What made Vietnam special for me — sidewalks, street food, coffee, wandering, motorbikes, daytrips, local guides, making mistakes, and traveling with an adventurous friend.
Yesterday we left Việt Nam. It was bitter sweet. I’m looking forward to getting home but Việt Nam gets in your pores. I will miss . . .
SIDEWALKS – In Việt Nam’s cities, sidewalks are primarily a parking lot for motorbikes or space for pop-up street food stands with small plastic stools and tables (and I do mean small). You rarely find space to walk so you find yourself on the street weaving between honking motorbikes and cars and crowds of people. Shops not only open directly on the sidewalks, their wares spill out onto them. Homes (which are typically directly above the shops) also are indistinguishable from the sidewalks and the shop. You often see Grandma watching television, motorbikes driving into the living rooms for safe keeping, and parents running between their stall selling bamboo ladders, phố or party goods and their toddlers. To say that sidewalks are vibrant is a grand understatement.STREET FOOD – The inspiration for this trip was Tony’s obsession with Anthony Bourdain and his myriad episodes praising the street food of southeast Asia. Our first night was a tour with “Street Food Man” where Nana and Huy took us on their motorbikes through four districts of Sài Gòn and more than eight stops. We were in love. The food lived up to the hype. My key tip if you are in Vietnam is to look for a stall that only serves one dish and is filled with local Vietnamese. Don’t hesitate to simply plop down on a stool. The language barrier is never a problem. You’ll quickly be served a treat that offers flavor combinations more vibrant and diverse than any you’ve had in the past. The mothers and grandmothers that served me exceled at the dishes they specialize in and build up a loyal following whether it is for their oc biển (sea snails), Bún Riêu Cua (meat rice vermicelli soup), Bánh Koht, . . . You can’t go wrong. Tony’s doctor also advised daily doses of Pepto-Bismol as a means to avoid digestive issues and, with the exception of one day, it protected us and allowed us to be quite adventurous (see the CDC page for confirmation of that advice).
COFFEE – I have had Vietnamese coffee in the past. In fact, our neighborhood in Arlington was once called Little Vietnam since it had a preponderance of mom and pop Vietnamese restaurants run by refugees from the war. Our family would make a weekly pilgrimage until gentrification brought us Cheesecake Factory and other signs of “progress.” BUT I had not truly appreciated it until we got to Sài Gòn. The slow drip coffee is so exceptionally rich and dark that it is like velvet on your tongue. It is typically served with condensed milk but we had it with butter and frothed egg also. They were all wonderful. You can read Tony’s blog on a clay pot coffee shop we went to in District Three that has a special place in our hearts. You can also buy weasel coffee. I was incredulous when Tony first described it and assumed it must be a trick they play on tourists. But it is true. They brew coffee from beans that weasels eat and that they later extract from their excrement. Enough said – other than that I have a bag I’m bringing home.
WANDERING – Walking in Sài Gòn and Hanoi can be harrowing. All the guidebooks tell you to simply walk slowly and steadily through the traffic that will whiz past you and the cacophony of horns honking. It all seems like a suicide mission until your first successful crossing. It works! Drivers only need predictability. One of our favorite t-shirts was one with a traffic signal – it said Green light means GO, Yellow light means GO, Red light means GO. It is not far from the truth. As a result, the drivers are all hyper attentive. When your nerves allow, you can see the masterful dance that takes place among trucks, cars, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians. They weave together seamlessly, and I did not see a single accident.
MOTORBIKES– Now the best way to watch that dance is from the back of a motorbike. I could never drive a motorbike here but sitting behind an experienced Vietnamese driver allowed me to see and feel the energy of these cities. I did audibly gasp when we drove right through a market with squawking chickens and writhing eels only inches from my feet and down alleys where I was sure my guide was enjoying the thrill of threading the needle. By the end I craved the adrenaline rush. Watch out Washington motorists, I’ve learned new tricks. We also made a game of spotting motorbikes with the largest number of passengers. The “four-fer” was the winner and was often seen with families with small children. Tony’s photo below is a classic.
LOCAL GUIDES – We took food tours in Sài Gòn and Hanoi, a trip through the Mekong delta and a motorbike ride through Hanoi. For each experience, the two of us had the joy of our own guide. You could board a motorbus or join a gaggle of tourists and receive a detailed history of the setting or description of the cuisine from the group’s guide but I would not trade our experience for these tours. First off, the cost is so modest in Vietnam that price is not really a consideration. More importantly, you not only can have all of your questions answered but you also begin to tread into more sensitive topics of culture, personal life, values and politics. (See my prior post for another recommendation on in-depth and personal exchanges by volunteering.)
DAYTRIPS – I love cities and I enjoyed every minute in Sài Gòn and Hanoi. The energy truly is addictive, but I also appreciated opportunities to get into the countryside. Tony and I had a little over two weeks and we didn’t want to be changing hotels daily so we grounded ourselves in the two major cities of Vietnam. Day trips to the Mekong Delta and an overnight cruise on Halong Bay allowed us to travel the highways and back roads of Vietnam, luxuriate in idyllic settings and gain deeper insights into the country. We only scratched the surface so I’ve already begun plotting out the next itinerary and would appreciate any tips you might share.
MAKING MISTAKES – One day in Sài Gòn I had a list of temples to visit and Tony was kind enough to humor me. What I didn’t realize was that the Grab app (similar to Uber) was not particularly sophisticated (or perhaps it was the user) and we ended up at the wrong Quân Ấn temple. We were 40 minutes away from the Cholơn neighborhood I had wanted to explore, an area of the city that used to be filled with Chinese immigrants with ancient temples around every corner. When we walked into the “wrong” Quân Ấn temple, a small group of nuns or lay people dressed for a ceremony, eyed us with curiosity. It appeared that not many Westerners ventured to this neighborhood. They kindly nodded and we removed our shoes and entered the temple. It was beautiful and exceptionally peaceful. As I reflect on the myriad temples we visited, this remains one of my favorites. It was not a mistake at all.TRAVELING WITH AN ADVENTUROUS FRIEND– The truth is I would not have gone to Vietnam and Laos this year without Tony’s prodding. Upon reflection, I’m not sure I could think of a better travel companion. Who else would put up with my pleas to walk past the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh and spend hours in the War Remnants Museum in Sài Gòn detailing the legacy of Agent Orange and the Vietnamese perspective on their fight for independence? Who else would share my joy in meditating with a former novice from a Buddhist monastery? Without Tony, I would not have stopped at a village making Lao Lao (rice whiskey) or taken a cooking class. Together we did it well! And did I mention that he has elite status with airlines and hotels that gave us perks I’ve rarely experienced.
Our families and friends will now need to put up with us as we get together and recount our adventures in excruciating detail. But those tales deserve to be told and the memories will be treasured for years to come.
And fear not – the story on this blog is not over. Tony and I have much more to offer so keep your eyes out for the next installments.