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Feb 20, 2002 02:48 PM

Vietnamese sandwich history/origins

  • j


I'm wondering if any one out there can help me to find out the details surrounding the development of Vietnamese sandwiches. So far I've been able to find out that banh mi, the baguettes they're made on, stem from the French colonization. Thanks in advance for your help folks.


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  1. ...As well as the Julienned Carrots and Liver Pate.
    also added is cliantro and BBQ Pork.I guess that would be the Vietnamise part of it.
    We just had a sandwich yesterday at 55st and 8th ave Sunset Park, brooklyn. One of the greatest sandwich joints around. You can order it plain or spicy.
    It's called Vietnamise Special. For $2.50 you can't go wrong.

    1. j
      J. DiStefano (Canchito)

      People, people, please. While your comments about where to get the best V.S. are appreciated they ain't the reason I started this thread.

      Perhaps I should have been more specific. I'm trying to find out where and when in Vietnam the V.S. originated. What are the differences between those found in Chinatown and those found in Vietnam. When did they first come to the U.S. If anyone can reccomend books that list this information it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

      Eat on,


      1. Recollection from my first 28 years living in VN, and my 30+ years in the silicon valley.

        Bread is not native to VN, and bread is the food of the 'poor', those who cannot afford rice, or a place to cook rice. ("Poor guy, he has to eat bread for dinner (instead of rice)")

        In the colonial days, the sandwidches were sold in expansive deli's to the French colonials and the French wannabees. I don't know how much authenticity they are to the real french sandwidches.

        Around 1940's-1950's, the 'French sandwiches' ("banh mi Tay", litterally 'French bread') became a status symbols among the wannabees, and cheaper versions of them started to show up in Vietnamese stores.

        The sandwich was a small loaf of about 4"x3"x3" french bread, split along its length, almost always coated with a thin layer of mayonaise. The garnish depends on what you order, and almost always includes a short stem of raw green onion.

        Then came the poor version that you see today, primarily sold in 'mobile sandwich restaurants' (Xe Banh Mi, litterally 'vehicle selling bread').
        The mobile restaurants are essentially a 3'x4'x5' box on tricycles.
        The bread is an 8" cut of a longer French baguette. But they added a lot more Vietnamese accentuation to it, all of them inexpensive items: green pepper, cucumber, pickeled vegetables, herbs (South Vietnamese love herbs).

        In the 1960's, the original 'French sandwidches' -catering to the French- have disappeared, may be gone with the French.

        At the beginning of 1980, with the immigration of the Vietnamese into the US, the signs in the shops said "French Sandwidches", a direct word-by-word translation of the vietnamese "sandwidch on French bread".

        The first successful sandwidh shop was BA-LE on Santa Clara avenue, in San Jose, between 6th and 7th, who delivered a huge sandwich for $0.50.
        BA-LE was the name of a very popular sanwidch stand in Saigon, who started as a tricycle, then became a multi-story building. Probably no relationship with the people in San Jose.

        BA-LE in San Jose was too immensely popular. Unfortunately, the owner/operator lady was so rude and arrogant that as soon as the competition started to sprout, customers fly away. By 1984, BA-LE folded.

        Today, I can have a filling lunch with $1.25 sandwidch at DAKAO (3rd and San Salvador, San Jose), or $1.50 at My-My (on McKee road near Kmart, San Jose) except that they're almost an hour drive away from my place of work.

        End of my soap; fat lady singing.

        9 Replies
        1. re: Suu Quan

          Fantastic! My buddy Joe Distafano and I appreciate the info. We have been having a tough time getting clear history.
          Jonathan Forester

          1. re: Suu Quan

            does anyone know if the saigon ba-le is still there? and was the san jose ba-le related to the current ba-le chain? and are there any bahn mi shops in paris?

            (fyi ba-le is vietnamese for paris.)

            thanks for any info.

            1. re: louisa

              >does anyone know if the saigon ba-le is still there?
              I don't think so, but wait a few months. My wife is going back to VN and I'll ask her to look for it.

              >and was the san jose ba-le related to the current ba-le chain?
              I don't know.

              >(fyi ba-le is vietnamese for paris.)
              You're missing the accentuation. It's not Paris.
              Ba = number Three, Vietnamese use to give people a number = ranking in his line of siblings.
              Le = either his name or most probably his nickname, equivalent to "quicky". May be he was fast and effective at what he was doing.

              So Ba Le (no hyphen) is the call name of the guy who operated the sandwich stand/tricycle.

              1. re: Suu Quan

                Thanks again for the info. Will definitely look for an update. And I don't mean to question your Vietnamese-ness but then what is Vietnamese for Paris? I'll have to call my Vietnam raised cousins on this because that's what they told me.

                Thanks again.

                1. re: Louisa Chu

                  And by the way, do you happen to know if there are any bahn mi places in Paris? I'd posted this question on the International board but no answers. Thanks.

                  1. re: Louisa Chu

                    Ba-Le^ (with the circumflex on top of the E), and a hypen to say that this is a compound word.

                    Pronounced exactly like "ballet", the style of dance.

                    That's the vietnamese interpretation of the word Paris.

                    The sandwich place is named Ba Le (with a dot under the E), is a marriage of 2 words (no hyphen), and is pronounced like "ba-lair", with a 2Khz down shifting on the 2nd sillable. (Vietnamese is a singing language, you sing it wrong, you change its meaning)

                    1. re: Suu Quan

                      Thanks again for the info.

                      Are you familiar with the Ba-Le chain? There is the one in Chicago as zim mentions as well as many others. I don't know if they're related to the San Jose or Saigon ones but I will call and check it out.

                      I don't know how they spell their name - with or without hyphen or circumflex - so I don't know the origin or meaning of the name.

                      And yes, being Chinese I completely understand the nature of spoken Vietnamese. I forget how many different meanings there are for the inflections of "fun" alone - noodles, powder, sleep, separate, etc.

                      Thanks again.

                  2. re: Suu Quan

                    >and was the san jose ba-le related to the current ba-le chain?

                    during the chicago chowathon (i think, it may have been on another visit) we happened in to the chicago branch of ba-le just as the manager was giving some sort of tour of the place to a group. I overheard her mention that the headquarters was in San Jose.

                    1. re: zim

                      Thanks, I'll call and check it out.

                      The Chicago Ba-Le is where I ate my first bahn-mi. My Vietnam raised cousin bought us some and I think I must have eaten three.


                "Ba Le, founded by Le Vo, stemmed from a simple drink stand in Saigon, Vietnam in the early 1950's.

                Vo was in his early 20's when he began his own business selling smoothies and various drinks from a stand he built out of found wood. His beverages sold well, but he needed an item to go complement his drinks. Sandwiches seemed ideal because they are quick to make , easy to take to go, and customizable . He began experimenting with different flavors and techniques for the vegetables and meat that would go into his sandwiches. He looked to the French, who were occupying the country at the time, for culinary inspiration. He then came up with the union of picked vegetables, savory meats, and the French baguette.

                The Vietnamese "banh mi" sandwich was a big hit with Vo's customers. He had a unique way of preparing his meat that made him stand out from other sandwich's shop in Vietnam. His success led him to open up a warehouse to produce more than he could by himself at his stand. After much progression and growth. Vo unfortunately had to close up shop to escape the war in 1972.

                He brought his family to the San Jose, California where Vo opened up Ba Le Bakery in 1982. The opening of the Chicago Ba Le followed after in 1989 which is now the headquarter of Ba Le products. Americans took well to his French-inpired sandwich, which is why Vo's family has continued to provide authentic Vietnamese food for their customers. Today his sons and daugthers have taken it upon themselves to open up more of his bakeries and serve his food through out the U.S."

                So this link seems to cite the Ba Le opened in San Jose as the first Banh Mi sandwich shop open in the United States, which jives with Suu Quaan's post from 2002. Is this all true? Because I would be very proud to be eating at the original banh mi US outpost all these years. (Btw, the service at Ba Le is definitely drastically different from the San Jose memories, nothing by friendly and clean service).