Inspiration Explore Dine & Dash: Tour Around Ho Chi Minh's Culinary Scene on a Motorbike

Dine & Dash: Tour Around Ho Chi Minh's Culinary Scene on a Motorbike

March 26, 2024
Motorbike riders make their way through the light-filled Ho Chi Ming City centre, some of which taking part in food tours - Luxury Escapes

On a motorbike street food tour in the Vietnamese capital, Nate Robinson joins the river of bike commuters that flow along Saigon’s streets in search of spicy seafood, killer crepes and sky-high cocktails.

It’s been less than a day in Ho Chi Minh City, and I’m about to break my mother’s golden rule: don’t hop on a motorbike abroad.

I’d explored a little of Vietnam’s freewheeling capital previously – seeing sights and taking bites – but Ho Chi Minh City’s mysteries still taunted me. On my daytrip I had already seen glimpses of the city’s celebrated spirit but I was hungry for more.

My mission: tuck into Ho Chi Minh City’s legendary nightlife. My ride: an original 1964 Vespa scooter, a holdover from when the city was named Saigon, the bike painted as grey as the monsoon sky and almost as thunderous.

“It’s the fastest,” says my guide, proudly patting the machine. I didn’t tell him I’d never ridden before.

Spice drunk on Seafood Street

A bowl of Vietnamese seafood soup sits on a table at Vinh Khanh (Seafood Street), one of the stop-offs in the motorbike food tour through Ho Chi Minh City - Luxury Escapes
Vinh Khanh (Seafood Street), Ho Chi Minh City.

Southern Vietnam’s notorious heat drops away as we hurtle down French boulevards lined by mighty emerald dipterocarps, tropical trees planted by the European colonialists. We zip through side streets filled with flower sellers, past twilight markets and textile workers, bakeries and soup hawkers, beggars, businessmen, baristas and Catholic churches frocked in blazing neon.

We pull in front of our first stop, SUNLAND Hotel, where we’re shown an elevator to D CHILL, a bustling rooftop beer garden. I nurse a G&T and stare in wonder at what lies below. After a quick drink we set out to explore District 4, Ho Chi Minh City’s smallest neighbourhood where the city’s luxury outlets and French colonial sights disappear, replaced with coffee carts, plantain sundae sellers and plastic chairs on every street corner. It’s a poorer part of town, and tourists rarely visit. What was once infamous for being a den of iniquity is now renowned for its seafood; at District’s 4 culinary heart is Vinh Khanh (Seafood Street), a sprawling food precinct that’s packed with local delicacies.

The staff at a local seafood stall know I’m here to eat: they bring out a bigger chair. “A king’s chair,” says my guide. First up: con ngheu hap, baby clams cooked in a light, lemongrass broth. I’m seduced by aromas of holy basil and ginger and little fireworks of birdseye chilli lighting up my palate. The shop’s filling up: locals play drinking games and smash cans of Saigon-brand beer. Next up is a heaped plate of hard-shell blue crab, deep-fried and tossed with scallions and chilli. I’m spice-drunk – the beer’s not helping, and as we dine, a busker breathes a mighty gust of flame into the night sky. I can relate.

Stir-fried glass noodles, topped with a handful of coriander, perilla and sliced omelette is sensational. Of course, they’ve saved the best for last. “It’s jumping chicken,” says my guide. I don’t believe him, each piece is far too small to be from poultry. It’s frog legs, a French haute cuisine classic reclaimed by Vietnam, the delicate, milk-white meat doused in the house-made fish sauce, it’s dynamite.

Hello Vietnam

One of the best ways to explore the sparkling 
Ho Chi Minh City is on a motorbike food tour - Luxury Escapes
Ho Chi Minh City's skyline.

Ho Chi Minh City has a fluctuating population of around 9.3 million people spread over 2000 square kilometres. It’s a city that needs bikes – and it has more two-wheeled transport than I have seen in my life. As we weave through traffic, my apprehension becomes admiration, then awe. This is how the city moves, how it does business, how it shakes off the day. Our next stop is District 3, the all-night commercial and religious heart of the city, and the Cooku’s Nest, a café with a peculiar rule – there’s no conversation allowed.

Instead, I’m offered another can of beer and a front-row seat to a young Vietnamese tenor who belts out a French version of the song Hello Vietnam that’s so heartful I gasp. Then, back in historic District 1, where Banh Xeo 46A has been serving crispy turmeric crepes – cooked over the blistering heat of a traditional charcoal grill – stuffed with pork and prawn since 1945. ‘Xeo’ is onomatopoeic, the name meant to mimic the sound of the batter hitting a white-hot wok – it doesn’t whisper but roar. The result is smoky, fluffy, packed with umami – rolled in perilla and dipped in fish sauce, it’s extraordinary.

Positioned on the Hotel des Arts Saigon’s sky-high 24th floor, Social Club Rooftop Bar seems the perfect place to end my evening. I’m back late, but the bartenders are still shaking up a frenzy and the DJ is remixing Aqua hits. Ho Chi Minh City lays beneath us like a field of stars. I order a cocktail – the Set the New Year on Fire, an eclectic blend of Chivas 12, Campari, mint and lemon. It’s so good I order another and spend the night dancing until they turn the lights on.

This article was originally featured in the third issue of Dream by Luxury Escapes magazine. Nathaniel Robinson visited Ho Chi Minh City as a guest of VietJet. Get your copy of our next issue here.

Nate Robinson
About Nate Robinson
Mad for travel and an incorrigible foodie, Nate is as at home in a Mexican taqueria as he is at Tsukiji. When he's not abroad, you can always find Nate with a book in one hand and a tiki cocktail in the other.

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