Vietnam, just amazing.
Vietnam wasn’t even a consideration when we set out on our trip, it was a country we didn’t particularly care to visit because it was small and we didn’t think there was much to see. We really didn’t have high expectations for our visit and would have never guessed we would spend 22 days in the country. We flew in to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and worked our way north to Hanoi stopping about ½ way up near the old DMZ in the Vietnam War. Throughout the entire journey we found amazing people, incredible food, wonderful activities, and learned a lot about the war.
Backing up a little bit it’s important to point out how the Vietnamese culture developed because it’s a hodgepodge and phenomenally interesting. The Chinese had ruled the Vietnam area for quite a number of centuries so the cultural was similar to China. During this time lots of trade occurred and outsiders, like the Japanese, settled in the trading areas. After the Chinese there was a period of self rule until the French showed up in the late 1800s and Vietnam became part of French Indochina including Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Japanese rolled in during WWII and didn’t leave until 1945. The French restored their colony after WWII and didn’t leave until suffering a humiliating military defeat at Dien Bien Phu at the hands of the Vietnamese Communists. Shortly after the French left the Americans showed up until the powers-that-be decided to strategically advance out of Vietnam in 1973. In 1975, after a very long time being ruled by other groups, the North Vietnamese overthrew the South Vietnamese government and reunified the country. After reunification the country was pretty well closed to outsiders until the mid 1990s so the ‘Vietnamese way of life and traditions’ still exists in a lot of places. Overwhelmingly, the people we met want a bigger, better, Vietnam and they want a representative government.
There is a reason why the history is important: the food is incredible. It’s like all the best things from the different groups thrown into one rather small country. Baguettes are the defacto bread in Vietnam and they know how to make amazing baguettes. The locals also picked up how to make some incredible cakes and other confectionaries from the French. Rolls, mildly spicy dishes, soup dishes, fresh noodles, all influenced from China and Japan are amazing. The area of Hue, in the middle of the country, is known for incredible food because it was the home of the royal family and people from all over Vietnam came to cook their special food for the king. Since Vietnam didn’t really open up until the mid to late 90s and there’s very few foreign chains like Starbucks and McDonalds and there’s still a very strong tradition of making amazing food at rock bottom prices; it is hard to get a bad meal.
Looking around a crowd of people is super easy to pick out young and older folks based on height alone. During and slightly after the Vietnam War there wasn’t a whole lot for food so people didn’t get their essential vitamins and minerals to grow. In the Cu Chi Tunnel area near Ho Chi Minh City, a place bombed into a oblivion for decades straight, a lot of residents ate tapioca root because it grew fast and could be a filling meal. While visiting the tunnels, we tried tapioca root and it sucked. I can’t imagine living for years eating the stuff. Our guide told us the only time they’d get meat is when they’d capture an American war dog. One of our tour guides in the DMZ area was in his 60s, lived near the DMZ is whole life and spoke about what the war was like when he was younger. He was about four feet tall. Now, it’s common to see younger folks who are around my height. During our tour of the DMZ we had a driver who spoke decent English, grew up in South Vietnam and his family was in the service of the royal family until the royal family left. When our official tour guide wasn’t around the driver would say things like, “that’s not true”, “that never happened”, “the NVA blew that up, not the Americans”, and so on. It was hilarious!
There are signs of war all over the country still. From bomb craters to museums with old US war hardware, one doesn’t need to look far to see the remains of the war. We took a cooking class outside Ho Chi Minh City and our chef pointed out a B-52 bomb crater that wasn’t far from the farm house. He said that he was very happy the bomb crater was there because the monsoon brings floods and fills the fields and bomb crater and as the flood subsides, fish get trapped in the crater. They are happy to have an easy source of food J.
One thing that I found really neat was how pretty much every Vietnamese person would return a very sheepish smile and ‘thank you’ when we told them how much we liked and what we liked about Vietnam. A lot of younger Vietnamese would tell us things that they were unhappy with about Vietnam, namely the government, but they all seemed to be very proud of their countrymen and countryside. The locals are very industrious and have the entrepreneurial spirit. We spent three days on a boat and, sure enough, we’d have people rowing tiny boats up to our boat so they could sell us Snickers, vodka, chips and other western snacks. It was incredible! Believe it or not, the fastest internet we’ve consistently had on the trip has been in Vietnam. I usually do a speed test whenever we arrive somewhere and Vietnam consistently had 10/10 speeds. A lot of places we’ve visited have around 1/0.3 speeds so it was really nice to have fast internet!
A lot of stuff is done on the street and sidewalks in Vietnam. Cafés have tables on the sidewalk, scooters drive on the sidewalk, haircuts, shoe repair, scooter repair, shops and food stands are all over the streets and sidewalks. This pretty much means that there’s no good place to walk when going through a city. That’s part of the adventure, I suppose.
We’ve become very good at dealing with scammers and touts. A great example is when a street repair man agreed to repair my boots for about $1.50. This was a discounted price from what he wanted and while we watched him work from the comfort of a café I decided that we should give him the original price because he was spending a lot of time, like 45min, on the boots. Knowing that this is a great opportunity to get scammed, we did something that scammers commonly do to us – we divided our money and only put the money for shoes repair plus another $0.25 or so in a wad. When the shoe repair man came back and, sure enough, wanted $15. So we pulled out the wad of money, $3.25, and told him that’s all we have. After some yelling back and forth he accepted it the original price of $3 and I have repaired boots. He did a great job, well worth the $3.
We visited a lot of historical sites and also spent a little bit of time in nature. We really enjoyed the historical sites, found the places to be a bit less crowded than other countries we’ve visited and found our three day cruise around Ha Long Bay to be one of the most beautiful, most fun, things we’ve done on the entire trip. It was a fantastic visit to Vietnam. We are now in Australia and we already miss Vietnam. We would definitely like to go back.
I want to give a special shoutout to the US dollar. It’s been dominating other currencies and the developed nations we’ve been traveling too have currencies that are worth 11-17% less than when we started. Great time to be an American traveling J.
Enjoy the photos!