Finding happiness in Vietnam – a collection of thoughts

Holly and I with the family of the home-stay shortly before we bid farewell...

Holly and I with Muoi No and his family shortly before we bid farewell…

I had brought a great deal of negativity into Vietnam. Despite hearing great things about the country, I had focused on the bad. Listening to horror stories about being harassed or ripped off, and reports that Vietnamese food is better outside the country with questions over hygiene. I had myself believing I might not like it here.

As it was, we found ourselves in the middle of the Mekong Delta with a smile as wide as Saturn smugly drawn across our faces. We had fallen head over heels in love with the place. 

We had just sat down to dinner with our guide Ha, our driver and the grandpa Muoi No of the home-stay, having moments earlier helped prepare some of the delicious Banh Xeo (Vietnamese pancake made from rice flour with pork, shrimp, green onion and bean-sprouts) and Lotus Salad, among other things, now laid out before us.

With a couple of 333 beers to hand we tucked in before Muoi No fetched what looked to be a very reused plastic bottle, proceeding to pour out 5 shot glasses and handing one to each of us.

“Rice Wine”, Ha said as he passed over mine.

“Great”, I replied, relieved that it wasn’t of the snake variety we had seen brewing in a plastic container earlier that day.

A few glasses later, I gave up trying to keep track of the conversation our guide, driver and Muoi No were having in Vietnamese. Instead I started to notice the smiling.

Holly and I having prepared a lotus root salad to have with our feast for dinner!

Holly and I having prepared a lotus root salad to have with our feast for dinner!

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Snake wine anyone?

I noticed the smiling not because we were having a great time. It was because, I realized, I had been seeing it all day. I had seen it in the children as they left school, each one waving enthusiastically, shouting “hello” several times and responding with sheer joy when I returned the favor of simply saying “hello” back. On the faces at the market town we had passed through that morning, whether we were buying fruit from one of the stalls or simply taking a picture of their colorful displays. The boat driver who led us on our first voyage through the lush tributaries of the Mekong Delta and also the workers in the rice fields we passed through on bike. And now here.

The wonderful family who had greeted us into their home that afternoon had been smiling all day. Every time I looked around it was written into their faces as if the muscles naturally retracted that way. It seemed happiness was second nature to the people of the Mekong. That  happiness, it seemed, was infectious…

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This article outlines the overriding picture I obtained of Vietnam during our busy one-week tour. From the chaos in Saigon and the warm people of the mighty Mekong to the atmospheric town of Hoi An, not to mention the exceptional food found everywhere, I have made a list of the events and things that stood out. Not just the great and the good, but the bad and downright ugly as well. This is a list that ultimately explains why we fell in love with this country. This most beautiful Vietnam.

I have outlined the various events and things I liked and disliked during my time in Vietnam in order of the effect they had on me. For those who are interested in the chronology of our trip (how we planned it) I have attached an itinerary at the bottom. Links are included to layover escapades city guides on both Saigon and Hoi An.

I should point out one week is far from an adequate amount of time to truly get to know a place and I would hasten to think my views and observations are far from the reality of the whole country, or even the regions within Vietnam we explored. However, these are just that. My views and observations from a weeks exploration of southern Vietnam. I hope you enjoy…

Day 2 started with a bike around the beautiful coconut growing region of the Mekong.

Day 2 started with a bike ride around the beautiful coconut growing region of the Mekong.

Muoi No and his granddaughter.

Muoi No and his granddaughter chilaxing in a hammock.

THE GREAT AND THE GOOD

#1 THE PEOPLE

The Vietnamese are some of the warmest, friendliest people I have ever come across. They were always smiling. It was this, more than anything, that struck me during our time here. We had seen it everywhere, but particularly so during our time in the Mekong Delta. What made this all the more remarkable were the general hardships these people faced on daily basis.

We came to this conclusion shortly after exploring one of the larger brick factory’s located on the stunning Ben Tre River bank during our second day touring the Mekong Delta.

Having witnessed some workers (mainly female), lifting large quantities of clay bricks on to wheel barrels before transporting then stacking them inside giant furnaces, all for just US$3 a day in typically hot and humid conditions, we found it astonishing they still found it in them to wear a smile on their face. Like this was some sort of acceptable return for their efforts!

I had asked Ha what the value of those bricks were worth. I can’t remember the values now but for the number they produce daily, 3 dollars was a gross underpayment.

At any rate you had to admire their spirit. It really put things into perspective. If they could remain happy on 3 dollars a day doing such hard labour, I had no right to be anything other than extremely happy and thankful myself. It made me realise the problems I frequently create inside my own mind aren’t problems at all.

Ladies stacking the furnace with clay bricks...

Ladies stacking the furnace with clay bricks.

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The furnace viewed from the outside.

#2 WATER BUFFALO TOUR OF THE MIGHTY MEKONG

We had the most perfect weekend. Exploring market towns and chili farms; cycling through rice fields and quaint villages; sampan rides through lush tributaries of the Mekong; sumptuous food including a seafood lunch and home-cooked meals at a local home-stay; not to mention the culmination of our 3 day tour – a visit to the remarkable Cai Rang floating market!

Our tour of the Mekong delta was truly one to remember.  We booked our trip through Water Buffalo Tours and needless to say I can’t recommend them enough (you can find some more online reviews here). Our local guide ‘Ha’ made it extremely memorable answering any and every question we had, while providing a great insight into all things Vietnam. Usually I would steer clear of such tours fearing that much of it might be geared toward tourist magnets, however I got no such feeling touring with Water Buffalo. It was as authentic as any tour I have any undertaken. They gave a very good glimpse at the real, everyday, Vietnam. Our home-stay experience was the highlight of our entire trip! Anyway, without going on, here are a few more pics…

Lady tending to her Chili farm. FYI I advise not trying one!

Lady tending to her Chili farm. FYI I advise not trying one!

Our lunch being made at the home-stay on day 2 - Chicken and lemongrass with coconut milk!

Lunch being made at the home-stay.

Holly and I on the first of many sampan rides through the delta!

Holly and I on the first of many sampan rides through the delta!

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Lady washing her plastic bags down by the riverbank.

#3 STREET FOOD AND WET MARKETS

This trip was ultimately about two things: the warm people – forever smiling – and the fresh, fragrant Vietnamese cuisine.

Perhaps because I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did, the food, particularly the street food, took me by surprise. I couldn’t get over it and I’m not talking about the obligatory Pho Bo or Banh Mi. I’m talking about everything from Banh Da Xuc Oc (baby clams cooked in lemongrass, chilli, ginger and white pepper) and Bun Cha Ha Noi (grilled pork patties served in fish sauce with papaya, bun noodles and herbs) to Com Suon (rice with grilled pork chop) and Che Ba Mau (3 layered che, with beans, tapioca and coconut milk). Simply simple and simply stunning, Vietnamese food must one of the most underrated cuisines in the world.

As for the markets, Vietnam didn’t disappoint. The colorful displays of fruit and vegetable vendors interspersed between a variety of spice, meat and seafood retailers provided a feast for the senses. Once you had exhausted your camera memory card the enticing aromas led those adventurous enough to follow on a mouthwatering foodie crawl.

For more info on eating please follow the links to both my Saigon and Hoi An city guides listed at the bottom.

Rice Pancake for street vendor in Can Tho

Rice-paper pancake from a street vendor in Can Tho.

Wet market in Cai Rang.

Fresh fruit and veg vendors at the wet market in Cai Rang.

Delicious Banh Mi from the central market in Hoi An.

Delicious Banh Mi from the central market in Hoi An.

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Various goodies on display at Tan Dinh Market in HCMC.

#4 HOI AN COOKING CLASS

We spent our last day taking a cooking class with the Green Bamboo Cooking School. Eleven of us, each picked up from our respective hotels, were taken to Hoi An’s central market to pick up the ingredients of our individually chosen meals. Following this we were driven to our gracious host’s (Van) beautiful home where she proceeded to help us cook our chosen dish. We started by prepping our dishes as a group then demonstrating how each one is cooked individually. This was followed by eating each and every one (Yes this was an eleven-course lunch)! Needless to say it was one of the absolute highlights during our one week tour of Vietnam and I highly reccomend booking a class or two should you find yourself in Hoi An…

Our gracious host, Van, picking out the necessary ingredients from Hoi An's central market.

Our gracious host, Van, picking out the necessary ingredients from Hoi An’s central market.

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Marinating my red snapper (I had affectionately named ‘Fred’) before wrapping it in banana leaf and sticking it on the BBQ…

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Fred fresh off the barbie!

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Beautifully presented stuffed squid (made by another member of our cooking class)!

#5 CAI RANG FLOATING MARKET

As we entered the market a man who sold coffee from his little arrow boat pulled up along side ours. Following that we purchased a steaming hot bowl of Bún riêu (rice vermicelli noodle soup) from the lady who pulled up aside him in her own sampan. All the while a thousand other different boats of varying sizes and shapes went about trying to sell and buy things from one another. There were rafts packed high with nothing but watermelons and others, where entire families lived and worked, selling an assortment of goodies attached to large bamboo poles from which they could pass on and show off. It was our very own real life movie set as was we sat with coffee in one hand and bowl of noodle soup in the other. I was in a market dream land and absolutely loved it. Ill let these pictures do the talking…

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Entering the beautiful Cai Rang floating market…

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Various transactions taking place between a house boat and local sampan retailers!

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Boats lined along side one another. Man holding bamboo stick with fruit attached to pass across boats.

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The noodle soup lady!

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Holly and I with morning coffee and Bún riêu!

#6 THE CHAOS OF SAIGON…

I loved being engulfed by the chaos of HCMC. It felt like we were in the middle of motion picture – captivating and terrifying – unable to take my eyes away in case I missed what was going to happen next. Whether traveling on the back of an Xe Om, or simply crossing the road, the chaos of Saigon provided a high octane adventure that left you leaping for joy the moment you hopped off the back, or made it to the other side! This is truly one of the most exciting cities in the world…

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Holly and I on the back of a Vesper at the traffic lights during our XO sight-seeing tour on the first morning!

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A typical scene depicting the chaos of Saigon – view from the top floor of Allez Boo bar.

#7 HISTORIC HOI AN AND THE FULL MOON FESTIVAL

The sleepy and historic old-town of Hoi An rates as Vietnam’s most beautiful. Situated on the picturesqueThu Bon riverbank, Hoi An was left largely untouched during the war. As a result its stunning heritage remains, showcasing a crisscross of beautiful Chinese temples, Japanese merchant houses and ancient warehouses. Hoi An also serves as one of Vietnam’s culinary hotspots, not to mention the beautiful white sandy coastline rests a mere stone’s throw away. A visit here is a must.

When we visited, Hoi An threw up something quite unexpected. Strolling into town on our final night we noticed a fair bit of commotion. Hundreds of tourists and locals alike lined the riverbank near the historic centre to watch a myriad of candles housed in colorful cardboard lanterns float down the river. It was the full moon festival and we had had no idea. Luck, sometimes, goes the way of a sod!

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Lady outside Hoi An central market putting out deep-fried dough squares and Cao Lau noodles to sell (for making local specialty – Cao Lau).

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Local transporting goodies.

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The iconic Japanese Covered Bridge.

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Local lady making her way across the Thu Bon River.

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Looking over the Thu Bon river during the full moon festival…

#8 CHICKENS

Yes, that’s right, chickens! I adopted a strange obsession with them during our one week tour. I quickly released there was no shortage of chickens here in Vietnam and as such decided it quite appropriate to photograph as many as possible. Here are a few of my favorites…

Chickens outside the brick factory.

Outside the brick factory.

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Ummm bags of chickens transported via Xe Om…

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In the middle of the road.

THE BAD AND DOWNRIGHT UGLY

Ah the unpleasantries. Not something travel writers (not that I consider my self one) tend to like writing about. Indeed most don’t. Having said that someone has to. After all, contrary to popular belief, getting away isn’t necessarily an escape from the everyday s**t you deal with back home. Indeed everyday s**t exists everywhere. Here is a short round of my overriding dislikes from Vietnam…

#1 AIRPORT EXPERIENCE AND JETSTAR PACIFIC

The holiday didn’t start out as smoothly as one might have hoped.

After researching online with regards to visa applications I thought it best (and more cost effective) to organise our visas on arrival. Despite being first off the aeroplane and into the queue, we quickly discovered the other cost in choosing to organise our visa on arrival. Time.

After waiting at least half an hour for them to process our visas (despite having been pre-approved filling out various online documentation prior to leaving Hong Kong), we then had to join the back of  the immigration queue which, non-existent when we arrived, had now grown to over an hour long. All this at two in the morning left us a pair of particularly unhappy bunnies (yes we are spoilt by the exemplary immigration process in Hong Kong)!

Travellers Tip – Do yourself a favour and organise your visa before leaving home. The difference in cost is marginal. The difference in hassle is not.

Sadly our bad experiences at HCMC’s airport didn’t end there.

On the way to Hoi An we were delayed 4 hours when, at the last minute, JETSTAR PACIFIC decided to change the destination of our aircraft. Instead of making an announcement, of course, they simply decided to switch off the screen with our flight number displayed at the gate minutes before we were due to board. When everybody consequently queued up, nobody was told till they had made their way to the front, at which point a very unapologetic looking member of staff informed everyone, one by one.

“You wait… four hour delay”.

Great, thanks JETSTAR PACIFIC! Only a week in Vietnam and I get to spend half a day in the worlds slowest airport. An airport where time seemingly moves backwards! I know, I know, my fault for booking with a budget airline right? Still no reason for that kind of treatment. Anyway, rant over.

By the time we boarded we should have been checking in… to our hotel… in Hoi An!

By the time we boarded we should have been checking in… to our hotel… in Hoi An!

#2 GENERAL HARASSMENT AND DISHONESTY

It seems a little unfair to call Vietnam out on this one as we experienced so much warmth during our time here. It should also be noted that any country which experiences the daily hardships wrought by corruption and the like sees its fair share of this. Everyone has to make a living somehow. Still, there is no avoiding the stories of general harassment and dishonesty which are clearly prevalent here in Vietnam, even if we were lucky enough to avoid this for the most part.

I bring it up, in particular, as I had heard a great deal of negativity from fellow travelers before I arrived. Perhaps that was a good thing as it kept us on our guard and also caught us a little off guard when experienced quite the opposite. Either way, it should be noted that many travelers come away with a very different opinion of Vietnam. I refer you to popular blogger Nomadic Matt and an article he wrote back in 2010 entitled “Why I’ll Never Return to Vietnam“.

#3 POLLUTION AND RUBBISH

Need I say much about this? It was prevalent everywhere and not just where you might expect, I mean everywhere! The beautiful Mekong delta is awash with various plastics and other waste carelessly discarded by locals with little to no thought. Sadly it’s affecting the same people who depend on the rivers for fishing and a source of water. I really don’t need to go on about this point. Vietnam needs to tidy up its act, literally!

CONCLUSION

Vietnam is not without its fair share of problems. Poverty and corruption. Urban sprawl and the slow erosion of Vietnam’s countryside.  Pollution and a wide socioeconomic divide. Lingering scars from the war for the people who continue to deal with its consequences. Yet, despite all this, the Vietnamese are far from broken. There is a resilience which you can read in their eyes. A resilience that has allowed the Vietnamese to live life in spite of all these problems. To keep smiling no matter the hardships.

What did I think of Vietnam? Ultimately, whenever I think of Vietnam, I’ll always go back to that evening we spent in the middle of the Mighty Mekong, the middle of nowhere. That moment during dinner when I realized why it was I began to fall in love with the place. The warmhearted spirit of the Vietnamese, echoed throughout that wonderful day, is as prevelant as anywhere else I can remember. They were forever smiling and I loved that. More importantly though they knew how to live for the moment.

As we sat around the dinner table that evening it dawned on me I hadn’t been wrapped up in the usual whirlwind of anxiety and self doubt that frequently plauged my mind back home. Their ability to live in the moment was infectious and quite naturally, by spending enough time with them, we were doing the same. At that moment everything else melted into the background. Nothing else mattered except the present company around our the dinner table and the food in front of smug happy faces. Like everyone else in the Mekong we were smiling and for that moment, at least, it felt like we had found true happiness…

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Sunrise over the Mekong…

Layover Escapades 1-week Itinerary:

DAY 1: XO sightseeing tour and Saigon Street Eats food tour in Saigon. For more information on Ho Chi Minh City please follow this link: Savoring Saigon – 48 hours in Vietnam’s culinary capital…

DAY 2: Water Buffalo Tour. Day 1 highlights include Can Douc market, furniture village visit, seafood lunch, bike ride through paddy fields, sampan ride and over night at local home-stay including dinner.

DAY 3: Water Buffalo Tour. Day 2 highlights include bike ride through coconut growing region of the Mekong, lunch at home-stay, sampan cruise including stops at a coconut products production workshop and brick making factory, bonsai and flower garden visit and overnight in Can Tho town

DAY 4: Water Buffalo Tour. Day 3 highlights include Cai Rang floating market and visit to Cao Dai Temple to see Noon Ceremony. Late afternoon/evening spent back in Saigon for a little more exploration and eating (follow link above for more info).

DAY 5: Lunch in Saigon before catching flight to Da Nang in the afternoon. Airport pick up and check into Ha An hotel before dinner.

DAY 6: Exploration of historic Hoi An by foot (mainly a food crawl around town including a spa treatment at  Palmarosa). Dinner in town during the full moon festival. For more information on Hoi An please follow this link: Hungry in Hoi An – 36 hours of eating, walking, cooking and eating …

DAY 7: Vietnamese cooking lesson with Green Bamboo Cooking School. Catch afternoon flight back to Hong Kong out of Da Nang.

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2 thoughts on “Finding happiness in Vietnam – a collection of thoughts

  1. Hi David and Holly, What a wonderful article you have compiled here. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your Vietnam Experience and I was delighted how muvh you liked the people and the food. Yes it has changed lots since I used to fky though the country as aircrew during the Vietnam War and how delighted I am to read that it is at peace and that the poeple are warm and friendly. A great shame about the airport experience and also the negatives regards polution and traffic! That hasnt changed sadly! Anyway, good on you both and good luck on your next sojourn. Uncle Grae

    • Thanks U.Grae – No travel experience is complete without its downs! Loved Vietnam though – will defo be going back in the future! Hope you’re well. Rgrds, David and Holly.

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