The taste of Hanoi: Savour authentic Vietnamese ‘banh mi’ at Section 17, PJ

PETALING JAYA, Dec 1 — We can travel around the world in our own backyard.

A simple enough truth but sometimes it can be hard to believe this. Recently with friends flying off left and right for their year-end vacations — from Bangkok to Tokyo, Seoul to Paris — it feels as though we have been starved of the outside world since the pandemic started.

So when a couple of friends returned recently from a short getaway to Ho Chi Minh City and wanted to catch up, I was surprised that they wanted more Vietnamese food.

Didn’t they get enough when they were there?

Apparently not. Some cravings go beyond those for sustenance; I reckon what they truly long for is a revival of their experiences travelling in Vietnam (they made a side trip to scenic Da Lat too). But more on that later.

For now, we needed a place for them to satisfy their serious pangs for banh mi; they tell me that they miss that inimitable crusty bread roll, split into half and stuffed with all manner of delicious fillings.

And they know just where to go for this: Jane’s Nem at Happy Mansion in Section 17, PJ.

The eponymous restaurant is run by Jane Hien Nguyen, a Vietnamese national who moved here some years ago with her Malaysian husband. My friends had already been to her shop and swear by her banh mi.

After parking, we approach the shop; it’s easy to find with the vibrant orange signage announcing “Truly Vietnamese Cuisine” and a nifty logo emblazoned with the traditional Vietnamese headgear, a conical nón lá hat.

We immediately recall the streets of Hanoi (where I have been) and of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon, which is how my friends refer to the Vietnamese capital; apparently the old name is still very much in use by the locals there, proudly calling themselves Saigonese), both bustling cities that rarely remember to sleep, they say.

Get up early and there are street vendors who have gotten up even earlier than you and already set up their rickety stalls by the pavements. Hungry customers are perched on the tiny plastic stools, ubiquitous and iconic, holding their hot bowls of pho bung in their hands; there’s no table to place them, you see.

To perk one up after a long night out, some caffeine is indispensable and when you’re in Hanoi or Saigon, this means a cup or two of their cà phê sữa nóng made from strong drip coffee and plenty of sweetened condensed milk.

Which is why one of our first orders at Jane’s Nem is their Vietnamese drip coffee; you can have this either black or with milk, hot or iced. I wager iced with milk is the way to go, given the sweltering noontime temperatures.

Honey lemongrass cooler (left) and iced Vietnamese drip coffee with milk (right).

Honey lemongrass cooler (left) and iced Vietnamese drip coffee with milk (right).

The weather is hot enough that we also order the shop’s honey lemongrass cooler, which is suitably thirst quenching. Wet the throat for the bread, meat and pickles to come.

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But where does it all happen? Rather than a closed kitchen (where other dishes are cooked), there is also an indoor “stall” near the entrance after you enter, which is really a work station for them to prepare items such as the banh mi.

Watching the staff slicing a crusty baguette — freshly baked daily — before adding toppings according to each individual order, you’d be transported to a proper banh mi stall in Vietnam where the same process is repeated over and over.

Slicing a crusty baguette — freshly baked daily — to make the 'banh mi.'

Slicing a crusty baguette — freshly baked daily — to make the ‘banh mi.’

Elsewhere inside, the colourful décor — canary-yellow walls, flat red cushions with floral prints, framed photographs of Vietnam — welcomes customers to the shop. It’s a way to introduce those unfamiliar with Hanoi or Saigon to the warm Vietnamese culture.

We eschew indoor seating however; the standard height of the tables, chairs and benches puts a distance between us and the alley-way banh mi vendors in Vietnam. Instead we opt for the only table outside, right in front of the entrance.

The colourful décor welcomes customers to the shop... and to warm Vietnamese culture.

The colourful décor welcomes customers to the shop… and to warm Vietnamese culture.

Fresh air, yes, but also these are lower and closer to the ground. Sitting with our knees close to our elbows is an experience we remember far too well. We are transported back to Vietnam; Saigon for my two friends, Hanoi for me.

Soon enough, our rolls of banh mi arrive. Each one is filled with crisp pickles, their homemade sauce and topped with fresh cilantro. Where we differ is in our choice of fillings: one has the chicken satay, another the pâté and ham.

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So much to choose from: meatballs, coconut pork, grilled beef with black pepper sauce and siu mai (yes, this classic Cantonese dim sum is popular in Vietnam too, where it is called xíu mại and made from minced pork, scallions and even shredded bread). Ask for one with the works — a banh mi special with an extra omelette!

Ask for one with the works — a 'banh mi' special with an extra omelette!

Ask for one with the works — a ‘banh mi’ special with an extra omelette!

Besides banh mi, Jane’s Nem also offers beef and chicken phở, bún chả Hanoi (dried noodles with salad, sweet and sour dipping sauce and grilled chicken or pork) and her signature crispy spring rolls (the name of the shop comes from nem, which is Vietnamese for “fried”).

Something to try for our next visit. But today, we are more than delighted with our banh mi feast and our journey back to Vietnam, relishing the flavours without crossing the border. We return to Hanoi and Saigon, all within our own backyard.

Jane’s Nem

Happy Mansion, AG5, Block A, Jalan 17/13, 46400 Petaling Jaya

Open daily (except Wednesday closed) 10am-8pm

Tel: 012-331 1835



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