Saigon Street Food by Motorbike
On a visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Southeast Asia travel writer Meg Sine blogs about an evening tour of Saigon by motorbike to enjoy a sampling of Vietnamese street food.
Watching hundreds of two wheeled vehicles flowing orderly and incessantly in and around other traffic obstacles like schools of reef fish is an iconic image of HCMC. I didn’t know if I should be excited or fearful of climbing on the back seat of one. However, I started to relax almost immediately as my driver/guide reassured me with her smooth maneuvers and defensive driving skills. I thought to myself, as I scanned the moving tide of traffic in front of me, this street food tour is going to be OK.
Our travel agent booked my husband and I for an evening of Vietnamese cuisine a la street. My expectation for fresh, flavorful and deliciously cheap food was spot on and– served faster than McDonalds! The best part of the whole evening, however, was the expert and funny commentary by our Vietnamese guides, Beverly (Be) and Tuong.
We watched as they narrated the cooking of the banh xeo, rice flour pancakes with a savory filling of seafood, pork, duck egg and bean sprouts. The street vendor worked under the light of one suspended light bulb and served us a big plate of hot food to share along with a riot of herbs and leafy greens on another. We sat in playhouse-size plastic chairs (Asian size) to eat our freshly fried/steamed food. We learned to wrap the rice pancakes in fresh greens and herbs and then dip our packets into a fermented fish sauce or nuoc cham. Wow. Crunchy, chewy, yummy and healthy!
Beverly and Thuong spoke excellent English. Both university students, they enjoyed their job meeting foreigners from all over and sharing their food and popular culture. Beverly liked to joke and laugh while Thuong’s more quiet witticisms were just as fun. They also seemed much more mature in life experiences than our own sons of the same age.
Our second stop was for bun bo Hue, rice noodle soup or pho, the ubiquitous national dish of Vietnam in the style from Hue, Vietnam’s imperial city. The steaming bowl of beef broth was flavored with dried chili, lemongrass, coriander, green onions and cinnamon with hearty chunks of crab sausage, beef slices, and pork meatball mixed in. Additionally, we added a selection of greens such as morning glory, shredded banana flower, Thai basil, bean sprouts and mint. We easily managed to slurp down all the noodles as well as the amazingly aromatic broth.
Back on the motorbikes, we headed to the Saigon riverside to try some Vietnamese snack food. Banh trang nuong was a freshly grilled round rice paper wrapper seasoned with green onions, egg and butter. Served folded in half on a piece of newspaper, who knew the Vietnamese ate tacos? We washed our snack down with a bia or beer brand called 333 and pronounced ba ba ba. Our guides liked it when I told them in Thailand we have 555 that means ha ha ha or LOL. Beer and laughing certainly go together!
The lack of ambiance at the open parking lot converted to a BBQ street food restaurant was compensated by the delicious food served. Each table had a 12-inch ceramic stove on which to cook a plate of chewy pork pieces (udderly delicious), beef slices, loofah (shower sponge?), and mushrooms. We laughed about eating something we normally use in the shower. This food called bo nan nuong (grilled beef mushroom) was actually fried on a cast iron skillet in lots of butter, a gift of their French history.
Along the way between street vendor stops we were able to chat on the motorbikes. Thuong pointed out the Saigon Market as we passed and said it was a better place to shop than Ben Tanh Market. Both girls laughed when we told them how much we overpaid for a half kilo of civet coffee beans earlier in the day at Ben Tanh market. And we thought we bargained well!
We finished our tour exchanging emails and eating a bowl of fresh tropical fruit chunks covered with pink syrup, condensed milk and ice. We survived our motorbike adventure, enjoyed some excellent edibles and made some new friends in HCMC.
For more information about street food tours in Ho Chi Minh City or booking requests, please email [email protected]