We landed at night, from a rainy Hong Kong that averaged around 17 degrees C. Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as it's more commonly known) blasted at us at 36 degrees, meaning that just stepping out of the airport broke us into instant sweats. It was the epitome of culture shock; taxis tried to lure us from every direction, tugging at our bags, shouting over to us. The money was confusing and full of zeros (30,000 dong to the pound) and traffic was chaos. Everyone drives a scooter in Saigon, and the sheer volume of them, beep-beeping away was overwhelming.
We stayed in an Air BnB right in the middle of backpacker land, in District 1. Have you been to the Khao San Road in Bangkok? It reminded me of that. Music pumped from the bars, and just walking down the street elicited people thrusting their wares at us, shouting prices, keen for attention. We were shell-shocked. We dumped our bags and headed immediately for a foot massage. Recommended by The Legal Nomads, we made our way over to Kien Chi Gia Foot Massage, 20 minutes away on foot, but this itself was no trifling matter.
How do you cross the road? There are no zebra or pelican crossings. We had to do what the locals were doing - just walk out into the road, head up, with confidence and sure enough the scooters go around you. It goes against absolutely everything you were taught about road safety. An old lady took us by the hand and led us across, smirking. We were told later to make sure you don't make eye contact when you cross the streets - this confuses the drivers as to what your intention is. Just go. By the time we got to the massage place we were jibbering wrecks. Led to a darkened room with rows of leather seats, all taken up by silent customers, the foot massage was incredible. The back and shoulder combo also - but be warned, it does feel a little bit like being beaten up. They're not messing.
We attempted to go to Com Nieu Sai Gon, much lauded by Anthony Bourdain and said to be one of the best restaurants in Saigon, but when we got there we discovered it was a rickety old shack that was decidedly shut. We later learned we were at the wrong one, and so we went to the correct restaurant on our stopover before heading north - verdict? Don't bother. Stick to the streets.
Back to the present, with stomachs grumbling in a foreign land, we wandered around some very quiet streets and came across an absolutely giant restaurant, lined with fish tanks with all sorts of crustaceans. We jumped on a table. We soon realised that we were the only women customers in a restaurant full of raucously drunk men. After trying to up-sell us onto foreign beer and offering us seafood by the kilo, we knew we had to stand our ground with the waitresses and very firmly picked dishes from the menu with obvious prices. Hunger made us determined and blind to the stares. Steamed lemongrass clams were sweet and free from grit, finished with healthy bunch of basil used more like a vegetable than a herb.
Tiny baby shrimps stir-fried were to be the innards of summer rolls, assembled by ourselves. A red-faced man from a nearby table came to try to persuade us to join him and his friends, swaying on his feet and sloshing a beer around. We decided it was time to retire to the air-conditioned haven of home.
The next morning, we had better success with finding our establishment of choice, Pho Thanh Canh. They've been serving pho for 45 years, and we didn't even have to ask before they furnished us with two bowls of steaming pho (pronounced 'fuh') with slices of beef, a giant basket of herbs, limes, chillis and beansprouts. I can't think of a better breakfast. It seems counter-intuitive to eat hot soup in such heat, but actually it makes you sweat more, thereby allowing you to cool down quicker. Whatever, I'm down with it. Pick a bit of herb for your mouthful, slurp it down, repeat. Sawleaf and basil are in abundance, again more like a vegetable than a garnish that we often associate with herbs. The broth was crystal clear and beefy, the note of aniseed shining through. It was properly restorative. It cost around £1.
After a sweaty morning exploring the Independence Palace we went off in search of Banh Mi Huynh Hoa, reportedly the best banh mi in the city. It was closed. Unlike the rest of the city, who seem to eat lunch anywhere between 11am and 1pm, Banh Mi Huynh Hoa opens at 2pm into the night. Those delicious filled sandwiches would have to wait. Instead, we headed for a hole-in-the-wall filled with office workers, all sitting down to more noodle soups.
Here, the herb basket was more of a salad, with slivers of banana blossom, mint leaves and chopped lettuce on each table. The noodles we had were bun cha ca (bun referring to the round noodles, ca being fish) and were made up of balls of minced prawn and fishcakes, sliced into the soup. We were having a brothy day.
That evening, we were picked up by XO Street Tours for their night-time 'foodie' tour. We were drawn to this tour in particular as they advertise that they're the only operator to have accident insurance, and I love a bit of insurance, me. They're also all-female drivers, if that is the sort of thing that swings your decision-making. We jumped on the back of the scooters, white knuckles gripping on really tight as we weaved our way through the traffic. I was pretty certain of imminent death, but weirdly once you're immersed into the traffic it all just seems to make sense. The scooters flow around the pedestrians, and everyone is going slowly enough to be able to react.
Our first stop was bun bo hue, a spicy beef noodle soup, while we met the other people on the trip. Here, the garnishes offered were more sophisticated than we were used to; a rich, dark chilli sauce, slivered banana blossom, and shredded greens.
Wary of not filling up too soon, we abandoned our noodle soups 3/4s of the way through and jumped back onto the scooters. Our guides took us to the Chinatown market, and shimmied us through the open air stalls selling vegetables, fruit, meat and seafood. Just past sunset, it was full of people buying groceries, vendors yelling prices, transactions reached over from scooter to scooter. At each stop our guide talked us through which district we were in, and what it was known for, so we really got a feel for each of the districts we visited, something impossible to do by foot. We visited the posher District 3, where the apartments are new and shiny, as well as the poorer District 4 in stark contrast. Eventually, we stopped at a huge open-air barbecue restaurant, and small charcoal burning stoves were placed on the tables.
We were not to do any cooking ourselves, and instead our scooter drivers diligently cooked up the food for us, describing what each thing was and how to eat it. It was here we discovered 'fish herb', Diep Cá in Vietnamese, here wrapping the grilled goat. We were told it is an acquired taste; it is not a taste I have acquired. It's disgusting. It's hard to describe, but it's slightly fishy, a bit metallic. From this point on we often found it lurking in dishes and one bite of it is enough to ruin a mouthful and have me reaching for water. Foul stuff.
We were given plates of grilled frog, complete with crisp skin, which tastes just like chicken with fish skin attached to it. We got stuck in but others weren't going near it. Skewers of prawns were barbecued and dextrously relieved of their shells with scissors, for us to eat like lollipops off the stick.
Back onto the scooters we went, over a busy bridge to District 5 for seafood. On the way my driver asked me if I'd like to try balut, a speciality of Vietnam (called trung vit long) and the Philippines. I knew exactly what it was and I knew exactly that my stubbornness would mean that yes I would have to try it. She had me in a bind. Firstly though, we had tiny barbecued scallops dressed with fish sauce, peanuts and coriander. Crab legs cooked on the barbecue were cracked open by our drivers and handed to us to dip in black pepper, salt and lime juice; it felt a bit weird to be effectively be fed morsels but I can understand that it might be intimidating for some. Still, I like to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in.
I couldn't put it off for much longer. The steaming balut was placed before me and everyone peered at me expectantly. Balut is a duck egg which has been fertilised and the duck has started to grow inside it before being eaten by people like me. I tapped the shell open and was instructed to drink the 'soup' accumulated in the top - barf - which just tasted like eggy salty water. You could see the duck feather fronds in the egg whites. I had a mouthful or two but it really just tasted like a very eggy egg with some texture to it.
We had more clams here, this time in lemongrass and spicy tamarind broth. I loved these, they were spicy but sweet and the broth was incredibly moreish.
Besides shaved ice drinks with jellies and tapioca in them, I'm not sure Vietnamese desserts are up to much. This was coconut jelly, and we also had a caramel flan. We were offered more food, which I certainly would have gone for if they had been different to what we'd already eaten but for much of the same, I was satisfied. We really enjoyed the tour; afterwards it felt like Saigon made a lot more sense to us instead of the heaving, confusing mass it had been when we first got there.
I'll admit it though, I still breathed a slight sigh of relief when we packed up to go flop on the beach the next day.
(At the other end of the country, my compadre Helen wrote about 24 Hours in Hanoi - well worth a read)