Vietnam Days

May, 2011

It’s Tuesday the 10th of May, and I’m in Cambodia where I arrived yesterday by bus from Vietnam. Although hot (and I don’t mean to pun about the weather, which is in the high 90s) to explore this interesting small country, I wanted to take a little time to put down my feelings and observations about the last 20days in Vietnam while they’re still fresh.

Although some of you who have been to Vietnam had told me positive things, I still didn’t know what to expect from my visit. As an American would I feel animosity because of America’s frightful presence here in the 6os and 70s? To that question the answer was, “not at all.” Most Vietnamese were born after 1975 or are too young to remember the war, while the attitude of the older generation appears to be that the past is best put aside. Still, reminders of the war are plentiful.

On a sidewalk in Hue I encountered a man selling objects that had belonged to U.S. servicemen – inscribed cigarette lighters, insignia, clothing, etc. In the “Hanoi Hilton”, the former French prison that had at one time held as many as 100 U.S. POWs, I saw the flight suit and parachute worn by Senator John McCain when he was shot down. Saigon’s War Remnants Museum tells the story of the American War in ways that are both moving and troubling.

Saigon -- War Remnant's Museum
The museum’s forecourt is filled with examples of America’s war machinery. Some of it amazed me; I never knew just how big a Chinook helicopter is. Inside, most of the exhibits are photographs, some documenting anti-war protests around the world, including those in the U.S. For me, old enough to remember how torn apart our country was by the draft and the anti-war movement, the memories came flooding back. America lost more than 50,000 lives in the war while the Vietnamese lost more than 1,000,000. The rooms filled with photos shot by some of the world’s bravest photo journalists are powerful and those documenting the effects of Agent Orange and other chemicals on the civilian population are all too graphic. Of course, the story of the My Lai massacre is given prominence.

So much for the past. Now, what about Vietnam today?

On arrival, my first impression was of Hanoi’s airport. What a contrast it was to the modern, efficient airport in Shanghai I had left only hours before. In Hanoi there was a lackadaisical feel to everything. At the visa window, the agent seemed genuinely unhappy to have to leave his chair, where he had been reading, to attend to me.  During the evening drive through Hanoi to my hotel, I felt I was in another Asia, older and less developed. There were no tall, signature buildings, and motorbikes outnumbered cars by at least fifty to one.

White Scarves

I was to learn that a motorbike is how most people in Vietnam get around. There is no metro in Hanoi and buses aren’t plentiful, yet some form of wheeled transportation is necessary because Vietnamese cities are not for walkers. The heat and humidity are against it, and the sidewalks are an obstacle course of parked motorbikes and people cooking and eating. It’s said that Hanoi has 6,000,000 people and 4,000,000 motorbikes. When a pack of fifty of the latter accelerates from a traffic light, the effect is what you could expect if you upset a hornet’s nest.

The flow of motorbike traffic can be unceasing. To cross a street in Vietnam, you walk very slowly into the traffic stream, and somehow the bikes adjust and swirl around you. The trick is to not to panic. It takes nerve, and I wouldn’t try it in New York or Istanbul. Whole families ride on a single motorbike. Dad drives with junior curled like a pretzel at his feet. Sis rides sandwiched between her father and mother, who rides at the rear. For me, just as in China, the motorbike taxis are welcome. There was almost always someone ready to give me a lift for a reasonable fare. I long lost count of how many times I rode somewhere on the back of a motorbike. No one walks in Vietnam; everyone rides something.

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

I don’t know why, but communist countries have the practice of embalming their founders and putting them on display. I’ve never been to Moscow to see Lenin, and in Beijing the timing wasn’t right for me to view Mao’s corpse, but here in Hanoi I did get a look at Uncle Ho, as Ho Chi Minh is affectionately referred to. To do so, I stood in line for about an hour talking to a couple from Warsaw. As we finally approached the mausoleum the atmosphere became solemn. Cameras and mobile phones were forbidden, and guards in sparkling white uniforms cautioned us to stop talking. Inside, although we couldn’t pause to stare, we did have a 270-degree look at the tiny figure in white lying on a bier under glass. Ho Chi Minh lived a simple life, and the way he has been preserved and gawked at is probably not what he would have wished.

Behind and around the mausoleum is a lovely green park with an impressive presidential palace and some administrative buildings. All are painted yellow with green trim and all were built by the French in the days when they ruled Indochina from these precincts. Ho Chi Minh never lived in the palace, preferring a simpler dwelling nearby.

Here are some more words about language issues:

My biggest disappointment and difficulty in Vietnam was communication. Although I wouldn’t expect the man or woman in the street to speak my language, I did hope to be able to communicate better with those who make their living catering to tourists. For instance, I expected an English-speaking guide to be able to speak clear English. Sadly, this was often not the case. Fault me, if you will, for not staying in the five-star hotels where better English speakers are to be found, but what’s a budget tourist to do?

Red Dzao Woman
Red Dzao Woman

Interestingly, some of my liveliest conversations took place with the hill-tribe women — the Black Hmong and the Red Dzao — in the far north of the country near the Chinese border. I had gone to Sapa, a town built in the 1920s by the French as a hill station, on a night train from Hanoi in order to trek for a couple days. Nowadays, the town is tourist central with hotels and restaurants of every class. Each day dozens of women wearing their distinctive tribal dress roam the town selling their handicrafts. These are hardy women as I was to discover on my short but intense trek. The thing is, they have had little or no formal education, yet some of them have picked up a lot of English and they seemed to understand me better than the lowlanders I was having trouble with in Hanoi. Talking with them was fun but not a casual interaction. They were out to sell what they had and believed that after the final “no” there would be a “yes”.

My trekking experience lasted two days with an overnight homestay. Now, to me “homestay” evokes a picture of something cozy and intimate. In fact, mine was in a barn-like building with a concrete floor and a few plastic chairs and a table as its only furniture. Above, was a gallery that served as a sleeping loft and held about 20 mattresses. The toilet and shower were in an adjacent building, so in the night when I had to go down to relieve myself, I had to use an outdoor staircase and step over and around the house dogs who spent their nights on the steps. It’s good I’ve learned to always carry a flashlight.

Trekking Near Sapa
Trekking Near Sapa

The trekking itself could have been better. Although it was wonderful to look down the valley at the terraced rice paddies and walk through little villages with their traditional ways, the weather was rainy and the steep hillsides were treacherously slippery. I was less afraid of falling and injuring myself than I was of covering myself with mud. As it was by the time we reached the bottom, my hiking boots were a shocking mess.  My guide for this particular adventure was Chili, a local man, very strong and fit, who did a good job of looking out for me. However, his broken English had a serious pronunciation deficit. It took me several tries to understand his mangling of “hydroelectric”.

My Guide Chilly
My Guide Chilly

On both days while Chili and I walked, we would be shadowed by a different tribal woman. She would keep close to me, and would offer me her hand when it looked as if I was about to take a pratfall. I was surprised by how strong a grip these women had. Of course, I was grateful for the assistance, and it finally dawned on me their helpful presence was a bonding strategy. When it came time to part at some village, I would buy a souvenir.

A Tough Moment
A Tough Moment

In my opinion the glory of Vietnam is its cuisine. Whether in a hole-in-the-wall or a fancy pants restaurant it seemed impossible to have a bad meal. Some of my most memorable were at street kitchens where I would be offered a bowl of steamed rice topped with some vegetables and a small piece of pork, beef, or fish. With some chilli sauce on the side these meals that cost lesss than $2,00 were always delicious. I took a cooking class in Hanoi, in part just to discover the secrets of the flavoring. Partly it’s the intense bottled fish sauce sold in every market. I learned how to tell the best kind by its clarity and by the words Mam Nhal meaning first extraction on the label.

Another important principle in Vietnamese cooking is the inclusion and blending of five flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and spicy. It’s been fun learning to identify the sources of these tastes in Vietnamese cuisine.

I could go on for a long while talking about great Vietanmese meals I’ve had, but I’ll limit myself to mentioning just one. I wish there were more restaurants like Hanoi’s Cha Ca La Vong, places that serve only one dish and do it superbly.

As I walked in, a man on the other side of the room held up two fingers, and I held up one. He pointed to a staircase. Upstairs I sat at a vacant table and looked around the crowded room: fluorescent lighting and walls of a green color I’d never seen in nature. After a short wait someone deposited a laminated card in front of me. In English it read:

Only One Dish in Our Restaurant

Grilled  Fish

150,000 VND/Pers

Not Included drink

Next came several things: a bowl of greens, including some dill, and julienned leeks; a bowl of steamed rice and another of cold, cooked noodles; small bowls of chili oil, and peanuts. Finally, a bowl of cilantro sprigs and a bitter herb I couldn’t identify. Then came the piece de resistance: in a small frying pan on a flaming burner were a dozen nuggets of cooked fish sizzling in hot, seasoned oil. A woman server pointed to the greens and motioned for me to add them to the oil. I did as I was told and stirred them with my chop sticks. Then I removed them and some fish to my bowl on top of some rice. I topped these with cilantro, peanuts and chili oil. It was delicious. The combination of these simple ingredients mixed with the seasoned oil from the frying pan was excellent. I repeated the process until I had eaten everything. The cost for the meal, including a bottle of beer, was less than $10. I left without having spoken a single word to anyone.

I can’t leave the food discussion with a mention of Vietnam’s most popular, the noodle soup called Pho. Vietnamese of all classes eat it, either at breakfast or lunch. Mixed with the tasty broth and noodles are vegetables such as spinach, cauliflower, cabbage, and onion. On top of these are thin pieces of beef or pork. It’s a delicious, inexpensive meal that sticks to your ribs.

Finally, there is the delight of drinks with crushed ice. It doesn’t matter how small the backwoods settlement, there always seems to be crushed ice on hand. In the Mekong Delta, when the temperature was 95 degrees and humid, I would order tea and along with my cup of hot water and tea bag would come a tall glass of crushed ice. After the tea had steeped enough, I would pour it over the ice for a very refreshing drink.

I was surprised at the difference I felt between Hanoi in the north and the southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, which everyone still seems to call Saigon. As cities go, Hanoi seems dusty and tired compared with its much more energetic sister in the South. Saigon’s center has the tall business and apartment towers, the fashionable streets lined with designer names, and the bright-lights, big-city nightlife. It also has its tenderloin of whores and dive bars not far from the backpacker district where I stayed.

I was in Saigon only a couple days before heading further south to the town of My Tho and a three-day motorbike trip along the highways and byways of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong is one of the world’s great rivers, rising in Tibet and flowing through Laos and Cambodia before spreading out into a huge maze of canals in the far south of Vietnam.

Yen, my Guide in the Mekong Delta
Yen, my Guide in the Mekong Delta


I had thought to bicycle around the delta, but the heat was too intense and the distances too great to be done on the sorts of bikes available. On my first day in My Tho, I connected with Yen, who said she was a guide and had her own motorbike. She borrowed another from a friend for me, and away we went.

Now, I hadn’t driven a motorbike since I rented a Vespa in Nice many years ago; however, my initial apprehension disappeared after a few minutes on the Yamaha model Yen had found for me. It was an automatic, so I didn’t have to deal with shifting gears. I could concentrate on the frequently weird traffic situations we encountered and on trying to keep up with Yen. My guide didn’t speak as much English as I had thought and didn’t know some of the roads much better than I did, but she could ask directions and understand the replies. She found the back roads I wanted to travel. I couldn’t have done the trip without her.

Pigs and People

The back roads I refer to aren’t roads at all in the traditional sense but rather concrete slabs only about a meter wide. Some were not in good shape either and had to be negotiated carefully. We crossed many hump-backed bridges over canals and stopped while I photographed sights along the way. It was a perfect way to see this part of the country. We stopped in settlements of only four or five dwellings where the residents claimed no tourist had ever been before.

Floating Market in Mekong Delta
Floating Market in Mekong Delta

On our last day, I hired a small boat and we went up the Mekong River early in the morning to see the locally famous floating market. We arrived as the market was going full tilt with dozens of boats large and small jostling with each other to buy and sell. This is a produce market, and each boat is equipped with a tall pole to which samples of certain fruits and vegetables are tied. This method allows buyers and sellers to find each other. It was an active and colorful scene, one I’m very pleased to have seen.