Combining the culinary traditions of France and Vietnam resulted in the creation of the Vietnamese baguette. This crispy bread blends rice flour and wheat flour to produce bread that is shaped like a hoagie or submarine roll. For a traditional Vietnamese baguette, bakers mix yeast, salt, sugar, wheat flour and rice flour with water. The Vietnamese version is a lighter and crunchier baguette than the French version, which calls for using only wheat flour.
A baguette is a long, narrow loaf of bread that resembles a rolling pin with round ends. The French version traditionally may be up to 3 feet (about 1 meter) long. The cooked bread typically is around 2 inches (5 centimeters) in diameter.
Traditional Vietnamese baguettes are shorter than the classic French baguette, often only 1 foot (30 centimeters) long. The crust often has splits made in it to let steam escape as the bread bakes. Food historians believe the shorter length made the Vietnamese baguette more practical, particularly for busy workers. The smaller size makes the bread easier to manage when one eats and works simultaneously.
In Vietnam, bakeries and pastry shops mainly sell classic French pastries such as croissants and the traditional baguette. Street vendors are the main sellers of the local baguette. Using small coal-burning heaters, they keep dozens of baguettes at serving temperature. In Vietnam’s major urban centers, one can easily find vendors hawking hot baguettes and specialty sandwiches that utilize the baguettes as their foundation, especially during lunchtime.
Since the creation of the Vietnamese baguette, bahn mi has been the local name for both the bread and the sandwiches made with it. Sandwich creations that have a Vietnamese baguette as the base use ingredients common in Asian cuisine. In Vietnam, one finds sandwiches that include shredded carrots, pickled vegetables, salad greens and mayonnaise. These core ingredients accompany a variety of meats that range from foie gras and shrimp to chicken or pork.
Bread was not a central part of the Vietnamese diet before the French arrived in the country in the 19th century. Wheat is not a common crop for this region of Asia. Contact with the French led to the development of a hybrid cuisine in Vietnam that survived long after the colonial relationship ended. The French not only introduced wheat flour to Vietnam but provided the expertise needed for the Vietnamese to develop the rice flour featured in the local baguettes.