Vietnam = motorbikes. You can’t visit the country and not be overwhelmed by the sheer number of motorbikes everywhere. Add the seemingly complete disregard for traffic signals, lanes, crosswalks, pedestrians (any traffic rules, frankly) and you have to steel yourself to even set foot outside your door, let alone get on a motorbike. But if you place your fate in the hands of a capable Vietnamese citizen, you may actually start to appreciate the subtle dance that is traffic in bustling Vietnamese cities.
When our smiling, friendly guides (Molly & Lucy) picked us up from our hotel in Hoi An, we were nervous. Motorbikes in general aren’t a big part of the American transportation culture, so we aren’t particularly comfortable on them to begin with (ask me about our harrowing French Polynesia motorbike rental after I’ve put back a few drinks some day). But after only a few minute on the backs of their bikes, our guides quickly put us at ease and it turned into one of the best parts of our trip.
We started with a famous banh mi restaurant that Anthony Bourdain has designated the best banh mi in Vietnam (we’re not sure if we agree with Mr. Bourdain, but it was certainly delicious). Banh mi varies slightly from restaurant to restaurant, but this one featured roasted pork with crunchy pork skin and a delicious secret sauce. The French bread was crisp on the outside while soft on the inside, and the vegetables were fresh. Everything banh mi should be! Our guides informed us that this particular restaurant used to only be a street cart but had to expand because of their growing popularity. They currently serve several thousand sandwiches in an average day.
Next stop: the large market in the center of town, where we tried a few different traditional rice cakes (banh it and banh phu the) cooked in banana leaves. They’re integral parts of the Vietnamese marriage customs: one of the cakes signifies a marriage proposal and the other is a thank you from a bride-to-be to her parents. We also tried cao lau, a local dish with rice noodles incorporating the ash of a tree and the water from a specific island near Hoi An. The chewy, yellow noodles are topped with fresh herbs, tender roasted pork, and crisp bean sprouts.
We then sat and chatted over strong, iced Vietnamese coffee, sweetened with thick condensed milk. Our guides were young women with lots of questions about life in other countries, what we eat, and our impressions of their beautiful country. They were happy to answer any of our questions as well, and we learned things about Vietnamese life that we otherwise would have never known. This conversation alone would have made it worth taking the motorbike food tour!
But the next stop was probably the most interesting to me. We went to a Vietnamese home, where a family-run restaurant takes over the ground floor during the day. They set up plastic chairs and tables and serve only one thing: banh beo, or water fern cakes. It was like nothing I’d ever eaten before. They’re small bowls full of savory steamed rice cakes topped with dried shrimp, green onions, a secret sauce, and crunchy fried noodles.
At this point, we gave our stomachs a bit of a break and headed out of town to watch the sun set over a picturesque rice paddy (complete with enormous, gentle water buffalo). On our way back into town, we visited a beautiful old Buddhist temple at dusk. Our guides taught us a bit about the role of religion in Vietnamese culture and history, and we learned about some of the Buddhist symbolism that permeates daily life.
Back to food. The food highlight of the tour for me was at a tiny temporary street food stand where the prioprietress served banh khot, which are savory coconut pancakes made of rice flour, turmeric and coconut milk. They’re topped with a tiny quail egg and fried until the outsides are crunchy but the insides are still creamy. The little pancakes are served over fresh greens and crisp bean sprouts. Banh khot is everything that I love about Vietnamese food in one (big) bite: something rich, crisp vegetables, lots of fresh, astringent herbs, and the quintessential salty/sweet/sour sauce. Add spicy sauce based on your personal preference.
From here, the food begins to blur as our stomachs filled up. We went to a traditional Vietnamese restaurant, which was open-air (like most of Vietnam), raucous, and casual. We tried clams in lemongrass broth, stir fried frogs, and grilled meat wrapped in herbs. We declined to partake, but watched one of our guides eat balut, a duck egg with a half-developed embryo. They offered dessert, but we settled for a plate of beautiful fresh fruit.
The Motorbike Street Food Tour was one of the highlights of our trip to Vietnam (and at the time of writing, the cost is only $45/person for about a 4-hour tour). We had conversations we never would have had, ate things we never would have eaten, saw things we never would have seen, and got to ride a motorbike without worrying about our safety (at least as much as is possible in the craziness of Vietnamese traffic)! I can’t recommend this tour highly enough if you’re planning a trip to Vietnam. (The same company also offers several walking tours if you’re nervous about riding a motorbike!)
Thank you to Hoi An Tourism for arranging our Motorbike Food Tour! As usual, all opinions are our own and we would never endorse products or services that we don’t truly believe in!