Last Updated on December 8, 2020 by Leyla Kazim
|Image of the week: a trader makes his way to the floating market as the sun rises over the Mekong River.
Many more images at the end of post
Where in the world
A seven hour overnight train from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) where we stayed for four nights. Then a two day trip into and around the Mekong River with Water Buffalo Tours (overnight in the city of Ben Tre).
Finally, dropped off back in HCMC, where we spent our last couple of nights in Vietnam, which included a fantastic night food tour with XO Tours.
We were warned in advance that to announce the arrival into HCMC at three in the morning, the train carriages blast out classical Vietnamese music to wake you up. Instead, I woke up to the sound of Matt playing Goodnight Saigon by Billy Joel out of his phone on repeat. I’m not sure which I would have preferred.
HCMC (formerly Saigon) is Vietnam at its most hectic. A chaotic coexistence of pulsating commerce and culture, it really needs at least a week to get beneath the skin; I guess I’ll just need to return.
Be sure to visit the parks in the cool of early morning or late evening. You’ll find dance troops, the elderly limbering up for a gentle jog, teams playing the shuttlecock game of jiànzi, musicians, small groups gathering for book club sessions under the shade of a tree – it’s a lovely time of day and a great location to take respite.
There were a couple of times when we were moving through the city in the small hours of the morning, which sees it in a whole other light. The amount of people going for a run and performing tai chi by the water’s edge at 4.30am, already up for breakfast crouching over a steaming bowl of noodles, or sitting drinking coffee with a few pals – all way before the sun has even thought about rising – was quite astounding to me. Such a great city for early risers.
|one of the parks in HCMC in the cool of the evening|
The War Remnants Museum is a must, but be prepared for an emotional onslaught. I wasn’t, and I found the uncensored imagery (think children and babies..) and stories very distressing, which I suppose is the point. I wasn’t the only one in there shedding quiet tears.
Another must when in HCMC is a tour with the fantastic ladies from XO Tours. They’re the first all-female motorbike tour company in Vietnam, the only to have accident insurance, and the The Foodie tour was totally excellent.
You have your own driver that ferries you around (mine was called Hong and she was a total sweetheart), but there’s a larger group (14 in ours) that follow the tour in total, with a really articulate and bubbly lead guide who gives a load of great insight at each stop. You drive through a number of different districts (not just District 1, which is cleaned up for the tourists), and as well as the food stops (see What to eat in HCMC below), there are additional stops to gain insight about the culture of Saigon.
Beer is included, there are a few fun silly games involving chopstick skills, you’ve giving a really handy book of Vietnamese phrases at the end, the lead guide takes pictures the whole evening and emails them to you after, and they keep ordering food as long as you keep eating.
All in, it was a brilliant laugh and made my highlight of the week (see below).
Our two day / one night Experience Mekong Delta Tour with Water Buffalo Tours provided some wonderful photo opportunities (see images at the end of post). It’s quite driving-heavy, with two early starts, but sleep is the sacrifice you have to make to witness spectacles such as the pictures below.
Highlights included a cycle through the palm trees and paddy fields of Tan Hoa village, marvelling at the array of produce at the local markets, the fantastic seafood lunch on Tan Thanh Beach (see What to eat in the Mekong Delta below), witnessing the sun rise over the Mekong and traders ferrying their wares to the floating market, and cruising through the creeks in an ethereal early morning light, complete with mists rising from the water. Quite a spectacle.
|Up a creek towards the floating market, in spectacular early morning light|
|sunrise over the Mekong River|
The best things I ate this week
What to eat in HCMC..
Hu Tieu noodle soup. Roaming the streets for dinner, we came across this place. There was a lot of activity, with people constantly pulling up in mopeds to order some to take home, nearly ploughing into the girl in the bloody way taking pictures. They make hủ tiếu noodle soup.
We had a cute little studio apartment while we’re in HCMC. So we made like so many of the locals and ordered it to go. Better for you than a Saturday night pizza. We left on foot as opposed to two wheels though – not an honorary Vietnamese just yet.
At 62 Truong Dinh Street, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1
Pizza. After almost five weeks of eating barely any, the wheat craving I had been trying to ignore culminated in a feverish online search for a good pizza place in town one evening this week. There’s one in the Japanese quarters – they make their own cheeses up in the highlands of Da Lat and use traditional Neapolitan-style ovens.
We walked in at 5.30 and were asked if we had a reservation – they were fully booked. They managed to squeeze us in though, and the bread craving was duly appeased. Plus, a rather splendid burrata.
At Pizza 4P’s, 8/15 Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1
|from top left: the hu tieu noodle place, taking it away to eat at home, the noodle making station, a very good pizza|
Then there was the stuff we scoffed thanks to the ladies on the XO Food Tour. What’s also great about these guys (apart from the gushing above) is that they don’t just take you for pho and banh mi which so many other tours do – it’s far more interesting than that.
Bun bo Hue noodle soup. The place to get this noodle dish in HCMC. The owners are from Hue, so theirs is pretty authentic.
The main difference between pho and bún bo hue is the former is with a chicken and beef stock, the latter is pork and beef, spicy, and with a strong lemongrass presence. Also with shredded banana blossom, bean sprouts, garlic ginger and chilli mix.
At Bún bò Huế Đông Ba 110A Nguễn Du
Table-top BBQs. The ladies informed us that BBQ is one of the most popular meals locals want when they eat out. The city is such that certain areas specialise in certain things. Massages, clothes, Chinese food – you name it.
For BBQ, you need District 8 (there are 24 districts in total). I can’t recall what particular restaurant we went to (there was a lot of beer), but head to the area and you won’t go wrong. Goat is the most popular meat. Also beef, prawns, frogs, sparrow, quail, okra, and the rest.
In District 8
Seafood. Whilst District 8 will cook you meat over coals, District 4 is the place to go for seafood. Crabs, clams, scallops – fill your boots.
In District 4
Longan fruit. I’ve loved discovering the exotic fruits of Asia. A new one for me we had on the tour was longan, also known as ‘dragon’s eye’ – you can totally see why (see pic below). It’s a cousin of the lychee.
|from top left: bun bo hue noodle soup, table-top BBQ’s in Distrit 8, BBQ aftermath with all of the beer, sparrow, logan fruit, crab in District 4|
What to eat in the Mekong Delta..
Catfish. Lunch on the first day of the Mekong Tour with our guide from Water Buffalo Tours had us stop off at a seafront restaurant on Tan Thanh Beach. One of the most abundant fish from the river is catfish. There was sour catfish soup with tamarind, pineapple, vegetables. And ca kho to – caramelised catfish cooked with soy and pepper in a clay pot. Also grilled prawns, okra – all the seafood from the surrounding waters.
Then there was dessert, which was a glorious plate of exotic fruits purchased by our guide from a local market. Mango, custard apples, rambuten. And another new one for me, sapodilla. Which is a fruit that tastes like cake. And caramel.
The seafront on Tan Thanh Beach, Mekong Delta
Street food must-eats
Street food in HCMC..
Mi viet tiem. Fresh yellow noodles with gorgeous marinated duck, falling away from the bone. I think it was the only time we had duck in Vietnam, actually. This bowl was around £2.50 – pretty pricy for street food. We pushed the boat out for our final meal in Vietnam.
You’ll find this place on the eastern extreme of Phan Van Han street, at the busy junction – it’s one of the most popular noodle haunts in the area. If you want the duck, get there early as they run out quickly. The whole menu reads pretty well – do try more.
At Luong Ky Mi Gia, Phan Van Han Street
During my research, I stumbled across this very comprehensive guide to street food in Saigon from someone who’s spent a lot more time there than I. I would have worked my way through this lot if I was there longer.
Did you know?
Learnt loads of interesting titbits this week, most of it insight from the lovely ladies at XO.
Cholon. Saigon’s Chinatown area is called Cholon and it’s one of the biggest Chinatown’s in the world. It’s also home to Binh Tay Market (a bit more on that below), which we’re told sells all manner of both legal and illegal things. An example of the latter, monkey brains. Those Chinese really do eat anything.
|Cao Dai mass|
Cao Dai. Also known as Caodaism. It must be one of the most recently established religious movements, founded in 1926 in southern Vietnam.
It’s one that combines Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism and Islam.
They believe all the gods worshipped by different religions are in fact the same single God. And so all religions ‘are one’. And so we should probably all just get along a bit more. Which sounds quite attractive.
We witnessed noon mass at the Cao Dai temple in the town of Cai Lay on the second day of our Mekong tour with Water Buffalo Tours.
Privacy for couples. Due to lack of space and lack of money, homes in Saigon often house three, sometimes even four generations. For the couples living in them, if they want some ‘privacy’ and can’t afford a hotel room, they rent a lounger by the river.
Behind a gas station, in amongst the bushes that line the water, there are a load of loungers, in pairs. You only need to buy a drink to be able to spend the whole night on one. This is the place young couples go for some alone time. If you pull up and shine your headlights, you’ll get a lot of abuse. There’s a separate more discrete alleyway, also with loungers, for the screamers.
Balut. If you watch Karl Pilkington’s An Idiot Abroad, you’ll remember the episode in China and his reaction to watching a local eat balut.
This is a developing duck embryo (so, a fertilized egg) that is boiled and eaten in the shell. The result is part hard-boiled egg, part duck foetus, complete with veins, the beginnings of feathers and a feet, a head etc.
The thought of it is quite appalling, but it’s a popular street food snack in SE Asia, especially the Philippines which is where it’s called balut. In Vietnam, it’s actually trung vit long.
The girls on the XO Tour will take you to a place that does them, if you fancy trying it. No one was brave enough on ours. Even the girls themselves were recoiling in disgust.
I like to think I’m an adventurous eater, but I’ll need a few more introductions before balut becomes something I can envisage putting in my mouth.
My insider tips
Ben Thanh Market. Specifically there to sell stuff to tourists at high prices. Even though it’s referenced in a lot of guide books, the girls at XO tell us the vendors buy the products from the massive and much cheaper wholesale Binh Tay Market in Cholon (Saigon’s Chinatown), mark up the cost by a factor of at least four, then sell it to tourists.
Those who’ve haggled 40% off think they’ve got a good deal, but no. Either make your starting point 25% of their asking price and bring them down from there, or go to one of the other markets.
Here’s a good guide to the authentic HCMC markets.
Highlight / Lowlight
Highlight. This was definitely the XO Tour. It was a totally terrific night zipping around Saigon through the hectic streets in the cool of the evening on the back of a moped, with great company, great insight and great food stops.
Really exhilarating, and without doubt the best way to see the city. There was beer, laughter, and my driver Hong was fantastic. Everyone who visits HCMC should take a tour with these lovely ladies.
Lowlight. Thanks to two early starts in a row during the Mekong Tour, still reeling from the 4am arrival in Saigon on the overnight train, and being sleep deprived in general, we spent one of the days in HCMC in bed. Which always feels like a waste. But if I’ve learnt one thing during these travels, it’s that not setting an alarm needs to happen occasionally to allow the body to catch up.
Five weeks in Vietnam comes to an end, and it was fantastic. Onwards to Cambodia.
Here’s a collage of some of the great eating we had here, in celebration. Vietnam, you will see me again.
Mekong Delta Tour with Water Buffalo Tours
Week 0: Gone travelling. London – see you in nine months
Week 1: INDIA – Mumbai → Goa
Week 2: INDIA – Bangalore → Mysore → Wayanad → Kochi
Week 3: INDIA – Kochi → Allepey → Kollam → Madurai
Week 4: INDIA – Pondicherry → Chennai → Mumbai
Week 5: INDIA – Varanasi → Udaipur → Jaipur → Delhi
Week 6: TAIWAN – Taipei
Week 7: CHINA & VIETNAM – Hong Kong → Hanoi
Week 8: VIETNAM – Sapa → Hanoi → Ha Long Bay → Hanoi
Week 9: VIETNAM – Hue → Hoi An
Week 10: VIETNAM – 6 day / 5 night motorbike tour from Hoi An to Da Lat
Week 11: VIETNAM – Da Lat → Nha Trang
Note: XO Tours kindly hosted our experience