July 23, 2013

Vietnam Part One

I have been meaning to recap my adventures in Southeast Asia last summer and I am only now getting around to my second post about the trip: Vietnam. Exactly a year ago last weekend, we departed on an amazing 6-week adventure through Southeast Asia. In the first two weeks, we started in Singapore and then traveled to Malaysia and then Indonesia. A large part of our trip was spending 10 days in Vietnam starting from the south and working our way up north.

I thought ten days seemed like a lot of time in Vietnam. Those days were jam-packed with sights, sounds, food and much more. When you're traveling for six weeks straight, it's assumed you'll take a rest in between some of that. We put our feet up for a little bit in Bali before venturing onto Vietnam.

After relaxing in Bali, Vietnam is quite a shock to the system. At this point, we were a few weeks into our trip and getting somewhat used to maneuvering around Asia. There is something about many of the the places in Southeast Asia that you feel you will take with you always. Something about experiencing it, and making it through the ups and downs that is really not something you can explain and seems well, like a world away from the world you normally live.

When I got home, I tried to replicate many of the meals, including fresh spring rolls. Everything had such simple ingredients and flavours done in a beautiful, balanced way that makes you appreciate real food. There were many ways I tried to capture my experiences in Asia through photos, memories, sights, experiences and now, looking back and trying to document the trip.

There is no shortage of good food in Vietnam, however, you won't find many people sitting down for a quiet, relaxed meal. There are thousands of stools and chairs on the street that people crouch on the sidewalk to eat their meals. Most meals are shared family style and consist of rice bowls, vegetables, some type of meat or tofu, sauces, pickled vegetables and stir-fries.

There are still remnants of another time throughout the city, but it seems to have adapted to futuristic developments while maintaining its history. The city was the capital of the Republic of Vietnam until 1975 until it fell to the North Vietnamese forces and was re-named Ho Chi Minh City. The main centre of the city, and a lot of the main attractions, are located in District 1 (the city is divided into 19 urban districts) which is still known sometimes as Saigon.

Then there is pho: the famous Vietnamese soup with broth, noodles, meat and herbs, really, all of the herbs and spices you could want. The pile of fresh herbs they give you to garnish the pho is probably as big as the bowl itself. There is also a variety of sauces and spices to add. Condiments are a serious business there. It was also impossible to down a bowl of pho without getting half of it on my shirt. We eventually learned the proper head over the bowl and slurping technique. It is never a clean endeavour and chances are you will leave a meal with remnants of broth on your clothes. There is actually a famous chain of pho restaurants in Vietnam called Pho 2000. Although they claimed to have good pho, we went for the real experience on a metal bench of a tiny corner place by our hotel. 

Some things are tough to handle in Vietnam and it's not a place for the weak of heart as I learned. Everything can be overwhelming, from the motorbikes, noise, smoggy air to even crossing the street. When we first stepped out for the day in HoChiMinh we headed to Ben Thanh Market. I usually love seeing markets in different places. For some reason, I couldn't handle this one. As tourists, we were flocked, poked and prodded and we only made it through one aisle.

I dashed towards the first stall of "ca phe chon" that I saw and bought a bag to take home. By the way, it's coffee made from the droppings of weasels. The animals eat the coffee beans and then digest them and the droppings are sold as premium coffee. I like good coffee and this was good coffee, despite the back story.

Markets are usually a hustle and bustle I can handle. Turning into a human traffic cone, however, is a little much. I ended up gripping Mike’s hand with unnecessary force and yelling obscenities under my breath as we weaved through traffic. On the second day I decided to wear a bright orange tank top to make sure the drivers could see me. Slow and steady wins the race, as do bright colours and quick judgment.

There is something in the air even 40-50 years later, a sense of re-building and looking forward after so much devastation; it's almost a sense of not being able to forget the past. From the French influence, to the guards on the street in green uniforms and the shops selling antiques and propaganda posters. Some things are still quite upsetting. I have never seen people so shaken up at a museum before like I did at the War Remnants Museum. The museum documents the graphic destruction of the Vietnam war and the devastating effects the use of bombs and napalm.

I am skipping on a bit to our trip to Hanoi. I think Hoi Ann deserves its own post, so you will see more in Part 2.  We did the walking tour laid out in our Lonely Planet book of the Old Quarter. We started at the Ngoc Son Temple, then followed the route past jewellery shops, markets, shops, bars and more shops. There is definitely a lot of French influence in Hanoi and often the winding streets and busyness reminded me of Paris. As we only had three days, we stayed in mostly the central area and chose to take one of the days to see Halong Bay.

Hanoi is a little calmer than Ho Chi Minh, but not quite. It acted as the capital of French Indochina until 1954 and celebrated its 1000th birthday in 2010. There is also a hot, subtropical climate and rains for about an hour or two every day.

The best way to see things is to walk and soak everything in, like the mazes of backstreets, alleys, markets, fountains and shopping. The Old Quarter is also the home of the Temple of Literature, the oldest University in Vietnam dating back to 1010. And of course, one of the world's best places for food whether it's restaurants, cafes, night markets or stalls. It is also quite established and modernized, similar to Ho Chi Minh City, with expanding developments, business and commercialization.

You will also learn a new way to drink coffee. Forget everything you know about iced coffee. Vietnamese coffee, as well as weasel coffee, is some of the best in the world. In the warm and humid weather, drinking hot coffee is almost unbearable, so most places sell refreshing iced coffees extra sweetened with condensed milk and sugar. Along with a cold, caffeinated beverage, a bowl of hearty noodles is also in order. 

I wish I had a better picture of this meal. This was the first time I have walked into a restaurant having no idea what anything on the menu was in English. I sat down, pointed at the menu and this delightful bowl of meat and noodles was brought to the table. Bun Cha, which originated in Hanoi, is a dish of grilled pork and noodles with herbs similar to Pho, but not quite a soup. We actually went back to this restaurant twice after we learned what to order the first time. Apparently Hanoi is also known as the place "transfixed by Bun Cha."

As we only had three days, we chose to take one of the days to see Halong Bay. Thousands of limestone monolithic islands dot the landscape with many wondrous grottos inside and clusters of lakes outside to explore.

The guides don't recommend only one day on Halong Bay. You would be best doing a two to four day cruise around the bay. In our case, we packed into a mini van with eight other tourists, drove a shaky four hours then hopped onto a boat. After a quick lunch on the boat, it sailed around for a bit and we docked and piled into canoes to explore the bay. We had about 30 minutes to canoe around the bay and then everyone piled back onto the boat to explore the caves.

Cross another UNESCO World Heritage site off the list. Did I mention it also about gone through about 500 million years of evolution and formation? Most of the islands are uninhabited, however, as any beautiful tourist attraction, they are swarmed with people. 

A tour guide took us through the colourful caves and pointed out inappropriate shapes in the rocks. We explored the Surprise Grotto, one of the largest caves in Halong Bay, also known as the "Sung Sot Cave." The ceilings are about 30 feet high, so I did not feel claustrophobic whatsoever. Then it was back on the boat and then into the mini-van for another bumpy four hour drive back to Hanoi. If you're looking to relax on the bay and spend time exploring the caves and lakes, I would recommend a few days doing a Halong Bay cruise or boat trip. 

Then our trek through Vietnam was at an end and we spent our last day in Hanoi before heading to Thailand to meet up with our tour group for the last leg of the journey. We were pretty tired from our day trip. Our plans for that day included finding a nice cold beverage and sitting at a cafe somewhere to catch our breath. The Lonely Planet guidebook always amazes me. We found the most nondescript address mentioned in the book and went up some back alley stairs to find this beautiful cafe with a peaceful balcony overlooking the street.  Personally, I think one of the best ways to soak in any new places is so sit at a cafe and watch the world go by.

All we wanted to do that day was sit and drink cold beverages. We migrated from one cafe to another and had lunch before flying to Bangkok. One final meal using the classic combination of pork, noodles and sauce. No matter what way you eat it, whether it's a soup, stir fry or spring roll, you know Vietnam is a place you will never forget. With such an exploration of the five senses in each twist and turn, you simply can't forget.


Read more about my tasty travels in Singapore

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