Before our trip to Vietnam, we’d had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Chef Chad Kubanoff, who was at the time the owner of Same Same (sadly closed now), Philadelphia’s best banh mi restaurant. He had spent a fair amount of time in Ho Chi Minh City as a chef, and had established Back of the Bike tours, a tour company that takes people around on the back of the ubiquitous motorbikes in Saigon. In addition to the other recommendations his wife Thuy gave us, the Back of the Bike food tour was one of the highlights of our trip.
We were picked up at our hotel, were given helmets and quick instructions for the best way to ride on the back of the bikes, and took off. Like trying to cross the street in HCMC, riding on the back of a motorbike in the crowded streets and haphazard traffic was both terrifying and exhilarating. It was quickly apparent that our drivers knew exactly what they were doing, which made it much easier to relax and enjoy the ride (which decidedly did not happen when crossing the street as a pedestrian).
Our first stop was next to a small park, where we sat under a tree and were given a papaya salad with dried beef liver (goi du du bo) that ranks up there with one of the best dishes we’ve ever had. We couldn’t stop raving about it, and still remember it fondly. From what we were told, the woman who makes it put two of her children through American college with the papaya salad sales alone, which I absolutely believe. It was that good.
After a few touristy pictures of us on the bikes, we rode off to a small street vendor serving a variety of meat on sticks, cooked over coals. We sat on the typical tiny plastic stools while we ate, were given beer by our guides, and had a chance to chat. While I was a bit worried the tiny plastic stool wouldn’t be able to withstand my 250-pound American frame, it held up admirably as we ate and chatted with our guides, all while Back of the Bike’s photographer took photos so we wouldn’t have to worry about it.
After this stop, we moved on to a small seafood restaurant deeper in the city. The ride took us through alleyways and small spaces, so we felt like we were chasing down some James Bond villain through the alleys of Ho Chi Minh—a wonderful added bonus to the trip. Our third stop got us banh canh ghe, a wonderful crab soup with plenty of crab and noodles. The presentation was perfect, with the crab looking directly at us as we ate around him. The soup gave us a welcomed sense of warmth on the inside while the small open-front restaurant gave us a not-so-welcome sense of warmth on the outside.
Our penultimate stop was the most interesting by a long shot. We were taken to a street vendor making grilled beef wraps, as well as banh xeo, a crispy rice-batter pancake filled with vegetables and shrimp, which you can combine with more vegetables and wrap in rice paper. We were all given the opportunity to man the cart ourselves, cooking up banh xeo over the incredibly hot skillets—an opportunity I still regret turning down. Afterwards, we all sat around an outside table to enjoy the DIY pancakes, along with some homemade rice wine (served in plastic water bottles) and the opportunity to try balut.
For those who aren’t familiar, balut is the egg that has been given the change to grow a small chicken fetus before being eaten. The egg was cracked open and we could see the shadow of the chicken inside, along with some veins throughout the egg, and even a tiny feather. At this stop, the tummy struggled I’d had that started in Hoi An were catching up to me with all the eating, so I declined. LeeAnne tasted the liquid that came out of the egg and said it tasted like chicken stock, and had a nibble of the egg “white.”
Also, lest you think I’m just trying to make an excuse for not eating the egg, let me be perfectly clear and admit that I wanted no part in eating it, stomach problems or not. As much as I will eat, balut has never interested me. And I wasn’t alone: I think LeeAnne was the only person to even try the egg liquid, let alone any part of it; everyone else declined.
After this excitement, we were taken to a small restaurant for five dishes of dessert, which heavily featured fresh fruit and ice cream—a cold treat that was incredibly welcomed in the southern Vietnam heat. Though, as welcome as it was, no many of us could continue eating after the filling two hours we’d just had.
Even if we had been given a list of all the places to go, getting there and knowing what to order would have taken us multiple nights rather than the two hours it did take. The guides were incredibly knowledgeable and personable, and were a treat to spend time with. The Back of the Bike food tour was easily the highlight of our time in Ho Chi Minh City, and we would highly recommend it to anyone stopping there.