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On A Wheel And A Platter

A culinary trail through the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City uncovers many layers of Vietnam’s bustling city.

Karishma Upadhyay

Crossing the road in a Vietnamese city is almost a religious experience. Stepping off the sidewalk and into an unstoppable river of motorbikes is daunting even if you are used to peak- hour traffic anywhere in India. Perhaps life would be easier if I was part of the flow, I thought. I was wrong. On my last evening in Ho Chi Minh City, which I had visited in November last year, I signed up for a food tour that involved riding pillion on a bike. And, within two minutes, I started to regret it.

Ho Chi Minh City—or Saigon, as the locals prefer to call it—has over 7 million bikes for a population of 8 million people. Nothing can prepare you for the chaotic energy of Saigon at rush hour. Bikes zoom along wide boulevards, through narrow alleys and past vendors hawking a variety of goods, including rice, chicken, lanterns and giant springs.

Before we left, my guide and driver for the night, Tien Huynh of XO Tours, made me stow away my bag, camera and phone in the trunk of the scooter. “There’s a lot of bag snatching and pickpockets. It’s much safer to put everything away,” she explained. But it was her next piece of advice—“If you get scared, hold me tight”—that rang in my ears often in the next few hours. As the 5-feet-nothing swerved nonchalantly through bikes and cars on her perky red moped, I clung on to her for dear life and prayed to all gods, old and new.

Vietnamese, like their Indian counterparts, are big believers of jugaad (quick-fix solutions). And such ingenious fixes are ubiquitous on the thing that keeps the city rolling: Bikes. Take the ‘family bikes’ for instance, the ones that have pretty pillows strapped to the handlebar. Explains Tien, “The pillow is for the child. He puts his head on the pillow if he’s sleepy. And if the bike brakes suddenly, the pillow will save the baby from getting hurt. Families teach babies to hold on to the handlebar from an early age.”

The plan for the night was to eat and travel like the locals. XO Tours’ food trail is a five-hour affair where 20-something Vietnamese women, dressed in their traditional formal attire, Ao Dai, take tourists to all parts of the city—from District 1 (the main tourist area in the middle of old Saigon) to China Town in District 5 and eventually to District 4, one of the poorest areas in the city. All the while you sample the most authentic Vietnamese food. “You’ll eat food beyond pho (noodle soup), spring roll and banh mi (bread) sandwiches,” promised Tien as we drove to our first stop of the night.

We stopped at Bun Bo Hue Dong Ba, a rickety shack in District 1, which specialised in cuisine from the erstwhile imperial city of Hué. Their most famous offering was Bún bò Hué that translates as beef noodle from Hué—thick rice noodles steeped in a citrusy and spicy broth, laden with thick cuts of pork and beef. “Every bowl of noodle soup is not pho,” said Tai Dang, the tour manager at XO Tours, who was travelling with our motley group. Vietnam’s de facto national dish, he added, has to have velvety fresh rice noodles in a long- simmered broth with hints of roasted ginger and star anise topped with varieties of beef or tripe. In the north of the country, pho is eaten with a simple sprinkling of scallions and chives while in the south, the flavours are amped up with sawtooth herb, basil, mint, sprouts and chili sauce.

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September-October 2016