To say that Anthony and I were excited about the food in Vietnam would be a total understatement. For years we’ve been obsessed with a food truck back home called Bon Me (if you live in Boston stalk their truck and GO EAT THERE NOW) that sells traditional Vietnamese sandwiches known as banh mi and upon our arrival in Saigon we immediately searched out a place where we could get our hands on one of these delicious flavor bombs. Technically the words “banh mi” just means bread so when ordering you have to specify what you actually want in the bread, but if you’re in Vietnam you can find street stalls selling them everywhere. They’re like Vietnam’s version of a New York City hot dog. After a few weeks traveling north we landed in the picturesque town of Hoi An which also happens to have three legendary banh mi places so obviously we decided to have the ultimate showdown and see which little sandwich would take home the coveted title of The Shoestring Trekker’s Banh Mi Champion. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
The top three rated banh mi places on TripAdvisor in Hoi An are Phi Banh Mi, Madame Kanh—The Banh Mi Queen, and Banh Mi Phuong in that order. Prior the the epic showdown we had already eaten at both The Banh Mi Queen and Banh Mi Phuong a few times, but Phi Banh Mi was rated higher than both of them so we knew we had to add it to the roster. Banh Mi Phuong is by far the busiest seeing as it was christened the best banh mi in Vietnam by Anthony Bordain, but the other two have developed their own following without any famous food critics endorsing them and rightfully so. After mapping out the best way to pick up sandwiches from all three places we hopped on one of our trusty Honda Waves and zipped off to start the judging. Without further ado, here are our thoughts on each!
Phi Banh Mi (15,000 VND)
Phi Banh Mi is the highest rated of the three on TripAdvisor, despite being the least centrally located. It is down a small side street that most tourists don’t wander down unless they happen to be looking for this specific place. The shop is run by one incredibly friendly Vietnamese gentleman from the front room of his family home. It’s small and nondescript with nothing to distinguish it from the hordes of banh mi shops aside from the bright green TripAdvisor sticker proudly displayed on the front of his work station. There are several sandwiches on the menu from traditional pork and pate to chicken and cheese. One thing Phi Banh Mi has that the other two don’t is the option to add avocado. This was a very exciting prospect for the two of us since avocado is hard to come by in Southeast Asia, but for the judging to be fair we decided to go with the Traditional Vietnamese Sandwich consisting of pork, pork roll, pate, and vegetables. In the end we couldn’t resist the avocado so we also bought a chicken and cheese banh mi with avocado, but that wasn’t in the judging round.
Phi Banh Mi’s sandwich was incredibly flavorful with bread that was crispy yet soft at the same time. The pork was roasted perfectly and didn’t feel tough or too fatty. The traditional daikon and carrots were crisp and fresh, and in addition to the usual cilantro, this banh mi also had mint on it which added even more flavor to an already very well balanced sandwich. Compared to The Banh Mi Queen and Banh Mi Phuong it was a little less full, but it was also cheaper, and the quality of ingredients was much higher. The flavor was out of this world, and when we returned the next day for another round the owner brought us into his kitchen to show us just how he roasts his pork belly for the sandwiches. Phi Banh Mi had us wishing we’d made it there earlier instead of during the tail end of our time in Hoi An.
Madame Khanh—The Banh Mi Queen (20,000 VND)
Madame Khanh runs a nice operation just around the block from Phi Banh Mi, and she was the first banh mi we tried in Hoi An. On any given day there are a few people working instead of just one like Phi Banh Mi, but the shop is still small and could be easily overlooked if you weren’t looking for it. Unlike Phi Banh Mi and Banh Mi Phuong, Madame Khanh only does one sandwich instead of several. While some people might prefer a little more variety, she has her one option down to a science. When you show up the only choice you have to make is “spicy or not spicy”, and since I’m the most indecisive person in the world, I like having my decisions made for me.
This banh mi is absolutely STUFFED with food, and if there was a category for best hangover banh mi, it would win hands down. To be honest I’m not even entirely sure of everything she manages to fit into one sandwich, but the result is a massive torpedo of deliciousness that will keep you full for hours. There’s roast pork, ground pork, pate, sliced ham, egg, chili sauce, vegetables, and so much more, yet somehow all of the flavors work well with one another. She toasts her bread (as does Phi Banh Mi), and while it wasn’t quite as good as Phi Banh Mi’s bread, it still holds up well even with all of the toppings. Another thing I like about Madame Kanh is that her banh mi isn’t too salty in spite of the plethora of meats she uses. The flavors of each element are subtle, with nothing overpowering the rest. The sandwich can get a little greasy if taken to go, but otherwise it is another shining example of banh mi in Hoi An.
Banh Mi Phuong (20,000 VND)
Last but certainly not least is the banh mi of Anthony Bourdain fame, Banh Mi Phuong. Featured on his show No Reservations, Banh Mi Phuong is by far the busiest of the three stops on our little tour. Anytime Anthony and I decided to eat there it was always packed, with throngs of tourists spilling out onto the sidewalk in anticipation of getting their hands on one of the expertly prepared sandwiches. On any given day there are at least five women behind the counter expertly pumping out banh mis as fast as they can while people crowd the counter waiting for their turn to order. The shop is impossible to miss due to the massive crowd that is always outside, and it also benefits from being in the best location of the three shops. Like Phi Banh Mi, there are several sandwiches to choose from and while Anthony and I had tried several, we decided for this particular comparison it was best to go with the barbecue pork.
The pork itself was tender and sliced nice and thin with a sweet brown sugary flavor to it. It had less meat than Madame Khanh, but more than Phi Banh Mi, and the bread was a little tough. As I mentioned before, the other two places toast their bread, but Banh Mi Phuong doesn’t (most likely due to the incredibly high volume) which may have had something to do with the bread being a little less soft. The meat and vegetables were nice and fresh tasting, but at a place that is so busy nothing sits out for very long. This banh mi was also a decent bit spicier than the other two, so if you don’t like spicy I would recommend ordering it without chili. This place without a doubt lives up to the Anthony Bourdain hype.
And the Winner?
All in all we pretty much found it impossible to pick one winner since all three were absolutely delicious, but also so very different. In terms of value, Madame Khanh definitely takes the cake since it is just packed full to the brim, but the other two beat her when it comes to flavor. Overall the ingredients at Phi Banh Mi were by far the best quality, but the sandwich itself was much smaller than its competition, however, seeing as its priced lower than Banh Mi Queen and Banh Mi Phuong it was still a great value. I will say that after going to Phi Banh Mi once we didn’t go back to the other two for the rest of our time in Hoi An so ultimately we decided Phi Banh Mi was the best of the three with the other two being tied for second. Banh Mi Phuong has more options than Banh Mi Queen, but the traditional banh mi from Banh Mi Queen is definitely better than the one at Banh Mi Phuong. Regardless of where you end up when you’re in Hoi An you’re guaranteed to have your banh mi craving satisfied and all for less than $1. If you have the time , have a contest of your own and see which one you prefer!! There’s literally something for everyone!
If you’ve been to Hoi An, which one was your favorite? Please comment and share!