Mention Halong Bay or Banh Mi to anybody who’s been to Vietnam and watch their eyes glaze over for a few seconds. It’s a magical country, filled with great food, wonderful people and beautiful landscapes; enough to leave anyone who has been with a warm heart and fond memories. I had the pleasure of gracing its shores through Christmas and January this year, and this post is a small summary of the things I came to appreciate about Vietnam. I’ve tried to keep this short, just be glad you didn’t have to sit through the 1,500 photo marathon that some of my family was put through.
Street food is a cornerstone of Vietnamese culture, there’s something very humbling about sitting on the side of the road on kindergarten sized plastic chairs eating amongst the locals. Vendors magically come and go depending on the time of day, so the same spot two hours apart will often sell a different delight. Oh yeah, and it’s cheap. So cheap. I mean seriously, you’re only going to charge me a dollar for this freshly baked baguette filled with meat and chilli, and fifty cents for a coffee?
People are often pretty reluctant when it comes to street food in Asia. It’s dirty, it’s unhygienic and the meat has been sitting in the sun all day. Yeah, I was a bit wary at first too. I went in with the mindset of, “Yes, this might give me food poisoning, but hopefully it will be worth it.” I ate off the street every day, and guess what? I didn’t get food poisoning even once. There are a couple of pretty basic rules that you can follow.
- The dirtier the better. This one sounds counter-intuitive but, quite simply, the dirtier a food stall is, the longer it has been in business.
- If you’re genuinely worried, go for food that has to be cooked in front of you. Like BBQ.
- Make sure the soup pot is boiling.
My favourite place for food by far was Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon to many locals. The southern style food is really all on display here, simple but strong flavours, huge variety, and everything super fresh. I spent a lot of my time here just walking around eating, Snail Street was a highlight.
Approach to life
I felt like the Vietnamese approach to life was very much a ‘get it done’ and ‘what doesn’t kill you’ sort of mentality. It was very refreshing to see the lack of over the top boundaries that are imposed by Western Civilisation, whether it be through law or through social norms and expectations.
- There didn’t appear to be any sort of hygiene standards at the places I was eating, yet I wasn’t getting sick.
- I saw a man on a moped stick out his leg to push a trailer, because who really needs a car?
- On a tour through the Mekong Delta, one of my guides grabbed a sack from behind a house and pulled out a large snake, he draped it over someones neck and then disappeared for 15 minutes while a group of us just passed it around.
From what I could tell, life in Vietnam is pretty hard. Most people work 7 days a week, and often go for months at a time before having any days off. Many of the locals I met were working two jobs. Although they don’t have a lot of money, they genuinely seem to be happy in their lives. Most people were very friendly toward me, striking up conversations in the street, offering me directions or advice on where to eat; sometimes even ‘treating’ me to a meal themselves. My friend Marcus calls this the “white man superstar” effect. I can see where he’s coming from; I am white, with a ginger beard and a metal leg, walking through their local eateries and markets. I guess it must be kind of exciting.
Drifting through the mangroves of the Mekong Delta felt like being in a dream. There were no sounds but the birds chirping in stereo, and the slow paddle grazing the water every few seconds. Nobody spoke, and nobody breathed, it was a completely surreal experience; it was the kind of experience that makes you contemplate life. Sapa was similar: quiet, pondering and back to basics. I wasn’t visiting at quite the right time of year, but still found it stunning all the same. I could write an entire post on Sapa alone.
Halong Bay is a big ticket item, being a UNESCO heritage site. It is home to around 1,600 islands made of limestone, which you can spend a number of days sailing around. My experience of this was pretty touristy, on an overnight cruise boat with 20 other people, but still wonderful none the less. The fog cleared during the evening and there were some stunning views to be had.
Coffee easily gets a mention here. Strong drip coffee, iced or hot. I definitely came back addicted to condensed milk. You can also find it everywhere, there are cafes all over the place. In the south, people drink coffee like water. I was lucky enough to chance upon egg coffee in Hanoi, egg whites are mixed into the condensed milk, giving a taste somewhat like tiramisu.
Wet markets are like farmer markets on steroids. Early each morning the freshest produce is trucked in from the nearby farms. Hundreds of different types of fruits and vegetables are on display, as well as meat being freshly cut to order. Fish, snails, and frogs (mostly live) are also kept in buckets around the place. At first it’s a bit of a shock, a strong stench of rotten food greets your nostrils as you enter, and it’s just such a different experience to anything you might see back home. Locals ride around on mopeds and stop at their desired stall to haggle pricing, they never even get off the moped.
If you’ve read this far, just know that it took my entire quota of will power for today not to add 300 extra photos and write a novel. To date, Vietnam is the most interesting place I’ve visited and this post gives only a taste of what it has to offer. I’m really looking forward to going back one day.