Two smiling girls dressed in Traditional Ao Dai waited by their scooters, waiving happily as we approached. They introduced themselves and we set off, perched pillion, hands, white knuckled, firmly clutching the rear hold bar, to see the city the way the locals do. I looked enviously at the nonchalant way the Vietnamese rode pillion, hands free- texting, gesturing or simply snuggled up to their driver, whilst tearing through the anarchic logic of the traffic. Despite other scooters setting off on detours down the wrong side of the road, shortcuts on the pavement or a nip up a one way street, we were safely manoeuvred through the traffic to our first stop. This was the start of our Vietnam Ho Chi Minh XO Food Tour.
A row of nursery sized tables and chairs were set out in a wide alleyway, with a glass cabinet on wheels at the entrance to the street declaring that food was available. Street vendors only sell one dish, there isn’t a menu of choices. If you want something else you go to another vendor, stalls are set up every few paces.
This stop was for Hue-style Pho, known as “bun bo hue.” Huge steaming bowls heavy with slippery white noodles and savoury with beef, pork sausage and lemon grass, topped with chopped green onions. Served with small plates of fresh herbs to add to the dish: mint, culantro (or saw tooth), beansprouts and vietnamese coriander. You add your own choice and then carefully squeeze over fresh lime and home made chilli sauce. Since this sauce is different at every stall we were taking care – a little can go a long way. Lips tingling and with more than a few flicks of broth on my top, we re-mounted and set off into the melee of eight million other scooters.
Behind a chain link fence with bright neon signs, was our next stop. Mini steel barbecues were dotted on every table, the heat from the coals adding to the humidity in the air. We squeezed our western behinds between the flimsy arms of the tiny chairs and knees tucked to one side of the table, feasted on chargrilled frogs, goat breast carefully turned and turned over the coals and quail, crisp and delicious. Whilst the others had shrimps, I had crispy chicken pancakes wrapped in lettuce with a chilli dipping sauce, each piece carefully swaddled for me and presented, like a gift, by my lovely driver with the firm phrase, “no one goes away hungry.”
Feeling somewhat heavier than when we began, we were off again for a bit of sight seeing. The old China Town, Cholon, with it’s markets and and it’s history of being the centre of the blackmarket during the Vietnam War. This is where you find the old Chinese architecture and one of the largest markets in Ho Chi Minh – Binh Tay, a massive wholesale market that’s firmly on the tourist trail. We whizzed past the squatting vendors, the verdant green vegetables and tanks of fish as we headed for our last stop.
District 4 is one of the poorest areas of Ho Chi Minh and well off the usual tourist route. We were warned not to wander as theft can be high in this area, but we were fine. This was the finale, a seafood medley. My heart sank, I’ve been allergic to shellfish for a number of years and despite carrying an epipen I never go to seafood restaurants as its too hard for them to handle the cross contamination. But they were well prepared, the menu included wonderful spiced beef in Betel leaf, a dish of flattened pork with a sweet barbecued sauce and sweet chilli chicken all served with fresh herbs and dipping sauces- vibrant local flavours.
The others enjoyed tiny clams in broth, sweet crab legs- the meat picked daintily by the XO girls and small scallops with a crumb of peanuts and onion on a half shell. I could only savour the smell of all those wonderful dishes. Having turned down the ‘delicacy’ of a fetal egg- 19-21 days old that is then steamed and eaten from the shell, we finished with coconut jelly. It’s made from coconut milk in a coconut shell, the bottom layer is completely clear and the top is thick white creamy layer. Not too sweet and very refreshing.
We mounted our scooters for the final time and I found myself settling back, relaxed, only holding on with one hand and chatting to the other riders as we passed. We arrived safely back at our hotel, chatting happily about the food we’d discovered and the areas we’d explored – A perfect introduction to Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam.
We booked our food Tour with XO Tours
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