You hate the traffic, the incessant honking, the lack of personal space, the uneven, jagged sidewalks or the aggressive touts at the markets.
I love it all.
My expat friend, Max Murta, describes riding a motorbike in Saigon like being in a school of fish. Weave with the group, never against it, and all will be okay. You probably laugh at the motorcyclists wearing those ‘surgical’ masks, but there’s a practical reason for wearing them. To deter exhaust. And when crossing the road? Just close your eyes, say a quick prayer and walk diagonally, the fish always go around you.
You whip your head around, gawking with disbelief. Did I just see that? A rooster. There’s another one! And another one! How disgusting. What you don’t know is cock-fighting is a popular underground sport in Vietnam. Households will raise two kinds of chickens, white and brown. Generally, the white chickens are for eating, the brown ones for fighting. What you find odd is fairly darn normal here.
The reality is you can never escape touts in your travels, but some people think Vietnam has to be the worst. They prod, poke and blast you with rude comments. Some accounts paint the market sellers as dismissive, to the point where they won’t bargain or do business with you. I’ve always found market sellers simply firm, not deceptive, unlike India. And the key here is respect. In the cities, most people dress in two modes, beach casual or semi-formal for the tropics. Always go with semi-formal, because that will garner respect and give you firmer ground with a market seller. And for god sakes, smile. Vietnamese people like smiling.
The Weird Food
Food in Vietnam is an experiment in faith. Alley food is raw, rough and tumble, so prepare yourself. It’s also damn good, varied and interesting. Truly though, the cuisine in Vietnam has so many options, whether it’s alley eating or fine dining, what you suspect is weird could lead to some culinary discoveries. Try: green mango with shrimp salt. You read right, un-ripened mango. It’s yummy!
The Beautifying Products
I miss my Lush face masks terribly, but it’s hard to haul face masks that require refrigeration, so I was on the hunt for something in Vietnam. This gal has to control them blackheads, you know. I found these:
Called mask sheets, you place it over your face and make sure the cutouts match your eyes and mouth so you can breathe and see. Each mask sheet is soaked in some kind of magic, beautifying elixir like green tea or collagen. In reality, they kind of leak because it’s like having a wet towel on your face. I call it the “Jason” mask, but I tell ya, it really does zap those blackheads!
You are sitting at a patio café, enjoying your strong Vietnamese coffee, when a passerby approaches, but not for conversation. This stooped, wrinkled man shoves a stack of rectangle paper at you. To the eye they look like monopoly money.
The longer you stay in Vietnam, the more you notice this nuisance, more shoving and mulling. Lottery ticket sellers never take ‘no’ for an answer and I can see why visitors are annoyed by this. You are missing out though, because foreigners can win the pot.
The tip is buy a ticket in the morning, and then in the afternoon stop at a stand where you access booklets to check the numbers at the bottom of your ticket. Never have I seen a lottery work like this, but I liked this stripped down way of doing it. And the pot? I know of foreigners winning 5,000,000 VND. Wouldn’t it be nice to feel like a millionaire, even in Vietnam?
My friends Thuy and Chad suggested we try this to-die-for logan ice cream at this student hangout in District 5 (Saigon).
Never one to say no to edibles, I was eager to go. After we gobbled up the logan ice cream, which by the way is homemade, the fish balls arrived at our table next. What?!
And why not? Surprisingly, fish balls and ice cream team together beautifully.
Finally, doing some Vietnam tours are a rich way to experience this country. Loving a country really boils down to personal taste and having an open mind.
What experiences did you enjoy or not enjoy in Vietnam?
Photo: Trent Strohm