If you can’t beat them, join them.
Posted by Jennie
Despite the zooming scooters, HCMC is actually a walking city. Wide tree lined boulevards are distinctly Parisian and there is a bit of French era architecture that still remains.
Walking around the tourist center of District 1 is a good introduction to the city and its various street food. But the best way to experience HCMC is no doubt, on two wheels. A motorcycle food tour gives you access to other parts of the city outside the tourist area.
The tour company, XO Tours gives an excellent food tour with all female guides dressed in traditional Vietnamese Ao Dai. XO is short for Xe Om, or motorcycle taxi. The lady guides are svelte and petite yet they expertly navigate the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh at rush hour like any seasoned male driver would.
I spent the first few minutes white in the knuckles holding on tightly to the handlebars behind me. After a while though you get used to it and begin to enjoy the breeze. It’s funny that you can have a conversation with your guide while riding on a motorbike. By the way, all XO guides speak excellent English and have a great sense of humor.
Probably the most vivid part of the motorbike ride is passing through Cholon or Big Market in Chinatown. Your motorbike idles side by side hundreds of other motorbikes, and you are shoulder to shoulder with the person on the either side of you.
Your senses will be a bit out of whack at this point trying to process the many things happening all at once. The constant movement of people and the noise from the motorbikes not to mention the chaotic atmosphere of vendors hawking live chicken, duck, crabs, snails, frogs and even snakes! Vendors, customers, animals, motorbikes all funneled into a narrow street. When you are finally out of Chinatown you breathe a sigh of relief only to find yourself on a highway dwarfed by busses and trucks. Again you rely on the skill of the driver, and they do not disappoint.
At this point eating is the farthest thing from your mind, but when the motorbikes pull into a huge open air dining establishment, you are greeted by the aroma of grilled meat that make your taste buds water. The whole tour group sits together. It’s a big group of maybe 25, 10 guests, 10 guides, 1 team leader, and get this , 4 body guards!
I am seated with my guide and she serves me as if I were royalty! She grills goat breast fillet, and serves it in a little bowl with different herbs and its own dipping sauce. She tells me this is the most prized part of the goat. It is chewy and has the texture of chicken gizzard. When wrapped with a sesame leaf and dipped into the fermented tofu sauce, it takes a whole new dimension.
Then she grills 2 whole frogs, one with skin and one without. She cuts it up and offers it to me. She tells you it tastes more chicken than chicken, and she’s right!
We have grilled shrimps next. With a pair of scissors she deftly removes the head and legs and gives me several skewers with the shell intact. The shell is crunchy while the shrimp is plump, sweet and juicy. Bottles of Vietnamese beer are opened and everyone says “bababa” or 333 which is the name of the beer brand, ba being the Vietnamese word for 3. No “bababa” for our drivers though, only sugarcane juice, they’re on duty after all!
From District 8 we head to District 4, the “gangster district” a dangerous area and off limits to tourists. I look back and make sure the bodyguards are still tailing us as we enter District 4. The area looks residential, not at all menacing. The only difference is that there are little or no English signs here. The streets are narrow and well lit with karaoke bars, barber shops and eateries.
So why come here despite its reputation? I am told the best seafood stalls can be found here. That’s a good enough reason for us venture in the no tourist zone!
The group stops at a roadside restaurant with bright fluorescent lights, blaring music, low tables and the regulation red plastic chairs. Crustaceans like shrimp, crabs and lobster plus shellfish are the main attraction. They are alive and as fresh as can be.
Our guides begin by making a versatile dipping sauce of pepper, lime and chili. It goes with everything we are told, and indeed it does. A plate of unshelled crab legs is put before us arranged like a circular fan. With the hard work of removing the shell done for us, we can now sink our teeth in the meat and eat crab leg after crab leg. The meat is fresh and firm and I easily ate a dozen.
Another plate arrives and this time it’s a plate of huge scallops topped with chopped peanuts, chives and a sweet and salty sauce. The scallops are fresh off the grill and are still hot. They are exceptionally good and we eat them from the shell and slurp the sauce and repeat the process.
A pot of soup is next, I open the lid and steam comes out. It is a soup of baby clams seasoned with tomato and lemon grass much like a Thai tom yang minus the heat. It’s just what I need to warm and soothe my stomach.
Just when I think we’ve had our last dish, a hard boiled egg in a small green bowl is served. I bite into it and surprise! It’s actually balut or hot vit lun. The Vietnamese version is served with a tamarind sauce, chopped peanuts and cilantro. It’s a different take on balut and it is quite delicious.
This is the last stop before we make the long journey back to District 1. Just as we are about to stand up, we are served rau cau trai dua or fresh coconut crystal jelly. The first layer is a rich coconut cream, the second layer is a light coconut jelly and the last layer is young coconut meat perfectly chilled and served in what else but a coconut! It’s delightful and the best possible ending to a night like tonight.
Where we stayed.
The production team of FoodPrints was hosted by Sofitel Saigon Plaza. Recently refurbished, the property oozes understated elegance. The decor incorporates Vietnamese themes with French accents. A real treat to come back to after a day in the city. Location in District 1 is a plus, walking distance to most landmarks.