It’s been just over three weeks since I posted part 1 of Visiting Vietnam, and as I sit here at gate 9 of Ho Chi Minh International Airport, I’m now able to reflect on my experiences and give some first hand responses to the predictions I made before coming to this country. Was I completely off track? Let’s find out …
1. Dirty? Well, yes and no. Hanoi itself being the very old and historic center of Vietnam has some seriously dirty spots but other places like Hoi-An and Saigon were pleasantly clean. Saigon in particular seemed to be well manicured and although trash was at times visible on the roads and street corners, it was much less dirty Hanoi. Could it use some sweeping up and a good drenching rain to wash away the gallons of fish sauce spilled everyday by scooter delivery sure, but it’s manageable.
2. Insanely Delicious Food: hell yes! Although I still may favor the intense flavors and spices of Thai food, the Pho of Hanoi and Banh Mie of Saigon were enough to make me want the live in this county. There were soo many delicious foods i tasted here including Bun Cha (an arresting concoction of noodles, pickled veggies and grilled pork) and fruits beyond expectation but the two aforementioned dishes are what I may remember most.
3. French Influence: it’s everywhere! From the beautifully decorated central post office, to the baguettes being sold on every corner to the many public announcements made in French, the European influence in Vietnam is alive and strong. Walking through the French Quarter passing cafe after glorious cafe servings without a doubt, the world’s most delicious Ca-Phé all the while hearing the language and reading signs in French, Vietnam is a unique blend of Asian and European influences that combine for a very exotic feel. Indochine, a truly enchanted land.
4. Crowded: holy shit is this true! Bangkok was a warm up for Hanoi which was a warm up for Saigon, which was just bonkers. I often made the analogy of Saigon traffic being like observing red blood cells under an electron microscope that meet at the intersection of blood vessels where each individual cell tries to make it past the next in a seemingly endless thundering herd of individuals… Well, that’s sort of like Saigon traffic. Jen often said it would safer to be in the traffic than a pedestrian trying to walk around it; i couldn’t agree more. Just trying to cross some of those intersections (which by the way were often the width of a soccer pitch) was like playing a game of human Frogger. The locals say just start walking and don’t stop until you make it to the other side… Hah! you try and let me know how that all pan out 😉
5. $£¥₩B: technically it was 22,000 Vietnamese Dong, but whose counting. We got the hang of this after a few days but without that conversion app on the iphone it would have been some serious math jobs.
6. War Time Imagery & Progagnda: this was noticeably present; from the reproductions of propaganda posters of the 60’s and 70’s to clothing with allegiances to (the omni-present) Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Party. Communism is the de facto regime and boy, they won’t let you soon forget it. “Uncle Ho” as they affectionately call him has his likeness plastered on every street corner billboard from Da-Nang to Hanoi and the image of hammer and sickle, burning bright in red and gold is a s common as street lights (which I just realized is an amazing pun because as you would know if you’ve been to Vietnam, street lights at are incredibly rare).
7. Drink Beer Not Water: the beer is good I’ll tell you that; but the water ain’t so bad either. I’ve been to some countries where if one drop of water gets the mouth, it’s over for you and your digestive system fot a few days. Vietnam wasn’t that . Although I had some minor issue with water (yes food is in this category too) it was nothing too terrible and I actually found myself letting my guard down and eating much more of that delicious street food Vietnam is known for. A little story; our first night in Hanoi… It’s about 62 degrees and very overcast. The streets are a maze of potholes and loose pavement and there are puddles with dirty cold water everywhere. The nonstop sounds of scooter engines and car horns is nearly unbearable. We finally come to the restaurant that our hotel recommends (on Bat Dan street no less) and get in the que. After a minute or two we are at the counter and I’m checking out the goods and I’m seeing things that are making me uneasy about sampling those goods. The place wasn’t terribly unkempt but the huge chinks of meat hanging from the side of their stand just put me off. It became flight or fight for me at that point and while Lam and Jen decided to go 12 rounds, I ducked around the corner for some Ramen (yes I know, you don’t have to remind me that I was just in Japan eating the world best ramen and now I’m here in Vietnam, home of some of the world’s best street food eating a dish not meant for these parts). When I returned both Lam and Jen were wearing th type of smile that only a bowl of the worlds best noodle soup can give you. Turns out we were at the spiritual home of Pho, a restaurant that’s been serving the same 3 dishes for over a century, and I blew it off for an old stand by. To conclude, I’ll tell you that in the following 5 days I probably ate their at least 3 times and became helplessly addicted that same bowl of Pho. Lesson learned … it’s okay to trust your instincts but you must be open to trying new things as well.
8. Pleasant Temps: Saigon was hot whilst the rest of the country was mostly cool and overcast. Not much else to report there.
9. Lost in Translation: Truth is, we had it real easy with Lam their with us. Eternally grateful we are. They don’t say “Follow Lam” for the heck of it ya know. Although Lam did make it easy for Jen and I, we all found it interesting that most if not all Vietnamese had a at least a rudimentary grasp of the English language. Obviously the younger generation knew more than the older ones but even some of the elderly folks spoke a little English. In all cases the Vietnamese people at so polite it almost didn’t matter what language was being spoken.
10. Reconciliations: I cannot speak for my stellar travel partners but if I had to guess, my hunch would be that reconciliations were at the top of their lists when determining highlights. Both Jen and Lam spoke openly about their unique experience with the war and through visiting old places like Lam’s old home and the Vietnam War Remnants Museum, each of us were able to reach a greater understanding of our past present and futures.
11. Happy Smiling Faces ? Vietnamese people are amazingly kind. Smiles were flashed, directions were given politely and many a glasses were clanked in the universal cheers to life. A kindness permeates the Vietnamese way of life and each of us found this to be very heart warming.
12. City Life: Besides a few scantily clad young women at the odd “massage” parlor, Vietnam (including the cities of Hanoi and Saigon) were very classy and tame. It’s a humane and successful sort of coexistence that has won out in this nation and we were all glad to see this as well. The ubiquitous vices of drinking and smoking were minimally observant and although there were some folks selling Lotto-like gambling cards, the Vietnamese are very civil. Did I mention that it’s a communist nation ?
… and there you have it. Looks like except for a few notable exceptions, my predictions were correct. Most places we have visited, although different in many ways are also inherently the same; people have the same needs and the same desires. I guess traveling for soo long helps sharpen your ability to more accurately predict your future saunters. Anyone care to take a bet on India?