Saigon – on the back of a bike

There are apparently seven million motorbikes and scooters in Saigon, a city with a population of ten million. There’s something quite socialistic about everyone driving scooters instead of cars (though I’m sure if they could afford it more people would) and the traffic would be much worse if people had bigger vehicles.

Visitors go on about how crazy the traffic is in the cities here but I think it’s a lot more organised than somewhere say like India where it’s everyone for themselves, which results in complete chaos more often than not. Instead Vietnamese drivers practice the philosophy of ‘yield and forgive’;  giving way to each other and pedestrians, as you can see from this video where everyone is just getting on with it in an organic unified flow. In India this intersection would be a logjam. Unlike Delhi (where I lived for six months), I didn’t see a single instance of road rage for the whole time I was there. Sure you can hear horns beeping all the time but they’re just saying ‘I’m here, be aware’, as opposed to ‘Get out of my way mofo!’. Every one tootles along at a sedate pace so there’s no need to feel nervous when on a bike or crossing the road.

20130906_213344By far my best experiences in Saigon were the guided food tours I had with Back Of The Bike Tours, a local company owned by Chad and Thuy, an American and Vietnamese couple. In fact I’d go as far as to say that it was one of the best foodie experiences I’ve ever had.

There was no way I could have found or travelled between all the restaurants in different districts that they took me to (fifteen in all) or even know what to ask for when I got there without their help. The only downside was that I was there at the end of the monsoon in early September so during the first tour we all got soaked pretty badly in heavy squalls of rain. It was all part of the experience though and didn’t dampen my spirits one bit. Just make sure you pack a mac for when you go.

As you can see from their website, they have a few choices as to what kind of tour to do. For the first one I opted for the Saigon Street Food Tour. Fredrick (an ex-chef from the US) and Duy (a local student working part time) picked me up from the hotel, put me on Duy’s pillion, and whisked me off to five different restaurants where we tried several different dishes. Of course it wasn’t physically possible to eat everything so we’d just sample the house specialty and then move on to the next place.

Remember you can click on these photos if you want to enlarge them.

20130904_140300The first stop wasn’t scheduled so I don’t know the Vietnamese names for what we ate but it was described to me as fried cubes of rice dough.

20130904_141711I had this with a glass of Pennywort juice, an interesting drink and no doubt very healthy but not something I would seek out.

At the second place some more unknown dishes…

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…and  a Bun noodle soup with Pork Sausage. Fred told me he hardly ever eats Pho any more as there are so many more interesting soups to go for. 20130904_142931


Goi Du Du Bo
(Julienned Green Papaya Salad topped with Thai Basil, Dried Beef Liver, Toasted Peanuts and Prawn Crackers, Sauced with Chilli Sauce and Light Fish Sauce.


Banh Canh Ghe
(Ocean Crab Soup with Tapioca Noodles, Pork Rinds, Fried Fishcake and Green Chilli Sauce)

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Banh Xeo (Crispy Rice Flour ‘Crepe’ stuffed with Shrimp, Pork and Bean Sprouts. Served with Fresh Lettuce and Light Fish Sauce.

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I also had a Sugarcane Root drink which was really refreshing.

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Finally a couple of desserts (sorry but I don’t know the names for these either as again they weren’t on the itinerary). I do know one was a combination of ripe and raw Green Banana with Banana Cake, and and another was with some kind of Noodles and Coconut Milk. Really delicious.

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I enjoyed the tour so much that I decided to do the Saigon Chef Tour as well. This time we went to ten restaurants (!) and had more risqué dishes that included offal and more challenging ingredients like snails (though not snake or beetles thank goodness).

This time Chad, the owner of the company,  came with us, as well as Fred and a couple of the guides. Chad was using the tours with me as training exercises for Fred and the newer guides as he and Thuy were going back to the States for a while. There were four staff members and me, so I got great service. Here’s what we had:

Goi Du Du Bo (Julienned Green Papaya Salad topped with Thai Basil, Dried Beef Liver, Toasted Peanuts and Prawn Crackers. Sauced with Chili Sauce and Light Fish Sauce)

20130906_163454Bo Bia (Fresh Rice Paper Rolls Stuffed with Cooked Jicama, Sliced Chinese Sausage, Dried Shrimp and Fresh Lettuce. Served with Hoison Sauce)

20130906_16503520130906_164901Oc Buoi Nhoi Thit (Snails stuffed with Pork, Ear Mushroom, and Lemongrass. Served with Shiso and Ginger Fish Sauce). Shiso (the Japanese name) is amusingly called the ‘smells like fish herb’ here.

20130906_17045920130906_170550Banh Canh Cua (Thick Mud Crab Soup With, Tapioca Noodles, Prawns, Pork Crackling, and Blood Cake)

20130906_182104Chao Long (Pork Offal Porridge, with Blood Sausage, Mungbeans, Bean Sprouts, and Black Pepper)

Banh Beo (Tender Rice Dumplings Topped with Dried Shrimp, and Crispy Pork Skin)

20130906_184301Banh Bot Loc (Hue Style Tapioca Dumpling, Stuffed with Dried Shrimp and Topped with Green Onion and Sweet Fish Sauce)

20130906_184246Banh Nam (Tender Rice dumplings, Topped with Minced Pork, Dried Shrimp and Steamed in a Banana Leaf)

Banh Tom (Crispy Sweet Potato and Prawn Fritters. Served with Bibb Lettuce, Mixed Herbs, Rice noodles and a Light Fish Sauce)

20130906_184447Banh It Ram (Steamed Sticky Rice Flour Dumpling with Crispy Sticky Rice Served with Dried Shrimp and Spring Onion)

20130906_192215Banh Mi Thit (Crispy Bread, Sliced Pork Sausages, Shredded Pork Floss, Fresh Pate, Pickled Carrot and Cucumber)

20130906_19502220130906_194803Bun Mam (Sweet Seafood Soup from the Mekong, with Braised Eggplant and Bitter Vegetables. Served with Fresh Seafood and Roasted Pork)

20130906_203803Ca Ri De (Spicy Goat Curry served with Toasted Bread)

20130906_211338Rau Cau Dua (Young Coconut Jelly)

20130906_211515Dau Hu Ca Cao (Soft Tofu with Coco Powder Syrup, Crushed Ice, and Jellies)

20130906_211156Bi Sua Hot Ga (Vietnamese Pumpkin with Sweetened Condensed Milk Custard)

20130906_211806Sau Rieng Sua (Durian with Milk) and Sinh To Mang Cau (Sour Sop Smoothies)

Chad was a mine of interesting information. In his opinion the Thais do the best desserts and I think a couple of the last sweets were Thai in origin.

You might have noticed also that several of the dishes use the name Banh even when they are quite different e.g. noodles, dumplings, crepes, fritters and baguettes. Chad thought that what unites them is they all employ a flour of some kind.

He also told me that Vietnamese fish sauce is lighter than the Thai version and a bit sweeter. The best stuff comes from Phu Quoc, an island off the south-west coast which is also famous for its powerful black peppercorns. I made sure I stocked up at the market before going home.

So I learned a lot in a very short time, and had some great food as well. I’d like to thank Chad, Fred and all the guides profusely for such a great time. I definitely recommend you hop on the back of one of their bikes if you are in town.

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