Saigon can be a confusing place. There’s the whole Communism thing, for a start. Everywhere you look are reminders of the country’s revolutionary politics, from old-style posters of Uncle Ho to the ubiquitous red star flags that decorate the streets. And yet, in conversation with a Vietnamese guide, we learned that neither education nor healthcare are free here, which doesn’t seem terribly leftist. Then there’s the enthusiastic embrace of consumer capitalism, which suffuses the wealthier parts of the city. There’s so much building work going on, it’s going to be a totally different place in a few years. I suppose it’s something close to the Chinese model which can be perplexing from a Western political perspective. That said, I find Saigon completely charming: it has a combination of laid back urbanism and youthful energy that makes it an exhilarating place to just walk around.
More or less our first order of business when we arrived was to locate good báhn mì. I can’t often say I was at the forefront of a food trend, but I was eating báhn mì long before they became trendy. My old New York apartment was near one of the first báhn mì shops in Manhattan and I ate lunch there constantly, dragging friends from across town and proselytising for Vietnamese sandwiches. There’s something completely addictive about the combination of pork, sausage, pâté, pickled vegetables and chilies on good French bread. So Saigon báhn mì was a major priority. Luckily, a couple of blogs had mentioned this one place, Báhn Mì Huynh Hoa as the best in the city, so we had a plan. We schlepped across town in the morning, expecting delicious French bread for breakfast, only to discover that we had been misinformed and the place didn’t open till 3:30pm. Curses! Undeterred, we did some actual sightseeing and came back in the afternoon for a late lunch.
By this time, the place was hopping. Several staff inside prepared ingredients, while two more worked with great efficiency at the fillings station making up sandwiches. Outside, a small but regular line of people arrived on foot and on motorbikes, many picking up bags full of at least a dozen báhn mì. Clearly, this place is extremely popular with the local cognoscenti.
It is also, according to Gastronomy blog, staffed by a family which includes several transgendered people. This may explain why the staff were rather camera shy – none faced front for our pictures and one of the managers looked a little shirty until we showed him that we’d only photographed the sign and the food. I wouldn’t have pegged any of the staff as trans but it must be well enough known locally as both the blog posts I’ve read on the place mention it. This is where Saigon’s contradictory politics resolves into something more appealing to me. Obviously, I’m always going to want to support LGBT businesses, but there’s a different ambience here too. Whereas Thailand was full of ladyboy shows and was busily selling its reputation for sexual licence and gender diversity in ways I didn’t always view as liberatory, here a shop selling one of the country’s most popular dishes is cheerfully run by trans men and women and so long as you don’t stop and gawk, everyone’s happy. Also, did I mention, the sandwiches are heavenly…
Báhn Mì Huynh Hoa, 26 Lê Thị RiêngDistrict 1, Ho Chi Minh City