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Richard Pearce is one of our Senior Tour Leaders and has lived in Asia since 2004. Among many other adventures, he has eagerly explored the jungle-clad temples of Angkor, the golden pagodas of Luang Prabang and the caves in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park. Although he currently calls Japan home, he returns to Vietnam on a regular basis to lead InsideVietnam small group tours. Here, he takes us on a food and fun-filled 24 hours in Ho Chi Minh.
Early-morning exercise in Tao Dan Park, Ho Chi Minh
For a healthy way to start the day to help build up an appetite for the many culinary delights that you’ll experience later in the day, wake up early and head to Tao Dan Park in the centre of the city. From around 7am the park is buzzing with local people keeping fit and having a good chinwag with their friends.
On one side of the park which is spilt down the middle by a road, you can find an outdoor “gym” and people can be seen doing group exercises and even sword dancing. Don’t miss the chance to join a throng of ladies practising Tai Chi, in our experience they are always very welcoming and friendly. If Tai Chi isn’t for you, maybe aviaries are? A number of older gentlemen bring exotic birds in cages and sip strong, local coffee whilst showing off their feathered companions on the other side of the park. Have a cup of caffeine yourself and spend a moment taking it all in.
If you do decide to eat at the park or grab something from your hotel, keep it light! You will be eating a lot of delicious food throughout the day and evening…
Market tour and cookery course at Hoa Tuc
First up on our belly-busting itinerary is a cookery course. Hoa Tuc, our favorite restaurant in Ho Chi Minh, offers a half-day Gourmet Tour consisting of a guided visit to Ben Thanh market to purchase the necessary ingredients, followed by a hands-on cooking class. All for a very reasonable $45 for an adult and $28 for children.
Meet up with the delightful Chef Ngoc and your fellow classmates at the entrance to Ben Thanh market at 8.45am. Her English is exceptional and she is full of useful shopping tips and insightful guidance on the many weird and wonderful, living and dead items for sale in this vibrant bazaar.
At around 9.30am, travel the short distance to Hao Tuc by taxi (included in the tour cost), and enjoy a refreshing welcome drink before you get cooking. You will prepare three dishes in total, one at a time, and will get to eat each one as soon as you finish making it. The dishes change on a daily basis; I made and thoroughly enjoyed (if I may say so myself!) the following:
• Canh chua tôm – Sour soup with prawns, pineapple, tamarind paste and okra.
• Gôi gà bãp chuôi – Banana blossoms salad with chicken, peanuts and deep-fried shallots in a banana tree flower presentation with nước chấm dressing.
• Bánh Xèo – Crisp rice flour pancake with pork and prawns.
Having attended several cooking schools throughout Southeast Asia, this was easily my favourite and I left feeling confident that I could replicate the dishes back in my kitchen in Japan. Now to get working on that windowsill herb garden..
Take a spa break
The morning exercises will feel like a lifetime ago at this point. With a full belly (and more food to come), step into the slow lane and head for a massage at one of Saigon’s many serene spas; Golden Lotus is our personal favourite with skilled therapists and a steaming sauna. Try the 90-minute body and hot stone massage to leave feeling rejuvenated.
The best way to get to the Golden Lotus, and indeed anywhere in Saigon, is by Uber Moto. For those unfamiliar with Uber, it is an online app that that connects you with drivers using a real-time map; you simply put in your location and destination and the closest driver will pick you up. The trip is tracked on GPS and, best of all, the app has a secure server that charges directly to your credit card, so there is no cash interaction between you and the driver. A 20-minute ride on the back of an Uber motorbike shouldn’t cost you more than a couple of dollars.
Ho Chi Minh by night
The best part of the day, and for some the highlight of Ho Chi Minh, is a “Saigon After Dark” tour by Vespa Adventures. Ride pillion behind a local driver on a vintage Vespa scooter and experience some of the best nightlife and food spots this vibrant city has to offer. Endless drinks and huge amounts of delicious food is included in the tour price, so be sure to bring along your party hat and appetite! At $93 dollars it isn’t cheap, but it is excellent value for money.
You’ll be picked up at around 6pm from your hotel and will head to Café Zoom to meet up with the other tour members and companions for the evening. Once on the road, expect to visit these eateries to tuck into the following:
Nhà hàng hải sản (seafood restaurant)
• Crab legs roasted with salt: Càng ghẹ rang muối
• Clams steamed Thai style (with lemongrass and ginger): Nghêu hấp xã kiểu Thái
• Barbecued mussels with onion oil: Chem chép nướng mỡ hành
• Fried rice noodles: Bún gạo xào
• Deep fried frog legs (KFF= Kentucky Fried Frog): Ếch chiên bột
Nhà hàng Bánh xèo (rice pancake restaurant)
• Vietnamese spring rolls: gỏi cuốn
• Fried spring rolls: nem rán
• Rice flour pancakes: bánh xèo
• Barbequed beef: bò nướng vỉ
After putting down your final chopsticks to declare this 24-hour gastronomic experience over, head over to ‘Vung Oi!’, a cool little café for drinks and live music, before heading to ‘Acoustic Bar’ a small but buzzing club with live jazz.
The drivers will take you back to your hotel at around 10.30pm. If you’re not ready for bed just yet, finish off the perfect day in the perfect way with a cocktail overlooking the city at one of the many rooftop bars. Our favourite is on the 24th floor of the Liberty Central Riverside Hotel.
If Richard’s 24 hours in Saigon has set your taste buds tingling or you want to discover other aspects of this evolving city, then you might like to try one of our Fully Tailored Journeys. Perhaps the 11-night Culinary Vietnam, or a trip with Richard himself on the Highlights of Vietnam small group tour in March 2018.