In this post, I’m going to tell you about an incredible night we had recently, and one of the most fun things we did in our two months in Vietnam: The SAIGON FOODIE tour with XO Tours, a company that runs all female driven tours in the city.
XO tours is not your average tour company. It is a unique idea that combines the frenetic motorbike culture of Saigon, the wonderful hospitality of the Vietnamese people, their fascinating history, and their scrumptious food all in one incredible tour.
Ho Chi Minh City, or as the locals still prefer to call it, Saigon, has a population of about 10 million. And over 9 million of them own a motorbike. Watching the bikes weave in and out of the traffic at rush hour is a sight to behold; like waves of the ocean surging and receding, so much so, that motorbikes have become a default cultural icon of Vietnam. Saigon is divided into districts, the most popular districts are District 1, as it’s the centre of the city.
We’ve been in Vietnam for about 2 months now and we absolutely love it here, we consider it our temporary home base for the next few months! And that’s mostly because of the amazing food of this country. Vietnamese food is light, fresh and fragrant, with Chinese, Japanese and French influences. So we were delighted to experience the foodie tour of the city of Saigon with XO Tours.
There are 5 tours you can choose from, food, sights, shopping, night tour and customized tour of your choice. We choose the foodie Saigon tour, obviously. The goal of the 4-hour tour is to explore some of the lesser-known culinary delights of the city as well as explore some parts of the city.
Vietnamese girls wearing their beautiful Ao Dai, the traditional Vietnamese costume that is very similar to the Indian kurta, drove us on motorbikes. If you’re nervous about being driven by a tiny Vietnamese girl on a bike in the insane traffic, think again. These girls can confidently navigate their bikes through the bedlam effortlessly while chatting with you and pointing out the interesting sights.
Why are all the guides women? Founder Tung Do explains “I was raised by my mother to believe that women can do anything, and I couldn’t help but be inspired by the hard work and entrepreneurial spirit of the women of my country, so my business combines the frenetic motorbike culture and the sheer energy of the women to show you a vivid tour of this beautiful city.”
The friendly XO girls picked us up at our apartment and for the next few hours we zipped around the crazy traffic in the city, stopping in different locations to eat delicious food. The food isn’t the usual culinary delights Vietnam has to offer: such as the pho or banh mi or springs rolls. The foods on XO tours are local favorites, delicious and very unique to their culture.
The bikes zip through the city, and I’m treated to a variety of sights, sounds and smells: flowers, rice, chicken, vendors stirring massive drums of broth, selling lamps, coffee with condensed milk and generous helping of ice, lottery tickets, and so on. Most tourist rarely step beyond the comfy confines of District 1, where shiny billboards of Sony and Apple starkly contrast with the nondescript little stalls that spill into the streets, packed with people slurping their bowls of soups no matter what time of day. District 1 is somewhat less overwhelming than others, so this tour takes you to the others, to show you how people live and work in different parts of the society.
Our first stop is Đông Ba, a restaurant that specializes in the cuisine from the Imperial Kingdom town of Hue in central Vietnam. We eat the Bún Bò Huế, which is heavy pork broth with noodles, a citrusy and spicy broth, with thick cuts of beef sausage and pork, along with chopped shallots. It is served with fried banana flowers, and shredded morning glory or Vietnamese water spinach. It is very different from pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup that is popular around the world, so much so that most people don’t look beyond pho while exploring the cuisine of Vietnam.
“So what is the difference between pho and Bún Bò Huế?” I ask our tour manager Tai Dang. Tai is from southern Vietnam, the Mekong delta, where according to him you can find the most handsome Vietnamese men. The difference is in the broth and the type of noodles. Pho uses plain rice noodles while Bun Bo Hue uses rice vermicelli; the pho broth is a clear beef/chicken broth and Bun bo hue is a pork intensive broth and gets its kick from lemongrass, annato oil, shrimp paste, and a squeeze of lemon.
The vegetarian Bun bo hue is a tough thing to make, as they have to extract the flavors of vegetables into the broth. The broth is made from a mixture of mushroom, tofu, soy sauce and onions and then further cooked with a lot of vegetables. It is slightly sweeter than it’s meatier counterpart, as the meat adds a slight salty taste to the broth, which the veggies cannot. It’s extremely flavorful and with generous helpings of the condiments and roasted red chili paste, no vegetarian or vegan on the tour will miss out on authentic vietnamese flavors.
And then we’re off again, weaving in out of the traffic. We head to Cholon, the largest Chinatown of Vietnam, in operation since the 1700s. This Chinatown is huge, spread across 2 districts. The Binh Tay market, a local market selling chicken, fish in bags of water, every type of seafood imaginable, the strangest mushrooms I ever saw, rice papers, vegetables, fruits, frogs, and snakes. There are also vendors selling Chinese herbs, and the air is heavy with the smell of spices and incenses, as we weave among the trademark of Chinatown everywhere, the red and gold Chinese signs. The Binh Tay market’s clock towers stand out among the market, with its buttery yellow walls, and roof decked with dragons; it’s a great example of the Chinese French fusion architecture in the city.
We arrive in District 8, at barbecue restaurant Dê Nướng 3Q. It is not a restaurant in the strictest sense; it’s a lot of little plastic tables and chairs with hot grills somehow balanced on top of them. And it’s illegal to have all your little plastic tables and chairs pouring out into the street like that; when the cops arrive it’s a piece of work to pick up your food, drinks, and chairs and scramble away in a riot of broken plates and bottles. Ah, Vietnam, you never cease to entertain!
All around us are stalls with fresh meat, vegetables, and seafood. The little plastic chairs are tiny, perfect for Vietnamese, and most of the people in our group need two or more. There are no tourists here, it is filled with locals: both families and groups of youngsters. We know we are in for an authentic Vietnamese barbecue experience.
Each guide confidently flips food on the many miniature grills on each table. I figure this is a Vietnamese thing, knowing how to grill your food to perfection! A skill I really need in my life.
First up, we have goat breasts marinated with coca cola! Yes, you heard right! Coco Cola! It comes with a fermented tofu sauce. Coke marinated goat is delicious and pairs wonderfully with the slightly sour tofu sauce. Next up are grilled shrimp and beef marinated in chili with a lemon chili sauce.
🌽 A vegetarian option appears , grilled okra marinated in chili and spices with the tofu dip. Okra is quite popular here, and rightfully so, it is delicious. Another vegetarian option is fried pumpkin flowers, breaded tofu, and a Banh Knot: moong bean crepe stuffed with mushrooms and bean sprouts, with lots of herbs, lettuce, and its own special dipping sauce.
Then comes Tai’s favorite, grilled frog, or ‘jumping chicken’ as he calls it. Frog tastes like chicken, so technically the name fits. The meat is perfectly juicy and skin is crackling, and my first time tasting Frog is a hit. In between servings of all the meat, we try shots of banana rice wine. Tai offers to tie me to the bike if I’m tipsy. I’m good, I assure him. The wine is excellent and makes you feel warm and content, sitting in the haze of barbecue smoke and laughter.
And then we’re off on the bikes again. We head to District 7, the fancy pants area of Saigon. “Welcome to Singaporeeeee”, announces Tai. And he’s right, it looks nothing like the jam packed cluttered chaos of the rest of Saigon, there are no street vendors, no little eateries with plastic stools pouring out into the streets, no tangles of wires overhead, no bikes zipping around, and no groups of locals sitting around on plastic stools drinking endless glasses of iced coffee.
The affluent Vietnamese love to invest in real estate. In all of the high-rise condos in the Phú Mỹ Hưng area of District 7, most homes owned by the Vietnamese are empty. They don’t live there and neither do they rent them out. Most of the population of Saigon live in very tiny homes, and the rich leave their homes empty. This district is most popular with expats, a community that is constantly growing and thriving in Vietnam.
And then we’re off to the last stop of the night, District 4, a little restaurant called Ốc Oanh. This is one of the poorest areas of Saigon, and the eateries are packed with locals. I cannot spot a single foreigner here. Once again we seat ourselves, with some difficulty in the little plastic stools and are ready for the last meal of the evening. And they definitely saved the best for the last. On the menu are fried blue crab in a chili and spices that they will not tell you the secret of, steamed clams steeped in a soup of lemongrass, tamarind, chili, and basil; grilled scallops with butter, chili, fish sauce, green onions and crushed peanuts, fried rice crackers topped with pork floss and green onions.
🌽 There are vegetarian options: rice cracker, morning glory cooked in garlic, and a lotus root salad that is fresh and full of crunch.
And then comes the most dreaded dish of the evening: Balut. The Balut is a fertilized duck egg, boiled and eaten out of its shell. You can see feathers, and a beak and the rubbery goopy insides and it is something I cannot bring myself to eat it. It’s a popular beer snack in Philippines, Cambodia, and Vietnam; with many locals urging you eat it on your trips to these places. I think I’ll pass.
The dessert arrives. I cannot end epic meals without dessert and these desserts are a perfect way to end the evening. Now, Vietnamese desserts are not visually pretty like pastries or cupcakes or their western counterparts. Compared to those, Vietnamese desserts just looks like mushy lumps, but don’t be fooled by their looks, they taste extraordinarily delicious. First up is Bánh bò, little rice cakes steamed with coconut milk with crushed peanut and sesame. And the next is Rau câu dừa, a coconut jelly dessert. Coconut water is taken out of its shell, mixed with agar and poured back into the coconut to set and chill. The result is the perfect jelly combined with the coconut meat inside. It’s the perfect chilled dessert for this hot sultry weather and you cannot get enough.
And now, it’s time to bid our friends’ goodbye and head back home. And we zip off through the bustling roads on the bikes again, talking about everything from life in India to traveling abroad, Justin Bieber, dating and breakups, and life. We hang below our apartment, chatting and laughing, adding each other on Facebook. Saigon is incredible and its people even more so, and we wait for a time we can experience this again.
XO Tours operates in Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon and we highly recommend you book them on your trip to Vietnam for an incredible evening. Tell them we said Hi! 🙂 🙂