"Mi khong bo khong pate chua ot cay.” That is my banh mi order as sung by Giang as he dispatches it to his wife behind the makeshift kitchen. Sung out in a clear, melodic voice — bread roll without margarine and pate, but with chilli and pickles — there’s something beautiful about the way this 62-year-old Nam Dinh-born businessman uses melody and rhythm to expedite orders. People remember it, too.
They also remember Giang. Dressed in shorts and a white tank top (although today he’s wearing a shirt), and carrying a bumbag, the silver-haired banh mi seller is well known in the area. Partly because of the prime location he maintains and partly because he’s unique — mention Giang to people and they will usually laugh. He stands out.
Yet according to Giang, the melody he sings has another use. It helps him remember his customers’ orders.
“When I see a customer, the melody I have created for them comes into my head,” he tells me in Vietnamese, “that’s how I remember what they order.” It’s a good strategy — he’s never once got my banh mi order wrong. His other customers will say the same.
North to South and Back Again
Moving south in 1954 with his parents to what was then just Thao Dien Hamlet, Giang grew up in District 2. In the years following the war, he tried to leave Vietnam with his wife and son. They made it to a refugee camp in Indonesia but were sent back. With US$300 (VND6.75 million) in their pocket, his family had to start over. They rented a property close to where Giang grew up and began to sell street food, xoi vo. But the sweeter taste of the sticky rice they were selling didn’t take off in the local community.
So at the turn of the millennium Giang moved his stand to the intersection of Xuan Thuy and Quoc Huong, and added banh mi to the mix. He also changed the sticky rice from sweet xoi with green beans to a salty version, more popular with the general public.
“When you are selling something you have to be very precise,” says Giang. “You have to be fast, tidy, and most importantly you’ve got to have soul — you have to love what you do. If you love your profession or your job, only then can you develop.”
He adds: “Every day when I get home I have to check the money we’ve taken and ensure we’ve made a profit. I also have to adjust my product. Maybe the xoi was too salty today. So the next day I have to ensure it is less so.
“But more important is that when I sell, I must be happy. If I am happy then the customers will come. If not, no matter what the circumstances, then I won’t get any customers.”
Giang’s strategy works. When I sit down to talk to him it’s 9am and he’s already sold out for the day. In the short space of three hours he’s gone through about 300 banh mi and 150 packs of xoi.
It means an early start — Giang’s wife is up at 3.15am every day to prepare the kitchen. But it’s a decent living.
To see the other stories in this series, please click on the links below:
The Banh Mi Seller
The Shoe Repairer
The Banh Canh Cua Seller
The Street Barber
The Flower Seller
The Salad Professor
The Tuk Tuk Driver