A necessary visa run to Vietnam evolved into a two week adventure filled with new sights, smells, and sensory experiences. Generally speaking, Vietnam struck me as a grittier version of Thailand. Whereas Thailand has adjusted their accommodations and facilities to meet some of the Western standards, Vietnam is unabashedly Vietnam, and isn’t going to change for anybody. It truly is another world.
For the sake of this recap I’ll break my trip down by each city we visited. First, we have:
Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City
We flew into Saigon via Kuala Lumpur and spent an hour waiting with the rest of the white tourists in the visa processing area. We had some information from friends about the intensity of Vietnam’s visa situation, but I feel like a lot of people would be surprised at how strict it is for Westerners to enter the country. We had pre-applied for visa approval before leaving Bali, as well as taken our 4x6cm-sized passport photos with no smiles. After observing some very loud tourists making scenes, we solemnly handed our passports to the agent and found a spot to wait it out and people watch. After a while they finally called our names, we paid our $50 USD, and received our passports, now complete with an entire page embossed with permission to enter the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
We stayed on the border of District 1 in Saigon, affectionately home to the backpacker area of the city. Our idea was that we’d be able to walk to a lot of interesting things, and Biu Vien (the backpacker street) gave us plenty to experience.
Along with finding various street beers for less than a dollar, Saigon gave us several culinary highlights. I had a religious experience with a Banh Mi, which is a Vietnamese sandwich filled with different cuts of meat but mostly pork, pate, sliced veggies like cucumber and carrot, and spicy sauce, all cradled in a beautifully fresh French roll.
Inspired by Anthony Bourdain, we also paid a visit to the street food Mecca of Saigon and visited The Lunchlady. She serves a different dish every day depending on the local ingredients available. We saw her on a Thursday and she was cooking a soup made of delicious noodles, veggies, pork, and massive prawns.
We also took a trip to the War Remnants Museum. The museum had a lot of old planes from the “War of American Aggression” and it's home to a lot of interesting information. Being a history nerd, my boyfriend was very eager to visit, and with me being someone who was too anxious to pay attention in history class, I was excited for a refresher on the war. Overall it was a good experience, one that I would highly recommend to anyone in Saigon. However, as an American with no involvement whatsoever, it was also a bit of a guilt trip.
The quintessential ‘traveling in a foreign country’ experience found us stranded in a random district in the middle of a torrential downpour. We didn’t have our ponchos, but luckily a woman’s tiny coffee stall was open and we found shelter with her. She even gave us free tea and ponchos before we quickly hailed a taxi to head back to our AirBnB.
(Pic by my boyfriend Conor Macken)
Our next stop was Hoi An, a small little beach town whose Ancient Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Having that title definitely attracts the masses, and upon exploring the Ancient Town we were plainly aware of what a hotspot it is among Vietnamese tourists, as well as visitors from all over Asia and the rest of the world. Hoi An is also home to a special dish called Cau Lao, with thick and chewy noodles, pork, and various herbs. The grain for the noodles is only grown in Hoi An, making it an exclusive regional treat. We spent four nights at a lovely homestay on the outskirts of Hoi An, a bit closer to the beach than the Ancient Town, and spent a great afternoon riding bikes and swimming in the South China Sea.
As beautiful as the scenery was, our main reason in visiting Hoi An was the renowned tailors that operate there. After doing some research and visiting a few shops, we settled on A Dong Silk as our people and set out to get some custom threads. Getting a custom garment made in Vietnam is an experience I will never forget. I felt like a Queen-- my tailor, Dao, whisked me around the shop, showing me all the fabrics I could choose for my custom dresses while Conor’s pregnant seamstress did the same for him. They also have iPads that you could use to swipe through various styles if you were unsure of what you wanted. After our first visit, she had a rough sketch and fabric swatches of my two custom dresses, and we had appointments to return the next day for the first fitting.
We visited A Dong Silk on average twice a day the entire time we were in Hoi An, but neither Conor nor I regret that experience. I now have two beautiful cotton custom day dresses I can wear, and he had his dream blazer made as well as three copies of his favorite button-down shirt. The best part was how personable our tailors were, and on top of that, A Dong keeps your measurements on file for about 3 years so you can continue to order more clothes after you’ve left Hoi An.
I’d visit Hoi An again, but this time I’d stay even closer to the beach. I could do without the hordes of tourists in the World Heritage Site, but I’d definitely go back just eat a few more bowls of Cau Lao, and pay a visit to A Dong to get some more clothes and visit Dao.
Our last stop was the capital city of Hanoi. The most northern city we visited in Vietnam, it was less hot and sweaty and I was extremely grateful for that. We met a cool American couple the first night in our homestay at dinner and ended up wandering over to “Bia Corner” to enjoy some cheap street beers. It sounds pretty much how it is-- an intersection covered in little plastic stools where you sit and enjoy inexpensive beer.
After a few rounds, our new friends left to go back to the homestay, but Conor and I decided to hang around for just one more beer. Important to note: the empties from the previous rounds with our friends remained on the table even though we all had paid our portions. Within minutes it began to rain, and we were scurried inside the little corner shop by our hosts, a Vietnamese family whose sons were alternating bong rips (of what, I don’t know, I’m assuming tobacco to keep this post G-rated).
The rain kept pouring, and while Conor went to the restroom I made a buzzed decision to buy very thin, cheap, ponchos from the family running the bar. Having been in Vietnam for over a week now, I did my best to haggle with him on the price for 2 ponchos and said we’d pay for that and the beer once Conor returned from the restroom.
He came back, we paid the 40 Dong (~$2 USD) for the ponchos and give 15 Dong (less than $1 USD) for the beer, and proceed to stroll into the rain. Then we heard angry Vietnamese shouting. We turned around, and one brother (who I’m pretty sure had a glass eye) was shouting at his other brother, gripping the bong in one hand and angrily gesturing towards us with the other.
“100 Dong,” Glass Eye said, staring blankly at us. Conor and I exchanged awkward glances. “We paid for the other beers before,” I attempted. Now their mom was in the conversation, shouting at both Glass Eye and Bong Boy. “Get behind me,” Conor said, as he attempted to reason with the matriarch. “We pay for beer with friends. Friends leave, we get one more beer. Ok?” Glass Eye jumped in, “Two more beer! Not one!” He’s staring at me holding two fingers up. “No, she doesn’t drink a lot like me,” Conor pointed at himself. “Only one more beer,” he said, holding one finger up.
There was more Vietnamese shouting amongst the family. I glanced backward into the now-empty street corner and notice the Patriarch of the family still sitting under an umbrella in the street, rain pouring around him, happily toking his own bong. As long as he wasn’t involved, I wasn’t worried.
Long story short, we resolved the situation, gave the Mom 20 Dong, and hightailed it back to our homestay in the downpour. I was glad we solved the situation, but it was a potentially very sketchy note to start our Hanoi leg of the trip on.
We spent the rest of our time in the capital avoiding sketchy beer bars, instead opting to wander around the lake and shop for insanely cheap clothes and goods. Hanoi has several streets completely devoted to one object. For example, near the large wholesale market was Kitchen Appliance Street. One block over and you’re on Belt Street. Take a couple left turns, you’ve found yourself on Watch Street. It was amazing wandering through and people watching. We spent most of our time on Shoe Street, where I bought pretty realistic Yeezy knockoffs for around ~$20 USD.
If you ever travel through Vietnam, you’ll notice heaps of Nike, Adidas, New Balance, etc. shoes on sale at ridiculously discounted prices. Some are obviously fake and have a crooked Nike swoosh or say “Fashion” instead of the supposed brand, but some things are actually pretty spot on products. We learned that because a lot of popular clothing and shoe companies have factories in Vietnam, the ‘rejects’ often end up on the street for sale because they’ve been deemed unfit for sale from the brand itself. My own personal theory is that these Vietnamese people are so used to making these products during their day job that they can easily replicate them on the cheap and sell them for their own profit by night.
The people are very small. Both Conor and I are under 6’ tall, yet we felt like giants the entire trip.
Because they’re a socialist country, everyone holds a job. One of the ‘low skill level’ jobs is actually a security guard. In major cities, especially in Saigon, we saw them EVERYWHERE. Mainly they just sit outside of the business/cafe they’re ‘guarding’ and play games on their phones.
I’ve never experienced heat like the heat in Vietnam. As a graduate of the University of Arizona and a current Bali resident, I can assure you that the amount of sweat I produced in Vietnam was more than all 4 years I lived in Tucson, AZ.
I didn’t mention it above, but we visited some historical sites and monuments in each city. My favorite was the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, which was actually the country’s first university. When you’re on the Temple grounds, it’s very obvious how much the country, the North especially, has been influenced by the Chinese.
We made a very honest attempt at learning a little Vietnamese, and saying “thank you” translates to “cảm ơn” -- pronounced “cahm uhn” but sounds vaguely like “come on”. Because it’s a tonal language, we had a fun two weeks attempting to figure out how to correctly say thank you without sounding like we were asking them to hurry up.
I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to explore Vietnam; it's a place I never imagined I’d visit. What I didn’t expect from the trip, however, was missing Bali so much. Being thrust into a new Asian country again made me realize just how far I’ve come adjusting to my new home here. I’m proud of myself and the fact that I’ve lasted even this long in a new environment that’s completely different from my home in Los Angeles. I really do consider Bali a home now, and I’m so glad to be back.