Skip to content

open mind, empty stomach

travel, food, and fun

Category Archives: Vietnam

Starting and ending my Asian adventure in Bangkok was ideal in that it showed me how the last couple months changed my outlook. When I arrived, I thought the city was big, loud, dirty, and full of aggressive locals trying to squeeze every penny they can from foreigners. Twelve weeks later, I still think all of the above to be true, but I’m cool with it.
Whenever I thought of what it means to be a developing nation, I thought in terms of making gains in infrastructure, sanitation, education, etc. Of course these things are present, but there is also the human factor. A developing nation, at least in southeast Asia, is a nation, a people, and a culture experiencing a radical transition. The implementation, or imposition, of foreign technologies, innovations, practices, and values creates an impact zone. The current working age generation has lived through war, genocide, corruption, and about everything else you can imagine. They weren’t fortunate enough to have the education (that only some) of the children and young people now have. This is truly a lost generation in a time of drastic cultural transformation. Their options are to do manual labor, work in a factory for slave wages, or try to capitalize on the influx of foreigners and their cash. Working professionals in Cambodia make less than $1,000 a year. In Vietnam, if you have a 4 year degree and a few years of experience you are lucky to make $10,000 a year. Granted, the cost of living is proportionate to their income, but when you have tourist coming from places like the US where the median annual income is over $50,000, something has to give.
My advice to keep your cool (and your sanity) when visiting these places is the following. Know that you’re getting ripped off. There is no way around it, most of the time you will be paying much more than locals. It is still good to comparison shop, do research online, talk with other travelers, to make sure you aren’t getting it too bad, but you will pay more. Also, know that the difference between what you and locals pay isn’t very much in western terms. If it is something like a bus/train ticket or food, you will be paying an extra couple dollars. This is cheaper than a coffee at starbucks and means a whole lot more to someone living on a few dollars a day than it does to you or I. My last little pearl of wisdom is that it’s not their fault. For the most part, even in the touristy areas, these are not bad people; they are victims of circumstance. They did not ask to be born into a war zone and abject poverty. They did not have the things that we take for granted, most importantly an education. I don’t think their childhood ambition was to wait around all day in hopes of giving tourists a tuk tuk ride or forcing their daughters into prostitution.
Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos are all amazing places. The farther you get from the impact zone, the more authentic that place becomes. The tide of development/westernization/corporate colonialism/whatever you want to call it is spreading and will eventually cover the entire region. Between the 4 countries, and within each, you can see the effects of outside influence. Whether you are in a major city like Saigon, Phnom Penh, or Bangkok, or a sleepy little place like Kong Lo, Mae Sarang, or Don Khon, people are still people and have a lot to offer. For me, the best way to observe foreign influence and the cultural/societal impact has been in the villages. Electricity, satellite dishes, cell phones, motorbikes, and tourists change places fast and the differences are astounding. Relatively untouched villagers, like the ones I came across in some treks, look confused as to why you would want to be there and are curious/shy/friendly. People in villagers with heavy tourist traffic, like in Sapa, will sprint to you, attach themselves to you, and try to sell you handicrafts the entire time you’re there.
As inevitable as the change is, it is also irreversible. The shift from subsistence agriculture to a commercial economy, especially when that economy is tourist-centric, is drastic. As visitors, the most we can do is help preserve the culture as best we can. You can vote with your wallet while traveling. I choose treks that are owned and operated by locals whenever possible. If that is not an option, I go through agencies that compensate guides and the villages they visit fairly. If animals are involved, usually elephants, I make sure they are treated humanely and not being abused. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a McDonald’s in the states and wouldn’t dream of patronizing a foreign chain while abroad either. You get better food at a better price and the money goes to a much better cause when you eat local.
There are many things I could have done differently, added, or done without over the course of the trip, but I am very happy with my time spent in southeast Asia. I had some amazing experiences and met some truly wonderful people, both locals and fellow travelers. The highlights are too many to mention and the regrets to few. The monetary cost was not that much (unless you’re Cambodian), and the experience I gained is priceless. If you can do a similar trip, I can’t recommend going for it enough. If you think you can’t to a similar trip, think again because anything is possible!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

Located in northern Vietnam, not far from the Chinese border, Sapa is best known for its ethnic minorities and terraced rice paddies. The Black Hmong and Red Zhao are the two largest minorities and you can tell them apart by the red headscarves worn by Zhao women. I didn’t take pictures of the locals in fear that they would think I was trying to capture their souls. My first encounter with the tribal people consisted of a hoard of them sprinting towards my transport as I arrived in Sapa town. They swarm visitors instantly upon arrival trying to sell handicrafts. These little (most are 5′ or less) women are not nearly as persistent/aggressive/annoying as vendors in other places and many will guide treks/homestays for a great price.
The town itself is not very big, offers beautiful views (on clear days), and is in walking distance to a number of minority villages. Due to the elevation, the climate is much more temperate than most of the country. In July, it was not humid and even got cold at night! Lodging was very reasonable for Vietnam, with dorm rooms starting at $3.50. I stayed at the Green Valley International Hotel. It was $7 for a single with hot water and in-room wifi. The hotel is run by a Vietnamese family and a very cool Aussie named Glenn. I really enjoyed my stay there and think it’s a great option when visiting Sapa. Glenn set me up with an excellent private trek/homestay.
Several people had told me of a Hmong lady named May that is supposed to provide the ultimate trek/homestay. Unfortunately, I did not get her number until the night before my trek would begin. Her phone only gets reception when she is near Sapa town and she had apparently gone home for the night. If you are in Sapa and want to give her a shot, her number is 01659483870. My homestay experience was May-less, but still a-may-zing. Glenn’s friend Olivier and his family hosted me. Olivier’s story is reminiscent of the Last Samurai. While he didn’t kill her husband in battle, he did marry a widower with children and has gone totally native. Originally from France, Olivier came to Sapa 6 years ago on vacation and never left. He speaks English, French, Hmong, Zhao, and a little Vietnamese. In addition to hosting homestays, he is also a trekking guide. Olivier and his wife were perfect hosts. Their home is a 2 hour (1 if you go at Parasco pace) hike up the mountain from Ta Phin. The top of the mountain is a relatively short, steep, very scenic hike from the house and definitely worth the effort. The family has 2 big pigs, 4 piglets, 2 chickens, and a garden. The dinner I had at Olivier’s house was, by far, the best food I had in Sapa. They prepared banana flowers with peanut and lemon, fried green chilies, pumpkin with soy sauce and sugar, french fries, and rice. The banana flower and chilies were really, really good. Everything was made from scratch using fresh, local ingredients (and a light sprinkling of MSG). I got to sample 3 different rice wines that were made by the family. They were strong and tasty. The strongest and darkest wine came from a bottle full of bees! Many homestays allow you to stay with an authentic Hmong/Zhao family, what I had at Oliver’s was that and more. If you go to Sapa, e-mail Olivier at tsen-ang@hotmail.com and experience it for yourself.
Due to booking the trip at the 11th hour, I had another guide take me to and from Olivier’s house. Sa May is a 28 year-old Red Zhao woman and an outstanding guide. Her English was very good, she could walk really fast, and taught me quite a bit about her home. People her age were among the last to have prearranged marriages; Zhao and Hmong can now choose their partner. They also get married in their early 20’s instead of early/middle teens and have 2 children instead of 10. This isn’t the only recent change.
Traditional dress has become a work uniform and is worn to sell handicrafts in town or when visitors come to the village. After work the women change into western clothes. Almost all of the men I saw were wearing western clothing. Sa May took me to visit her home. Her 86 year old grandmother, a man who looked to be in his 50s, and 4 children were watching Korean soaps dubbed in Vietnamese. Her house was made of wood and, with the exception of the television, looked as it may have a century ago. She also took me to her family’s rice paddies. They use pesticides and recently began using a type of rice and corn seed that Sa May thinks comes from China. These plants don’t produce seed crop, so they must purchase seeds annually. Seed prices have been steadily increasing. It costs $1/kg for pesticides and $100 for rice seed annually for her family’s large farm (which she explained as if it was a lot of money). I tried to ask if it was GMO, but was unable to explain the concept to her.
Everyone we passed asked her (in Zhao) if I bought a lot of handicrafts. The town center was full of locals waiting to sell their handicrafts to visitors. The local people may be hustling for dollars, but this is a plantation like atmosphere. The few restaurants and shops in the village are owned by Vietnamese, not Hmong or Zhao. They bought small pieces of land for absurdly low prices from unknowing locals and are the only ones with the startup capital for businesses. The Vietnamese government and private individuals have been aggressively pursuing more land in the villages around Sapa, but the locals have held their ground. Sadly, I think it is a matter of when not if they will find a selfish/shortsighted family in each village. Westernization/commercialism has definitely arrived in Sapa and it is only a matter of time until (what remains of) their traditional way of life is gone forever.
Despite the rapid growth of tourism in Sapa, it is still a truly wondrous place and I wish I could have spent more time there. The food scene is nothing to write home about and Sapa is still my favorite place in Vietnam (sorry Hoi An). This speaks volumes about how special of a place Sapa is. I have been fortunate enough to visit some truly beautiful places and Sapa ranks among the best. The landscape isn’t just breathtakingly beautiful, it gives you chicken skin. Words and pictures cannot begin to do Sapa justice. If you go to Vietnam, please visit Sapa before it’s too late!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Big, busy cities are not my favorite places to visit in developing countries. Hanoi definitely falls into this category. It is the second largest city in Vietnam and is full of motorbikes (and motorbike drivers), people, and noise. Visitors tend to use Hanoi only as a base for going to Halong Bay and Sapa. Most of the backpackers/tourists stay in the Old Quarter. I spent my first couple days in the touristy part of town and things went as usual. I found some great, cheap local food and dealt with all of the hassle of the tourist zone.
It wasn’t until I took a long walk on a damp Sunday night that I found the real Hanoi. I kept traveling south until the foreign faces and motorbike drivers disappeared. The outskirts of Hanoi were full of small outdoor eateries jam packed with locals drinking, dining, and laughing together. Most people totally ignored me and I got some smiles and a few “what are you doing here?” looks. Now THIS was my kind of place. Instead of walking around with a scarlet “t” on my chest and a target on my wallet, I was invisible; just walking and observing. I get an incredible high when I’m able to go into stealth mode like this and witness everyday life in a foreign place. It is one of my favorite parts of traveling. What made Hanoi special was that it wasn’t special. Behind the hustle and bustle, beyond the tourist trap, there were normal people doing the same thing that they do everywhere. Before I knew it I was asked if I wanted a motorbike ride, then another, then I saw a non-Vietnamese face. My little departure from (or arrival to) reality had ended.
I did do some of the required touristy things (Temple of Literature, Presidential Palace, Unle Ho), but nothing stood out as amazing. I was fortunate enough to meet a Hanoian on a bus from Hoi An to Hue and she took me out for a great night of local dining. For my last meal in Hanoi, I was joined by James and Beth, the British couple I had met in several other cities this trip. In addition to wonderful company, I got to enjoy a couple truly tasty dishes involving crickets at a place called Highway 4. Unfortunately, they were out of the pig ear salad. 😦 Hanoi really grew on me and it’s definitely worth checking out. I got to try many of the culinary specialties and get a glimpse of an overlooked, yet wonderful, city. Vietnam’s capital has a lot to offer and it’s all what you make of it. Enjoy Hanoi!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Halong Bay is one of the “must see” places in Vietnam, and for good reason. The place is truly majestic. It is a series of islands varying in size with towering limestone cliffs. I spent considerable time researching ways to do the bay. It seemed that a travel agency was the best route and that ODC Travel was the clear winner. In addition to receiving excellent reviews on all of the major travel sites, the company name is one letter off from the name of my favorite Wu Tang member. I paid $159 for a 3 day/2 night trip to Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay with transportation and meals included. The budget places offer comparable trips from around $50. ODC gives you two payment options. You can pay with credit card and a 3% service charge that is from “your bank” but is included in the charge, or you can pay in dong at an exchange rate of 21000 dong/$1. The actual exchange rate is 20500/1. I should have called shenanigans and gone elsewhere, but I did not. The ATM machine near the agency was not working and I had to walk a couple minutes to find one that was functional. When I returned, the exchange rate was 20500/1. I’m not sure if it was because I’m devilishly handsome, or to compensate me for the trouble, but I’ll go with the former. Between the price and the reviews, I had high expectations. I have not gone on any of the budget trips, so I can’t say what they are like, but I’m trying to imagine getting an experience comparatively bad enough to justify paying 3x as much. The actual tour excluded several things from the itinerary that is posted both online and at the agency. The “cooking demonstration to learn how to prepare some Vietnamese dishes with our professional chefs” turned out to be the tour guide making a sloppy spring roll. The “free drink” that was given on the conclusion of the first day was cheap vodka with a squeeze of lemon and no ice. Not a single person finished it. The complimentary fruit that came with the beverage was apple that was cut with a knife that had been used to cut garlic. Water on the boat was 7.5x the price on the mainland. “Paddle from Luon Cave toward islets in shape of Man’s head island” ended up being a trip on the small boat to Pearl Tourist (trap) Center. In a country where people don’t tip, we were strongly pressured to tip on both the main boat we slept on and the smaller boat that took some of us to Lan Ha Bay. When I asked for my change back after paying for overly priced drinks on the small boat, the crew asked if I had a nice time today and tried to walk away. It took some serious negotiation just to get my change back. The third day was spent entirely on the boat, and for the last 2 hours we were anchored 30 meters from the dock. Instead of letting us deboat, we were trapped on board in the heat and repeatedly offered grossly overpriced drinks. Now that my rant is over, Halong Bay itself is amazing. It is absolutely gorgeous there, and despite ODC, it was still worthwhile just to visit these amazing places. The bay is in the running for being one of the 7 natural wonders of the world and deserves to make the final cut. There are a LOT of tourists and 700 tourist boats there, but that is not enough to detract from the natural beauty. My suggestion would be to go through a budget/budgetish place and roll the dice. I would definitely not recommend going through ODC.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There were two places in Vietnam I was told to skip or only visit briefly: Saigon and Hue. These were also the two cities in Vietnam that I had local friends of friends to show me around. I ended up having a great time in both. Hue is a relatively small city, with around 300,000 residents. There is a considerable amount of tourism as it was the imperial capital of Vietnam. I stayed in the Hue Backpackers’ Hostel, which was not my kind of place, but the price was right. It was mostly 19 year old British kids getting drunk. I love to party, but this is not my idea of a good time. My special lady friend taught English in Hue and had a couple of her Huean? friends show me around town. Her friend An took me to a popular pagoda that wasn’t far from the city center. It was a pagoda; nothing mind blowing, but nice and peaceful. I did get asked to pose with people for photographs, which made me feel special. The real fun started after the pagoda: food! An took me to a place on the way back to the city for some beef noodles. They were cheap and delicious. For dinner, we went to a small local joint near the citadel and had some really good clam noodles for only 5000 dong ($.25) each! For a sense of comparison, the naan I had at the Indian restaurant in the backpackers’ area the night before cost 20000 dong. The following day I toured the citadel on my own. It is the one touristy thing you have to do in Hue and it was totally worth it. The city within a city within a city was big, beautiful and really nice. After several hours of walking, I went a few blocks from the main gate and found a hole in the wall for lunch. I had pork noodles and it was delicious and cheap. For dinner An and another friend, Nhung, took me to a local eating establishment. We had pork that was grilled on lemon skewers then rolled with veggies in rice paper with sesame dipping sauce and some small crispy pancakes with shrimp and bean sprouts. I really enjoyed the pork skewers. They took me to the riverfront, which was all lit up and full of people on a Thursday night. The next morning Nhung escorted me to an emperor’s tomb that was about a 30 minute drive from the city. It was built on a mountain and really scenic. We had some delicious and cheap crab noodles for breakfast at a packed little restaurant. Hue was really nice and having such great guides made it that much nicer. I enjoyed the cheap, delicious local food and made two new friends.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Hoi An is definitely a tourist town, but I LOVE it. Despite having an economy centered on visitors, there are a lot of local people here. It isn’t like Venice, with its Disney front and no one actual residents. Even the historic houses that you can tour have current occupants. There is an incredible balance between authentic life and commercial enterprise that is reminiscent of Kampot, Cambodia. In my opinion, things in Hoi An are even better with the French colonial architecture, amazing food scene, and rich history. Like Kampot, you can walk down the streets without being constantly harassed by motorbike drivers and vendors aren’t overly aggressive. Back to the food. Hoi An is the best food city I have encountered on this trip so far. You can get a delicious bowl of cao lau for under a dollar from a street vendor, have an upscale (and up-priced) modern Vietnamese meal from several restaurants along the river, or do anything in between. Being a foodie mecca, nearly every restaurant also offers cooking classes. The highlight of my time in Hoi An was the Morning Glory Cooking School. Morning Glory cooking school is located at the restaurant that shares it’s name. The instructor, chef and owner, Miss Vy also owns the Cargo Club and Mermaid restaurants. They are high end dining establishments and out of my price range, but CC also has a bakery that features amazing french pastries at affordable prices. I am not a fan of dessert and prefer savory over sweet, but found myself going to the CC bakery on a daily basis while in Hoi An and indulging in chocolatey decadence. Not only can you eat well for little money in Hoi An, you can also get your drink on at an incredibly low price. They have the cheapest beer I have ever come across. There are dozens of places along the river that have draft beer for a quarter; quarter beers on the riverside! If you walk a few blocks from the river, you can get a beer for 3000 dong, which is about 14 cents! At night the riverside is lit up and full of life until 10 pm. The only thing in Hoi An that is not cheap is lodging, it is the most expensive place to stay that I have come across this trip. Many of the low-end hotels are $20+ a night, but I was able to find a place with AC and wifi in a good location for $11/night. The name of the place is the Thanh Binh Hotel and it’s located on Le Loi Street.
Southeast Asia is notorious for ripoffs and locals taking advantage of tourists. I was having drinks with the lovely couple I spent my time in Can Tho with and they realized that they had lost their 32gb iPhone4. We determined that the phone must have been misplaced when we were enjoying dessert at the Cargo Club. We returned to the restaurant and walked towards where we had been sitting. The staff immediately approached us with a paper bag containing the missing electronic device. The phone is worth more than a month’s salary and in addition to returning it to the owner, the employees refused to accept a thank you tip. If you have any experience in SE Asia, you will appreciate the gravity of this gesture.
There are also beaches, mountains, and temples to explore near Hoi An. I spent four amazing days in this enchanting city and didn’t feel the need to venture far from the city center. Hoi An is full of charm and character and I consider it a must-visit for anyone traveling to Vietnam.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I had never taken a cooking class in my life and have wanted to for a while. Hoi An is one of the best places for food in Vietnam and I figured it would be the perfect place for my first class. I did my usual thorough research online and decided on the Morning Glory Cooking School. They offer a variety of classes at reasonable prices and have excellent reviews. I wanted to take the culinary intensive course, but you need a group of at least 6. My only option as a solo traveler was the cooking for beginner to intermediate course. The class begins with a 1 hour tour of the market, then there is a 2 1/2 hour cooking class. The market tour was really geared towards beginners. Fellow classmates were seeing dragon fruit and bittermelon for the first time… The magic happened when we returned to Morning Glory restaurant. Our class was taught by 3rd generation chef, owner of 3 restaurants, and love of my life, Miss Vy. She was incredible. Her English was really good and she blended history and tradition with modern science when explaining her nation’s cuisine. I knew it was love when she started advocating pork fat. We got to make and enjoy four delicious dishes. The class was an amazing experience and I highly recommend any visitor to Hoi An to take a class from Miss Vy at Morning Glory.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.