Camp Vietnam – How to see Ho Chi Minh by moped
I have never been on a moped before, mainly because I have always been warned that they are death traps. So to get on the back of one in one of the busiest cities in the world with a stranger seemed like a sensible idea.
There are seven million other moped riders exploring Ho Chi Minh’s roads. The streets are permanently busy, filled with locals frantically weaving through the congestion to get to their destinations. Walking is not popular here, rather ironically because of the thick smog emitted from the mopeds. On a bad day you can feel the smog in your lungs as you walk around. But it is nothing compared to China’s capital.
The same is true when it comes to crossing the road. Before visiting Saigon I read various alarming accounts of people’s struggles to get across the heaving traffic. None of which seem the slightest bit true now, especially as it is far less of a challenge than it is in Beijing. Here the locals expertly manoeuvre their mopeds around you and do not attempt to accelerate.
These two tours give you the chance to experience what it is like to sit on the back of one while you are driven by a local expert moped rider. It is an ideal way to see the buzzing centre of Ho Chi Minh, as well as the hidden spots only locals know.
Vespa Adventures is one of the biggest and most well-known moped tour companies in the city. The company offers multiple tours in Ho Chi Minh and others throughout Vietnam. I found out what their Ho Chi Minh After Dark tour is like.
The tour is four hours long and includes ‘all-you-can-eat food’ and ‘free-flowing drinks’. The night starts with two guides on refurbished vintage Vespas from the 1950s picking you up at your hotel. The main benefit of the Vespas, as well as their classic style, is the seat at the back which feels more stable than a traditional moped. Our guides did not say anything on arrival – not even stopping to ask our names – but off we rode into the night.
The first stop is the tour company’s own Cafe Zoom, which is not a street food stand or really a cafe. The cafe is packed with other tourists and tour guides. Our guide Chien, who is thankfully much chattier than the driver, tells us there are 84 people doing this tour, but it can be as many as 120 in one night. This is why the tour can fail to offer a personal experience, even if you are put in a group with six other people to make the tour feel more intimate.
Next you travel for twenty minutes to a restaurant in District Four. On the way l pass Buddhist temples, locals finishing up their nightly chores and dogs wandering across roads. This is definitely not an area you would stumble into on your own. The restaurant serves a mixture of fresh seafood and we are presented with crab legs to start, followed by clams cooked in a lemongrass soup. The crab is very sweet and meaty, nothing like the typical seaside crab I have tasted in places like Devon.
Next come the barbecued mussels with peanuts and spring onion, a stand out part of the entire evening. The meal is finished with a plate of frog, which tastes, in the best way possible, just like fried chicken. All of this is produced from a building not much larger than a shack on a busy roadside. The next restaurant, another ride away, is popular with locals and tourists. It specialises in traditional Vietnamese pancakes, cooked with shrimps and eaten in a mustard leaf.
You end the tour by visiting a ‘speakeasy-like bar’, if that definition works, to listen to local music and then to another bar to see some other live, more poppy, music. While the tour is an interesting introduction to the city’s cuisine, you can feel like you are on a conveyor belt.
As soon as you arrive at a place, another tour group leaves – and repeat. While the first restaurant and the speakeasy are places you genuinely would struggle to find while researching a trip to Ho Chi Minh, the second restaurant is quite easy to find online. Time is also limited at each place and our guide spends a large amount of time preparing to tap us on the shoulder to tell us that we should finish our drinks. This can make you feel like you need to constantly check your watch. One further negative is how the tour is described as offering ‘free-flowing drinks’. But it was rather disappointing to be told to pay for my next espresso martini.
According to Vespa Adventures, they ‘do offer unlimited amounts of food and drinks including alcohol. Guides are instructed to be careful with the last stop because the limited time and amount of drinks guests might have consumed during the evening.’
First-time visitors to Ho Chi Minh may feel that the tour also lacks the much-needed history about the city and the food it creates. This background is essential to get a greater understanding of why dishes are cooked with certain flavours and how Vietnamese cooking tends to stay clear of its French and Chinese influences. But overall, it is a professional setup and a lively evening out.
The Saigon After Dark tour costs £75.00 per person and can be booked on their website.
Saigon Street Eats
Saigon Street Eats is a smaller tour company set up by the Australian-Vietnamese couple Vu and Barbara in October 2012. The Street Food 101 tour starts with a friendly greeting from Vu and a moped driver at our hotel. The mopeds are the type that you see everyday during your time in the city, which makes the experience feel more genuine.
My driver can sense that despite the authentic factor, I’m still a wimp, and he avoids nipping around like one of the locals. They chat through the sights as they drive us around to our first location, a small square in District One with many different restaurants. Most of them look like garages with plastic chairs and tables plomped outside. You would not visit any of them by accident and this is part of the tour’s charm.
Before we get our hands on the food we receive a brief introduction to Vietnamese history and how the people tried to forget the darker moments of their collective past in their kitchens. Essentially, how they moved as far away from Chinese and French cooking as they could. Though they could not completely resist their tricks of the kitchen, like their adaptation of the baguette through the dish Banh Mi.
We visit four places during the tour, sampling a range of dishes from curried frog to beef bone soup, Bun bo Hu. A crispy rice flour wrap of stingray and peanuts is one of the most interesting dishes I have ever eaten. The food, without exception, is excellent.
One of the most helpful parts of the tour is Vu’s advice on discovering the best Vietnamese street food. The greatest fear amongst tourists is food poisoning. But Vu tell us that there are easy ways to avoid it. First of all, avoid restaurants where it does not look like there is a kitchen inside. Many of the stalls on the street are carts because they operate without a license and therefore do not necessarily have to follow food and hygiene policies. It is also wise to choose places to eat where there is a lot of meat outside, as this means they are more likely to use fresh ingredients.
This tour definitely wins for its personal touch. Vu is entertaining and informative, as you would expect somebody who wrote a book on Vietnamese food to be. While you don’t ride around in luxury, that was never part of the deal and by the end of the night you feel like have sampled unforgettable cuisine.
The Street Food 101 tour is a 3 hour tour and costs approximately £36.00 per person, all inclusive. You can book the tour on their website.
As each tour ends I make the most of seeing Ho Chi Minh on a moped. The endless streams of traffic, the city’s dazzling lights, the friendly locals showing off their moped tricks. And all of this with a stomach full of Vietnam’s best street food.
If you are interested in visiting Vietnam, check out Camp Vietnam here