A Day in The Life of a Vietnamese Bánh Mì Vendor

Mr.Lâm (right) and his brother | © Matthew Pike
Mr.Lâm (right) and his brother | © Matthew Pike
Photo of Matthew Pike
Writer8 March 2018

It’s 9:50am on a Sunday morning in District 9, at the northern edge of Ho Chi Minh City’s massive sprawl. There are a half dozen people on motorbikes idling out front of Lò Bánh Mì, and Mr. Lâm seems to be speaking to all of them at the same time – business as usual. Here’s the story behind this family-owned shop.

A full-time meal

When you’re in the bánh mì business in Vietnam, even the roosters get to sleep in later than you do. The day at Lò Bánh Mì starts at 3am, several hours before the first customers arrive with empty stomachs and handfuls of đồng. Fortunately for Mr. Lâm, the family hires an employee to start the oven in the morning. His day starts at 6am, around sunrise, when dreary-eyed kids get pulled from bed to head to the school across the street.

By 7am, business is steady at Lò Bánh Mì. Their biggest seller is a bánh mì sandwich with mixed meats. They also sell crispy bread snacks – or just the loaves by themselves, which go for 3,000dong. Because Vietnamese style bread doesn’t hold its freshness for very long, Mr. Lâm and his family bake the loaves as they’re needed, keeping trays of pre-shaped dough ready for the oven. Every day, this shop sells between 1000 and 1500 loaves.

Teamwork to fill orders | © Matthew Pike
Freshness the customer can see | © Matthew Pike
Ready for the oven | © Matthew Pike

20 years in the making

Mr. Lâm, who is 30 years old, began working in the shop six years ago, along with his brother, a retired engineer. Their mother started selling bánh mì sandwiches here 20 years ago – long before luxury sedans and SUVs came to the area. The street was dirt and gravel back in those days. Now, the area is thriving, with new construction all over the place. But even as the world changes around them, Lò Bánh Mì remains.

When the sons took over Lò Bánh Mì, they bought the oven and established themselves as a bakery as well. They had problems in the past when they bought bread from other bakeries, but with the oven they can control quality and offer their customers bread that’s as fresh as possible. The loaves are flaky on the outside, and fluffy on the inside – just like bánh mì is supposed to be – which is why we come back again and again.

Eggs, crispy bread and Vietnamese sausage | © Matthew Pike
As fresh as it gets | © Matthew Pike

So what does the future hold for Mr. Lâm and his family? They’d like to expand to more locations, but they’ve had trouble with retaining good employees. With all the garment factories in the area offering simple, easy labor, Lò Bánh Mì has had to rely on the family to keep things going.

That doesn’t bother Mr. Lâm, though. He’s happy with his job. He enjoys meeting new people, and old friends are always stopping by to share a laugh. We’ve seen him at work many times now. He has a quiet, endearing kind of efficiency. The orders come at him quickly — three loaves, one meat bánh mì without chili, two egg bánh mì sandwiches with cream cheese (no cilantro or chili, which he always remembers) — but Mr. Lâm is never fazed. He relays the orders and hands out change without missing a beat. If you find yourself in District 9, you really should pay Lò Bánh Mì a visit. They’d be happy to meet you.

Busy serving tasty meals | © Matthew Pike

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