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A Walking Tour with Saigon’s Street Food Man

I can ride and drive any vehicle with four wheels. But two wheels? No, thank you. So, when I was choosing which street food tour to book in Saigon, I opted for a walking tour. I’d rather see Saigon on foot than on the back of a motorbike.

Choosing the “right” street food tour

You may not be like me. You may find exploring Saigon on the back of a motorbike more exciting and convenient. Travel the city the way the locals do. Whether choosing to go on a street food tour by walking or on a motorbike, choose a tour that will give you an authentic experience.

Authentic?

If you search the web for street food tours in Saigon, you will get overwhelmed by the sheer number of services offered, the themes, the duration and the menu. Most offer what are considered “safe” and acceptable to tourists. Others will give you a taste of what the locals eat.

Street Food Man, the name of a street food tour service in Saigon, advertises that it will bring you beyond touristy District 1 to experience street food the way the locals enjoy it. I booked a tour for our first night in Saigon.

A “private” street food walking tour

I received the first text message from Finn almost as soon as we landed in Saigon. It was just to introduce himself as our guide for the night’s walking tour and nothing more.

The next text message came a little after noon to inform us that we were going to be picked up at around 6.00 p.m. and asking if we had food allergies. My daughter can’t eat oysters and I can’t eat crabs, I said. “Noted,” came the reply, “I’ll arrange suitable food for you and your daughter during the tour.”

Out of curiosity, I asked how many we were in the group. Finn said, “This is a private tour. So, there are just three of us.” And that was how I learned what “private tour” means. Fantastic.

Not that I have anything against group tours. We did that in Japan and it was fine. But only because the rules and timetables were enforced strictly. In Kyoto, we were scheduled to leave the Golden Pavilion at noon and drive straight to lunch. There was a couple who still hadn’t boarded the bus at the appointed time. We waited ten minutes and left without them. I learned later that they took a taxi to the lunch venue. Served them right.

But a walking tour is different. If some are too easily distracted and they stop too often and for too long, or if some walked too slowly, everyone else is affected. When I was reading user reviews while looking for tours, I encountered horror stories about delays because two or more members of the tour group took too long taking selfies. I didn’t want any of that crap so I was relieved that there would just be Finn, Alex and myself that night.

Finn was our street food tour guide for the night

Shortly before 6.00 p.m., I received another text message from Finn. He was downstairs waiting for us. We were almost ready, I told him. We put on our shoes and came down.

We shook hands as we introduced ourselves to one another. He had already booked a Grab ride, Finn said, but it was rush hour, traffic was bad and the Grab ride was taking longer than usual. No problem, I assured him. We chatted on the sidewalk. Finn mistook Alex for a high school student (more people would make that mistake during our week-long stay in Saigon). We learned that the street food tours were a side gig for Finn. By day, he worked in a travel agency. Tourism, he declared, is his passion.

The Grab ride arrived, we wove through the rush hour traffic to District 3 for the first items on the menu. Bánh xèo and bánh khọt.

Bamh xeo
Bánh xèo, folded eggless pancakes filled with mung bean sprouts, seafood and meat
banh khot
Bánh khọt, small crispy eggless pancakes filled with seafood or meat

We watched as the food was being cooked, took photos then sat down. We were hungry and more than ready to demolish the first dishes in our street food tour.

Herbs and vegetables served with bánh xèo and bánh khọt
Herbs and vegetables served with bánh xèo and bánh khọt

Before the pancakes were served, a basket of assorted vegetables and herbs was set before us along with complimentary iced drinks that Finn said was jasmine tea.

And here’s the first thing that convinced me that I booked the right street food tour. Finn introduced us to all the vegetables and herbs in the basket. He encouraged us to taste them one by one to savor their individual flavors and textures. Our curiosity was piqued and we started asking questions to learn more about them. More than anything, we were amazed at how fresh they were at that time of night. The herbs and vegetables came from farms in the nearby Mekong Delta, Finn explained.

When the pancakes were served, Finn showed us how to wrap them before dipping them in sauce.

Bo la lot, a Vietnamese street food made of beef wrapped in lolot leaves (referred to as "betel" by English speakers)
Bò lá lốt, a Vietnamese street food made of beef wrapped in lolot leaves (referred to as “betel” by English speakers)

That was how it was for the rest of the tour that took us to Districts 5 and 10 as well. There was never a dish nor a drink that Finn didn’t explain. It wasn’t just about eating delicious food. Finn, proud of Vietnamese food as he is, educated us to allow us to appreciate every morsel. It was about eating delicious food properly to feel layers of textures and savor layers of flavor. Context was everything.

Getting to know our tour guide

As the night wore on, we were talking about more than just food. Curious about what drives this young man, I egged him on to talk about himself and asked permission to write about him. The prospect excited him and I was glad.

Finn is a nickname. His real name is Phuong, the second of two sons of Nuong, a tailor. He grew up in Soc Trang City in the Mekong Delta where he earned a degree in Economics. But, as he had said earlier, his real passion is tourism. By the time were were enjoying our fourth dish in the street food tour, I understood his passion. It was difficult not to because he was living and breathing it. That passion was simply flowing out of him.

A sprawling apartment complex in Saigon that, according to our guide, once house U. S. soldiers
A sprawling apartment complex in Saigon that, according to our guide, once housed U. S. soldiers.

Like most Asians, family ties are strong with Finn. He brought us to a sprawling apartment complex with a Buddhist temple on the fourth floor. There, he talked about his family’s religious faith and how his mother goes to the temple back home to pray for the safety and success of her sons who are both living so far away from her. He sends money back home, Finn said. His mother sacrificed so much to send them to school and he wanted her to be comfortable now that he’s earning.

I was thankful that I chose Street Food Man‘s walking tour. I am grateful to Finn for the added depth to our understanding of Vietnamese food and culture. The tour was everything I hoped for, and more.

What was included in Street Food Man’s walking tour?

Pick-up from our accommodation (I think the availability of that little extra depends on where’re you’re staying in Saigon), Grab ride to the first destination, ALL street food in the tour menu and a Grab ride back to our accommodation.

Saigon street food tour: scallops, clams and morning glory
Top, right: scallops. Right: morning glory (a variety of water spinach). Bottom: clams with lemongrass.

If you plan to visit Saigon and are interested in a street food tour, check out Street Food Man which offers both private walking tours and private motorbike tours. No, those are NOT an affiliate links. I am just happily passing on information. I cannot guarantee that you will get Finn for your tour guide (there are a number of them in the group) but if his passion is any gauge, you probably will get a similarly wonderful experience.

Written By

I travel to eat, drink and learn new cuisines. Between trips, I write travel stories and share travel-inspired recipes. That is my idea of retirement with purpose.

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