In a happy coincidence of timing, a fellow blogger and her husband recently started their own tour company, Saigon Street Eats. Their focus is solely on the local street food of Ho Chi Minh City, and they have several tours to choose from. We opted for their “Seafood Trail,” billed as a nightime eating adventure. Barbara and Vu met us at our hotel, swapped their motorbike for a taxi (since weren’t keen to take the local means of transportation) and off we went. The so-called Snail Street is a bustling road, far off the tourist path, and lined with restaurant stalls cooking up loads of fresh seafood on the sidewalk. As it turns out, “snails” is a catch-all word the Vietnamese use for creatures of the sea, and the variety available was astounding. We pulled up a plastic stool and happily waited for our feast to begin.
Since we were up for it, our feast began with actual snails, teeny-tiny ones with closed shells that we dug out with safety pins. They were a lot of work, but their delectable sauce made every second worthwhile. It was so good, in fact, that we bought a baguette from a passing street vendor to mop up every last drop.
We devoured grilled mussels topped with herbs and crushed peanuts and massive skewers of barbecued shrimp that the gentlemen chivalrously peeled. Our last dish was a giant conch, steamed in its shell and then cut into bits. Supposedly it is an aphrodisiac, but the verdict is still out on that.
After cleaning our plates and leaving the shells on the ground local-style, we moved down the street to finish the evening with more snails and traditional Vietnamese hotpot. These were special snails, however. Since their shell has no “back door,” their waste – considered a delicacy – has no place to go and this apparently makes for some tasty eating. The goal was to pull the entire snail from its shell, excrement and all. We gamely popped them in our mouths to chants of “eat the poo!”
The next challenge, fueled by several bottles of Saigon Red beer, came in the form of wasabi oysters. The fist-sized shellfish were served on ice before being marinated in a wasabi-based sauce. I knew from previous sushi-eating experience that I have a low wasabi tolerance so my companion tackled this one on his own. I squared off against the clams with lemongrass and ginger, which were much more to my liking. I could eat a bowl of them every day and be happy as, well, a clam.
The evening culminated with hotpot, a traditional Vietnamese way to end a meal. The broth was heated on a portable gas burner as one by one the ingredients were added: winter melon, spinach, cilantro and crab, which turned bright orange when it was done. Noodles were added to everyone’s bowls before the hearty stew was ladled on and we started slurping.
After being deposited back at our hotel, our gracious and fun-loving hosts hopped back on their bike and rode off into the night. We felt less like we’d just taken a tour and more like we’d just shared a meal with great friends.
Which of these seafood delicacies would you most like to try?