Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam. Previously known and still referred to as Saigon, the city is a beautiful mix of the old and the new. French-influenced old buildings stand side to side with modern chic structures, small hole-in-the-wall food joints and luxury high-class restaurants offer a diversity of flavors, and narrow alleyways lead to busy traffic-filled streets — the stark contrast gives the city so much flavor and intrigue.
To me, Ho Chi Minh City was unexpected. I knew about the chaotic, maddening traffic, but I didn’t know about the quiet, cozy cafes. I knew how good Vietnamese food is, but I didn’t know about the huge variety of street food I’ve never heard or tasted before. So what better way to find out more about the unknown, than to follow the locals on a food tour?
But First, A Little Bit about Actxplorer
I was invited on the trip to Ho Chi Minh City, and introduced to the “Food on Wheels” Tour by Actxplorer. During my visit, I was accompanied by my travel companion and fellow blogger, Wilson; and our charming host from Actxplorer, Jeremy.
Actxplorer is a travel platform that provides unique travel experiences while creating a positive impact to the local communities. The company works closely with locals and NGOs to offer experiences like workshops, farmstays, food tours and volunteer initiatives. Actxplorer aims to not only create more job opportunities to the locals by introducing them to the tourism industry, but empowering them as well — helping them break free from the cycle of poverty by supplying them with knowledge and training to use their skills to benefit themselves. And at the same time, bring us closer to better understanding the local culture through involvement and close interactions.
I like the fact that taking a tour with Actxplorer will benefit some of the local communities I will be visiting — and in a way, makes the experience so much more meaningful. Find out more about Actxplorer here, and scroll down to the bottom for a 10% discount code for any bookings.
The “Food on Wheels” Tour
Actxplorer’s “Food on Wheels” Tour is run by a bunch of University students who are passionate in sharing the sights and tastes of their home country with visitors to Ho Chi Minh City. Most of them have grown up in the city, and therefore, know the best eats around town! By sharing with us their secret food spots, they not only get the chance to be exposed to the real world of tourism, but also the opportunity to practice and improve their English language.
The entire “Food on Wheels” tour is run in English, begins from about 5-6pm in the evening, and lasts for about 5 hours. The tour can accommodate from 1 to 10 people, with each person riding pillion behind a guide on a motorbike. They are a total of 3 food stops and 2 sightseeing stops altogether, and can be catered to suit each traveler’s preference and diet. The entire tour costs USD$35.
Our tour guides for the evening were David and Hai — two students from the the local Ho Chi Minh City University. Jeremy, Wilson and I arrived back from our day tour a little late, so we were only able to begin our food tour at about 7pm in the evening.
Stop 1: Bánh Tráng Trộn
It was exhilarating zooming through the streets of busy Saigon on a motorbike. I was riding pillion behind David, who gave me a brief insight into life in the city as we battled its crazy traffic. After a 10-minute ride, we arrived in District 3 where our first stop of the night is located — a small little shop called Co Thao that serves the Banh Trang Tron.
In true Vietnamese street-style, we sat on tiny chairs on a low table. The lady at the counter then whipped up a mix of shredded rice paper, pork floss, shredded green mango, quails egg, peanuts, fried onions, dried shrimp and different kinds of jerky (beef, deer, squid); topped with a mix of sweet, savory and sour sauces. The mixture was served in a plastic bag, and despite the toughness of the jerky and the weird texture of the shredded rice paper — it was really delicious and I absolutely loved it. David explained that this is a popular dish among school students, and he used to buy it as an after-school snack when he was younger. Can’t get any more local than that!
A portion of the Banh Trang Tron costs VND15,000~US$0.6 (approximately the price range of most street food in Saigon); and can be served as a spring roll too.
Stop 2: The Notre-Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office
After partially filling our tummies, we braved the traffic again and made our way to the second stop of the night — the beautiful Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office, two of Ho Chi Minh City‘s must-visit sights. They were already closed for the day, but we still got to admire their French-influenced architecture underneath the bright yellow lights. Both buildings face a large square that was occupied by vendors selling their wares on sticks, and local families and couples spending some quality time together.
Next to the Central Post Office is the new (opened early 2016) pedestrian-only Book Street. I was really impressed with the many book stalls, cozy book cafes and lush trees that line the street — I wish we had one back home as well! There is also a book ‘flea market’ along the street that sells a wide range of books for cheap. If I had more time in the city, I would definitely spend some time reading in one of the cafes here.
Stop 3: Pha Lau Bo
For the 3rd stop of the day, we rode to the edge of Saigon’s Chinatown to sample the Pha Lau Bo. Considered one of Vietnam’s popular street food, the restaurant we dropped by was a typical Vietnamese street food joint — a narrow hole-in-the-wall eatery, with small tables and chairs. Pha Lau Bo translates to Pig Intestines Soup, and well, is exactly that. With a combination of pig innards that consist of stomach, intestines and lungs in a sweet and sourish fish broth — this dish is definitely an acquired taste, and not for the faint-hearted. It is served with baguettes and a sugary kumquat sauce.
The Cantonese brought this dish into Vietnam, and the Chinese-Vietnamese lady who served our meal was fluent in Vietnamese, Mandarin and English. She got excited when she found out we’re from Malaysia (apparently she spent some time there), and recommended her homemade herbal drinks to us. I enjoyed the drinks, but I have to say, was not a fan of the dish. I don’t mind eating pig innards (I’m Chinese, after all), but the sour fishy taste of the soup was a little too overwhelming.
Stop 4: The Flower Market
The 4th stop of the day was supposed to be at the Flower Market, but because we started our tour a little late, the market was closed by the time we arrived. To make up for the missed stop (and also because Wilson didn’t want any of the pig intestines earlier), our guides decided to take us to another street food stop!
Stop 4.1: Banh Beo
Back in District 3, we dropped by a corner shop to sample the Banh Beo. I’ve tried this dish before during my visit to Danang (read about it here), and I loved it then — so well, of course I loved it here as well! The Banh Beo is a local cuisine from the ancient royal capital of Hue (thus its name), and are steamed rice cakes topped with dried shrimp and crispy shallots in fish sauce. There are many varieties of Banh Beo (wrapped in different styles), so our guides ordered a mixed of everything!
I was already quite stuffed by this third stop, but we still managed to devour two plates full.
Stop 5: Che (Sweet Soup)
To top off all the delicious street food we’ve had on the tour, the last stop of the night was for desserts! Our guides took us to one of their favorite dessert joints in the city — Xôi Chè. The restaurant is one of a few branches in the city, and not only serves desserts but a whole range of local Vietnamese food as well. Their specialties are ‘Xoi’, meaning sticky rice; and ‘Che’, which means sweet soup, or desserts.
Since we were here for the ‘sweet soup’, I got myself a glass of Sam Bo Luong. It looked very much like the Chinese ‘Lin Chi Kang’, which is a sweet, cold drink with dried longans, red dates, lotus seeds, seaweed and barley. We also ordered some creme caramel to share. Some of the other desserts our group ordered were Suong Sa Hot Luu (tapioca jelly, pomegranate seeds and coconut milk), Thach Dua (coconut jelly), and juices like kumquat, passion fruit and coconut. I guess we ended the night on a sugar high!
My Saigon Food Tour Experience
The “Food on Wheels” Tour was fun, entertaining and definitely fulfilling (to my tummy); and I had a great time. I never once felt like I was in danger as I whizzed through the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City with David, and the food stalls that we were brought to were relatively clean and sanitary (by street food standards).
Most importantly, throughout the tour, I felt like I was on a food expedition with friends. Both David and Hai were friendly, easy-going and talkative — they had many stories to share, not only about the food we were eating, but about Saigon and their lives in the city. I’m glad I got to experience this short and different look at Vietnam through its food and people, and doing it with a positive impact through Actxplorer.
My challenge now would be to find that Bánh Tráng Trộn shop because I definitely want to go back the next time I’m in the Ho Chi Minh City!
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*She Walks the World went on the “Food on Wheels” Tour in Ho Chi Minh City with Actxplorer as a guest. As always, all opinions stated here are my own.