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Saturday, December 3, 2011

XO Tours - Who says tours are for tourists!

Wow.  I mean WOW!  What an amazing night Nick and I had last night.  We got to combine 3 of the things we love.  Vietnam, food and each other!  We have been living here 18 months now and although we absolutely love it, it is very different from theVietnam we first fell in love with about 14 years ago.  I had resigned myself to the fact that that Saigon was gone, lost in Doi Moi and the rapid westernisation  of Vietnams major cities.  In fact, I used to bang on about the "Good Old Days" and probably drove people nuts with "when we first came to Vietnam" stories.  Well, as it turned out, I was looking for my Vietnamese Nirvana in all of the wrong places.  Being an expat it is so easy to fall into western routines.  Our Friday nights are great.  Meet up with friends after work.  Have a few drinks.  Grab a bite to eat at some of the amazing restaurants in town that would not be out of place in New York or Paris.  If you want to see the "real" Vietnam you have to take a road trip to the smaller provinces out of the major cities right?  WRONG!  Enter XO Tours.  
XO tours do motorbike tours around the city with beautiful guides dressed in the traditional Ao Dai.  XO stands for "Xe Om" which are motorbike taxis in Vietnam.  There are many tours to choose from including "The Sights", "Shopping Spree" (very tempting!) and Saigon by night.  We, being...well...us...choose the Foodie tour!  We were picked up from home by the beautiful Anh and Phuong.  Impeccably groomed, fabulous english and impossibly tiny!

Many people get pretty nervous about the thought of getting on a bike here and rightly so.  It can be pretty scary at times.  I have to say though that it really is the best way to see the city.  You are not just sitting looking through a pane of glass, you are amongst the sights, sounds and smells with the wind blowing in your face.  I never feel more alive than when I am on the back of a bike here.

OK, back to the food!  Our fist stop was in District One where I was introduced to my first ever bowl of Bun Bo Hue. It literally translates as "Hue style beef rice vermicelli".
Our dining room.  Atmospheric enough for you?

Eating street food can seem pretty scary at first. If you can overcome any fears you may have your tastebuds will be duly rewarded.


First throw in some shredded banana leaf.
A generous serving of Morning Glory or Vietnamese Water Spinach.

A NOT so generous serving of perhaps the most delicious and HOTTEST chilli sauce I have ever encountered.
And mix it all in with your soup that is full of pork sausage, beef, noodles and lots of lemongrass.  Now Nick is not a soup man but even he was bowled over by this dish.

So why is street food so good?  As was explained to me, the cart owners have been making this dish...and ONLY this dish for years and years and years.  They have absolutely perfected it.  Each cart specialises in their own thing and don't diversify a lot.  It is always a bad sign when you go to a restaurant here, say Italian, and then they have on the last page the "Asian" menu.  Trust me, even though you may be surrounded by white table cloths and background music it 'aint going to be a patch on this.  Give me some honking horns in the background over Richard Clayerdman any day.

So it was back on the bikes and we headed out to District 5, Chinatown.

On the way we passed through a street market.  Everyone here knows that to get the freshest produce you need to get up with the birds and get to the market before the heat of the day sets in.  I often wondered about the workers who just don't have time in the morning.  Well wonder no more.  This place sets up about 4.00pm so people can swing by on their way home and pick up supplies for dinner.

Vietnamese homes are usually very small and often quite full of extended family.  Sometimes there is no kitchen or if there is it is just a very basic gas cooker or charcoal burner.  The majority of Vietnamese people eat out every night.  As was explained to me by Phoung, when you work hard all day, you don't want to come home and cook and then have to do the dishes.  You want to go out, grab a bite then go to a coffee house or sing Karaoke.  Fair point.  I think she is onto something there.




The prices here are per kilogram.  Hows that for a bargain? 50c for a kilo of watermelon!



I have always thought Saigon is at her best at night.  People have finished work and it is time to spend time with family and friends and enjoy life.  The city starts to buzz.  For every shop that closes a night stall or vendor opens.  On the back of a bike you get to peek into the real lives of the people who call it home.  It is a totally different atmosphere to the day.
The impossibly beautiful and friendly Anh.  The girls know so much about their city.

Nick, Phuong, Anh and myself outside Binh Tay market in Cholon.  Cholon literally translates as "Big Market".

Binh Tay is the largest market in Saigon with a fantastic history.  It is a wholesale market where most of the vendors from markets like Ben Tanh come to buy their goods then mark them up as much as 300% to sell to unsuspecting tourists.  I have on occasion been able to persuade some of them to sell me just one item.  Even if you don't intend to buy it's worth visiting for the wow factor.  Ever seen 1000 hats in one stall?  Great photo opportunities! Some 600,000 Cantonese people live in this area.  Apparently during the Vietnam War, US soldiers and deserters set up a thriving black market trading in American and especially US Army issued items.

At night the streets surrounding the market fill with wheeled carts selling rice paper.  The various varieties are packaged up with little packets of dried shrimp, salt, chilli's and cumquats.  Vietnams version of fast food.

As you ride around the area of District 5 & 6, Chinatown, the potent smell of Chinese herbs wafts in the air.  It is a really distinctive aroma.  I love it!

These girls spoilt us rotten.  They were knowledgeable, great bike riders, always smiling and very cheeky!  So much fun!

Friday night was a great night to do the tour.  The streets were alive as we made our way to District 8.



The great escape!

By a sheer stroke of luck we somehow dodged what looked like a massive downpour.  A mere hiccup to the Vietnamese who just pick up where they left off before the rains came.  We arrived in District 8 which is a relatively newly developed area famous for its hotpots and grilled meat.


It wouldn't be Vietnam if there was not a little red plastic chair or two.
...and in Nicks case there literally was two.  Much to the amusement of our hosts, one just wasn't cutting the mustard and protested by folding like a deck of cards.
And of course it's not Vietnam without a portable Karaoke machine.  More on this guy later.





This restaurant is totally local.  It is where your average Vietnamese family go to grab a bite.  We started of with (uncooked as yet in this pic) goats breast and okra in a tofu sauce.

.....with mint!

The girls skilfully grilled the goat to perfection over the hot coals.



While we regale them with stories of how our rotten Vietnamese language skills have both amused and insulted people over the last 18 months.  Over a beer of course!
With ice...as you do.


Add some extra fermented tofu and chilli for dipping and you are good to go.


Don't you love the sound of frogs.....sizzling on the BBQ!  These ones were not actually cooked in front of us which made it a bit easier for me to digest...pun intended.

I wasn't too sure about eating the skin.  Do you think there is a little hospital in Vietnam somewhere where there are lots of little frogs on crutches?  Didn't think so.  Actually, they were quite nice.  You dip them into a chilli salt.  The white meat is very juicy.

Not done yet!  Tom time!


I think the guy in the background has self image issues.  Nick only needed 2 chairs!

We were treated like royalty with the girls even peeling the prawns for us!  But it was time for desert so back on the bikes and off to the old part of District 7.
I walk past places like this every day and never even consider going in.  Let me tell you....that's going to change!
This is called Rau Cau Dua and it is like a coconut jelly.

It doesn't look like it should taste like anything really but looks can be deceiving.  Beautiful rich coconut flavours.

This was my favourite (for now).  It was like a creme brûlée that was covered in shaved ice and fabulous Vietnamese coffee.  Sooooo good.


Yes, this is as much fun as it looks!  And it is not over yet.


Just when we thought we could not possibly stuff another thing in, we headed to District 4 which apparently is famous for its seafood.  Who knew!

I had absolutely no idea this street existed.  Restaurant after restaurant overflowing with all manner of seafood from Vung Tau.


Just like KFC....I think it is the secret herbs and spices that make it so special.


I was so excited doing a little happy dance to have found such treasure that I forgot to ask what this was.  Sorry!




Imagine the juiciest crab you have ever eaten...then imagine it even better.  There you have it.  Look at that chilli!



The traditional dipping sauce here for seafood is a salt/pepper/chilli mixed with fresh lime juice.  At this restaurant they used cumquats instead of lime adding a whole new flavour.

Introducing the stand out dish of the tour.  Scallops (so diep) with peanuts and onions.  You then drizzle a little chilli oil on top and try not to hog the whole plate to yourself.


Closely followed by Razor Clams with morning glory.



Remember Karaoke guy? Well he does the rounds apparently and turned up in D4.  He then transforms himself into Michael Jackson in a motorbike stopping performance of Beat It.



The world is a stage...and so is Vinh Khanh apparently.

Riding home we came across the family saloon out for a Friday night spin.  It was just the perfect moment to sum up our evening.  THIS is Vietnam.  I am almost ashamed to admit that the dish I found hardest to swallow last night was a great big serving of humble pie.  I thought after living here for I while I knew Saigon.  After 5 hours with the girls I know I have not even scratched the surface. The whole concept of XO is not necessarily to take you to the most famous or even the most delicious restaurants.  It is to take you where everybody REALLY goes.  (A bonus to that is that is usually IS the most delicious!)  It is to immerse you in the life that the majority of the people here live.  It is to introduce you to a way of life that we see every day but don't really understand.  It is to be the conduit to go to those places that you always though looked great but were too scared to try on your own.  If you are interested in this tour or any of the others mentioned and to get current prices check out their web page here. For an extra $20 they even have helmets with cameras and will provide you with a DVD of your adventure.  Thank you XO Tours for helping me to find the Saigon I thought had disappeared.  Who says tours are just for tourists!!

9 comments:

  1. WOW Dani! That's amazing! I hope I can get on a motorbike and do a tour with XO too.

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  2. Dan, what an awesome adventure. I would absolutely love that! See you very soon xxx

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  3. Fantastic, I'm in! Heading to XO Tours mid Feb. That was a heap of food, surely not all that was included? How long was that tour? I'm guessing 4 hrs plus? Any response welcome :0)
    Elene

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  4. Hi Elene, Yep....All the food AND the beer too!!! Yes, it goes for about 4 hours. You are going to love it!

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  5. I DEFINITELY WILL TAKE XO TOUR NEXT YEAR AFTER TAKING A YEAR OFF WORK. IT SEEMS FUN.

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  6. Great review and i have signed up too for a foodie tour 2 weeks later.

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  7. Wow! All these foodies are looking very yummy and tasty. Specially, the photos of the sea food you shared are so mouthwatering. I will soon travel to Vietnam and try out all these delicious foodies.

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  8. man, your host was gorgeous. i like to take a tour with her.

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