicated History of the Banh Mi

Paperman banh mi

Going to Vietnam and not eating a banh mi would be like going to Scotland and not touching whisky or going for a run and not posting a sweaty, meticulously designed dishevelled selfie on Instagram. In Vietnam alone, from north to south, the banh mi is one of the most convenient, accessible, affordable and goddamn delightful meals on offer, but it has long since flown the nest. The banh mi has gone global, but how?

How did the simple sandwich of Vietnam – the one that satisfies, with such splendour, both local and foreign palettes – find its way to so many corners of the world? The answer is darker than you might think, for the banh mi is the product of mankind’s proclivity for war. While the banh mi is now a staple constant in the Vietnamese diet, it has only become so due to the enduring constant of warfare in human history and, in the case of the banh mi, it all started with (unsurprisingly) the French.

Ostensibly, the French imperialist designs on Vietnam and what is now south-east Asia wore the familiar face of Roman Catholic missionaries who’d been converting and setting up churches across Vietnam long before 1859. This is when the first French troops began what was allegedly a civilising mission, where they set about teaching the locals about the wonders of modern political concepts and exciting new technologies, but their lessons were taught with gunpowder, blood and exploitation. After almost 30 years, the French military violence had formed the bedrock upon which the Federation of Indochina was formed in 1887.

Banh Mi dark and complicated history hot table

Time went by, French cuisine had been introduced to Vietnam. Food, as it still is today, was a measure of social status and the Vietnamese were consistently priced out of the bread, beef, cheese, cold meats, and vegetables that the French were importing through German-owned companies. The banh mi was still a long way out at this point, but those who recognise where chronology is about to take that French-German relationship might be able to form a guess as to how the Vietnamese finally got to taste all these infamous French foods.

World War 1 broke out in 1914, tearing the face off the allegedly civilised continent of Europe as it descended into a farcical murderous rampage. The notion of colonies became a lot harder to sell to the government back in France, who ordered thousands of colonial French soldiers and officers back to the homeland so that they could die somewhere closer to home. Of course, as colonial governments are apt to do when ripples from home create tsunamis of change on their foreign shores, the French colonial government gave the Germans in charge of the importing companies the boot, but they also sent 100,000 Vietnamese to fight alongside their French slave-masters.

With fewer French mouths to feed and warehouses stocked full of European foods, goods and perishables, the colonial government began to worry. They’d seized the two largest importing companies – Speidel & Co. and F. Engler & Co – without much of a thought as to how they’d manage these places on top of maintaining their perceived superiority over the Vietnamese with greatly diminished numbers of French officers. Eventually, a solution was found. While war raged across Europe, the Vietnamese working class were finally getting their first taste of French cuisine, which had been made available to them, in terms of price, in a bid to raise money for the war effort and to avoid wasting the precious food. 

Banh-Mi-3-(1)-(1) hot table

Ever wondered how pate makes such a prominent appearance in Vietnamese food? Working class Vietnamese were able to enjoy it as World War 1 failed to teach Europe a valuable lesson, even when it was taught in blood, fire and anguish. It was here that bread made its way from French bakers to Vietnamese bellies and would forever become a part of the national diet from this point onwards. With the surviving members of the 100,000 Vietnamese soldiers returning from the first World War, who’d lived exclusively on a diet of French food and disdain for their colonial masters during their time in combat, there was a growing taste for change. Meanwhile, the French were forced to indulge in the locally available ingredients of Vietnam due to the fallout of war, which had mangled shipping routes and recast the European world order in a more fragile light. 

So, still no banh mi to speak of, but the French love of bread was impossible to shake and so even though the humidity and mercurial nature of Vietnam’s climate made it all but impossible to get dough to rise, the colonialists persevered. After a failed experiment with rice wheat – which lacks the gluten to rise properly – the use of ascorbic acids and industrial additives allowed the bread to take on a more familiar appearance, texture and flavour. The casse-croute was born – a baguette served with pate, cold meats, butter and cheese.

Still no banh mi, I know, I know – we’re getting to that shortly! By 1954, empires weren’t exactly fashionable any more. The French were broken and defeated following the folly of war and had no stomach for fighting to retain the federation of Indochina. Vietnam by now was divided in two – with Ho Chi Minh’s communists in the north and a US-back capitalist republic down south. This led an estimated one million – the Bc 54 – who’d feared communism and were often of the Catholic persuasion, to flee the north, and in doing so, took with them the knowledge they’d gained from the French cooks – a Vietnamese spin on casse-croute, the cát-ct.

Banh Mi History

Cát-ct available in the south was reserved for the wealthy, yet the business-savvy members of the Bc 54 saw this as an opportunity. Economic efficiency was the order of the day and by reducing the baguette in size and adding the assorted meats, the pate and a range of vegetables and herbs into the baguette (rather than being served on the side) it was affordable and accessible to all – at last, the banh mi was born on the streets of Saigon.

American imperialism was about to wreak its wrath on Vietnam as the northern half of the country attempted to engulf the capitalist south, in what became known as the Vietnam War to some, the American invasion to others and a total shit-show to anyone looking back on it with the hindsight of history. Despite the American efforts, aided by Australian forces – more on this story later – Saigon fell to the communist forces of the Viet Cong in 1975 and once more, Vietnam was in upheaval. From here and well into the 1980s there would be an influx of refugees, mostly south Vietnamese, who attempted to jump ship and start new lives.

While many wound up in America, across California and Texas predominantly, New Orleans offered somewhere with a shared history of French influence, but better still – a prominent Roman Catholic heritage. And so, with the support of various church-based charities, Vietnamese communities were formed having fled their home to live in Louisiana. The climate was humid, the landscape was almost familiar and with a longstanding tradition of enterprising in the face of war, the banh mi made its first appearance on another continent. Despite New Orleans being famed for the delectable po’ boys and muffaletta rolls, the banh mi endures today – even after generations of Vietnamese immigrants have evolved and adapted to a more American way of life. For those pioneers, arriving in the 1980s, the banh mi was a means to life – a guaranteed income in a city that loved its sandwiches. 

Banh Mi Paperman

The hard graft of Vietnamese bakers to create their national dish was not just a way to earn a living as a refugee in a foreign land, it was a means of retaining a cultural heritage that had survived French colonialism, two world wars, a civil war and American imperialism. The banh mi is packed with more than just delicious ingredients, it’s stuffed full of 160 years of Vietnamese history, the majority of which centres around war. And even though the original New Orleans Vietnamese communities have almost vanished following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the banh mi endures.

It’s hard to know what to make of all of this. Is the banh mi you enjoy at the end of a drunken night really worth the countless dead from war? Or is that even the right way to look at it? The banh mi doesn’t mean “I went to war and all I got was this lousy sandwich,” chiefly because it’s an excellent sandwich, but also that might be the wrong perspective to take. The banh mi is a cultural transmitter. It channels the hard-working, tough-as-coffin-nails perseverance of the Vietnamese and presents the hell of history to you in one easy to eat sandwich. Now that peace persists, it serves as a reminder that war may kill a lot of things, but it cannot crush hope, it cannot kill culture and perhaps most importantly, it cannot destroy the banh mi. 

Banh Mi - Budget eating in Hanoi

© HOT TABLE. Photography by Mi Nguyen and Julia Solervicens. 

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