December 17, 2012

Vietnam Recap

We have spent the last 27 days in Vietnam. That's a very long time when we stop to consider that Vietnam is a love-it or hate-it kind of country. It's a very intense culture in terms of food, traffic, and hawkers. Many people leave and never want to come back, but I think with enough advance warning and a positive attitude, you can laugh your way through most situations.

We are constantly  hassled to buy things…food, books, a ride on a motorcycle. It is annoying, but we know that these people are just trying to make a living. We try very hard not to be rude to them or ignore them. We just smile and say, “No thank you,” as we enter a building…and then say the same thing to the same person as we leave the building five minutes later. If I didn't want to buy your knock-off Lonely Planet then, I certainly don't want to buy it now.

We'll be walking out of a restaurant after eating and have a woman come up and shove a menu in our faces. One guy stationed outside of our hotel in Hoi An asked me three separate times in a matter of one minute if I wanted to rent a bicycle. He either suffers from short-term memory loss or he's a robot on auto repeat. Actually, I think it just shows how desperate these people are. If I had to describe the Vietnamese in one word, it would be scrappy.

They even bother the locals, which we saw firsthand during our cooking class in Hoi An. Within 30 seconds of our arrival at the huge market, a begging woman found our instructor. Van has to pay this woman off every day or else she will follow her around. It was a fast and discrete transaction.

Sometimes food hawkers will even enter restaurants! It's audacious and they know it isn't right, but they are not scooted away. One time we even bought food on the street and brought it into a restaurant where we were having beers…no big deal. I guess there's a general consensus that the almighty tourist dollar is fair game.

All of the hawkers have the same worn-out pitch lines. "Hey, friend. Where you from? How long you here? What you do today? Want to rent motorbike? "Want to come to my store? I give you good price." After two weeks we just started telling people that we were from Bolivia. That would always stop them in their tracks because they had never heard of it before.

Someone has taught these people the wrong inflection for English words that they use all the time. “Hello” and “Excuse me” can sound really rude if not said properly. We give them a lot of credit and thanks for even attempting so much English, but they clearly don't understand how it's coming off. It makes us laugh more than anything.

When we were in Cuzco, I wondered what it would feel like to be visiting as a Spaniard…one nation responsible for so much destruction to another, even if it is many years down the road.  As Americans we found ourselves in the same position in Vietnam. At first whenever someone asked us where we were from, we answered the U.S. with anxiousness…wondering how they would respond. I have to say that 9 times out of 10 we got an enthusiastic smile in return. Often we would get asked an inquisitive, “What do you think of my country?” Our nervousness wore off after about 10 days.

Maybe as we're walking down the street our smiles aren't always reciprocated, but it's not like they're running us off the road. They do love to show off their collections of downed American aircraft.

More so than the other Southeast Asian countries we've visited, Vietnam feels artsy. There is always some sort of music, dance, or puppet performance on offer. We liked the girls who danced with clay pots on their heads and then always switched to fans that flowed on the end…reminiscent of Spain, but most definitely with an Asian flare.

We also saw the water puppets in Hanoi, where the puppeteers stand waist-high in water behind the stage and manipulate the marionettes on long wooden sticks.

Lots of families sit outside playing cards and every day we saw men playing some form of Chinese checkers on the street.

Vietnamese love karaoke. The best thing about it is that they love karaoke when they are stone-cold sober.

Many Vietnamese women – especially those in the tourism industry or university students still wear the traditional dress, called Ao Dai, for special occasions.

Other days they might be wearing wild, mismatching patterned tops and bottoms.

But the one constant is always their conical hat.

They are so afraid of the sun that they completely cover themselves from head to toe. It is 90+ degrees outside and these women are wearing a long sleeved shirt, a sweater over that, long pants, winter gloves, a hat, face mask, scarf, flip flops, and the ubiquitous flip flop socks...there is only one slit for the big toe. They look like a mix between terrorist and gang member, but underneath it all, I'm sure their skin is flawless.

Vietnamese men have perfected the art of wearing pajamas during the day.

All across the country school children wear the exact same uniforms with red bows around their necks, which make them look like sailors.

I'm sure there are other things going on in Vietnam, but it feels like 90% of what happens here on a daily basis revolves around food. One of the most endearing aspects to Vietnamese culture are the one-to-one relationships that sellers have with buyers. Everyone is responsible for one or two things. I'll trade you my dried fish for your dragon fruit. It makes going to the grocery store seem so impersonal.

No surprise…rice is the staple food, and we have eaten our fair share. Beyond standard rice and noodle dishes with chicken, pork, beef, tofu, fish, shrimp or squid, we got courageous with stuffed squid and whole grilled fish. Often times the meat they serve is just riddled with bones and vertebrae – even in nice restaurants. We inspect everything very carefully.

Each town seemed to have a specialty, which we enjoyed sampling:

Bun Cha (Hanoi) – small hamburger patties served with a bed of cold rice noodles, greens and semi-sweet sauce.

Cao Lau (Hoi An) – thick noodles that are cooked in water with timber ash to give them flavor and color. It's served with bean sprouts, pork, and a quail egg.

White Rose Dumplings (Hoi An) – there is only one family in Hoi An that makes these and then sells them to ALL of the restaurants. It was amazing to see the price differences among restaurants, even though we knew they were literally the exact same thing!

Ban Xeo (Hue, Mekong Delta, Saigon) – a savory pancake folded into the shape of an omelet bigger than your head. The fillings are pork, chicken, shrimp, bean sprouts, egg and greens. In My Tho we ordered this and received the most beautiful plate of food...only to find that all of the shrimp still had shells and tails! We had to completely tear it apart. We're still not clear if it was an accident, or if they really eat shrimp shells. 

Spring Rolls – Vietnam's most internationally famous dish. They were served either fried or fresh. Every town had their own version.

Pho – perhaps Vietnam's second most famous dish. Noodle soup, minus all of the unusual extras you can add in the U.S.  

Banh Bao – big white steamed dumplings full of mung beans and either meat or coconut.

Rambutan – we've seen this fruit all over Southeast Asia, but it completely intimidated us. Finally we tried it under the presence of a local and it was really good! The scary outer shell easily peels away to reveal a simple white fleshy fruit inside, reminiscent of a longan. By the end of our time in Vietnam, we were accepting rambutan offers from locals on the bus.    

Durian – a fruit famous throughout Southeast Asia. They say durian “smells like Hell but tastes like Heaven”. It's spiky on the outside but smooth and creamy on the inside. Steve hated it, but I could stomach it enough to earn an "I'm proud of you" tap on the check from a lady at the market.

Che – we don't really know what this was, but we liked it! It was some sort of mix between a drink and a dessert. There are lots of different flavors, but my favorites were lotus seeds and then green bean and coconut. 30 cents very well spent.

Shakes – Instead of having beers at a bar, locals like to socialize over cold non-alcoholic drinks at outdoor cafes. We've tried many different kinds of shakes including coconut, lemon, mango, banana, chocolate, orange, dragon fruit, pineapple, avocado, soursop, and sampoche (a fruit of the Mekong Delta).

Vietnamese Coffee – the strongest we've ever tasted. Holy cow, we needed a half liter of milk to be able to stomach it. Instead of sugar, they sweeten their coffee with condensed milk. 

We really haven't seen much wildlife…a sign that we didn't spend enough time in the countryside. We were able to spot some devious monkeys up close in Halong Bay.

Because the hawkers are so obnoxious, it may give off the impression that customer service in Vietnam is generally bad; but that's not true at all. All of the staff at our hotels have been incredibly friendly and helpful…probably the most out of all of Southeast Asia.

Most of them have even offered to let us to take showers a good 8 hours after we checked out and before we got on a night train. We've gotten clean, nice rooms – sometimes with breakfast for two included – for about $15-20 per night.

-          Hanoi's Old Quarter
-          -  Cruising and spending the night aboard a boat in Halong Bay
-          -  Everything to do with Hoi An, especially the Full Moon Festival
-          -  Street vendors selling from their baskets and bicycles
-          -  Wandering and observing the bustling markets
-          -  Friendly kids of the Mekong Delta who wanted to practice their English
-          -  Bia hoi (25 cent beers on the street)

Because Vietnam is a long skinny country, various parts get hit by monsoonal patterns at different times of year. That makes picking a time to visit really difficult. We had read in several places that September-December were the best months, but we found that it's just the lesser of two evils.

For the most part we stuck by the coast during our entire tour of Vietnam. With more time we would have loved to venture into the mountainous areas – the central highlands and the far north. Sapa is a mountain town known for its beautifully terraced rice patties. I am still bummed that we missed it, but we gave it up for the Full Moon Festival in Hoi An. The rice was harvested right before we arrived, so the fields wouldn't have been as beautiful anyway…or at least that's what I keep telling myself.

Information here is consistently incorrect. We just can't trust anything that anyone tells us. It's not that they're being deceitful; I think they just lack a care for accuracy. One day for fun we counted how many times we were told one thing only to get something was 8. It's a good thing that traveling in Vietnam is inexpensive or else that would get real old, real fast.

If you asked us four weeks ago, we would have said we were ready to come home. Then magic happened in Hoi An and we started feeling sad that our trip was coming to a close. I cried five times during our cooking class just thinking about it.

Fast forward, and this last week has gone by so slowly. We've contracted a classic case of senioritis...anything that requires too much effort is called into question.

Vietnam challenged us at times, but in a good way. We liked it here, and now, we're at peace to come home.


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