August is a month with several holidays in Thailand, and thus it is a great time to travel around the region. My office was closed from August 3 through August 6 and then again on August 13, so I used these long weekends to visit Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City. Hong Kong is about 1,100 miles from Bangkok, or just under three hours by air, and HCMC is only 450 miles away, or one hour and 20 minutes. After three days and two nights in Saigon, I returned to Bangkok last night.
On Sunday evening at 5:30, I met Thu, my guide for the evening. Dressed in the traditional Ao Dai, Thu gave me a helmet and off we went on her motorbike for a five-hour tour of five districts in Ho Chi Minh City. Along the way, we stopped several times and enjoyed some fabulous food from three street vendors. And since Thu was driving, I could enjoy the local brew, Saigon Export Red Label, with the moveable feast.
Our first stop was right in District 1, the main tourist zone in HCMC where we met up with several other tourists and their guides/chauffeurs, all young ladies who are fluent in English. If I recall correctly, my group included people from Korea, Scotland, Australia, Thailand, the U.S., and Indonesia. The owner of XO Tours, Tung Do, also accompanied us throughout the evening. Although Tung is a native of Vietnam, he grew up in Texas where his family moved when he was young. Tung attended UT Austin and then moved to Vietnam a few years ago to establish his tour company. XO comes from the Vietnamese word “Xe Ôm” that means motorbike taxi.
The idea behind the tours is to have tourists see parts of Saigon that most never get to and to try some of the local food favorites. When I saw that XO Tours had a nighttime Foodie Tour, I immediately shot out an email to get a reservation for myself. Quite honestly, I doubt if I would have left District 1 on my own and I certainly wouldn’t have known where to eat, what foods to try, or even how to order from the local vendors.
Saigon is a huge city — it has a population of about 10 million people and covers an area of 800+ square miles. While Bangkok has a similar sized population, Bangkok covers only 600+ square miles. Bangkok tends has more high-rises whereas Ho Chi Minh City has grown more horizontally than vertically. According to Wikipedia, Saigon contains 24 districts, 259 wards, 58 communes, and 5 townships — with all this government, they could easily be part of New York!
At our first stop (point A on the map above — Note: I have no idea where any of the restaurants actually were so the labels on the map simply indicate the location of the Districts that we visited), we enjoyed a bowl of Bún Bò Huế, a spicy beef soup — Bún is noodle, Bò is beef and Huế is the city in central Vietnam where the dish originated. Not to be confused with Phở (Vietnamese noodle soup with beef or chicken and garnished with cilantro, green onions, lime, sprouts and basil), the Bún Bò Huế is made with beef and pork stock, it contains lemongrass, slices of beef, and a peppery pork sausage, and round noodles (vs. the flat, rice vermicelli used in Phở.) On the side were bean sprouts, green onions, thinly sliced banana blossoms, lime wedges, and a home-made chili sauce that we could add to the soup. The chili sauce kicked up the spiciness and gave the bowl an added dimension of flavor.
After everyone finished the soup, we were back on the bikes for a ride to Chinatown (B), known locally as Chợ Lớn ( 堤岸), that spans portions of District 5 and District 6. Chợ Lớn was its own city from 1879 until 1931 when it merged into Saigon. Chinatown was full of people selling fresh produce and seafood, live poultry (probably not for very long), and assorted other merchandise. Many just set up shop literally right on the street, i.e., no table of any sort but simply merchandise placed in bowls or baskets on the pavement. Chinatown is renowned for having some of the best food in Saigon, however we did not eat there since the purpose of the tour was to try local Vietnamese street food. We did stop at the Binh Tay Market, Chợ Bình Tây, which is the major wholesale market in the city. According to Tung, there is nothing, legal or not-so-legal, that you cannot find at Binh Tay.
From Chinatown, we rode to District 8 (C), a part of Saigon noted for Hot Pot and Karaoke. Our destination, however, was an outdoor barbecue restaurant. Now barbecue in Vietnam is not American barbecue where meats are slowly cooked with smoke. Barbeque in Vietnam is really grilling that takes place right at the table. Several plates of raw food and small braziers full of hot charcoal were put on the table, and our guides became chefs. We started with grilled okra and proceeded to goat breast, squid, shrimp, and frog. The guides not only cooked the food but they also peeled the shrimp, kept our bowls full of bite-sized morsels and our mugs full of Saigon Export red label. I could easily get used to this! The beer was nothing special — a very light lager with little body or bitterness — but its low alcohol content meant that I could drink all night and feel fine in the morning, which is what I did. Most beers in Southeast Asia are similar and thus easy to drink in the hot and humid tropical climate.
From District 8 we journeyed to the newest part of Saigon, District 7 (D). This part of the city was swampland not too many years ago and with the new development it looks nothing like the rest of the city that we saw. The buildings are new, the streets are wide and well-lit, and the whole feel seems to be almost suburban. We passed several pizza places including a Domino’s, the first one that I have ever seen in Southeast Asia. According to Tung, many upper-middle class expats live here because it is safer than other sections of the city since it has a private security force rather than the corrupt local police. Apparently one can rent a condo here for between US$500 (one bedroom) and US$1,000 (three bedrooms) per month; live-in help runs about $150 per month. Because of restrictions on dollar-denominated investments and inflation that runs 10-20% per annum, wealthier Vietnamese will buy condos in this district purely as an investment with no intention of either living in them or renting them out. Hope that this works better for them than it did for the folks in Las Vegas, Florida, Arizona, etc.
Our last stop of the evening was in District 4 (E), supposedly the poorest district in the city. We were warned to keep an eye on our cameras when we made our last food stop. The food here was delicious. We started with roasted quail and then a spicy blue crab. The guides again did all the work cracking the crab shells and placing the sweet meat on our plates. The taste sensation of the evening was scallops served on the half shell and garnished with peanuts and green onions — absolutely stunning. The only dish that I did not eat was balut, a two and one half week old fertilized duck embryo that is boiled and eaten from the shell with mint leaves. Many people did try these and one fellow actually ate three or four of them. I am not a big fan of hard-boiled eggs and I simply could not get my head around eating this. I did enjoy, however, the spring rolls that followed as well as the clams steamed with lemongrass and coriander. For dessert, we had coconut jelly and a creme caramel (you do have to love the influence the French had on Indochina.)
Five hours after Thu and I departed, she dropped me safely back at my hotel after a glorious evening.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.