Saigon was another unplanned trip destination. Besides its well known War Remnants Museum, I hadn’t heard a lot of great things about the city… in fact what I had heard led me to envision a place bordering on total madness, full of people, motorbikes, and the suffocating pollution that all too often accompanies both of those things. Well, after finding myself with a few extra days to kill and on a breezy flight from Phnom Penh, within an hour of arriving I couldn’t have been happier at my last minute decision!

You guys, Saigon is awesome. Shame on me for taking a guidebook’s single perspective as the absolute truth; instead of a chaotic cluster of traffic and people, I was thrilled by the super fun, friendly, and extremely modern city. (Sidenote: Saigon is also referred to as Ho Chi Minh City, but because every local I spoke to, both young and old, referred to it as Saigon, I’ve used that name here.)

Unfortunately everything the guidebooks do say about the traffic is true: in a city of 8 million people there are almost the same number of motorbikes(!), buzzing around like flies from all directions at all times of the day. Apparently it only costs ~$1200 to buy a motorbike, while cars are exponentially more expensive with the added burden of having to pay another 200% in taxes!! Thus, the popularity of motorbikes. As one girl explained to me: “In America you say ‘no money, no honey’. In Saigon we say ‘no bike, no honey!'”

If you can’t beat them join them, so during my three days in HCMC I opted for not one, but two motorbike tours from the super awesome Back of the Bike Tours company. The first tour I selected was a street food tour, and jumping on the back of a bike within two hours of landing in Saigon was the perfect introduction to the city.

The company was actually started by an American expat a few years ago, and is now run by local students and recent graduates, one of whom you’re matched up with for the day or night. The tours are super highly rated on TripAdvisor and popular with visitors from all over the world!

Over the course of four hours you’re guided throughout the districts of Saigon in a big group, stopping at various locales to try the very best of Saigon’s local cuisine. Unlike in the States, most restaurants in Vietnam specialize in just one dish, so we visited five different spots over the course of the night ranging from streetside foodstands to legitimate sit down restaurants.

Above and below are images of our lesson on making Banh Xeo, a crispy rice flour crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts.

Listed below are a few of the dishes we tried that night. Depending on seasonality and day of the week the menu is always changing.

Green papaya salad with chili sauce and dried beef liver (which tasted like beef jerky!)

Grilled pork skewers and sausage with chili sauce

And my personal favorite, Crab soup with tapioca noodles, fried fish cake and green chili sauce

There was one dish however that I politely declined: considered a delicacy in Vietnam, Balut are essentially baby chicken embryos boiled in the shell two to three weeks after fertilization. Once cracked open you can see their little eyes and skeletal wings, and the parts around are eaten right up. (In case you were wondering, this is the face I make when watching one being eaten…)

Because Saigon has been controlled by a number of different foreign nations in the last several centuries, there is a wide range of distinct architecture and historical sites located across the city. There are thirteen different districts in total and due to traffic it can be quite time consuming to cross more than a few within a single day. For this reason getting around on motorbike is the ideal way to see the city. (On an alternative note, the best advice I received for crossing the streets in Vietnam is to just pretend you’re blind; motobikes make look like they’re coming right at you, but they will not hit you. And whatever you do, don’t stop or take a step back!)

For my second Back of the Bike Tours trip I opted for a day tour visiting the most famous of Saigon’s historical sites. Starting in the old French Quarter we visited the neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral, built between 1877 and 1883 using actual bricks from Marseilles, France. The church is super serene and calming, a nice respite from the noise of the city outside.

Across the street is Saigon’s historic central Post Office.

Another example of a heavily French-influenced building in Saigon, it’s a popular background for couples when taking wedding photos. It was super cute to see a local couple getting shots taken outside.

Apparently the custom in Vietnam is to actually rent several outfits for picture taking in the weeks leading up to a couple’s wedding. Above you can see an example of a traditional wedding gown and suit.

After leaving the old French Quarter we visited the famous historical Chinese district, referred to as Cholon. Here is me and my sweet guide outside of the Thiên Hậu Temple.

In addition to using the temple for prayer and worship, local Buddhists and visiting foreigners can make an offering by purchasing incense rings to burn for good luck and prosperity. After receiving a red ribbon with the Chinese symbols for love, good health and prosperity, a person’s name is written and then attached to a large incense ring like the ones shown hanging below. Once lit, due to their huge size they can stay burning for up to a week!

Lastly, no visit to an Asian city would be complete without visiting a market, so my lovely guides took me next to a little local market. Selling primarily vegetables, fruits and meats, one is reminded walking through the crowded aisles that the whole concept of farm to table isn’t just a trend here, it’s a way of life. Locals visit the market every day, sometimes multiple times a day, to get the freshest ingredients possible for cooking.

At the market I tried another favorite dish from my time in Vietnam: roughly the equivalent of an American breakfast burrito, the dish is a mixture of rice, sweet red beans and coconut! Super delicious!

Thanks to the sweet people and tasty food in Saigon, the city quickly became one of my favorite places to date during my two months in Asia. If you’re up for an adventure, a huge variety of sights and spots to explore and foreign dishes to try, I know you’ll love it too!

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie