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Asia » Vietnam » Southeast » Ho Chi Minh City
October 10th 2016
Published: September 30th 2017
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Moments Before a Catastrophic Accident ...Moments Before a Catastrophic Accident ...Moments Before a Catastrophic Accident ...

... no, we never did drive scooters around Ho Chi Minh, as it's a recipe for disaster!
Geo: 10.7592, 106.662

Swarms of locust decimating a field of crops, or throngs of army ants overrunning their prey - those are visuals that come to mind when visiting Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's most populous centre. What exactly could swarms of insects have to do with HCMC? Because that's what Vietnam's Xe Oms, or motorbike taxis, remind me of! The roads of HCMC are complete chaos, with hordes of motorbikes and scooters owning every square centimetre of pavement. We'd heard harrowing stories of crossing the street in Vietnam, but we simply weren't prepared for the motorbike madness!

The first time crossing the road in HCMC quite literally takes your breath away, as you gasp in shock at the site of so many scooters. Viewing traffic from a helicopter would be an incredible experience, as the mass of humanity and machine behaves as if it was a living organism, a constantly-shapeshifting amorphic blob, as a constant stream of vehicles join and leave. It seems like something straight out of National Geographic, not the Lonely Planet! If you ever wondered what a real-life game of Frogger would be like, come to HCMC!

I'd say that navigating the streets of HCMC involves taking your life in your own hands, but in reality, you are at the mercy of the throngs of scooters on the road. A little bit of pee drizzled down our legs the first time we traversed a busy avenue in HCMC, but it quickly became easy once we realized the truth - just walk slowly, deliberately, and at a constant pace, never making eye contact with drivers, and you'll be fine. In fact, it's when you try to gauge where drivers are heading and change your speed or direction, that you get into trouble. It got infinitely easier after the first leap of faith, and we never looked back. Somehow, someway, the drivers all manage to avoid pedestrians and all the other vehicles.

In fact, it was actually easier crossing in the bigger cities, because it seems the drivers are more used to dodging people. Counter-intuitively, we felt more at risk in some of the small towns, where drivers try and gauge your movements a little too closely, causing the scooter to wobble with indecision, which in turn, makes you move unnaturally, resulting in a close call. There really are no discernible rules of the road - drivers go wherever these is space,
The Best of the Best ...The Best of the Best ...The Best of the Best ...

... had to be these steamed lemongrass clams. The seafood was surprisingly the highlight of tonight's tour, quite unexpectedly so, since HCMC isn't really that close to the ocean - by land, it's at least an hour, though you can probably shave down that time by taking a boat up the river into the heart of the city. Sweet and tender, these clams were as fine as they come, but it was the broth that stood out - it was so tasty, I actually drank it like soup, so incredibly vibrant and fragrant with lemongrass, ginger, tamarind, basil, and chili. It can be tough to find a well-executed clam dish anywhere, let alone perfection like this. The harmonious balance of flavours is what made this the dish of the night, but it also scored extra points because they weren't overcooked, something that is very easy to do with clams.
and it is extremely unnerving as your vehicle turns right, yet oncoming traffic is quickly approaching head-on in your lane, on the wrong side of the road. There isn't a safe spot in the city, as there are frequent scooters honking at you while you walk, bypassing the gridlock on the road by jumping up on to the sidewalk.

At times, it feels that, in addition to dodging scooters from all directions and all places, that they are almost raining down upon your head! It's for that reason that we would never consider renting a scooter - in fact, I think it's actually illegal for foreigners to do so, though I'm sure many still do. But the question is, why would you want to? Unless you came from a country with similar driving standards, it wouldn't be enjoyable in any way, and quite frankly, it would be incredibly dangerous. For all of the chaos in HCMC's streets, it's actually incredibly organized, with people knowing what to expect of other drivers, so somehow, they all manage to avoid each other. Throw in the unpredictable element of a foreigner into the mix, however, and accidents would reign.

Luckily for us, it's
Simplicity Elevated to an Art Form ...Simplicity Elevated to an Art Form ...Simplicity Elevated to an Art Form ...

... the varied cuisines of Southeast Asia are at their best when they aren't overly-complicated, like these crab claws. Simply seasoned with pepper and chili sauce, and then wok-fried, the crab was then seasoned to taste with sauce made from a salt and pepper mixture (similar to a Chinese seasoning salt) tarted up with a squeeze of calamansi (a local lime-like fruit). But the best part wasn't the freshness of the crab, or the sweetness of the flesh - it was the fact that our guide ended up cracking them and de-shelling them for us, so to eat, all we had to do was grab it by the tip and give it a dip!
still possible to have a scooter experience in HCMC by joining a tour like XO Tours, that comes complete with your own driver and a security detail. It must be quite the sight for locals, as an army of twenty girls wearing their ao dai (traditional Vietnamese dress), shuttle tourists from restaurant to restaurant on a food tour, on the backs of their scooters. They must wonder if we were VIPs, especially when clustered together at a stop light, surrounded by six or seven beefy security guards, to discourage the camera and bag snatchings common in Vietnam's bigger cities.

While we felt entirely safe in the hands of our qualified drivers from XO Tours, the next day's ride around town on a cyclo, a kind of bicycle rickshaw, was extremely unsettling. At least on the back of a xe om, you feel that the driver has some degree of control. But with the slow pace and awkward handling of a cyclo, you are entirely dependent on buses, cars, and scooters avoiding you. If nothing else, it was a memorable ride, as our cyclo driver was so preoccupied with dodging vehicles, that he nearly ran over a stationary pedestrian! It was
Another Excellent Dish ...Another Excellent Dish ...Another Excellent Dish ...

... grilled scallops with spring onion, ground peanuts, and fish sauce. I think the Vietnamese have discovered that peanuts are good with almost anything - we didn't expect this dish to be as good as it was. The scallops were just a bit overcooked, which isn't unexpected with such small ones.
rather comical that the pedestrian actually had to stick his hand out and stop our slow-moving cyclo, which was puttering along at about the rate that a baby crawls.

But perhaps the most bizarre sight was when a blind man tried crossing a busy street, and our cyclos took turns either scolding him, or perhaps offering him a friendly word of advice. I remember thinking that he must have had a death wish, that he would surely be mowed down before even making it halfway. It was then that I recalled that our crossing strategy wasn't all that different - don't even look, take a leap of faith, and just GO. In fact, the blind man might have the advantage of not even knowing that he has something to fear - in HCMC, perhaps ignorance is bliss ...


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Fun, But Not Today ...Fun, But Not Today ...
Fun, But Not Today ...

... one of the stops was a BBQ restaurant, where diners cook their own food - normally we'd be all over that, but the guides did all the work tonight. This wasn't the worst thing, as even in the evening, it's still humid and in the high 20s, and the table-top BBQs put out an insane amount of heat. The prawns were decent, but somewhat pedestrian.
BBQ Goat ...BBQ Goat ...
BBQ Goat ...

... marinated in fermented tofu (similar to the Chinese version) and Coke! There were a few other aromatics such as lemongrass mixed in, as well. Some chili garlic beef was also grilled up for us. Two types of sauces were available for dipping - one made with fermented tofu, and one that was refreshingly acidic.
Awesome Okra ...Awesome Okra ...
Awesome Okra ...

... I'm a big fan of okra, and the Vietnamese version is quite delicate and thin-skinned, and doesn't have the slimy insides that larger versions do. The only knock was the usage of fermented tofu - the okra had a much more pronounced flavour than the goat did. I can only handle so much fermented tofu, otherwise I would've eaten the whole plate. Also good was the most popular of Vietnamese vegetables, morning glory, which was stir fried with chili, and garlic. It's quite similar to Chinese tong choy (hollow vegetable), which is only rarely available in Canada - a nice treat.
Mr. Miyagi Frog ...Mr. Miyagi Frog ...
Mr. Miyagi Frog ...

... because there were two types, "Skin on, skin off." Southeast Asians just know how to prepare frog, and it was tough to choose between the two - the frog skin doesn't have the greatest texture, but made for a juicier piece of meat.
Quail w/ Tamarind Sauce ...Quail w/ Tamarind Sauce ...
Quail w/ Tamarind Sauce ...

... another excellent dish. Vietnamese tamarind seems different from other versions we've had in other countries, which we weren't big fans of - the tamarind sauce was sublime tonight.
Sympathies For the Big Korean Guy ...Sympathies For the Big Korean Guy ...
Sympathies For the Big Korean Guy ...

... the guy in the blue ball cap was about 6'-3" and over 200 lbs. I found riding on the xe oms extremely uncomfortable, as it started giving me mild pelvic cramps towards the end of the night. You'd think those muscles might get a break with our frequent food stops, but then we end up sitting on those dinky-little stools that Vietnam is famous for. I couldn't imagine the Korean guy's pain, but perhaps that explained why he downed 8+ beers during the evening!
Balut ...Balut ...
Balut ...

... a bit of a rite of passage for backpackers in the Philippines, we didn't realize that this was also popular in Vietnam. For those that don't know, balut is a cooked duck embryo, and is one of the more mentally-unappetizing things you can come across. You start by drinking the broth inside, which wasn't too bad, a sort of bland Asian-style chicken broth.
The Wimp's Version ...The Wimp's Version ...
The Wimp's Version ...

... I started with the easy version - balut served with some more of that excellent tamarind sauce. Not too bad - if I didn't know any better, I would've though it was just a hard-boiled egg, as the appearance was completely masked by the sauce.
The Real Version ...The Real Version ...
The Real Version ...

... definitely not pretty! Again, it tastes just like a hard-boiled egg, and is nowhere near as offensive as its appearance might suggest. What turns most people off is when you dig around the balut and find things like partially-developed feathers and beaks.
Better Than Cracking Into Balut ...Better Than Cracking Into Balut ...
Better Than Cracking Into Balut ...

... is cracking into this coconut dessert! They appear to take a coconut and fill it with two types of jelly, a creamy coconut milk version, and a clear, lighter version. A most welcome light and refreshing dessert on a hot, muggy evening. Next to it is a cup of custard, quite similar to a creme caramel.
We Survived the Cyclo Tour ...We Survived the Cyclo Tour ...
We Survived the Cyclo Tour ...

... it's a good thing that my backpack was strategically-located for this picture - it obscures the big brown spot in my shorts ...
Our Guide Thien ...Our Guide Thien ...
Our Guide Thien ...

... Chef Vu's class includes a quick cyclo tour, and then a visit to Ben Thanh market.
The Number Three ...The Number Three ...
The Number Three ...

... was how our shrimp were butterflied before assembling our salad rolls.
Dexterity Required ...Dexterity Required ...
Dexterity Required ...

... making salad rolls is easy. Making them look pretty, however, requires a lot of practice!


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