Scooters and Snails: Vietnam

First stop: Hanoi. It was 11pm by the time I made it through the customs line in Vietnam and set foot for the first time in the country my uncle had fought in years ago. It left an unmistakable scar on him as it did everyone else involved in the war. I was eager to see this country as it is now, how it rebuilt after years of turmoil with France and the U.S. Both its French and American history still shape the way the country is today.

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Vietnam requires a simple tourist visa for Americans to visit. I applied for my eVisa about a month in advance and received it within a day or two. You print the form and present it to the the immigration officer for your stamp. I was asked how long I planned to stay, he nodded, and sent me on my way.

My hotel in Hanoi was located in the Old Quarter. My goal had been to find a spot near the lake, and there are many in Hanoi. Mornings are bustling full joggers and tai chi groups, women’s workout groups, cyclists and walkers all scurrying laps around the gorgeous city lakes. Impromptu speakers and workout zones are set up at the break of dawn. The Vietnamese love their morning workouts, and often bring their dogs along too. I took part in the great morning walk around the lake too; comprised of equal parts workout, equal part sweat due to the humidity.

The Old Quarter is also a touristy area; containing a collection of buildings that have remained in a very traditional way since their humble beginnings. Don’t let their outsides fool you however, many of them have been elaborately remodeled on the inside but retain their antique charm on the outside. I also felt very safe walking around this area, mostly amongst other tourists and friendly locals. Each street still keeps the name of what it originally sold back in the day. For example,

Hang Bong is the street named after those who produce and sell cotton blankets. (I used this website to learn about the individual streets)

 

I was traveling with my colleague Hien during this part of my trip who showed me to the “the famous restaurant where President Obama” ate, a must see for an American tourist and the Vietnamese alike! The Vietnamese love Obama : Bún Chả Hương Liên

We were lucky just to get a table at this famous restaurant, so there was of course no chance at getting the table President Obama himself ate at. We climbed floor after floor to about the 4th or 5th before finding two open chairs near the window and I sampled the spread.

Obama Food

Hien ordered the traditional dishes and we shared. But… I think If you have the chance, order, “The Obama”.

We also took a quick tour with the Hop on Hop Off Tours that run through the main historic sites of Hanoi and Hien, who has taken a few various tours of the city said that he felt like the tour offered the best array of all the options to visit at you own pace with headphones and english narration included. They even let you borrow the traditional Vietnamese hats while on the bus (as you can see below).

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The flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City is two hours and runs frequently between the two cities. Locals take this flight often, as it is the two biggest cities in the country. My trip around Southeast Asia was taking me through a progression of modernity over two weeks. I began in Myanmar, traveled to Cambodia, and found Ho Chi Minh City to be big and fast paced city compared to where I had been. There had also been motorbikes in Cambodia but in Ho Chi Minh they were fast and Vietnam’s roadways were wide enough to accommodate some serious traffic. The drivers became increasingly more aggressive and impatient with each country I traveled to. With the size of the roundabouts and many-lane intersections in the big city, I found myself in an often nerve racking mixture of traffic going in all directions at the same time because no one follows the lights, and there are scooters maneuvering in every direction. The photo below is not unusual or exaggerated.

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Photo of Ho Chi Minh City traffic from Smithsonian Mag Photo Contest 

But as they told me repeatedly, just go, and traffic finds a way to move around you. I followed beside my Vietnamese friends who fearlessly strode into oncoming traffic and, as they said, it managed its way around. When faced with one large four-lanes in both directions crossing to get to the waterfront alone however, I couldn’t do it. The little walk sign on the street light didn’t seem to be working and I was out of luck.

In Vietnam I realized why motorbikes are outlawed in Yangon.

MORE FOOD

It didn’t occur to me until right when the snails came out, but I realized that the French left their love of snails with the Vietnamese. “Do you like seafood?” Dang, another colleague, asked. He knew just where to take me and shared with me some the current culture of Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City at night.  A busy hotspot for clubs, rooftop bars, hookah lounges, posh dinners and street food. Never one to stray from trying a country’s favorite dish, I let my colleague order a full array of dishes to try for the evening from a beloved street vendor called Ốc Khánh. We sat on tiny chairs that reminded me of kids playthings (this is normal across Southeast Asia) and were given tiny silverware (to dig out the oyster and clam) too. He ordered a sort of snail noodle dish, snails covered in butter, clams and oysters. Since we were sharing I was able to taste an assortment of dishes spread across the table. Dinner is always better with company and I enjoyed having someone to instruct me on how to eat the foods, I did need some help.

What do snails taste like you ask? They are chewy, chewier than squid, firm and best covered in butter. Bread, more French influence, was also provided  for dipping into the delicious buttery, cheesy sauces and broths that came with the fish.

IMG_4919IMG_4920IMG_4921Lunch was a bit more traditional. I went to a special little restaurant called Cục Gạch Quán which was much more Vietnamese in the traditional sense, rather than the modern sense. With menus in English and Vietnamese, I let Hien order for us after I picked out a few tasty looking flavors and he pulled it all into a meal.IMG_5026IMG_5027

We had passion fruits filled with spicy sweet jelly and tofu, fish cakes in a tasty broth and some “salad greens” that I was instructed to mix together in a separate small bowl with rice and as much of the broth as I pleased. We also ordered an ice tea served in antique broken pots. It was the perfect blend of spicy, sweet and sour.

LIEF MOJO SAIGON

I discovered yet another lovely Japanese run (the other one was my hotel in Cambodia) accommodation during my travels in Ho Chi Minh City called the Lief Mojo Saigon. Tucked into a quiet alley in a busy part of District 1. I highly recommend you stay in District 1, there are many hotels in this area, it’s walking distance to the water and its a busy hotspot for everything you could want to do – shopping, history, culture and food. I enjoyed this particular hotels location and not being right on the busy streets where motorbikes zip along through all hours of the night.

HCMC Hotel Alley

My room was more like an apartment than a hotel room, complete with a Vietnamese coffee maker, (kind of like a French press for the top of your cup), Vietnamese coffee, and a little packet of condensed milk. The room also had a stove, a pot, a mini table and a bathtub. I am always excited to have a tub in my rooms and enjoy a good soak after a long day of foreign travels. This one didn’t have a shower curtain, but rather a drain on the outside of the tub to catch any splash over. And the toilet is equipped with a spray hose, just as every single hotel during my Southeast Asia Travels has had.

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From here I ventured out to what they call the “Walking Street” which had some big brand name stores and the Ho Chi and found the absolute best Boba Tea of my life at The Alley – it was gooey, syrupy warm bobas and creamy milk tea perfection.

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With little time to visit sights, I managed a quick trip to the Saigon Post Office: an icon for the colonial architecture and history of Saigon. Ho Chi Minh City was called Saigon up until 1976 when the name was changed to celebrate the reunification of the North and the South, named after Ho Chi Minh the revolutionary communist leader who is credited with reunifying the city, and his picture adorns a large wall in the post office.

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Had I been able to stay longer I would have certainly visited the museums and ventured out of the city for a Mekong Delta Tour.

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