The Vietnamese version of the waffle has long been a street snack of choice. But as ‘fast food’ and ‘convenience stores’ take hold, so the demand for these tasty morsels is starting to wane. Words by Vi Pham. Photos by Francis Xavier
Banh to ong — beehive crackers — have their own place in my childhood. I used to live in Saigon’s suburbs and as a kid, I was not allowed to go downtown without my parents. We used to drive to the bookstore at the end of summer break to buy stuff for the new semester and then wandered around District 1 looking for funny stuff to do. Whenever I smelt the aroma of banh to ong in front of the bookstore, I would immediately turn my head around to look for the seller. The comfortable sweet smell of banh to ong made my mouth water, blurring out all the other snacks, and it was always a good day if my parents bought me some.
Then and Now
Since most sellers insist banh to ong has been present in Saigon since 1975, it could well be a local adaptation of the waffle. However, for me, banh to ong is crunchier and although there are many similarities in the ingredients, banh to ong requires a thin layer of flour to have that crunchiness; some sellers even add sprinkles of coconut. What makes this snack so different from the waffle is that you can only buy it from the ganh ladies, the women with the bamboo poles and baskets.
These ladies are the people who carry the stove to toast the crackers and all the other ingredients on their shoulder poles. Until about five years ago, it was still easy to find the banh to ong ladies on the streets while exploring Saigon, especially in the central areas, and it was always pure happiness to watch the sellers and their cracker-making device. They must have mastered the art of making banh to ong over many years to be able to apply batter and flip the iron beehive pans so professionally.
However, there are fewer and fewer banh to ong sellers to buy from. There are days when my sweet tooth craves that familiar crunchiness of banh to ong, but the sellers are nowhere to be found.
“Everything’s changed,” says Ms. Lien, a banh to ong seller on Dong Khoi, when I ask about her business. “I’ve been selling this on the streets of Saigon for almost 24 years and there used to be many more of us, especially in front of the Tax Shopping Mall.”
“Do you know why?”
“Some replaced their shoulder poles with bikes and some quit — they can’t compete with the instant snacks, I guess…” Ms. Lien shrugs her shoulders, and let’s slip a tiny sigh as she continues toasting my order.
Even though banh to ong is not an international food star like pho, it does have a special place in the memory of every Saigonese. I remember what a happy feeling it was to receive the hot crunchy banh to ong wrapped in a piece of newspaper from the ganh lady after school. It was the simple happiness that only street snacks can deliver.
“I do miss Vietnam when I see the waffle,” replies my friend Linh when I text her asking about banh to ong. “I’ve tried to make banh to ong several times here in Canada, but I’ve failed miserably. I can’t get that crunchiness right.”
Indeed, making banh to ong requires both attention and patience. If you pour too much batter onto the iron pans, the cracker will turn into a puffy dough. If you pour too little, it’ll be too thin for a cracker, and if you don’t flip the pans at the right time, it’ll burn or be undercooked. This is not at all an easy skill to learn, let alone master it like the ganh ladies have.
“But I do try to make it over and over again, you know, just to be surrounded by that warm cozy smell,” Linh texts back, surrounding her message with tearful emojis.
If you want to see how banh to ong is toasted to that perfect, yellow-brown colour, find the sellers on Dong Khoi and Nguyen Hue. I can assure you there’s nothing to regret in every bite. Banh to ong now comes in stacks and it’s about VND20,000 to VND40,000 per stack of 10.