A Street Food Tour of Ho Chi Minh City

In the last seven weeks of traveling through Southeast Asia I’ve learned that one of the best ways to get to know a culture is through its street food. By eating food from street vendors you get authentic food that is made for locals not tourists, you get to eat side-by-side with the locals, and a lot of times what you find isn’t even available in restaurants. Not to mention it’s really delicious!

When I was trying to decide what to do in my few short days in Ho Chi Minh City I came across several companies that do motorbike tours of the city and thought that might be a good way to see the sights without schlepping around in the heat and without getting on and off a tour bus all day. Then I found Back of The Bike Tours and saw that they did a street food tour and I was sold! I signed up for the afternoon food tour and received an email telling me that I was confirmed and to be sure to show up hungry!

Thuy picked me up the next afternoon on her scooter and let me know that I was the only one on the afternoon tour so I would be getting a private tour. She asked me a few get-to-know-you questions as we got set with helmets and hopped on the bike. The conversation continued as she expertly weaved in and out of traffic making our way to the first destination and by the time we arrived I already felt like Thuy was not so much my tour guide but a local friend showing me her city for the day.

the view from the back of the bike
The view from the back of the bike.

Our first stop was a nondescript little bit of sidewalk at the edge of a parking lot in District 1. Thuy gave me a little plastic mat to sit on as she ordered our first plate of the day. As we waited for our food she explained that this was a really popular night spot and that the whole sidewalk would be packed after dark. As it was we had the whole area to ourselves.

Our first dish arrived, a green papaya salad called Goi Du Du Bo, and Thuy described all of the ingredients and how it was prepared before we dug in.

goi du du boGoi Du Du Bo: julienned green papaya topped with Thai basil, dried beef liver, toasted peanuts and prawn cracker.  Tossed with chili sauce and soy bean sauce.

She said I didn’t have to finish the whole dish since we had a lot of eating to do but after one bite I knew I wasn’t going to let any of that salad go to waste. The sweet chili dressing really made the salad and the prawn crackers were like extra delicious croutons. When I asked what the dark bits on the side of the salad were, Thuy told me it was dried beef. I tried it and it tasted just like beef jerky which seemed like an odd thing to put on a salad but was nevertheless quite tasty. When I later got the menu of our tour I was shocked to read that the dried beef was more specifically dried liver. Had I know that I’m not sure I would have been too keen to try it, but since I didn’t even realize the difference that would have been a mistake!

thuy eating goi du du bo

Thuy eating Goi Du Du Bo, curbside.

Next up we headed over to District 11 for Banh Khot. This time we had a little table to sit at just behind the stall where a woman was frying up little coconut rice cakes.

Foodie Tour-3

We were served a plate of the Banh Khot, some with shrimp on top and others with pork, and another plate of herbs and lettuce leaves. Thuy showed me how to fold the crispy cake in half and place it in the lettuce leaf,  and then add some herbs and fish sauce before wrapping it up and taking a bite. (I showed Thuy how we Americans peel our shrimp before eating them!) Both the pork and the shrimp varieties were delicious.

Foodie Tour-4
Banh Khot: Savory coconut rice cakes, topped with shrimp or pork. Served with fresh greens and sweet fish sauce.

For our third stop we got back on the bike and headed to a place in District 3 that actually had indoor seating and a bathroom (movin’ up in the street food world!). Right at the front entrance we could see the food being prepared. A ladle full of white sludge made from rice was poured onto a flat, steamy surface until it became a sticky noodle texture. Then it was filled with a meat mixture and rolled up like a burrito. I have to admit it didn’t look entirely appetizing, but Thuy hadn’t steered me wrong yet.

cooking the banh cuon

Once we observed how the food was being prepared, we sat down and ordered drinks and waited for our plates. What was put in front of us was already looking better.

banh cuon
Banh Cuon: rice crepes stuffed with minced pork and dried shrimp topped with blanched bean sprouts. Served with sweet fish sauce.

One bite and I wondered how I ever doubted the tastiness of this dish. Not only did I like it, but I finished my whole plate!

By this time I was feeling pretty full but we still had one more main dish to try. We hopped back on the bike and made our way back to District 1, just a few blocks from my hotel.

The last dish was a noodle soup, of which I’ve had plenty on my travels in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. This one however beat them all!

bun bo hue
Bun Bo Hue: spicy Hue-style pork and beef soup, with lemongrass and mắm tôm. Served with sliced beef, pork sausage and shaved vegetables.

The broth of the Bun Bo Hue was incredibly flavorful, probably owing to the variety of meat and vegetables in the soup. While this was possibly one of my favorite menu items of the day, it was the first thing that I wasn’t able to finish. Not only was I stuffed, but look at how big that bowl is!

eating bun bo hue

As I tried to squeeze in the last few bites of soup, Thuy went next door and got us some desserts to sample. I was completely stuffed at this point but, as my younger sister taught me when she was in Kindergarten, there’s a separate spot reserved in your stomach for desert so there’s always room!

dessert time!

Desserts from left to right: Banh Flan (steamed egg custard topped with crushed ice and coffee), Che Dau Xanh (mung bean sweet soup with coconut milk), and Sua Chua (fresh Vietnamese yogurt).

I didn’t much like the Che Dau Xanh as it was super sweet with lots of random jellied things inside but the other two were to die for. The Banh Flan was a typical flan but with a coffee sauce poured over the top rather than the typical caramel. And don’t ask me how yogurt can taste so good, but the light texture and sweetness of the Sua Chua was just perfect.

As we finished our desserts the rain started coming down and Thuy quickly got me back to my hotel before we got too wet. I arrived very full and completely satisfied with the day. I had expected to like most of the food but certainly not everything! And certainly not as much as I did. While I could have wandered around on my own and tried a bunch of random dishes throughout the day, I never would have found such a great variety. Thuy and her husband Chad have definitely found some of the best that Ho Chi Minh City has to offer and I was lucky to have been given the inside scoop!

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Back of the Bike Tours is owned by Thuy and her American husband Chad. If you’re in Ho Chi Minh City and want to have a back-of-the-bike street food tour with Thuy, you can find out more information here.

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9 Comments on “A Street Food Tour of Ho Chi Minh City

  1. Great idea for a wee, niche tour company and thanks for blogging about them. She certainly showed you a number of dishes most foreigners don’t ever get to try. I miss Banh Khot…

  2. I am so, so hungry for SE Asian street food. I don’t think we’ll make it to Vietnam, but this post has me wishing that we could add it to the itinerary. Back of the Bike Tours sound like a great company.

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