I can't decide whether to place my hands around my driver's waist or put them behind my back and clutch onto the rear of the motorbike. It's a momentarily awkward decision. Holding a stranger around the tummy feels rather intimate, but holding the back of the bike feels like some form of rejection. Not the kind of vibe you want to project onto the person who holds your life in their hands. It sure feels like they do anyway.
The streets of Ho Chi Minh, in Vietnam, must rank as some of the world's most chaotic, a thrill park of tooting cars, overloaded motorbikes and largely ignored traffic lights that can make the uninitiated twitch with apprehension. One of these twitchers is travelling with me and I take vicarious travel-buzz joy in seeing her reaction to the mayhem. On this occasion, she gets on her bike and, I note, not only takes a firm hold of the tummy, she rests her head on the driver's back, bracing herself for the ride. I'm too seasoned for that, I concede. So I grab onto the back of the bike, cool as you like, and off we go.
A motorbike ride through Ho Chi Minh is an experience in itself (the city still relies largely on motorised scooters for transport), but the main aim today is an urban food tour. As it turns out the two complement each other rather well. Vietnam is famed for its street food and a zigzag around its busy roadways reveals a line-up of some of the country's most iconic culinary dishes – stalls on every corner sell stocky herb-dunked pho, crusty pork and pate-slathered banh mi rolls and bun cha patties. The patties, at their culinary best when eaten with a tangy orange dipping sauce, are responsible for the smell of marinated hot grill-cooked pork that continuously permeates the air. This olfactory marvel mingles with exhaust fumes and is somehow suspended in the stifling heat and humidity. If you had to bottle Eau de Ho Chi Minh or Essence de Saigon this would be it.
Our Taste of the Morning food tour, operated by Saigon Food Tours, starts at 7am and canvasses the anti-meridian culinary spectrum: early morning markets, breakfast, brunch and Vietnamese coffee. I can't remember ever being up this early in Vietnam, so it promises new fodder. Our drivers, who double as guides, are 20-something locals, mostly students, with plenty of enthusiasm for their city. The first stop is the perfect example of their enviable local knowledge. The city's streets are lined with flat-roofed, open-fronted concrete restaurants, but this one stands out in the crowd for its banh cuon, a traditional breakfast dish eaten throughout the country but mostly here in the south.
Like many Vietnamese eateries, the focus is on just one dish. As we enter the shop, ladies on squat metal stools are making to order, wiping a mixture of rice flour and water across a cloth stretched tightly over stainless steel steamers. When it's cooked the translucent gossamer thin circle is whipped off with a bamboo stick and slapped in a bowl. Chopped pork, mushroom and shrimp are folded in, and then it's topped with lettuce, bamboo shoots and fried Asian shallots.
At our long shared tables, we finish the dish by ladling watered down and lightly sugared fish sauce on top for a sweet-savoury taste sensation.
My driver Lily tells us locals might eat banh cuon for breakfast three or four times a week, usually in restaurants close to home. "It's always eaten out because the equipment makes it too hard to cook at home," she says. "A place like this would have had the same customers for many years, probably decades."
For 40,000 Dong a bowl, it sure beats a fry up.
Back on the scooters we head to Cho Xom Chieu produce market. Tourists don't frequent this place, perhaps because some of the offerings include live frogs – skinned – and fish with their pulsing hearts exposed. But other scenes are pure photo opportunity. Bare-foot, cross-legged women sit beneath ripped canvas awnings selling mounds of coriander and watercress. Conical-hatted grandmas in patterned PJs sell long beans from wicker baskets.
Tropical fruit is a diet staple for the southern Vietnamese because of the proximity to the Mekong Delta, and it's at its sweetest in December, the time of my visit. On stools at a stall we drink straight from fresh coconuts and munch on juicy longans, rambutan (known here as chom choms) and star apple, which has milky flesh that tastes similar to kiwifruit.
After a ride along the Saigon River, taking in a skyline that mixes colonial hotels with skyscrapers, it's coffee time. We park our scooters near a dilapidated older-style building with faded tiles, chipped concrete and an inner courtyard strung with washing lines. Up a musty staircase, sunlight casts angular shadows on amateur graffiti. On the fifth floor, Mockingbird Cafe is a boho charmer, a student's hangout overlooking the grandiose colonial bank building. I order a cup of the country's ubiquitous strong black coffee laden with condensed milk. It comes with the coffee dripping slowly from a metal filter – a waiting game for the caffeine deprived.
It's getting on for 11am. Our last stop is Ho Chi Minh's answer to brunch, lunch and dinner depending on where you're from. Bun bo, or beef noodles, is a base of stock boiled from pig knuckle, ox tail and lemongrass, the aroma tantalisingly strong in our open-air eatery. Fat rice-flour noodles, crab balls, slithers of beef and that shrimp sausage sporting a bright orange rim turn a soup into a meal. Banana flowers, morning glory, Vietnamese basil and sprouts are plonked on top.
From little side dishes I add a squeeze of lime, a spoonful of chilli sate (a mush of previously dried dark red chillies) and a splash of the original savoury fish sauce, the variety suited to dishes eaten later in the day.
Back on the bike, I'm sated and sweaty and on the verge of some kind of food coma. My newbie traveller has finally mastered the art of retaining her balance with her hands holding on behind. But after all that eating, I'm in for the hug, my head resting snugly on my driver's back as she rushes at great speed through all that tooting traffic.
Saigon Food Tour's Taste of the Morning tour costs $US48 and departs daily from 7.30am-11am. See saigonfoodtour.com/
Ho Chi Minh's newest hotel is Hotel Des Arts Saigon. It has glamorous rooms and a decadent rooftop bar and swimming pool. See accorhotels.com
Penny Watson travelled as a guest of Scoot Airlines and Accor Hotels