July 2014 B2B Newsletter
Vietnam and Cambodia are undoubtedly among the most beautiful countries in the world, complete with vibrant cultures and long, interesting histories. However, it’s also undoubtedly true that there’s a lot of room for development. In many of the small villages dotting the countryside, lives are often hard and fraught with anxieties about health and money. In some instances, villagers will subsist on just around .32¢ a day on average.
The Mekong Plus Association, an NGO founded in 1994 by Bernard Kervyn and two friends, Gilberte Do-Huu and Robert Eberhardt, is working to change this statistic. In its 20 years of operation, Mekong Plus has supported a number of projects in over 800 villages spread across three provinces in Vietnam and Cambodia. These projects are ambitious and cover issues as far-reaching as developing village economies, health, hygiene, agriculture and education. So far, Mekong Plus has enjoyed tremendous success, affecting over 200,000 people each year.
Of course, these initiatives do need money to do well, and Mekong Plus has gotten creative with their fundraising efforts. While people can donate on the Mekong Plus website or volunteer their time, one of the most ingenious ways Mekong Plus has been making money has been with their Bamboo Bike tours. For the past four years, this incredible organization has been putting together tours through Vietnam and Cambodia, focusing on the Mekong River Valley. By donating around $100 per day plus living expenses, bikers can tour the many projects Mekong Plus has set in motion, and work with the villagers to produce real sustainable results.
As co-founder Bernard Kervyn said, one of the best parts of these bike tours is the fact that they’re customisable. He knows that not everybody who wants to explore the Vietnamese and Cambodian countrysides will enter the Tour de France, and Mekong Plus has prepared for this accordingly. Depending on experience levels, there are four different routes bikers can sign up for: the Mekong Flowers (a 10-day journey); the Mekong Shoots option, which is best for families; the Mekong Mission, ideal for school groups; and the Mekong Trophy, designed for sporty bikers. Check out these different options here.
While all of these bike tours vary in terms of duration and length, they all provide a stunning tour of the Mekong River Valley and let participants make a difference in Mekong Plus’ developmental projects. And while one might think that participants need to be young and athletic to join a bike tour and make a difference, this is absolutely not the case. Many of the participants have been retired individuals looking for an alternative way to vacation abroad. Bernard also mentioned that a nine-month-old baby was also part of a recent expedition and fared quite well and comfortably on the bike journey. One thing is definitely clear: if you’re looking for a way to support a fantastic NGO while getting personally involved, the Bamboo Bike tours are certainly a great option.
Explore the Cu Chi Tunnels
Not the most original idea in the world, but still worth a visit. Although these tunnels have been slightly repurposed to fit larger frames, you’ll get a closer look at the everyday living conditions of thousands of people during the American War.
How to get there: About 40km from the city centre, there are a few options: take one of the many tours offered through just about every travel agency in Pham Ngu Lao, or do it yourself by motorbike (it’ll take around two hours).
Image source: huracars.com
Cruise the Mekong Delta
The Region is more than 40,000 sq km, so you’ll have to make a choice or two about where to go and what to do. For a relaxing bike ride and a leisurely nap in a hammock, check Ben Tre, My Tho and An Binh Island. For small-town city life, there’s no better place than Can Tho.
How to get there: We recommend the Phuong Trang bus line or, for the scenic route, pick a river cruise with the typical Mekong Delta tour package: the floating market, coconut candy factory and set lunch.
Image source: baolau.com
Monkey Island (Can Gio)
An underrated spot definitely worth a day visit. About 75km from HCMC, this is doable if you’re confident on your bike; be sure to have some small change on you, as it does involve a ferry ride to Can Gio. The main point of interest here is definitely the mangrove island, which features a recreation of a Viet Minh army station and hundreds of incredibly social monkeys, just waiting to snatch your sunglasses.
How to get there: If a motorbike is not for you, there are several tour companies for about US$50 for the day.
Image source: citypassguide.com
Experience Giang Dien Waterfall
Great for a family day with the little ones. Hidden away in Dong Nai, not many people know about this hidden gem. Here you can swim (or wade with a life jacket), kayak, bike, camp, lounge and generally just enjoy life.
How to get there: About 50km from HCMC, it’ll take about an hour-and-a-half by car, two-and-a-half hours by bike. Be sure to save the directions on Google maps, as a lot of the drive is in the countryside, with limited reception.
Image source: visavietnam.net.vn
Have fun at a water park
HCMC has water parks aplenty. Head to Binh Duong to enjoy the sun at Dai Nam Van Hien, or slip and slide in District 11 at Dam Sen Water Park. In District 9, check The BCR Club, which features a large pool and a paintball and archery shooting range, or Suoi Tien Park, probably the most established amusement park in the city.
Image source: vietnamtravel.co
OK, not strictly an outdoor activity, but admirable nonetheless. Several organisations and institutions are always looking for help; although it certainly helps if you speak Vietnamese, for many it’s not a requirement. Here are some of our top choices:
Helping Orphans Worldwide (HOW)
Image source: directconnectaid.org
Thien Phuoc Orphanage
All the way out in District 12, gives orphaned children the love and care they need. About 60 children, most with severe disabilities, reside here, and Sister Kim, the organiser, is always looking for people to spend time with them. See their website for more information.
Animal Rescue Service
In District 2 holds two daily dog walks, and would love you to take part! With a morning walk and an afternoon walk, you can play with a pooch and get outside at the same time. Maybe you’ll even find the canine companion of your dreams.
Banner image source: enchantingtravels.com
Their faces speak to another time and place. Some ancient, lines so deeply engraved in their skin that they’ve become a map of their hard-working years. Other faces unmarked by age and geographical area, youthful and grinning as if caught mid-play. They are the H’Mong, and Ha Nhi, Cao Lan and La Chi among others, the tribes that populate the minority regions of Vietnam captured through the lens of Réhahn, a photographer who has made it his life’s work to shoot all 54 of the ethnic minorities in Vietnam.
Image source: vietnamtravelblog.info
Most of these tribes speak their own dialects rather than Vietnamese and do not read or write the national language. As a result of this and a complicated history with French colonialism, the American war and current discrimination, people from these tribes have historically remained disconnected from the rest of Vietnam. Minority areas have a high degree of poverty and illiteracy, yet despite their daily struggles they maintain their rich cultural identity, which attracts tourists seeking experiential travel.
Sapa is the hub of this type of tourism and travellers flock there at sometimes alarming rates for the otherworldly vistas, the chance to have an experience in Vietnam that feels ‘authentic’, and the Fansipan Legend cable car. The Sapa Statistical Office reports that in 2017, close to 1 million tourists visited Sapa, while the number of official residents in Sapa District comes in at just under 60,000. Ethnic minorities from six hill tribes make up around 82 percent of that number.
However, it is important to note that the vast majority of these tourists are domestic travellers who are more interested in the cable car than trekking to visit minority cultures. Visitors who do come for cultural tourism coalesce in four main villages while the other 89 hardly get any footfall at all.
According to a study by Dr. Keith Nurse of the University of the West Indies:
“Heritage tourists are one of the highest yield tourism groups.” They tend to spend 38 percent more per day than traditional travellers. In addition, they stay longer.
As a result of this profitability the minority regions around Sapa in northern Vietnam have exploded with packaged tours. Yet, a debate about ethics arose when it became apparent that the major beneficiaries of these tours are the companies, and that the minorities are often badly paid or, in the case of homestays, not paid at all.
At the time this article was written, Réhahn had photographed and documented 49 tribes. Réhahn’s images manage to depict not just the faces but also the spirit of the people and their heritage.
The subjects dressed in their handmade finery, their hands often stained with the deep indigo colour they use to dye their garments, gaze out from the prints as if inviting the viewer to come and get to know them, to experience a different style of life through them.
Image source: dulichmucangchai.com.vn
Réhahn recently opened the Precious Heritage Museum in Hoi An, which displays his photographic work as well as the traditional costumes and intangible histories of each tribe. For Réhahn the museum is a way to both pay homage to his subjects as well as to bring awareness of their cultural identity before their ancient traditions are effaced by modern society. Réhahn has been published in every major international photography and travel journal but he says that photography is not his real obsession.
“I’m not interested in talking about what type of camera I use because it is just a tool”, Réhahn said. “What brought me to this project is that I love people. I love culture. I love history and I want to understand. Photography is just a means to be able to approach [the minority tribes].”
Réhahn is not the only one to have this compulsion to connect with these rapidly disappearing cultures. Travellers come to Vietnam from all over the world to make the trek up into Sapa to see the H’Mong and the Red Dao, in particular, and to marvel at the intricate embroidery, tassels and colours of their traditional dress. Réhahn says that tourists are often looking for an experience with ‘the exotic’. When they go into a village and see people living in wooden houses, wearing beautiful costumes or silver jewellery made from French coins, they are able to witness something new.
“It is maybe a cliche”, Réhahn says, “but they seem to be happy. Happy with less. So I think tourists are trying to find some adrenaline, some type of emotion. They are trying to find out if they’re on the right path.”
Image source: rehahnphotographer.com
Ethnic, cultural, minority or heritage tourism has gained in popularity since the 1970s, when tourism marketers realized that some people sought out travel experiences primarily so that they could gain a deeper comprehension of cultures dissimilar to their own. Yet, in all actuality, people have been attracted to the ‘other’ since the dawn of nationalism. In 1493, Christopher Columbus sailed back from the Americas with indigenous peoples to show them to the Spanish court. By the 1800s, ‘human zoos’ were à la mode across Europe and people were removed from their home countries to be presented in what were called “ethnographic museums”, a name that was chosen to give these exhibitions intellectual weight.
‘Native’ villages were reconstructed at World Fairs and populated with actual people whose humanity blurred into specimen. Visitors came to gape at what were then considered ‘primitive cultures’ by the thousands.
This dark history is at the source of the ethical debate about minority tourism. Phrases such as cultural appropriation and cultural voyeurism sprang from the guilt associated with this past and are often used to disparage businesses that are seen to profit from people’s inherent interest in people from different cultures.
According to the South Dakota State Historical Society, a governmental organisation dedicated to preserving cultural heritage in the US, heritage tourism done well “creates jobs, new business opportunities, and strengthens local economies. It protects natural and cultural resources, which improve the quality of life for residents and travellers who participate in the services and attractions.”
This is the ideology behind Ethos - Spirit of the Community, a “social enterprise that strives to offer experiential adventures”. Ethos is located in Sapa town, which is the starting point for most ethnic tourism in Vietnam. Ethos mainly employs people from the H’Mong tribe to act as tour guides as well as offering homestays, textile and cooking classes and trekking.
Video source: ETHOS - Spirit of the Community
Phil Hoolihan, the managing director of Ethos, said that “all trips work on real conversations. I feel that any ethical experiences should be about positive exchanges. We all learn from each other. What that means is guests and local minority people discuss and converse dynamically.”
Hoolihan said that locals who are employed in standard tours are often paid a pittance and are unable to continue their traditional way of life. Full time guides have no time for rice planting, farming, embroidering or any of their other traditional daily life tasks. There is irony in the fact that in order to create income and attempt to preserve their cultural heritage these guides must completely remove themselves from their culture. Ethos’ team is bigger than necessary so that each guide can continue his/her regular way of life alongside receiving compensation for their work. The money that Ethos receives from tours is then returned to the communities by way of projects achieved in unison with the Sapa District Women’s Union that are centred around healthcare, education and literacy, human trafficking prevention and health and hygiene.
According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the US: “The keys to a successful cultural heritage program include five principals:
2) Find the fit between a community and tourism
3) Make sites and programs come alive
4) Focus on quality and authenticity
5) Preserve and protect resources.”
Unfortunately, the current state of tourism in Sapa is far from these ideals. Package tours guide travellers towards prefabricated ‘handicraft’ shops in which crafts traditional to the region are copied and sold at much cheaper rates. There is no comparison for a hand-stitched H’Mong blanket that may have taken one year to make, but tourists that are uneducated about the difference and the damage that buying knock-offs can have for the local population can easily fall into the trap. To make matters worse, authorities have posted signs asking tourists not to buy from the villages and to buy from the shops in Sapa town instead.
As a result, though the villages around Sapa are crowded with tourists, the locals make very little money from the influx. Hoolihan puts it this way: “When you are simply surviving, you can’t dream. Most people here are going through the motions and unless they gain specifically from tourism, they get the inconveniences—litter in the villages, cameras in their faces etc., without the positives.”
Artists like Réhahn who try to bring awareness, respect and preservation to the minority cultures, and companies like Ethos, Sapa O Chau, and Sapa Sisters whose aim is less financial than social, are scarce but there is hope in the fact that they are out there trying to shift the status quo.
“If there was no tourism [in Sapa] the culture might have disappeared already”, Réhahn said. “Villagers might have to send their kids to Sapa town and become a housekeeper in a hotel or home there. Tourism can help to build up the village rather than dispersing the people to other towns to get income.”
Ker, a young H’Mong woman who works as a guide for Ethos, talked about the opportunities properly managed tourism have brought to her, “Tourism is good for me because it helps me a lot for the future. I can have a better house and a better shower room and it has also allowed me to travel.”
Image source: assets.community.lomography.com
The experience for her has been mutual. She said that she enjoys working as a guide because it gives her the opportunity to learn about other people’s cultures in the same way that they learn about hers.
Both Hoolihan and Réhahn emphasise that despite the influx of tourism Sapa is still a magical place for those interested in stepping off the beaten path and experiencing genuine cultural tourism.
For more information about the diverse minorities residing in Vietnam, download the Precious Heritage app, which includes Réhahn’s photographs, the story of each tribe and recordings of their traditional music. Or go to Ethos’ website to learn more about the history of Sapa.
Video source: Hachi8Media
Banner Image source: over-blog-kiwi.com
Kitesurfing equipment has become safer and more durable over the last years. Still, it’s quite possible to damage the kite or the board. During the high season in Mui Ne, waves can reach two meters height and the wind is strong with 25 knots. In these conditions, a kite falling into the water might get damaged by the energy from the ocean or the wind.
When the kite crashes in the water, the fabric may stretch to the point where the seams break. This is an easy repair, and usually this is done with a old-fashioned sewing machine and special repair tape, called rip-stop. A kite repaired by a professional, will fly like new.
Sometimes, the “bladder” (inner tube) which holds the air to stabilize the kite, may have problems. Sometimes bladders leak air due to a small puncture. This can be fixed with repair tape, not unlike fixing a flat tire on the bicycle.
Other times, the bladder might have more damage, it can even explode when it’s pumped to hard. There, the only solution is to replace the bladder, and good kite-repair shops will have bladders in many sizes in stock.
The lines and the bar which is used to steer the kite, can also get damaged. Lines can stretch from, for example, jumping, or simply due to the power of the wind, or they even can break. Experienced kite-repairers are able to shorten stretched lines, but broken lines have to be replaced. Other parts of the equipment, like the bar or the “pulleys” (which is the attachment between the lines and the kite) may break, in particular given the salty water in Mui Ne. In those cases, it’s best to just replace the damaged equipment.
Kiteboards are rarely broken. In Mui Ne, there are no stones or corals which present a danger for the boards. The only exception may be “surfboards”, which may break due to high jumps. Depending on the amount of damage, surfboards may not be suitable for repair.
In Mui Ne, there are a number of specialized kite repair shops. One of the more established kite-repairers is Frenchman Christian Bouillon who works at the Kitesurf Ananda Shop. Christian is probably the most experienced in this profession: in his his native France a professional sailmaker. There are also a number of local kitesurfers who have the necessary skills to repair kites. They usually work at any of the many kiteschools during the day. It turns out that most damage is done by novices of kitesurfing, and kiteschools are probably the biggest customer of any kite repair shop.
The best prevention for any damage that may occur is to take good care of the equipment (rinse the bar and lines and the board with fresh water after a kite session, for example), and not to leave the kite on the beach in the wind and sun during the entire day, and to be be careful in high waves.
Writer: Michael Mahe
Are you new to Vietnam or are you planning to join us here for a period of time? Here we compiled a selection of 30 more or less unique experiences you will have in the country. Some of them will leave you speechless, others are amusing, a few might be annoying, but all of them together make up the utterly amazing and inspiring cultural experience that is called Vietnam.
Without further ado, let’s dive into our 30 things to experience in Vietnam:
Vietnam is notorious for one of the most frustrating and unorganized visa-on-arrival processes in Southeast Asia. First time tourists tend to nervously shift about the visa counter like frightened cattle as confusing instructions are barked and questions are usually ignored by staff. On return visits, foreigners get the unprecedented edge of adeptly navigating the confused group to expedite the process for themselves, a 1000-yard stare cutting through the haze of lost looks and angry grumbles. Upon a third return, a monk-like state of calm takes over.
Rush hour on one of the major traffic arteries can turn your view of the world and fluent traffic upside down. Traffic rules? Phaw!
Motorbikes flow around each other like streams of water, those who turn left intertwining with the oncoming traffic and separating again like winding serpents. Buses lumber through the torrents of the rush hour like armored war-elephants amidst light cavalry. How to cross a street in this madness? Just dive in, but remember: The bus is the king of the road and we are on the lower end of the food chain on the streets of Vietnam.
In preparation for public holidays, especially Lunar New Year, Tet in Vietnamese, you will find yourself in the middle of the only time of year when Vietnamese people begin to show signs of stress. People work double shifts to make up for the days when they visit their families, uniformed entities knock on various doors to collect what they think is due, and robbers snatch more phones and handbags that at any other time of the year. The markets are buzzing with buyers and sellers of gift baskets, while housewifes set up huge cooking pots for preparing the traditional sticky rice cakes for Tet.
During Tet holidays, many urban dwellers leave the major cities to visit their families on the countryside. You can walk through entire wards without seeing a sign of life. Well, that’s slightly exaggerated, but compared to the usual bustle it’s really calm and empty. While the tourist areas are less affected by this temporary exodus, in other districts so many shops close down, that usually bustling streets turn into abandoned ghost-alleys.
A clusterf*ck of a backpacker area, Bui Vien is a hate-it-or-embrace-it romp through all-hour bars, street food vendors, “massage” services, cheap hotels, $5 US extra-strength cocktail jars, drug peddlers, pharmacies, convenience stores, flyer girls, hagglers, hustlers, drunks and fire-breathing children. It’s fun for an occasional cheap beer and street watching session, or a stopover at the few decent Greek, Indian, Mexican or American restaurants along the strip. But most expats tend to slowly grow irritated at the neverending din of one of the most famous backpacker enclaves in Southeast Asia. If you have never been, visit Bui Vien for an evening to soak in the madness.
Even if this point might cause an outcry from animal rights activists worldwide, I used to live in an alley with cock fight enthusiasts as neighbors. They take better care of their roosters than of their own families. The rooster fights as such, however, are remarkably unspectacular. The roosters are strong and healthy, quite noisy at times, but the bets that are placed among the spectators are not high enough to apply doping techniques. Or even risk the health of the animal in just one fight, like it is common on the Philippines.
During the days of the lunar new year festival, the rules change. Unwritten. People believe that gambling, be it for small money, bigger stakes or just matches, will attract luck for the new year. This is the only time of the year the police does not interfere with people gambling in the alleys. Wherever you walk, people are playing cards, dice or board games. Beer flows among the Vietnamese men in significant amounts and spectators frequently give wanted or unwanted tips to gamblers.
Sometimes you may witness pedestrians, even people on motorbikes, frozen in place beside the street as if struck by some futuristic temporal flux rays. They look serious, some even somber and don’t move an inch. At first you might wonder if it’s some weird flash mob that gathered on the street, while you pass them in amazement and watch out for the cameras. But soon you realize the truth: In fact they froze, because the National Anthem was blaring out of a creaky speaker.
Certain occurrences at local shops supposedly cause bad luck for the business. The proprietor may take measures to avoid that unfortunate situation and gift fake money to the spirits by means of burning it in front of the shop. The same happens during new and full moons: The fake bills you burn turn into real cash in the netherworld that can be used by the ancestors, which in turn help their descendants in daily matters of business and family.
If you are new to Vietnam, you might find the one or another $100.- bill next to the road. Don’t bother picking it up, it’s fake and used for burning.
The abundance of plastic bags and other trash that gets carelessly shoved into the drains of streets during dry season may clog the drainage system, so with rainy season’s first heavy monsoon of the year, some streets get thoroughly flooded. That doesn’t stop motorbike riders testing how deep the water really is. Children take the cooling rain and deep puddles as an opportunity to splash around in the water.
Take a seat at an adjacent streetside cafe and enjoy the show.
The tendency of Vietnamese people to drop the ending syllable of words when talking English and other foreign languages is an amusing classic. At first you might be confused when you hear an expat ordering Wai Wai Wi Ai at a Saigonese restaurant. When the waitress turned up with a glass of white wine with ice, you get it. Expat English teachers can sing you a song about dropped syllables, but westerners actually adopting this for fun - that’s just splendid!
Although most Vietnamese wear Western clothes, the traditional Ao Dai dress is still popular as a celebratory or workplace outfit. A beautiful pants and top combination for women, the Ao Dai is elegant and unique, and a lovely reminder of Vietnam’s culture.
Be prepared to wake-up at 4 a.m. to the sounds of wailing funeral horns, which then often continue throughout the next day. Funerals in Vietnam are long, serious affairs where the deceased’s family dedicate sleep, food, money, time and energy to remembering their life and celebrating their achievements. Funerals involve large colorful tents at the entrance to the deceased’s house, tables of serious men drinking beer, feasts, visits from friends and family, music and traditional funerary rituals. Be respectful, but also feel free to watch this fascinating side of Vietnamese life, and be sure to ask a local to explain it to you.
There are ladies here who carry baskets on their backs, and inside those baskets are foods from your wildest dreams. Keep an eye out for the women with two massive buckets on the ends of a large pole which they support on their shoulders. Squat next to a basket lady and sample some of the waffles and crackers she is selling. If you’re feeling adventurous ask for bánh tráng trộn - a bag of torn rice paper, nuts, dried beef, herbs, spices and quail eggs which serves as a sort of Vietnamese trail-mix.
If you’ve spent any time in a Vietnamese city you will have noticed those bicycles which have a voice of their own. The rider rides around on them, looking furtive, while a speaker from his bicycle blurts out ‘bánh mì đây!’ or “bắp xào đây!”. Inside the basket on the back of their bike is hot bread, a delicious corn mix, sticky rice, fruit, etc! It all depends on what the bike says…
This one is peculiar to Ho Chi Minh City, but local parks throughout the country have their own unique blend of people and culture. Visit a park to understand the lives of those who live nearby. Ho Chi Minh City’s 23/9 Park in District 1 is a great example. Hundreds of people pass through here every day - tourists with their cameras and sunglasses, expats walking their dogs, local students looking to practise English and older women in hilarious sports gear dancing in a large organized exercise class. People from all over the place use the park’s free exercise equipment, and donut sellers, illegal fishermen, couples, singles, etc dot the park benches.
Many countries have night buses, but the buses in Vietnam are strange. Uniform throughout Southeast Asia, these buses have tiny individual seats with little pockets for your legs. The walkways are like squeezing yourself down a tube and you will spend your night-ride in the fetal position, but the sheer hilarity of sitting in a pocket on a bus that glows with bright neon lights and sounds like a strangled duck will make it worth it.
Have a drink with some local people. Trust me it’s an interesting process - they drink differently. It is customary for people in Vietnam to drink together, saying ‘yo!’ (‘cheers’) every time they take a sip, and taking that sip together. People also often drink beer with ice, and it is quite usual to eat snails, giant flat crackers or BBQ chicken legs with your beverage. None of those boring crisps or beernuts here, no sir.
Vietnam is, of course, famous for its delicious and varied types of noodle soup. Pho is the most famous soup, but this is just one kind of noodle. Other noodles include hủ tiếu, mì and bún, and you can eat them dry, with liquid, vegetarian, meaty, with seafood, with mountains of vegetables, etc. You name it, Vietnam probably has it.
Try some of these options:
- Mì (instant noodles)
- Bún riêu (large tube noodles with tofu, congealed blood and seafood)
- Phở (large flat noodles, with chicken, beef, or a variety of other options)
- Hủ tiếu khô (dry noodles with chicken, beef or a variety of other options)
- Hủ tiếu nước (wet noodles with chicken, beef or a variety of other options)
Also note that ‘gà’ is chicken, ‘thịt bò’ is beef and ‘thịt heo’ is pork.
Corruption and quotas plague most police forces on a global scale. From the petty arrests in New York City to the shady police stops in Saigon, almost no major city comes without its share of seedy authority figures. Bribes are a normality in Vietnam, and it’s common practice to negotiate for an affordable bribe once you are stopped for a real (or blatantly made up) offence. If you drive, you’ll probably be pulled over once or twice. Have some money ready and brace yourself for standardized corruption.
More so than any book, article or YouTube video, locals are your #1 resource for immersing yourself in Vietnamese culture. Take it a step further and date a local guy or girl and not only will your Vietnamese language skills steadily improve, but your understanding and empathy for the (at-first) strange culture will reach a nice equilibrium. And for those having a hard time, any attempt to speak the difficult-to-pronounce language is admirable, making your efforts all the more noticeable. Just try and avoid the “they’re out for money” mentality; this turns otherwise open-minded foreigners jaded and cynical.
At first sight the tiny plastic chairs littering every street food joint might warrant a snort. At first sitting they might cause a disgruntled mumble. But eventually most foreigners come to tolerate or even embrace the tiny plastic chair setup - it means good, cheap food and iced beer is at hand and waiting.
Vietnamese is a tonal language. Meaning you won’t have too much trouble slowly learning to read and write it, since it uses Roman characters, but speaking is an entirely different matter. In most countries, a slight mispronunciation is acceptable and sympathized with. In Vietnam, it can cause a misplaced order, a hearty laugh or a dead stare. You may annunciate something five times, never changing your tone, before something clicks and the locals understand what you’re trying to say. Some understand your broken tone perfectly, while other will quickly give up without even trying. Other languages (at least, speaking-wise) will soon seem like a joke when six months in you’re still struggling to pronounce the street you live on.
Vietnam’s alleyways are a world of their own. While tourists may not venture through these maze-like clusters of clandestine streets, those who brave the country’s unseen pathways discover colorful scenes of lax local life, shortcuts to destinations and cozy neighborhood stalls and shops. While dodgy alleys may need a local’s guidance, generally alleys are teeming with life only the Vietnamese tend to see, and are worth the spelunking. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a xe om driver that knows and utilizes his alleyway shortcuts well, squeezing through impossibly thin openings, and dodging roosters, kids and other motorbikes to get to your destination.
Image by Brian Huang
We dare you. The initial smell alone causes some to take several steps back. Imagine sweaty gym socks with a sweet tang and you’re getting close. A bite is more like a blended batch of onions with a hint of aforementioned socks, and something sweet somewhere in that mess. Many, many find it nauseating. For a lucky few it becomes one of their favorite snacks. Eating a durian can literally be a once in a lifetime experience, but only because you’ll never want to look - or smell - one again.
Located in District 5 in Ho Chi Minh City, Cholon is Saigon’s Chinatown, a medley of colorful shops and colonial buildings, spices and herbs, and Cantonese cuisine joints. Cholon is home to mainly Taiwanese and Chinese residents. Historic in feel and far from the run-down, cramped chain-shop Chinatowns of many Western cities, Cholon is an atmospheric trek through gorgeous Chinese pagodas, delicious street food, herbal medicine shops and ancient, colorful architecture. It’s a must-visit on a cooler day, when you can walk around the streets, alleys and markets, and sample and buy to your heart’s content.
With modulated microphones echoing your grating voice into something permissible, karaoke joints around Vietnam are a prime way to turn your shower screeches into melodious singing. Vietnam’s karaokes are ubiquitous, cheap as dirt (compared to other karaoke-culture countries, at least), and offer a nice selection of cheesy English pop “classics”. Drink and food prices are fair, but karaoke room cleanliness can be a hit or miss. In general, however, the Vietnamese karaoke scene is definitely something to get into if you’re looking for a cheaper, more private alternative to bars and clubs.
Coming from Austria with our flourishing coffee culture, I tend to look at the Vietnamese equivalent in amazement. It is so different from ours, and yet so richly developed. Hot coffee with or without condensed milk is native to the North and the Highlands, while in the South we pour it over ice. But North or South, ca phe is a social thing Vietnamese enjoy at all times of the day.
Vietnam’s vast array of herbs, lettuce-like leaves and other miscellaneous fruits or vegetables make eating here an experience in itself. Many of the Vietnamese herbs are only available locally, and the aroma of Vietnamese mint and other strange leaves are staple to most local dishes. You should also have a nibble of some of the vegetables here! From countless types of courgette to a long, stick-like thing which absorbs anything it is cooked with. A bit like a choko but with the texture of a sponge...
No two supermarkets here are the same. Even if they are part of a chain. And trying to buy western foods in any of them can be a real challenge, so why not embrace the Vietnamese choices? Skip cereal, apples, tomato paste and pasta, and get into some rice paper wraps, weird dried shrimp or some of those strange sweet-but-salty cakes. It may seem odd to pay less for a mango than for a banana, or for a Snickers to cost more than a carton of milk, but such is life in Vietnam. Embrace it!
If we’re honest, it was hard to stop at 30. Vietnam is not a top tourist destination for nothing, and as we wrote this list of things that you can only fully experience here we began to appreciate just how unique and fascinating a country it is. From the impossible bubbly language and rocket fuel coffee, to the questionable legal system, terrifying traffic and that disgusting snotty durian that I never quite got the taste for…
Vietnam is a world of possibility.
30 Things to Experience in Vietnam is a post co-developed by Zoe, Aleksandr and Frank together, while Frank fiercely contradicts the other two writers’ opinion about the fragrant, fantastic and marvelous durian fruit!