Saigon Street Eats – On the Pho Trail
Special OFFER. Saigon Street Eats are now offering Ho Chi Minh City highlights readers a substantial discount on all their tours. You can find out more about this generous offer HERE. Not convinced? Read about my day out on their Pho Trail Tour below.
On the Pho Trail
Saigon street eats are everywhere. You don’t have to be in Ho Chi Minh City long to realize you aren’t going to starve here as there are food outlets every second step. For a truly unique Vietnamese eating experience, however, you need to visit local markets, dive down small alleyways and frequent the many small street stalls. That can be a little scary if you aren’t a seasoned traveler or even if you are. The language barrier can be frustrating. Your options are to choose and point which can result in all kinds of surprises (good and bad!!!!) or head back to the perceived safety of the usual tourist haunts (feeling like a wimp!!!). There’s also the problem of being able to repeat a great experience. I often try something and love it, but never really know what I’ve been eating so that I can ask for it again. All of these challenges and more can stop you from experiencing some of the very delicious food on offer.
If you’ve encountered any of the challenges above, but genuinely want to know more about the vast range of food on offer, then Saigon Street Eats may just provide the answer you’ve been looking for when you visit Ho Chi Minh City. Their 4 hour Pho Trail is a morning walking tour that takes you off the beaten track in a local part of town and shows you all about eating Vietnamese style. Stroll through tiny lanes and alleyways sampling the local fare and then visit the bustling local market for more sensory overload. Finish it off with a picnic in the peaceful surrounds of a colourful temple dedicated to one of the heroes of old Saigon. Full of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and hands-on exploration, It’s not the usual sterile package-tour experience.
Saigon Street Eats is run by Aussie Barbara and her Vietnamese husband, Vu. Barbara bills herself as Chief Taster, Food Tour Designer, and General Bossy Person. I’d add to that likeable, well-versed in Vietnamese cuisine and all around good “sheila.” Vu is a local lad from Saigon and is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to all thing things food in these parts. His English is impeccable, and he was extremely accommodating and patient with my rapid fire interrogation of what things were and how to pronounce them.
I was picked up at my apartment by Miss Phuong, who speaks excellent English and displayed impeccable driving skills as she delivered me safely through morning peak hour chaos to the meeting point at a local Binh Tanh restaurant. The group was made up of an Aussie/Kiwi couple and their two delightful young boys, an American couple, and BJ, a representative from Insight Travels, an American company scoping out activities for their tours. It was a diverse group, but everyone was extremely keen to experience new things, and it was fantastic watching the kids, aged 8 and 11, react to all the new and different sights, sounds and tastes.
Our day started with an authentic Vietnamese breakfast in reportedly Ho Chi Minh’s best Pho Shop. The restaurant is unusual in that it serves both Pho Bo (beef noodles soup) and Pho Ga (Chicken Noodle Soup). Most traditional pho shops will specialize in one or the other. The recipe used by the shop is ages old and a treasured trade secret sold many years ago to the current owners by a man who has since migrated to the US. The shop has been going for over 35 years so they must be doing something right.
Even though I’ve lived in HCMC for well over a year, I still don’t know all the terminology and slight differences for the additives to pho. I know what to do with them but I’m a bit of a “more the merrier” philosophy and just shove as much of everything into the bowl as can fit. Thanks to Barbara’s expert explanation I now know the subtleties of making a perfect pho to one’s liking.
I’m not sure if it’s the best pho in HCMC (and it would take me forever to find out), but it was pretty damn good with all the signs of high quality. The broth was thick and hearty indicating that it had been prepared over an extended period… Apparently, 7 hours is a pre-requisite for a superb flavour.
With breakfast taken care of we began our walk around the back streets and alleyways of the area with a short visit to a very classy French bakery. While it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of street food, they are very common all over Saigon, and the creative cakes were nothing short of magnificent.
As we wandered, Vu gave us helpful explanations of what the local food vendors had on offer and how to get the best experience as a tourist such as what to look for in a food stall and when the best time to eat is.
As well as the usual suspects such as Banh Mi (baguettes with various fillings found all over Vietnam) we also learnt about some of the restaurants that are extremely popular with the locals. Com Trua Van Phong means office lunch. If you are visiting Vietnam, these can save you a heap of money and give you a great insight into what the locals are eating. It’s a set menu with soup, vegetables, rice, a choice of meat dishes, beverage and fruit for dessert. These provide excellent value with most typical menus costing no more than 50 000VND for the lot, in many cases less. Com Chay is what you should be looking for if you are vegetarian or vegan. Popular with Buddhists they offer such delights as fake chicken and fake intestines along with an extensive range of tasty tofu and veggie dishes.
After about an hour of wandering, we were starting to build up a thirst and headed towards the market. Immediately the hustle and bustle factor increased … but blissfully, there was no subsequent increase in hassle factor. This was no Ben Thanh market with row upon row of souvenirs and pushy sales people. Cho Ba Chieu is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most authentic markets. It’s where the locals come to shop and eat, and while you might get a few shy giggles and attract a fair bit of curiosity, there’s no pressure to buy anything and no problems in getting some great shots.
Before we plunged into the market itself, we indulged in a big icy glass of sugarcane juice. I’m not a big sweet eater, so I’ve never bothered with it before, despite it being sold all over town. But I was thirsty, and I had committed to trying everything today. What a pleasant surprise. It was nowhere near as sweet as I thought it would be. Vu told us they had added boiled water to it, then cut it with cumquat juice before adding the ice which toned down the sugar factor. It had a slightly citrus flavor and was incredibly refreshing.
Into the market we went and were immediately on sensory overload. I love Asian markets for that very reason, and I wasn’t disappointed with this one. We took time out for morning “tea” with a caramel flan and accompanying fresh coconut juice. The flan had a magnificent burnt caramel and coffee topping that was tasty but not overpoweringly sweet like many desserts. Paired with the ice cold coconut water I was in heaven.
I learnt about the fruit I’d never even seen before, despite being in Asia for quite a bit of my travels. Many of the questions I’d had for quite a while about the common foods I’d seen and even eaten since I started living here were finally answered. As we progressed, Vu was full of good humour, telling jokes and obviously enjoying his role as resident expert. Slowly but steadily we gathered up the goodies that would be part of our picnic at a nearby temple. With bags of food tied from his belt, his pack and various appendages, he began to look like a well-fed homeless person!
Last stop was the peaceful grounds of Le Van Duyet’s mausoleum where Vu and Phuong dealt out the goodies. Caramelized crab snacks, Vietnamese pork sandwich, BBQ pork salad and a smorgasbord of cakes and fresh fruit.
Despite the fact that I’d been there only last week, I learnt a little more about the hero of the temple and got to have my fortune told by the man himself. It’s a unique experience, but unfortunately, mine wasn’t that great news. Thankfully, I only have six months to wait before I can try again!!
Overall I thought the tour was a great experience. As well as trying loads of new foods along the way, it also provided an insight into other aspects of local culture such as ancestor worship, rituals to attract good fortune, herbal medicine and some of the influences the French and Chinese have had on today’s culture and food. I found out the real price of things in the market and now know the answers to questions I’ve been pondering on for months.
I highly recommend this tour for anyone with even the least bit of interest in experiencing the flavours of Vietnam. Even if you are already confident in experimenting and exploring, much of the information will save you money for future explorations and provide a very helpful insight into the breadth of tastes on offer. I now have several new favourite dishes, know exactly how to source them and what to pay. The tour is relaxed and hassle-free and the small group philosophy made it feel like a day out with friends. I definitely felt I had stepped out of the tourist scene and into authentic Vietnam.
Saigon Street Eats also has an evening Seafood trail. Ho Chi Minh City has a huge range of shellfish on offer, and this would be an excellent way to sort your snails from your scallops. I’ve had a few “wiggly” surprises in the past…maybe I should join this one too, so I can avoid those “not sure if I should swallow” moments. Bon appetite!!
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