Belles on Bikes – Saigon Food Tour
Saigon Food Tour – Belles on Bikes or Meals on Wheels?
I really tossed up on what to call this post about my outing with Saigon Food Tour. My indecision stems from the fact that I can’t decide what was best about the experience; the fabulous food experience or hanging out with the charming tour guides (Belles on Bikes!!) Mai, Van and Xuan.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Once again I’m looking to add excellent value tours around Ho Chi Minh City to my Tours Page. I don’t want the usual stock standard group tours. I’m just not interested in companies that treat tourists like a number. I want tours with personal service that show visitors the authentic side of Ho Chi Minh City. I also want tours that are responsive to customer requests and who genuinely take on board feedback to make sure their offering just gets better and better.
There are quite a few “Food Tours” operating in Ho Chi Minh City, each with their own different slant on things. You might remember I did a review on Saigon Street Eats a few weeks back. Their morning Pho Trail is an excellent way to become exposed to Saigon street food, snacks and the offerings at the local market. Their night tour focuses on seafood, one of the specialties here in Vietnam. But not everyone is into seafood so I wanted to offer readers other alternatives.
That’s where Saigon Food Tour came in. First of all, their website is really easy to find. I was looking for Saigon food tours and they appeared on page one on Google. A quick look through their website and the tour I chose, Taste of the Night, appeared to be offering everything I was looking for.
- Firstly it’s a night tour – In my opinion Ho Chi Minh City is most beautiful by night. It always seems as if all 10 million residents are preparing, serving OR eating food.
- Secondly, it’s a progressive dinner to ensure we get to sample THE BEST of each dish around town. The journey between courses, on the back of a motor scooter, promised to be every bit a highlight as the food.
- Last but not least, the tour is focused on eating where the locals do rather than specialized “Tourist Restaurants”. Vietnamese people are very particular about their food. If a restaurant or street stall is crowded then you’re usually in for a real treat.
My first impression is that they offer great customer service. There was a very short response time between my initial enquiry and an email to see what they could do for me. They worked really hard to fit in with my somewhat irregular schedule and get me matched with a group rather than have to go solo. Thankfully their model allows them to scale up or down so that solo tourists and couples can choose to either go by themselves or with a larger group.
I met up with my guide Mai at a central spot in District 1 and was whisked away to the first restaurant and meeting point. I’m experienced on the back of a motor bike here in Saigon so didn’t need any safety instructions. Had I been a newbie, I would have been thoroughly inducted.
There were only three of us on the tour so it really felt like going out to dinner with friends. Each of us had our own guide to drive us around on a scooter but we definitely didn’t feel like we were by ourselves. Dinner was a party affair. The girls showed us the various techniques to eat each dish and joined us for the meal, enjoying it every bit as much as we did. I wonder how they remain so thin if they’re out feasting every night of the week. Such is the nature of the Vietnamese metabolism I guess, although it could also be because the food is so fresh and healthy.
First cab off the rank was a very popular restaurant specializing in Bánh cuốn, a delicious mix of minced pork, mushrooms and shrimp, expertly wrapped in a wet rice pancake served with various greens, Vietnamese sausage and a special secret sauce. Two of those each and we were wondering where we would fit the next 4 courses. By the time we jumped back on the bikes it was twilight and peak hour. I’m pretty used to travelling on the back of a motor bike these days but I can imagine for newbies, the adrenaline must have been pumping. If you look at the speedometer you’ll see that you’re not actually travelling very fast, but it feels like you’re whizzing along. Traffic comes from every direction but somehow manages to navigate around you (most of the time!). At night it feels like you’re part of some crazy arcade game with all the neon lights added to the mix.
Next stop we had one of my favourites with a new treat thrown in. Bánh xèo is a delicious savoury pancake filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. Sometimes you get large ones that your tear pieces off to wrap in leaves. These ones were mini’s that you wrapped whole and then dunked in a choice of three sauces including tomato, peanut and spicy fish sauce. Mai expertly showed me how to layer the different leaves. The other “same-same but different dish” was Bánh Khọt …little baby quiche like delicacies containing similar fillings. Lastly we were treated to Cháo, which is a thick rice soup resembling congee. The rich flavours and comforting texture were food for the soul. Be careful ordering this one though…the same word, different tone will get you fermented tofu, an entirely different animal!!!
Papaya Salad (Gỏi đu đủ bò khô)
We were all feeling rather full now so when given a choice between the best Pho in town or Papaya salad in the park we all opted for the latter. Seated on vinyl squares on the edge of a popular downtown park, our papaya salad was delivered across 4 lanes of manic traffic. Green papaya, crunchy rice crackers, peanuts and small pieces of dried beef were paired up with another special secret sauce. Delicious as it was, I couldn’t finish it all. My waistband was feeling increasingly tighter as the night wore on. However was I going to manage the last two courses?
Cool Nights and Bright Lights
Thankfully, the girls had that all in hand as we took a whirl out to the Thu Thiem bridge for a view back to the city by night. Not quite yet a Hong Kong skyline, there were obvious signs of a fast moving economy with an ever-increasing number of neon lit skyscrapers reaching towards the sky. Come back in another twenty years and it could very well rival the bigger Asian cities for the night view.
Back through town we headed towards a side lane off Nyugen Trai in District 1 where an extremely popular Barbecue restaurant was humming with activity. Their special quirk is to cook the food on what appeared to be roof tiles. After watching the process I was extremely impressed with the ingenuity to make the non-stick ceramic surface from a regular piece of building material. We sampled the BBQ pork in a very stinky fish sauce which was very tasty if you could just get it past your nose and into your mouth without breathing. Then Van expertly cooked tender rolled beef stuffed with cheese, and lastly, I sampled my very first serving of frog since French camp 35 or so years ago. It was actually very tasty with a nice texture and something I’d definitely consider ordering again.
Not finished, we headed to a local dessert café. As if the taste buds weren’t zinging already, this place had them dancing with delight. Thankfully we didn’t have to eat all of the three deserts each. We each got a spoon and took our turn at tucking into the caramel flan, Chè My (the signature dish of the café) and Che dau xanh (sweet soybean custard). I’ve had the caramel flan before and this one was every bit as good as that. The egg custard is served with thick black coffee and shaved ice, a perfect contrast of tastes and textures. The other two I’d not tried before and in the Chè Dau Xanh (sweet soybean drink) I think I’ve found my new favourite desert. It was definitely sweet but not too sweet and had the distinct flavor of condensed milk. Yuuuuummmm.
Feedback from the Customers
Over dessert the girls asked us our opinion of the tour and whether things could be improved. I was very interested to hear the views of the others on the tour because to my mind it was pretty damn perfect. We all loved the fact that we got to interact with the guides Mai, Van and Xuan and that they didn’t just explain the food and let us eat by ourselves. Their obvious enthusiasm for Vietnamese food and culture was one of the highlights.
We also loved the progressive nature of the dinner and the fact that we got to see a fair amount of the city by night during the tour. Many tourists are probably reluctant to get on the back of a Xe ôm (motorbike taxi), especially by night. The fact that it was part of the tour provided a great opportunity for a truly unique Saigon experience. We all appreciated the fact that we had been served up the very best of authentic Vietnamese cuisine rather than special tourist offerings.
The only suggestion for improvement from the others was to perhaps not get served up as much food as all of us were adverse to wasting food and probably ate just a little too much. Obviously this will be person dependent and I cautioned them against cutting back on how much was offered as in my experience some people like to feel like they’ve got their money’s worth. I’ve seen tourists almost make themselves ill on tours before to make sure they get value. It’s not my approach but I’d hate to see them get bad reviews because people thought they were getting ripped off on the amount of food.
My Final Thoughts
Overall I thought the tour was excellent value. We were provided with a good insight into the huge variety of Vietnamese food. Believe me when I say, it’s just so much more than just Pho and spring rolls. The tagline of Saigon Food Tour is “Celebrate Vietnamese Cuisine” and that’s exactly what I felt we did. By travelling about the city we got to digest each course before tucking into the next. We also got to sample the best of each of the dishes. This was obvious from the huge popularity of the places we visited with the locals. None of them were trumped up tourist restaurants or solely for the well heeled. Saigon Food Tour has a number of other trips around town and in the surrounding areas. Their Taste of the Country tour is of particular interest. It heads out of the city and into the countryside to experience traditional rural markets and cooking classes in a traditional open air kitchen. They can also arrange Private Tours if you have a particular interest or have special food requirement, for example Vegetarian, Vegan or allergies
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