A bit worn down from the day’s somber activities (see earlier post), we were slightly regretting the comprehensive 4.5-hour foodie tour of Saigon by motorbike we’d booked for that evening. But when our intrepid guides Thuy and Vy came by the hotel to pick us up, we knew we’d made the right decision. They were energetic and talkative and passionate about their tour. They told us they would be leading us through 5 different districts of Saigon, with stops in each to explain the different cultural, economic, and of course, gastronomic features of each area. They told us at the outset that this would not be Saigon the way that tourists usually see and eat it: no District 1, no pho, no bahn xeo, no bahn mi. What’s left, you ask? As it turns out, some seriously weird and delicious stuff.
Our first stop was at a streetfood stall where we met up with the other 6 people on our tour, We were served iced green tea and Bún bò Huế, a soup with a richly-flavored beefy broth—by turns spicy, salty, sour, and sweet, and very lemongrass-forward—containing pork sausage, beef, and thick, glutinous rice noodles. Top it off with banana leaf, morning glory, and spicy chili sauce and you’ve got heaven in a bowl. Though it may be blasphemous to say it, I think I preferred this to pho!
From there we hopped back on the motorbikes for our long ride out to the huge market in Chinatown (District 6). Here, our group leader, Tai, described the chaos of the bustling daytime market. You must speak Vietnamese, Mandarin, or Catonese, but if you do (and if you’re willing to bargain), this market is where you can find incredible wholesale prices on everything from clothes and leather goods to fruits and vegetables. This, Tai explained, is the source of most of the food that we would eat throughout the night. Early in the morning, the proprietors of restaurants across Saigon would flock to this market to get the best prices on seafood, meat, lemongrass, mint, chili, and anything else they might need for that day’s food preparation.
From District 6, we proceeded through District 5 to District 8 (do you feel like you’re in the Hunger Games yet? We did!), famous for its hot pot and grilled meats. Here, we settled into our tiny red plastic chairs at a long, low table. Immediately, our guides set to work preparing our elaborate meal. They set up small bbq’s on the table, on which they grilled goat breast and whole frogs (with skin—extra crispy). While they were preparing the meats, we munched on chili crab and fried okra in fermented tofu sauce. While we ate the meat course (for the record, the frog was surprisingly tasty, especially when dipped in chili salt), our guides prepared prawns on the grill and even peeled them for us—what service! Of course, the meal wouldn’t be complete with out unlimited Saigon beer (poured over ice) to wash everything down.
To give us some time to digest before moving on to our next stop, our guides taught us a chopsticks-dexterity game. You and your guide formed a team, and she would pick up a fried peanut in her chopsticks and pass it to your chopsticks. You would then have to navigate the peanut into the narrow neck of an empty Saigon beer bottle. The first team to successfully drop 6 peanuts in the bottle would win! Of course, Mac and I went head-to-head, and I emerged victorious! Though my victory was slightly undercut by Mac’s guide stage-whispering “You did the right thing letting her win—happy wife, happy life!” I told her that she didn’t know Mac very well if she thought he was willing to throw any game to make me feel good!
Feeling stuffed but energized, we jumped eagerly back on the bikes, and let our guides do the work as we took in the scene on the dark nighttime streets.
Our next stop was the newish expat neighborhood of District 7, and a place called “Fast Food Alley”. With new construction, large grassy areas, and wide, quiet boulevards, this place seemed to have more in common with Singapore than with Saigon. But most notably, there were nothing but fast food chains as far as the eye could see. Our stop here was not an eating stop, but rather an opportunity for our tour leader to explain some of the economic situation in HCMC. He told us the way that the wealthy (and often corrupt) officials would sink their money into expensive real estate to protect it from inflation. This real estate would then sit empty. It was unsettling looking around at all the fancy buildings and realizing that only a few lights were on here and there. He also told us that people from around HCMC would flood to District 7 on weekends to play in the grass, since the grassy areas in other districts were strictly off-limits to locals, as the government wanted to preserve them for tourists. All in all, an odd but really interesting stop that reminded us we were visiting a “communist” country.
From here, we rode to District 4, famous for its incredible seafood, where we were again seated at an extremely low table and presented with our next culinary adventure: boiled duck embryo, aka balut. This “delicacy” was imported to Vietnam from the Philippines, and it is…pretty gross. We had to try it because we haven’t backed down from a food challenge yet and we weren’t about to start, but let’s just say that any food where your pre-eating instructions consist of: if you feel stringy, fibrous things, those are just early-stage feathers, and if you feel something hard or crunchy, it’s a beak and you should spit it out so you don’t choke. It tasted pretty eggy, on the whole, but the texture was not for us. The main redeeming feature was the broth that you sip out of the shell before you eat the embryo, which tasted like—you guessed it—chicken broth. At this stop we also ate chili prawns (some in the shell, some out), and some yummy coconut and flan desserts. But honestly, it’s the balut that we both remember best.
District 4 was our final stop of the night, and we were driven home, despite our reluctance. We didn’t want the adventure to end! If you’re in Saigon, this foodie tour is an absolute must.
On our final full day in Saigon, we wandered the city with no clear itinerary, just searching for our final banh mi and Vietnamese iced coffee, and for the best view of the city. We stumbled into our friends from Halong Bay and Hoi An, Jay and Shawna, along the way. As it was also their last day in the city, we decided to splurge on a final cocktail overlooking the city from the extremely tall Bitexco building. After drinks we said goodbye to Shawna and Jay and were lucky enough to meet up with Damian, Mac’s former co-worker, and his wife Lindsay. They are on a similar world adventure and it was fun to swap stories. They gave us pointers for Nepal and India, while we suggested places for them in Australia and New Zealand. More than anything, it was also nice to hear how other couples go through the same up’s and down’s that we’ve faced on the road. After a delicious dinner and drinks, we bid them goodnight and prepared for the journey to Cambodia.