It has been more than six decades since the end of French colonial rule in Việt Nam, but when President Francois Hollande arrives this week he’ll struggle to avoid a quintessential legacy of his country’s rule:
Smeared with pate and loaded with fresh coriander and cucumber, or just enjoyed with a pat of fresh butter, “bánh mì” are a delicious symbol of Việt Nam’s lasting links with its former occupiers.
“The French were very proud of bánh mì.
I think French cuisine has had a lot of influence on Vietnamese cuisine.”
Baker Nguyễn Ngọc Hoan told AFP from his busy boulangerie in Hà Nội’s French Quarter.
Hoan started baking bánh mì -– which refers to plain bread or the popular “petit pain” loaded with meat, vegetables or fried egg — in 1987 and five years later got a stint at the bakery in the storied Metropole hotel, built by the French at the turn of the 20th century.
The sandwich has become a foodie favourite in hipster enclaves around the globe, sold from food trucks and sipped with craft beer in both its classic form and a flurry of new varieties.
Hoan’s father was also a baker but discouraged his son from following in his floured footsteps.
“The baking profession chose me, it was not my decision.”
Hoan said, speaking in front of a wall of ovens as his workers tirelessly knead dough nearby.
He started his career baking what he called Vietnamese bread -– airy on the inside, crusty on the outside -– but after training with a French baker in Shanghai decided to switch to the denser French-style.
Now, he churns out thousands of warm baguettes daily, along with croissants, creme caramel and homemade pate.
‘Bánh mì’ are displayed for sale on a sidewalk in central Hà Nội
French bread was first made in Việt Nam to feed hungry soldiers in Indochina, France’s empire which spanned much of Southeast Asia from 1858 to its crushing defeat in the Điện Biên Phủ battle in Việt Nam in 1954.
But the French became known for more than food, gaining a brutal reputation for crushing anti-imperialist movements and putting Vietnamese laborers to work in gruelling conditions on rubber plantations, while heavily taxing citizens during periods of drought and famine.
Most French who came to Việt Nam weren’t interested in low-level jobs like baking.
To fill the gap, Chinese and Vietnamese worked in boulangeries — often hidden away in the back so customers wouldn’t know who was baking their bread.
“By 1910, little baguettes or ‘petit pain’ were sold in the street to (Vietnamese) people who were on their way to work, ” according to Erica Peters, food historian and author of “Appetites and Aspirations in Việt Nam”.
In the years that followed, meat, vegetables or fish appeared in the bread — precursors to the modern-day bánh mì sold all over Hà Nội, a city rife with French colonial architecture, bistros and cafes.
Other culinary influences leaked in too.
Local cooks used meat scraps and unused bones from French butchers to create phở — the national dish of beef or chicken noodle soup, according to Peters.
Coffee and creme caramel are some of the other French culinary leftovers.
The ubiquity of those influences will not be lost on President Hollande, who arrives late Monday for talks with Việt Nam’s leadership and French businessmen.
A street vendor sits in front of ‘Hoan Boulangerie’ shop in Hà Nội
Today, Việt Nam’s commercial capital Hồ Chí Minh City is dotted with chic cafes serving croque monsieur and macarons at Paris prices.
But the $1 bánh mì still rules Hà Nội’s street food scene.
It is so engrained in Việt Nam’s culinary culture that few draw its lineage back to France.
“I don’t know and don’t care whether it’s French, I just serve it like this.”
Said Nguyễn Thị Đức Hạnh, sitting in front of her shop as the lunchtime rush begins.
She sells hundreds per day and keeps her menu simple:
Bánh mì served with pate and a fried egg, beef steak or her very own version of “boeuf au vin” made with local spices.
One of her regulars, Nguyễn Văn Bình, said he has been eating bánh mì for 50 years, and unlike Hạnh, thinks of it as a hybrid dish.
“Bánh mì came from France but it was changed and adapted to suit Vietnamese tastes.”
Said Bình, before digging into his fried egg and pate served with a crusty roll.
An employee prepares to bake croissants at ‘Hoan Boulangerie’ in Hà Nội
An employee prepares a ‘bánh mì’ for sale at ‘Bánh Mì Phúc’ restaurant in Hà Nội