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Tour operators often direct travelers to popular, tourist-friendly restaurants and attractions. If your clients stray from the beaten path in Ho Chi Minh City, however, they will discover all of the authentic and tourist-free delights the city has to offer and have a more meaningful experience.
For a dynamic city tour from a local’s perspective, book your clients on a Vespa nightlife and street food journey with Vietnam Vespa Adventures. My guide — Dat, a young Vietnamese villager with an Australian accent — picked me up at my hotel, the InterContinental Asiana Saigon, and we buzzed off into the streets on a scooter. It was quite thrilling to be hitched onto the back of his Vespa, a mode of transportation that also happens to be one of the most practical ways to explore the city. It's fast, convenient and perfectly safe.
We made a quick stop at Zoom Cafe in Pham Ngu Lao, the preferred street for backpackers. Clients can expect good, cheap beer and a young crowd here.
We then dashed over to District 4, about a 15-minute ride away. Along the way, Dat pointed out monuments and attractions, even stopping off at the famous Ben Thanh Market to browse the imitation designer wares. Dat introduced me to Vinh Khanh, an outdoor restaurant known for serving some of the best seafood in Ho Chi Minh City. I won't argue. The clams were cooked in lemongrass, ginger, galanga and sugar; the crab legs were fresh and meaty; and deep-fried frog legs were divine.
“This is just your appetizer,” Dat said with a smile, then whisked me away back to District 1 to eat at Banh Xeo.
Banh Xeo is unassuming and, just like Vinh Khanh, there are no tourists in sight. The restaurant is famous for its crispy pancakes — the cooks still use traditional wood-burning fires in an open kitchen. My pancake was delicious, filled with egg and shrimp. I also quickly became addicted to the DIY beef BBQ, cooked tableside.
The Mekong Delta is outside Ho Chi Minh City and home to a crucial waterway system used to transport goods and deploy soldiers. It's a sublime, quiet and sunny two-hour excursion that provides a colorful view of farm, fishing and village life.
When I arrived, I first went for a riverboat cruise along the Mekong River, with fishermen at work on the banks and children splashing in the water. After the cruise, I hopped on a bicycle and explored the streets of Cai Lay, stopping at various homes and thatched-roof factories to watch women make rice paper for spring rolls. As I continued on the journey, I passed traditional monkey bridges (long, tethered branches that act as a bridge over a river), swaying palms, coconut trees and friendly locals.
Though I could have stayed on that bike indefinitely, I was wooed by the hospitality of a farmer named Hai, who gave me a closer look at local life. He led me onboard a wooden rowing boat, and we floated down a narrow canal while white and black ducks quacked and swam around us. We visited his sprawling fruit garden to eat fresh mango and jackfruit.
Finally, to end the daytrip, I had lunch at another local's home, a 130-year-old ancient structure with wooden posts and hand-carved furnishings next to a lotus-filled pond. We ate whole fried fish, spring rolls, pork and rice and a traditional pineapple, tomato and shrimp soup. It wasn't until I left that I realized how authentic the experience was. There were no solicitors, no tourist centers and, in fact, no tourists at all.
Visitors have the option to stay overnight in a local's home through Pique Travel, which truly enhances the experience. Guests will cook, fish and dine with the host family during the program. It’s the ultimate way to experience the life of a local.
Cathay Pacific AirwaysCathay Pacific Airways offers non-stop flights from LAX and NYC to Hong Kong with connection to Ho Chi Minh City.www.cathaypacific.com/cx/en_US.html
Intercontinental Asiana SaigonThis is an excellent 305-room business and leisure hotel right in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Rooms start at $184.www.intercontinental.com
Pique Travel DesignIt's a good idea to book with a tour operator when traveling to Vietnam. With Pique Travel, I was escorted by a knowledgeable guide and driver in a comfortable car daily, and all entrance fees were already taken care of. Additionally, Pique Travel is one of very few operators that offer the village experience in Mekong Delta. www.piquetravel.com
Vietnam Vespa AdventuresExplore the locals’ world by Vespa in Ho Chi Minh City. vietnamvespaadventures.com/tours/hochiminh