The back of a motorbike is the only way to really see Ho Chi Minh City. We had booked a food tour and I had neglected to mention the ‘back of a motorbike’ part to Mark until we were waiting outside the hotel. After a couple of days navigating the roads of Saigon, stepping out into the street and letting hundreds of motorbikes zoom around us like a school of fish, he wasn’t entirely happy at the prospect.
However, when two Vietnamese girls in traditional Ao Dai – silken dresses – rode up to our hotel, beaming at us, Mark completely forgot his fear of Saigon traffic and donned the motorbike helmet without a second glance in my direction. We sped through the streets, the city air whipping at my face.
The first stop was a typical clattery old cart with squat plastic chairs and tables littering a side-street of District 1. Tender beef in a thin but flavourful soup was set in front of us as we chatted to our guides about life in Saigon. We prodded bean sprouts and coriander into our dishes. Pho would become a familiar sight and smell for the rest of our stay in Saigon.
Streets that had seemed slow-paced and laid back during the day crackled to life as night fell. Back on the motorbikes we passed make-shift pavement stalls where sheets piled with crockery, spices, toys and clothes were manned by old women cawing at passers-by. We got lost in a huddle of motorbikes waiting at a red light. Entire families perched on one rusty old bike, people transporting flowers, livestock, sheets of metal and even doors all waited for the light to blaze green.
We arrived at the thriving hub of District 8, where there’s a five story karaoke bar on every corner. A sprawl of squat plastic street furniture cluttered around a vast concrete space that might have functioned as a car park during the day. We were seated at one of the tables amidst Saigonians all reclining happily, empty Ba Ba Ba cans littering their tiny tables. It felt like real nightlife – laughter and fast-paced chatter punctuated by wailing karaoke floating across the car park on the humid night air. We roasted goat, frog and squid with chopsticks on make-shift barbeques at the table and screeched “Mok, Thai, Ba, YO!” while clinking our cans of beer together. Not for the first time in Vietnam, I found myself being spoon (or rather, chopstick) fed by eager locals, even lifting my beer to my mouth and making me drink. The whole ordeal was fast-paced, messy and left Mark and I smiling.
District 7 was a small respite between force-feedings, a world away from the constant peep-peep of motorbike horns. Single cables thread like string through telegraph poles looked almost alien compared to the clumps of black electricity and phone wires of Central Saigon. A Seven Eleven, Starbucks and even a Domino’s Pizza dominated the rubbish-free main street. Quiet young Vietnamese students lounged in couples on the grass. This was, of course, Expat Land. It was as though we were in a completely different city, more like Singapore than Vietnam. There was more local fare to try and another district most unlike this one to visit, so we hopped back on the motorbikes and headed back towards the bright lights of the centre.
The final food stop on our journey was in District 4; a hive of activity after the silence of District 7. Down the main street, stalls serving all forms of seafood lined the road. Teenagers danced to ‘Gangnam Style’ blasting from 1980’s style boomboxes strapped to the back of their parked motorbikes. Brave from the Ba Ba Ba, we shouted encouragement from our table as we were served fresh scallops in their shells, dripping with lime, ginger and chilli. Plates of whole cooked crabs covered with deep red dust were delivered next and we happily cracked open the claws, slurping up the meat inside while the chilli powder tickled our noses.
Completely full and with a pleasant beer buzz, I watched the lights of central Ho Chi Minh zip past as the motorbike crossed a traffic-heavy bridge. Bustling night markets teemed below with no sign of shutting even though the clock had drifted past midnight.