Somehow, after 10 years of full-time slow travel, we had not yet been to Vietnam. That all changed this year when we decided to spend 3 weeks there.
As we didn’t have a lot of time (by our usual standards), plus the fact that our visit would be during Tet (Vietnam’s lunar new year celebration), we decided to stick to the south and central regions. Our trip included Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Da Nang and Hoi An.
We flew into Saigon with Air Asia (a fabulous airline, btw) and spent 4 days exploring the city. Friends had given us their personal tips and advice on visiting Vietnam and there were two things that came up in every conversation: “The traffic and the food in Saigon will blow your mind!”
Not only was this an accurate description, but we also managed to marry these two qualities with one of the best food tours we’ve ever experienced. The provider of this epic foodie adventure was Saigon 2CV Tour. We spent four glorious hours touring the city in a gorgeous vintage car with a very skilled driver and a lovely and knowledgeable food guide.
Choosing a Saigon Food Tour
Whenever we visit a new city, there are two things we always do: take a guided tour and a food tour. A guided tour is especially important if you don’t have a lot of time. It provides a good overview of the city and helps with the decision of where to spend some of your precious hours. A food tour is a must for foodies, of course, but we also recommend it to every type of traveler because it usually gives an insight into the local culture. In most countries, food and culture are intertwined.
Again, Saigon 2CV gave us a double treat by driving us all over the city at night while showing us the local culture and giving us a taste of all the delicious food. We felt like celebrities cruising around in our blue vintage convertible Citroen La Dalat, which literally turned heads.
But we also felt a bit like locals (despite being the only non-locals in most places) as we stopped at popular street food spots to share a bite with students, couples and families. It was such a treat to go to places that we would never have found on our own and certainly wouldn’t have dared drive ourselves to.
When we choose a tour, we always ask other travelers for suggestions and do a lot of research ourselves. The top things we look for in a tour are good reviews (personal and online), a well-thought-out itinerary and something that stands out from all the other tours.
For a Saigon food tour, we did consider a motorcycle tour, as that did tick all the boxes and sounded like a ton of fun. However, it appeared that everyone did motorcycle tours, so when we came across the unique Saigon 2CV, we knew we’d found our match.
Where We Went
The big, busy city of Ho Chi Minh is divided into 24 districts (19 city districts and 5 suburban districts). Most short-term visitors to Saigon will stay and spend their time in District 1. District 3 attracts those looking for a quieter, less touristy experience, while District 4 is good for longer stays as there are more Airbnb-type options.
With the Saigon 2CV Street Food Discovery Night Tour, you will taste your way around popular Districts 1, 3 and 4. Plus, you will venture into District 10, where you’ll likely be the only non-local. Each stop will offer a different atmosphere and different food, but you will never find yourself eating in westernized restaurants or at touristy spots.
This is an authentic street food tour that will feed your mind and heart along with your stomach. So make sure you leave all these things wide open and ready to be filled with an unforgettable experience.
In addition, the tour route takes you past many of the top sights in Ho Chi Minh City. Even if you have already visited them or plan to, it’s a completely different experience at night with all the lights and thousands of motorbikes zipping by.
What We Ate
Another great thing about this Saigon food tour is that your guide will give you options while making sure you’re well-fed. We are pretty adventurous eaters with almost no special food restrictions. But if you’re a bit more particular or have things you can’t or won’t eat, don’t worry; they will do their very best to accommodate you without making you feel like you’re missing out.
Having said that, we’ve learned through years of travel and dozens of food tours that stepping out of our comfort zone is the best way to create those memories that last forever. Even if we’d never do it or eat it again!
On that note, we have to say that our guide was an expert at getting us to taste new things, even when we were a bit reluctant. There was one item in particular that I swore I would never eat. Can you guess from the following list which one it was?
Sugarcane and Cumquat Juice
Sugarcane juice is quite popular in Southeast Asia so we had tasted it before. To be honest, up to this point, I wasn’t a fan. I found it overly sweet and with an aftertaste I couldn’t get past.
But the drink was in my hands before I had time to protest, and being a polite British/Canadian, I took a tentative sip. It was absolutely delicious and refreshing! I can only think it was the addition of cumquat juice that balanced the flavor to my taste.
Fresh Spring Rolls
We enjoyed two types of spring rolls in Vietnam: fresh and fried. The two are drastically different, as you can imagine. Although the crispy fried ones are absolutely delicious, they’re not the healthiest option.
You’ve probably tasted some version of a fried spring roll; they’re like Chinese egg rolls, but they use a flour-based wrapper, whereas the Vietnamese version uses rice paper. This produces a lighter, fluffier texture when fried. The ingredients inside are also slightly different.
You may have also tried a summer roll or salad roll, which is similar to what the Vietnamese call a fresh spring roll. Although the inside ingredients may differ, they are all wrapped in translucent, soft rice paper and served cold.
The fresh spring rolls we had on our Saigon food tour contained large shrimp, pork strips, lettuce, cucumber, vermicelli, fresh mint and cilantro. The taste was fresh and summery and if we didn’t have 4 hours of eating ahead of us, I would have ordered more.
In the past, we have been given peanut sauce for dipping our summer rolls in. However, in Vietnam, a tasty seasoned fish sauce known as Nuoc Cham is usually given. I think I love them both pretty equally.
Sup Cua: Crab Soup
I’ll eat anything that contains crab, but the sight of the bowl of sup cua that was handed to me didn’t excite me. I had just watched it being ladled from a big pot and it looked thick and sticky, almost gelatinous.
If you’ve ever had egg drop soup, that’s what it reminded me of. There was also a black egg and what looked like bits of brain floating in it. Turns out it was pig brain and a century egg.
But I was determined to try everything on this food tour so I tentatively dipped my spoon in, avoiding the brainy bits. The texture was as thick and sticky as it looked, a bit like a thin tapioca pudding, but the taste was fabulous. After a few slurps, I even ventured to take a bite of the brain, but one bite was all I could stomach.
However, the century egg was pretty tasty, so I finished the soup and the egg while leaving the sad bits of brain at the bottom. A century egg is a duck egg that has been preserved or “ripened” in a mixture of salt, ash and lime and covered with rice or clay.
Don’t worry, the pig brain is not always in soup cua, so you can try a hearty bowl without it. Also, if you’re not into trying a century egg (although I highly recommend it) crab soup often comes with quail eggs instead.
Get a bigger taste of this awesome Saigon food tour with the video below.
Trung Vit Lon (aka Balut)
We have been to the Philippines so we were very familiar with balut. But, in Vietnam, it’s called Trung Vit Lon so we didn’t realize what we’d agreed to eat until it was too late. When it arrived, we both had a look of horror, which the locals gobbling it down around us thought was hilarious.
Our guide said not to worry if we couldn’t eat it as this was one of her favorite treats and she’d gladly help if needed.
Trung Vit Lon is a duck egg that contains a fertilized 14-17 day-old embryo. It is boiled for 45 minutes to 1 hour and served hot. Many Asian countries eat these “delicacies” and believe they contain incredible health benefits.
In Vietnam, they are served in an egg cup and you gently tap the top to make an opening big enough to dig your spoon into. Season with salt and pepper and chase with Vietnamese coriander (rau ram) and scoop it into your mouth.
In my case, I did this last bit with eyes closed. To my surprise, it was very tasty! If you guessed that this was the one thing I had sworn never to eat, you’d be right. I have always struggled, as most would, with the idea of it being a fetus.
But the reality is that any of us meat eaters eat things daily that disgust vegetarians in the same way that balut used to disgust me. I’m not saying that you have to try it or become vegetarian, but for me, it was a bit of an “ah-ha” moment. I’m also not saying I’ll eat it again, but it certainly isn’t because it tasted bad.
Bánh Xèo: Sizzling Pancake
The name roughly translates into “sizzling pancake” and is named for the sound it makes when the batter hits the hot pan. There are variations in south and central Vietnam, as with many Vietnamese dishes, but it is not widely found in the north. The southern variation found in Saigon is called Mien Tay and is larger than the central version (Mien Trung).
The savory pancake batter is made from rice flour, turmeric and water which is fried in hot oil until crispy on the outside and around the edges but still a little soft and moist inside.
Fillings vary, but the Bánh Xèo we enjoyed on our Saigon food tour was filled with pork and shrimp, which were mixed into the pancake batter and fried together.
Once the folded pancake was brought to our table it was cut into 4 pieces with scissors. We then took a big piece of lettuce and piled on the pancake and lots of fresh herbs, rolled the whole thing up and dipped it in a tasty chili sauce. The combination of flavors and textures was amazing!
Bánh Tráng Nướng: Vietnamese Pizza
Next, we pulled over on the side of the road where about 20 child-sized plastic tables and stools were set out, most of which were filled with local students. To the side was a charcoal grill on which a young guy was busy laying out sheets of pizza-shaped rice paper and spreading an egg mixture on the top before piling on other ingredients.
The “pizza” had a sweet sauce base and cheese, along with a selection of other toppings. We chose some shredded chicken, sausage and mushrooms. It looked more like pizza than it tasted, but it was equally delicious. Served with a cold local beer or lemonade it’s a good light meal.
Bột Chiên: Fried Rice Flour Cakes
This dish is the Vietnamese version of fried rice flour cakes, similar to a popular Chinese dish called chai tow kway. The rice cakes are bite-sized, thick, sticky cubes made from rice flour and tapioca starch. They are fried in lots of hot oil until golden and crispy on the outside.
Then, eggs are added and left to cook around the cubes to form a sort of omelet. Once cooked to a golden brown, they are topped with green onions and usually crispy pork or seafood.
We were taken to one of the most popular Bột Chiên stalls in the area. It was so popular that we didn’t have time to wait our turn for a plate.
However, we tried this tasty, hearty, home-cooked dish elsewhere in Vietnam and can attest to its deliciousness. One word of caution: this meal tends to be quite greasy, so it’s not something you’d want to eat daily.
We were getting pretty full by this point, but it was time for dessert, so of course we made room. First up was Kem Bo which is a creamy mousse dish made from avocados and combined with other sweet ingredients like condensed milk and coconut ice cream and topped with dried coconut chips.
The street stand we stopped at offered a variety of different flavors. We chose the standard avocado as well as a durian flavor. If you haven’t tasted durian, you really should. Just be sure not to smell it first. Both were a sweet, cool, creamy, dreamy experience.
Khoai Lang Bong Bóng
Our final taste was an unexpected favorite for us. The first thing I noticed as we approached the stand was a group of people waiting. The second thing I saw was a young man of about 16 dripping with sweat as he tossed colorful lumps of something in hot oil with a large slotted ladle.
The lady standing behind him (presumably his mother) waved us to move to the side away from the hot oil. Here we waited for close to 10 minutes in anticipation as we watched him tirelessly work with the oil.
We learned that what he was frying were little balls of sweet potato dough. Once they were fried to perfection, they were poured into paper bags, sprinkled with sugar and passed out to the many waiting patrons. The end result of this labor was the most delectable, melt-in-your-mouth, light and fluffy yet crispy, mouthfuls of yumminess.
The closest comparison in North America would be the hot mini doughnuts served at fairgrounds, but better. After we gobbled them down, we were sad to hear from our guide that it wasn’t likely we’d find them elsewhere in Vietnam. We tried but had no success.
Saigon at Night
The last 30 minutes of our tour was spent driving around some of the top sights in the city; Ho Chi Minh City Opera House, City Hall, Notre Dame Cathedral, Ben Thanh Market and the old Post Office. As mentioned earlier, driving around the city at night is a special experience that you don’t usually get in a food tour.
We sat comfortably and pleasantly full in the backseat and took it all in, thinking about how grateful we were to have found this amazing Saigon food tour experience.
About Saigon 2CV Tour
- Saigon 2CV is a small family business run by a Frenchman who combined his passions for food and vintage cars
- All the cars used for tours are vintage Citroens, either convertibles or large sunroofs
- There are three tours available; Saigon Essentials Morning Tour, Sunset Cruise & 2CV Tour and the Street Food Discovery Evening Tour (which we took)
- Each car can seat up to 2 adults and 1 child
- The Street Food Discovery Evening Tour is 4 hours and includes food tastings at each stop
- Tours include pick up and drop off at your hotel in most areas of HCMC
- Cost: Adults and children over 12 are $65 USD. Kids under 12 are $45 USD. Children must be over the age of 4 to join the tours
- These are group tours so several cars may join you accompanied by 1 English-speaking guide. Private tours are available for an additional $10 USD per person.
Born in England, Sarah developed her wanderlust at a young age as she traveled around Europe with her parents. As a young adult she spent every penny she could on experiences as opposed to possessions. Eventually she found a way to earn a living doing what she loved: traveling, writing and capturing images of the wondrous world we live in. When not on the go Sarah enjoys time in her “sometimes home” of Vancouver.