Việt Nam: Great Food, Friendly People, and a fast Growing Economy
Travel pictures from Việt Nam
by Dr. Günther Eichhorn
In February 2003 I went on a trip to Việt Nam. On the way there I stopped in Singapore for a day. At the end of the trip I went to Siem Reap for three days to visit the temples around Siem Reap (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, etc). The trip was organized by Scenic World, Inc., a now defunct tour organizer.
The tour was very well organized. What was the most welcome part of the tour was the fact that this tour operator conducts tours with only two or three people. They don't run a tour for one person alone, so I had to tag along with another couple. This was really great. The other couple was about 75 years old and very nice. Being on a tour with only three people is so much more comfortable than being hauled along with 20 others. It makes everything so much more flexible. I can really recommend this.
The cost was very reasonable. It did not include lunch or dinner, which was very good for me. I like to go out myself and find local foods, I don't like having to eat in the hotel all the time. Hotel breakfast is quite enough for me. I did not eat lunch or dinner in the hotel at all during the trip. It is very easy to find inexpensive and very good food everywhere.
Việt Nam is a great country. I enjoyed it very much. The food is excellent everywhere. It is usually very tasty, with different herbs and spices to give it flavor. It is usually fairly light (lots of different noodle soups, etc), without the heavy sauces. This was very much to my liking. The beer in Việt Nam is pretty good too. In some areas they have what they call "Fresh Beer". It is brewed the previous day and sold only for one day. This is a very refreshing tasting beer, not too heavy, and very inexpensive. A mug of that beer costs about $0.20.
Prices in Việt Nam are very low for USA standards. This makes a trip to Việt Nam very economical. Only the hotel prices are not that low. The hotels were between very good and good throughout the trip. The first few nights I stayed at the Hà Nội Hilton (the real one!).
US dollars are accepted everywhere. You don't really need local currency. However, I found it to be valuable to have local currency because you can better bargain when you buy things. Bargaining is a must everywhere. You should pay only about half to 2/3 of what the merchant originally asks. If you bargain only in full dollar amounts, you will end up paying too much. With the local currency you can much better fine tune the bargaining.
The Việt Namese are really working on getting their economy going, and it shows. They are by now the second largest exporter of rice. Rice agriculture is probably the most important part of their economy. In most areas they grow two crops of rice per year, in some even three. This is due to extensive irrigation. Most of the work in the rice paddies is done manually, even the irrigation in many places. In quite a few places I saw two men with a bucket held by two strings between them. They swing the bucket back and forth, dipping it into the irrigation canal on the back swing and then emptying the bucket into the field on the forward swing.
Since the rice paddies are so important for the Việt Namese, and people want to be close to what was important for them after they die, there are small cemeteries everywhere in the rice fields. People want to get buried where they lived and worked.
The drive for improving the economy is also evident on a personal level: There are hardly any beggars in Việt Nam. Everybody wants to sell you something, they want to make money, not beg for it. And this includes the kids, even they don't beg, they try to sell postcards, etc. This was a very welcome change from other Asian countries, especially compared with Kâmpuchéa (Cambodia) at the end of the trip. I saw beggars only twice, once at a rest stop on the highway where several people were begging. They were all people who had lost limbs, presumably in the war or later due to land mines. The other time was such a surprise that I gave that beggar some money. I was sitting in a side walk restaurant. I was the only foreigner, the other five tables were occupied by Việt Namese. When the beggar approached the restaurant, I expected him to come straight to me. What a surprise when he first started begging at the tables with the Việt Namese and only later came to me. This was not one of your typical tourist beggars, but somebody who really needed help and first asked it from his countrymen.
Trying to make money is evident everywhere. The pictures below show some of the people that were trying to sell something, either goods or services. You could see barbers and cobblers on the street working their trade. One person had set up a bicycle repair shop on a street corner. The most interesting trade was the portable restaurant. Women carry a whole restaurant in two baskets on a pole over their shoulder. They have several small plastic seats, utensils, plates, and a pot over a Coleman stove for cooking food. When they find a suitable place, they put their load down, setup the seats and start serving food for passers-by. I found that quite ingenious.
The markets in Việt Nam are vibrant, and full of goods. We saw lots of motorcycles on their way to the market, loaded with all kinds of goods, animals, etc. Somewhat similar to India, the markets always have some stalls that sell flowers. In Hanoi there is a dedicated flower market. Việt Namese like to decorate with flowers.
A lot of the economy depends on the rivers and the sea. Boats are evident in a lot of places and they handle a lot of traffic. There are also a lot of houseboats in some areas where people live on boats permanently. In Huế on the river we saw many boats that were dredging up gravel and bringing it into the city as construction material. Near Sái Gòn we visited a brick factory. Most of the work is done manually. The main machine in this factory is the one that forms the bricks. The women load the mud from the river into the machine. The machine extrudes it through a form that makes the final bricks, with the center hollow parts. A wire frame then cuts the continuous stream of formed brick into the final individual bricks. From there they are brought outside for drying, and subsequent firing in the kiln.
Another manifestation of their drive to improve things is the fact that they keep their country clean. The streets are swept every night, everything is quite clean. Again that was in stark contrast to Kâmpuchéa, which was not clean at all.
One interesting aspect is the shape of the properties that people live on. In most villages the properties are narrow, long plots perpendicular to the main road. Houses are therefore very narrow (on the order of 4-5 m (13-16 ft)) and long. The people do not own the land, all land belongs to the state, they only lease it to build their houses on.
Students in Việt Nam wear uniform. The older girls wear quite dressy uniforms. One morning, we were driving through some smaller villages at the time the children went to school. They get picked up by school buses. Some take bicycles to school. I guess it depends on how far it is.
After work people are in the streets and play games, both physical games and board games. There were quite a few older people playing badminton in Hà Nội, when I walked through town around 18:00 in the evening.
The conic hats are evident everywhere. Especially in the fields most people wear them. Clothes are different from what we are used to. Women don't wear skirts at all. They all wear the somewhat baggy pants. I think I only saw a handful of women wearing skirts, all of them teenagers. Loads are usually carried on long poles with two baskets for holding the load.
A pleasant surprise was the attitude of the Việt Namese towards Americans. When I got there, I was a little apprehensive, since I did not know what to expect. What a surprise I got. The attitude, especially in the northern parts was something like this: "Over the last 2000 years we have been invaded numerous times. We kicked butt every time, so you Americans don't have to be too embarrassed that we kicked your butt too!" I found this attitude very refreshing, and just as positive as their attitude in all other respects.
The traffic in Việt Nam is wild, but organized. There are three million people in Hà Nội and two million motorcycles! One of the first things our local guide told us was how to cross the street. This was very necessary advice, since at first it looks like you'll never be able to get across a street with all that motorcycle traffic. His advice was to walk slowly. If you walk slowly, the motorcycles will drive around you. If you try to run across, they don't have the time to evade you and you are much more likely to get hit. If things get too confusing, just stop and let things sort themselves out. This really works! You just step on the street, and slowly walk across, never mind the traffic. They will not run over you. Once I saw an opening in the traffic ahead of me and almost started to run across the rest of the street. At that moment I remembered his advice and stopped. I probably would have run right into one of the motorcycles.
One aspect of the traffic can sometimes be hilarious. They load everything on their bicycles and motorcycles, and then some. The loads on them are sometimes astounding. A few times I saw motorcycles with four (4) people on one motorcycle!
In general the traffic is more disciplined than it may seem at first. People usually drive not too fast, it is much more disciplined than I have seen in other countries. What surprised me quite a bit was the fact that the motorcycles were all in very good shape, just another manifestation of the will of the Việt Namese to have things done well. Many of the motorcycles and motor scooters were very new. There were not that many cars in Hà Nội, but the ones that were there are in good shape. In Sái Gòn there were a lot more cars. This made crossing the streets a little more difficult there, since the same scheme that works for motorcycles, doesn't work for cars. Cars can't just drive around you. But there too it was easy to get used to the traffic.
Talking about Sái Gòn, its official name is Hồ Chí Minh City, but everybody calls it Sái Gòn. Our local tour guide in Sái Gòn called it with the official name the first few times, but then reverted to Sái Gòn.
The tour started in Hà Nội. You can get the visa at the airport, you don't need to get it in advance. At the airport I met the couple that was going to be with me throughout the trip. The local guide for Hà Nội was waiting for us at the airport and brought us to the hotel. We toured Hà Nội for a couple of days. The center part of that tour was of course Hồ Chí Minh's Mausoleum. But we saw also some palaces and cultural events. A concert of local musicians with local instruments was very interesting. Two instruments were worth mentioning. The first is a one-string instrument that is plucked. It has a horizontal resonating body. The string is fastened on one end on a swiveling vertical bar. Swiveling that bar changes the pitch of the sound. It made a very interesting sound. The second one was the most surprising. It was a giant Pan flute with tubes of about 10 cm (4") diameter. It was positioned on a table. The player was standing in front of the openings of the tubes. She clapped her hands, thereby blowing air into the tubes. This caused the air in the tubes to resonate and made the sound. I have never seen any instrument like this. Another local specialty is the water puppet show. It takes place in a pool of water about 10 x 10 m (30 x 30 ft). The puppeteers are behind a curtain, standing in the water. They manipulate the puppets through long handles that are under water. The puppet show included even some fireworks on the water. It must take quite some strength to move these long poles with the puppets on the ends through the water.
On the third day we drove to Dry Hạ Long Bay, an area of limestone karst formations, very reminiscent of Guilin in China. It has the same sugar loaf shaped small mountains. We took a boat ride on a river there through some caves. This is a tourist area, so there are plenty of boats on that river that sell all kinds of things. One interesting aspect of the local merchants there is how the row their boats: with their feet!
From Hà Nội we flew to Đà Nẵng. In Đà Nẵng we visited a Chăm Museum. The Kingdom of Chămpa ruled central and southern Việt Nam for over fourteen centuries from about 200 CE to 1697. It was very much influenced by Hinduism from India. It has some very interesting stone sculptures. From there we visited China Beach and Marble Mountains, areas where there was a lot of fighting during the war. Our tour guide told as that as far as you could see, there was not a single tree standing after the war. It took a while to re-forest the area. Unfortunately a lot was done with Eucalyptus trees. They grow very quickly, but prevent most other plants from growing around them. And you can't get rid of them later on, they are almost impossible to kill.
From Marble mountain we drove to Hội An, where we stayed a couple of nights. Hội An is a small city that was an important maritime trading port and melting pot of different cultures 400 years ago. Japanese, Chinese, and Europeans all lived there and built up their own quarters. In 1639 the Japanese Shogun prohibited the Japanese from traveling to foreign countries, so the Japanese pulled out of Hội An, while the Chinese prospered. In the 18th century, the river silted up, at the same time as China's markets were opening. This meant that the importance of Hội An quickly diminished. But the various large merchant houses, the Chinese Assembly Halls, and the Japanese area with an old bridge and other old houses are quite extraordinary. The old town is very nice to walk through with a market, lots of shops and many nice restaurants. The Ancient Town of Hội An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From Hội An we drove to Huế, the imperial city of the Nguyễn Dynasty (pronounced almost exactly like "when"). We stayed there for two nights. The Nguyễn Dynasty ruled from 1802 till 1945. The center piece of the city is the huge Citadel. Within its walls are the Imperial City and the Forbidden City, modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing.
The most interesting buildings in Huế however are the Mausoleums. The Complex of Huế Monuments is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Most of the emperors of the Nguyễn Dynasty built their mausoleums in Huế. Some of them are really impressive. We visited three of the mausoleum complexes. We took a boat up-river to the mausoleums. The sign with the safety instructions was hilarious. It prohibits you to bring cattle and radioactive materials on board... so there! One interesting fact is that the emperors engraved a description of what they did during their reign on a huge stone slab. From what our local guide told us, these descriptions are fairly accurate, and not necessarily flattering for the emperor.
Huế was a central location for the Tết Offensive. Many thousands of people died during the fighting around Huế. The ferocity of the fighting is evident from the bullet holes in the citadel, where the North Việt Namese Army had holed up.
From Huế we flew to Sái Gòn, where we stayed for three nights. Sái Gòn is the largest city of Việt Nam. It is a bustling metropolis. We toured the city for one day. On the second day we drove to the Củ Chi tunnels. The first tunnels were dug by the anti-colonial Việt Minh in the late 1940's. During the American war, the Việt Công built an extensive tunnel system. By 1965 it was comprised of some 250 km (155 miles) of tunnels. It served the Việt Công as a base for surprise attacks. These tunnels were very well hidden. A multitude of different lethal traps made it extremely difficult to get to the Việt Công. The tunnels were cleverly designed, with complex vent shafts and an intricate system for venting smoke from cooking fires. The Americans didn't really have a chance to dislodge the Việt Công from this tunnel system, even though the death toll was staggering: At least 12,000 Việt Namese are thought to have died in this area!
From the Củ Chi Tunnels we drove to the Cao Đài Holy See at Tây Ninh. This is a religious sect that has a status a little similar to the Vatican. It has its own government, even its own police force and army. Cao Đàism is a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. The center piece is the somewhat gaudy cathedral. They have both male and female priests.
My hotel in Sái Gòn was next to a park in the city center. This park was the place for the local youth to make out in the evening. When I walked through the park at around 23:00 in the evening, there were probably around 100 motorcycles parked there, one every few meters, each with a young couple, necking.
On the last day in Sai Gòn we had a free day. I decided to visit the nature reserve in Cát Tiên. Our local tour guide arranged for a car and driver for a day trip. This nature reserve is quite famous. It has the only population of Java Rhinos in mainland Asia. Unfortunately the rhinos are in a part of the park that is closed to visitors. Other notable denizens of the nature reserve are tigers and a species of large herbivores that was just recently discovered. It also has lots of birds. I walked though the park for about 5 or 6 hours. It was the only time during the trip that I was in Nature, instead of in cities. The lack of nature activities was the only negative part of this trip.
From Sái Gòn we flew to Siem Reap in Kâmpuchéa to visit the old temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, etc.
On the drive from the airport to the hotel in Hà Nội, I already got a good feeling. After only half an hour in Việt Nam, I said to myself "I like this country very much." I don't know what combination of clues gave me that feeling, but it was there right away, before even having been out of the bus. And that first feeling was reinforced over and over throughout the trip. It is a wonderful country, and I can only recommend a visit.
See the separate page with birds:
Nature in Việt Nam
Birds in Việt Nam