I thought I would be terrified on the back of a scooter. Now, I kind of want one. One thing that never fails to disappoint about travel is how much it helps me to overcome my fears.
I discovered XO Tours while I was still back in England. They’re mentioned on Lonely Planet and a few independent blogs, and from what I could see, they had a pretty good reputation. The other thing that sets them apart is that all their drivers are female, which means that not only does it provide good employment opportunities for women, but it meant I wouldn’t have to sit with my legs astride some random man. Call me prudish, but I felt more comfortable at the prospect of a female driver.
Because Saigon traffic is terrifying. If you’ve never been to South East Asia, then picture a colony of ants swarming around a piece of food. Now imagine that each of those ants is a scooter, and that the swarming colony is a road you have to cross. For crossing the road, my technique was to pick my moment, then just walk at a constant speed till I reached the other side, and hope nothing hit me on the way. It seemed to work, and my confidence at crossing the road grew – though I was sure that being in amongst it would be another matter entirely.
As it happened, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Foodie Tour:
I was met outside my hotel by a woman wearing the traditional Vietnamese Ao Dai: the long fitted high-necked silk top, and loose blue trousers. She introduced herself as Linh, my driver and guide for the night. Then she handed me a helmet, and talked me through safety on the bike. Like how to not put my feet on the burning engine, how to sit with my feet on the footrests so nobody would run them over when we stopped at the lights, and how to not fall off. This was when my trepidation peaked – didn’t she know how clumsy I was?
But before I had time to worry too much, I was sitting on the back of the bike and we were off!
I expected to be scared. I expected to feel like I was on the verge of being thrown off. I gripped the back of the seat hard – so hard my knuckles went white and my fingers hurt. But I soon realised that this wasn’t entirely necessary. Once in the stream of the Saigon traffic rather than just looking on from aside, there was a kind of organised chaos that somehow meant everyone drove past or around each other without colliding, like a shoal of fish. And Linh was a very competent driver.
By the time we arrived at our first stop on the tour (which was only 3 or 4 minutes away from my hotel), my fears had dissipated and I was loving this way of seeing the city.
Stop number one was a little restaurant with shiny tables and bright lighting, where I met our tour leader, Anh, and the other six people on that evening’s tour: two other solo travellers, a couple, and two friends who were travelling together. This was also where we had our first meal of the night: Bún bò Huế. Bún bò Huế is a kind of noodle soup, a little bit like Pho, but with thicker noodles, and a kind of beef sausage. And, as with most bowls of Pho I’ve eaten in Vietnam, the portion was enormous. It was, obviously, a full meal – and this was only the first of three foodie stops! I could see I was going to have to pace myself.
There was also free beer all night, for those that wanted it. As it happened, I’d only actually started drinking beer earlier that week, so I passed at the first stop, though I did have one at our other two stops. But people could easily have had a couple of beers each time we stopped.
So, back on the bike, already feeling quite full, and off to our next stop – fortunately a non-food stop, to give our stomachs a bit of a break. We rode through Chinatown, past heaps of vegetables out for sale at the night market, and then stopped to hear from Anh about the city’s Chinese community. This, he said, was where all the souvenir stalls at places like Bến Thành Market came to buy their stock. Here, he said, souvenirs would be a lot cheaper – but only if we bought them in bulk. (Personally, I didn’t quite fancy 200 coconut bowls, so I decided I’d stick to District 1 for souvenir shopping.)
We then hit our second foodie stop: a large outdoor space in District 8, set up with long tables and plastic chairs, with little table-top barbecues. What XO Tours promises with the Foodie Tour isn’t the most famous Vietnamese food (there is no Pho on the tour, for example, and no spring rolls), but the sort of typical Vietnamese food that locals eat, in the places where locals eat it. Looking around this latest stop, it was clear we were the only tourists there.
Anh brought us all beers, while our drivers started to cook the goat meat on the barbecue. I’d had goat before, at a farmstay in New Zealand, but it was in a curry, so the actual meat flavour was lost. Here, I could taste it properly, and it was delicious. We ate the little succulent pieces of goat, followed by enormous shrimp, also cooked there and then on the barbecue, which gave it that amazing fresh-grilled taste.
Then, it was time for the game – because how can you have that many people on one tour and not make it a little competitive. The aim of the game was to transfer nuts from a bowl into a bottle, using chopsticks. Each of us worked as a pair with our driver: Linh picked up the nut with her chopsticks, passed it to my chopsticks, and I then deposited it in the bottle. We had a couple of practice goes, and then the race was on.
Well, as soon as something like that becomes competitive, I have to win. Seriously, I’m terrible to play party games with. And board games. And cards. I just get a bit too into it! So, when Linh told me that she’d never won the chopstick game with anyone, I knew I had to set that right.
And I did. Chopstick champion! Hence the excited posing with the badge:
Feeling even more full (of food and beer), we left District 8 for another non-food stop in District 7.
Every time someone talked about one of the districts, I couldn’t help thinking of the Hunger Games. But far from the lumber-focussed Hunger Games District 7, Saigon’s District 7 is ultra-clean and modern. If I’d been dropped there rather than ridden on the back of a scooter, I’d never have guessed that this was still part of Saigon. The streets were wider and emptier. It was quiet – less of the chaotic traffic and noise of daily life. Here, cars actually outnumbered motorbikes, which says a lot about the wealth of people living there, because when you buy a car in Vietnam, you have to pay at least 200% in tax. Hence why most people use bikes instead.
Actually, I found it quite sad, looking at District 7. There were new apartment buildings going up all over the place, and yet half of the existing apartments were empty. This, Anh told us, was because rich people invested their money in property to guard against inflation, but didn’t then bother letting the property out. It just sits there, empty.
We didn’t spend too long in District 7 – instead, we hopped back on the bikes, and rode to our final stop in District 4. This couldn’t have been more different from the quiet isolation of District 7. Here, in a bustling restaurant again filled with locals, two guys with a karaoke kit sung for the assembled diners, with bleached hair and the best 90s-boy-band-gesturing-arms I’ve ever seen. There was noise, there was chatting, their was laughter.
And of course, there was more food.
This was where we had the biggest variety of food, the grand finale of the tour.
We had roasted quails legs (like chicken legs, but smaller, more tender), crab rubbed in chilli, various types of shellfish with herbs and garlic, coconut jelly made in the coconut shell, and creme caramel. (There was also an opportunity to try balut, but I declined on that. We all did.)
And then the tour was over. Which, by this point, was probably a good thing. I couldn’t have eaten anything else, and with my full belly and fully mind, I was ready to collapse on the nice big double bed in my hotel room. Linh drove me back there, I thanked her and said goodnight, and I was asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The Sights Tour:
Another day. Another tour.
Once again, I was met outside my hotel by my driver-guide: this time, a woman called Nhung. Having already done the Foodie Tour the night before, I didn’t need the safety talk, so it was straight on the bike and off to our first stop outside the Central Post Office. Already, I could feel how much more confident I was on the back of the bike. There was much less anxious gripping of the seat!
Our tour leader was Anh again, and once we’d all arrived (six of us on this morning’s tour), he talked to us about Notre Dame Cathedral, the Post Office, and the statue of the Virgin Mary in the square, which apparently once wept real tears, and is now a site for pilgrimage. As he talked, we watched a number of couples having their wedding photographs taken against the backdrop of the cathedral. In Vietnam, Anh told us, couples have their wedding photos taken a few months before the wedding itself, so that the photos are ready in time for the big day. Which basically means that once you’ve had the photos taken, there’s no backing out! I guess the good thing about this system is that it allows you to make sure you take the photos on a day with good weather, rather than at home where it’s a bit of a lottery – although from what I learned, Vietnamese weather is a bit more predictable than the British sort!
We spent around half an hour in this area, exploring the Central Post Office, which looks more like a station from the outside, but inside is a light and airy hall, and where they still have the original wooden phone booths. Then outside to try to catch the statue weeping. No luck – although I did spot a pigeon nesting on her head.
After that, we were back on the bike, headed to Tan Dinh Market. This was one of a couple of markets on the trip, each one offering a chance to see how locals did their grocery shopping, and what kinds of foods were on offer. Having already visited a couple of other local markets in Vietnam (such as the enormous one in Sa Dec), I thought I knew what to expect, but this was different. Clearly, it was a city market; things were more organised, less sprawling. It was fascinating to wander through with Nhung as my guide, explaining the different fruits brought into the city from the Mekong Delta, and telling me about the different cuts of meat on offer. One thing which I found really odd was when she pointed at a bowl of what looked like apples, and said, ‘These are a luxury – a very expensive fruit.’
I frowned, ‘What are they?’
Then she explained what I suppose should have been obvious to me: that the climate is all wrong for growing apples, so they have to be imported. Which means they’re more expensive.
Although this was a Sights tour and not a Foodie tour, we weren’t left totally empty-tummied. There was another portion of creme caramel, a small yoghurt, coconut water fresh from the coconut, and a large cup of sugarcane juice, which was the most delicious and refreshing thing I’d had in a long time, and which we drank on the backs of the bikes, headed between stops.
As for the other stops… We visited the Reunification Palace, and a number of ordinary-looking sites that were made famous by photographers of the Vietnam-America war. Seeing these places, next to the photograph of such a dark time in the city’s history, really brought home the reality of the conflict. Unlike history books and facts and figures, photographs are personal, and what we were being shown were the personal (and often tragic) stories of a terrible time.
Another stop that brought home the personal story was the Venerable Thich Quang Duc Monument: the memorial to the monk who set himself alight in 1963, in protest against the persecution of Buddhist monks by the Catholic president of South Vietnam. It was a moving and uncomfortable place, and I couldn’t help feel my skin crawling at the thought of flames. I also couldn’t help but think of the Arab Spring, and the man who set himself alight in Tunisia in 2010. I’m still not exactly sure what I feel about this parallel, or how it plays out in history, but I just couldn’t shake it out of my head.
Our last stop on the tour was at Thien Hau Pagoda. After hearing about the traumatic history of the city, it felt right to end somewhere peaceful and calming, watching locals light incense sticks, and the breeze rustling the paper prayers stuck to the walls. We wandered through the temple, enjoying the colours and the quiet, breathing in the soft perfume of the incense smoke.
Each of the stops on the Sights tour was informative and interesting, and Anh was great at conveying the humanness of the city’s history. But what stood out for me, both on the Sights Tour and the Foodie Tour, was the time spent on the back of the bike, chatting to each of my guides, and watching the city go by. The women who work for XO Tours all seem lovely. I know for a fact that both Linh and Nhung were great – which makes sense, as to work for the company, the women have to pass a personality test, to prove that they are nice enough people to represent XO Tours.
While driving around Saigon, I learned about local life from the points of view of people we passed, but also from Linh and Nhung themselves. We talked about films, about family pressures in Vietnam, and about which British accents we thought were cute! We found we had a lot in common – which I guess makes sense. After all, we’re all young women in our twenties, thinking about the directions we want our lives to take, and bemoaning those family friends & relatives who always ask, ‘So, have you got a boyfriend yet…?’ Turns out some things really are universal across the globe!
I was a guest of XO Tours on the Foodie & Sights tours. However, as always, I’m too opinionated for my thoughts not to be my own!