The heat is on in Saigon.
After a confusing and unintelligible one-sided conversation with a taxi driver who stopped abruptly at the side of the road to exchange vehicles with another taxi driver, we made it (relatively safely) to the hotel. But I think the true miracle lies in not merely observing the chaotic traffic but walking in it. In a city of 10 million people and 7 motorbikes, crossing the road and coming out alive seemed to be a miracle each time. A short day and a half later, I’m truly thankful – as 2014 comes to a close and as far as ‘self-reflection’ is supposed to go – for limbs that are still intact and a nose that hasn’t yet bled dry from the pollution on the busy streets of Saigon.
Choosing to do a food tour thus, with Back of the bike tours at Ho Chi Minh is possibly one of the smallest but best decisions I’ve ever made while travelling. Riding pillion on a scooter while a local guide whisks me from district to district to eat for an entire afternoon is an amazing idea that surprisingly hadn’t taken off that well in the countries that I’ve visited.
Despite a late and panicked email confirmation on my part, Sin, Ai and several others with one-syllable names walked into the Pullman Saigon Centre at 1pm, briskly shook our hands and packed us efficiently onto their motorcycles/scooters as we headed for the first stop at Le Van Tam Park for the Green Papaya Salad. On the way, I learned that HCMC was in the midst of a ‘mild’ summer at 32 degrees Celsius while sweating my arse off on Ai’s scooter seat and that the owner of the Salad store sold 100 kilos of papaya a day – and with that, sent her son to study in America with those earnings.
My dirty dreams of owning a Ducati (obviously a license must come first) while we zoomed along the streets of HCMC came to an abrupt halt when Ai pulled onto the curb, dumping me in front of a roadside stall that served the most incredible Bun Thit Nuong (Rice noodles with grilled pork, spring rolls and pork sausage, 3-5 Trung Thien Voung street, District 8) I’ve ever had. The chatty, friendly owner has been doing this since she was 15 with her mother and at the ripe, golden age of 52, is now trying to matchmake her single female customers with her son.
After some suspicious stammering, we were off again to Banh Canh Ghe’s Ocean Crab Soup with Tapioca Noodles (Nguyen Tro Phoung street, District 10). The shop’s name is a literal translation of the very sauce it is famous for: the light green chilli sauce that mysteriously disappears as quickly as the steamy, milky broth of crab, friend soybean curd and udon-like noodles after they appear on the table.
Nearly full to bursting, there was still the fantastic Banh Khot (7 Dong Nai street, District 10) – mini, deep fried pancakes wrapped in a large lettuce leaf with a large amount of herbs and shredded green papaya. And there was still dessert at Trop 8 (306/4 Nguyen Thu Minh Khai, District 3) that included a variety of stuff: xôi kem (coconut ice cream and mulberry-flavoured sticky rice), a cold fruit platter, mango and vanilla ice-cream on sticky rice and blueberry homemade yoghurt.
Food bliss meter reached for the day.