It’s easier to write of our time in some places than others. I find that the longer we spend anywhere, the richer our experience becomes, and so too does my capacity to channel the nuance and complexities of it into words.
Such is our experience of Vietnam. One so emotionally riddled and elusive, enchanting yet exhausting, to the point where daily naps are a given.
In just three weeks, we have haggled our way through marketplaces, sped down a mountain on motorbike in the rain, and eaten delicious soups, noodles, and snails from roadside stands.
We’ve watched restaurant staff run into a home and put out six-foot flames, and seen twenty men stumble drunk to their motorbikes, board them, and drive off into the night.
We’ve watched an elderly women, her back so stooped she’s nearly horizontal, pull a cartful of goods through a potholed street–and still stop to smile at us. We’ve driven past wedding receptions at 8 am on a Tuesday, and by a bank lobby full of employees singing karaoke under strobe lights.
It has been incredible. And it’s just life here in Vietnam.
Given all this, please forgive me for starting simple (because this place sure isn’t). And for describing Vietnam with a word so general and overused, yet no less true.
From rice fields visible through our bedroom window in Hoi An to the lush, verdant coastline of the Hai Van Pass we traversed on motorbike, Vietnam has spoiled us for views. And with a variety of them. When you see its curving coastlines and mountains dense with tropical forests, or its rural farms and fishing villages and jaw-droppingly gorgeous lagoons, you find it hard to believe all this richness belongs to one country (and one a thirtieth the size of America.)
This is just a fraction of Vietnam, too. We haven’t made our way to the mountainous north or super tropical south yet, nor to the bustling metropolises of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. (We’ll be visiting each place in a few weeks, so expect a report then).
Our first three weeks in Vietnam, we’ve been based in Hoi An for a Workaway exchange. Workaway’s terms are typically this: exchange some labor each day for accommodations and meals.
While most Workaways involve housework, babysitting, farm labor, or some combo thereof, Greg found us an exchange a little more up my ally.
Basically, our work is to travel write. (I know. Surreal.)
We’ve been writing articles for the site HiddenHoiAn, on topics both riveting (motorbiking over the Hai Van Pass) and mundane (getting from the Da Nang Train Station to Hoi An). The experience, though, has rewarded us richly, as it’s allowed us (and practically forced us) to see the city in a way that most “I’m-here-for-two-days” flashbackers don’t.
So without further ado, let’s dive into it.
Get a map of Vietnam, and look at its border with China. Starting there, trace your finger south along the coast.
Stop when you get halfway down. That’s about where you’ll find us.
In Hoi An, a famed port town in Central Vietnam of roughly 120,000 people. It’s also a popular tourist hub, and growing more so by the year (as evidenced by our gig writing travel-related articles about the city.)
A bit of history first. Founded as a commercial hub by the Cham, a Malayo-Polynesian people who ruled central and lower Vietnam until the 15th century, Hoi An became an international trading destination once Vietnamese Nguyen lords took over. In the 15th and 16th centuries its influence grew, to where China and Japan considered it the best trading destination in Southeast Asia. (Europeans came too, partially because of the bustling East-West ceramics trade that passed through the city as well).
The Nguyen’s defeat by populist forces in the 18th century led to Hoi An’s decline. But not its to its destruction. This is why, in 1999, Hoi An’s Ancient or “Old” Town was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being “an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century.”
The city indeed retains a quaint charm, due to its French colonial architecture, elegant monuments and walking streets, and bustling markets. (One of which I wrote about, in fact, for an upcoming article).
At night it really comes alive. Bright lanterns and gondola style boats line the city’s canals, while its riverfront bustles with cafes.
Yet dealing with elbow-to-elbow crowds on the Japanese covered bridge and insistent vendors hawking everything from ceramics to mango cakes (which, confusingly, don’t contain any mango) gets draining.
That’s why we prefer spending less time in the tourist-centric Old town and more time at An Bang Beach or the countryside.
Fortunately, we live in the latter. Our aptly-named homestay at Rice Fields is smack in the middle of them. It’s a lovely three story home owned by Mike and Han, he a British expat and she a local with roots in the popular tailoring industry here. Along with Mike and Han, we share the home with the occasional fellow travelers and three dogs: Coca, Noodle, and Bailey (the undisputed princess of the lot).
Each day we pass on motorbike through the lush green fields, glimpsing farmers in legendary non-la as they tend to their crops. Sometimes a duck or a dog or a cow crosses our path (or sometimes, an entire family on motorbike). On our way into town, we often see “Buffalo Man” snoozing on his steed and give him a small wave.
Just another day here. And no less breathtaking each time.
What else can I say about Vietnam?
Enchanting. Or mesmerizing, perhaps. Yet while guidebooks rely on such words, they really don’t do justice to the panorama of day-to-day life here, with its bustling wet markets and food stalls, whizzing motorbikes, and infinite sounds, sights, and smells.
Nor do they capture the experience of seeing Vietnam the only way you really can, if you hope to experience it as fully as possible.
By motorbike, that is.
Our bike trip on the Hai Van Pass is a highlight of our travels. (Greg even got to write about it for our Workaway exchange).
Our eight hour journey from Hue to Hoi An took us through the now-famous pass, which, at 13 miles long, boasts some of the best coastal scenery in the country. Its road hugs the curves of tropically-forested mountains that descend to hidden beaches and blue waters, where, on clear days, you might see a fishing boat or two.
Best of all, the road is well-paved and has barely any traffic, since only tour buses, oil rigs, and motorbikes are allowed to take it. (Cars now have to drive through the pass tunnel, which was completed in 2017, on a much shorter but less scenic route).
The parts before the pass were no less epic. We passed through several small towns, each with the ubiquitous charm of wet markets, noodle vendors and loads of locals going about their lives–shopping, driving, napping, eating, or selling.
We also drove by dozens of colorful tombs, each with highly-stylized ceramic designs of dragons, flowers and other religious symbols. These are a stunning testament to rising prosperity here, as many of the most stunning date from the last decade or so (as the year printed on their arches told us).
I’m not a selfie or portrait person, but this experience got the best of me.
I couldn’t get enough photos in general. Especially as Da Nang’s skyline came into view. Think Miami, but surrounded by lush coastal mountains. (No wonder it made the NYT’s 52 Places list for 2019.)
Like nearly anywhere you’ll go in Vietnam, shrewd businesswomen were at the ready, just waiting for picture-and-pho-hungry tourists to pass. Signs advertising “noodles, rice, coffee, best picture spot” in giant, colorful letters wielded a strong siren call.
Finally, I tapped Greg and pointed, signaling that he should pull into the parking lot at one particular place. A place, of course, where a smiling, gray-hair proprietress stood outside, clutching a chubby baby in one arm and a puppy in the other. (If there is a better marketing pitch out there, I’ve yet to see it.)
Two cups of coffee and a plate of fried noodles later, we were ready to hit the road. But not before a few snapshots at the “best picture spot.” It didn’t fail to deliver.
(Neither did the weather forecast. We got caught in the rain just before the pass and before Da Nang city. Thankfully, we’d rented full-face helmets, which are the safest type and also the best for deflecting a storm. The rest of our attire, though, got and remained pretty soggy for the remainder of the trip).
Our last stop before venturing back to Hoi An was the Lady Buddha. She’s the tallest one in Vietnam and spectacularly reminiscent of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer in her blazing whiteness and coastal real estate. Built in honor of a local legend, which holds that a Buddha statue from nowhere drifted ashore on a nearby sandbank, she was built as a place for worship.
She’s also right next to the equally stunning Ling Un Pagoda. Completed in 2010, this pagoda–Da Nang’s largest–mixes contemporary and ancient styles, with its curving roof and dragon motifs. Inside the pagoda are Buddhist statues from multiple traditions, and outside are 18 “Arhat” statues protecting the space, each wearing its emotion of joy, sadness, happiness or fear on an extremely expressive face.
Speaking of expressive…check out this little guy we saw just beyond the pagoda grounds.
We wandered around a bit, among busloads of Chinese and Korean tourists (a staple here in Vietnam), before picking up our bike once again and hitting the road. We pulled into Hoi An around 4 pm, and after handing in our trusty ride, headed out for the only proper ending possible: a tasty banh-mi at Madame Khanh’s (aka the Banh Mi Queen of Bourdain fame).
What else can I say about Vietnam?
Oh right. Delicious.
Yes, there’s pho. And banh mi. (Hoi An is actually a hot spot for this dish, and we’ve sampled more than our fare share).
But the food repertoire goes so much further. Hoi An is also known for cao lầu, a dish made from sliced roast pork, bean sprouts and greens, squares of crispy pork fat, and noodles cooked from well-water unique to the town. The traditional noodles draw their unique flavor from traces of lye (or white ash) specific to area trees that were burned. They’re mixed with a touch of rich broth to top off the dish, which you can find for 30,000 dong (the equivalent of $1.30) at nearly any local restaurant or food stall in town.
We’ve eaten our share of cao lầu and another regional dish, mi quang (mee kwong), which is made from wide rice noodles flavored (and colored) with turmeric. They’re served in a light broth with prawns, pork, chicken or some combo thereof and topped with sprouts, greens, and sometimes peanuts and a quail egg.
Our favorite dish, though, would have to be bánh xèo (barn seyow). A delicious, greasy rice flour pancake filled with shrimp and meat and folded up calzone-style, it’s made everywhere in Vietnam, but differs in size. Hoi An’s is the size of a small plate before it’s folded in half, and is often served with greens, rice paper for wrapping, and peanut sauce for dipping. For flavor, think crepe, but with rich, oily, peanut-y twist.
We needed to learn how to make it. And that’s how we found ourselves on the water one morning, floating alongside (once again) a raucous group of Korean tourists toward our cooking class headquarters in Bay Mau Coconut Forest.
The forest is a mangrove ecosystem estuary and was used as a base of resistance during the War (known by a single moniker, or else as the “American” war). It’s now protected by the government, yet it’s unlikely anyone would guess that when they visit, because the vibe is something like “lazy river at a Disney theme park” on steroids.
As a tourist here, you drift in a traditional basket boat, rowed by a local woman who, depending on her level of enthusiasm, will fashion anywhere from one to five reed-based accessories for you.
The basket boat ride was our transit between Hoi An’s market and the cooking class venue, where we’d spend the afternoon preparing four Vietnamese dishes. Earlier that day, we’d gotten picked up from our homestay and whisked away to the market by Han, our chef and guide, along with eight other tourists. A twentysomething with a perpetual smile, Han led us through the outdoor wet market and its frenzy of activity, stopping to buy ingredients for our meal every few stands.
He narrated his picks as he made them—lemon basil and mint for our spring rolls, turmeric for our bánh xèo, white radish for pho stock–and then herded us toward the dock to depart.
Once at Bay Mau Cooking School’s headquarters, it was time for a lesson in all things rice. Han showed us how to use a mortar and pestle, and then a sifter, to shake out the slender white grains from their husks.
Next we learned how to make rice milk. (No rocket science here. It’s one scoop of rice four to two cups water.) Pour a few spoonfuls onto a hot plate, peel it off, and let it dry for a day, and then boom–you’ve got rice paper.
As we prepped our ingredients, Han highlighted the differences in Vietnam’s cuisine. Like with most things in the country, present and historic, the division is starkest between north and south.
“In the north, they make food spicy and sour,” Han tells us. “The south’s food is sweet, with lots of coconut.” The sourness derives mostly from the addition of a saltier nước mắm, or fish sauce, which is the Vietnamese equivalent of culinary holy water.
As we flipped our bánh xèo, Han mentioned his preference for the dish up north because “it’s much bigger there than in the south.”
No matter where it’s made, though, bánh xèo seems to be Vietnam’s equivalent of grilled cheese: a treat reserved for rainy, cold days, and made at home.
Among the dishes we made that morning, it was my favorite, though the spring rolls and bánh phở (beef pho) tied for second.
Armed with a deeper understanding of Vietnam’s cuisine, we became more adventurous on the culinary front. Perhaps nowhere more so than in Hue. The former imperial city is known for having Vietnam’s spiciest cuisine (which is still far less spicy than Thai food). It also has tons of speciality fare, the most famous of which is bún bò huế.
This dish is a vegan’s worst nightmare. Beef bones and shank simmer with lemongrass to make the broth, before being mixed with fermented shrimp sauce, sugar, and then spicy chili oil. Slices of beef shank, oxtail chunks and pig knuckles round out the dish…as does a thick, rectangular chunk of congealed pig’s blood.
After arriving into Hue by train (read about that trip here!) and checking into our hotel, we headed to Dong Ba Market to try a bowl ourselves. Compared to Hoi An’s, Hue’s main market was huge: a two-story affair with dozens of aisles of goods, both edible and not.
We made the rookie mistake of eating at a stall that advertised itself as the “place Anthony Bourdain loved!” (Based on how often we’ve seen this sign, the man must’ve eaten at every damn stall in the country.) Sitting under Bourdain’s photo, which could’ve been taken three or eight stalls over, we were served a bowl of lukewarm bún bò huế by the smiling proprietress, but with none of the banana blossom, mint, or other garnish you would expect. It was fine. Nothing more.
Fortunately, it was cheap, and the beer our hostess insisted we drink (which cost more than the soup, of course) was a good accompaniment.
Moving forward, we vowed that eye-popping dishes (and not Bourdain photos) would be our dining compass. That’s what led us to a lady sitting in the literal center of a shopping aisle. Her bánh bột lọc (shrimp and pork dumplings) looked tasty, and the presence of a couple of other (seemingly local) diners told us this was a good place to try them.
Of course, being in the market center made us sitting ducks. The sales pitches kept coming, and included one from a charmingly, incredibly persistent woman who called Greg “lucky man.” (This is how, twenty minutes later, I ended up with a pair of black drawstring pants from her shop).
Our favorite dining experience of the night, though, would have to be streetside. At a little stand, plastic chairs and all, with a dish of steaming snails. Cooked in lemongrass and chili broth, with some spring onion thrown in, they were umami perfection.
The owner/chef even showed us how to eat them. Who knew a toothpick could double as a utensil?
Even with its delicious fare, Hue isn’t a popular tourist stop.
But it’s critical role in Vietnam’s history makes it a fascinating one.
The main Hue attraction is the Imperial City. A walled enclosure within Hue, it’s a massive, moat surrounded compound built under the rule of Emperor Gia Long, who, after unifying modern-day Vietnam, ascended its throne in 1802. The emperor’s successor, Minh Mang, completed the city in 1832, solidifying it as the heart of Vietnam.
The Imperial City is modeled after Beijing’s Forbidden City and has a perimeter wall around two and a half kilometers long. This encloses dozens of buildings that housed the ruling Nguyen family until 1945, along with the entirety of the country’s central government. The extent of bureaucracy and opulence here is clear from the sheer number of buildings – 148, to be precise – that were once housed within the walls. These included a garden area for the royal grandmother, various reception rooms, pagodas, and administrative buildings.
From pagodas to garden houses, the City’s buildings impress with in scale and grandeur.
Most noticeable, though, is how many of the buildings are gone.
Out of 148 structures that once stood within the Imperial walls, just 20 remain. Noticeable swaths of green grass occupy what was once the foundation of an imperial building or office, reduced to rubble by French and then American bombs.
The return of French colonizers in 1947 and subsequent battles in Hue damaged the Imperial City. But the city’s bloodiest days lay ahead.
In January 1968, North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong attacked the city, hoping to “liberate” it and establish a revolutionary government. Much of this strategy had to do with Hue’s positioning (close to the DMZ, and lacking strong fortifications) and its politics (historical center of Vietnam’s empire, and stronghold of Buddhists and intellectuals who despised the South Vietnamese government).
For three months, the Battle of Hue raged between North Vietnam and a collective of U.S. military and South Vietnamese ARVN troops. The battle laid waste to the city and cost over 5,000 civilian lives. It also resulted in thousands of Vietnamese army casualties and over 600 American casualties, which would mark it as a turning point on popular opinion back home about the war.
While initially ordered not to fire on the Imperial City, American and ARVN troops began shelling it to resist counterattacks from North Vietnamese holed up within its walls. Troops also took cover within people’s homes and fought out of their windows and doorways, further damaging the pulverized city and its citizens.
Even with a massive (yet fraught) restoration project underway, the Imperial City- at least, what’s left of her- wears battle scars. You can see pockmarks left by shrapnel, and chipped stone, on some of the buildings.
They remind you that this nation, like ours, endured so much– and more– in the war.
We were reminded of that elsewhere too. One afternoon, on a drive outside Hoi An, we passed a large cemetery. With rows of uniform, gray headstones, it could have been nothing other than a place of rest for soldiers.
Indeed, it was. We stayed for a while, silently wandering through and reading some of the hundreds of headstones, all of which marked a grave of a man lost in the war.
It was hard for us to tell which side (or both) these fallen troops represented. But given how generally kept up the grounds seemed, we guessed it was a place of rest for those who fought for the communist North. That’s because gravesites for South Vietnam’s soldiers are often left in ruin.
Still today, the federal government in Hanoi (which is still communist, in case you’re wondering) refuses to say how many South Vietnamese soldiers died in the war. America’s estimates have put the number as high as 250,000. This has understandably surfaced tension in a country whose one-party government espouses unity, yet fails to recognize the sacrifice so many of its citizens gave. Above all, though, our cemetery stop was a sobering reminder of war’s cost for everyone involved. A war that ended 58,000 American lives and scarred countless others, physically and mentally, along with our national morale.
The scale of our own loss, though, pales next to Vietnam’s. This nation lost well over a million people, with some estimates ranging as high as three million. (At least half a million of those were civilians.)
Nearly everyone here has felt its impact in some way or another. Sometimes that impact is visible- men with napalm-scarred faces selling lotto tickets on the curb, for instance. But so often, they aren’t.
Despite how deep wounds run, though, Vietnam isn’t dwelling on the past. (It helps that most citizens were born after the war ended. The median age here is 30).
Much of this forward-thinking attitude is also linked to rising prosperity. Construction cranes and high-rises are a common sight, as are new homes going up every other block. Everywhere you look, Vietnam is booming.
One last thing to note. Despite the fact that our country wreaked havoc here for years, Greg and I have encountered no hostility whatsoever for being Americans. (In fact, we’ve encountered nothing but friendliness in every country we’ve visited, including Muslim strongholds like Istanbul, Palestine and Bosnia. While this doesn’t really surprise me, I imagine it surprises folks who fear the places and people often demonized by our media).
Vietnamese friendliness, and resilience, are indeed strong. Each time I see the elderly woman who pulls carts of garden supplies down our street, I smile at her, and she smiles back, and I wonder about the history she’s lived through. (And how she manages to tow something nearly twice her size).
Another word about our Vietnam experience? Overwhelming.
I expected to feel history’s weight here, and to experience its emotional toll. But I didn’t expect to feel drained on a day to day basis by the small things.
Buying here. Eating here. Driving here. Simply walking around sometimes takes Herculean effort.
I say this as a woefully inept westerner, both when it comes to speaking Vietnamese and knowing the local culture. I also say this as someone more comfortable in contexts (and cultures) where being direct–versus consistently pleasant–is the norm.
Greg, on the other hand, thrives in such contexts. (Chalk it up to those midwestern roots.) But both of us have struggled here at times.
Much of this has to do with money. Starting with the bills. They come in denominations of thousands and, with five US dollars equaling 100,000 Vietnamese dong, leave you in awe of your spending power and stressed out by the impression of spending far more than you actually are. Add to that the fact that bills here come in different sizes, colors, and even textures, and you’ve got yourself a headache.
Even after getting the bills and exchange rates down pat, we still deal with transactional issues. Sometimes this is a simple misunderstanding and our fault (like when we thought a waiter had given us the wrong change, when, in fact, he hadn’t). Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s not (like when a server at a bar shorted our change by 100,000 dong, and then “produced” the right bill as soon as Greg pointed out the discrepancy).
The wrong change phenomena has happened just a few times. But it compounds with other transaction-related anxieties. Like that of walking into a corner store to buy lotion, for instance, and finding it has no price tag affixed. And then being quoted a price by the cashier that is a good 60,000 dong more than that of the going rate elsewhere.
Or the frustration of being charged double for gas, or a bowl of pho. This has happened to us multiple times. And it’s always done with a smile. This makes it all the more difficult to try and bargain our way down without feeling like Vietnamese-inept jerks.
Call it the “western tax.” Which results in the “western emotional rollercoaster syndrome,” the symptoms of which are: feeling stressed, and then irritated, and then ashamed, because you’re worked up over being asked to pay twenty cents more for parking than the elderly Vietnamese fisherman next to you (a guy who, you assume, may have lost a family member or two because of the terrible stuff your country’s government did here.)
Before visiting here, I’ve felt my privilege as an American, and a white one, in Southeast Asia. But our nations’ shared history, and the still-developing status of the tourism industry here, has made me feel it more acutely in Vietnam than elsewhere.
(That being said, there are plenty of Western-focused establishments in Hoi An, which is one of the most tourist-friendly towns in Vietnam. These places offer menus with fixed prices and serve things like soy lattes and Cabernet. You’ll pay more, of course, but far less than you would in the U.S.)
I feel at my most western in Hoi An’s markets, where there is stiff competition for business. Saleswomen wave menus at you and smile, beckoning you to try their cau lao, while others implore you to shop for banana-print pants at their stall.
It can be stressful to navigate, but it’s admirable salesmanship. (Actually, saleswomanship. Saleswomen are more frequent than men and seemingly savvier in their art).
My favorite example is this. While biking to Old Town one morning, we were greeted by a smiling woman on the back of a motorbike. “Hello! Where you from?” she chirped. When we answered “United States,” her face lit up. She she said how much she loved Obama, and then proceeded to tell Greg how lucky he was to have a beautiful wife like me. Then she jumped off the motorbike, into traffic, so she could come closer and ask us about our tailoring needs. “Come to my shop!’ she insisted. With that, she boarded another motorbike (that had come, seemingly, from out of nowhere), and beckoned us to follow her to her store. At that point we didn’t feel like we could say no. The whole thing was truly impressive.
Something else that’s impressive here? The imitation game. I cannot tell you how many times we’ve headed to a restaurant or shop, only to end up parked in front of one bearing near identical resemblance to our intended destination. En route to the most well-known tailor in town, Bebe, you’ll see these places: Bi Li, BiBi, The Bi, Bi Ne. Go to “that banh mi shop Anthony Bourdain went to” and you’ll see five others in a row laying the same claim to fame. Entrepreneurship is the name of the game here, and can be cutthroat. (Yet it’s probably part of why Vietnam’s small businesses are some of the fastest growing in Southeast Asia).
The stalls, the sales, and the sounds here. Karaoke emanating from three different street stalls in a row, from a speaker and a projector screen rigged against a canvas tent. Dozens of horns honking as motorbike drivers swerve past each another on their way into town. It’s all overwhelming and brilliant at the same time.
What else is brilliant about Vietnam?
Transactional stress aside, we’ve experienced so much warmth and hospitality here. In service-oriented establishments, sure, but also in small ways elsewhere. Other drivers tapping Greg at a stoplight to let him know his motorbike kickstand is down. Farmers smiling and waving as we pass. Women letting us high-five (and take a photo of) their chubby, adorable babies.
We will miss Hoi An. Its charm, its cau lao, and its introduction to this incredible country.
And we’ll miss Vietnam, though we’ll be back (in Saigon!) in two weeks. Tomorrow we leave for Cambodia. Until then, tạm biệt!