Like so many Vietnamese restaurants, more than a few banh mi joints are named after nothing more than the number of the street they are on, and so it was with the cutesy Banh Mi 14, which lies in the heart of the Old Quarter on Hang Buom at number, you guessed it, 14.
Here they specialize in various twists on two much-loved products, western-inspired banh mi and awe-inspiring yogurt (under their Bubble Yogurt brand). In over a dozen visits here Chào has yet to have a bad experience, as we slowly (well, not so slowly) make our way through the entire menu.
Aside from a bright mural, containing a fun caricature of owner Ha Le and her pet dog Tony, the interior is slightly down-at-heel, though Ha is quick to assure us things are changing soon. “You guys must come back in August, it will be completely different, completely! I will have had the store repaired, this entire section will just be the seating area, and a small space to order with special yogurt counters.”
Ha is a joy to talk to, by turns chatty, funny and gossipy, all while throwing delicate shade on her son’s banh mi shop, which is just next-door and not, we are told, as successful as his mom’s.
Banh Mi 14 serves up crisp, crusty baguettes that are always fresh and hot, veering away for the purist Vietnamese styles and throwing in ingredients perfect for foreigners, though the customer mix is at one-third locals, even during peak tourist season. Fillings include stir-fried beef & pepper, roasted duck, mushroom and meatballs, sliced pork, chicken curry, as well as pate & char siu. With prices ranging from a mere 15,000 to 35,000 VND, you absolutely can’t go wrong here.
“I’m just like, anything goes. Whatever. I’m just going to do it my way, no need to race! I’ll just sell food, and go with the flow, wherever that leads me,” she says like a Zen master.
“The foreigners like us. I am not even selling cold sandwiches. Lots of people ask me, ‘Why don’t you sell sausages and ham?’ But to tell you the truth, the storage is not good, it will instantly become tasteless,” Ha says. “Once a sandwich loses its crunchiness, the texture gets all soggy, how frightening to eat! I’ve eaten at my son’s place next door already, so I know it! I have tried to tell them, but they won’t listen.”
Ha is distinctly proud of her ability to bring in western customers, and tells story after story about their behavior, constantly chucking along at activities that might leave others less amused. “I’m just like, anything goes. Whatever. I’m just going to do it my way, no need to race! I’ll just sell food, and go with the flow, wherever that leads me,” she says like a Zen master. “I get so many types in here! They come from all over the world. They are so funny, those westerners.”
“My staff members always get teased by them. One even said: ‘Will let me marry your waitress as my wife,’ then she picked her up and dragged her out the door. I laughed till my stomach was in pain!”
While Ha’s banh mi are on point, the store being worth a visit for these alone, it is her yogurt that takes the place from somewhere we merely recommend to somewhere you absolutely must go: Greek or Vietnamese yogurt served with a selection of fruit jams (mango & passion fruit, strawberry & raspberry, and blueberry), can be topped off with anything from cookies to muesli, all served in huge cups, which are frankly hard to finish.
If Bacchus and Epicurus had teamed up to create an easy way to give the undersexed a guaranteed orgasm, they would have come up with something along the lines of the Super Bubble.
“The yogurt was my son’s idea actually. Him and his friend, his girlfriend actually. She went to the Netherlands for seven years, then went to Singapore for two years to study the recipe,” she says. “It’s a success here! It’s very popular now, and sells really well.”
“We started off with the sandwiches then it was combined with the yogurt sales. People usually come here to eat both. They go so well together.”
Without hesitation, Chào recommends, no, demands, that your order the Super Bubble yogurt, a godly delight, which comes with three types of fresh-fruit (the strawberries prettily layered on the top), along with a smattering of granola, crushed chocolate cookies and lashings of real fruit jam. If Bacchus and Epicurus had teamed up to create an easy way to give the undersexed a guaranteed orgasm, they would have come with something along the lines of the Super Bubble. Who knows? Perhaps they did.
Ha’s energy is relentless and she runs the store, almost singlehandedly, from 9 a.m to 1 a.m. everyday barely taking the time to rest, in what we assume must be an absurdly tiring schedule, but she seems jolly and unconcerned. “Actually, I don’t really feel tired, only in the [odd] moment. Being active is much better, on days where I just sit here, me and her [employee] just get really sleepy. I’ve gotten into the routine of selling a lot, and business being busy. During the past Covid days, business has been hard because there aren’t any tourists.”
We ask her if she ever takes a day off, a concept she seems to find distinctly comic. “NO WAY! If I had any work off, then my girl would stand in for me. But I never take any days off, not even during Tet or the pandemic,” she says. “My staff asked me if we were still selling, and I told them, if there’s a customer, we’ll take the order. I’ve been living here since 1988 with my husband’s family. I’ve done businesses for the past three Tets!”
If you want banh mi, yogurt, or just a natter with one of the Old Quarter’s funniest ladies, swing on by to Banh Mi 14. If you don’t try a Super Bubble before you shoot off the mortal coil, well, don’t say we didn’t give you a heads up.
Interview and additional reporting by Linh Nguyen.
14 Hang Buom Street, Hoan Kiem
9 a.m. to 1 p.m.