Ho Chi Minh/Saigon Street Food Tour
Ooh we do love a street food tour and Urban Adventures did not let us down in Ho Chi Minh City. Tan, pronounced Tun, our lovely guide met our merry band of foodies outside the regal Opera House at 5pm sharp. We’d convinced Sabine and Kevin, the lovely Dutch couple from our Mekong Delta tour, to join us and they’d convinced Helene an Austrian living in Italy who they’d met on a Cu Chi tunnel tour in the morning and Amy, a British student who’s just finished university rounded out our group. It transpired that neither Helene or Amy had eaten street food before, what a crime!
We began our tour stopping in front of a life size bronze statue of Uncle Ho ( The respectful name for Hồ Chí Minh) and City Hall where Tan gave us a history lesson, which if I am remembering correctly was along the lines of…the City of Ho Chi Minh was originally called Prey Nokor, the French apparently could not pronounce this and called the city Saigon during their occupation of Southern Vietnam (I’ve not heard this anywhere else and it may be tosh). In 1976 the city was renamed after the revolutionary leader Hồ Chí Minh, although people still use the name Saigon to refer to district 1, the centre of Ho Chi Minh.
Having put our lives on the line crossing several roads under Tan’s tutelage, there is a definite art to crossing the road in Asia; no sudden movements, absolutely no running, keep a steady even pace, make eye contact, hand outstretched gently towards the oncoming traffic and no going backwards, we arrived at our first stop. The traffic in Ho Chi Minh is by far the craziest we have encountered but if you follow those golden rules I think you’ll be ok.
In a narrow alleyway on the tiniest of tiny stalls, think of a plastic stool for a 2 year old, now think smaller, we sat around an upturned cardboard box being used as a table, our first cardboard box table I might add, while Tan ordered fresh papaya salad and spring rolls for us in a variety of flavours taking into account our dietary preferences, no chilli for me, no meat for another. We do like a papaya salad so J and I tucked in to the crisp shredded papaya straight away. Next were cold spring rolls, rice noodles, pork and prawn and salad rolled in a translucent rice wrap which were lovely and fresh, although Helene having made the rookie mistake of having a large lunch at three pm (what an amateur) could not be persuaded to try hers despite our cajoling.
Salad and spring rolls given a thumbs up by the majority we backtracked slightly across the road to a hastily set up table on the pavement, still with tiny stools but this time an actual table for our next treat, broken rice with egg, chicken or ribs. Tan said it is broken in half by a special machine resulting in small and fluffy rice which I think we call cracked rice but I’m not certain. Sharing a plate between two J and I had ribs with our rice and I think we had the best combo, the egg and chicken looked a bit small and boring whereas our bowl of ribs was tender and succulent. Tan showed us how to first add a spoonful of the accompanying sweet clear sauce to the fluffy white rice, mix it in and then add one small rib at a time before eating. Scooping it up with spoons was the order of the day as Tan said the rice was too small for chopsticks, laughing at me for persisting with them and much to Helene’s relief as she’d struggled to eat the salad with no forks available earlier. We’d all bonded pretty well by this point and were enjoying some nice healthy banter while we ate.
Our next stop was back past the papaya salad place at the smallest possible stall serving, beef, pork, fish, prawn and rice balls which are dropped in hot fat where they quickly cook. We have seen these stalls in Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia and it was great to finally give them a try. J had the Beef and I had the prawns which we both enjoyed, the rice balls also tasted like fish but despite Tan’s excellent English we couldn’t work out whether they had any fish in them or not, ah well.
As we left the fried ball stall (try saying that three times fast) looking at everything we walked past we began asking Tan what some strange looking fruits on the next stall were. Green oranges are very common here, in all sizes and perfectly orange and ripe inside, just very green on the outside. They also had pale green knobbly custard apples which are one of the few fruits we have yet to try and shiny milk apples which we found were sweet and soft, a cross between a persimmon and a peach when we tried one earlier in the week.
Some more wandering through the now cooling and dark streets took us to a large delicatessen with a crowded restaurant inside where Tan ordered Banh Mi for us, a traditional Vietnamese baguette; one good leftover from the French is that the bread in Ho Chi Minh is excellent. Ours were filled with pate and pickles, which we carried to our second to last stop the very cool Heritage coffee shop at 10 Pasteur, Nguyễn Thái Bình. Thankfully Tan had reserved a table as the place is clearly popular, maybe a hundred people were sat at tables and chairs covering the wide pavement outside. We were sat inside at a very strange table more suited to smaller groups as we couldn’t see the others sitting on the opposite side as it was piled high with books and things but had A/C and also the owners two British bulldogs and one Frenchie to fawn over, sweet! Tan ordered their specialty, hot or iced coconut coffee for the coffee drinkers according to their preference and iced chocolate for J and me. While waiting we devoured our Banh Mi, I thought it was a bit meh, the bread was indeed awesome but I’m not such a fan of the pate ones preferring roast pork in them and J having had his first ever bout of food poisoning after eating a bad one a few weeks ago couldn’t even cope with the smell of the pate so gave his to Kevin who happily ate a few bites. Our iced chocolates when they came were fantastic and Kevin said his hot coconut coffee which looked amazing, was outstanding, it was so thick it was almost pudding.
Stepping out into the balmy night after our lovely drinks we walked for about five minutes to the Ben Thanh night market where Tan led us along the street to a drinks stall at the back where we sat around an ice chest on, you guessed it, teeny tiny chairs, for a can of Saigon Special lager, ha! It was a bit strong for my liking and looked like a can of special brew which is what the winos drink in England but it was nice to sit and chat some more with our fellow foodies.
After pointing out a great Pho restaurant for us to try another day (we unexpectedly had the pleasure of joining Sabine and Kevin there for lunch the next day) this was the end of the tour and a really lovely evening, we’d chatted quite a bit and Tan was great at stopping along the way to answer our endless questions so this was about five hours rather than the planned two and a half hours after we’d started. We thanked Tan and headed back into the market for some window shopping before saying goodbye and heading our separate ways.
The tour costs thirty five USD per person, as we’d referred Kevin and Sabine they got ten dollars off, as did Helene who they referred. We get ten dollars off of our next tour which we’ll now be doing in Hanoi next month. We’ve found that Urban Adventures run really great tours with wonderful local guides and highly recommend using them. We suggest going hungry and not wearing short skirts unless you want to amuse the locals as you try and maintain your dignity while sitting on very small stools Xx