The gray and provincial-looking Tan Son Nhat International Airport is hugged by tightly packed blocks of pastel colored low-rises, the prevailing form of construction in Ho Chi Minh City. At around eight million people and covering an area of two million square kilometers, the city is on par with Bangkok. Yet looking out of the descending plane, which seems to be nearly scraping the rooftops of the pastel houses, it couldn't look more different than its Thai counterpart.
It's ten a.m. when we meet Frederick Wilson in the arrival hall. Our friend and host, who has taken up the noble task of guiding us through a weekend in this unfamiliar town, runs a company called Back of the Bike Tours
. The concept is simple: put ignorant tourists like us on the back of motorcycles and take them around to the best street food that Ho Chi Minh City has to offer.
Our tour starts at six pm, so we have time to kill. Fred suggests the only sensible solution to the hunger one feels after getting off a plane tired and hungry on a Saturday morning that’s free from responsibilities or other drudgery: let’s get some steaks.
We soon find ourselves in the garden of a restaurant that is hidden down a small alley. Waiters are running around with sizzling cast iron plates. After what seems but mere seconds following Fred's order, baskets of Vietnamese baguettes arrive at our table along with some beers. It doesn't take much longer for our steaks to arrive: cuts of beef that look like skirt steak, topped with generous dollops of pâté. Drops of hot oil splatter my arms as I wait for my happily screaming steak and accompanying egg to cool down. The greasy and tasty meal disappears quickly, though, and I greedily sop up the leftover fat, juices, and oil with pieces of baguette.
Invigorated by the intake of animal protein and carbs, we head for a Vietnamese craft beer bar. It’s not far from the steakhouse, so we walk. The tree-lined boulevards, an absence of high rises, and the odd colonial building give the city an ambiance you’d find in Vientiane or Chiang Mai. When I mention how easy it is to walk here, Fred is quick to tell me that most of the city is not walkable at all.
The existence of Vietnamese craft beer proves that the global trend is alive in Asia. This particular bar, another cookie-cutter industrial design clone, serves almost exclusively Vietnamese craft beers, the majority brewed by expats. The menu consists mostly of trendy styles such as IPAs, pale ales, and stouts. We order, taste, comment, and order again, and after a couple of rounds conclude that most beers are surprisingly good.
Before going back to Fred's place, the overture of this indulgent day is half a bahn mi from Ho Chi Minh City's most famous sandwich shop. When we arrive the line seems long but the ladies making the bahn mi work like machines, pulling, ripping, and stuffing sandwiches at an impressive speed. The crunchy and airy Vietnamese baguette is the perfect vehicle for the pâté, headcheese, Vietnamese bologna, pork floss, ham, pickled vegetables, greens, banana chilies, and the twenty-some other ingredients I’m forgetting. The nine types of pork deliver different layers of cured meat goodness, while the acidity and freshness of the pickled cucumber, carrot, and papaya spears, together with the heat of the chili, counteract the heaviness of the meat. The sandwich packs both crunch and creaminess, providing perfect textural harmony. We eat them on the sidewalk beside the shop and return happily to Fred's for a short but necessary siesta
It’s a little past six pm when we plunge into the Saigonese night. We take in its neon overload from the back of motorcycles driven by our tour guides, tiny Vietnamese ladies. At this point, I should remark that traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is entirely different from Bangkok's. Ninety percent of vehicles on the road are motorcycles, all of them moving at a slow yet deliberate pace, never yielding, always dodging. A crash seems imminent on several occasions throughout the night, yet my guide is unflappable, chatting with me as though we're on a walk through a park, turning her face towards me to catch what I'm saying, unconcerned with what's happening ahead. I have a good buzz going so I laugh and marvel at the controlled chaos and utter nonchalance.
The first course on our mobilized tasting menu is a papaya salad called goi du du bo. We eat in a park, sitting on our asses because the stall that sells it provides only plates and chopsticks. The dish is sweet, sour, and spicy, yet this is no som tum. It contains green papaya and peanuts but the papaya is shredded much finer. It also contains candied beef liver and prawn crackers. The dressing is more syrupy, and we need to mix it ourselves. It is, without a doubt, delicious. The combination of different crunches, sweetness, tang, and heat makes for an excellent starter.
My stomach aroused and my hands armed with a beer and a cigarette, we start for the next location. A twenty-minute drive allows for ample digestion. As I’m polishing off my first can of Saigon Special, we arrive at the establishment that will serve us our second course, fried quail or cút chiên bơ.
The quail is marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, honey, and five-spice and then fried in butter. So it obviously tastes good. The protagonist of this dish, however, is an amazing dipping sauce that looks like red velvet. I learn that it is the butter in which the quail was fried. It contains lots of garlic (and other unknown goodness) and, when soaked into a piece of baguette, tastes heavenly. We hop back on our bikes for another twenty-minute ride, drinking beers and drowning in the traffic.
The next dish fortunately counteracts the drowsy effect the quail has had on our stomachs. We are served a spicy turmeric soup with crab and thick, udon-like noodles called ban canh ghe. I instinctively make the connection with tom yum. It's spicy, slightly sour, brightly colored, and contains seafood, in this case a steamed crab. But again it is also entirely different from its Thai cousin, the turmeric and the thick rice noodles lending a distinctive note to the dish, which tastes rich, fresh, spicy and refined.
At this point our guides have turned into “babysitters” for four imbibed men: peeling crabs, ordering beers, and practically feeding us—service akin to Michelin or 50 Best contenders. Even as we are cracking open another round of road-beers and a proper Southeast Asian monsoon rainstorm commences, our wonder women are prepared, dressing us in plastic ponchos before we hit the road, swerving and chatting as before.
If there's any archetypical Vietnamese dish, it has to be spring rolls. My favorite Vietnamese place in Bangkok serves a good version of it, but it falters in comparison to what we are served in Ho Chi Minh City. The minced pork is smoky and tender. A myriad of fresh herbs, including powerful shisho and mustard leaf, provide different layers of freshness. The dipping sauce, based on Vietnamese fish sauce and chili, is so tasty it is worth eating purely with the crunchy rice paper. Things get a bit confusing, however, when we are served three different types of rice wine, ranging in strength, along with fertilized duck eggs, producing a blur of funky and fermented flavors.
Wet but satisfied we depart again, only to soon arrive at dessert: mango, sticky rice, coconut milk (an ingredient rarely used in Vietnamese cooking), hibiscus flowers, and frozen yogurt, which collectively reminded me of Thai desserts: delicate, sweet, and cooling.
Our stomach's filled with Vietnamese delights and plenty of Saigon Special coursing through our systems, we are finally delivered to karaoke, a pastime the Vietnamese are incredibly good at, our guides establishing that they are as good at singing and dancing as at providing gourmet experiences. The bill at the karaoke bar lists thirty-one beers. We pay and continue onwards, having decided it wasn’t enough and miraculously head out to consume the rest of the night.Editor’s Note: Back of the Bike Tours was rightly reluctant to share the names or locations of most of their food tours stops.
But we managed to procure the three Alex visited prior to the official tour’s first stop: Ho Chi Minh City's Best Bahn Mi ShopSteak & Eggs ShopBia CraftTo book a HCMC Vietnam streetfood tour, visit Back of the Bike Tours.