Breaking Down the Banh Mi (Vietnamese Sandwich)


As a traveller in Vietnam, Banh Mi is one of the safer street foods you can enjoy (take a look at our previous blog post for more tips on food safety).  Most of the fillings are cooked, cured or pickled and there is no water involved.  Banh Mi, which is the name for both the bread and the sandwich, is also the quintessential fusion Vietnamese dish – the ingredients have roots in old Vietnam, French colonial Vietnam, and New World cuisine.  Banh Mi is the perfect street food when you are visiting Vietnam. We encourage you to try this sandwich concoction in Vietnam, at least once. 🙂

banh mi,sandwich, vietnamese
The infamous banh mi sandwich

That being said, many people find the Banh Mi a little daunting because the fillings and condiments are often things that foreigners can’t find in the food truck back home.  Vietnam is definitely a land of exotic foods and Banh Mi fillings are no different, but we want to explain all of the intricacies of the sandwich so that you know exactly what you’re ordering!

It’s All About the Bread

Banh mi Bread
Banh mi Bread

Although they call it a baguette, it’s not your traditional French baguette.  The Vietnamese baguette is a combination of French baking and Asian baking.  The bread is baked using the classic technique, making the baguette crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.  To throw in a bit of Asian flair, the Banh Mi bread is made with half wheat and half rice flour to give it that light and airy feel.  The bread is really the vessel that brings all the flavours of this sandwich together so make sure you notice and appreciate the bread when you bite into your Banh Mi!

What’s In It?

all the fillings in Banh Mi
A guide to recognizing all the fillings in Banh Mi

The main ingredient list at the Banh Mi cart:

  • Cha or Cha Lua (Pork Roll) – Ground pork is rolled and packed into a banana leaf and then steamed or boiled.  The roll is then sliced before adding to the sandwich.  This is probably one of the most common Banh Mi fillings.
  • Thit Nguoi (Cured Cold Cuts) – The literal translation is ‘cold meat’ and that’s exactly what it is.  This is a composition of cured pork and fat and cut into class cold cut-type slices.
  • Gio Thu (Headcheese) – You may have noticed that pork is an extremely popular meat choice but this particular product might be very unfamiliar to you.  Headcheese is a processed product made from tendons, pig ears, skin and other pork head products.
  • Thit Nuong (Grilled Meat, usually Pork) – More pork!  Marinated pork is grilled and sliced thin.
  • Xa Xiu (BBQ Pork) – Small pieces of barbecued pork having a distinct coal smoke flavour.  The particular cut of pork varies.
  • Bi (Shredded Pork Skin) – This filling can be a bit dry because it’s thinly sliced pork skin.  This filling is usually combined with another product.
  • Xiu Mai (Meatballs) – Once again, pork. 🙂 These are spiced, ground pork meatballs and have a distinct tomato flavour.
  • Nem Nuong (Pork Patties) – These are also ground pork, but shaped into a patty with infused garlic flavours.
  • Ga Nuong (Grilled Chicken) – For those who are not a fan of pork, don’t worry – there are other options!  This is marinated and grilled chicken, usually chicken thigh.
  • Ca Moi (Packed Sardines) – You may notice little red coloured cans at your nearest Banh Mi stand.  These are packed sardines in a tomato sauce.  They make for a great sandwich filling but they are definitely just out of the can.
  • Pate – Pate is extremely popular as a Banh Mi filling and is often combined with other fillings.  It can be made from pork, duck or chicken liver.
  • Trung Chien or Op La (Fried Eggs) – You will see eggs at a Banh Mi stand quite often.  Banh Mi Op La is an extremely popular breakfast snack in Vietnam.

The Filler for Banh Mi

A sandwich isn’t a sandwich without the little something extra that makes all the flavours pop!  Here is a list of classic Banh Mi condiments –

  • Pate – Yes, pate is also used as a condiment to moisten the sandwich.
  • ‘Mayo’ – We put mayo in quotation marks because this isn’t Hellmann’s Mayo out of a jar (although sometimes it is, which is unfortunate).  Traditionally, the mayo used in Banh Mi is actually cut with butter to add that melty feel and nutty flavour.
  • Fresh Herbs – Most often, it is sprigs of cilantro but other herbs are common as well.
  • Pickled Vegetables – Finely shredded or julienned daikon and/or carrots are pickled in a vinegar concoction and add the perfect amount of sour punch to brighten the flavours of the sandwich.
  • Chillies – The slices of chillies may be thin but they are quite spicy here!
  • Cucumber – Self-explanatory. 🙂
  • Soy Sauce – a little dash of it, although some drier fillings like pork skin require a bit more.  Don’t be afraid to ask for more if you think it needs it!

Bon Appetit!

We hope you enjoyed this tip on Vietnamese food!  To learn more about how you can enjoy Vietnamese delicacies with XO Tours, check out our Foodie Tour!


  1. Hi Emily,
    Thanks for reading our blog post. If you eat eggs, your best bet is to ask for a ‘banh mi op la’ and ask for no meat. You’ll also have to specify ‘no paté’ because many stand owners don’t view paté as meat! 🙂 Most freestanding banh mi carts will only have pork meats and eggs but some places in more touristy areas offer a tofu filling as well. If you do not eat eggs, one place we suggest going for a tofu banh mi is Grillbar Cafe on Le Thanh Ton St. Good luck!

  2. Ms. Shah,
    Anywhere in the US where I have gotten the cold cut banh-mi, there was seasoned ground pork in lieu of pâté. Do you know what the name of this is? Could it simply be grilled ground pork patties broken up into tiny bits? I would love to replicate it at home to make our own banh-mi sandwiches since we now live so far from anyone selling them. However, it’s hard to look up the spices used, not knowing what it’s called.
    P.S. – We hope to get to Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand some day. Friends who live there have shared the beauty of the people and place through their family photos.
    P.S. – If you’re even in FL in the US, there is a phở restaurant in Pinellas Park that makes amazing egg banh-mi… the hot but still runny yolk oozes throughout the sandwich and into the soft, airy, crispy bread, and the peppers are *always* nice and spicy. Just the right balance of flavors. Mmmmmm, breakfast of champions!

    • Hello Pam,
      We agree, the Banh Mi is indeed a perfect meal all rolled up into a sandwich! Not sure about the seasoned ground pork in lieu of pate. Vietnamese spices and flavourings tend to be very uncomplicated, although you wouldn’t guess it by all the robust flavours. I reckon it shouldn’t be too tricky to replicate. Good luck!

    • Hi Pam,

      I know you posted back in 2014, so maybe you already found your answer, but my best guess is that it’s seasoned with fish sauce. Fish sauce is usually the secret ingredient to most Vietnamese recipes.

      You might also want to look into Vietnamese meatballs (xíu mại), which are a kind of meatball made with ground pork and fish sauce, covered in a tomato based sauce. You can probably leave out the tomato if the taste you’re after doesn’t have tomatoes.

  3. Thank you very much for this post! I ate my first Banh Mi today and it was amazing! I was pleasantly surprised as some of the ingredients I typically do not care for but I will never alter atraditiknal food before trying it the ‘right’ way. I was looking online to see if it was something I could easily make a home like sushi or gimbap but it appears to be more difficult with the bread not being easily purchased.


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