The trip was off to a good start. After Emily and I checked in at JFK, we stood back finishing our bottled water before going through the security line. As we gulped, the ticket agent approached us with new boarding passes -- we had been upgraded to business class! What a wonderful present and way to begin the journey -- with a seat that reclines flat for the 15 hour flight. When we landed in Saigon, we were met by a Mercedes Limo provided by the hotel. The refined experienced halted as soon as we hit the streets. In Saigon -- a city of 8 million people and 4 million motorbikes (and if you figure that on each bike there's usually an extra passenger or 3, it really amounts to one bike per person) -- the traffic is insane.
As we snaked between cars, motorcycles and bicycles, we spent 30 minutes traversing the 8KM ride from the airport to the hotel. Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it's technically called) is the largest city in Vietnam. During the dry/cold season, highs are in the 90's - just like the DC summers: hazy hot and humid. We arrived on 26 December -- and the Christmas decorations were still up in full force -- a light spectacle that lined the streets, hip-swaying, blow-up Santa’s, and light festooned Christmas trees. The kitschy Christmas music blared through shop doors onto the streets. Saigon can be a bombardment on the senses on a basic day, and the Christmas spirit added a whole new dimension.
On the first night, we took a walk to get a basic lay of the land. Our hotel was in District 1, the central business district -- with lots of shops -- both high end such as Versace and Louis Vitton, and typical street vendors -- and lots of food stalls. We found a food stall along a small side street and made our first foray into Vietnamese cuisine. We ordered the fried spring rolls and traditional pancake (Banh Xeo) made with rice flour and stuffed with mung beans, sprouts, pork and shrimp. All is served with the ever present nuoc mam -- a dipping sauce based with fish sauce and spiked with garlic and chilies. With 2 beers and a side of sautéed morning glory -- our first meal was just over $4 USD.
Our first morning -- Emily went to the gym and I began to scout out places for breakfast. We knew that the traditional breakfast is pho - a noodle soup with beef or chicken, lots of fresh herbs and onions. I wanted to find a spot that seemed busy with locals (a sign of particularly good pho?). When we sat down, we ordered two bowls, Pho Bo (with Beef) for me and Pho Ga (with Chicken) for Emily. I had been told that the side condiments of hoisin and sriracha were an American invention, and indeed we did not see any on the table. Instead we saw fresh sliced chilies and garlic soaking in fish sauce. On the side is a plate of more herbs: a combination of basil, roucal and cilantro. We also had fried crullers, which we saw people dipping into their soup. They tasted stale to me, and to my taste did not add to the experience. On the first morning I was hesitant to add the fresh herbs (I am leery of eating anything that isn't peeled or cooked, especially on the first day). I enjoyed my soup that had slivers of ginger.
We walked the streets, learning the art of inching across 4 lanes of traffic. Though there are street lights, lanes and crosswalks, these are merely suggestions -- and usually ignored. Motorcycles will go into the lane of opposing traffic if they want to turn or just get where they want to go faster. Everyone honks -- I think just as a way to say, "Hey, I'm here" more than "get out of my f*#&@# way!" But sometimes, it is "get out of my f*#&@# way!" I'm starting to get a feel for the different horn blares. It's loud and begins grating on ones senses after just a few hours. To get across the street, you inch one moped at a time. As you start to make your way into the middle of intersection, the bikes will go behind you to make way for you to start moving forward. Within all the chaos there seems to be an organized system.
We wandered the markets -- big, loud, smelly (mainly from the durian) and crowded -- with anything you could possibly want for sale -- kitchen supplies, fabrics, clothes, fruits, meat, etc... We wandered through the markets in Chinatown and through the crowded streets. We bought rambutams and dragon fruit.
Every once in a while we'd see a respite in a small park or a pagoda.
More often, we'd see, streams of mopeds with everything imaginable strapped to their bikes: chicken cages, 100's of pounds of onions, bouquets and baskets of flowers, 5 gallon water jugs.
After a long day of sightseeing and walking the streets, our feet were tired. So we ducked into a foot massage place recommended by the Lonely Planet. After soaking our feet for 5 minutes in a warm mineral bath, they massaged our feet and legs for 45 minutes. And though the place advertised itself as a foot massage, we got a full body massage (fully clothed, of the back, neck, arms and head) for the last 20 minutes. Probably the best $12 spent on the trip.
Most mornings we eat pho. For lunch, we'd find a little shop for dumplings or stir-fried banana blossoms. One day, we ordered a Vietnamese pancake (banh xeo) in the central market.
Overall, Saigon was hot and draining. We spent an afternoon at the hotel pool on the roof deck and ate evening meals at more upscale restaurants. We knew we were not getting the "real" Vietnamese experience, but we needed the respite from the chaos. Our best "refined" meals were at restaurants recommended by the NYTimes in a recent article about things to do if you have 36 hours in Saigon. The first was a Quan an Ngon, across the street from the Reunification Palace (which some say is the best site in Saigon, we thought, "if this is the best, then Saigon's sites are probably not worth much.") We had more spring rolls and banh cha --grilled meat on rice vermicelli. And more sautéed morning glory -- our best attempt at getting vegetables into our diet without risking health. The other meal was at the Temple Club - a beautiful colonial style dining room. The food was traditional Vietnamese. We ordered more spring rolls - that came in 4 varieties the traditional fresh, fried, wrapped in batal leaves and, and... I can't remember.
Yes, we did see a few sights. Since much of Vietnam's history is entrenched in war and occupation, the sights reflect this. We visited the Reunification Palace and the Cu Chi Tunnels just outside the city. During the 1960s the Viet Cong maintained control of the rural areas: They created a network of tunnels 10 meters underground in which they lived for 20 years. The created all sorts of decoys and booby traps to keep the enemy from discovering this underground hide out. We crawled through just a small passage -- extremely claustrophobic -- I could barely handle 5 minutes, I can't imagine living there for 20 years!
Hanoi is the capital but a much smaller city. I would liken the difference of Hanoi and Saigon as Boston to New York. It is still very much a city with a hectic downtown, but the buildings are smaller and the architecture is far more interesting. The weather is more pleasant too, which makes sightseeing more enjoyable. We walked through the crowded streets of the Old Quarter. The sidewalks are narrow, and most people park their bikes on them, forcing pedestrians to walk in the streets, dodging motorcycles and cars.
Several lakes dot the city making for pleasant walks and we have enjoyed them... one has a lovely building in the center, another has an interesting pagoda complex, and another is lined with interesting cafes. Today, New Years Day was an exception --there was a festival along the banks of one lake creating such density it was nearly impossible to traverse the neighborhood. In fact, one woman had to carry her bike over head in order to pass through a particularly dense section.
Our hotel is outside the central district which at first seemed like a bad thing. In fact, it is far better to be on the outskirts of town. To be sure, it's more quiet (though this is relative). But more importantly, there are hardly any tourists. As we wandered the streets of our new neighborhood, we felt we could really get a sense of Vietnamese life. We spent one day just walking in one direction and then the other... One street was lined with Orange Trees. The only time we ran into other tourists was when we passed a pagoda or the Ho Chi Minh Palace Complex.Ho Chi Minh was a revered ruler in Vietnam's history. He is recognized for freeing Vietnam from French Rule. His body is embalmed in a tomb in the center of the Palace Complex. The entire complex is beautiful with manicured gardens, lakes, a palace and a few other buildings. What is truly fascinating is that people line up to take a look at HCM's body. He looks like a wax figure.
In Hanoi, I've been more adventurous into the street food. My new favorite dish is Bun Cha: Grilled Meatballs served in a light fish sauce/dipping sauce/broth. It's garnished with carrots and green Papaya. The woman at the cafe guided us to adding the rice noodles, fresh chilies and garlic to the broth.
Our first bowl of Pho was laced with Kaffir Lime Leaves.
Today, I had my cooking lesson. This one was particularly interesting since it was my first since before I started working at Sebastians. She ran her program just as I did... with all the prep done ahead, enough work to keep the clients interested and plenty of staff to take over the tasks that became monotonous or not interesting. We even received a little present at the end with the recipes. I have mixed feelings in that regard. Maybe I can articulate later. In any case, we made my new favorite dish, the Bun Cha, and spring rolls. I definitely learned a few little techniques -- such as frying the rice paper wrapped rolls slowly, so they crisp better. Overall, it was a bit remedial for me.
After the class, I walked through the local meat and produce market. Unlike the markets that I walked through in Saigon, this was less crowded, and I was the only tourist. I was able to watch more of the action without feeling in the way. One curious transaction -- a woman was buying a live fish to cook for dinner that night (all the seafood is sold live). The saleswoman started to kill the fish by cutting the head off... a debate ensued, and the fish was killed instead by whacking at its head a few times. I thought, perhaps, the woman wanted to serve the fish whole, with the head attached. But then as I watched longer, the fishmonger scaled the fish, cut off the head and filets it. All parts went into the bag and given to the woman. Perhaps, she felt this method would yield better tasting fish. I would tend to disagree.
Also of note in the market -- one woman was selling pates and bologna-type products. Clearly they were homemade. They were wrapped in lotus leaves before they were steamed/poached/cooked
In Hanoi, I experienced my first food defeat in a long time. I was told that the Vietnamese really know how to cook snails... but I couldn't eat them. When the bowl arrived, the snails were at least an inch and half big. I scooped out the first one with a long toothpick and popped it in my mouth. With the first bite, the juice squirted down the back of my throat and down the wrong pipe. It made me gag, but I tried again anyways. Oy. After two, I just couldn't do it. They were too big and chewy. The flavor of the broth was nice...
Halong Bay is a three hour drive east from Hanoi. The bay has thousands of outcroppings (or little islands) that create a dramatic landscape. Caves and tunnels with stalagmites and stalactites formed from hundreds of years sea water rising and falling within them.
The best way to experience the bay is by kayak. This allows the opportunity to explore the caves and other lagoons which are only accessed through the narrow tunnels. We opted for a 3 day, 2 night tour. We stayed on a “junk.” It was hardly junky, but rather a yacht with 8 cabins, a dining room and a full crew of stewards, cooks and a captain. The boat reminded me of river boats of the early 1920s that would cruise down the Mississippi River.
Upon arrival in Halong City, we boarded the junk and immediately began cruising into the bay. We were seated in the elegant dining room – Each table, flanked with wicker settees and white cushions, was set with linen and china. We were served an incredibly fresh (and light) seafood lunch in six courses: steamed shrimp, steamed clams with lemongrass and chilies, steamed crab, Whole fish with a lemongrass-tomato sauce, vegetables and fresh fruit for dessert. Other meals were equally elaborate but none as elegant and delicious in its simplicity as the first lunch.
On our first day, we kayaked en masse with the other tour groups within the bay – there were probably 20 other boats anchored in the same place as us. Unlike most tourists who only booked a single night, we were able to venture out farther into the bay on our second day – and for the most part we did not see other kayaks. We had a peaceful day exploring the bay and the caves, and navigating through tunnels with our tour guide Hai. We kayaked for about 3 hours before lunch with only one misadventure: One of the tunnels is about 40 meters – making a sharp turn after the first 3 meters which blocks all outside light – demands a light to navigate. We did not have any lights but our tour guide was convinced we could make it through. I was hesitant, but didn’t want to be the party-pooper… Emily seemed okay and I knew that Hai had been leading tours in the bay for over 3 years and knew each tunnel like the back of his hand. After about 20 meters in, in pitch black darkness (I’m recalling my first experience with pitch black in Hezekiah’s tunnel with my Dad), after a few head bonks on the ceiling of the tunnel, it became clear that Hai didn’t know his way around the tunnel as well as I had hoped. Our saving grace was the two cell phones Hai was carrying. No, we couldn’t make any calls for help. But we were able to generate enough light from the display screens to determine our location and begin to navigate out. We fumbled for about 20 minutes before we saw the light at the end of our tunnel.
In the afternoon, we kayaked through a floating village. These villages started to appear 3 generations ago when fishermen began building sleeping accommodation for their stints at sea. About 200 families now live in houses built on barges in the bay. They have little canoes to traverse the bay to each others’ homes, the school, temple or tavern. The school only goes for 5 years. For these fishing families, they value of education is not appreciated. Why should it? They live happily amidst the outcroppings with a simple lifestyle. Their main sources of income are seafood and selling snacks and water to the tourists.
On our third day, we cruised back to the mainland and made our way down to Hoi An. Hoi An is a quaint, “ancient” village flanked by the South China Sea and Hoi An River. It is one of the few places in Vietnam that has not been destroyed by war. As such, many of the homes and buildings are several hundreds of years old, and make for interesting exploring. The central part of town is blocked off to cars so the town is infinitely more pleasant to walk around than Saigon on Hanoi.
We stayed at the Victoria Resort and Spa, about 5 kilometers outside of town. We enjoyed morning walks along China Beach and afternoons sunning by the pool.
We took a morning excursion to My Son – the ruins of a Champa Center that thrived between the 4th and 13th centuries. The culture blended Hinduism and Buddhism, which is illustrated in the remains. While much of the ruin have been preserved or restored, there have been, by my interpretation, some “excavation mishaps.” The brick that the Champa used to build their temples had a special resin that held it all together and resisted moss, even over 800 years later. Archaeologists have not been able to recreate this – the restored bricks are covered with moss after just a few years and have begun to crumble. Other structures were covered by aluminum hangers for the excavation and restoration. They discovered that when the old bricks dried, they began to irreparably crumble. Uncovering them, exposing them again to the elements, was not enough to reverse the erosion. Two major structures whither under their protective roofs.
In Hoi An, I took a second cooking class which was far and away better than the class in Hanoi. The class included a market tour, a river boat ride to the school which was several kilometers from the center of town, the cooking demonstration, followed by a sit down dinner. I already knew how to make the fresh spring/salad rolls and the bahn xeo, but I really wanted to learn how to make the rice paper. Finally, I had my opportunity. The batter is made by pureeing raw (soaked) rice with water. Cotton is stretch across a pot of boiling water and is the cooking surface for the paper. A ladle of batter is spread on the cotton and steamed for one minute. The rice paper can be rolled immediately into spring rolls, cut into noodles or stuffed with a savory stuffing (like my breakfast noodles in Hanoi). Alternatively, the rice paper can be dried on bamboo to be used another time.
Just beyond the hotel, in the delta of the Hoi An river are coconut groves. The coconut palms create a maze of canals within the river. During the “American” war (as the Vietnamese call it), the Viet Cong would hide in the groves, underwater, using hallowed bamboo to breathe. A fishing village lines the river. On a afternoon tour of the groves and river, we paddled in a round bamboo basket boat, and got a lesson in “industrial” fishing. We cast smaller nets and used a mechanical pulley to reel in the larger nets. At the end of our tour, we feasted on a meal of fresh seafood prepared by our boat’s captain – another star meal: Fried Shrimp Spring Rolls, Stuffed Squid with a Tamarind, Peanut Sauce, and an excellent Banh Xeo.
Hoi An was a great town to walk and explore. The central market is manageably mellow; you can even find women with a Karaoke machine… The fish market is on the shores of the river, on the southern edge of the market. And there are plenty of clothes, sundries and tchotchke shopping. Most people have cloths custom made in Hoi An, but I passed on this experience.
After Hoi An, we returned to Saigon to catch our flight back to the states. But not before we detoured to the Mekong Delta, 3 hours west of the city. The shores of the delta are dense with homes, stores and factories. Floating markets drift along the waterways – boats selling produce wholesale. The fertile soil and mild climate allow its inhabitants to grow a plethora of fruits and vegetables year-round. They make coconut candies and rice paper to export throughout the country. They use the coconut shells to carve spoons and other cooking utensils. The left-over rice husks and coconut shells feed the flames used to cook the candies and rice papers. The left over rice from making the rice paper is fermented into chest-hair-inducing rice wine. While this water-way was not as aesthetically beautiful like Halong Bay or the Coconut Groves in Hoi An, it oozed plenty of charm and intrigue.
Other random thoughts:
The street food was the best food we ate and also the cheapest. A breakfast bowl of pho or ban cha was $1.50 USD. The banh mi pate – a satisfying sandwich on crusty French bread with pate, mayonnaise, pickled vegetables, cilantro and chilies – only $.60
Restaurant meals were less consistent, we had some great meals, and some mediocre. And they typically cost closer to $40 USD for the two of us.
Miraculously and gratefully, we managed to stay healthy despite a heavy dose of street food and raw vegetables.