Travel is a passion of mine. It is for a lot of people.
Once in Jakarta as a young businessman, I moved out of my five-star hotel for a weekend, just to stay with back packers in another part of town. That, however, was a long time ago. Yet, with such perspective in mind, let me share a few personal experiences from Vietnam during my recent visits there.
- I absolutely love Vietnamese food. I’m addicted to the intense flavors from the tropical herbs and spices. I adore the fresh vegetables and appreciate the small portions of food. One of my favorite meals was from Anthony Boudain’s recommended “lunch lady”. Finding her was difficult, but the $0.75 bowl of noodles with pork and solidified blood was well worth the search effort.
- There are also great mainstream Vietnamese restaurants. One of my favorites is Quan An Ngon, where various vendors cook different regional foods, while as a customer you can order any combination of dishes from your table. I particularly enjoyed the snails in coconut curry and the shrimp on a sugar cane with rice paper.
- While taxi’s are cheap, the fastest way to get around is to ride on a back of a scooter. It’s exhilarating to be maneuvered around the congested streets on a scooter. But be warned, this is not for the faint of heart.
- Talking to locals whether they want me to or not is always fun. Once, a street vendor desperately tried to avoid eye contact as I walked up and ordered a “banh mi” (a Vietnamese sandwich). We kept motioning to each other until I realized that she wanted me to choose a type of sandwich. Eventually, I pointed to a chunk of unfamiliar meat. After getting my sandwich, I gave her a 100,000 vnd bill (around $5.50), causing yet another adventure for her. She went to three different places to find enough change. When we finally completed the exchange, she gave me her first smile — a beautiful smile — obviously relieved that we were done. I want to go back another time when my Vietnamese is improved to see how I can make her smile then.
- I like watching the economy behind the economy. There are street vendors everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City. While the tourist and local upper class frequent the store fronts, many of the workers at the store fronts frequent the street vendors. I’ve watched with fascination elderly women conduct bustling business with one huge pot of soup delivering breakfast and lunches to the workers in the stores.
- One great moment for me was watching a little girl in clean but worn clothes, holding her grandmother’s hand with tenderness and steeled determination, crossing a crazy roundabout street of Ho Chi Minh.
- Given that extended families live together in small houses or rooms, young couples don’t have many places for privacy. So, near the Saigon River, under bridges, I unwittingly witnessed many young couples cuddling and kissing on parked scooters. They seemed quite dexterous on those little two-wheelers.
- One of the my favorite things about Vietnam was getting “the treatment”. For me, this was a pampering session by a few young ladies that included a head and face massage, a shave, a facial, a neck rub and sometimes a manicure or a pedicure. Why ever wash your own hair or even shave yourself when the whole experience runs less than $10?
To be fair, a few things that bothered me.
- Ho Chi Minh is not a good walking city. The sidewalks are over run by vendors or scooters, and there is no subway system.
- There is a lack of any ethnic diversity, but this may be an unfair complaint given that Vietnam is a developing country, and Ho Chi Minh not yet cosmopolitan.
- Music is too loud in clubs, and they over-play Akon’s “Right now, (Na Na Na)“. There’s no way of getting that song out of your head once you’ve heard it 20 times at an ear-piercing volume.