Saigon, Vietnam, December 2019
Helen arrived first. Hopping off her bike she pulled off a grey sweat top to reveal a silky shimmering deep-sea-blue ao dai. Then she leaned back against her bike and started texting.
Lily arrived a few moments later. Same blue tunic. Same black ponytail swinging. Same smiles and laughter. ‘Did you ever go on a motorbike before?’, she asked. We’d already spent a week in Saigon. The never-ending stream of motorbikes, the continuous hum of traffic, the sheer volume of it all was a total sensory overload. We’d spent a week, looking, marvelling, virtually open-mouthed every time we walked out on the street. Now we were about to join the fray. The girls fastened our helmets carefully, warned us about the Saigon Kiss*, and showed us how to grab hold of the back of the bike. ‘Or you can hold around my waist if you’re scared’, Lily told me. When I said I might, she laughed and responded – ‘You’re like my grandma’. Within seconds of moving off, we belonged to the mass, one of hundreds, a pulsating, revving beast, emitting heat, growling, moving with purpose.
I asked if it was necessary to pass a test to drive a motorbike. ‘Of course’, Lily said a little indignantly. She went on: ‘We have two lessons. One to learn to drive, one to master the rules of the road’. Two!!!
The ride was exhilarating. I began to see a pattern in the traffic. A weave. Joining the stream was a question of submission, not aggression, a request, a gentle edging ever forwards to assimilation. Toots and horn blasts were reminders (here I am), warnings (I’m coming through), simple nuances of the dance. It was a free-flow, a slow, stealthy, sure progress ever onwards.
We stopped to eat. Banh mi outside old apartment blocks. The classic Vietnamese street-food with a side dish of daily Vietnamese life. Families sitting on the floor, sharing food. Large wooden cupboards. Altars to ancestors. Ramps up the middle of external stairs – riders stay mounted until the last possible moment, bikes can be driven straight into living rooms. ‘We are five in my family’, Lily told us, ‘so we have five motorbikes’. The banh mi was delicious. Crispy French baguette with a filling of mushroom**, pickled vegetables, soft cheese, fresh herbs and a hint of spice. It was washed down with freshly-pressed sugar-cane juice. Then it was time to get back on the bikes.
Off to the flower market. The roads became ever narrower; no longer roads, just alleys. Lined with parked motorbikes, street vendors, playing kids, old folk enjoying the relative cool of evening. And naturally other riders – in front, behind, next to us. We were so close to it all. I felt safe, but still I semi-squealed a couple of times. ‘Don’t be scared’, Lily told me. Jim was with Helen, close but out of eyeshot. Every time we stopped, he’d stagger from the bike and say ‘That was an experience’ grinning widely.
The evening became a blur of bike riding, mouth-watering moments. At tiny plastic tables and chairs we ate ice cream laced with avocado sauce and coconut shavings. Delicious but rather strange, followed by slices of Vietnamese pizza – grilled rice paper, made golden with egg, topped with bean-sprouts and mushrooms and a swirl of mayonnaise and tamarind sauce. At another place, banh xeo, a giant, crispy rice pancake filled with mung beans, bean-sprouts, and more mushrooms. Helen carried it steaming to the table, and broke it into pieces with chop sticks. Next to it a plate overflowing with green leaves of every size and description. Lettuce, something wasabi related, bay mint, coriander, and the anise-flavoured Thai basil. The girls selected leaves, then placed a piece of banh xeo on top, folding all deftly together to form a tight roll. That took some practice, we were to discover. The final touch? A dunking in nuoc cham (fish) sauce.
I was beginning to think I’d never need to eat again, so the girls gave us a breather – sort of – a longer stint on the bikes, to a view point in District 2 on the other side of the river. This was a spot for couples and friends to hang out and drink tea, they told us. Tall buildings, a dazzling display of ever-changing light patterns, cruisers and junks sailing back and forth, offering floating dinner cruises. For a moment the madness of Saigon receded. It was simply beautiful. But serenity is hard to come by in Saigon.
All too soon it was back to the bikes and on to the last stop of the evening – dessert. Another tiny cafe, filled with tiny chairs and tables, and bursting at the seams with groups of young friends. I asked Lily and Helen if they could cook. They both nodded. But Lily said she ate every day with her family and Helen said told me she rarely had time to cook; she could eat at the university and anyway she preferred to eat out with friends. Lily ordered enough little desserts to fill the table, round, wobbling, milky puddings with various flavours and tropical fruits. ‘We ordered more, because we see you like desserts’, they laughed. They’d got the measure of us alright.
More than full, totally satisfied, we hopped on the bikes one last time for the ride back to our Airbnb. We’d been given not only a taste of, but a taste for street food, and couldn’t wait to explore further. We even wanted to get back on a motorbike!
We did our evening street-food tour with Saigon Kiss Tours. A company that employs only young women, and provides tours to couples/small private groups with the aim of giving a genuine, authentic experience. Cost (December 2019) for 4 hours, US$59 or VND 1,370,000 per person. Pick up/drop off at hotel or Airbnb. https://saigonkisstours.com
* the burn from the hot exhaust pipe, that scars the legs of many of Saigon’s riders.
** traditionally it’s cold meat – pork, chicken or pate – but we were eating vegetarian.