In many ways, since coming to Southeast Asia, I’ve lost my faith in TripAdvisor. Everywhere you look here, hotels and restaurants are posting their “TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence” as though they’re best in class. Well, we can’t all be excellent now, can we? Some of the sights and attractions that rated high, I found them to be average. Then again, it’s personal, right? Well, XO Tours, particularly the XO Foodie Tour rates as the top activity.
It didn’t disappoint.
The ticket price for one person is a gut-wrenching $70 USD. When you’re aiming (and failing) for a budget of $60 per day for two people, that’s quite the hit.
And yet, I don’t regret a single dollar.
We were picked up from our hotel by our two drivers, Hoang and Hue (I am totally spelling their names wrong…). Their English was fantastic, they were curious about us and the conversation seemed very genuine. Having experienced two days of the terrifying drivers in Saigon, it’s fair to say that David and I were nervous to be passengers on the backs of scooters. The helmets here would NOT protect you if you fell off the bike. However, the XO tour drivers are phenomenal. I never felt nervous, as the ladies were calm and proficient drivers.
Our first stop was for Ban Bo Hue, a soup that looks similar to Pho, but it specific to the Hue region. The goal of XO Foodie Tour is not for the tourist to try the specialties of Vietnam, per se, but rather to give you a unique culinary experience by trying food that you would not easily find in restaurants on your own, and unlikely to find on your own in Saigon. This soup was delicious, though the thick rice noodles are meant for the more dexterous chopstick wielders, of which I am not one.
Stop number two took us to Saigon’s Chinatown area, District 5. This area is bustling and the streets are packed with bulk goods for purchase. As we zipped through the market I spied tubs of live fish, crabs and prawns, ready for a fresh sale. The Chinese population in Saigon is impressive, with a community of over 500,000.
For our third destination, we ended up at a local hot pot spot. Hot pots, in Vietnam, basically mean you make your own soup. The restaurant provides you with the freshest ingredients, and as a table you make up your own soup combo. Rather than have soup, we used the table’s barbecue to grill up okra, prawns, squid, goat meat and… drum roll… frogs! With the slippery suckers, you had the choice of skin on or skin off. Naturally we tried both. Skin on definitely tastes more Kermit-like than skin off. My favourite dish at this stop would be the goat meat. It was succulent and not nearly as spicy as my first experience of goat meat at an Ethopian restaurant. I vividly remember the jugs of water I consumed after one bite. The okra, on the other hand, had my lips on fire for the entire meal.
While we digested our food, individuals on the tour teamed up with our drivers for the XO Chopstick Champion challenge, playing pass the peanut. I naturally lost, but David left with an XO champion badge to call his own.
As we motored on to stop number four, we passed by a certain gas station. If you glance into the bushes lining the river, you see a long line of lawn chairs facing the water. This is where locals go for “privacy”. Many generations can end up living in the same home, so if you want to chill out and read a book in peace, or have a little one-on-one time with a “friend”, this is the place to – ahem – rent a chair, so to speak.
The fourth stop was in the expat district, a stark difference from the rest of Saigon. The sidewalks were wide and clear of motorbikes, meaning they were actually welcoming of pedestrians. There were many Western restaurant chains and a lot more cars on the road compared to the motorbike heavy population in the other districts. Our guide, Hui, pointed up at an apartment block, pointing out that over 60% of the lights were off, apartments empty. My assumption was that these apartments were bought by expats, but in fact, he said, many of them are owned by the wealthier 0.0001% in Vietnam and they don’t even both to rent them out.
Vietnam is a cash economy. Many people are distrusting of banks, so where do they believe is the best place to put their money? In property. Inflation in Vietnam and changing property values are volatile, harming some and making others extremely wealthy. According to Hui, in the past 10 years property values have soared exponentially (he said 20,000%, I’m not so sure about that stat). So the rich Vietnamese and expats buy condos and just wait for the cash to roll in. And what about a market bubble? Well, the conditions for ‘bubbles’ that we see elsewhere in the world don’t really apply to Vietnam. People here don’t have mortgages. They don’t have credit cards. They pay for their homes 100% in cash. So, without a credit crunch, can you really have a property bubble? I don’t know.
Our final stop was in District 4, the poorest district, and yet by my eyes the district with the busiest restaurants. We ate clams, scallops, crab claws, crispy pancakes and even… a nibble of the duck egg embryo. Let’s just say I tried the yolk and it tasted like yolk, but like old yolk. I can officially say I’ve done it, but will not be doing it again. Fear not if you’re worried about wasting the egg, though, because the drivers love them.
So, XO Foodies Tours costs $70 USD per person. Is it worth it? To me, absolutely. Yes, the dollar value is high for a five hour experience, but I got to try food I’ve never have tried and seen areas of Saigon that the average tourist will not visit. The drivers were interesting and above all safe on the roads. The food was phenomenal and we had a great time. To any visiting Saigon, I highly recommend XO Foodie Tours.