The best sandwich in the world?

As someone who eats a sandwich pretty much every day, it’s perhaps surprising that a humble dish of meat (usually) in bread can still blow my mind. Very few sandwiches are memorable; 90% of those I eat are bland supermarket meal deals. 

Every so often, less than once a year, however, I’ll eat a perfect, unforgettable, sandwich. Such occasions are few and far between, they can be counted on one hand. The salt beef sandwich at Katz in New York; a Navajo flatbread in Austin; a steak in a small baguette I would always get in Brazil on the way to the beach; falafel in Jerusalem. All these I remember like they were yesterday, and would pay good money to eat again.

In Hoi An, a pretty, coastal town in central Vietnam famous for cheap tailoring and UNESCO-protected architecture, a new sandwich was unexpectedly but happilly added to the list. Aside from pho, the banh mi is probably Vietnam’s most famous dish. One of the few positive legacies from the French colonial period, perfectly textured baguettes are filled with pate before being completed with a variety of ingredients.

Available everywhere and cheap (usually £1, though I ate a fantastic one in Hue for around 25p), the banh mi is one of the staples of Vietnam’s vibrant and varied street food scene. 

I used to watch Anthony Bourdain religiously, and therefore know of his love for Vietnam and its food. I had completely forgotten, however, that he visited, and loved, a small restaurant in Hoi An serving one of the best banh mi around. Fortunately, an encounter with an Australian who had eaten there every day during his stay reminded me. Promptly, I made the two-minute pilgrimage from my hostel to Phuong Banh Mi, hidden away and easy to miss.

Phuong Banh Mi

In no time at all, the sandwhich arrived, on a baguette so crispy on the outside, yet so fluffy that it rivalled anything you can find in France. The pate was ample and strong in flavour, and a perfect counterbalance to the chilli sauce. I went for what looked like the traditional option: pate, ham and roast pork, and there was certainly a lot of each. Banh mi are usually finished off with cucumber, carrot and lettuce. The balance between ingredients was perfect and the pork more flavoursome and tender than any other I’d had. 

I now have five sandwiches on my list, and picking one over all others would be tough. But the banh mi at Phuong’s in Hoi An deserves its spot, and should not be missed by anyone visiting Vietnam.

Banh mi
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Cooking in Hanoi; killing a chicken in Phong Nha

Tucked away in the quiet backstreets of the Tay Ho district of Hanoi, far from the frenetic world of the city’s Old Quarter, where moped-dodging is the main activity, sits Maison des Saveurs. On a leafy, idyllic road, the most beaufitul street in Hanoi, as I told our hostess, Lam, whose house also serves as a private restaurant, bases her cooking classes, which accommodate up to six people. 

After some initial trouble finding the house, me and Lucy, my cooking buddy for the day, were greeted by Lam, a friendly and welcoming Vietnamese with fluent French and English, and her dog Hello. We got acquainted over artichoke tea, which was surprisingly good, and sesame biscuits, discussed the menu (spring rolls, green papaya salad, bun cha and minced pork in leaves) and headed to the local market, accompanied by stories about Vietnam and explanations about various food products.

Market

Back at Maison des Saveurs, it was time to get going and Lam, aided by her very helpful team, laid chopping boards and knives out for us. After a quick demonstration, with Lam’s assistant grating the carrots and green papaya, and marinating them with salt, sugar and vinegar, it was our turn. First step, slicing pork shoulder for the bun cha (Grilled Pork with Vermicelli) and marinating with shallot, lemongrass, fish sauce, oyster sauce, honey, five spice, salt and pepper. Our pork slices were distinctly less pleasing to the eye than the demonstration, but they tasted just as good. 

The spring rolls were no easier to make, but it was a fun process. Minced pork was mixed with sliced glass noodles, dried mushrooms, onion, bean sprouts, carrot, herbs, fish and oyster sauce and egg, then placed on precariously thin rice paper and folded into shape. My spring rolls would not have won any awards for presentation, and I almost sliced through my thumb in the process. Lucy’s were much better, a feat not unnoticed by our teachers, to my dismay. Finally, the rest of the minced pork was wrapped in leaves and we were good to go. 

Pork skewers and spring rolls
Spring rolls cooking

On a small charcoal grill on the patio, tended by another helper and Hello, the pork skewers slowly grilled. Meanwhile, we tried our hand at frying the spring rolls: lots of oil and constant turning, with chop sticks of course, and chatted to our hosts, who were all extremely hospitable. 

Thirty minutes later we sat down to one of the best meals I’ve had in Asia. The bun cha was succulent and perfectly charred, especially flavoursome when dipped in the special sauce, and eaten with coriander and Thai basil. The wrapped pork was also a delight. The spring rolls, however, were the highlight, considering how much work, and pain, went into making them. And who’d have thought I’d enjoy a dish featuring such a heavy dose of mushroom? 

For anyone visiting Hanoi and interested in food and cooking, a trip to Maison des Saveurs is a must. Lan left me inspired, both to eat Vietnamese food and to make it at home. 

Several days later, a stop at Phong Nha national park and another unique, though more solemn experience. The national park is situated in central Vietnam, a 10-hour bus ride south of Hanoi and close to the border with Laos. Famous for its gigantic caves, including Paradise and Dark caves, which Matt and I visited, and Son Doong, the largest cave in the world, which is almost impossible to visit and extremely expensive, the park features endless motorbike rides through impressive jungle-covered mountains, housing wildlife such as tigers and elephants, which we sadly didn’t see. 

A few kilometres down the road from the main town, however, down a dirt track, sits the quaintly-named Pub With Cold Beer, a family-run restaurant which serves chicken and, of course, cold beer. You don’t have to kill your own chicken, but you can, and we decided it was a unique chance to be completely in touch with our meal, something I had not experienced before. When we informed the waitress that we wanted to do it ourselves, she seemed happy and surprised, perhaps not many foreigners opt in. To be sure, the group who arrived at the same time as us weren’t able to go through with it. 

The killing itself was not as difficult as I thought it would be, the hardest part being the loud squawking as she chose the bird. After that, as Matt held our chicken, it was quiet and seemingly peaceful, a slit of the neck draining it of blood without movement or a sound. It was by no means a nice or fun thing to do, and I do not necessarily subscribe to the view that one should be able to kill an animal to eat it, but it was a profound and sombre way to get closer to food than I’ve ever been before. 

After 45 minutes, the chicken arrived, marinated in lime, chilli and herbs, served with morning glory, steamed rice, and the best peanut sauce I’ve tasted, all grown on the family’s land. 

Our chicken