Saigon Street Eats
Recently started by an Aussie-Vietnamese duo of Barbara and Vu, SSE aims to bring Vietnamese street food to visitors, served with a side of culture. Returning to Vietnam after a stint abroad, Barbara remembers, “I realised I wanted to do all my favourite things like eating snails and going to my favourite pho place. So why not try and share all these fantastic places?” Tours are thematic: pho, veggie, seafood or family. The Pho Trail tour takes place in decidedly untouristy Binh Thanh and takes visitors past shops selling Buddha statues, betel nuts and wedding dresses, leading into discussions on Vietnamese religion and customs, often with the twist of seeing things from an expat point of view.
Half-day tours start at VND735,000; www.saigonstreeteats.com
Ho Chi Minh Free Tours
HCM Free Tours has more than 15 volunteer guides (university students looking to improve their English) who take visitors on a half-day walking itinerary, covering sights such as the Opera House and the People’s Committee Building. Ngan, the group’s administrator says, “Often visitors walk around without understanding much about what they’re seeing or about Vietnamese people”. Tips are not expected but visitors often chip in towards gas money or cover admission costs. As the name implies, tours are free.
Saigon Cooking Class
Ben Thanh Market is known for being iconic and kitschy but in reality, is a living, breathing market for locals as well. Ilda, SCC’s managing director says, “Ben Thanh is the central ‘first served’ market so all the freshest ingredients are there.” An English-speaking chef leads the one-hour tour and takes advantage of long-standing relationships with sellers who patiently answer questions about everything from odd-looking fruits to the myriad uses of the lotus plant. The unfettered access to otherwise sullen vendors alone may already be worth the cost of the cooking class.
Half-day classes including market tour start at VND955,500; www.saigoncookingclass.com
The ultimate way to travel like a local may be to couchsurf. There are nearly 3,000 hosts registered in Ho Chi Minh City, the vast majority of them local Vietnamese. While the premise implies simply somewhere to spend a few nights, hosts often spend time with surfers, showing them the sights or sharing a home-cooked meal. My Pham, a long-time CS host says, “We usually just hang out or have dinner at a local restaurant. If they’re travelling alone, I can even take them on my motorbike to places like the Cu Chi Tunnels or the Cao Dai temple.” Tony Huynh who has hosted about 50 surfers adds, “I show them bus routes so they can get around or take them clubbing or shopping. It’s all about friendships and meeting new people.” Even for those not looking for accommodation, the CS forum is a great place to meet up with enthusiastic locals.
Setting up an account to host or surf is free at www.couchsurfing.org