I emerged from my one hour massage to find that it had ran over about 15 minutes. This would usually be a pleasant surprise, but I had to be at the meeting point for my first Vietnam street food tour in just 15 minutes, (5:00pm). It was also now raining outside, so the masseuse suggested I stay for tea. I let her know I needed to get going for a tour, threw my jean jacket over my head and embarked out into the rain. I was wearing a new dress that I had bought in Bali that I was a big fan of, but I did not have time to change out of it.
My tour’s meeting point was at the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum. I had no idea what to expect, as I had just booked this thing on Tripadvisor two days earlier. I saw one Vietnamese man wearing a backpack standing right outside the museum and when I approached he hollered “Kasey?”. He was my tour guide. His name was Tan and he spoke excellent English.
Tan told me that he was surprised that I showed up because of the rain and I let him know that I lived in New Orleans for 5 years, so a little rain does not bother me at all. Tan then let me know that the rest of the tour had rescheduled because of the rain, so it would be just me for the entire 3-hour evening tour. I was actually looking forward to meeting some new people, but still considered myself lucky to have someone so knowledgeable about Vietnamese culture at my fingertips for three hours.
As we approached our first stop the rain had already started to subside. We started to walk inside a restaurant that I would normally never even consider eating at. They had some food on display at the entrance where I saw fried claws from what I think was a chicken and immediately thought, “oh no, what did I get myself into”… however, the food that was eventually served was authentic and inviting to all of the senses. We were served a noodle dish called Banh Canh with squid and chicken. Tan told me that Banh Canh noodles are a food that you can only get in Vietnam. These noodles are like a sister to the Japanese Udon, but are a little more transparent in color.
Tan showed me how to properly add the table chili into the soup and then put some lime into the saucer of salt and pepper which I would then dip the chicken into. I loved the chili and Tan was impressed by how much I added into all of my meals that night. Again, thank you Louisiana.
Tan also let me know that no one would speak English anywhere we went that night, so he taught me a few Vietnamese sayings:
Xin Chao (prounounced “Sin-Chow”): Hello
Com on (pronounced “kumon”): Thank You
Tam Biet (prounounced “Tom-Bet”): Goodbye
Yo / Dzo (prounounced “YO”): Cheers
Not trying to brag, but Tan said that I was really good at remembering these. He said that most people in his tour groups can never remember these sayings. Little tip: write them down in your phone’s notes right away.
Just like the first stop, I would have never stopped at the second one if I was on my own. It resembled a popcorn machine stand, but instead of popcorn inside the glass there were whole ducks hanging cooked to a crisp.
The name of this stand is called “2 CHI EM” which means “Two Sisters”. It is ran by, you guessed it, two sisters. They own a free-range duck farm where the ducks live really nice lives (or so I was told) and about 30 are harvested and sold every day. This stand is so popular with the locals that they only have to stay open from 2:30pm to 7:30pm each day to meet the daily 30. After scarfing down half a duck pretty much all on my own, I could see why.
This was probably my favorite meal of the night. Thanks to years of duck-hunting with my previous employer, I have had a lot of duck and this was the best duck I have ever tasted. The skin was crispy, but the meat remained tender. The sauce was flavorful, but not too salty or overpowering. And the accompaniments were simple, but all you really needed.
Side note: At this stand is where I informed Tan about my history of duck hunting. From the duck dogs, to the buckshot, I explained the entire sport to him. This was the first time that night that I saw his eyes light up with surprise and utter amusement, but it would not be the last time I saw this look (which brought a huge smile to my face every single time I saw it).
I’m relieved to say that we did NOT eat at our third stop. I’m very open to trying something one time, but if Tan had said we were eating here I likely would have refused.
Pictured below are a variety of eggs, but they’re nothing like what would ever be served where I’m from. Let’s start with the black eggs on the bottom right…
Pictured here below are what the Vietnamese call “100 year old eggs”. They are buried underground for about three weeks in things like ash and salt to ferment. After several weeks, they are dug up and sold packaged like you see here. Tan told me that they smell horrible when they are cracked open (shocker) but if you can stomach them they are very good for digestion. I’ll stick to Kombucha…
If you thought the black eggs were gross, oh just wait… the seemingly normal and white eggs pictured below are called Balut eggs (usually duck eggs). These eggs have been fertilized and incubated until a baby bird/duck is formed. In case you need that to be simplified: These eggs contain bird fetuses that will hatch into cute little baby birds if they’re not cooked. The Vietnamese (and a few other cultures) will buy and boil these eggs and then eat the fetuses whole. Tan said the purpose of eating Balut eggs is to “make man stronger”. Mmm tempting, but I’ll stick to yoga…
Stop number four was a mini break from food at “H Coffee”. Here we sipped on coconuts and water and digested for a few minutes. We also used their WiFi and bathroom, which Tan called the “happy room”.
When we approached H Coffee Tan made a noise like “whack whack” which sounded like a goofy duck call. I had heard him do this at a few places that we passed, so I asked him what it signified. He said that it means “I’m here” or “I’m coming”. I then asked if he wanted to hear my duck call and, of course, his answer was yes. I cusped my hands together and did the duck call that my dad taught me at age seven as loudly and as best as I could. I’m not going to lie, it was very realistic. Tan immediately got that beguiled look that I love and the men sitting inside all started to hoot and holler in laughter. I think we were both entertained for most of the night.
Then it was on to more food. The next street food indulgence was a small stand with no name. Tan said that this is a vegetarian stand that is so good and well-known by the locals that it doesn’t even need a name.
First, Tan showed me how to make the dipping sauce: He poured some soy sauce-looking liquid into the small saucer as the base, then added some chili sauce and pickled carrot and radish. Tan explained to me that the base is made by boiling soy sauce and pineapple together in a pot until the pineapple totally dissolves. The end result of putting all of these ingredients together is a sweet, salty and spicy sauce. It was super good and I will attempt to make this one day.
This vegetarian meal is called “Botchien” and Tan said that it’s an ironically funny name to the locals because “chien” is French for “dog”. My knowledgeable guide then let me know that a law to ban the sale of dog meat in Vietnam is expected to be passed in 2020. For the record: No dogs were eaten on this tour. Cats though, yes. Just kidding… I’m allergic.
I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t have enjoyed this simple and delightful vegetarian meal. It was basically just Vietnamese sweet potato (different than an orange sweet potato) cooked together with eggs and topped with chives. The sauce definitely made the meal though.
My tour price included all of my meals for the night, so I have no idea what the actual cost of everything I ate was, except for stop #6. As you can see on the sign, it says “25.000/Phan” which means 25,000 Dong per share. This is equivalent to about $1 USD. As you can see in the last picture, it was a pretty generous serving too.
I had told Tan that I was not a huge fan of eating pork, for many reasons, so he asked the man to only serve us the shrimp dumblings (orange). Apparently the yellow and white dumplings contained pork. I was impressed he remembered and I was perfectly happy with just the shrimp.
Where we went: Hoa Bo La Lat Mo Chai (this is the only place I have included as a “where we went” because I was able to find a video online about the exact food that we ate).
By this point, I was full. Stuffed even. But we still had one more stop and my guide seemed very excited about this one. Tan said that this place would offer the best barbecue pork in Vietnam, so I agreed to eat it.
First we approached a man cooking by himself on the side of the street. As you will see below, he keeps a fan in front of the food as a way of “advertising” his delectable cooking to passerbyers. I learned that this is a common form of street food advertisement in Ho Chi Minh City.
We watched this man grill for a few minutes before walking across the street to where we would sit down to enjoy his finished product. Before crossing, Tan pointed out who the boss of the joint was and said that they called her “Auntie”. She was an older woman who had silver hair pulled back into a ponytail, a welcoming smile and kind eyes. She sat right in the middle of all of her patrons and it was pretty clear that she was in charge as she intently watched over her guests.
Pictured above is our platter of make-your-own spring rolls. The method of doing this was portrayed nicely in the video link I shared above, but I’m also working on uploading a video of Tan teaching me. The drinks on the right were a Vietnamese classic called Kumquat Tea. It is made with cumquote fruit, sugar cane and green tea. The small saucer on the right that is perched up on the lettuce was filled with seasoned beef wrapped in betel leaf and was super good. The small saucer on the right was the BBQ pork that Tan was raving about and, as he promised, it was packed with flavor. The other ingredients on the platter (going clockwise) were noodle wrapping paper with diced chives on top, bean sprouts, sliced cucumber, iceberg lettuce and a very hefty amount of mint leaves. The saucer on the far left was a mild and sweet chili dipping sauce.
This is the only stop on the tour that beer is offered. Tan told me that one time he had a young American guy in his group who guaranteed that he could drink two beers in less than 10 seconds. Not a single Vietnamese person at the restaurant believed that he could do it, so they all gathered around. His method for accomplishing this was a well-known United States frat-boy drinking method called “shotgunning” but Tan said that none of the locals had ever heard of this, so they all whipped out their cameras. The American boy did just as he said and downed two beers in 9 seconds. Tan got that look again while he was telling the story and you could tell by his enthusiasm that that was a very fun night that will remain fresh in his memory for years to come. He even went as far as to say that this ‘shotgunner’ was almost famous there now. If I hadn’t been so damn full I would’ve told him to give me two beers and 8 seconds and make me a Saigon Celeb.
This was a very special night that I will never forget. It was the absolute perfect way to start my Vietnam trip and I am so grateful that I had a night with Tan as my own personal tour guide!
If you are ever in Ho Chi Minh City, book directly with Tan by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org