An introduction to Vietnam submitted by one of our fabulous subscribers, Andrea
Two years ago in December I had the amazing opportunity to go to Vietnam with one of my best friends. You could say that she’s a pretty experienced traveler in the region considering the fact that she spent the first eleven years of her life there. So when she asked me the summer before if I wanted to accompany her back to her homeland (after figuring out that no, she really wasn’t joking), I quickly jumped on board!
And I’m so glad I did – it was the experience of a lifetime!
(International Travel Hint #1: If you ever get the chance to travel to a foreign country with someone who not only speaks the native language, but also speaks your own, DO IT!)
Several months and 15 hours in the sky later, we touched down in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It was surreal. Just the day before, I had been in LA, the center of everything stereotypically American, and then all of a sudden I was halfway across the world in a country so very different from my own that I didn’t even know how to cross the street or use the bathroom. How’d that happen?
After being hit by some pretty severe culture shock, I quickly realized that this was going to be an all-or-nothing experience. So I went all in! This was the beginning of a monthlong journey full of discovery: a new language to hear, tastes to try, sights to see, and people to meet. Sounds like an adventure to me!
We based ourselves in a southern city called Cần Thơ, where my friend’s father lives. We stayed at his house.
(Travel Hint #2: If your bilingual friend has friends or family abroad and they’ve been kind enough to invite you to stay with them, DO IT! Immersing yourself completely in the culture is the best way to go.)
Cần Thơ is a river town; it lies along the Mekong delta. If you ever go there, you must visit the floating market. Yes, it is just as awesome as it sounds: it’s a market on the river, only accessible by boat. Get up early because the market is going by sunrise and you’ll be duly rewarded: you can buy banana leaf-wrapped rice cakes, fresh seafood, and juicy sweet fruity tropical treats like longan and lychee.
We traveled to central Vietnam and made a few excursions to other southern cities, and wherever we went the people were friendly and very hospitable. Though of course I couldn’t understand a word they were saying (though some people spoke a little English), they all greeted me with smiles and fed me plenty of food!
People dress pretty casually there. They were in shorts and t-shirts mostly because it was so hot and humid. We wore the traditional ao dai dresses for the wedding we attended while there. These are long, silky, classic Vietnamese gowns, slitted on both sides at the waist, worn with pants underneath. They can be very colorful and ornate, sometimes accented with floral patterns. I got to keep the ao dai I wore, and it’s one of my favorite souvenirs.
In case you’re wondering, along the way I did in fact learn how to cross the street and use the bathroom (not at the same time, of course). That rumor you hear about risking your life every time you cross the street in southeast Asian countries…it’s true, it is a life-threatening adventure. Motorbikes (kind of like a motorcycle, but made to fit more people) are the sole mode of transportation in most of the areas of Vietnam I visited. Stoplights there are few and far between, so usually you have to jaywalk. But standing around waiting for the next gap in traffic is like waiting for pigs to fly, so eventually you just have to go for it and hope you make it to the other side alive. It’s a real lesson in bravery and initiative.
As for the toilet, BYOTP (very important travel hint #3). Tissues will do just fine too. You’re not gonna want to throw your paper in the toilet, that’s just for your personal waste. See that trash can on the side? Bingo! If you forgot your toilet paper, hose yourself down and call it a day. You can be proud of yourself for saving some trees.
Now that we’ve left the bathroom, let’s talk about food! Yum!
I don’t think I’ve ever tasted so many new things in my life before. I am an adventurous eater and a food lover so this was definitely one of my favorite parts of the trip. The Vietnamese diet is very healthy, fresh, and delicious. We almost never ate bread (we had rice instead) and the meals were rich with fruits and veggies. There is a lot of really wonderful street food in Vietnam. Whenever you’re hungry, which is a lot when you’re sweating everything off in the humidity, you can stop at a sidewalk restaurant and enjoy some hot phở (traditional Vietnamese soup consisting of rice noodles, broth, small herbs and veggies, and meat or seafood) or pick yourself up a fruit smoothie or some scrumptious egg rolls.
Other than this amazingly delicious and healthy fast food operation, there is another food service Vietnam has that I find to be absolute genius. Basically, it’s a very fancy take-out service.
Call up the restaurant and they will deliver your meal to your door (via motorbike) on real plates and bowls with real spoons and chopsticks (none of this silly paper plate or plastic/styrofoam business), enjoy yourself eating up, then call back when your plates are empty and they’ll come pick up all your dirty dishes. You just win all around: there aren’t any dishes to do and you don’t have any waste.
It is very eye-opening, experiencing a new culture, and I learned so much! There’s tons to see and lots to do, and you grow through the adventure. Whenever you have the chance to travel, DO IT!
And I would highly recommend Vietnam as one of your future destinations.