Vietnam’s largest city energetically exudes epicurean appeal. Ho Chi Minh City is a vibrantly old-meets-new place of skyscrapers, markets, malls, temples – and fabulous cuisine, from aromatic street food such as classic pho (noodle soup) to restaurants specialising in piquant cha ca fish dishes. If you want to do like the locals, call the city Saigon (its old name – it officially became Ho Chi Minh City in 1975) and explore it by scooter; most of its 8m population buzz around on two wheels.
Several companies operate guided scooter tours, among them Vespa Adventures which adds a distinctive twist by using reconditioned vintage Vespas and offering specialist food-focused trips.
See it, taste it, be part of it. That’s the ethos of its Saigon After Dark tour. You’re picked up from your hotel by a scooter driver (fear not, you don’t operate the vehicle yourself) and ride pillion as he skilfully weaves through the traffic to five venues where you meet up with an English-speaking guide. It’s exhilarating, fun and sybaritic too – you eat and drink as much as you like, with the guide on hand to help you order like a local.
First you call in at the company’s own Café Zoom, to enjoy an aperitif and discuss the route, which takes you off the tourist radar to the lanes of District 4 then twists through District 1 to lively District 3, passing landmarks such as Notre Dame Basilica and the city’s gracious French colonial post office.
The feasting begins at Quan Oc Phat, an open-air seafood café where plastic tables and chairs spill on to District 4’s little Vinh Khanh street. There’s an open kitchen, fronted by tanks of live ingredients; crabs, cockles, giant snails and more. Barbecued mussels are a speciality, pepped up with peanuts and spring onions, and the crab claws dry-fried with salt and chilli are another must-eat (pincer them with your fingers then dip them in little saucers of chilli for an extra kick). Also good are delicate clams with lemon grass, ginger and more chilli.
The tour then moves on to Co Ba Vung Tau, an elegant restaurant created from traditional Vietnamese houses and set on Tran Cao Van street in District 3. This is the place to savour Vietnamese pancakes, made with rice flour and coconut water, filled with beansprouts, pork and prawns and eaten in strips that you roll up yourself in mustard and lettuce leaves.
Try, too, bahn khot, mini pancakes that look like slightly squishy vol au vents and come topped with prawns. For post-prandial delights you zoom on to Cooku’s Nest café, where you can enjoy live Vietnamese folk music played to a rapt Saigonese audience over a velvety iced coffee. You will be glad of that caffeine; the tour finishes with a blast of live rock at Woodstock bar in District 3.
A foodie Vespa tour of Ho Chi Minh City features in Rickshaw Travel’s two-night Scooting through Saigon trip. This costs from £198, including accommodation in a city-centre hotel. Combine it with two or more short trips – to the beach, to the Mekong Delta and more – and add on flights (from £378 return, Heathrow to Ho Chi Minh) to build up a week’s itinerary in Vietnam (rickshawtravel.co.uk).
Written by Harriet O’Brien, November 2016