|Street view: Tour guides and motorbike taxi drivers working at Back of the Bike Tours help travellers discover the city. — VNS Photo XO Tours
by Hong Thuy
A motorbike ride is the best way to take in the sights and sounds and taste the local cuisine in the less explored parts of Ho Chi Minh City.
Tourists interested in this form of sightseeing can use backofthebiketours.com, whose name literally suggests riding pillion on a bike with a tour guide to discover the city from close quarters.
Alternatively, if you are tired of eating restaurant food and want to spice things up with the local cuisine, tour guides can also help you savour some of the street food that is on offer at the city's pavement food stalls, where you can also enjoy the city's street views through the course of the day.
Some of the food available at these street hangouts offers unusual culinary experiences. For instance, some of these dishes include trung vit lon (fertilised duck), banh xeo (or ‘sizzling' cake, which is a savoury fried crepe made of rice flour, water, and turmeric powder and stuffed with chopped pork, shrimp, green onion and bean sprouts), thit heo nuong Ha Noi (spicy Ha Noi grilled pork), and banh canh ghe (flat rice noodles with crab meat and stock), as well as various kinds of fruit.
"My job is to introduce our customers to the local food and tell them how it is processed and eaten. For example, I tell them how trung vit lon is half-hatched in a way that allows the foetal duck egg to develop into a moderate chick with a more pronounced feather, bone, and beak. I also show them how to boil it and how to eat the egg with a common herb called 'persicaria,'" said Nguyen Le Nhu Nguyet, a motorbike-taxi driver and tour guide.
"Only 20 per cent of our customers want to try trung vit lon, and merely half of them are able to finish eating one egg. The rest consider the food unpalatable. The Vietnamese eat some dishes that might be considered repulsive to those who are unfamiliar with them. Therefore, we usually check with our customers first if they want to try the dish before it is served," Nguyet added.
Meanwhile, tour guide Nguyen Phuong Anh recounts the experience of showing an Australian tourist how to fry banh xeo.
"It was a joyful experience, but the cake was a little burnt underneath, even though we had carefully set the oven on medium heat," Anh said.
Established some three years ago, Back of the Bike Tours is the brainchild of a Vietnamese-American couple, who started the business with very few customers. As time elapsed, more people heard about the service after seeing posts about it on tripadvisor.com.
We have seen a year-on-year fillip of 30 to 40 per cent in the number of customers at Back of the Bike Tours, company manager Phan Thi Quynh Hoa pointed out.
Customers of the company are mainly from Australia, America, and Europe. Very few are Asian, and there are almost no Vietnamese since they are already familiar with the local cuisine and sights in the city.
Nguyet said she has conducted tours for nearly 100 customers, and many of them have become her friends on Facebook.
She recalled the distant memory of an American traveller, whom she had taken on her motorbike for a city tour and who later became her friend. Nguyet said she had sprained her right hand on that tour since the bike was overloaded as the customer sitting on the pillion seat was slightly hefty.
"I was worried that the traveller might ask me to stop driving since he knew that I had to strain every nerve to drive the motorbike. Instead of doing that, he told me not to worry and to keep driving," Nguyet recalled.
There are about 30 employees working at Back of the Bike Tours. Those still under training like Nguyet, are employed as part-time tour guides. Others work full time. No matter how different their backgrounds are, they are all proficient in spoken English.
Having done this job for almost a year, Nguyet, who is a final-year student at the Finance and Marketing University in HCM City, keeps encountering different situations while interacting with tourists.
Some customers seem reserved and are unwilling to talk with tour guides. This is a challenge for Nguyet as she has to make them feel comfortable while touring.
"For example, a customer advised me not to talk while I was driving and introducing her to the city. I remember thinking that she might have been worried about the traffic and wanted me to concentrate on safe driving. Anyway, I still felt as if I was treated like a motorbike taxi driver rather than a tour guide," Nguyet said.
"It was a good lesson for me to learn. After having spent some time with the customer, I found out that she was only keen to talk about her favourite topics. As such, now I know how to choose suitable topics to discuss with travellers from different countries."
Like the other staff members working at Back of the Bike Tours, Nguyet said the job not only helps her improve her English but has also made her more aware of the history and culture of other countries.
Nguyet said it was not easy to get this job. She had to pass three rounds of interviews testing her English proficiency and knowledge of culture, history, and gastronomy. In addition to that, she also had to demonstrate her ability to drive safely.
"It is a very interesting job, but I think it is not an appropriate option for me in the long run. You have to come to terms with being alone as long as you do this job. This is because my job needs me to work at night and not many of my friends want to go out with me during the day as that is the time they are working," she said.
Although Luu Bui Ky shared similar concerns, she said she is very keen on helping travellers understand Viet Nam through visiting places of cultural and historical interest, experiencing people's daily life in traditional markets, and seeing the changes the city is undergoing.
In return, Ky said she has formed a close bond with the city.
"The more I understand my city, the more I love it. One cannot be a good tour guide if one does not love one's country," Ky noted. — VNS