World Trip — Vietnam

27 February 2014

Usually a culture shock comes after a couple of days, after you arrive in a country and get in touch with the locals. In Vietnam it comes at the moment you hit the streets.. First scene: me and my friend Leni (Thanks Leni for the good company all along the trip!) We're standing in front of the hotel trying to get something to eat, asking ourselves how we'd get to the other side of the street.

All we wanted was to cross the street. But there were hundreds of motorbikes driving by. All you could see was a swarm of helmets in all variations and colors, flying by, non—stop, whether the traffic lights were green or red. We said: "Should we take a taxi?" — But a taxi would not accept to just cross the street.

That's when we said: "there — he looks like a local — a local should know how to cross the street". A couple of days later we had mastered it and were doing our own penguin—dance in the vietnamese streets ourselves. Well, it worked. We managed to get out of the country alive.

Right after we had passt culture shock number one, we were confronted with the second one: eating. Not that the food would be a problem, vietnamese food is delicious. But it's difficult to get over your hygiene standards, and sit on a sidewalk to eat barbecue, when your barbecue has been lying on a wooden table the whole evening, in the middle of the street. As if pork meat wouldn't be bad enough, how about seafood? Seafood is condemned in every travel guide. Eat it and die — that's what the travel guides say. Well, there we were, a bit amazed, a bit disgusted, but very excited about getting food. Leni tried to find an excuse to go somewhere else: "Are you sure we're in the right street?" — she asked. I knew she'd try to chicken out. "Yes, that's the right place" — I replied. So we sat down and ordered a beer to forget our hygiene requirements. Next thing you know Leni is chewing on grilled squid and I'm eating the pork skewers, the lady had just chopped. Well, we survived to that too. Not only survived, we enjoyed it. Not only enjoyed — I got addicted to the food stalls.

In Hanoi I attended a cooking class. That's something I recommend to travelers in Vietnam. We visited a market to buy the ingredients first, and prepared three meals: Banana flower salad, caramel pork and spring rolls. Vietnamese food is excellent: from the "pho" (soups) to the coffee. The soups as well as most dishes are served with a tray full of herbs — mint, basil, lemon grass and lemon. The food is not necessarily spicy, but they give you extra chili and garlic. One of my favorites is something called "Bun Cha", which is fried spring rolls chopped in slices, served with a separate portion of barbecued pork meat, rice noodles, a lot of green leaves, a vegetable that tastes like apple in a sweet sauce, chopped chili and garlic. The fun part of "bun cha" is that you mix it all up in a bowl the way you want: first meat, then leaves and then noodles, sauce on top. Then you do everything again, the other way around. I had countless portions of "bun cha". "Bun Bo" (which is rice noodles, with roasted peanuts, fried onions, herbs and fresh spring onions) was also pretty often on the list.

Another favorite were the fresh spring rolls, prepared with rice paper, rice noodles, shrimps and lots of leaves. The best restaurants were not the fancy ones, but the ones in the street. I'd take Leni with me to a food stall without previous notice. I liked to see her face when she was caught without a choice but to join me and exclaim: "What? Are you serious? Are we really eating here?". But she likes to say she can do all levels of sophistication (in our case lack of sophistication). Vietnamese food has not only flavor, but also texture: crunch and soft are part of most dishes. They add roasted peanuts to salads or fry their spring rolls very crispy.

Vietnam was Asia the way I expected it to be: chaotic traffic, good food and very oriental — meaning the food—chains and supermarkets you'd expect to see in any other metropole are not so present here — it's all local and authentic. The cone hat made of straw is present everywhere. It's not only the trade mark of the vietnamese people but it also gives a certain charm to the country. Driving from one city to another we saw people wearing those hats while working on rice fields and along the Mekong Delta. While visiting the Mekong Delta we got up very early one day to visit a floating market. It's a very authentic scene. You take a boat, while it's still dark, see the sunrise on a boat and then land on a market in the middle of the Mekong, where people exchange goods, from one boat to another.

Speaking of rice fields that's when I come to another highlight of the trip, a city called "Sa Pa". Leni took off to Siem Reap for a couple of days, I stayed in Vietnam and decided to be a hard—core backpacker for a change. I booked a trip to "Sa Pa" three nights and two full days, trekking in the mountains of Vietnam, right where it touches China. I slept on the train on the way there and back, nine hours each way. The night in the train was interesting — I divided my cabin with a family from Singapore, who was doing the same trip as me. The train rocked me to sleep and I surprisingly enough slept all the way till "Sa Pa".

I was very unlucky with the weather in my first day in Sa Pa. The mist was so thick the whole day, that we couldn't see two meters ahead. Also because of the weather, I couldn't shower for three days. I couldn't shower on the day I left to Sa Pa. And I couldn't shower in Sa Pa either. It was cold and the host family, that I stayed with had no heating. On the way back to Hanoi I couldn't shower either, because we finished the trekking (full of mud because it rained in the night) and went straight to the train — the train had comfy beds, but no shower. The trekking in the mountains was beautiful: very high mountains covered with rice terraces. We were only little dots slowly moving between the mountains. When you look the rice terraces from above they look like a quilt. It's a tip for the nature—junkies.

The trip ended with Halong Bay. Halong Bay is an archipelago of around 2000 rocky islands. The legend says that when Vietnam was attacked by China, a dragon flew in and spit two thousand precious stones into the bay and formed the archipelago. When the Chinese tried to sail into the country they got lost in the labyrinth of Halong Bay. Well, beautiful story and beautiful bay. We booked a cruise of two days and one night. We got on the boat and had a very nice room for ourselves. The program included visiting floating villages in the bay, stopping by two islands, visiting a cave, kayaking and a cooking class on the boat. The scenery was very mysterious, with mist hanging low on the bay.

Next Stop: Australia

The Trip in Numbers

Days: 19

Average cost of a double room: 45 EUR

Average cost per day per person, including 3 flights, hotel and food: 81 EUR

Highlights: Saigon, food stalls, Mekong Delta Tour, Phu Quoc, Hanoi, cooking class, Sa Pa, Halong Bay, water puppet theater, dinner cruise in Saigon, Museums and Galleries all over the country

Cities: 8 — Saigon, Can Tho, Chau Doc, Ha Thien, Phu Quoc, Hanoi, Halong, Sa Pa.

Hotels: 7