Vietnam Part I: Ho Chi Minh City
Dedicated to Tawny Thuytien Do
Table of Contents:
Part I: Ho Chi Minh City
Part II: Rural Life (Upcoming)
Part III: Tour Life pt. 1: Hue, DaNang, Hoi An (Upcoming)
Part IV: Tour Life pt. 2: Nha Trang & Dalat (Upcoming)
Disclaimer: This was my first trip to Asia, as well as my first trip to a developing country. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that my experiences often left me bewildered, awestruck, and occasionally stunned. Of course I realize I’m the zillionth person in recorded history to reflect on such cultural immersions, but seeing as these observations are contextually unique in time and space to myself, I ask you to forgive some of the callow thoughts I share here. Also, though the novelty of the trip may appear a bit doe-eyed and naive, it is not my intention to sound condescending or judgmental of the customs and lifestyles of the Vietnamese. Rather, I can state unequivocally and without hesitation that the three-week journey to Southeast Asia was the most staggeringly remarkable travel I have had the privilege of embarking upon. (In other words, I’m a white dude from California, so take what I say with a grain of salt.)
Many well intentioned friends attempted to prepare my fiancee and I for arrival in the nation’s tremendously dense capitol city. (Vietnam is amongst the most dense countries in the world; its density of population is actually twice as great as China’s.) They’d rattle off tales of scammers, pick-pocketers, government corruption, rampant traffic collisions, and more. After hearing so many horror stories, it’s no wonder I exited the Saigon airport gripping my luggage tightly and darting my eyes furtively in every direction.
I’m going to begin this travel series with the first of many contradictions and suggest that their tales are at once both hyperbolic and legitimate. Many of these things indeed occur, and we did in fact witness some particularly startling circumstances on more than one occasion — the most frequent being road-related mishaps (more on that later).
For the most part, however, we needed only to remain alert, not paranoid. We actually settled into the quirks and rhythms of the city fairly quickly, excepting the thick, smoky air. I soon nicknamed this oxygen wannabe ‘smiggarity’ — a combo of exhaust smoke, cigarettes, and heavy humidity. Believe it or not, you can actually begin to lose your voice after only several days in Saigon; my throat began to itch by day 2.
Settling into the city began the moment I walked white-knuckled onto the airport curb. I was ready to stave off an army of pick-pocketers if need be. However, instead of a waiting taxi, we were greeted by a sizable group of Tawny’s extended relatives and family friends (this information had not been relayed to me ahead of time, much to my 19-hours-on-a-plane-in-dire-need-of-deoderant-chagrin). Still clutching my luggage close (surely those thieving bastards were near!), I observed a joyful reunion lasting nearly 15 minutes amidst the throngs of people and smiggarity.
It wouldn’t be until we left the country nearly three weeks later — when nearly all of those same individuals returned to the airport with us (sans those who had to work that day) — that I realized my greatest admiration of Vietnam was reserved for the people.
But before I could begin to love the Vietnamese, I had to abandon my terror of their transit “system.”
There is one thing in Vietnam that, while not warranting paranoia, does warrant legitimate concern: Motorbikes. They’re fucking everywhere. (Sorry about the expletive; I was going to say that they are fricking everywhere, but I became so convinced that they were breeding like jackrabbits that I figured the obscenity was more fitting.) They were on the streets. They were on the wrong side of the streets. They were in the alleys and on the sidewalks. They were very often even inside the homes. No National Geographic or Anthony Bourdain special will prepare you for the reality of the motorcycle/moped madness.
And you’ll see everything on the bikes (not “just about everything” but EVERYTHING): extended ladders comically hauled on the shoulders of two or more men, families of up to five, toddlers or infants without helmets (this was normal much to my dismay), bags of live ducks quacking frantically, bags of live chickens, full-sized goats. Not a single one of these is made-up; in fact, not a day (more likely not an hour) went by during our time in Saigon that we didn’t see all of these and much, much more.
Less comically, we did witness a number of accidents, including one fatality, during our time in the city. Even as we were away on our first tour, we learned that one of Tawny’s uncles had been tossed from his motorcycle into a nearby ravine. He showed us the zigzagging scars on his forearm upon our return. On another occasion (only our second day in Vietnam), we returned to our hotel to see a man laying in the street, partially draped in a sheet, his body lifeless, his arm torn off, a wedding ring clearly shining in the afternoon sun. He had been hit by a truck only moments before.
On our way out of the airport district, in a taxi van loaded with half of Tawny’s visiting relatives, I stared in disbelief as our driver deftly navigated his way through the chaos, honking strategically and rarely slowing down. If white knuckles can pale even further, mine were albino by the time we had arrived at our first hotel.
In addition, you will nearly always cross the street in Saigon against massive amounts of oncoming traffic. You have to fight every instinct in your brain in order to simply force your body to walk into the street and in front of the rush; the motorbikes will part ways for you. Running forward will only make it worse as dodging one bike will likely send you bolting into the next one.
Just. Keep. Moving.
Don’t do this with the full-sized automobiles though. There is an unspoken rule across much of Vietnam (confirmed by several friends and relatives): the bigger the vehicle, the greater the right-of-way.
Here’s a pretty good video (not my own) of moderate traffic in Ho Chi Minh. Rush hour is worse than this. Four a.m. isn’t too bad though — unless it’s a holiday.
(It was pointed out to me after this went to press that the linked video was taken nearly 7 years ago, and Ho Chi Minh has far more full-sized automobiles now than it did then. I’d like to thank this reader for his astute observation. Research confirms that the city’s population explosion has resulted in many more large vehicles sharing the road with the bikes.)
OH MY GOD, THE FOOD.
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain remarked that “what makes [Vietnam’s] food so good, its people so endearing and impressive: pride. It’s everywhere. From top to bottom, everyone seems to be doing the absolute best they can with what they have, improvising, repairing, innovating. It’s a spirit revealed in every noodle stall, every leaky sampan, every swept and combed dirt porch and green rice paddy.”
Globe-trotting Bourdain has repeatedly dubbed Vietnam his favorite country on earth, in large measure due to its culinary feats created through through this deep pride. (Personally, Vietnamese is not my favorite cuisine, but it has quickly risen to my top three — though more for its side dishes than for its main fares. Vietnam is renowned for its soups and broths, two things I have never had great fondness for, regardless of cultural preparation.)
The most frequently praised style of food in the country is the street food, or the make-shift establishments that we in the States would dub “hole-in-the-wall.” A general rule to follow while dining in Vietnam (admittedly with plenty of exceptions): the fancier the joint, the more skeptical the diner should be.
The food served on the streets and in dilapidated buildings or out of the backs of peoples’ homes or even in darkened alleyways, is, indeed, prepared with pride. A business’ success in a city as dense as Saigon depends on reputation, and this is spread by both locals and tourists alike. Reputation can make the most ramshackle eatery (or even street cart) more popular than a pristine bistro flush with advertising revenue.
Since I mentioned that my favorite Vietnamese foods are sides, I’ll just add that the Vietnamese dumplings (prepared in a variety of ways, but my favorite version includes a single piece of pre-shelled shrimp inside) are exceptional, and often surprisingly light. I also love sticky rice with sausage and onions. However, my favorite “to-go” food is a flaky, buttery, croissant-roll hybrid with a bit of spicy sausage tucked inside called a pate chaud. You can get them in America
And you should. Immediately.
I found one fairly decent recipe for this crispy/fluffy treat at vietspices.blogspot.com. I chose to share it because the woman who runs the blog seems to know her stuff, and also, she apparently resides in my hometown of Sacramento, CA. If you have a spare moment, check it out!
A few notes about drinks: I don’t like beer so unfortunately I have to skip on offering a review of Vietnam’s alcohol of choice. Tiger is a local brand favorite, but I was informed that most Vietnamese drink Heineken. However, I will briefly mention a few other beverages.
If you’ve never had Vietnamese coffee it might be best to start slow. After all, this is not your typical morning cup o’ joe. This is a caffeinated jolt of super-sweetness that can have you bouncing off the walls in no time. Almost without exception, you’ll be served a small cup filled partway with sweetened condensed milk; this will be wearing a mini coffee pot filter as a “hat.” Steaming hot water and (typically) French grind will drip into the gooey puddle below. While the coffee is sweet, it tastes significantly fresher than caffeinated drinks in the U.S. that are flavored with corn syrup. Seriously, the difference is striking and much appreciated.
“Going to coffee” can also have similar implications to going out to a bar: it can be about staying out late, hanging with friends, and even dancing or karaoke-ing.
Though I don’t enjoy beer, I love wine, and the Vietnamese do sell something they label wine (rice wine to be precise). I learned of rice wine the hard way. Tawny and I were departing a family friend’s home when a group of relatives sitting around a plastic table outside in the evening rain handed me a thimble-sized shot of clear liquid. One of the men informed Tawny that it was wine and announced, “Yo” (“cheers”). I marveled at the ridiculously small sample of wine, chuckled to my wine-club-membership self, and then sucked it down.
“That was not wine,” I half-whispered, half-coughed to Tawny as the men chuckled approvingly. “That was vodka or rubbing alcohol or something.”
Turns out rice wine is typically 39% alcohol. Who knew?
All of this being said, having not grown up accustomed to eating Vietnamese food, I did find myself craving greater cultural variety after only a couple of days. It’s a problem the occasional burger or slice of pizza fixes fairly quickly. (Side note: Unless you happen to luck out, it’s likely to be one of the shittiest pizzas you’ve ever eaten, but at that moment it will seem heavenly.)
Finally, there’s no way I can write even close to enough about the food in one article. The food’s preparation, taste, and service is so exceptionally unique, that the mere experience of dining itself, rivals landmark sightseeing. Rest assured that descriptions of regional dishes will be included in parts II, III, and IV.
And we’ve only begun to crack the surface of the street food phenomenon.
Buying Stuff: Markets, Massages, and Hotels, Oh My!
Vietnam has seen an explosion of tourism in the past decade, partly due to the country’s radical exchange rate with most western nations. Every U.S. dollar, for example, equals approximately 21,000 “Dong.” 21,000 dong can frequently get you a beer from a street vendor, and 100,000 ($5) can land you a one-star hotel. Split the difference ($3 bucks) and you have yourself a satisfyingly filling dinner from a street vendor. Given that the Vietnamese peoples’ sense of pride extends to their understanding of hospitality, many one-star hotels are actually fairly decent (i.e., employees work really hard for that two-star service). They’ll typically have wifi, clean sheets, a mini fridge, and a shitty television.
The only significant problem with the first hotel we stayed in while in Saigon (other than lackluster air conditioning) arose on our final night there. While running late to meet for dinner with Tawny’s childhood friends, we became stuck in the building’s outmoded elevator for more than 20 minutes. Management had to twice shut down the power (leaving us in complete darkness), before the lift opted to work again.
Needless to say, I took the stairs after that.
Exhausted near the end of our three week journey, Tawny and I stayed the final two nights of our trip at a 5-star hotel (The Windsor) in District 5. We wanted to pamper ourselves a bit, and while lavish pampering (at least based on western ideals of pampering) occurs most frequently in the more affluent District 1, we chose to remain in District 5 in order to be closer to relatives.
For $50 bucks a night, we stayed in the most posh hotel either of us had ever stayed in our entire lives. We ordered decent white wines, flatbread pizzas, a pair of coffees, and Thai soup for under $20 bucks. However, by that point in the trip, we felt that $50 was actually incredibly steep. After three weeks of boarding in supposedly “substandard” hotel complexes (yet boosted up in reputation by the eager and proud service of so many employees, whose very livelihoods literally depended on guests’ satisfaction), many of the prior $10 hotels suddenly seemed perfectly sufficient. And when you can get some of the best food you’ve tasted for a buck on a street corner, a $3 pseudo-pizza isn’t so impressive.
After all, it’s not like we were spending all day camped out in our hotel rooms. We could do that at home.
While we were in Saigon, visiting with family remained our number one priority. But priority number two was shopping.
Tawny and I are having a Do-It-Yourself wedding this May. The bride’s family will be hosting a traditional Vietnamese tea ceremony in the morning, during which apparently I and the groomsmen will deliver an entire roasted pig to the in-laws in exchange for their daughter (sounds like a fair trade to me!). More seriously, the ceremony will allow our two families to drink tea, talk, take photos, pin flowers, and, as will occur throughout the special day, gorge on all sorts of epic Eastern and Western treats.
A D.I.Y. wedding understandingly necessitates smart shopping, and the currency exchange rate worked wonderfully in our favor. Tawny purchased a wedding gown, a cake cutting gown, Ao Dai for herself and her bridal party, a flower girl dress for her younger sister, invitations, and two wedding rings for a fraction of what they would cost in the U.S. And yes, while there are plenty of fraudulent brands for sale in Vietnam, we purchased nice and authentic stuff.
The markets themselves are a sight to behold (and you should also remain tightly beholden to your wallets and phones within them). Often built into multi-story warehouses, they are made up of seemingly endless rows of shops hawking real and faux versions of nearly everything in the known universe. Tight aisles meander and snake past linen shops, leather retailers (primarily wallets and belts), cosmetics merchants, jewelers, soap dealers, souvenir hagglers, amateur tailors, fishermen, cooks, artists, farmers, and toy sellers. I could go on, but you get the point.
The markets are also where friends’ well-intentioned cautions are yet again applicable. Tight and cramped aisles are ideal for pick-pocketers. We were never personally targeted, but we also kept pretty tight control of our valuables, and didn’t bring many out with us in the first place. But relatives made it clear that theft is, indeed, still a common problem. (Interesting side note: I noticed that many places throughout the city sold locks and safes.)
Haggling is par for the course in the markets, but many of the vendors are so remarkably pushy, we often found ourselves looking at vendors only from a “safe” distance, lest we get sucked into lengthy sales pitches over key chains. In addition, Tawny told me that often when we chose not to buy, a vendor would swear at us in Vietnamese.
The pushiness is understandable — to an extent. The merchants’ livelihoods literally depend on their sales. However, it can be exhausting remaining constantly alert while simultaneously being bombarded with requests to check out wares you know you have no interest in.
Finally, recall how I wrote that the motorcycles go everywhere in Ho Chi Minh? Well, the markets are not immune to the dastardly two-wheelers. You’ll regularly be guarding your phone with one hand, examining products with another, haggling with a seller, and also be scooting out of the ways of bikes, all at the same time.
One way to de-stress at the end of a day is to take advantage of one of the thousands of massage or hair shampoo places across the city. For $1-$5 American dollars, you can get anything from a 60-minute massage (yes, a legit one), to a thorough shampoo (goi dau). The shampoo is not typically a quick rinse and shine; rather, they are scalp, neck and shoulder massages, combined with a hair wash, and can last upwards of 45 minutes. They have also mastered a technique that allows warm water to run down the sides of your cheeks without getting into your nostrils while they massage your temples.
I even got my first pedicure in Vietnam (more on that during Part III of this series).
I was sitting on an upside-down bucket in a cramped alley outside a seamstresses’ shop as Tawny and her aunts placed orders for Ao Dai based on the fabric we had purchased at the market. Though it had since gotten dark outside, the smiggarity was still thick and I was wearing jeans that were clinging to my legs with sweat as I absentmindedly played with an alley cat. After awhile I began to tire of dangling string in front of the stray feline when suddenly one of Tawny’s uncles cruised up on his motorcycle, shut off the engine, shouted something to the ladies — who shouted back — and then waved enthusiastically for me to follow him.
I looked at Tawny. When you don’t understand a single thing that’s happening, you always turn to the person you know best for an assessment of the situation.
She merely smiled and nodded.
Minh Đai — a short handsome man who frequently wore jorts — grabbed my arm in his and quickly led me through a labyrinth of alleyways (Ho Chi Minh is filled with alleys, dead-ends, hidden courtyards, and secret passages). As we walked, I couldn’t escape peering into homes: Some were little more than concrete hovels, with families and naked kids sitting on the ground inside playing cards, watching television, or checking the ubiquitous illegal “Facebook.” Others were massive gated four-story buildings, furnished by what appeared to be Pottery Barn.
Somehow the hovels appeared more intimate and cozy than the larger residences.
Chickens, dogs and cats, and even the occasional rat scampered around us as we half walked, half jogged through the maze of Saigon.
Eventually her uncle led me back to a main street where he began scanning racks of clothing on a sidewalk. After a moment, he grabbed a pair of shorts, shouted something to the salesperson, who in turn shouted back (there was lots of shouting!), and then returned the shorts to the rack. He motioned for me to keep walking. “$3. Too expensive,” he muttered.
Not 50 feet later we ran into another street-side clothing rack and Minh Đai again began pulling shorts from the racks. He held them up for me, inquiring through facial expressions and thumbs-up/thumbs-down signs as to which ones I liked or disliked. For awhile I attempted to protest using the international language of hand motions but he would have none of it.
“Hot,” he said, waving his hands at the air (as if it were visible — and it nearly was) and then pointing at my jeans.
Eventually I settled on a pair of jorts.
When in Vietnam.
As we returned through the network of alleys we ended up “finding” our way to his house. I don’t even know how he did it; it’s like he has internal back-alley GPS. He motioned for me to change in his bathroom. And then, we were off again, back to the ladies, who were finally wrapping up measurements for the dresses.
The group burst out laughing when they saw us: an American and Vietnamese duo, our hairs caked flat with humidity, both donning t-shirts and nearly identical jorts.
But the shopping trek hadn’t been solely about buying me more comfortable attire. Minh Đai was doing what guys across the world have been doing for centuries: rescuing their bros from the agonizing torture of female shopping.
You don’t need a translator to understand, “this is boring, let’s get the hell out of here.”
We were bonding.
When we visited relatives, they constantly plied us with food and drinks (always hand-prepared). Tawny’s aunts had packed up all of our purchases in large boxes without us even requesting the favor, and written her American address along the cardboard side, and then strapped them firmly shut with swaths of tape. Tawny’s grandmother, who helped raise my beautiful bride-to-be for years, stroked Tawny’s hair and held her hand for hours while reminiscing, kissed my cheek, and repeatedly slipped extra pieces of meat into my bowl whenever I ran out.
Tawny’s uncles jumped up to take us anywhere we wish, whenever we needed, morning, day, or night.
And it wasn’t just family either. There was the random security guard who helped us hail a cab on a particularly busy boulevard after witnessing our frustration for several minutes. There was the lanky teenage waiter in the restaurant near our first hotel who bowed timidly and served us with a shy but kind smile. There were the kids who waved excitedly as we passed (whether on bus, or boat, or car). The kids who knew English, and giggled as they practiced their skills with us, and who giggled even harder as they listened to my lame attempts at Vietnamese pronunciation.
Yes, Ho Chi Minh (and Southeast Asia generally) can be a bewildering place for a Californian who has never traveled to Asia. It is loud, chaotic, hot, and extraordinarily unfamiliar.
But it is also a city of family and friends …
The types of friends who will lock arms with yours, and, grinning wildly, lead you through a maze of streets and alleys in the middle of one of the most fascinating cities in the world, all in search of a suitable pair of jorts.
To be continued …