We heart Vietnam. Maybe it’s the resilience of its people who have been through so much over the decades. Maybe it’s the staggering natural beauty of places like Ha Long Bay. Maybe it’s the food, which leaves an impression to last a lifetime.
Maybe it’s the cheekiness of the market vendors. Maybe it’s the ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk) induced buzz. Maybe it’s the peacefulness of the rice paddies in Hoi An. Maybe it’s the first taste of Vietnamese-style pancakes. Maybe it’s the unrelenting pace of Hanoi’s old quarter.
Or maybe it’s everything about this place – the maddening rush of the cities, the lost in translation moments with the locals, and the organised chaos of it all.
Whatever it is, we loved what we saw, and we cannot wait to get back there in a few weeks. Here are some of the things that we enjoyed – and maybe, just maybe, when you visit you’ll feel the same too.
Pho – a soup consisting of rice noodles, herbs and meat (usually beef) – is probably Vietnam’s most recognised dish. And while it is, indeed, delicious, Vietnamese cuisine has so much more to offer.
Before we visited in May, I had no idea what the cuisine consisted of. I did a lot of reading and found that everyone was raving about how great it is, but in all honesty, I wondered how different it could really be from Thai. Terrible, I know.
Let me tell you something: Vietnamese food is amazing (and, for the record, nothing like Thai food). Ankit and I love to eat. In fact, I’m starting to believe that it’s the main thing that appeals to us the most in any given country. And boy did Vietnam live up to our expectations.
The main thing you’ll notice are the fresh herbs and the ever-present fish sauce. There’s also always a balance between the sweet and salty, the fresh and fermented and the cooling and heating.
We were fortunate enough to start our trip in Hoi An, which is known to offer the most outstanding food in the country. It was, indeed, a treat. The town is famous for dishes such as banh bao banh vac (White Rose dumplings) and cao lau (pork, noodles, veggies and croutons). I still dream about the White Rose. It perhaps explains the dribble on my pillow in the morning.
I digress. But everything we tried really was extraordinary. Banh xeo, for example, are Vietnamese pancakes that are made from rice flour and are filled with pork, shrimp, green onion and bean sprouts. You eat them as soon as they come out of the pan and after dunking them in whatever sauce is available. This was by far one of my favourite dishes.
On top of all this, food is ridiculously cheap – even in nice restaurants. In some places, we enjoyed a three-course meal and round of drinks for less than USD 20. On that note, I’ll leave you to imagine how cheap the street food is.
If, like me, the smell of coffee gives you a high that rivals that of many illegal substances (yeah, I’m pretty PG like that), then you’re in for a treat when you visit Vietnam. The Vietnamese take coffee very seriously, which isn’t surprising when, according to my research, the country is now the world’s second largest exporter of java.
There are many different variants that you can try while there, the most popular being ca phe da (plain iced coffee), ca phe sua da (iced coffee with condensed milk), ca phe sua nong (coffee served hot with condensed milk) and ca phe trung (coffee with sweet meringue made with egg whites). Ca phe are you still with me?
My favourite was the iced coffee with condensed milk – the first sip of that baby sends you flying out of the stratosphere. The combination of strong coffee and sugar gives you two kicks for the price of one, and as I’m one of a majority of writers who always sing the praises of caffeine, I find myself craving this every time a big deadline is looming.
Ah, legal highs. You gotta love them.
While I don’t believe in love at first sight when it comes to loving another person, I believe in love in first sight when it comes to a place, and Hoi An is a town that I loved from the minute I arrived. Cheesy, eh?
The former major port town is just so pretty; electric pink bougainvillea climbing up yellow buildings, colourful Chinese lanterns and graceful architecture at every turn. And while it is no longer as (overused travel adjective alert) ‘sleepy’ as it used to be, the town is still a tranquil haven when you compare it to the craziness of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
The pace in Hoi An is much slower, and, as such, it gives you the opportunity to slow down and to really get under the place’s skin. The main market is full to the brim with fresh produce (warning: the meat and fish sections are certainly not for the fainthearted) and funnily enough, this was one of my favourite places in town. The hustle and bustle of people going about their daily business really gives you a sense of what this place is all about, and that’s what I always look for from a travel experience.
And if you’re lucky enough to stay just outside the centre of town like we were, you will be surrounded by the beauty of rice paddies and treated to views such as this:
Ha Long Bay
Before we went to Vietnam, I happened to read quite a few travel blogs that said Ha Long Bay was overrated. As we were only visiting for ten days, our time was really limited, so we were wrestling with the decision as to whether we should make the journey there or not.
We did, and we definitely made the right decision.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is ethereally beautiful; tranquil turquoise water is juxtaposed against thousands of limestone islands, which makes the bay a marvel to look at. The whole place has a mystical feel to it, thanks to the mist that hangs over the place for a lot of the year.
Most people opt to do an overnight cruise while visiting (which is recommended seeing as it takes four gruelling hours in a minibus to get there from Hanoi) and there’s something kind of thrilling about being in the middle of Ha Long Bay throughout the night, civilisation nowhere to be seen (we will, of course, ignore the fact that a) there was free WiFi on board and b) we spent most the evening updating our Instagram accounts with all our awesome photos. The height of seclusion – ahem).
Street culture is exceptional throughout Southeast Asia, and Vietnam is no exception to the rule. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, motorcycles whizz up and down the roads in their droves, women wash utensils from street vendor stalls on the pavement, and vendors harass you to buy anything from cheap looking lighters to freshly-cut fruit. The pungent smell of fish sauce and street food sizzling in pans combines with the occasional unwelcome waft of sewage water, while bursts of burning incense cloaks it all. It’s chaotic, it’s overwhelming, it’s a treat.
The maddening heat and humidity is usually unrelenting, but Vietnamese women defiantly wear long sleeves and trousers in a bid to stop themselves from turning dark. The men take naps on their motorcycles, seemingly defying gravity in the process. Life really takes place on the streets here, and by sitting back and observing for the day, you really get a snapshot of what life in Vietnam is like.
The Vietnamese have a reputation for being a bit standoffish and not as friendly as Thai people. But what I observed was somewhat different. Yes, the truth is they largely seem indifferent to foreigners (unless it’s someone who’s trying to make money off you). As you walk around, they don’t really look twice – it’s like they’re thinking “tourists – YAWN.”
And the truth is, as someone who’s in her own world most of the time, I loved this about them. I like the fact they don’t really give a crap – it leaves me free to stay in la la land.
But on the opposite side of the coin, if you take the time to talk to someone, you’ll find that the majority are friendly, humble and intrigued by who you are and where you come from. We met some utterly wonderful Vietnamese people while we were there, and, despite the language barrier, I genuinely felt how friendly they were.
While I think the majority of tourists can’t stand the pushiness of the market vendors, if you’re anything like me you’ll actually enjoy the exchange of banter that takes place. Some have memorised lines from Western movies and use them in an attempt to entice you to buy something. “Good price for you, go ahead and make my day,” was one that seems to pop into my mind right now, but there were many, many others.
I also had my chest felt up by a lady market vendor on our last day in Ho Chi Minh City. We were in the Bến Thành Market looking for a silk dressing gown for me when we came across this one particular stall. We started a conversation with this lady, and we bartered back and forth in order to try and get the best price.
Mid-way through the conversation she pointed at my chest and said “very good size, lady.”
I laughed out loud. For the whole trip I kept asking Ankit why he thought that so many Vietnamese women (yes, women – not the guys!) were always staring at me.
“They’re marvelling at your breasts,” came his reply.
“Don’t be so ridiculous,” I barked back.
Turns out, he was bloody right. She then turned to Ankit and said “lucky man” and proceeded to ask me if she could touch them. I obliged. She felt them and collapsed into a fit of giggles.
It was the most memorable exchange of the trip.
Seems like such a trivial thing to love about a place, but as someone who has a very strong sense of smell, it’s the one thing that transports me back to any given place or time. I love how, like in many other Southeast Asian countries, incense permeates the air wherever you go; a Buddhist temple, a hotel lobby, on the streets. It’s everywhere.
Traditionally, incense is used in Buddhist ceremonies and rites, as it’s said to purify the air. While I do love the religious connotations, I also simply adore the smell of the stuff, especially when you get a whiff of it on the streets.
Hanoi’s old quarter
I’m fascinated by extremely old cities. The old city of Damascus, for example, is one of the most magical places that I’ve ever visited. That feeling of history really stirs my imagination.
I had this same level of excitement when I was in Hanoi’s old quarter. The area has the original layout and architecture of the old city, and consists of 36 different streets. It is estimated that these roads are steeped in over 1,000 years of history, and the names of most of them still reflect what type of specialisation of goods were to be found (e.g. Cloth Street and Tinsmith Street).
The old quarter today is a hectic and chaotic place to be; you will be constantly bombarded by motorcycles honking, street vendors harassing you to buy whatever their selling, waste water wooshing down the drains, the elderly eyeing you up in curiosity.
It’s maddening and I love it.
Over to you – have you ever visited Vietnam? Love it? Hate it? Indifferent towards it?