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Vespa Adventures delivers on food, fun and originality in Saigon

Vespa Adventures delivers on food, fun and originality in Saigon

Stepping out into the scooter-swarmed streets of Saigon feels like a dice with death. The heaving volume of motorbikes weave an elaborate dance; seemingly chaotic but beautifully synchronized. So naturally I jumped at the chance to get the inside perspective and boldly stepped forward to join the riotous mass on a Vespa Adventures tour. This could be considered motorbiking-lite but is thrilling enough to get a decent kick from, especially if you aren’t a regular on two wheels. Vespa Adventures do a variety of tours but our group opted for the foodie night tour of Saigon. It’s rather long (4.5 hours) and not cheap (90 USD) but my word it is worth it.

Vespa Adventures Saigon Night Tout
Vespa Adventures Saigon Night Tour

We were collected from Thao Dien on five restored vintage Vespas by our smiley and reassuringly experienced drivers. One or two of our group went for the Dutch courage approach and swung confidently on board whilst the rest of us clambered on awkwardly, all dignity left at the door. Once we’d made it on, 20 minutes of pure scooter joy ensued until we arrived at the Zoom Cafe in District 1. This first drink at the cafe feels a little ‘tourey’ due to the swathes of other Vespa adventurers, but the groups disband after this, taking different routes so that you are sort of doing your own thing.

Our grinning group were introduced to our guide, Hanh, as we sat down for a drink on the pavement outside and barraged her with questions about how this all works. Hanh explained that the company was started by an American with a passion for Vespas and has now expanded to offering different adventures across several Southeast Asian cities; the Saigon food tour alone consistently taking about 70-120 people per evening.

Enough of that and off we went for another 20 minutes of Vespa exhilaration, complete with a ‘roadie’ beer which I tried very hard not to spill down my drivers back. We whizzed along wide, glittering bridges and snaked through narrow backstreets; swerving hawkers and pavement beer drinkers. Our small legion stuck closely together, taking our place within the mighty throng of motorbikes which pour through Saigon’s streets like blood pulsing through the veins of the city.

Local street food kitchen preparing fresh dishes for our tour
Local street food kitchen preparing fresh dishes on our tour

We arrived in District 3 at a street which Hanh told us was famous for seafood and mafia. At our first street side plastic table we were brought out a range of local, fresh and utterly delicious dishes. Steamed lemongrass clams and mussels were served with fresh rice noodles. The grand finale was ‘jumping chicken’ which Hanh delightedly explained was the Vietnamese way of describing frogs. We tried not to think about how large these Vietnamese toads must be to produce such substantial trotters – if you are adventurous enough to try them then you will be rewarded with succulent meat which tasted just like lightly fried chicken.

Hanh sat with us throughout, helpfully explaining the food and anything else we wanted to know about Saigon. The designated conversationalist of our group took great pleasure in covering a wide range to topics with her, from marriage in Vietnam to her thoughts on Donald Trump. Hanh graciously indulged us.

Vietnamese pancakes and fresh spring rolls
Vietnamese pancakes and fresh spring rolls

Next stop was a back alley open air restaurant famous for its savory pancakes stuffed with pork, prawn and beansprouts. Hanh showed us how to break up and wrap the crispy crepes in various herbs and leaves. These were good but we agreed the least impressive dish on our adventure. Here we also tried deliciously fresh and herby prawn rolls as well as a fragrant beef roll which we compiled from scratch, even wetting the dried discs of rice paper ourselves. All of this was accompanied by lashings of cold beer.

The food was very plentiful and tasty at both stops but we also found ourselves sneakily looking forward to getting back into our Vespas at every stop. Knowing the city, we could see that the routes taken were not the most direct but this is all designed so that you can enjoy scooting round the Saigon’s most famous sights and atmospheric streets.

Our third stop was a tiny candlelit bohemian bar wedged down an alley and up some stairs, with a sense of nostalgia nodding to the French colonial era; it’s the kind of place that’s very hard to find without being taken there. The velvety twinkling room revealed a pianist and singer half way through a dramatic Vietnamese love song. This was surreal and a dramatic change in tempo to the night, but deeply captivating. A couple of local songs gave way to Adele covers, which I’m sure were for the benefit of all the Vespa tourists but were very charming and amusing at the same time.

Vespa Adventures Saigon Night Tour
Vespa Adventures Saigon Night Tour

A short ride away, the final stop was a loud rock bar, clearly aimed at pleasing tipsy adventurers looking to up the tempo. It was again quite a departure in tone from the last stop. It seemed to me that the tour was trying to tick a lot of boxes so that there was something for every taste. On the plus side there was great variation and it felt like a night of many vibes, but if candlelit bars or loud music aren’t your thing then you may feel differently.

The tour is more expensive than other scooter tours but it is incredibly well researched, planned to perfection, and the food is excellent. To top this all off, our intelligent, informative and friendly guide, Hanh, simply made the trip for us. All in all I can’t think of a single person I know who wouldn’t love Vespa adventures foodie night tour. The visitors said that it was the highlight of their trip to Saigon and the thing that they would still be talking about in a year. At the risk of gushing, for me the experience gave me a strong rush of love of the city that is now my home, and provided a huge dose of fun-factor for my guests. The tour is, in my opinion, currently one the most original, exciting and interesting things you can do in Saigon.

www.vespaadventures.com

 

24 Hours in Ho Chi Minh

24 Hours in Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still call it, is a rising Asian star sprawling across the Mekong delta. The mammoth river meanders past both glitzy new skyscrapers and clusters of low thatched huts, marking this diverse city’s intoxicating mix of old and new worlds. Motorbikes and scooters swarm through the streets of Saigon carrying families of five, portable street kitchens and even wide-screen TVs.

The French influence lingers in the tree-lined boulevards and colonial buildings of District 1, as well as the abundance of baguettes which are sold and scoffed on every street corner. Saigon hasn’t historically ranked up there with the big boys of Asia – Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai – but it has so much going for it; vibrant, foodie, fast, ambitious, and incredibly good value.

24 hours is not long to take in all that Saigon has to offer, so these are my recommendations on getting the most out of your visit.

Pho for breakfast

pho

Vietnam’s beloved national dish is best sampled at breakfast time (as the locals do), once you get over any preconceptions about eating savoury noodle soup first thing in the morning. Delicious bowls of the fragrant broth are served from hole-in-the-wall style cafes on every street corner – usually the more basic the cafe, the better the pho. You can order ‘pho tai’ (rare beef) if you only have one chance to try it, but there is a choice of different toppings if that doesn’t whet your appetite. True to most Vietnamese food, pho  comes with a small garden on the side for you to customise your bowl. At a local style cafe, if you pay more than 40,000 VND (2 USD) then you are paying too much. The best way to find somewhere for pho is simply to walk a few blocks, wherever you are in the city, and take a seat…likely on a plastic stool, but it will be worth it.

The War Remnants Museum

Saigon’s war museum tops most lists of things to do in the city, and is a must-see even for museum-averse travellers. Chronicling the ‘American War’, as the Vietnamese understandably refer to it, the museum is a harrowing overview of the atrocities of Vietnam’s recent history. Inside the museum, stories are told mostly through an extensive collection of horrifying photographs, but there are also preserved prison cells and some deeply disturbing torture paraphernalia on display, as well as original tanks, weapons, Chinook helicopters and aircraft outside the museum. The museum has admittedly been accused of portraying a rather one-sided picture of the war, but its likely you will have already seen some arguably biased American films about the Vietnam war before your visit, so I recommend just taking it all in and with a pinch of salt.

Lunch on the Mekong river

the-deck

After the war museum, take some light relief by grabbing lunch on the Mekong river. A 15 minute taxi from the centre of District 1 will take you to the tranquility of The Deck in Thao Dien. If so inclined, ask your hotel to call the restaurant and organise for their boat to collect you from District 1. This way to can also squeeze in a Mekong boat trip, and arrive at the restaurant in style; disembarking your boat on a jetty at the front of the restaurant – not for those who prefer to remain inconspicuous. If you choose to take a taxi, driving through Thao Dien you will find an unashamedly expat enclave, with trendy bars, gourmet super markets and some ridiculously large villas to ogle at. True to its name, at The Deck you can escape the heat and hustle of Saigon with some upmarket lunching on a beautiful wooden deck overlooking the river. The Deck’s menu is skewed towards fish and seafood, but there are plenty of options to suit all tastes. Try the duck pancakes, the pork belly dumplings and the Phu Quoc prawn rolls. The restaurant also has a wide selection of wine, including a very decent pale rose, if that’s your poison.

Colonial sights and roof bar hopping

Make your way back to District 1 to take a leisurely tour of the beautiful buildings, interspersed with stops at the most old-school of drinking holes. All of these spots are just a few minutes walk from each other so by foot is definitely the way to go. Start at the Notre Dame Cathedral, where you can also see the very grand old post office located in the same square. The interior of the post office is interesting, with its preserved colonial telephone booths and a looming painting of Ho Chi Minh overlooking the parcels and packaging counters.  From here, head towards the roof of the Rex Hotel for a drink. Everything about the Rex is very dated (including the elevators which look like the perfect spot for a 1970s James Bond villain to pounce), but the views down the central promenade make for good people-watching. Occasionally you can catch unassuming pedestrians getting soaked by the fountains which sporadically spurt water up from the pavement below. Once refreshed, head up to the City Hall and then round the corner to the old opera house, a beautiful building next to the Intercontinental Hotel, where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American during the war. Finish at the Caravelle Hotel’s Saigon Saigon roof bar for a gin & tonic. This leafy bar is where the newspaper correspondents gathered during the war to exchange information, stories and of course to drink heavily.

Food and sights on a Vespa

vespa-tour

This may sound daunting but a vesper tour is undoubtedly the way to experience Saigon as it’s meant to be done. Jump on the back of a scooter to take in the sights and immerse yourself in the glorious chaos of the city’s streets. If you choose Vespa Adventures night-time foodie tour, an experienced driver will whizz your group around various eating and drinking locations to sample the some of the best Vietnamese food. This is a great way to try a number of renowned local dishes if you have limited time in the city. Make sure you are hungry – there is a lot to eat, even for the greediest of foodies. This tour isn’t cheap (around 90 USD) but if you take into account that you aren’t spending money on a restaurant dinner, and you’re getting a thrilling tour of the city by night, it’s worth the expense. People of all ages and sizes do different scooter tours so don’t be put off if you think you are too old or awkward to get on the back of a vespa. This unique tour will tick boxes for everyone – foodies, thrill-seekers and culture vultures.

After-hours

If you want to sample some of Saigon’s night life in one night only, then start by hitting Pham Ngu Lao street for some of the cheapest beers you can find these days. This area is buzzing with backpackers and hawkers. Its not for everyone but its an experience and at the very least a cheap drink. If you have the energy, head to Apocalypse Now, Saigon’s most famous night club, where travellers and locals come together to dance and drink. It reminds me a little of a cheesy club from university days, but if you choose to embrace the vibe then you can definitely have fun dancing the night away here.

24 hours should give you a good taste of what Saigon is about, but to really get under the city’s skin you need to experience the many layers and dimensions of this wonderfully challenging city. There are many things which don’t quite function properly in Saigon but, like an old drunken friend who often gets it wrong, you forgive these misdemeanors for its endless energy and charm.

 

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