“One time, back in Nam…”
That’s our preferred opener to any story about our visit to Vietnam. Have to say this trip was like no other we’ve been on. A lot of the time it felt like an assault on the senses but there were moments of serene calm too. Being in a developing country was so humbling. The people were gracious and kind, so pleased to have the tourism. Despite our recent history, they don’t hold a grudge against Americans (more about that on the Chu Chi Tunnels post). The food was every bit as delicious as we’d hoped, flavorful and light, and we never tired of it.
The highlight of our stay in HCMC must have been the XO Foodie Tour, which we did on the night of arrival to Vietnam. It’s difficult to say which was more of a thrill, sampling unusual street food or riding on the back of a motorbike through the crazy streets of Saigon. The tour, guided by a group of young Vietnamese women dressed in traditional ao dai, was the perfect introduction to the city. We visited five different districts of Saigon and saw lots of sights like Chinatown and the Chinese Market. At each district we stopped somewhere for street food. Some new and adventurous foods that we tried were: grilled goat, grilled frog with skin on, baby duck egg (embryo), banana wine and jellied coconut. Some less adventurous things that we particularly liked were: grilled okra, chili rubbed shrimp, grilled quail, wok-fried blue crab claws, scallops with peanuts and scallion, and steamed clams with lemongrass. Hmmm…getting hungry just remembering it.
Even though most Vietnamese are Buddist, Christmas is a widely celebrated holiday and is the second biggest party after Vietnamese New Year (Tet). Everything was decorated for Christmas and every night thousands of people took to the streets on their motorbikes to celebrate. It was chaos. We loved watching it all from the rooftop bar of our hotel.
Here are some other memories so far:
-CDG Airport (Paris) is the nicest airport we’ve been through. They provide little fabric booties to wear as you go through security and shoe horns are available on the other side when you’re getting booted up again.
-At the HCMC airport our driver greeted us then promptly turned and ran away at full speed. Shocked and not knowing what to do, we ran after him (with our bags) all the way out the airport and through the parking lot until we all got to the car, where the chase stopped. We still have no idea what that was about.
-While on this high speed chase we did note a Louisiana Popeyes at the airport and gave a quick salute to the American South.
-When we got out of the car at the hotel, all these men came up and were saying hi to us. We thought everyone was so nice! Until we realized they were trying to get us to hire them for a motorbike ride.
-All the motorbikes! In Saigon there are 10 million people and 7 million motorbikes. Crossing the street is a thrill. As one tourist t-shirt summarized, for the motorbikes “green means go and red means keep going.”
-It’s common to see entire families, four or five people and all their stuff crammed on to one motorbike. Amazing the way they load up.
-Women wear long gloves, face masks, hooded sweatshirts, trousers, flesh covered stockings, etc – whatever they can do to conceal their skin head to toe from sun exposure. Everyone wears a face mask due to pollution. In two weeks in Vietnam, we saw blue sky about four times. Apparently a lot of smog comes down from China.
-It amused us how much the Asians love to have there picture taken in front of mundane backdrops. Billboards for example…people would queue to pose in front of a billboard.
-Speaking of billboards, in Vietnam Nic Cage is 20 years younger and has a head of hair that would make any women jealous.
-Squatting is apparently more comfortable than sitting.
-Electricians be advised to avert your eyes while touring Vietnamese cities (wiring is ghastly)
-Exchange rate at the time of our stay: 1 USD = 21,000 VND.
-In Vietnam the peace sign does not mean “peace”, it means “hi.”