Vietnam – 23rd May to 21st June 2015
As we said a warm “Goodbye” and “Goodnight” to Cambodia, we said a hearty “Good Morning” to Vietnam!
Like many countries in South East Asia, I had heard a lot about Vietnam and I was eager to form my own views and perspective on this intriguing country.
Kicking off in the Southern City of Ho Chi Minh City, we were ready for a month long trip that would climax all the way North in the mountainous heights of Sapa.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 23rd to 25th May 2015
As I took my first, apprehensive step on the dusty pavements of Ho Chi Minh City, one thing immediately strikes me.
The sheer volume of motorbikes!
It felt as though I had just walked into a real life game of ‘Frogger’.
For those of you not born in the 80’s, ‘Frogger’ was a Sega platform game where the object of the game was to control a frog across a hazardous road. It normally ended in a squashed amphibian and unfortunately for me I had no extra lives as I hopped my way through the traffic.
I learned very quickly that there is an art to crossing roads in Vietnam. The key to success is to walk at the same pace without stopping and glide safely across the stoned passing. The oncoming traffic will just zig-zag around you as if you were hardly there. It seems like madness but it really works. If you second guess where the oncoming vehicle is heading you will run into some serious problems.
Ho Chi Minh City (formally known as Saigon) is the Vietnamese epicentre of business and finance. It was given it’s current name after the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam during the infamous Vietnam war in 1975. Ho Chi Minh was the spiritual leader of Vietnamese Communism but you will still find many locals referring to the city by its former name.
One thing I find highly amusing about travelling is how we can judge the living costs of a country, city or place based purely on the price of a beer. Minimum wage, house price or the weekly shop is totally irrelevant in this scientific approach. I am more than guilty of doing this myself but rest assured that this trend isn’t just adopted by the English.
Well let me tell you this.., Bu vien street was selling 2-4-1 beers at 24p! Outrageous I hear you cry, they must be amidst some sort of financial crisis or economic collapse. I’m pretty sure they weren’t. I have a feeling it was down to lower taxation on alcohol or maybe it was just some good old home brew.
Anyway it did the trick and we drank merely surrounded by local Vietnamese while we sat on ridiculous, kid sized plastic chairs. You know the chairs that you used to sit on at primary school or that came with one of those Fischer Price Wendy house sets. Hundreds of grown adults sitting on minuscule chairs, drinking cheap beer served with ice while scattered along the edges of the street. It’s a surreal scene… Although skimping on the chair size probably kept the price of beer down.
Like with most major cities, Vietnam offered an array of fascinating architecture, captivating attractions and intriguing history. Here’s a snippet of what my eyes saw.
The Norte Dame Cathedral was established by French colonists between 1863 and 1880. The French influence can be seen throughout Vietnam including the ever current street food baguette known as ‘Banh Mi’.
Saigon central post office was constructed when Vietnam was part of French Indochina in the late 19th century.
In my opinion Independence Palace was quite vulgar looking. I had a much better time talking English to the school kids outside the iron gates who were just looking to practice their vocabulary skills.
As always, food is forever a highlight of any country and day. Sticking with local cuisine we ended up at a very random, high end Korean BBQ restaurant. Enticed by the lunch time offer in the window (which seemed ridiculously cheap), we took a sit among suited and booted business men, lavish decor and ordered the budget meal.
The flawlessly dressed waitress brought over our first few dishes. Puzzled, Dani and I looked at each other with the “that’s not what I ordered face”. Then she brought out a few more plates…. And a few more… And a few more.
We had only ordered two meals, so with perplexed minds but hungry bellies we nervously tucked into the array of dishes that lay beneath us. “This is going to cost us a fortune” I said as I chowed down on some cuisine with no idea of what it was. A
s I finished that plate it was immediately replaced with another of the same tantalising food type.
“Do I pay for that” I thought?
“Oh well, I’ll let ‘future’ Blué worry about the consequences” I decided as I guzzled down another mouthful. I hate that ‘in the past’ Blué sometimes, he’s so irresponsible and is always getting me into trouble.
Our actual meal eventually arrived. It sat engulfed by the mountains of dishes spread around the table like some sort of religious banquet as we continued to eat like we were off to be crucified the following day.
Copious amounts of shell fish, shrimp, soup, noodles, rice, egg, beef, chicken and a lot of other stuff which I couldn’t establish a food type for was devoured. Then like any respectable Englishman overseas I gave the international hand gesture and politely asked for “the bill”. Look, don’t judge me. I can ask for the cheque in Vietnamese but I wasn’t expecting to pop into a Korean restaurant that day, OK.
The waitress walked over to our table, wielding the tab in a encapsulated, golden receipt holder and gently placed it amidst a hundred and one white plates. Like a needle in a haystack I began my search for the ever dooming cheque. As I plucked it from the depths of debauchery the total price stood there all proud and perky like a queens guard outside of Buckingham Palace.
Relieved and bloated I smiled. We were charged only that of the lunch time meal deal which I think equated to around £2.50 each. We scuttled off, convinced we had found some sort of loophole in Korean culinary culture. Maybe it is customary to have free starters or maybe it was the beard…
Yeah it had to be the beard…
They probably thought I was a Viking or something…
After a hearty lunch we popped into the War Remnants Museum. Now I’m not going to go into detail of what was in there or my view on the Vietnam war as it’s not the style of my blog. I will say that the museum is very educational and a bit of an eye opener for people who know little or nothing about the Vietnam war. If you are interested in this recent history then I would recommend a visit but be aware it can be quite graphic and gruesome at times.
In tune with the Vietnam war theme our next trip was to the tourist hot spot of the Co Chi tunnels. I must admit, I wasn’t a massive fan of the tour.
At times it felt like they were glamorising the war and when we were giving the option to shoot guns after being told stories of horrific deaths and war crimes I pretty much switched off. I won’t elaborate on this one any further either.
Food in Vietnam is spectacular. You can’t go to Vietnam and not try the local dish known as Pho. Pronounced “Fer”, I can best describe it as a sort of stew, usually beef, served with noodles and catered to your own palate by self prescribing chilli, lime, leaves and other condiments. It’s delicious.
I’m also quite fond of the Vietnamese pancake that is served in most places. It’s a savoury style pancake that is quite crisp and can be served with a variety of fillings.
Now, what I’m not fond of is the Vietnamese coffee called Mokka. Don’t misinterpret this as the cuddly, warm coffee mixed with hot chocolate. This is quite the contrary. It’s a coffee bean containing a nuclear shot of caffeine and considering I now drink decaf or weak coffees my ticker was in for one hell of a ride.
Consider this, I drank this coffee at 3pm and I was still wired at 3am in the morning. I tossed and turned and my heart continued to pound at over 120 beats per minute as if it was the backing track to some sort of one hit wonder, dance track from the 90’s.
I half tempted to buy a boat load of Mokka, smuggle it back to the UK and start selling it as an amphetamine in Bristol City town centre on a Saturday night.
So that was the first part of our Vietnam saga, stay tuned for further episodes where I promise to do less random ramblings and more travel insights… Maybe.