Food Tour, Saigon StyleApril 13, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ 🌙 29 °C
For the first time in quite a while, we slept late and woke with no definite plans for the day. OK, not totally true, if you count the evening hours as part of the day . . . Our only plan for the day was to take an evening food tour, so we decided to relax during the day, wandering around the city, doing some shopping and sitting at the pool.
By the time we left the hotel at 10 am, it was already over 90 degrees, and extremely humid. Our first stop was one of the tourist markets, but I thought that poor Arie was going to melt in the heat. So, we pressed onwards, popping into this and that shop to pick up a few treats to bring home. As we walked through the city, I noticed that it is extremely green — there are lots of trees, there is vegetation growing on the mediums on the streets, and there are many big parks. It’s really pretty. I also noticed that there are a surprising number of very, very high end stores — Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Brooks Brothers, you name it. These stores are in fancy hotels, or high end malls. To get a break from the heat, and out of curiosity, we walked into a mall and a Coach store. I noticed two things — everyone inside was a westerner and the price of items was super high. A Coach handbag that costs $400 in the US costs $800 here. When I later asked someone about the price differential, I was told that all brand-name goods sold in Vietnam have a really high tax placed on them, which typically doubles the price of items. It is clear that these items are not being sold to your average Vietnamese woman, but sold to a wholly different market.
As we strolled, I noticed that we were passing a chocolate store that I’d read about — Maison Malou. Time for a snack. Finally, after 5 weeks in SEA, we had found truly delicious chocolate. We popped into the shop and enjoyed some chocolates, and a egg chocolate (like egg coffee, but with hot chocolate instead of coffee), while we watched some chocolates being made. I was surprised to see that everything was done by hand, including the wrapping of the individual bars of chocolate.
We also visited the Fine Arts Museum of Saigon. The collection was a complete mishmash of items, with modern items in galleries labeled “contemporary art before 1975.” My favorite piece was a still life with rambutans — not something I think that I’m likely to see again. While the art work was not particularly interesting, the building itself was fantastic. I believe that the building was originally a large mansion, built in the late 19th Century. It is in terrible shape — paint peeling off the walls, water damage on the ceiling, and no air conditioning. But, in its heyday, the mansion must have been gorgeous.
In the evening, we embarked on a big adventure — a food tour on the back of motor scooters. When we were planning our trip to SEA, I read all about how many motor scooters there were, and how you could rent one for a few days. I casually mentioned this possibility to Arie, and he looked at me as if I had totally lost my mind. So, I crossed renting scooters off our “to do list.” But, as we traveled through Vietnam and Cambodia, and I watched all of the people on scooters — including young children sitting in their parents’ laps — I continued to yearn for the experience of zipping around on a scooter. It looked really fun, albeit a teeny bit dangerous. So, when I discovered that the most common way to take a tour in Saigon was on the back of a scooter, I renewed my pitch to Arie . . .what if we went on a scooter tour? Nope, he was still not interested. But then I found a new option — a food tour on the back of a scooter. Somehow I managed to convince him that it would be fun, so we signed up. Then, on our next to last day on the boat, I invited John and Debbie to join us, and they made reservations, too.
We were picked up from our hotel at 5:15, by two women on scooters — Une and Binh. We introduced ourselves, were given some basic instructions about how to safely ride a scooter, handed a helmet, and told to hop on the back. I was told to ride with Une for the evening, and Arie was assigned to ride with Binh. I must admit, as we rode to the first restaurant, I was completely terrified that I would fall off. This seemed increasingly likely as the scooter zipped in and out of traffic, with cars coming so very close to us. I clung to Une (something that Arie was not allowed to do, as the men were told that it was improper to touch the female drivers, so the men had to hold onto the back of their seats). And, when we turned left, I was certain that we would drive right into oncoming traffic. In the course of the evening (and with a beer or two), I become considerably more relaxed and felt more comfortable riding the scooter — so much so that I was eventually able to stop holding onto Une, and simply hold the back of the seat. (But, I must confess,that I did not have the courage to ride without holding on, which is the norm in the city.) By the end of the evening I found it thrilling to speed through the streets on the back of the scooter. What fun.
As we rode through the streets, I also enjoyed chatting with Une. She told me that she was 24, and graduated from university with a degree in accounting. She found that she did not enjoy accounting, so is now working as a guide full time. Her family is from China, but she is the fourth generation to live in Vietnam. She speaks Cantonese, in addition to Vietnamese and English. She lives with her mother and 12 year old brother; her parents are divorced, which is apparently relatively common in the cities, but quite rare in the countryside. She told me about her travels to Thailand and Cambodia, and that her mother has discouraged her from traveling to Hanoi saying that there is nothing of interest to see there. She also told me that life in Saigon is fun for young people, as there is much to do. But, she also told me that things are expensive for most Vietnamese people.
During the course of the food tour, we got to see various districts around the City, which differ dramatically. With the exception of driving to the Cu Chi tunnels, we had spent both days in District 1, which is the center of downtown. It is both western and modern, and is the part of Saigon that most tourists see. On our tour, we also visited District 5, which is the heart of Chinatown, and is filed with wet markets, restaurants serving Chinese food, and stores with Chinese decorations. We criss-crossed the River, driving in scooter-only lanes. We also visited District 7, which is one of the most recently developed areas of the city, and one of the few districts which has underground wiring. District 7 is quite affluent, and is mostly occupied by expats It was shockingly quiet as we drove through. Seeing so many parts of the city was great fun.
And, of course, there was the food. As the fellow in charge of the tour told us, the organizers wanted to make sure that people get to eat food that is eaten by average Vietnamese, and not just bahn mi and spring rolls. Our first stop was Bun Bao Hue — a bone broth soup with vegetables, noodles and meat. Doug had suggested that we eat this when we were in Hue, but we hadn’t had a chance. It was delicious, but being an old-hand at food tours, I knew not to gobble down the entire bowl. Next, we stopped at a huge outdoor restaurant, where each table had a small grill. As we sat with our pals John and Debbie, our scooter drivers did double-duty as cooks, and grilled goat, beef, and shrimp for us. We ate it with various sauces, and washed it down with beer. We also played a drinking game involving moving peanuts from a bowl to a bottle — what great fun. Our last stop was a seafood restaurant, in which we ate our way through a delicious spread of crabs, scallops and other tasty treats. After our stomaches were filled, we hopped back on the bikes and made our way back to the hotel.
I must say, I loved the adventure and believe that it was the perfect way to spend our last night in Vietnam.Read more