A 20-year-old who looks like he’s 12 pulls up to the hotel on a motorbike. And, blessedly, he has a spare helmet. Hop on; it’s dinnertime. Ho Chi Minh City has 8 million people and about that many smells from its street-food stalls. The overabundance of choice can be daunting, but several companies offer food tours that come with the added thrill of whizzing through the megacity’s chaotic streets on the back of a bike.
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You’re free to risk the curbside gourmet on your own, but it is not for the faint of stomach, and there are no translators to solve the mystery meat. There are several options for a food tour experience, and my choice on this Monday night is Back of the Bike Tours, an outfit launched by an American chef and his Vietnamese wife. At $ 67 per person, when booked online, you’re paying more than almost at any restaurant in town, but the five-course meal is combined with a breezy city tour that gets you away from the tourist-clogged areas. It’s worth it. An added bonus is the ability to spot the best delicacies for future meals.
We don’t stop for dog meat. (I wouldn’t be able to look my pup in the eye again anyway.)
While some stops are pure street, with plastic chairs and tables flanking a charcoal grill, there are a couple of small restaurants as well. With our unwieldy group of about 20, finding places that can accommodate all of us is tricky. Fredrick Wilson, a chef from St. Louis who now runs the company after the founders moved to Philadelphia, says he has started capping groups at 15 to keep things manageable.
The brightest gem is the crab soup — savory yellow broth surrounding an ocean-plucked crustacean, thick tapioca noodles submerged below, salty pork rinds and a fried fish cake on top. We’re nearing the end of the four-hour trip, sampling savory banh xeo pancakes, when the tour leader poses the question: “Who wants to try the fertilized duck egg?” Why, of course.
My only critique of the tour would be that it does not push the culinary envelope enough. There’s a reason for this, Wilson explains: You want to capture the less-adventurous half of the couple in order to get business from both. That’s why he does not do dishes with Vietnam’s famously pungent fish sauce already included. (You can add it, and I do. Liberally.) We don’t stop for dog meat. (I wouldn’t be able to look my pup in the eye again anyway.)
The purely optional fertilized egg is a squeamish delight. The shell is peeled away to reveal a half-formed duck embryo with a tiny head poking out. It is not quite tough enough to be meat, not soft enough to be egg. Dipped in a bit of black pepper sauce, it’s lovely.
It’s a good time to savor the moment, hunched in an undersized plastic chair. Locals are chattering in Vietnamese and our table is trading travel tales over beers as the temperature finally starts to cool. Not for long, though. We are due back on the bikes to slip through Saigon’s crevices in search of dessert.