Though we had less than 24 hours in Hanoi, we were determined to make the most of it. Our taxi drove down tree-shaded streets lined with art galleries and funky coffee shops, and we quickly fell in love with our trendy bustling neighborhood. Our hostel - the oldest in the city - felt like a repurposed boarding school with its two curving staircases and groups of youths chatting and playing guitar in the common areas. As for ourselves, we decided to get right down to what we do best in a new city: try all the street food we could fit in our stomachs.
We started with an old woman crouched on a corner at the end of our alleyway selling chao, a hot white rice porridge topped with deep fried bread sticks that she cut into slices with a pair of scissors. Katrina and Brett Ashley liked it, but I found it rather flavorless compared with other preferred Vietnamese dishes.
Next we walked the wide pedestrian path beside Hô’ Hoàn Kiêm Lake in the Old Quarter, which was packed with all ages and nationalities as dusk fell on the city. Legend has it that an ancient warrior had been enjoying a boat ride on the lake in the 15th century when a golden turtle surfaced and seized his magical sword, which it then returned to its rightful place with the Golden Turtle God. We think it’s more likely that the clumsy warrior just dropped it in the lake and made up the whole story to save face.
Next stop on our eating tour was a Bánh Mì stall on Luong Ngoc Quyên street that I had read about in a blog. We found it immediately due to the delicious smell wafting from the grill over a bed of hot coals, where skewers of marinated pork cooked under the watchful eye of a thin Vietnamese woman holding a tiny fan to ward off flies. The flavor of the sandwich was unbeatable. The marinade on the meat was sweet and the homemade chili sauce gave it a punch of spice. I had found another Bánh Mì to fall in love with.
Down the street from the delicious sandwich stall was an intersection dubbed Hanoi Beer Garden, where each establishment, come nightfall, set up rows and rows of tiny plastic chairs facing the passing foot traffic, eventually occupying more than half the road with their customers. Up and down the street boisterous servers invited you to sit down for a Bia Hôi (fresh beer) for a whopping 5,000 dong (22 cents). We made the rounds of the Bia Hôi joints, people-watching and snacking on a bowl of fried corn mixed with paprika, scallions and dried shrimp. Katrina also found her new favorite Asian dessert: Bía Bo, which was a rice paper wrapped around shredded coconut, black sesame seeds, and a crunchy wafer filled with sticky palm sugar.
After mingling with other travelers at the rooftop bar of our hostel, I decided I needed a late-night second dinner and begged Katrina to help me find something amazing on the street. We wandered around the old quarter and passed many pho stalls, but I was craving something more crunchy than soup so we continued our search. Not too far from where we started we walked by a few women who looked to be cleaning up their supplies for the night, but they were selling Bún and I wanted it very badly, so when they pulled out two chairs for us we sat down happily. They delivered the customary array of plates, creating a colorful table full of ingredients for us to make our Bún. The meat was a sweet smoky minced pork formed into meatballs, and the spring rolls on top were crispy and piping hot. Our favorite thing about it was the chili sauce, a mix of crushed red peppers and minced garlic. The overall effect was Bún perfection. Even Katrina, who sat down totally full, downed a few bowls because it was impossible to refuse. Second to the barbecue skewer Bún in Ho Chi Minh City, this was the best Bún of our trip.
In the morning we woke up early to stroll through the neighborhood. Just one block from our hostel was the elegant and intimidating gothic cathedral, which stood strikingly apart from the modern motorbikes and SUVs zipping past in front. We passed by street after street of cafes that were modern and trendy enough to have been found in Seattle or San Francisco, and sat down in one that Katrina thought looked… Interesting. It was called Cong and the waitresses dressed in the loose army green uniforms of the Viet Cong, pouring coffee beneath black and white war photos framed on the walls. The coffee turned out to be fabulous. Katrina got the commonplace hot black press coffee, and Brett Ashley and I ordered the traditional northern iced coffee mixed with frozen yogurt, which tasted just like a dessert. Even though I shun coffee on a daily basis due to its bitter flavor, I loved this drink enough to have longing flashbacks of it over the course of the next few days.
HA LONG BAY
Ha Long Bay had been one of the top places on my to-visit list in Southeast Asia since we began planning the trip. Every photo I had ever seen of the area had a mystical otherworldly quality that sparked my fascination. Mr. Khan - the owner of our hotel - arranged for us a full day tour of the two bays adjacent to the island (Lan Ha and Ha Long) and the day dawned slightly overcast but dry. We boarded a two story junk boat with about 20 other people our age from France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Arizona, and the boat began its excursion out of the harbor, thus revealing its speed as the world’s slowest vessel.
The first stop on the tour was Monkey Island, where a family of partially domesticated red-butted monkeys lived in the trees. The guide started feeding them pieces of white bread (they hated the crusts) and antagonizing them with loud noises. A few babies came down from the treetops to try to take the food out of their mothers’ hands. They were the size of tiny kittens and made funny faces when they were denied the bread. Suddenly the biggest monkey of the bunch came running towards us from down the beach and the guide told us all that he was the king monkey. One of the boys in our group got close to try to take a picture and to our alarm the monkey opened his mouth in a menacing “O” shape and whacked the boy in the head. These were not cute playful little animals, and the three of us kept our distance from then on.
Next stop was a kayaking excursion in a calm protected cove. Brett Ashley and Katrina slid into one kayak and I teamed up with a really sweet Dutch girl named Marce on holiday after graduating from university. The cove turned out to be much bigger than it first appeared because we were able to maneuver through low caves to connecting waterways. Paddling through a pitch black cave with stalactites extending from the ceiling almost to the surface of the water was a magical experience. I felt like I was in a fantasy movie set on another planet, exploring untouched regions foreign to human contact. It didn’t seem like too much of a stretch of the imagination to suppose that dragons slept perched atop the rocks rising above us.
After a lunch cooked for us on board of fried fish and tofu on rice, we stopped in a channel between two sandy beaches and anchored for some time to go “schlorkeling,” as the guide pronounced it. We jumped off the second story of the boat over and over, Katrina impressing us all with her backflips. By this time the sun had come out and the water felt refreshingly cool, and we swam between the boat and the beaches making jokes about schlorkeling. At one point I rolled onto my back and stared up at the rock formations above me, rising severely out of the water and softening with foliage 100 or 200 feet above the bay. The entire place seemed so rugged to me, especially the inaccessibility of the countless islands devoid of beaches on which to land a boat. It was beautiful, after the crowded chaos of big Asian cities, to see a place so lacking in development. I hoped it would stay that way.
CAT BA ISLAND
We arrived on Cat Ba Island after our longest journey yet, a 13-hour overnight bus ride followed by a 5-hour bus / ferry / bus combo east from Hanoi. A large island off the major port city of Hái Phong, Cat Ba attracted us as a quieter, less touristic way to see famous Ha Long Bay. For $3 per night we stayed at an impossibly narrow hotel run by the loud and funny Mr. Kahn, which was recommended to us by a Canadian backpacker couple we’d met in the south. The Kahn family ran a salon and massage parlor on the first floor and we had a private room on the third with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the bay and its many fishing boats. We pushed our two double beds together to make a superbed and settled in with our picture perfect view.
Most of the island consists of a dense national park, so we rented motorbikes and drove about 45 minutes from Cat Ba Town to spend a day there. After paying the modest entrance fee we walked up a slippery path into the jungle. The farther we progressed into the park, the more steamy the air became, until eventually we were all completely drenched in sweat. As in soaked. We looked like we had just jumped into a pool. Sweat was dripping from our faces with each step we took. Sorry too much detail.
We took the 7 kilometer trail to Frog Lake, which passes over two peaks that the ranger described as “much up-down up-down,” but we thought we could handle. Turns out those up-downs were really steep. The trail was made of large stone steps with about two feet of vertical between each one. Going uphill robbed me of all the breath in my lungs, and going downhill burned my calves and left my legs vibrating. Frog Lake turned out to be a murky gray swamp, so we headed back the way we’d come through the dense wet foliage. We saw a crab with firetruck red legs scuttle across the path, large daddy long legs spiders with light blue circles on their backs, and orange lizards with tails so long they looked like snakes. We passed under leaves so big you could sleep under them like blankets. Some had been partially eaten by a mysterious insect who left perfect circles in a perfect grid, turning the leaf into what resembled a Connect Four board.
On our motorbike ride back across the island we stopped for lunch at a roadside stall serving Bún. A shirtless man hopped on his motorcycle to go buy noodles from the market in order to serve us, then started to bring out the traditional array of bowls of ingredients for us to make our own dishes. The meat in this Bún was a crispy sweet barbecue pork coated in lemongrass and sesame seeds, one of the best meats we’d had so far. Vietnamese eat out of tiny porcelain bowls held close under their mouths, a strategy we loved to adopt, and we mixed ourselves bowl after bowl of the vermicelli, greens, meat, and fish sauce until we could stuff ourselves no more.
That night Brett Ashley and Katrina enjoyed massages and pedicures from Mr. Kanh and his wife, then we got beers at The Good Bar down the beach from us where young tourists and expats gather nightly to play pool, beer pong and fuse ball. Cat Ba felt nothing like the crowded and slightly trashy beach scene at Nha Trang; it was laid back to an extreme and it was just the pace we needed.
MOTORBIKE RIDE TO HUE
Many twenty-something adrenaline junkies travel Vietnam by motorbike. They buy a used bike up north near Hanoi and spend a few weeks with their packs strapped onto the back maneuvering the slightly treacherous roads towards the Mekong delta in the south. Although this was a bit too extreme for our taste, we wanted to do a small leg of our trip on motorbikes, and we heard the seaside highway between Hôi An and Hue was the best stretch to do. So on Friday morning we handed off our big packs to be transported by bus (which was a huge relief) and hopped on our bikes to begin the 175 kilometer journey north.
The first thing you must understand about traffic in Vietnam is that there are essentially no rules. People drive however it makes sense to them and expect everyone else to react accordingly. When I first arrived in Saigon it terrified me to no end, but the more I witness the chaos of the roads the more it resembles a living organism, each individual part working in sync with everyone else. When you turn left out of your driveway you don’t cross the street; you start driving on the wrong side of the road until you see a break to cross to the correct side. When someone pulls out in front of you you don’t slam on the breaks and honk; you swerve around them into oncoming traffic, and oncoming traffic then swerves around you. I was pretty nervous to try to join this choreographed dance where nothing is governed by rules, but we started slow and got the hang of it once we got out of the bustle of the city.
The route took us parallel to the ocean for about an hour and a half before we entered Da Nang, a large resort city whose skyline is interrupted by a huge Ferris wheel and lots of shiny glass towers of hotels overlooking the sea. We stopped for a “lemon juice,” a common local drink of sweet lemonade mixed with spices and herbs, and sat looking over palm trees at the sand and the waves and a large white statue of Lady Buddha in the distance.
We cut through Da Nang over one of its many vast bridges with a view of the crowded bay port on our right. After we left the city limits the road began its incline and we started up over Hái Vân Pass. Houses and businesses fell away and soon we felt as if we were on our own in a lush mountain jungle, the road winding back and forth up the side of the peninsula. At one point near the highest point of the pass we were treated to a sweeping view of the ridges beside the coast, along with a string of gold sand along the shore far below. We felt alive and in awe of the moment. Katrina mentioned something Phuc had said to her back in Ho Chi Minh City. She had been describing parts of our trip to him and he had opened his eyes wide in surprise, saying, “You girls are very adventuresome!”
Undoubtedly our favorite city so far in Vietnam, Hôi An quickly stole our hearts. A quaint but vibrant ancient city nestled on a river 4 kilometers from the sea, the town is famous for skilled tailors who make custom suits and dresses for a fraction of the typical cost. Since we had no interest in spending our time getting fitted for new clothes, we spent our two days soaking up the culture of the region. When we arrived off the overnight bus we enjoyed a leisurely morning coffee in an adorable garden cafe. Hôi An has the type of trendy cafe culture familiar to us Seattleites; lots of little well decorated shops with cozy chairs where people can gather and spend hours chatting.
For lunch we followed the recommendation of our guest house receptionist and found our way down a narrow alley to a small restaurant called Bale Well (pronounced Bah Lay Vell) where we took a seat outside and asked for a menu. Our waitress, a cute petite girl wearing pink lipstick who later insisted on becoming our Facebook friend, looked confused and told us no, fixed lunch only. We shrugged and ordered two of whatever they were making that day, and it turned out to be the best choice we’ve ever made. The waitress brought over a mix of about 12 different plates and bowls and lay them out on the table in front of us. When it was clear that we didn’t know what we were doing, she gave us a tutorial on putting together a spring roll: place a mix of green lettuce, mint and sprouts onto a square of rice paper, add fermented kimchi carrots and cucumbers, remove a piece of barbecue pork from a skewer and put it on top of the veggies, add a freshly fried thick egg pancake crepe, then top off the ingredients with a crispy fried spring roll. She showed us how to wrap it all up into a tight cylinder (which was much more difficult than she made it look) and dip it in a peanut sauce mixed with hot chilies. It was one of the most delicious things I’d ever eaten in my life. The mix of flavors (bitter fermented veggies, sweet meat, spicy sauce) and textures (crunchy spring roll, spongey pancake, juicy cucumber) all combined together to create a perfect meal.
We spent the afternoon strolling along the riverfront and watching the colorful boats shuttle passengers and produce and motorbikes up and down the river. Something about the light playing on the surface of the water seemed so magical here, different from the other places we had traveled through so far. We had a beer in tiny plastic chairs (Katrina’s favorite) overlooking the boats painted in cheerful purples and turquoise. The sunset slowly turned the clouds a fiery orange, and every time we took a photo the view just became more stunning five minutes later.
That night we were all anxiously awaiting dinner because we had read about a restaurant in the city that Anthony Bourdain deemed the “world’s greatest Bánh Mí.” The food we’d been craving the most in Vietnam was the Bánh Mí sandwich, a crispy baguette packed with barbecue meat, cucumber, hot peppers and cilantro, but we had yet to find one that satisfied us. Everything changed when we got our Bánh Mí Thit Núong from Bánh Mí Phuong. While we ate them we didn’t speak to each other. We just made wide eye contact and murmured unintelligible noises of approval. After we finished we divided our lives into pre- and post-Bánh Mí; that’s the level of importance this sandwich was given.
On our way back to our guest house we saw a man selling Kem Ông from his bicycle trailer and we recognized the name of the “ice cream on a stick” Vietnamese dessert. I’d been missing ice cream so I immediately bought one for about $0.70 and the vendor loosened a long skinny mass of frozen white substance from a metal tube by dunking it in warm water. It was coconut milk flavored, super creamy, and was the perfect compliment to the mind blowing sandwich.
The next day had been planned as a culinary tour of the city of Hôi An. All three of us are extreme foodies and one of our favorite parts about visiting a new place is trying unique dishes from the area. Even at home we love eating Vietnamese food, so we were really excited to taste more exotic foods in Hôi An.
We began with a traditional black sesame breakfast soup called Xí Ma. We found the street vendor we’d read about online and sat on tiny plastic stools about 4 inches off the ground as she spooned the thick steaming mush into small ceramic bowls for us. She struck up a conversation and told us she teaches English at the local school but she’ll be retiring soon. She was only working the cart that day because it was a school holiday; her 90-year-old father in law had been selling the traditional soup on the same corner for over 70 years. We loved the Xí Ma, a moderately sweet and very thick soup that reminded us of Chinese black sesame dessert paste.
After some shopping we got Bánh Mí Thit Núong again (I know it sounds excessive but if you had tasted this sandwich you’d want to eat it for every meal too). Brett Ashley needed a quick siesta, so Katrina and I rented bicycles for an afternoon trip to the beach. We pedaled north through picturesque rice fields and over rivers full of lily pads, at one point stopping to watch a tiny Vietnamese woman in a pointed straw hat attempt to goad a very unwilling 1000-pound water buffalo back to the road. After about 4 kilometers we arrived at An Bang Beach, a wide sandy stretch dotted with the round traditional fishing boats common in the region. The surf was relentlessly pounding the beach, releasing a hazy mist that partially obscured the islands and peninsulas offshore. We snacked on a deep fried crab pancake from a street vendor (as in whole crab bodies complete with legs and claws, not nicely shelled chunks of crab meat) and decided that while the flavor was good, we definitely did not enjoy the sensation of tiny crab claws getting stuck in our throats.
Next item on the food tour was a local dumpling called Bánh Bao Bánh Vac, or White Rose. They were given this name because the rice flour lining didn’t completely close around the top, giving it the appearance of an opening flower bud. The filling was a minced pork and veggie mix, and the dipping sauce was a salty fish and soy sauce combo. The dumplings were topped with super crispy fried shallots which were a flavorful compliment to the delicious delicate white roses.
Brett Ashley had been dying to try Cao Lâu, the official Hôi An specialty, so we found a street stall serving it fresh. The dish consists of distinct layers of handmade yellow noodles, tender slices of pork, mixed greens and herbs, and crunchy fried wanton squares on top. When the bowl arrives you are supposed to mix all the layers together and coat each ingredient in the small amount of dark reddish fatty broth on the bottom before you enjoy. According to urban legend, Cao Lâu can only be served in Hôi An because the noodles are made with magical well water from a nearby undisclosed source, which gives the dish its unique and addicting flavor.
As the sun descended we crossed the river to the island opposite the ancient town by way of the pedestrian-only lantern bridge. The late afternoon light gave the river a golden glow, and we soaked up the vivid colors while enjoying what the Vietnamese call Bia Hoi, or “fresh beer,” each bar’s home brewed draft. A pint of this mystery beer usually costs about $0.40 and we were becoming fond of trying the Bia Hoi of the local establishments.
Across the river we were treated to a postcard view of the old city of Hôi An. Yellow and brown buildings with crumbling corners held elegant second floor balconies full of potted plants and restaurant diners. As dusk fell hundreds of lanterns were lit from every door and window, bathing the riverfront in festive red light that reflected upside down in the water below. The lantern bridge to our left was brilliantly glowing from decorative white fish guarding each entrance, and small paper boats holding votive candles floated serenely underneath.
Over our large foamy beers we talked about how surprised and touched we were at the kindness of strangers we’d encountered in Hôi An. Our lunch waitress the first day seemed thrilled to be teaching us how to make our own spring rolls and added us all on Facebook, even though we’d only just met her. When we were trying to find a specific street food stall and struggling to locate it, an old woman who had been chatting with a friend across the street called to us and, though she spoke no English, figured out the type of food we were looking for and led us around the corner and down the street to show us another spot to eat. People young and old came up to us on the sidewalk to say hello and ask us where we’re from, and all smiled approvingly when we told them USA. We had somewhat expected to be met with more hostility as we made our way to Northern Vietnam, but instead we were greeted with warm welcomes and over the top generosity.
A strange culture clash of a city, Nha Trang is a Russian resort town on the coast on Southern Vietnam. We didn’t know it was such a popular destination for Russians until we arrived off the night bus and noticed that half the signs weren’t in a familiar language. The town is full of high rise resorts, seafood restaurants, and vodka bars, and from the sea it resembles a Waikiki from the 1970s. Our hostel was a tall skinny building with a chill hangout spot / bar on the roof and free draft beer from 6:00-7:00PM. For backpackers Nha Trang seemed to be quite the party city.
We dozed through our first morning in the hostel, grabbed vermicelli bowls for lunch, then beelined for the beach and staked out some lounge chairs for the afternoon. We enjoyed an uneventful few hours in the sun before we headed to the hostel rooftop bar for happy hour. People our age from Australia, Canada, the U.K. and Germany all mingled on long picnic table benches and a wide cushion lounge area, discussing one another’s domestic politics over house draft beer. We spent an hour talking to a gentleman from Scotland about the advantages of the independence vote there, a topic about which I never would have learned so much otherwise. My favorite thing about staying in backpacker’s hostels has been the interaction with people from all over the world. Each dorm or hostel bar has been a wildly diverse melting pot of twenty-somethings, everyone eager to make new friends and learn how to say “cheers” in a new language.
The next morning we woke up early to do another dive. We are all hopelessly hooked on the sport, so we seized the chance to do one more while we stayed on a coastal town. Our guide was Vietnamese but spoke English with an Australian accent, which took a little getting used to. We did two dives off an island nearby and saw huge schools of yellow fish, giant spotted sea cucumbers, and three alien looking cuttlefish. One of the cuttlefish was rapidly changing colors as it drifted beneath us. It switched back and forth between a sandy white and a deep blood red, a startling transition that occurred in under a second. It was absolutely the strangest sea creature in the waters of Southeast Asia.
We also saw some of the most colorful and fascinating coral I’d ever seen in my life. We swam by lacy black coral standing vertically in delicate feathery wisps, lavender coral in the shape of lumpy cauliflower, thin fan-like half circles of dark blue coral, and mauve coral formations that extended out from the reef in shapes that reminded me of lone trees on the African savannah.
After spending a majority of the next 24 hours at the beach, we got aboard another night bus. To our dismay, the driver indicated that the three of us were to sit in the last row, in the only three seats that were connected to one another. We spent the remainder of the bus ride crammed together and unable to either roll over or sit up straight, which mostly made us laugh uncontrollably. We watched episodes of Friends on Katrina’s iPad and tried to get some sleep. Our destination was a town called Hoi An about 12 hours farther north up the coast.
HO CHI MINH CITY
On our third day in Vietnam Phuc took us into the downtown part of city (District 1) to tour around with us. We dropped our bags at our hostel and walked to the War Remnants Museum, where the front courtyard was filled with U.S. Army helicopters, tanks, and fighter jets. We spent about two hours in the galleries of the museum, each of which is dedicated to a different topic regarding the war. One showed a timeline of the 25 years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Another showed global reactions to the war. The one that was most disturbing to me was devoted to the effects of Agent Orange. I had only briefly studied the war in high school, so I didn’t really understand the lasting effects of the chemical sprayed extensively on the jungles throughout the country, but I learned here that Agent Orange causes extreme and sometimes fatal birth defects in the children of those exposed. The photos in the gallery showed debilitating deformities that cause the victims to be ostracized from society or cared for their entire lives. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the day.
After stopping for a quick beverage break in a cool beer garden (much needed after the unbearable heat and pollution in the streets of the city) we entered Bên Thành Market to do some souvenir shopping. Having Phuc with us for this endeavor was a game changer - the vendor would tell us a price for a fan or something and Phuc would whisper “too expensive!” so we would counter with an offer about one third of their original price. After some haggling with Phuc giving us feedback, we usually settled on about half of what the vendor told us they would sell it for. If we really needed help, Phuc would step in and start arguing in Vietnamese.
In the center of the giant market was a food court with tiny stools arranged around vendors that specialized in different dishes. We started by ordering a dish we’d never seen before called Banh Beo; round flat rice noodles about the size of an egg topped with yellow custard, a shrimp, shredded green onion, carrots, and sprinkled with dried shrimp powder. Then Phuc led us to a booth selling Chè, a sort of food / drink combo of which we were very suspicious. But Phuc insisted that he and his best friend ate it every day, and it was his favorite, so we all tried it. And loved it. It involved a variety of candied fruits and vegetables (green beans, tapioca, kidney beans, pomegranate seeds) in a cup of ice topped with sweet coconut milk cream. The overall taste was sweet, and the texture was almost gummy and cold, crunchy when you ate some of the crushed ice. It’s impossible to describe adequately, but we loved it so much that we went back to eat it again the very next day.
We said goodbye to our new friend Phuc, who was to begin classes at Bellevue College in December so we promised to take him out in America soon. After the sun went down the three of us made our way down the main backpacker street in District 1, basically eating and drinking constantly for the next few hours. Katrina’s favorite places to have beer are the street stalls with $0.30 mystery draft beer and dozens of plastic child-sized chairs lined up on the sidewalk. The chairs all face outwards toward the street and fill up as the night goes on with foreigners and Vietnamese young people drinking and snacking. Food vendors wheel their carts by, and whenever we saw something intriguing we ordered some to share. We got two different types of chicken Banh Mi, a fried corn and chili dish, and some sweet creamy rice in scoops of green, purple and yellow. There were countless carts selling super thin slices of dried whole squid that we could smell from 10 feet away, but the scent was unappetizing at best so we skipped the squid.
We found a seventh story rooftop bar away from the chaotic noise of the street to have a few beers and process the events of the day. We spent the next hour discussing our individual experiences at the War Remnants Museum and our reactions to the new information. Seeing the events of the war from the perspective of the opposition was startling at times and frequently horrifying. Brett Ashley felt sick to her stomach reading about the prison torture tactics, and I had been moved by the photos of peasants going about their agriculture tasks with American tanks and soldiers in the background. Katrina had learned a good deal about tactical decision making in her foreign policy classes in college, and how murky the facts were during a war such as this one. I felt ashamed to be American when leaving the museum, haunted by the stories of soldiers from my country murdering and crippling innocent civilians.
The next morning we nursed our hangover with a steaming bowl of pho from a vendor on the corner. It turned out to be the best pho of our lives; slightly spicy, slightly citrusy, and very rich. The server brought out plates of lime slices, mint leaves, and bean sprouts to add to our liking. A British girl sat down to eat with us but we could barely stop slurping our soup long enough to talk to her.
We walked south toward the river, stopping at intervals for mango coconut smoothies and bitter Vietnamese coffee. We found a strange little restaurant in a tall skinny warehouse / garage facing the river where each wall was covered in vigorous colorful murals. We cooled down with a beer before continuing on our mission for street food. We had read about a tasty spot for Bún, the vermicelli bowl I’d been longing for since we landed in the country, and found the spot where we took a seat at a shiny metal table. We shared a bowl of Bún Thįt Núong, vermicelli noodles topped with shredded lettuce, pickled carrots and jicama, barbecue pork, and crispy fried spring rolls, and doused in fish sauce. I can only describe this Bún as the very best meal of my life, hands down.
That night we had booked an overnight bus northbound to Nha Trang. The seats were only about two feet wide, but they reclined all the way back and the bus had air conditioning, free wifi, pillows and blankets, so we were fairly comfortable. In the middle of the night I awoke feeling as if someone brushed my feet and when I opened my eyes a man had just walked past me, but it was very dark and I was sleepily disoriented, so I fell back asleep. A few hours later the Vietnamese woman below me started yelling and the driver came to see what was wrong. She was holding up her bag and then someone behind her said her things had been rummaged through. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach as I looked down in my compartment and all of a sudden I realized my Nikon was missing. I had placed it between my feet instead of in my backpack so it would be safer, but apparently it wasn’t safe enough. It was the first time any big crime had happened to any of us on the trip, and as we arrived in Nha Trang we were all pretty bummed out, but still determined to have a good time.
NGUYEN FAMILY HOME STAY
My Aunt Thao is Vietnamese, having come to the United States when she was 12 years old. Her parents, along with 5 younger brothers, live on the outskirts of Saigon. She introduced me to them over Skype and they generously invited us to stay with them when we first arrived in Vietnam. In order of eldest to youngest their names are Thao, Thien, Phat, Dat, An, Phuc.
The youngest brother Phuc and the second oldest brother Phat were waiting for us after the customs clearance at the airport. They recognized us right away and ushered us to their car, and we chatted in English on the way back to their house in District 9 of the city. I was already feeling a bit of culture shock at the noise and neon and overwhelming amount of motorbike traffic on the roads, so it was a relief to be chauffeured by locals and not have to worry about navigating a strange city.
Thao’s parents live in an immaculate one-story house on a quiet street wth a pen of enormous pigs out back. Each brother (besides the youngest) lives with his wife and children in an adjoining house. The entire extended family adds up to about 16, and everyone is very close. We arrived into a rush of activity, the women in the kitchen putting together dinner and the kids running around the house. Besides Thao’s husband (my uncle John) there had never been any foreigners in the house, so our arrival was a special occasion.
The food was laid out on the ground and we all sat cross-legged around it. The feast was incredible: banana leaf wrapped minced meat bites, fried tofu, a variety of sauces, and bowls of ingredients for spring rolls including vermicelli noodles, cucumber strips, cilantro, starfruit and pineapple. Although most didn’t speak English, they started instructing us on how to make our own, which we clumsily attempted. They laughed good-naturedly at our attempts to roll the ingredients into the correct shape, and when we struggled they handed us deftly rolled cylinders that looked as good as they tasted. We dipped the spring rolls in fish sauce, but when Brett Ashley tried to dip hers in the peanut sauce they yelled in alarm for her to stop. Apparently there’s a right and a wrong way to combine ingredients in Vietnam, and we had a lot to learn.
The middle brother Dat and his wife Thao, along with their three-year-old son, had moved out of their house and given the entire thing to us for the duration of our stay. We couldn’t believe how generous this was - the bedroom even had air conditioning. Houses in Vietnam appear very sparse compared to our cluttered living spaces at home. The bedroom only had a bed and a TV, and the living room had no furniture to speak of. Since everyone eats sitting on the ground, there was no need for tables or chairs. The kitchen was a pair or burners on the counter next to an array of sauces. Everything was kept sparkling clean all the time.
In the morning Phuc took us to a street food stall for our first bowl of pho. He tried to teach us how to order different kinds of meat for our soup, but the Vietnamese language was proving difficult for us to pronounce. Later he took us to his sister-in-law’s nail salon and told us she wanted to give us free manicures and pedicures. She painted tiny, delicate flowers onto our nails which looked like gorgeous miniature paintings.
That night after the three of us watched the women cook (and tried to help a little) we had another big family dinner on the floor. Across the language barrier we performed the complicated sign language attempt at communicating. Thao’s father spoke bits of English but her mother spoke none. Nevertheless we understood when she demonstrated how to dip the fried fish in the peanut sauce and told us she thought the shapes of our noses were beautiful. After dinner I lay on the ground with the oldest daughter Thuy and helped her with her English homework.
After dinner Phuc and Phat and An told us they were taking us out for coffee. We hopped on the back of each of their motorbikes (although it scared me half to death) and they drove us into the city. We strolled the wide walking street in front of the government building past circles of teenagers singing and playing the guitar. Phuc told us this is how couples celebrate their anniversaries here. When they said the coffee club opened at 9:30 they drove us to a mall and we walked up to a place called Vuvuzela Beer Club, which was most certainly not the laid back cafe we had been expecting.
This was the most bizarre place we had ever seen in our lives. As soon as we walked in electronic music assaulted our eardrums, we noticed we were the only foreigners in the whole place, and we were seriously underdressed. The other girls were wearing high heels and tight clubbing skirts, huddled in groups around tall tables. A DJ yelled into his mic on stage something that made everyone in the club scream and jump up and down, and waitresses in tiny booty shorts and cleavage-baring tops took our orders. Neon laser lights danced across every surface. Big screen TVs all around the walls played two things: a rugby championship game and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. All of a sudden a magician came onstage and started pulling live birds out of hats. We were so confused. We decided it resembled a mix between hooters, a sports bar, a night club, and a high school graduation party.
In the morning we said goodbye to the Nguyen family over a breakfast of Banh Mi, and Thao’s father told us in broken English that he truly hopes we will return to his house someday. His wife sent us on our way with gifts of chili powder and concerned wishes for our safety on the remainder of our trip. We tried the best we could to convey our sincere gratitude for their hospitality.
Spending these two nights with the Nguyen family was such a special experience for us. I have always valued my time in other countries staying with a host family because of the cultural details of typical days in the life of the local people, and Vietnam was no different. We were welcomed into a warm and hectic family, in some ways similar to my very own family back home. They gathered together and laughed over big meals, and traded responsibilities like cooking and watching each other’s children. We felt so grateful for their generosity towards us, and their willingness to open their homes and their lives to us.