Dana Filek-Gibson makes an 11-hour journey in the name of sandwiches.
There are a lot of things I will do for a sandwich.
Specifically: dance, plead, cry, leave the city limits, tell lies, engage in a fistfight, pick up your dry cleaning, write a haiku, shout at a transportation professional, run a mile, move furniture, clean your bathroom, care for a pet, karaoke, burn incense, speak English, speak Vietnamese, get a sunburn, embarrass myself in public or complete most other miscellaneous requests, provided they don’t involve drugs, nudity or handing over my passport.
It’s important to know this because it takes a certain kind of person to hold snack foods in such high esteem. Not everyone hears their colleague claim to have eaten “the best banh mi in Vietnam” and agrees to take an 11-hour quest in order to confirm the statement.
And yet, this is exactly how I end up at counter six of the Mien Tay bus station, buying a ticket to Vinh Long. It’ll be a two-hour journey, the vendor assures me, and the bus is going to leave “any minute”. Caught up in the prospect of a delicious snack, I fail to take this advice with a grain of salt and assume that everything will be fine. When I board the bus, it’s a little after noon.
Two naps, an Instagram session and several chapters of my book later, “any minute” arrives around 2pm. As we roll out of the station, a part of me is fraught with worry: Delta folks are on a different schedule than city people. Dinner is finished by 6pm. Wake-up calls start at 4 o’clock. I don’t know what this means for the bus timetable but I don’t have my passport handy in case I get stranded. There was a brief moment when I thought to photocopy the ID page, but if I lost the most valuable document I own on a bus trip to get sandwiches then I might be forced to reevaluate my priorities. So it stays home and I watch the city disappear, hoping that there will be someone with a vehicle heading back to town this evening, or at least a few good benches at the bus station.
The ride is miserable. Not half bad once you embrace the sweating and start to clue into what’s happening with the onboard entertainment.
Things are fine for a while, but then the kid next to me starts unpacking his lunch into a plastic bag, a baby cries and the already-slow driver is brought to a standstill by traffic backed up on the bridge to Cai Be. What was estimated as a two-hour trip is turning into a four-hour one. Daylight is fading fast. Just when things start picking up, we swing off the road and into a rest stop. I am so furious I consider buying a sandwich right there, hopping the next bus back to the city and lying about it to my co-workers.
It’s around 5.30pm when we near Vinh Long. Panicked and starving, I climb on the back of a motorbike careening toward Vinh Long’s market. The cross streets of Hung Vuong and Chi Lang, I say. Near the ferry. The driver nods and we set off. When we arrive at the ferry, he stops. The cross streets of Hung Vuong and Chi Lang, I say. He points to the ferry. I repeat myself. He points to the ferry again. There is a strange phenomenon, I’ve found, where you can speak Vietnamese but not look Vietnamese and so some folks will err on the side of caution and just assume that you can’t understand anything. This is one of those times.
We go a few more rounds like this until eventually I give up, pay the man and start walking. Searching for a banh mi cart in a local market, I might add, is like searching for hay in a haystack: they’re everywhere. How I’m supposed to know which is the best in Vietnam is beyond me but, as with most areas of my life, I blunder through and just hope it’ll all become clear to me in the end.
It takes several panicked conversations and a lot of Google Maps but eventually I locate the junction I need. For some reason, I feel compelled to call my colleague and let him know that I am about to eat the best sandwich in Vietnam. Truth be told, I’m not really sure if it’s the best sandwich or one of its competitors, but I’m hungry, there is no time and this one looks good enough.
Because I don’t realise how insane it sounds, I tell the sandwich vendor that I rode a bus all the way from Saigon specifically for this VND 10,000 banh mi. She smiles one of those smiles people use when they’re not sure of a person’s mental stability.
What might be the best sandwich in Vietnam comes with several local flourishes: cucumber, pickled carrots and daikon, a pork skin tureen, peanuts and chillis. Like every other banh mi in this country, she wraps the bread in paper, throws a rubber band around it and hands over the goods.
On its own, the sandwich is great. Along with juicy, grilled xiu mai, the rest of the sandwich’s ingredients really send the flavour above and beyond. For someone with my kind of priorities, this alone would be enough to appreciate the journey. But heightened by an intense desire to like something I traveled 120 kilometres and four provinces over to get, the sandwich is incredible. I snap a few photos, order another for the road and disappear as the sun sets over town.
My next xe om driver assures me: “There are always buses back to Saigon.”
“Are you sure?” I say, the darkness now complete. “I’m worried it’s too late.” As soon as the words are out of my mouth, an orange coach roars past us through the intersection.
“See!” he points to the bus. “That one’s going to Saigon.” Full throttle, we fly around the corner and past the casual, end-of-day drivers, suddenly engaging in a high-speed chase with a vehicle many times our size. Within a few harrowing seconds, we manage to come level with the middle of the bus, flashing our lights in the hope that the driver will notice, but traffic clears and the orange coach speeds off ahead of us.
“It’s OK,” I plead, hands clenched on the back seat. “We can just go to the bus station.” He slows down, vaguely disappointed, and makes a U-turn for the station.
This turns out to be a waste of time because all the buses have, in fact, left for the evening. That is, until a taxi driver informs me that it’s possible to catch a bus from My Thuan junction. Alone, in the dark and struggling to decipher the Delta’s slurry local accents, I agree to get into a car with a total stranger. If it all ends here, I think, at least it’ll make for a good episode of Dateline.
But it does not. My taxi driver does not let me off to catch a bus but rather drops me at the roadside next to a long-haired, heavily tattooed young man smoking a cigarette. He collects the fare and tells me that his friend will take it from here. The Dateline plot thickens.
But by the time I’ve sunk a ca phe sua da and answered all the standard introductory questions, it comes to light that this guy is not half bad at all. Within minutes, he’s caught not just a bus but a sleeper bus, cheerfully bidding me farewell from his lawn chair. For the rest of the ride, I shiver in highly air-conditioned comfort. My to-go sandwich, now an hour or two old, makes for a good evening snack and, in the neon glow of the bus lights, it’s just as good as the first one, if not better.