Notes On Vietnam

It was outside my first hostel in HCMC that I found food that I would end up have every day in Vietnam. That food is bánh mi trứng which is pronounced “bang me chung” with the first and third word rising and the second falling. There are four major accents in Vietnam: Southern, Central, North-Central and Northern. So when you finally get the pronunciation right you’ll move on and end up having to relearn it.

So that word bánh is pronounced differently in each place:

  • Southern (Ho Chi Minh City) - ban and the tone is mid to high rising
  • Central (Hué) - bun and the tone is low to mid rising
  • North Central (Vinh) - bang and the tone is low flat
  • Northern (Ha Noi) - bang and the tone is mid to high rising

Vietnamese is a six-toned language like Cantonese. The similarity with Cantonese doesn’t stop there as it shares a portion of its vocabulary. Until the French arrived Vietnamese was written using the Chinese characters. All of this was because the Chinese ruled Vietnam for about a thousand years but in the end the Vietnamese shook them off, twice. The then fought off the French, the United States and weathered the Japanese storm.

It was four years after the fall of Sai Gon and the end of the Second Indochina War (Vietnam/American War – the First Indochina War was between Vietnam and France) that Vietnam kicked the Khmer Rouge out of power in Cambodia. The only did it because the Khmer Rouge were massacring Vietnamese villages on the Cambodia-Vietnam border. They still did it though, which is more than what the West did.

Banh Mi Shop in Ha Noi

So bánh mi trứng starts off with a French baguette that has been baked that morning and kept warm over a fire. It’s crunchy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside. It smells divine as fresh bread does. Within the baguette will be a freshly fried egg omelette. Sometimes the omelette is whipped, other times is sunny-side-up fried eggs that run and soak into the bread; both are good. Next is cucumber because if there was food in Vietnam that didn’t have cucumber in it, I couldn’t find it. Some tomato slices and salad.

The salad varies from region to region. In the South its coriander and a little bit of lettuce. As I went further north it shifted away from coriander and towards Vietnamese Mint. Drizzled along the top is soy sauce and chilli sauce. The soy sauce will have MSG in it. Everything has MSG in it. Even tomato sauce has MSG in it. I feel the MSG helps. Some optional extras include shredded carrot and daikon. This is handed to you, it’s warm and crisp and every bite is to be savoured. I eat slowly and if you’ve seen me eat, I don’t eat slowly. This was breakfast every day and on occasions, I’d have it twice.

Breakfast was washed down with Vietnamese coffee which is as sweet as Malaysian coffee because they both use sweetened condensed milk, if you get it black with no sugar then you’ll find a brew that got a thickness to it you’d not expect from filter coffee. The more the shop caters for locals the better it is as some trendy joints will have espresso machines and will use espresso grind in place of the local grind. Espresso grind in a Viet coffee makes the coffee taste like bad espresso. No one wants that.

So um yeah, Vietnam; it was all about the breakfast.

On Ho Chi Minh / Sai Gon City

I think Ho Chi Minh City, or Sai Gon as it was called until the fall of Sai Gon in 1975 is the most crowded place I’ve ever been. It was Tết so there are hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese in town enjoying themselves. There are also tens of thousands of tourists floating about.

On the first day I was there I went for a walk around the town and stumbled across a kilometre long stretch of road that had been cordoned off for Tết celebrations. Along the road were sculptures, dioramas and scenes representing the many facets of Vietnamese life, both past and present. This road was full of people it was like being in a mosh-pit and the mosh shuffled it’s way down the road stopping to take photos at every opportunity.

Every street around this one was also filled will people eating food, socialising and generally enjoying themselves. At night thousands upon thousands of motorbikes would line up at traffic lights, ten abreast. I tried to count them. An infinite parade rode past, bike after bike after bike. Then there would be a pause between the rumbling herds.

Vietnam’s population was 30 million after the Second Indochina War. It’s 90 million now.

As a city I find it architecturally uninteresting. It’s dense and grey but easy enough to walk around. I suspect I didn’t really like the city most likely because of where I spent my time. I felt like I was on a cruise ship. Hordes of tourists sit and consume food and alcohol. Some streets just have hundreds of seats, four rows deep out on the sidewalk and street. The shops have no room for tables and chairs so the seats face into the street and the racket. The tourists sit and drink like they’re on deck chairs around a pool. Eighties music blares from the hundreds of bars, clubs and restaurants: The Eagles, The Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, et al. The vietnamese, they loiter like ardent waitstaff.

The buildings in this city are narrow waif-like things. Narrower than a standard Shophouse and it’s a familiar story all over urban Vietnam. Can we make this building narrower? They asked each other. Any spaces between buildings gets covered over with buildings leaving a dark grey tunnel through the packed buildings. I wandered through these alleys looking for something different, something other than tourists.

Every street, every alley, every nook and cranny you thought too small to have a house, a person, a scene, everywhere has something happening. I walk past one door and I see a family sitting on the floor, a blanket laid out and a banquet on top. A young woman is putting food into a small bowl. She then hands it to her father. Next door an old woman is sleeping in the doorway to her house. Further down a group of four play cards. Another group play a game using brightly coloured strips of paper. A third group are playing a game that uses a chess board, dice and plastic horses. I keep walking and pass two women separating enoki mushrooms, then a fruit shop, a woman getting a pedicure and a hairdresser; she’s relaxing in a chair in her shop, there are no customers and she’s counting her money.

These alleys are no wider than a metre. The houses are sometimes no more than a single room. Light doesn’t penetrate in most places but water drips down from above. A rat scurries off into the darkness as I pass a shop where a woman is cutting fabric on the floor. There are more restaurants here and an intersection. I go left and pass a massage parlour and a woman pulling grapes off a vine and into a bowl.

Out on the night street motorbike taxis perch on their bikes. They’re waiting for tourists to take home with a need to work at all hours some of them sleep on their bikes. Music blares into the night from nightclubs that have no doors or regulations. Other motorbike taxi drivers deal drugs in their spare time, every request for a motorbike is followed up by a request for marijuana.

Da Lat market

On Da Lat

I was shocked when I arrived in Da Lat. I had expected the Vietnamese forests to be more jungle like, dense, humid. This wasn’t what I encountered. It was a pine forest and the smell of pine took me back to living in Canberra. The air was cool up here and fresh. It’s a nice change from HCMC.

My first morning in Da Lat I was awoken by the sounds of Karaoke at seven-thirty in the morning. The bellowing echoing through the little valley the hostel I was in. Thankfully it was only the first morning.

Breakfast in Da Lat was spent at a little cafe called Crazy. There were stickers of butterflies on the wall, bright colours and renditions of pop songs sung in a medley. Through a whole cut in the wall was a hairdresser. He was cleaning the ears of a customer using a stick with a bit of foam on the end. The hairdresser and the younger woman who was in the cafe appear to run both shops.

On my third breakfast at Crazy the hairdresser sits down next to me and reveals a half dozen different vietnamese treats: sugared ginger, sugared coconut, peanut brittle, sesame toffee and biscuits. He instructs me to eat. Eat this, eat this one. Now have this one with tea. He has a cup of tea too and he eats along with me. Neither of us can speak any of the other persons language but I pantomime my enthusiasm and he insists I eat more.

Da Lat itself is a hilly place with clear skies and a temperate climate. I rented a mountain bike and took it for a ride. It was a much better bike than the one in Cambodia and I was able to power up the hills and zip down the other side. I rode past beautiful lakes and tiny waterfalls. At one I met a group of Da Lat locals who were planning a party in the waterfall. King Bảo Đại once held a party in the waterfall after he went hunting. Good times.

I picked up a flat tyre at one point and had to hitch a ride on the back of a motorbike, holding my mountain bike and holding on as we zoomed around looking for a repair shop. The guy who repaired the puncture did it clinically. I was so impressed I ask him to fix my front brakes which had not worked yet. I was glad he did as the back brakes would later fail.

Yes, I learnt my lesson from Cambodia and only rode 50km.

Bike Riding around Da Lat

On Hoi An

My fourteen hour bus ride from Da Lat to Da Nang had been without sleep for most of the way. The sleeping pod was too small for me. I arrived in Da Nang at five in the morning and I climbed onto a local bus overwhelmed with local travellers returning home after Tết. The bus trundled along towards Hoi An and I got to see a slice of Vietnam in the early hours. The cafes were already filled with men sitting down drinking coffee and chatting. Women in track pants and bras perform aerobics, the markets were already underway and pigs were roasting out the front of houses.

Eventually the bus population thined out as people get off. I made my way to the front. There is a small buddha shrine that has glowing lights and incense. I get off at the bus station and order a bánh mi trứng and a coffee. I sit down and enjoy them. It’s almost seven when I pick up my bags and walk the final 700 metres into Hoi An.

The first day in Hoi An was the last sunny day I would have in Vietnam. After that day a cold front would come in and some days would be no warmer than 8 or 9 degrees. It was fortunate that myself and two other backpackers decided to rent bicycles and ride to the beach. With the afternoon sun blazing we rode along the streets, past canals and vendors. Also those american ‘summer’ movies montaged all at once. The beach was long, clean and the water cool. I swam for the first time on this trip and what would end up being the last for a while.

Fisherman wearing Conical Hat

The conical hat is no longer the symbol of Vietnam. If you see a photo of a woman in a conical hat, especially if she’s in a rice paddy, it’s either an old photo or an old woman. The symbol of Vietnam is now the motorbike helmet. Everyone has one and many don’t take it off as they do their day to day things.

Hoi An is a UNESCO heritage site and it’s buildings are beautiful. Every one is filled with tailors, art galleries or restaurants all plying for trade. There is a bánh mi place here that Anthony Bourdain recommends. I went to check it out and they do a very good bánh mi trứng. Their difference is the soy sauce concoction is home made as is there chilli. I thought it was one of a kind but I encountered a street vendor in Hué that also made her own soy sauce mix.

Just down from the bánh mi place was a cafe with bonsai stools. I sat down and relaxed; watching life go by. Behind me two boys were playing cờ tướng (Xiàngqí) and having a riotous time. I moved closer to watch. They’d twisted the rules so that all the pieces except the king were face down. How a piece could move on it’s first turn was based on where it was. If it was in the pawn spot then it moved as a pawn. Once moved the tile was flipped and it could move as per the symbol on the other side.

On Hué

To get to Hué I took the train from Da Nang and it snakes along the coast. What is seen from this train, can only be seen by train. A lone track snakes along the coast, high up on the mountains we get spectacular views. Vibrant green descends into the dull blue-grey punctuated by a thin strip of yellow. The weather outside is overcast and on the horizon are thick clouds and the threat of rain. The air is cool and a refreshing wind pushes past me as I hang out the window of the train taking photos.

At one stop a man and a woman climbed into our carriage through a window that someone had opened only minutes before. They were vendors selling statues of horses and dried squid. By the next stop they had been rounded up and forced off the train. My head out the side of the carriage I watched them walk in the direction our train was heading. I thought that was a bit strange but within a minute it all made sense. A train came the other way and hanging off the side were the vendors. They were hitching a ride back to their home station in the most dangerous way.

Hué Citadel

In Hué, I stroll through the Imperial Citadel which is reminiscent of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. Drizzle hangs in the air, not heavy enough to fall it touches everything with damp. The cold and wet lends itself to the experience of the Imperial Citadel. The citadel is moated and within a huge four by four kilometre moated city. So that’s double moated. Still lakes, stone and bare bonsai trees fill each square ringed by Chinese style pavilions and pagodas. Parts of the complex has been ruined by warfare including the recent Second Indochina War. I wander for hours feeling at peace within the gardens, within the elements and within the architecture.

On Ha Noi

Ha Noi is my final stop in Vietnam as I’ve decided to forgo Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa. I felt rushed and pressured to do it all. So I opted out. I spent the first few days in the old town, it’s busy and focused on buying and selling with little character. After that I walk over to Hang’s who is my couchsurfing host.

It’s so cold in Ha Noi that I’m using my thermals and Vietnamese men ride past grimacing in the cold air. Some vendors have started lighting fires next to themselves to keep war. As a walk I pass more scenes of regular Vietnamese life. In the park is a set of gym equipment and each one has people working out in the evening air. Nearby a group does aerobics and another plays đá cầu. Closer to me a fourth group sit and paint plaster of Paris gnomes. Ok, that last bit is strange.

Train Tracks in Ha Noi

The game đá cầu uses a shuttlecock and it is not the same as the one used in Badminton. It’s got feathers but it’s longer and has bits of rubber on the bottom. When you kick it, it flies quite well and the rubber weight ensures that it always lands heavy side down. It’s kicked in the same way we kick a hackysack. The sport has been played in Vietnam for a long time and was even introduced in the 1936 Olympics, yet it never took on outside of Vietnam. You see it everywhere, especially when you head outside the tourist areas. Groups play in the park kicking it back and forth. I picked up a shuttlecock when I was in Da Lat. Google pictures and you’ll see some great photos of the sport at a competitive level.

Hang teaches me a little about Vietnamese life. Why they burn fires on the 1st and 15th of each month: it’s to burn offerings for the ancestors. Within Hang’s family apartment is a shrine to ancestors and she tells me “It’s the older generations that are more interesting. My generation does not believe the same way they do. And the next generation will not care.”

All this ancestor worship doesn’t explain the fires that burn on every other day. That’s just one way of getting rid of garbage. The constant burning reminds me of a story of when I was having dinner near Hang’s apartment.

I watched fascinated as the young teen makes my friend rice. With a ladle in one hand for scooping in ingredients and a towel in the other he holds the giant wok and flings the food into the air: one, two, three times. He lets it settle, stirs it, flings it some more and then ladles a small amount of the next ingredient. On and on it goes until it climaxes with additional heat at the end. The flames of the burner almost reach the top of the wok. He ladles the fried rice onto a plate and brings it across to me.

The night is cooling rapidly around me and the heat of the fried rice is a welcome contrast. As I eat small flakes of white start to drift past me. First one, then another and now I can see twenty or thirty flakes at any one time. Further up the street the small fire that had been started is now climbing up the wall. Another patron gets a bowl and puts out the fire. It’s stops snowing ash. Within five minutes the owner of the fire has come out and the fire is bigger and better than ever. At least the owner is tending it now.

Street Scene in Ha Noi

I’ve been writing a longer form journal of my travels. I’m thinking of publishing it as a book. Let me know if you would you be interested in reading it?

when: Saturday, March 01, 2014