Today the Vietnamese government calls its biggest metropolis Ho Chi Minh City, but the historic name of “Saigon” still lingers. Visitors often remark on the traffic and the food. Recently I took a guided tour that combined both. At 6 o’clock one evening in May 2019, a young Vietnamese man who went by “Ben” (real name of Phuc) met me at my hotel and led me out to his Vespa to begin a freewheeling tour of favorite food spots around the city. This post covers the adventure with photos and links to the Google maps pins that I recorded at most of the locations.
Scooters swarm the roads of Saigon as the primary mode of transport for most folks. And while rules no doubt exist, the Vietnamese ride scooters the way Americans ride bicycles: any where and any way that they wish. When a stop light changes, riders from the formerly “green” direction continue to stream across the intersection even as riders from the new green direction start to ride through. This leads to some delays as the intersecting parties begin to meet and sort things out. But, in 10 or 15 seconds the sorting is done and the changeover has taken effect. That type of sorting process takes place all day and everywhere. No one ever assumes that they have a “right of way” as we do in the US. Riders take a “live-and-let-live” approach by accepting responsibility to look for and avoid other riders at all times. Rarely does anyone honk a horn in anger but often they do give out a quick “beep beep” that just means “I’m here, don’t hit me.”
The photos below were taken on my phone during the tour–and don’t miss the video! During my stay, I also shot pictures with my DSLR camera in order to document and study the scooter phenomenon. If you’d like to see the amazing sights and interesting portraits that emerged, take a look at that collection on raydaniels.com.
Food Cart Spring Rolls
First stop was at a food cart on a street corner. The item was typical Vietnamese spring roll: rice wrapper, shrimp, fresh Basil and lettuce. My guide paid and we were each handed one spring roll. But the guide said the reason for visiting this particular spring roll vendor was the sauce which he said the fellow made himself and which included several different kinds of beans. He was then handed a plastic cup half filled with a thick sauce the color of coffee. He asked if I was OK with some spice/heat and I said yes so a large glob of chili paste was added to the cup. We dipped and enjoyed.
At our second stop, we visited something that more closely approximated a traditional restaurant and called Ốc Đào Quán. Mind you, it had no walls and nothing but a concrete slab for a floor, but the food was excellent! The first dish was octopus–or at least a part of the octopus! The dish contained what looked like little balls ranging in size from small peas to marbles. I was told these were octopus suckers! They were served in a tasty sauce that was slightly sweet and had a bit of chili heat. The meat itself was tender and the dish was fantastic–ultimately one of my favorites of the evening. We also had clams and scallops–both still in shell–and served with salt and a sauce. Oh, and a plate of mixed boiled seafood as well, I forgot about that until I saw the picture.
Once we’d gotten a good base down (honestly, I was full at this point and could have stopped there), we went to a street market and visited some of the vendors to try their wares. One was sausages (OK), another was rice pancakes (cool) and the third was a quail egg omelet (Oh, yeah that was good!)
The rice pancakes were being sold packaged for people to take home, but the vendor would also toast one up for you to eat on the spot. Of course, Ben had a deal with them where the tourist handles the warming chore, so I was soon pressed into duty with Ben manning the phone. I pinned this here.
The quail egg omelette was amazing. Two or three eggs cooked in a small clay dish on a brazier. As it cooked, they added various options–ours had some ham and something like cracklins added. At the end it gets dressed with basil and scallions and dosed with a white sauce that looked like mayo plus garlic/chili sauce. The result was fantastic!
By this point I’m pretty stuffed, but Ben wasn’t done! In truth we drove around a bit at this point, through another market and at one point turned down a narrow passage between two buildings quite similar to a Chicago-style gangway. (If we had met anyone going through someone would have had to reverse.) He toured me down a big nightlife street where the bars seats are set up like French cafes with rows of seats looking out at the street.
For our final stop, we went to a traditional style restaurant: on the second floor of a real building with walls, doors and even toilets! Here we had a snail sausage thing cooked inside the snail shell with a sprig of lemongrass wrapped around it to help you pull it out. Then a sort of crepe-textured omelette with mushroom inclusions that we then wrapped in various leaves to eat. I skipped the top leaves which looked fairly mundane and went for something with more character. Turned out it was a mustard leaf and packed a pretty good zing!
Whew! That was a lot of food. But what a fun evening! I loved riding on the scooter and really enjoyed the food! I booked this trip (and a couple of others that I also enjoyed) through Private Daily Tours in Ho Chi Minh City (contacting them through WhatsApp) and I would highly recommend the experience.
Final picture: the view from my hotel room as the sun was rising the next morning. I felt great, though still full, and never had any ill effects from the adventure.