Category Archives: Vietnam

Was I Truly There??? China? Vietnam? Cambodia?

Me in Front of Storefront, Dali, Yunnan, China

Here I am in Front of a Storefront in Dali, Yunnan, China

It is hard to believe that only a few weeks have gone by since my return from Asia; I am so completely into the swing of things at home in the Boston area. It is ALMOST as if I never left. I can just barely “touch” China (where I lived and travelled from September 2013 until the end of March 2014) and Vietnam and Cambodia (where I travelled afterwards). They are elusive memories. And yet, profoundly, as I was out and about yesterday a large group of Chinese walked past me. Suddenly, a familiar feeling marked me and tied me to my time in China – I had a pleasantly warm and physical sensation throughout my body. My brain reminded me that I did, in fact, have particular experiences at particular times.

I left China feeling indifferent to the place, or so I thought. Now, I find that I miss it. I never thought I would and yet I do… I cannot figure out what it is that I miss; it is completely intangible – especially since while I was there I had mixed feelings about the country itself. But I realise there is something intangible about life there that I wish I could put my finger on. No matter. China did get under my skin and into my heart. I may not recall all of it, and certainly not necessarily on demand, but my past makes me who I am, now. The reality is, I truly was there.

Below is a small sampling of the photographs I took during my final three weeks in China: Shaxi, Dali, Fujian Province.

Shaxi, Yunnan Province China:

Grandmother and Grandchild out for a Stroll, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Grandmother and Grandchild out for a Stroll, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Shaxi Cultural Revolution Maoist Headquarters ("If the country wants to prosper and become strong then follow the birth plan" -- jie hua shen yu : one child one couple)

Shaxi Cultural Revolution Maoist Headquarters (“If the country wants to prosper and become strong then follow the birth plan” — jie hua shen yu : one child one couple)

Doorway (detail), Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Doorway (detail), Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Building a House, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Building a House, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Dali, Yunnan Province, China:

Street Scene, Renmin Lu, Dali, Yunnan, China

Street Scene, Renmin Lu, Dali, Yunnan, China

Bai Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Bai Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Alley, Dali, Yunnan, China

Alley, Dali, Yunnan, China

Fujian Province, China:

Fisherman, Fujian, China

Fisherman, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Fishermen. Near Sanshazhen, Fujian, China

Fishermen. Near Sanshazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Xiamen, Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Nan Putuo Temple, Fujian

Xiamen, Nan Putuo Temple, Fujian

Xiamen, Near Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Near Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Woman, Nanxi, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Woman, Nanxi, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

A Short Jaunt in Vietnam in March/April 2014

Hanoi (woman on street)

Hanoi (woman on street)

One day in Hanoi (and an unexpected overnight stay in Kowloon):

Unfortunately, because of a missed flight and some other factors beyond my control, my hoped-for week in Hanoi turned into a one-day trip.

My flight from Xiamen, China to Hanoi, via Hong Kong (HKG) was 5.5 hours behind schedule, due to poor weather conditions in HKG, and five of those hours were spent sitting in the airplane before it finally took off. I therefore missed my connecting flight and any opportunity to get to Hanoi that night. When we finally did arrive at the HKG airport my luggage was lost/misplaced – and found only 3 hours later. Dragon Air arranged an overnight stay for me in a five star hotel. I discovered, the following morning, that my room had one of the “stunning” views advertised on the website. I had the luxury of enjoying an all-you-can-eat breakfast (congee, dim sum, fresh fruit, and pain au chocolat) and then spent the rest of my time in my room, catching up with family and friends online before leaving at 11am for the airport and, finally, Hanoi. My long, tiring day of not getting where I was going did have a bit of a pay-off in the end!!

Hanoi is as I remember it from 2009 except that there are billboards all along the road from the airport to the city centre, and in the distance you can now see a few high-rises.  It seems as if the city has grown exponentially over these few years; even a new airport is being built. I was glad to see though, that the motor bike still rules the road, although there are now, more cars as well. I guess this is to be expected, in a “developing” country.  It also seems that there are more karaoke bars than there used to be. I learned that in Vietnam, karaoke is a favourite, family, after-dinner pastime.

Hanoi (one of many food stands on the streets of Hanoi)

Hanoi (one of many food stands on the streets of Hanoi)

The old quarter is the compact centre of the city and is where I stayed. It is still the same crowded, disorderly place but now seems to have a more self-assured air about it. The wafting smell of meat cooking hasn’t changed, the streets abound with people and motorbikes, and it retains the vibrancy I remember. I love it! The old part of the city is still full of winding, narrow alleys, and the boulevards are tree-lined. The lake in the middle of town is still a place for locals to hang out and French colonial architecture makes its presence felt; both new and old buildings envelope you. All of these elements, combined with the proud and resilient spirit of the Vietnamese people, produce a lively city. After spending seven months in China, I had almost forgotten how amazingly friendly, open, spirited, and determined the people of Southeast Asia are. I was reminded of this both in Hanoi and in the Mekong Delta, on this trip.

Hanoi (woman selling flowers)

Hanoi (woman selling flowers)

Hanoi is a fantastically frenetic city where people work hard but know how to relax. I quickly discovered that I had not lost the knack for crossing the busy streets – even Dinh Tien Hoang Boulevard. I was in Hanoi for a little over 39 hours, so this time I was just wandering through, but I sat on small plastic chairs, ate street food, and felt comfortable and at home. The first night, I wandered into a resto stall – Bun Bi Nam Bo (for bun bo) – and, as I was eating, I suddenly realised that it had been my daily go-to breakfast place when I was here  with my friend LP, in 2009. Talk about weird. I had no idea when I first entered but it looked strangely familiar. I later checked my  photos from that trip and my hunch was proven right.

Hanoi (woman sorting through rice)

Hanoi (woman sorting through rice)

Eating Pho in Hanoi was a must, as was drinking ca phe sua da, and a mango shake (made of pure mango juice and nothing else). This is a city with a passion for food; the sound of people cooking and getting ready for a day of selling food starts early in the morning – before 6 a.m. – and ends late at night. Anywhere you stroll you will pass vendors on the side of road, in storefronts, or on their bicycles, offering fruit and vegetables, soups, baguettes, and more. Hanoi is also a cafe culture, whether you sit in a coffee shop or enjoy a cup with others, sitting on low, plastic seats on the sidewalk. I will never be able to do Vietnamese/Hanoi food justice so I urge you to look at the websites below to get a sense of what and where to eat.

Hanoi (mannequin shops are a common site)

Hanoi (mannequin shops are a common site)

Of course if you want to, you may also eat at one of the many KFC’s, or MacDonald’s. You may also buy shoes at well-known Western stores such as Aldo and Bata. There is probably more of America here now than when I last visited and that, to me, is a shame. Nonetheless, Hanoi, once again, left only a good taste in my mouth and I cannot wait to return.

Accommodations:

  • Hanoi Elegance. This little (but growing)  chain of boutique hotels in Hanoi is very comfortable. The staff is marvellous, and I have no complaints. My stay was at the cheapest of the properties and was a real treat for me. A friend from Montreal told me it was a great stay and I’m glad he did!! I highly recommend it.

Places to Eat:

  • Pho Gia Truyen (49P Bat Dan)
  • Bun Bo Nam Bo (67P Hang Dieu)

Check Out:

Less than 24 Hours in Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC):

Saigon

Saigon

Saigon

Saigon

After another delayed flight, this time with 1.5 hours waiting on the plane at the gate, I finally arrived in HCMC  (commonly known as Saigon by locals) at 4:30 p.m., in time to meet my friend Nuc, a fellow CouchSurfer, for supper. My hotel received good reviews on Trip Advisor but I stayed in a windowless room (not for the first time in Vietnam) and, though it was comparatively clean, it was also more expensive than other places.

Nuc and I went for supper at Quan Dat –  a restaurant that specializes in south central Vietnamese food. We ate Banh Can (rice cakes with eggs, pork, shrimp and squid, that you wrap in fresh greens, then add cucumbers and green papaya, and dip in a variety of sauces (fermented fish; peanut; or fish and chili). Here is how you make Banh Can:

Accommodation:

Places to Eat:

  • Quan Dat – (106 Truong Dinh, P.9, Q3, District 10)

Mekong Delta:

Mekong Delta (woman roasting glutinous rice covered bananas)

Mekong Delta (woman roasting glutinous rice covered bananas)

Why did the chicken cross the road? The real answer is – to get out of the way of motorbikes and bicycles. Apparently chickens do not care which side of the street they are on. They like to hang out wherever they feel like it  – even on the narrow concrete or dirt pathways all along the Mekong Delta. This is what I discovered after a few days of cycling these back routes with Vietnam Backroads.

Mekong Delta (one of the many bridges we went over on our trip)

Mekong Delta (one of the many bridges we went over on our trip)

This small company runs various cycling trips across the delta. Our group consisted of me, two brothers, originally from the UK, (who hadn’t seen each other for five years), and our tour leader. We cycled mostly back roads, passing coconut groves, fruit trees of all sorts (pomelo, banana, mango, guava, sapota, and more),  palm trees, and rice paddies.  We rode up and then down, over many short, steep bridges that cross the myriad of waterways in this area, and rode on some small ferries as well, to travel across the water.  The three of us had the opportunity to speak with a monk at a Buddhist Theravada temple, and went to the Cai Rang floating market outside of Ca Tho. We visited the Bang Lang stork sanctuary, where we saw what must have been thousands of both black and white storks, as well as the spectacular Tra Su Melaleuca Forest Nature Reserve.  Each day, as we cycled, we were greeted, seemingly out of nowhere, with a chorus of loud, happy “hellos” from hundreds of people we passed. Our guide, Dat, was stupendous; he is originally from a farm in the Mekong Delta, but because he is the youngest in his family, he got to go to school rather than work on the farm. He had studied tourism and because of his education and connection to this area, he was able to provide us with an abundance of interesting and detailed information.

Mekong Delta (ka phe sua da in the making)

Mekong Delta (ka phe sua da in the making)

All along the way, we saw men drinking coffee or tea together under the corrugated rooves of little shops. I asked Dat about this and he said that men in Vietnam tend to drink together, to talk about business and exchange farming tips. After I prodded and joked with him a bit, he admitted that business probably accounts for only about 60% of the conversations.

Mekong Delta (drying rice along the rice paddies_

Mekong Delta (drying rice along the rice paddies_

On one of the days, we passed by a home that was preparing for a funeral. We were invited to sit down for tea and pay our respects by burning incense at the alter. Typically, people are not invited to visit a house of mourning; they just drop by. In Vietnam, when someone dies, the surviving family stays at home for five or six days.  The body is washed and dressed, a chopstick is laid between the teeth, and rice and three coins are placed in the mouth to show that the person did not die of hunger or want. The whole body is covered with white cloth. The Khmer, who predominantly occupy the Mekong Delta, practice the tradition of cremation, whereas the Vietnamese bury family members who have died.

Mekong Delta (picking hot peppers)

Mekong Delta (picking hot peppers)

Mekong Delta (woman in Can Tho who was at first very sheepish about having her photograph taken and then let me take MANY)

Mekong Delta (woman in Can Tho who was at first very sheepish about having her photograph taken and then let me take MANY)

Mekong Delta (selling soup in Can Tho)

Mekong Delta (selling soup in Can Tho)

This trip did not afford me the time to take many photographs since I was too busy biking but I will end here by saying that the scenery was absolutely spectacular and I would both recommend and repeat this trip in a heartbeat.

Bicycle Tours:

 

Vietnam 2009 and 2012

2009

I made my first visit to Vietnam in April 2009 when my friend LP generously invited me to join her on any part of her three-month trip to Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam. I was able to take two weeks off and join her toward the end of her trip, into which we packed in as much as humanly possible.

The flight to Vietnam was long. I was lucky to travel in daylight from Boston all the way to the Incheon Airport, just outside of Seoul. It was a cloudless sky throughout the whole leg and as we flew over countries and continents I identified Ottawa, the Hudson Bay, the Arctic, Russia, and China.

Hanoi

I arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam, late at night but the next day, typical of Tamar Granovsky, my travel mode was “on” so I was able to hit the ground running. LP and I started the day with bun bo xao (beef noodle salad) and Vietnamese cafe sua da (iced drip coffee with condensed milk). We then went for more cafe sua da at a cafe on the fourth floor of a building that overlooks the Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi as well as the circle of traffic and thousands of motor bikes.

Hanoi

Hanoi, Cafe by Hoan Kiem Lake

Hanoi traffic! Firstly, the noise is non-stop with vehicles honking; this is a sign that one motorist gives to the other to say that s/he is passing you, another motorist. How does a pedestrian cross the street? One walks across lanes of traffic where there are no lines (or rules), and as I said, seemingly thousands of motorbikes. Traffic lights appear to be a suggestion to help move traffic around in an orderly fashion – or so it seems. So… LP and I would grab each others’ arm or hand and together cross the street. The trick: first make eye contact with the closest or fastest motorist, keep moving,  and NEVER change your pace. The fact is they do not want to kill pedestrians. Just follow these rules and do not stop until you get to the other side of the street. Here are two videos  that demonstrate Vietnamese street traffic (take note of the pedestrians crossing in the first one. I crossed each of the intersections in these two cities multiple times.):

Hanoi Street Traffic and Ho Chi Minh City, Central Artery Street Traffic

Hanoi

Hanoi

Hanoi

Hanoi

We plodded through the Old Quarter (I had map in hand to orient myself yet relied heavily on LP’s experience of several days already spent acclimatizing herself to the city), rested and people-watched at cafes, and planned our trips to Sapa and Halong Bay.

At the end of the day, prior to supper of  grilled cha ca at the “famous” Cha Ca La Vong restaurant, we went for bia hoy (daily fresh kegged beer).  We sat on a roadside corner curb in small plastic chairs watching the rush hour traffic go by. A Japanese man, around 65, sat next to us and ordered dried fish smoked over a fire and then cut it up and put it in a small bowl with a hot dipping sauce. This gentleman insisted that we try it and as we ate he told us his story: he had left Japan forever, has been living in India for three years, and was in the middle of travelling southeast Asia for a few months. From his point of view Japan had become too expensive, years ago, with no job prospects for young people. He moved away from Japan twenty years earlier when he retired from his government job.

Breakfast in Hanoi

Breakfast in Hanoi

The second day we ate breakfast at the same little restaurant as the day before and ordered what seemed to be their specialty, bun bo xao – just as we had the prior morning.  Again we meandered the centre of Hanoi and this time snacked at a cafe along Hoan Kiam Lake where I discovered the world of Vietnamese shakes which began my love affair with both watermelon and mango shakes throughout my two weeks. That afternoon we had tickets for the water puppet theater. We ate dinner at the 69 Restaurant, recommended highly (at the time) by the Lonely Planet bible. This restaurant is situated in a century-old house in the Old Quarter and has a relaxing ambience.

Sapa and Surroundings

After an uneventful overnight train to Lao Cai and then a bus ride to Sapa we booked ourselves into the Family Guest House for a reasonable $8US. We then went to the local wet market for a pho and coffee breakfast, met up with a few Hmong women, and walked to the village of Cat Cat (3km south of Sapa). As we walked down the road the women told us that Cat Cat was created for tourists by the Vietnamese government about ten years earlier and, in order to enter, visitors must pay a nominal fee which goes to the government (not the villagers). So, to make money the village women put up stands to show off their handicrafts. The Hmong women, however, are not allowed to take their baskets into Cat Cat to sell their goods. Cat Cat and Sapa are surrounded by rice terraces and the walk through Cat Cat is via stone paths that wind around the village and up the mountain to the road leading back to Sapa.

Cat Cat

Cat Cat

Cat Cat

Cat Cat

The town of Sapa is situated in Northern Vietnam, is high in the mountains, and has an altitude over of 1600 meters. It is not a beautiful town but there are markets, opportunities for trekking, visiting local minority villages, and as I mentioned above is spectacularly landscaped with rice terraces. Among the many local tribal minorities are Red and Black Hmong, Dzao, Red Dao, Day, and Tay people.

When we returned to Sapa the women we walked with suggested that we go to the market for lunch. LP and I obliged and bought them their food: chicken pieces with bones and bowl of rice, with added hot water/broth. It was clear that all the Black Hmong women at the market were eating the same thing so we deduced that they eat this meal daily.

Sapa wet market

Sapa wet market

Sapa

Sapa

Sapa

Sapa

The Hmong women want sell their handicrafts to tourists. After lunch LP and I were surrounded by one, then two, then what seemed like dozens of women pressuring us to buy from them. The problem of course is that if you buy something from one woman the others appear jealous and urge you further (without relief) to buy from them, too. In fact, there were two women who attempted to sell me goods at lunch, unsuccessfully, and then followed me around town until I finally became outright rude and turned around and walked the other way — away from them. This was certainly not polite and I am embarrassed to admit to having done such a thing – but it worked. They were utterly taken aback and probably quite insulted (the latter was not my aim). And this is after I learned some Hmong phrases and words to help me out with communication in Sapa. Clearly that did not endear me to them or make them less relentless but I just couldn’t think of anything else to do.

But not everyone is like these two women. LP and I met two Black Hmong women who were genuinely curious about us. Hue and Zhoun, who were close friends with each other, walked with us through town asking questions about our lives. They offered us a homestay  (which we initially accepted but then had to forego because on our second day in Sapa they had a fight which we knew would have complicated a homestay). Here are two photos of me; the first is with Hue and the second is with Zhoun:

                 

That afternoon and the next day we explored Sapa and environs and left in the evening back to Hanoi.

Halong Bay

Our trip back to Hanoi and then Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay was quick and efficient. We took a night train to Hanoi, a taxi to the bus station where we ate the worse bowl of pho EVER, and then took several buses and a ferry (each connection went like clockwork) to Cat Ba. We spent the day eating and relaxing before embarking on the obligatory Halong Bay tour. What else sends you to Cat Ba?

Cat Ba

Cat Ba

Cat Ba

Cat Ba

Four others joined us for our overnight boat tour: a German woman and her Eritrean friend living in Germany/Bulgaria as well as a French father and daughter who LP and I thought, by the way they were acting, were lovers until they actually told us otherwise!!!

This boat tour taught me an important lesson that was later confirmed: in Asia never assume the transportation you booked will be the same transportation for the whole trip or that it will be as efficient as my first few experiences, at the beginning of this trip in Vietnam. It is best to assume that there will be technical difficulties and if you are LUCKY you will be pointed to other transportation. On this particular trip we barely made it out of Cat Ba when the captain discovered that the rudder wasn’t working. We waited an hour for another boat without beds. We learned that a third boat would meet us later in the day with beds – although not quite enough for all of us. Somehow we arranged ourselves and made it work.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Via the tour we visited a fish farm, kayaked through limestone caves, swam, and went to a different and more tremendous limestone cave that was like being in Disneyland or a sci-fi movie set, all a-lit with colourful lamps.  We also stopped at Monkey Island, on our return to Cat Ba, for a little (what else?) monkey viewing and a walk to the top of a karst.

Hue and Hoi An

The evening we returned to Hanoi LP and I took an overnight  “double-decker” bus with reclining seats and a toilet, to the middle of the country – seated in the lap of luxury! We were on our way to Hoi An, and were fortunate to have to change buses in Hue which gave us a half-day of sightseeing, there. We started our morning with coffee and pain au chocolat at La Boulangerie Francaise, a business that teaches disadvantaged youth to become pastry chefs.

Hue lies on the banks of the Song Huong (Perfume) River.  Most of the historic sites are within the Citadel, built in 1804 by Emperor Gia Long (Nguyen Anh). He established Hue as the new capital and and began the Nguyen dynasty that united Vietnam for the first time in two centuries. The Nguyen dynasty ruled until 1945.

Hue, Imperial City

Hue, Imperial City

Hue, Imperial City

Hue, Imperial City

Hue, Imperial City

Hue, Imperial City

We spent most of the time in the Imperial Enclosure (within the citadel). After exploring this area we separated for a few hours each moving at her own pace around the city for photo ops, etc. The city seemed fairly empty (especially compared to the other places I had been to thus far). There were school children bicycling the streets in their uniforms and I was even knocked over by one boy while I was walking on the sidewalk.

Hue

Hue

We arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon and found relatively fancy lodging (compared to the $8US lodging in Sapa and in Cat Ba) near Hoi An’s Old Quarter – Vinh Hung 2 Hotel.

Hoi An is a beautiful town; the historic section’s architecture is magnificent. Bougainvillea is everywhere and was in bloom and storefronts and the streets are alit with silk lanterns. The architecture is a mix of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, as well as European styles; and I wandered that area a few times but also made sure that I explored the rest of Hoi An where it was clear that older homes are razed and rebuilt. I explored some newer sections of Hoi An, on my own,  before I met LP for lunch in the old part of town (the streets are closed to cars and thus fairly quiet despite tourists).

Hoi An

Hoi An

Hoi An

Hoi An

Hoi An

Hoi An

We ate lunch at Morning Glory Restaurant where we had: cau lau ; banh bao  and banh vac:  “white rose” rice flour dumplings; goi xoai xanh, green mango salad with shrimp and herbs; Vietnamese creme caramel ; and a banana shake with lime juice. Although the food we ate could be easily found in the markets and on the street this restaurant was a true find; we returned a second time for more of Morning Glory Restaurant’s subtle and delicious meals.

LP and I spent the next days apart and together. I explored markets and more of the new part of town, together we went to historic sites and we investigated the nearby country-side. And of course we ate and ate the excellent food to be had in Hoi An.

After a quick two weeks I parted ways with LP in Hoi An and took the bus to Danang which got me to the Hanoi airport and home. This was my first trip to Asia and the beginning of my love-affair with Southeast Asia which has made me fiercely determined to return.

2012

My return trip to SE Asia started with surviving the 25 hour travel to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMH) from Boston. The smell and sounds of Hanoi came right back to me the moment I stepped out of the airport. There is a smell of burned meat and the sound of motos and cars honking everywhere. I felt at home. The first thing I did when I arrived was wander the neighbourhood where I was staying and survived crossing the streets. My hotel, in District 1 at the Hotel Luan Vu is situated on a quiet lane (and therefore the hotel was quiet). District 1 is in the very centre of HCMH, is home to backpackers and is also both the central business and entertainment area. Many of the streets are narrow as are the houses whose architecture is a mix of colonial French and newer high rise buildings.  I got right into things and drank a bia 333 (beer 333) before heading off to bed. 

So began my 3.5 month adventure to Southeast Asia and China.

Ho Chi Minh CIty

Ho Chi Minh CIty

Since I was in travel mode, I woke up early and, not tired, went to the local market to eat a bowl of pho bo and drink cafe sua da (two in fact, one for me and one for Steve, as per my promise to him). The first day included a massage and booking a tour ticket of the Mekong Delta that would lead me to Cambodia via boat.

While taking care of business that first day I discovered that cashing traveller’s cheques in 2012 was not as easy as it had been when I travelled in S.E. Asia 2009 and 2010. I had to go to multiple banks before one finally let me cash the cheques. Clearly it will only get harder over the years.

Ho Chi Minh CIty

Ho Chi Minh CIty

Day two started off slowly. I walked around District 3  which is considered a part of the city centre. I took many photos as I strolled the streets then met Hanh who I was introduced to online through Couchsurfing. We had lunch together at Nam Loi  – a place I stumbled upon the night before and a restaurant that happened to be the place she took me to that day. After lunch we went to a smoke-filled coffee house for (what else?) cafe sua da. We talked about work and the role/expectations of men compared to women in Vietnam. We also discussed the fact that the country is communist and yet capitalism is creeping in, in a regimented way.

Ho Chi Minh CIty

Ho Chi Minh CIty

I continued my walk through District 3 and was stopped by 5 men drinking beer and eating in an empty lot. They invited me to join them, which i did. The bia 333 hit the spot given the heat. We tried to communicate with each other as best as we could and luckily I had my glossary of words and cheat sheet of phrases. Clinking glasses and cans to a happy new year continued for an hour. One man, whose wife joined us 15 minutes later, kept on telling me that I’m #1. I could only agree! Our conversation was very simple:  we exchanged names and ages. I learned that they had just finished their first day at work after time off because of Tet, the Vietnamese New year. As I got up to leave, after thanking them and saying goodbye, they told me I must be very careful with my camera and purse; it is not uncommon, it seems, to have purses snatched.

Ho Chi Minh City, Drinking with the Locals

Ho Chi Minh City, Drinking with the Locals

Ho Chi Minh CIty

Ho Chi Minh CIty

After showering back at the guesthouse, I went for a supper of salads, pork, and pigskin rolls as well as pig’s ear spring rolls. I also ate spicy ground beef wrapped in betel leaves at Hoang Yen buffet at the Zen mall.

The following day I went to a cooking lesson given by the Saigon Cooking Class. We began with a tour of the Ben Thanh market — the 2nd largest market in Asia – where we were introduced to various produce including about 10 different types of mint. We were informed that if we eat at a stall the first item listed on the board is usually the specialty of the stall (a very good tip!) and the dish to order since it will be the freshest. Ben Thanh Market caters to restaurants, wealthier Vietnamese, and tourists. Apparently it has the freshest meat, fish, vegetables, etc. After the tour and ingredient buying we proceeded to the school which is part of the Hoa Tuc resto. The cooking menu:

  • Fried Saigon spring roll with pork, carrot, mushroom and glass noodles. Traditional Nuoc Mam dipping sauce – Chảgiò Saigon
  • Fresh lotus stems salad with prawns, pork and Vietnamese herbs
  • with prawn cracker and a chili flower. Sweet and sour dressing – Gỏi Ngó sen
  • Sticky rice fritter stuffed with pork and carrot with soya sauce – Xôi nhân thịt chiên
  • Char-grilled beef wrapped in Betel leaves with lemongrass served with fresh rice noodles, rice paper and fresh leaves – Bò La Lot
  • Dessert

In the afternoon I visited the War Remnants Museum. It was a profound experience. The museum documents the “American War” – which it clearly was. The first floor covers all of the support against the war and includes, quite heavily, American resistance to the war, too. The second and third floors displayed photographs (including a large collection from the war correspondents), written histories of the war, statistics, and information about the use of the  herbicide agent orange dioxins – used as a defoliant. Today, two generations later, there are still birth defects linked to it. It was not an uncommon to see a person who had clearly been physically damaged by the war. The museum also has displays about the torture that went on during this time period –  including the torture of  women and children.  Finally, as an offering of hope, there is a display of photos of places throughout Vietnam that were destroyed by this war, and corresponding photographs of these places today. There has been an incredible amount of growth in this country which is inspiring. All in all, however, it is a very sad part of American history and kudos to the Vietnamese who welcome the Americans so openly, today.

Ho Chi Minh CIty, wet market

Ho Chi Minh CIty, Wet Market

Overall impressions: HCMC is a bustling city with people and motorbikes everywhere. I have never seen so many parking lots (xen gui) for the motorbikes (and many people hang out in them when they are not driving on the street). Men hang out drinking beer and coffee and playing games while women work (seemingly, more than men and confirmed by Hanh. LP and I noticed this when we were in Vietnam together in 2009). In fact, it seems that more women than men work in the public sector although it is the men who work as guards. Also, although there are propaganda posters they are not as evident as in other places I’ve been to in Vietnam. I do like this city but it has not gotten under my skin the way Hanoi, Hue, and Hoi An did.

The Mekong Delta

I spent two days of a three-day tour in the Mekong Delta before leaving Vietnam to Cambodia. As many as fifteen million people live in the Mekong Delta and most use the canals, rivulets, and rivers to survive, in one form or another. The delta, is the rice bowl of the country and yields enough rice to feed all of Vietnam and still have a surplus. Coconut palms and fruit orchards also are in abundance. We visited a coconut candy “factory” the size of the upper floor of my house (and I live in a modest-sized house), where everything is made by hand; spent time at a fruit orchard where a man-made pond was built from a bombed crater; and then spent the first night in My Tho. The following day we were taken to a brick factory and spent the night in Can Tho so that we could visit the floating market the next day. Three of us were then left in Chau Doc which was our gateway to Cambodia.

Mekong Delta, making coconut candy

Mekong Delta, Making Coconut Candy

Mekong Delta, drying fish

Mekong Delta, Drying Fish

Mekong Delta, floating market

Mekong Delta, Floating Market

The next time I am in Vietnam, if I do not go to Hanoi, I’d like to spend a few weeks, at the very least exploring the delta by bicycle.