One word to summarise our Vietnam holiday would have to be enlightening. Time was short so we tried to squeeze in as much as we could in 3 weeks. We started off our holiday in Hanoi, which served as a base for us to travel to and from Sapa and Halong Bay, from there we made our way down south stopping at Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Saigon and then Can Tho. With so much to see and do, this post will feature of some of my highlights throughout the trip.
I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with the locals but being with Ant surely did focus their attention on us as he is Caucasian and they were all fascinated by his fair skin. This was the main conversation starter when we were sitting around having a feed. What nationality is he? Where are you from? Oh you are Vietnamese, where is your parent’s hometown? How old is he (and you)? It got to the point that Ant would begin to understand what was asked when I provided answers to these questions. They would all comment on him being đẹp trai (handsome), how fair his skin is and how they are so envious of it.
There will be incidents where they don’t expect me to speak Vietnamese as I apparently don’t really look Viet (instead I look Singaporean or Malaysian – weird). These moments were actually funnier because of the reactions I’d get. One shop owner dropped her jaw for a good 5-10 seconds after I spoke because she wasn’t expecting it. Another guy collapsed in shock when I told him what size pants I was looking for in Vietnamese (as he asked in English). A bunch of men laughed nervously when I told them I could speak Vietnamese after they called out “Beautiful girl” (in English). Yeah, that’s right! Don’t mess with me…
However it was through mingling with the locals that I was able to ask them where the best place to eat is or what specialty dish I need to try and to truly appreciate what Vietnam had to offer.
Before leaving Australia, we made a pact to try as much street food as we can. Initially I was a little worried that Ant’s body wouldn’t be able to handle it but we made sure that the food was always hot and prepared in front of us. I really enjoyed being able to just walk up to a vendor, observe what they were making (or ask if I was unsure), take a seat and tuck in; I’m utterly amazed at how some of these ladies could carry an entire pot of soup, ingredients and crockery with those bamboo carriers. Some of the best food we had come from these vendors and it would be something that I’ll truly miss back home.
The best street food experience had got to be in Hoi An, followed by Hanoi – only because we were able to stumble upon a lot more vendors here in comparison to Saigon. On the first day of arriving to this quaint little town, we discovered Hoi An’s specialty dish; cao lầu, snacked on fried banana fritters, coconut donuts, chè (Vietnamese desserts), ice cream, pork skewers and tàu hũ nước đường (silken tofu pudding). All this before dinner too! Best day ever!
We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do a cooking course in Hoi An. We did a full day cooking class with Red Bridge Cooking School where we learnt how to make 4 Vietnamese dishes; including phở, and helped ourselves to unlimited beers throughout the day (most of us were tipsy before we got to eat – fun times!) The class was small and full of Aussies which was good because we were all pretty laid back and wanted to have fun and learn. A recommended experience!
Another memorable food experience I knew we had to do was to visit Le Mat snake village (which is about 10km outside of Hanoi) to have the 10 course snake banquet. Prior to the banquet was the snake ritual where you have to down snake’s blood, bile and heart. Ant and I were both packing shit to the lead up this ritual and we both agreed that the loser of scissors, paper, rock would have the pleasure of having the heart. And guess who lost? ME! Damn you paper! A video will be put up as soon..
A few weeks before we set forth to Halong Bay we learnt of the tragic junk boat sinking killing 12 people. We knew that by the time we would get to Halong Bay, the issue with junk boat safety will be managed and that we should have nothing to worry about. The views that we saw here were magnificent and we couldn’t believe the vast size of the bay (it covers an area of about 1500km2); it just kept going and going… We had the opportunity to kayak around the tranquil waters of the bay. There was a hollowed passageway through one of the rocks so we decided to kayak through it, only to get stuck on the rocks underneath the water. Fearing capsizing the kayak, we pushed ourselves through the cave and cutting our hands along the way as there were oyster shells covering the rock. We made it out without capsizing but had Halong Bay make a mark on us.
In Sapa we did a 18km hike over 2 days, through thick fog, muddy swamps and bamboo forests; it was bloody awesome! Each trip we had an entourage of Hmong ladies who would help us climb up and down slopes which were either too slippery for us due to the mud or the incline was far too steep (we could’ve sworn they had to be at least 60-70 degrees) and of course at the end of each trip they would bring out their wares for us to buy. We stayed at a home-stay house run by a Vietnamese family and had one of the most amazing meals here. Our tour guide cooked up a banquet featuring water buffalo which we witness being slaughtered earlier in the day. I have to say that buffalo meat is the most tastiest meat ever! So lean and tender. YUM!
After the madness of travelling halfway down the country and always being on the go, our first day in Nha Trang was dedicated to relaxation. We stayed at 5-star hotel Sheraton for $100/night for the two of us! The day was spent chilling at Sheraton’s private section on the beach under a shady umbrella and on comfy deck chairs, swimming in the cool water and working up a tan. Each time we would cross the road to get to and from the beach, a security guard would escort us across, I felt bad each time I had to cross the road! The evening was also spent by the pool which looked like it extends out into the ocean and having a drink on the highest point of Nha Trang watching the sunset. Next day started off with a 2.5 hour body scrub and massage for me. Ahhhh… Total relaxation!
The staff at the Sheraton made us feel very welcomed. Best hotel ever!!
The end of the trip was spent at my parents’ hometown; Can Tho, a city located on the Mekong Delta about 170km south of Saigon. My grandma’s house is in a village 30 minutes out of the main city was where we stayed for the remaining days. 10 years ago I didn’t really talk to my grandparents, aunties and uncles as much (my sisters and I would only talk to our cool aunty 4) but on this visit I would spend most of our time talking with them which was great because they would share insights with me and I barely get to talk to other relatives as my parents were the only ones from their families to come to Australia.
My uncle and aunty 4 would make bánh bao (steamed pork bun) everyday for a living and always made sure to save some for us at the end of the day. They started making them about 4 years ago and ever since have been making a batch of 60 to sell each day or double that amount on special days of the lunar calender (twice a month). I know I’m bias but these were the BEST bánh bao I’ve ever had! The dough was uber uber soft and sweet. I can picture my uncle 4′s face lighting up each time we praised how delicious they were and he was ever so happy to bring a plate of them to us; and we would finish them off no matter how full we were.
There was no doubt that there will be a feast. A time where I got to catch up with family members I have not seen in 10 years, meet new ones and a chance for them all to meet Ant. Two tables were set up with hot pot, chicken, duck and steamed buns. I was placed on the “mens” table with Ant, where we drunk lots of beer with my uncles who would toast constantly and provide profound wisdom to us. One even went to to markets to fetch a litre bag of rice wine (45% alcohol content) so Ant could get the real Vietnamese experience. My uncles were not only impressed that Ant was not the slightest bit tipsy as he drunk just about the same amount as they did but they were also impressed that he could use chopsticks so well.
Some memories that I would hold with me from my family would include:
- having my grandma speaking to Ant in Vietnamese as if he can understand what she is saying and also picking on him when he got sunburnt badly
- the emotional lunch that I had with my uncle 7 on his boat at the Can Tho floating markets
- having my 3 year old cousin count with Ant in Vietnamese and telling him that he is doing it wrong
- my aunty 5 teaching me how to cut the neck of a black chicken to cook for dinner only to have my grandma do it because I wasn’t doing it right
- my aunty 2 telling me that all she did when Ant and I visited her house was stare at him
- Ant nhậu-ing with my uncles (nhậu is a gathering where adults (mainly men) drink, eat and talk about anything/everything)
- chilling out on the hammocks at uncle 3′s cafe
- being told that my aunty 5′s stern demeanor somewhat diminished with Ant’s arrival
- showing my family our house on Google maps street view and them being overly amazed that we can use the internet to do it
- witnessing my uncle and aunty 4 making bánh bao to sell daily
- the chats I had with my aunty 4, 5 and 8
- being constantly fed food and fresh coconut to the point of exploding
- my family picking on my mother; about her taking loads of photos and being dressier than me
- how the daughter of my oldest cousin began warming up to Ant and I – at first she was shy and by the end of it she was basically clinging onto me and she would say a few things to Ant in English (because they start to teach English to kids from kindergarten)
- getting the family’s seal of approval for Ant and telling us to come back in 3 years time (after I finish my degree) with 3 people.. (how the heck does that work?!) (Ahh! at all the pressure! Sorry Ant!!)