I travelled to Vietnam and you should, too
Vietnam is alien but familiar. It’s a country where I’ve learnt that keeping birds in a cage is a manly thing, and that nature is so overwhelmingly pretty that it can induce people not to even consider moving elsewhere. For a country 1600 kilometres long, the stereotypes of the Western traveler — the war, the communist Government, street food, the tropical flora — are ubiquitous yet delicate. Vietnam is long, narrow, and diverse in its climate. There is no best time of the year to visit: expect to be hit by the tropical weather with all its might 12 months a year. You just go and get used to it. November looked like a good bet, and it sort of worked, while exposing us to such climatic diversity: the torrid and humid South around Saigon and the Mekong Delta, the rainy Centre with Hoi An and Hue, the mild and dry North with its capital Hanoi.
Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon
Vietnam is a country of mopeds. Few cars roam its roads, but thousands of bikes stream as you try and walk on zebra crossings. For me, coming from Southern Italy, it’s not shocking at all: zebra crossings are generally ignored, you raise your arm, look threateningly at the riders, slowly advance, and hope for the better. Vietnam is pretty much the same: the traffic will form a pocket around you and it will just flow. If you keep eye contact, it will work. The driving style is all about looking ahead; you will rarely see riders and drivers looking left and right before a turn: the safety rule on the roads of Vietnam is to look ahead and avoid obstacles as you head towards them, while those coming to your side will avoid you.
The major difference with Italy lies in the sheer number of vehicles: once, I spent a few minutes counting the motorbikes queueing at a traffic light. I lost count at 500, still not seeing the end of the line. Similarly to Southern Italy, you will see a certain degree of flexibility in the way a motorbike is ridden — a single bike might be designed for two riders, but you will often see four (and even five, sometimes). Every spot on the road is a parking lot, including the pavements. Sometimes, the ground floor lobby of buildings will double up as parking space.
When I asked one of our guides about the multiple riders, he just stated, as a matter-of-fact that
“while kids are small, one bike is enough fo the whole family. When they grow, then they need to buy their own bikes. But it’s cheaper and less stressful than driving a car.”
Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, its original name still used by the local population) is very much a developing metropolis. The capital of former South Vietnam, it has retained a lot of its more Westernised features, including a financial district that doesn’t look dissimilar to financial neighbourhoods in Europe. Here, however, the mixing of traditional and modern is more intense than, for example, the City of London with its ancient Old Bank of England, and it does include memories of a recent, less wealthy past.
Similarly, Saigon suffers from some of the typical evils of the Western world: wild infrastructure to cover exponentially grown needs, air pollution, and inequality. Its prices vary wildly, compared to the rest of Vietnam. For a pint of beer, you could be charged anything from 20,000 VND (~60p) in the suburbs to 200,000 VND (~£6) in the fashionable areas. I’ve seen a craft brewery selling one of its experimental lagers for 450,000 VND, a price that is certainly beyond the realm of possibility for local workers, whose average salary is around 3M VND (rising to circa 8M VND in the banking sector). Very few can afford this level of luxury.
But the vibe is different from the West. People look relaxed and never as rushed as their equivalent on the streets of London, Milan, and other large European or American cities. Furthermore, I haven’t seen a single beggar or homeless person, neither in Ho Chi Minh City nor elsewhere in the country. People seem to lead relatively comfortable and healthy lives, albeit not ones of massive wealth. Of course, the purchasing power outside Vietnam is weak: one of our guides said that he had saved for a few years before being able to afford to travel to Canada. Most citizen who are lucky enough to be tourists will only ever visit neighbouring China. In the capital there is still a lot of time for communal eating, and folk events, even when these are used to attract tourists. The variety of culinary choices is a distinctive feature of Vietnam.
What about the war?
The Vietnam War has shaped the view of the country for most of us living in the Western world. It is still part of the national consciousness due to the high numbers of people affected by Napalm and Agent Orange. The attitude to it, however, is peaceful. The war museum itself comes with less propaganda than I expected. Exhibits certainly blame the “American aggression”, but they also tell stories of reconciliation, and include a poignant exhibition on war photographers who died during the conflict. An entire floor is dedicated to those who, in the US and elsewhere, demonstrated against the war. For all we saw in films about it, there is very little anti-US feeling, and many tour guides remarked how all of this was in the past, and how friendship has been developing between the two countries. Development investment from the US definitely plays a part, but there is a feeling, while talking to people, that most of them have genuinely moved on.
The Mekong Delta
Just a hour drive from urban Saigon lies the Mekong Delta, often hailed as one of the most vibrant and fertile areas in the world. Here, farmers manage to harvest rice three times a year, making it possible to feed the entire population and still export (it hasn’t always been like this and the population suffered from hunger in recent times, although in part it was caused by the war).
The people who live on the delta lead very different lives from those in Ho Chi Minh City. I joined a group tour, and we visited a tiny island on the delta that is inhabited by members of one family. They support themselves by farming and trading fruits, flowers (including some incredibly colourful orchids), and entertaining tourists. WiFi is everywhere, encouraging visitors to move around.
One thing I would like to stress about Vietnam is how safe it feels. There is, of course, an understanding that Western tourists can afford a lot and will bring a lot of money with them; local businessmen will invite and encourage tourists to spend money, but not once this was done in a pushy way (nor once I’ve felt threatened or forced to spend money). Also, I’ve met several young women travelling on their own, not one reporting any form of trouble or harassment.
The variety of life all around the delta is astounding. Farming is big business, and it is linked to a variety of other activities, such as running restaurants and tea or coffee houses, selling produce, making coconut milk and candies, offering tours and cooking classes. Whatever they do, people here maintain their relaxed lifestyle, including taking breaks for tea on their boats.
My favourite experience from the Mekong Delta was travelling on a Tuk-tuk, with people on the sides of the streets greeting us and asking to be photographed.
The food is gorgeous everywhere
A very long and narrow country with a diverse climate, Vietnam offers plenty of equally diverse culinary traditions. All of these have one thing in common: the food is always fresh and colourful. Whether it is meat, fish, vegetables, or fruit, the food is cooked to order, and it invariably has been bought from the local market earlier in the morning.
Restaurant workers display pride in their regional food and will often want to show how they prepare it. Being friendly seems a feature of the country, but what I noticed is that, in comparison to other countries, the Vietnamese love to show off their food and cuisine. At markets or in restaurants, my polite requests to take pictures were received with smiles, and often the setting up of a small performance.
At the cooking classes I attended, jokes about Westerners being a little queasy abounded:
…and here is how we eat the beef in a soup— we keep it raw on the side, and only put it in at the very last moment. However, we know you don’t trust it that way [*wink*], so in this case we can have it cooked.
I had to explain I like it pink. This mocking but friendly attitude towards visitors is actually found everywhere in the country. It derives from the centuries of interactions between the Vietnamese and Westerners. It is remarkable, however, how interactions that were often tragic, such as the Vietnam war, or exploitative, like French colonialism in the area, have managed to evolve into this friendly piss-take rather than hostility.
Naturally, there is a lot of what we might perceive as “odd” food. My favourites were this…
…which I guess might not be for everyone (but believe me: both were delicious) ;-)
Hoi An and travelling
Transport in Vietnam in interesting. We flew with the national airline Jet Star for about £30 from Saigon to Da Nang. The service was impeccable — not quite British Airways, but way better than Ryanair. The aircraft was brand new. I also tried two traditional transport mode, out of curiosity: the coach and the train.
Coaches are famous in all of former Indochina, and backpackers use them extensively to tour on a budget between Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. They have on-board toilets, and the reclining seats are surprisingly comfortable to sleep. I sat for a few hours while enjoying the scenery, and had no back issues.
Trains are… less comfortable. They are old and slow. It took us about 10 hours to go from Dong Ha to Hanoi, and the berths are hard. We travelled during the day to enjoy the panorama and it was good, but after six or seven hour even the beautiful scenery can’t help with the boredom. The trains are mostly wooden, and they look very much like the trains I used to take when I was a child in Italy. They are, however, super cheap, and offer an entire cultural experience in their own right.
Let me make a little interlude about cultural differences, as I experienced on the train. In the next berth, there was a family with children, and the children were apparently very fascinated about seeing a white person, especially one with a beard. They wanted to talk to me and tell me all the English words they know (in fact, for 6–7 year old kids, they spoke some pretty good English). Their parents encouraged them to come and talk to me, and were entertained by the odd questions they were trying to ask me. I can’t imagine something like that happening in Italy or in the UK with the same ease. I would be watchful if my own children were to speak to a stranger, guarding against danger to them, or them being impolite. It was refreshing to see this trusting attitude, as it made me think of a time past when talking to strangers was ordinary and probably not likely to lead to danger. Similar episodes happened again over the country, particularly in the rural areas where white men with beards have been seen less frequently (although there were beardy Australians almost everywhere).
A little yellow gem
Hoi An is a picturesque village in the centre of the country, with a yellowish tint, and trees producing pink filaments everywhere. It is well known for its restaurants and cafes, and for the yearly monsoons.
When I arrived, the town had just flooded and looked like this:
Hoi An is a cosy little town, with several historic buildings and temples, including a famous bridge built by the Japanese during their occupation. Its market is rich of local produce, and I ended up attending a cooking class in the jungle which started there for the daily shopping.
It is also famous for its tailors: armies of Vietnamese and foreigners alike come to Hoi An to get bespoke suits at affordable prices. I didn’t get one, but my friends did and the quality and fit were astounding. Cafes are also popular. The Hoi An Roastery makes excellent Vietnamese coffee, which is a filter coffee brewed with a metal percolator. It is served without sugar but with condensed milk and it’s so delicious (although my favourite is the egg coffee served in Hanoi).
It is pleasant to walk in town or even just stopping in one of the cafes to recharge. I spent some time writing my newsletter. Hoi An has a peculiar feeling, it’s got the vibe of a small town in Provence.
In Hoi An, I stayed at a homestay. Homestays are basically B&Bs. You get a room (often with ensuite services), and share the kitchen with other guests. You will always get some interaction with your host — ours, Ni, was an amazing cook and prepared great breakfasts. Homestays are a great way to get to know the local way of life, and I would totally recommend them.
Beaches are a short bike ride away, as Hoi An is close to the coast. To get to the seaside, the best route brings you through the rice fields. Here you will likely witness the symbiotic relationship between buffalos and herons — herons eat the ticks that tend to live on the buffalos’ own skin — and the traditional Vietnamese tombs.
We had a brief break in Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam. This is a town full of history, and its palaces are breathtaking. During November, it was also *very* wet. I cannot quite describe how rainy it was, as I’ve never seen anything similar in Europe! At one point it became pointless to wear my walking boots, too heavy soaked in water. In most monumental areas, the marble pavements were also so slippery that the only solution was to walk barefoot. This was somewhat pleasant, considering that it often implied walking in relatively warm water high up to my ankles! But don’t let that scare you off. If you brave the weather, you will be rewarded by visits to palaces like this:
Hiking in the Phong Nha National Park
The one thing that, to me, made this holiday unforgettable was the exploration of the Phong Nha National Park. The area is famous for its caves, and I went with a local tour agency. It feels like being on a very isolated mountain area, but the scenery is very different from what you normally find hiking in Europe: the area is all green, overwhelming with vegetation, and you can see the signs of the yearly flooding. Here, the water goes up even 50 metres, and because of this periodic flooding the walking paths change constantly. Our guide brings tourists to the caves four days a week. This involves walking up and down two steep hills, slippery with mud, often having to scare away the buffalos, holding on to threes. It is hard work, but you get to contemplate beautiful scenery.
Our guide, a sporty guy in his late twenties, displayed, literally, love in his eyes while talking about the area. He said he studied in Ho Chi Minh City, but that he returned to his area to work:
“While would I want to live anywhere else, when I have all this beauty around me?”
I did the easy option, a one-day trip. The trip involved crossing rivers and swimming in a freezing cold underground stream to get out of a cave. It was brilliant once the endorphines kicked in! The same company also offered longer tours, involving a cave sleep-over.
I would go back to Vietnam just for hiking in Phong Nha. Here we slept at a homestay, too. As we arrived, we were offered warm tea and fruit, while sitting outside next to a stove. Later in the evening, the hosts offered all visitors a traditional meal, and stayed with us chatting away a very cold evening. Of a family of 4, only their son spoke some English, but this didn’t stop his father entertaining and engaging with this group of 10 Westerners using Google Translate — which included throwing jokes at his wife. It was one of the best experiences of the whole holiday.
A stroll in Hanoi & a cruise on Halong Bay
Hanoi was the capital of North Vietnam, and has still many of the features of a capital. It is one of the most important cities in South East Asia. It is colder than its Southern counterpart, and much less Westernised. Ho Chi Minh died here, before Vietnam was unified, and is buried in a monumental mausoleum.
The town is busy, bursting with life, famous for its street vendors and cooks. It’s also got some odd corners, like a whole street dedicated to selling Christmas decorations, similar to San Gregorio Armeno in Naples:
Hanoi also offers an incredibly good night scene for foodies. Aside from food being prepared and sold literally at every corner, there are many bars selling the local delicious lager (or bia). You will find people eating and drinking the night away at every hour, both Vietnamese and foreigners.
I had a few days in Hanoi. Initially, this was just a quick stroll interrupted by a 2-day cruise on Halong Bay. The bay is beautiful, but unluckily rather polluted by the amount of ferries, which made me feel a little guilty. The bay is famous for its thousands of small islets that break currents, making the sea very calm. The scenery, especially in autumn, is fantastic.
To get the best views of the bay, you probably want to climb on top of Titop island, which is one of the tallest islets named after Soviet general Gherman Titov (‘v’ is pronounced ‘p’ in Vietnamese). The walk uphill takes about half an hour, and it’s rather steep. Staying at ground level, there are also a beach and some good spots for a swim, although you shouldn’t expect crystal clear water.
Spending the night on the bay does have its charm. I was lucky with clear skies, and the sky was full of stars. Cradled by the slowly oscillating movement of the ferry, I shot this long exposure photo of the night sky:
Back to Hanoi, we went off to a street food tour with Kevin, a local tour guide. His tour is one of the most recommended activities on Trip Advisor and is definitely worth it. Kevin brought our group of 4 through the night markets, and helped us choose food, drinks, and explained us what we were about to try. Kevin loves his food, and I really enjoyed trying different street stalls, including sea worms burgers and clams. Street food is so popular in Hanoi that there are many “Hanoi-style street food restaurants” all over the country. We also ventured in the Bun Cha restaurant visited by Obama, which is now full of photos from the visit. “They’ve been good and haven’t raised their prices, though”, said Kevin.
Vietnam has one-party rule and a Communist planned economy, although this doesn’t quite show in its wild range of businesses; nor it has a massive military presence, and Internet access is not restricted (although I read that there are plans for a “great firewall” similar to the Chinese one). I couldn’t help asking political questions, and everyone I spoke to volunteered their opinions. Vietnamese citizens seem to feel very free to express their thoughts, often in a satyrical way:
My teachers say Ho Chi Minh was born poor, but in fact he was from a middle class family…
Curiously, a similar theme to the Western world emerged: many young people feel disaffected with politics or lack interest in it. Some people highlighted that they didn’t feel they were living in a socialist country. One guy even winked at me while protesting that
…they say Communism is all about equality, but we pay for hospitals and schools…
The major feeling is that Vietnam is open and liberal compared to its other Communist neighbours. Apparently, this happened after the war, when the party Congress realised that the economy would develop better by encouraging citizens to start private enterprises. Despite the one-party politics, economically it feels like a different world from both the free market and Communist systems.
However, as much as I love a country opening to the world, I witnessed this big event while I was in Hanoi — the opening of the first MacDonald’s restaurant.
What can I say: it’s not the kind of “opening” I’d have wanted to see… :-)
Vietnamese youth are attracted by the American lifestyle as much as Western youth. In a country with an amazing local cuisine, it is a little sad that, as a young guide told me, “when we go out for a meal and want to be cool, we go to KFC”. It’s not that different from what young people do in the Western world. Maybe this is just an example of the human desire for something exotic, which is after all why I went to Vietnam. As far as I’m concerned, I will definitely go back and I’ll stick to the local traditions, which I’m now learning to replicate at home: a hot Pho, and coffee in some relaxing cafe.
Needless to mention, Vietnam is affordable. It’s a backpackers’ paradise. If you want to treat yourself, and I did a couple of times, a upmarket hotel will cost no more than £30–40 per night. The homestay in Phong Nha was £8 per night. I’ve met people from Switzerland and Belgium who, having become unemployed or struggling to find jobs at home, decided to travel through Vietnam for a few months. When a good meal is no more than £2, you can see why.
Two young Germans we met were having their gap year there. They told us they bought two bikes for about £200 in Hanoi and were travelling the country South to North. Three months on the cheap probably didn’t cost them more than £500 in total. With a little planning, flights can be very cheap too. With beer for 80p and coffee for 20p, have I convinced you yet? :)
Photos © by Giuseppe Sollazzo, 2017. If you wish to license any of the photo, please get in touch at puntofisso [at] gmail [dot] com.