Ben and I have been in Vietnam for almost two weeks. In that time we’ve managed to make it from Saigon in the South to closeby Hanoi in the North, moving at a faster pace than normal. We have one month on our visa and have decided to spend most our time in the mountainous regions of the North.
For its size, Vietnam has a massive population of 90 million people. It’s one of the largest countries in Southeast Asia and the 13 largest country in the world. Just the sheer number of people alone made for a big change coming from Cambodia and Laos.
Saigon was an intense first impression. With over 7 million people, each of whom seems to own a motorbike, the city feels like organized chaos. Street food vendors and roadside markets spill onto the roads and narrow side alleys while heavy moto traffic flies by in each direction. I’m always amazed at how, with almost no adherence to western traffic norms such as lanes or directions, motobikers are able to maneuver around and between one another so fluidly and without the slightest inkling of fear.
Motobikes and family life in Southeast Asia go hand in hand. It’s almost cultural to see a mother or father driving a motorbike with their infant in tow or young child grasping on tightly wherever they can. Sometimes the whole family piles onto one bike. Seeing a family of four on a moto is common, but the most we’ve seen is five (although Ben claims to have seen seven while he lived in Cambodia). It makes sense that those behind the handlebar are so skilled as adults, they’ve been riding a bike pretty much every day since birth.
Most travelers we spoke to before going to Saigon said that it was ‘just a big city’ and ‘nothing special’. But we loved it and felt the complete opposite. It’s nice to get other travelers’ thoughts about a place, but so important to see things for yourself. Although the city is huge, we found the people and certain areas of town to be very neighborly and charming.
The best part of Saigon (and maybe Vietnam overall) is the food. From the first meal we had, squatting on tiny chairs, at a tiny table, in a side alley near our hotel, we’ve been entranced by Vietnamese food. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s salty, sweet, spicy, fragrant, and earthy all at once. It’s noodles mixed with mint and cilantro, coconut pancakes with shrimp and chili sauce, noodle soup with lemongrass and basil. Everything is fresh, unique and creative. And for the most part, the food on the street is the best. We spent a significant amount of time in Saigon wandering from street vendor to vendor sampling everything in sight.
Eating so much street food doesn’t come without risk. Although delicious, the standards we are used to back home, regarding how to handle food, simply don’t exist here. The same hands taking money for the food you order is also preparing your meal. I’ve seen slabs of raw meat in a market used as an exchange table where bills are places directly on the raw meat which is then placed directly in the vendor’s wallet, only to be given out as change later that day. Vendors never wash their hands or wear gloves. Dishes are lightly rinsed between customers. And if something falls on the dirty concrete floor while a meal is prepared, chances are it’s going right back in the bowl and not the trash. But in a place like Vietnam where the street food is the best food and the prices are so cheap, it’s hard to really care.
That’s not to say there haven’t been a fair share of emergency bathroom runs while out sightseeing around town. The urge strikes at any given moment and it’s completely unpredictable. The first reaction is sheer panic followed by a very serious plea for the room key and a fastwalk of Olympic speeds back to our hotel. But that’s all part of the fun I suppose.
After eating our way around Saigon for a few days we decided to move on to the central coastal town of Hoi An. I can’t imagine anyone not liking Hoi An. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s beautiful, historic, and romantic. The town was founded over 2,000 years ago and was once a major trading port. There are many ancient Chinese and Japanese temples and pagodas nearby. A river runs through the old town with occasional bridges connecting the two sides. At night the old town and bridges are lit by multicolored lanterns. Many people visiting the town take small wooden boats down the river to release lanterns into the water and make a wish. It’s is impossible not to love this town.
After we arrived we went to the market to try some of the local food Hoi An was known for: ‘Cao Lao’, a pork noodle dish and the other ‘White Rose’, steamed shrimp dumplings topped with roasted garlic.
One thing I noticed while eating out is that vendors always want to make sure you are enjoying the food and maximizing all the flavors of the dish, no matter if you’re at a nice restaurant or a food stall in the market. Making sure you’ve evenly distributed the chili sauce in your noodles, you have enough mint in your rice paper, or you’ve squeezed the lime into your pho is of the utmost concern. The inner foodie in the Vietnamese people I find really endearing. Telling them you really enjoyed the meal is always followed with a huge, proud smile.
We decided to continue our Vietnamese food odyssey and signed up for a cooking class. The class took place on an island right off the coast of Hoi An. Here we met with a local chef who taught us how to make fresh spring rolls, peanut sauce, a beef noodle dish and Pho. He provided the recipes for us when we left. Hopefully when I’m back home I can come close to replicating theses culinary masterpieces. If you are interested in making Vietnamese food, email me and I will send the recipes to you!
Unlike elsewhere in Southeast Asia we’ve been, you have to keep your guard up when taking local buses here. People working at the bus station will not hesitate to lie if it means they can make a bit of money. Their approach is often aggressive, grabbing your arm and leading you to a bus they say is yours, even if it’s going in the completely opposite direction. After all the work finding the right bus, you usually are charged much more than locals.
Anyone coming to Vietnam wanting to use the local bus system should do research before getting to the station, know what company to use and what time it leaves. If you want to just show up and ask questions, you had better bring your patience. Doing research before can be difficult sometimes because your hotel will not give accurate information. They will tell you the local bus isn’t direct or give you a false price in hopes you will book a private bus through the hotel. Because of all this, it’s hard to trust anyone working in the travel industry. If someone approaches us genuinely wanting to help and offer honest information, our guard is up and we are unwilling to give them the benefit of the doubt.
That being said, we’ve met many really friendly people here, people who handle themselves with the same gentle disposition as those living in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. The good experiences have far outweighed the bad.
We’ve spent the past 3 days at Phung Nha National Park in Central Vietnam. The scenery is unlike anything we’ve seen before, it’s been unforgettable. We are about to hop on a night bus and this time tomorrow we will be 100km outside of Hanoi, in the Ninh Binh province. Looking forward to Northern ‘Nam!
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