As I ventured to Vietnam at the age of 29, I found myself faced with a dilemma: the motorcycle rule my mom had instilled in my upbringing seemed like a boundary I was willing to cross. After all, as Anthony Bourdain famously proclaimed, the only genuine way to experience the bustling streets of Hanoi was on a scooter. Although my destination was Saigon rather than Hanoi, Bourdain’s sentiment still held sway in my mind. My quest to explore the local cuisine was my main concern. I longed to uncover hidden culinary gems, to savor dishes I’d never imagined. It was during this culinary exploration that XO Tours became my ticket to a plethora of culinary delights and a glimpse into the heart of Saigon.
The excitement was palpable as I met my guide, a spirited young woman named Han, outside my hotel, the Ramada Encore by Wyndham in District One. She beckoned me to hop on the back of her white Vespa, and off we went, threading through the chaotic city traffic. While I clung to the back seat for dear life, my face bore an involuntary grin. Riding a scooter in the city seemed to unlock a whole new dimension of experiences. I relished the sights unfolding before my eyes: entire families expertly balanced on scooters, packages precariously dangling from the rear, a fascinating array of helmet styles, and even dogs riding confidently by their owner’s feet.
Our culinary journey commenced with a hearty serving of Bún Bò Huế, a spicy rice noodle dish adorned with succulent slices of beef. While this was just our first of several food stops, I couldn’t resist slurping down the entire bowl, savoring each delightful bite, particularly the zesty lemongrass undertones.
Before I could fully savor my meal, we sped off to a vibrant market in Chinatown, one of the country’s largest wet markets. Here, fresh produce and a bounty of seafood sprawled across the bustling streets. Our next destination was a barbecue joint where we grilled goat breast tableside. At the same time, a whole goat hung from the rafters, waiting to be butchered by an expert on-site. This unique display was intended to prove the authenticity of the meat, ensuring it was indeed goat, a more valuable protein source compared to pork. We relished the tender goat, enhanced with a garlicky sauce, along with spring onions and peanuts, all accompanied by unlimited beer.
Our culinary adventure continued with a seafood stop, where we witnessed the preparation of succulent scallops, shucked and grilled to perfection before being generously garnished with nuts and scallion oil. The feast included the cracking of crab legs right at the table and even the daring sampling of an embryonic duck egg. I was advised to consume it like a soft-boiled egg, cracking it open at the top and scooping out the contents, an experience both curious and delicious.
Throughout our gastronomic odyssey, I held tight to the back of the scooter as we weaved through Saigon’s winding streets, roundabouts, and labyrinthine alleyways. We darted past neon signs and inhaled the smoky aromas from street vendors. Thankfully, unlimited beer was on hand to quench our thirst as the tropical humidity and a satiated belly led to beads of perspiration trickling down my chin.
In conclusion, the tour felt nothing like the typical guided tour but rather an authentic and exhilarating culinary adventure. Maybe all tours should be experienced from the back of scooters. And if you’re wondering about my mom, rest assured, I texted her a reassuring message along with a video of me on the scooter: “Don’t worry, I’m wearing a helmet.”