Highlights of Vietnam

27 March 2011
by Phuoc

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!!)
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21 Comments

  1. Paula

    Great article, Phuoc! It definitely comes across that you had a fantastic time exploring your roots! Funny how some locals didn’t take you for being Viet. Perhaps next time you should just go with it and speak Italian – give them something to really gawk at ;-)

  2. Margaret

    I have such an intense love for this post – it’s definitely one of your best. Thank you so much for writing it and all the heart and observations that came through. LOL at aunty 1-5 – such is how most Viet families function, including my own. Also, “nhậu-ing” = pure gold! ♥

  3. Sweet.Petite(LikeMe!).Treats

    What a wonderful trip! There’s just something so magical about revisiting & rediscovering one’s roots (it always leaves me wondering what life could have been & makes me appreciate the simpler things in life). Sounds like an enriching experience on all different levels. Now that you have the family’s seal of approval for Ant looking forward to your next Vietnam visit in three years time as Mrs Ant, with Mr Ant & a little Phuoc/Ant!

  4. MelbaToast

    This was a great post. I loved reading about your adventures and the highlights of your family time brought a little tear to my eye (yes, I’m a sap)! It looks like such a beautiful country…and the found sounds great (‘cept for the snakey bits that is)!

  5. MelbaToast

    Soz, I meant the food sounds great! Damn teary eyes….

  6. Julie

    That is such an amazing trip! Bit scared of the snake heart :D will await to see the video!

  7. john@heneedsfood

    What a wonderful travelogue! Loved seeing all the food and gorgeous scenery and how amazing is that infinity pool at Nha Trang Sheraton! Would love to get back to Vietnam someday!

  8. Karen | C&C

    Amazing amazing trip. What an experience and totally touching to see the photos of your family <3.

    Everything looked awesome and I can't wait to go one day. Although I definitely wouldn't handle the water buffalo slaughter and the snake farm (I love snakes boo).

  9. chocolatesuze

    that shot of the pool makes me want to take a holiday right now! and super loved the pic of all the buns lined up waiting to be steamed!

  10. Tina@foodboozeshoes

    Great pics and round up – I’m only just getting to my Vietnam posts now, so we can reminisce together! (though I didn’t go nearly as many places as you did!)

  11. Heidi - Apples Under My Bed

    What an amazing time you had. It warms my heart :) Fabulous pictures and a fabulous highlights post! Just gorgeous.
    Heidi xo
    p.s. I am so jealous of the snake shots you did – I wish we did that. Can’t wait to see the video :)

  12. ravenouscouple

    we think you need to do an in depth posts on each highlight to do it justice..gorgeous photos!

  13. Richard Elliot

    A beautiful post of what looks like a truly amazing holiday. I’ll be sure to get in touch before I go to Vietnam!

  14. Rhonda (The Dainty Baker)

    Phuoc! omg looks like you really had an AMAZING time over there!! … and OMG OMG OMG to the snake bile, heart and blood saga!! … dont worry at least now you can say that you have bigger “balls” than your man for eating the heart :P lol… oh and beautiful photography! :)

  15. Phuoc

    Paula: Was most definitely an amazing holiday, I guess being a bit more grown up allows me to appreciate the country a bit more as I understand how hard the locals work..

    Margaret: Thanks! I really loved writing it, and I poured my heart into this one; I got a little emotional writing about my family. I’m sure there’s no uncle/aunty 1 because 1 is considered bad luck or the parents are suppose to be #1 (someone correct me on the reasoning) but regardless I’m glad to be immersed in all that culture because we rarely get that back at home.

    Sweet Petite Treats: HA! Little Phuoc/Ant…

    MelbaToast: Oh you’re so sweet.. I think the beauty of the country also lies within the people and culture

    Julie: Hehe… I hope you don’t freak out at it

    John: You and me both! Can’t wait to go back!

    Karen: Thanks! I enjoyed my time with the family, it was good catching up and just mingling, I knew they’ll be excited/happy to see us. Well the buffulo was already dead so I guess might as well not let it go to waste. There were other animals at that restaurant that I also witnessed get killed, naming turtle – that was sad.. :(

    Chocolatesuze: Ahhhh I would have relaxed in that pool all day if I could, absolute bliss!

    Tina: Thanks! I can’t wait to read your stories :)

    Heidi: Thanks :) I can’t believe your bf chickened out when you wanted to do it! Seriously, you could’ve just done it yourself and then you two just eat the banquet. But stay tuned :)

    Ravenouscouple: Oh I will be.. Stay tuned. It’s just a matter of me getting off my butt to do them that’s all :)

    Richard: Thank you, I had an awesome time and I’m only glad to be able to share it with you all :)

    Rhonda: Hey!! Thanks dear. Well I lost the game fair and square so I had to do it, no question about it lol

  16. mademoiselle délicieuse

    Golden and absolutely beautiful memories! The sights, the sounds, the food – yes – but all the more enjoyable because Ant was there to share it with you and for you both to enjoy the hospitality and warmth of your extended family. My family and most Chinese ones I know, for that matter, refer to their uncles and aunties in number order as well =p The other common thing is to add a descriptor, such as “uncle fat” or “aunty skinny” hehe.

    RESPECT to you for the snake heart!

  17. Chi Anh @ Door To My Kitchen

    Hey where are photos of our 1946 meal ;) Glad you enjoyed the trip. Wish I could have such a trip myself. I’ve only been in Hanoi, HCMC, Halong Bay and Hoi An.

  18. Phuoc

    Mademoiselle délicieuse: Ngawww… thanks! A holiday is always best shared with loved ones. I was also pleased that Ant got to have an authentic Vietnamese experience that is not written in those tourism guides.

    Chi Anh: Hehe.. They might come up eventually.. Once again, it was nice meeting you that night! In regards to exploring Vietnam, it’s always the case wherever you live, you never get to experience the country to its full extent. Though I hope you’ll be able to do so eventually!

  19. Chi Anh @ Door To My Kitchen

    Yeah… it was definitely great meeting you and Ant :) wish i knew more ppl like you or have more ppl like u here! haha. migrate here plsss.

  20. Susan

    Wow looks like an amazing trip! Reminds me of the 4 weeks I spent a few years ago in Thailand where I did a trek, it was the hardest thing I had ever done! That hotel looks beautiful in Nha trang as well!

  21. Phuoc

    Chi Anh: Hehe thanks! As good as it sounds to live in Vietnam, I don’t think I would be able to do it. My parents left Vietnam for a few reasons, and we are lucky to have the things we have and be where we’re at now. I hope that makes sense and doesn’t sound too snobberish…

    Susan: That’s one of the things I want to do as well; see the rest of South East Asia (Laos, Cambodia and Thailand)! I like getting away from all the tourism traps and exploring the traditional ways of a country. I’m sure your Thailand holiday was the most rewarding though :)

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