Wandering through Vietnam continues into this week. While I tell you more about the “Israel of the East” as my father who has studied military history calls it, I would like to first tell you about the unexpected and somewhat funny individual experiences that Parvati and I came away with. The first was that I am quite experimental with my haircuts ( a blunt cut, red hair, blonde highlights and even a ghastly spiral perm-I have had them all)-so in Vietnam, I decided to go for a haircut. Even the fact that the hairdresser didn’t understand a word of English didn’t faze me in my happy holiday mood and I repeatedly told her, “Do anything you want but DONT cut it short!” There was a discussion at this amongst all the hairdressers in the beauty salon (and the manager of the neighbouring grocery store was also called in in an effort at translation ;-)). Post the detailed discussion, the head hairdresser nodded confidently-started snipping with her scissors and 20 minutes later, there I was with hair which was (you guessed it right) SHORT! Once I got over my initial shock, I had to admit it looked quite good and there I was having confidently got a haircut from a hairdresser who didn’t even speak the same language (picture below).
Parvati is incidentally one of those North Americans who can’t manage without their regular and large cups of coffee. Much to her shock and dismay, the Vietnamese drink their coffee in a slightly different way-French press but with condensed milk instead of regular milk. Parvati’s perplexed expression on being confronted with this coffee every morning was a sight to behold! 😀
Lonely Planet (text in Italics)
A Culinary Superpower
The Thais may grumble, but in Southeast Asia nothing really comes close: Vietnamese food is that good. Incredibly subtle in its flavours and outstanding in its diversity, Vietnamese cooking is a fascinating draw for travellers – the dozens of cooking schools in Hoi An are testament to this. Geography plays a crucial role, with Chinese flavours influencing the soups of northern Vietnam, spices sparking up southern cuisine and myriad herbs and complex techniques typifying the central region, rightly renowned as Vietnam’s epicurean epicentre.”
Sampada (My Experience)-The food in Vietnam is fabulous. Fresh and crisp-the flavours are quite distinct. The French influence is quite distinct-right from the way the Vietnamese have their coffee right down to the abundance of French favourites in their cuisine (snails also-which I did order but didn’t have the courage to try). As they say one picture is worth a thousand words so you can gather enough from the pictures of some of the food we had (including on the beach as well as at various fine dining restaurants) and the pictures of Parvati and me at various restaurants.
While I am talking about the food in Vietnam, I must mention the Vietnamese currency. Did you know it’s called Dong and 1 US $ is worth about 21,000 Dongs. So while a roadside meal might cost a dollar or less-around 15,000 or 20,000 Dongs, a McDonalds meal is around 65,000 to 70,000 Dongs. So while Parvati and I found ourselves as billionaires, albeit in Dongs, we were perpetually confused as to whether we were overpaying for something or whether we were getting a really good deal. 😀
Also, Vietnam impressively is the only country that has successfully beaten back the Japanese, the Americans, the French and the Chinese which is a pretty impressive fact in itself. And some of the sightseeing spots like the tunnels of Cu Chi and the War Remnants Museum are a reminder of Vietnams grim war history.
Wikipedia (Text in Italics)-“The tunnels of Cu Chi were crucial in the Vietnamese victory over the Americans. The tunnels are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as served as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Most of the time, soldiers would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops, or engage the enemy in combat.”
Sampada (My Experience)- I found myself breathless and claustrophobic in the short tour inside the tunnels and could only wonder at the bravery of the Viet Cong soldiers who remained underground under such harsh conditions sometimes for days at a time.
The War Remnants Museum (earlier known as the War Crimes museum) in Ho Chi Minh City had a pretty somber and disturbing effect on all tourists as it is quite a graphic display of the Vietnamese war history. It displays among other things a guillotine used by the French to execute Vietnamese prisoners, a smiling picture of an American soldier displaying the head of a Vietnamese soldier and some deformed foetuses which show some of the effects of the biological weapons used by the Americans against the Vietnamese. I saw more than one tourist break down on seeing the grim displays of the “other” side of the Vietnam war.
Lonely Planet (text in Italics)
On the Ground
“Vietnamese people are energetic, direct, sharp in commerce and resilient by nature. The locals love a laugh and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to socialise with them and hear their tales. Generally the rule is the more uncomfortable the (always tiny) seats in the bar or cafe, the more fun you’ll have. Poor in parts but never squalid, Vietnam is developing at an astonishing pace and inevitably there are some issues to consider (including some minor scams). However, on the whole this is an extremely safe (apart from the traffic!) and wonderfully rewarding country to explore.”
Sampada (My Experience)-Having repeatedly and at length travelled through the rest of South East Asia-I was quite surprised to find Vietnam a different experience from the rest of South East Asia. For eg in contrast to the fashionably dressed girls of the cities in Thailand and in Singapore, the women of Vietnam are much more conservatively dressed-with the Communist influence quite prominent.
Lonely Planet (text in Italics)-
A Cultural Smorgasbord
This is a country of myriad influences and reference points. In the south, Indian and Hindu culture had a lasting influence in the Cham temples and spicy regional cuisine, spiked with chilli and tempered with coconut. Head north and Chinese connections are far more apparent. Between these two competing cultures, you’ll find a quintessential Vietnam in the central provinces: the graceful historic old port of Hoi An, and the royal tombs, pagodas and imperial cuisine of Hue. Oh, and there’s more, far more. Factor in an enduring French colonial legacy, which is evident in Hanoi’s graceful boulevards, in Ho Chi Minh City’s stately museums and in the crispy baguettes and coffee culture you’ll find on every street corner. Add the American interlude, more than 50 hill tribes, and of course the proud (battle-tested and victorious) ruling Communist Party ideology and you’ve got Vietnam: heady, intoxicating and unique.