Dunking Pastries In Soup: A Detour In Translation

In Stories, Vietnam by Nick4 Comments

It’s funny to laugh at poorly translated signs in other countries. Come on, don’t you want to try one of those ice-cold Latinos up there? No? Just me?

Unfortunately language is a two-way steet. Sometimes the joke is on you.

Burner display model at Metro

I might be living abroad, but sometimes I crave a simple soup-sandwich combo. Who doesn’t love dipping a meaty, greasy sandwich into a hearty bowl of soup? Terrorists, that’s who.

The only Vietnamese export you know better than pho and ALL of your clothes is the banh mi.

Now, I could write a textbook about banh mi. But for now let’s just say it’s a sub. And a damn good one, at that.

Problem is, there are’t any decent banh mi stands near my apartment. I was in the Catch-22 of lunch—too hungry to look, but unable to eat unless I found food. Life is unfair.

I wandered across 4 lanes of traffic pouring out of the alley across the street. Back here lives a busy university—and all the cheap dining options to feed its hordes of students.

Banh mi is cheap as shit. I could close my eyes, spin around and walk ten feet in any direction, and I’d be able to order a sub.

I picked a stand with enough shade to minimize my sweating and asked for two subs with grilled pork and cheese. Standard. I knelt down to take pictures of the dog slumbering beneath the cart. Standard.

Sleepy puppy under a banh mi cart

The girl running the cart smiled at me. A dollar for two subs? Cha-ching. I’ll be coming back here for sure.

A few minutes later I was hunched over a small wooden table waiting for a hot bowl of beef pho. The iced tea was sweating almost as much as I was. Thank god for air conditioning, otherwise I might have to spend the summer months in Greenland.

The waitress delicately laid out my bounty—a piping-hot bowl of soup, a plate of steamed bean sprouts, a smaller dish of lime wedges and chilies, and a big bowl of herbs that were probably ripped out of an old woman’s garden just hours before.

I submerged the edge of my first sub in the broth. Here we go. Here comes banh mi’s sinful combination of mayo, pâté and grilled pork with pho’s complex melange of beef and spices.


Cheese and sugar!

Sugar and cheese banh mi

This pork looks off…

Where’s the pork!? Cucumber? Mayo? No, that’s not butter. That’s Laughing Cow cheese.

Imagine for a second you just poured a tall, frothy glass of chocolate milk. You put the glass to your lips. But the flavor that flows across your tongue isn’t chocolate milk…it’s gravy.

Gravy and chocolate milk are both good. But damn it, you were really hoping for chocolate milk.

Let’s be honest, cheese and sugar are a pretty good combo. I was basically eating a poor-man’s cheese Danish. A cheese Vietish.

I still ate them. I even dunked the rest of it in my pho. It was good…

Let’s look at the replay. Where did I go wrong? Or was the smiling banh mi girl a raging sadist?

I ordered hai bánh mì phô mai thịt nướng—two banh mi with cheese and grilled pork. Thit nuong is grilled meat. I got sugar. Sugar is đường. Nuong. Duong. Shit.

At least I didn’t get a sandwich full of gravel and tomatoes.

Next time you’re giggling at the silly menu at the Chinese restaurant, remember—you could be next.


  1. David

    Man hearing about the sandwich is one thing, but seeing it, dude that looks gross.

    1. Author

      I’ve had better, but I’ve had worse. OK, not much worse. But I’ll have pictures of REAL subs soon. I was eating disappointment that day.

  2. Beth q

    I tried a bite of Ali’s tofu banh mi sammich the other day. Bleh. Paul had one in New Jersey and he actually liked it. With pork though. No cheese or sugar.

    1. Author

      Yeah it’s not something I would put on any street food tours of the city. Operative word for that sentence is TOFU; of course you didn’t like it! They’re easy to make at home. I figured he’d be all over that since it’s a sandwich. As much as I like banh mi though, nothing compares to a good Cuban or Reuben.

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