Our first stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a Saigon) — the most populous metropolitan area in the country, with over nine million people. The city was teeming with motor vehicles — for every one car, there were probably ten motorbikes — and like most countries in South East Asia, Vietnam has minimal (if any) traffic laws. Bikes weaved in and out of (non-existent) lanes, in narrow alleyways, and on sidewalks.
With all of the fast-moving traffic, it was an absolute scary experience to be a pedestrian trying to cross the road in Saigon. Were there crosswalks? No. Did the cars and bikes give way to pedestrians, just like they do in the US? No. I felt like I was in Frogger — narrowly avoiding dangerous vehicles as I made my way to my destination. The key to walking across the street in Saigon was to be very confident. Each step we made was a deliberate step forward, which the vehicles anticipated. Hesitating or moving back would ruin the natural flow and we’d be roadkill.
So, rather than have tire marks on our backs, we decided to book the XO Vietnam tour — which consisted of beautiful ladies dressed in traditional Vietnam garb (ao di) giving us a tour around on their motorbikes.
I was extremely nervous to get on the motorbike at first. One, there were no traffic laws. Two, (and I hate to say this) the drivers were Asian women (and you all know the running joke about Asian women drivers). As an Asian woman, I can say that I’m not the best driver around. However, those fears and prejudices aside, I would say the motorbike tour was definitely the best way to explore the city. Not to mention our drivers were very professional and capable (in your face, stereotypical Asian women driving joke).
We started off with the night foodie tour — where we sampled the most amazing (and authentic) dishes that Vietnam had to offer, across Saigon’s five most popular districts. The tour focused on street food — dishes most people outside of Vietnam rarely experience. No pho or bánh mì here.
Our first stop was literally a little food cart located in an alley way in District 1. Here, I was introduced to bún bò Huế — which I found even tastier than the famous pho. Our soup consisted of thin slices of marinated beef, lemongrass, fermented shrimp sauce, cubes of congealed pigs blood, basil, mint, spicy chili, green onions, and cilantro. Some ingredients in there may sound a bit odd — but I swear, it was the perfect balance of spicy, sour, sweet, and salty flavors — absolutely delicious.
Next, we were taken to an outdoor food joint in District 3, where we enjoyed a number of dishes that we grilled ourselves. Grilled calamari, frog legs, chicken, and shrimp were among some of the things we cooked up.
Each of us was paired with one lady guide, who we buddied up with the entire night. I felt like I had my own eating helper with me. My guide knew I didn’t like eating the shrimp skins and heads, so she peeled them all off for me. She was amazing!
We weaved in and out of traffic (and other obstacles) to our last stop in District 5. We made ourselves comfortable on plastic chairs at another outdoor street restaurant. The dishes here were a bit more complex in flavor. Spicy crab legs, sauteed with chili, garlic and onions came out first.
Then there were the steamed scallops, drizzled with nuts and green onions. But the most memorable of all was the trứng vịt lộn (a.k.a balut) — a fertilized duck embryo which was boiled and eaten in the shell. I was no stranger to this delicacy because my parents loved it. As a kid, I only drank the soup which was present at the top of the cracked shell. This was my first time actually eating the embryo, which I finally found the willpower to do. I didn’t find it particularly appetizing — it tasted like what I would imagine a “dark meat” egg would taste like, if that even makes sense.
We enjoyed the night tour so much, we decided to book the day tour the following day (which included visits to the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office, the Reunification Palace, and the Jade Emperor Pagoda). It was also a fantastic experience, but if I had to choose which was my favorite…hands-down it was the night foodie tour.