The street food culture of Ho Chi Minh City (and all around Vietnam) is well known, but we were a little bit nervous about eating on the street. Our poor sensitive western tummies took a couple of hits while we were away and we didn't want to tempt fate, so we put our trust into the brilliant guides from XO Tours and joined one of their foodie tours. My husband worked in HCMC for a couple of months last year and he did this tour, and it was the first thing he organised once we booked our flights. I knew it had been a highlight of his trip so I was really excited about it.
My husband likes to stay anonymous online for professional reasons, so I've edited these photos.
Our tour guides collected us from our hotel and we weaved through the chaotic traffic to our first stop, a little restaurant in District 1. I use the term 'restaurant' loosely - it was really a few tables and chairs thrown hastily together down an alley way. Our first dish was a noodle soup. Many of you may know of pho, which is probably Vietnam's most famous dish. The dish we had was similar, but several elements were different.
Our tour group - from left, Chantelle & Tanya from Adelaide, husband, myself, Tom & Keira from New York.
Bun Bo Hue was our first dish - a noodle soup with a spicy beef based broth, noodles, beef and pork sausage. There are small bowls on the tables with herbs and vegetables you can add if you wish - I added extra chilli, basil, lime and banana blossom (new food discovery from the trip - wow - where can I buy banana blossom in Melbourne??) A couple of the girls on the tour were vegetarian and their version came loaded with several different types of tofu. I loved this dish and I'll definitely be ordering it next time we go for Vietnamese soup (we usually go once a month at least).
Once our soups were finished we jumped back on the bikes and took a really long drive around the city. The tour doubled as a city tour as well, which was great as most tourists tend to stay around District 1 where all the main attractions, centre of town, business district and hotels are located. It was great to venture out and see other parts of the city. We drove through a local market at about 6pm, and it was absolutely buzzing. Packed with people and every kind of fruit, vegetable and meat you can think of.
Many Vietnamese people don't have refrigeration so they shop everyday for fresh produce. And I mean FRESH. The fish are still swimming, the frogs are still jumping and the herbs looked like they'd been picked five minutes before. It is a really different way to cook and eat, but it really opened my eyes to how sanitised and disconnected we can be in western culture in regard to where our food comes from and how we buy it.
Our second restaurant specialised in barbeque. Barbeque in Vietnam involves little terracotta pots full of hot coals, with a metal rack over the top (see below pic). Simple and effective. Here we had a really great selection of food including a goat and okra dish, prawns (the whole lot - head, shell, tail and all. I'm a convert, I love the crunch!) squid and frog.
Let's talk about frog! I'd never tried it before but I'd seen it all through the markets and knew it was a popular ingredient. The dish I tried had it marinated in lemongrass and garlic then grilled over the coals. The taste was mild - the old cliche - it tasted like chicken. But the flesh was a similar texture to a firm white fish. Eating the skin as well imparts a more fishy flavour. You can buy frogs in the market skinned or not, so it's common to serve them both ways. My verdict on frog - good, try it! I'd eat it again.
After the feast at the BBQ restaurant I really wasn't sure if I could fit much more in. We took another bike ride around other areas of the city and saw a few more sights. The city is just as busy at night as it is during the day - living spaces are small and the weather is very warm (every day averages about 28-32C and it only drops to about 22 overnight) so people tend to get out and socialise in the balmy evenings. After a couple of short sightseeing stops we arrived in District 4 to a seafood restaurant.
Here I had the best crab I've ever tasted in my life - it's all about the sauces. The Vietnamese are genius when it comes to dipping sauces. SO good - spicy, sweet, peppery, tangy, all my favourite flavours. We also enjoyed grilled scallops on the shell, clams in a lemongrass broth and a tofu curry with french bread. French bread in Vietnam is awesome - a legacy left over from the many years of French colonisation (which was not awesome.)
Then came a surprise dish. The balut. Hmm. Now I'm adventurous, but I drew the line at this one. A balut is a soft boiled egg that contains a small duck embryo. It's a common dish across South East Asia, but it just wasn't for me. My husband ate it on his tour last year and he didn't have fond memories, so that wasn't really a vote of confidence for me to try it. All our tour guides ate them happily, but I guess when you grow up eating something, it's different. Kind of like vegemite!
After the balut I was a bit suspicious about what was hiding in this coconut, but luckily it was just some amazingly delicious coconut jelly. Oh coconuts - how I miss you! Fresh coconut is the BEST EVER.
So there you have it! One of the highlights of our trip. If you are travelling to HCMC, definitely book something with XO Tours, it was excellent fun and our guides were really knowledgeable, lovely and great drivers! If you want to know any other details about my trip to Vietnam or specifically about HCMC, email me anytime.