Vietnam, the country that is even nowadays feared by many to travel, has so much too offer and in a price you can’t beat. A traditional society of 98m with the imprints of the war still on, is squeezed into a world determined to become rich and modern. Traditional street food on stools on the one side, luxurious fine dining on the other. Communism vs capitalism. Refined and conservative Northerners vs liberal and dynamic Southerners. This country is full of contrasts both tangible and intangible. Vietnam has so many to teach you if you give it a chance and experience the life at the 3 distinctive regions of the country, North, Central and South. So let’s see what were for me the biggest surprises and lessons …
1. Food Hygiene may be slightly overestimated in Western Countries
Or at least that is what my body proved after having eaten mostly street food in Vietnam and not having a single health issue. Yes, there was definitely not the cleanest food preparation, everyone worked bare hand, and even the cookware was not properly washed. The meat was sold on the streets on card boxes sitting there throughout the day with flies upon it. Vegetables and fruit were not kept at a cool temperature. For God’s sake, we even witnessed rats and cockroaches inside restaurants.
All these do sound like a one-way ticket to food poisoning. Nevertheless nor I nor my mother had any bowel issues throughout this trip. Not that you wouldn’t either and you should certainly be careful with what you put in your mouth. But just keep an open mind and a sensible thought, and everything will be fine.
In any case, do bring some anti-diarrheal medications and tabs of activated charcoal.
2. Breakfast- Lunch- Dinner is all the same
While still staying at the grand subject of food, let’s clarify something that to my experience applies to Asia. There is no difference in what you eat in the morning or the evening. As Europeans, we are used to having specific types of food, like an omelet, cereal, and pancakes destined for breakfast, whereas we are not used to eating roasted lamb with potatoes in the morning.
Here in Vietnam locals on the streets were slurping on their Pho soup and chewing their beef at 7 am. So prepare yourself that it may be difficult to find something Vietnamese for breakfast to suit you.
A good idea that served us was Banh Mi and Banh Mi Chao. Banh Mi is widely known as a staple Vietnamese food. A French baguette is stuffed with shredded pork, pate and fresh cucumber slices, cilantro and pickled carrots accompanied by a hot sauce. Banh Mi Chao is the hot alternative to Banh Mi where the ingredients of the sandwich come in a sizzling pan with the bread on the side. These two dishes were what suited best for us in the morning and what we actually enjoyed eating.
3. Coffee even for someone who doesn’t drink coffee
You may not know it and I didn’t either that Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer after Brazil. There is a huge coffee culture here mainly influenced by the French. Having coffee means sitting down and enjoying an hour or two of chatting, pretty much as in Greece.
A traditional type of coffee is Phin Coffee, a French-style filter, used for making drip coffee. Be careful coffee here is strong!
What I prefer, even though I don’t like coffee is Egg Coffee. Weird, hm? This espresso is served with whipped egg and condensed milk on top, which tastes a lot like a custard cream.
Coconut coffee is another favorite. I get it that if you are a true coffee lover, all these “Starbucks-similar-coffee-smoothies’, won’t be your favorite. Nevertheless, you should give Coconut Coffee a try on a hot day. This whipped-up lump of coconut cream is delicately placed into an iced black coffee and certainly will cool you down.
4. Ninja skills when crossing streets
It’s definitely an understatement to say that in Vietnam there is street chaos. It’s pure madness what is happening. It seems that there are no rules at all. Anyone can drive and park everywhere. As our guide in Ho Chi Minh mentioned, the only place the motorbikes in Vietnam cannot go is up to the trees.
Everyone, as in everyone, drives a motorbike. In a city of 9.000.000 population, there are 7, 5 million motorbikes. Don’t expect anyone to stop at a road crossing or even at a red light. You may try to cross the street using the Vietnamese way which is meandering through the motorbikes, throwing yourself in front of cars while holding your hand up in the sky against them.
If it’s a really difficult passage, such as at the esplanade in Ho Chi Minh, just wait for another Vietnamese to cross it and go with them side by side, using them as a human shield.
5. No pedestrians
Related to the above, one thing to make you stand out from the crowd as a tourist, especially in Hanoi is merely the fact that you are walking. That’s right in this city no one walks. They ride their motorbikes from point to point, parking them on the pavement and even sitting on them, not being able to stay apart.
Don’t expect to have free sidewalks to walk. Street food, beverage stalls and parked motorbikes will push you to the traffic flows. It seems that locals are allergic to walking. Even a survey that I came across while searching for the clustered pavements in Vietnam, mentioned that office workers in Ho Chi Minh do as little as 600 steps per day.
6. Get up early to dance in the park
Another cultural difference which I really like, although find difficult to adopt in my lifestyle is how early people wake up even on public holidays. On our last day in Ho Chi Minh, we hit the park for a walk at 7.30 am; it was a public Holiday in Vietnam celebrating Hung Kings Commemorations. What struck me was how many locals were at the park at that time of the day dancing, doing Pilates in a group or Tai Chi, and playing badminton.
For sure as Greek, we love to sleep and linger until late in bed, but even French or German may find it difficult to wake up so early on their day off to go have sports in the park.
7. The most forgiving Nation
Ever wondered as an American how is it to travel to Vietnam? No?
I had… Especially after visiting Prisons and Museums dedicated to US-Vietnam War. I mean it was only recently, that our parents were alive while USA troops murdered babies, burnt houses to the ground, and napalmed vast regions of forest and contaminated countless with Agent Orange leading to severe life-long birth defects encountered even nowadays.
So how is it traveling as an American in Vietnam? Absolutely perfect. No one will look sinful upon you or talk you with a grudge. This is what truly surprised me. They are aware of the facts and history, not just from the teachers but most likely from their grandparents who fought but they are also taught to be forgiving. The past is in the past, as they like to say. The mistakes of a government are not the nation’s mistakes.
8. The Sun is not your friend
Vietnam is usually hot and humid, a dangerous combination making you almost want to throw away all your clothes and dive into a fountain. But looking around you will realize that almost all locals wear more clothes than the season indicates, such as jackets and long trousers. They cover every inch of skin and in particular, when driving their scooters they like to wear something like a long robe, totally difficult to distinguish who is who.
What are the reasons behind this dubious fashion style? First of all, Asians love and adore paler skin. Most beauty products that you will come across in Asia have a whitening ingredient in them. Secondly, they are wary of skin cancer and the sun in South Vietnam can burn you in half an hour. Believe me. Thirdly, sunscreens lotions are expensive in Vietnam, so also be prepared to pack your own when visiting.
9. Communism, is that you?
Google Vietnam politics and it will immediately pop up as a Communist country. And while you are there we will see more than once the hammer and the sickle. But truth is that there is only a preconceived idea that the country is still fully communist today. It is ruled by the one and only (there isn’t another party in power) Vietnamese Communist Party. As described by most nowadays, Vietnam has a market economy with a socialist orientation. Vietnamese people, a vast majority of them, do not know what communism stands for and also as we heard from our guides aren’t satisfied with the way things are ruled. The government is getting fatter and fatter and people thinner, as our guide in Cu Chi tunnels commented.