Living in Vietnam, we experienced the country like few get to experience. We taught English in Hanoi for 9 months. Shelly taught 2nd Grade and I taught 4th at an International School. We had been to Hanoi before, but only for a short time and this time we got to really integrate ourselves with the culture and people. The food is so integral a part why we love Vietnam. We are motorcycle enthusiasts and bought two bikes in Hanoi in 2011 and toured Southeast Asia on them for 3 months. The motorbike culture is legendary in Vietnam. The people however are really the one of the reasons we love Vietnam so much. The food, motorbikes and the people are what make Hanoi and Vietnam so unique.
Food In Hanoi
Hanoi is an eclectic town of old and new traditions. It appears to me, that their culture has a strong Chinese influence, yet is uniquely Vietnamese. While living in Vietnam, we learned to really like the food. No, love the food actually. There appears to be more variations of dishes here, than in some of the other Asian countries we have visited. There are the unusual dishes of chicken feet, strange fish balls of something undesirable to the eye, dog on a spit or cat on the menu. We didn't try these dishes while in Vietnam. The ones we did try however were delicious.
To truly understand Vietnamese food, you need to understand where it came from and how it differs. All Vietnamese cuisine contains a balance or combination of five fundamental tastes based on elements. Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water correspond to food preparation, what to eat on a specific day depending on the weather, and how these things mix together to balance the dish. We would get razzed about drinking ice water on a hot day as it goes against the elements and is bad for the belly apparently.
These elements are in balance with the flavors. Wood = sour Fire= bitter Earth=sweet Metal=spicy and Water=salty. The balance of Vietnamese cuisine goes even further with corresponding elements based on texture, temperature, and nutrients. We will never understand the complexity of the food and we are ok with this. We will just keep eating the food and enjoying it however it's prepared.
North vs. South
We ate food all over Vietnam. There are regional differences. To break it down to its barest components. The North is more savory and the South is sweeter. There were differences in the way the Banh Xeo Pancake was made and the Pho Xao was prepared as well. There are also a lot of differences between the Banh Mi sandwiches and other unique dishes to each area that we can't possibly go into, or this post would be a novel. The South's cuisine is also more influenced by American cuisine, Thai, and Cambodian cuisines. The North is more influenced by the Chinese and French.
What The Pho?
We loved the Pho (pronounced fuh) in the North. Pho is generally a breakfast food there, yet eaten all day as well. There is a meticulous preparation involved in the broth of Pho. It is clarified through countless hours of skimming the fat and other impurities and creates a clear-pure broth. Northern pho tends to use slightly wider rice noodles and a more simple broth, Southern is slightly sweeter with thinner noodles with more spices like cloves and cinnamon. Northern pho has more green onion, while the Southern has more bean sprouts and includes Thai basil leaves and mint at times. In the North they use rice vinegar, sriracha and fish sauces as a condiment to taste. The South uses hoisin sauce and sriracha sauce as its main sauce condiment.
Oh the fish sauce. Nước mắm in Vietnamese. A source of national pride for Vietnam and staple in just about every dinner table as a condiment and in the food. The fermentation of fish which is made into a pungent sauce is maybe a reason why we like the food so much. I don't particularly like the taste of it on its own, but in the food, it just works. It seems that the majority of the savory flavors we enjoy from Hanoi is because of their affinity for fish sauce. Again, the fermented flavors all go into the balance of food and taste.
The French Influence
Let's not forget the French. They had a huge impact on the cuisine in Vietnam. The Banh Mi with it's french baguette is a prime example. The Vietnamese however, made it their own with the ingredients inside. Pork belly, pickled veggies, and fish patties. The Banh Mi is a sandwich. No other Asian countries I have visited really have a sandwich. This is something western in nature. The French also influenced Pho. In fact, most believe that Pho is a French word for fire (feu). There is no meaning for Pho in Vietnamese, it's technically not a Vietnamese word. There are also some other things like baked custard, pâté, and the occasional crepe or variation of crepe like the Northern Banh Xeo. The most important of the French influences in our opinion is the COFFEE!
Cà phê Or Coffee
Vietnam coffee is the best we have had in the world. There I said it! I can't take it back and won't until I find better. There is a different flavor of the Coffee there. Something special! I am not talking about the weezle variety either, where the beans are fed to weezles who shit them out then collected to be roasted. I am talking about the simple varieties of coffee and even the cheap stuff in Vietnam, is better than most in the world. The coffee is made through again... a french press style coffee maker/drip method. The Vietnamese coffee cups are basically metal cups with holes in the bottom, and a strainer style plunger that lays on top of the coffee and then hot water is added. It slowly percolates down as it sits on top of a glass with ice and some sweetened condensed milk to make Cà phê sua da. Which means Iced-sweet, coffee. I can't explain our love for this and miss it all the time! Sigh....
Last Bit On Food
While living in Vietnam, we had rice with just about every dish in one form or another. The food is surprisingly good when you know what to order, and have some idea what is written on a menu. We can remember when we arrived in Hanoi and started our traveling experience in 2011. Ordering from a menu or even the Vietnamese word for the meat, was something we didn't know. We would hate to unknowingly eat a dog banh mi or get some cat pho. Now we can recognize dishes and order the ones we actually like to eat. There good restaurants of all different types in Hanoi. We would eat an amazing 13 dollar lamb shank at a local restaurant in Tay Ho called Tay Tap. We ate good sushi as well in Hanoi. We had delivered Indian food from Namaste in the Old Quarter once or twice a week. Even the international food in Hanoi is good!
Motorbikes In the Old Quarter
We got around on motorbikes while living in Vietnam. Public transportation isn't exactly convenient and the idea of taking the packed buses, spewing thick clouds of soot, made us cringe. We much prefer riding a bike behind one with an inadequate mask covering our nose and mouth. Taking taxis around town is not only expensive, it's a total crapshoot. Some taxis will charge 5 dollars across town, others have you paying double or 3 times that. Not to mention the fact that getting anywhere in this town on 4 wheels is actually far more inconvenient and takes twice as long.
Our Bikes and Traffic
I had a Yamaha 110 and Shelly had a Honda Wave (the same bike she had on our trip through Southeast Asia). We rented them by the month for around $40 USD. You heard right, per month. Hanoi is a bit crazy when it comes to maneuvering through the maze of alleyways, name changing streets and traffic. 75% of the vehicles on the road are motorbikes. There is the occasional bicycle, electric bicycle, and trike as well as plenty of large trucks, buses and minivans that run all over the city and of course, the dreaded taxi. By far the worse part of Hanoi traffic are the taxi drivers. They have little regard for anyone else and always seem to be in a hurry, even when they don't have anyone on fare.
The Flow of Traffic
There are little rules the Vietnamese have regarding right of way. It's mainly size matters. You learn to ride a motorbike within inches of another bike or 100's of them. There is something very cool about being in a place where the majority of travelers are on motorbikes. It was awesome to simply sit in traffic and marvel at the flow of vehicles that you are a part of. We rarely saw any accidents, none of which were serious.
We saw a guy hit a lady crossing the street by walking her bike with a full basket of lemons. He hit her bike, not her, and there were lemons everywhere. We also saw a guy drop his bike full of eggs after losing balance in traffic. THOUSANDS of eggs on the road, baking in the midday sun as he tried to salvage as many as he could. We saw more of the "fender bender" variety, not the "severe trauma" variety while in Hanoi. I know people get into serious accidents there, but we hadn't seen one personally. I would see them weekly in California. They travel pretty slow in Hanoi and it's only when you do something crazy or drive too fast weaving in and out of traffic, when the real risk to life occurs. The key in riding in Hanoi is to go with the flow. Keep on the tail of the person you are behind. It almost feels like you are in flowing water when riding in Hanoi on the busy streets. There is an order to the chaos believe it or not.
No Rules Riding
It's actually a really fun way to get around town. There is a freedom you simply don't get anywhere else. You pretty much ride wherever you want. The police don't bother much with "tays" (westerners), but will ticket the Vietnamese if they break the rules. I have run stop lights, which is almost expected here, go the opposite way down one way streets, ride on sidewalks and pretty much disregard all traffic etiquettes. But, this is normal here for everyone. It's not uncommon in a traffic jam, to see 100 bikes all in a line riding down the sidewalks. People running red lights happens at just about every red light. Follow the rules if you want, or if you don't want to wait, get through the intersection. Strangely enough it works. It keeps the flow of traffic going, and if you are cautious and keep your eyes open, it's safer than you can imagine. We became accustomed to it. Traffic in Hanoi became so commonplace, that it didn't really bother us.
What you might see.
It is unreal how the Vietnamese use their scooters to carry everything from king sized mattresses to thousands of baskets. We saw a guy and his passenger with a 8 foot plate glass window.We have seen everything imaginable piled on a motorbike. Eggs, chickens, pigs, 5 full-grown adults, children packed on bikes without helmets. Adults can be ticketed here for not wearing a helmet, but kids are not expected to wear them. (and don't) Most of the helmets here are decorative pieces, not brain protectors. We brought our nice 3/4 face helmets from Thailand, and are glad we did. However, we never wrecked in Hanoi, we felt safer somehow then the locals in their cheap plastic helmets. Rain doesn't matter, there are raincoats sold in Hanoi that fit over the front of your bike and even have a little clear plastic window for your headlight in case it's dark. Just remember to bring your cloth face mask with strings that wrap around your ears. They offer absolutely no real protection for particulate, however I I also see people just putting their hand over their mouths to block out pollution too. I guess they are better than your hand.
There is no unhappiness like the misery of sighting land (and work) again after a cheerful, careless voyage.
A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.
If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light. Take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness and fears.
Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.
How you live your life is up to you. You have to go out and grab the world by the horns. Rope it before it ties you down and decides for you.
I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.
I travel not to cross countries off a list, but to ignite passionate affairs with destinations.
Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.
Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going.
All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.
The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.
The world is a book and those who do not travel only read one page.
A man of ordinary talent will always be ordinary, whether he travels or not; but a man of superior talent will go to pieces if he remains forever in the same place.
Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.
…to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice.
Not all those who wander are lost.
Experience, travel – these are as education in themselves.
I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.
What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do – especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.
Traveling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you – or unmaking you.
Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of the experience.
To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.
Traveling. It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.
Too often. . .I would hear men boast of the miles covered that day, rarely of what they had seen.
You do not travel if you are afraid of the unknown, you travel for the unknown, that reveals you with yourself.
Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.
I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.
Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.
Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
There comes a point in your life when you need to stop reading other people’s books and write your own.
Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you travelled.
Nothing can be compared to the new life that the discovery of another country provides for a thoughtful person. Although I am still the same I believe to have changed to the bones.
I am a passionate traveler, and from the time I was a child, travel formed me as much as my formal education.
For the born traveller, travelling is a besetting vice. Like other vices, it is imperious, demanding its victim’s time, money, energy and the sacrifice of comfort.
We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey
One’s destination is never a place, but always a new way of seeing things.
Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.
No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
A great way to learn about your country is to leave it.
Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.
The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.
If you’re… physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
The journey not the arrival matters.
Better to see something once than hear about it a thousand times.
Make voyages! Attempt them… there’s nothing else.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover
Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.
I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
To move, to breathe, to fly, to float, To gain all while you give, To roam the roads of lands remote, To travel is to live.
NOT I – NOT ANYONE else, can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself.
It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed is you.
I finally felt myself lifted definitively away on the winds of adventure toward worlds I envisaged would be stranger than they were, into situations I imagined would be much more normal than they turned out to be.
The saddest journey in the world is the one that follows a precise itinerary. Then you’re not a traveler. You’re a f@$%ing tourist.
And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.
Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you- it should change you.
A wise man travels to discover himself.
To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.
Live life with no excuses, travel with no regret.
If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.
The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.
A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.
Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet.
To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted
Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
At its best, travel should challenge our preconceptions and most cherished views, cause us to rethink our assumptions, shake us a bit, make us broader minded and more understanding.
The People Of Vietnam
The Vietnamese People:
Difficult to Categorize
The Vietnamese people are difficult to categorize culturally. I sense a strong Chinese influence in Vietnam, with a sprinkling of French culture and American influence. The Vietnam War was also a very impactful war for Vietnamese as it was for the US. Strangely enough however, we never felt that we were targeted with hostility or judgement for being Americans in Vietnam. Quite the opposite. We once asked a man how he felt about Americans. He explained that Vietnam has been to war with many countries and that it's the governments that fight, not the people. He said that he and most Vietnamese hold no ill feelings toward the Americans for the Vietnam War, "why should we, the people didn't start the war?" I found this amazing. The culture I come from is one of not forgetting so easily, nor forgiving.
The Vietnamese are not what you call one of the "warmest" people we encountered in Southeast Asia. We did however find them an incredibly nice, yet opinionated, and progressive for a socialist nation. Out of all the Southeast Asian cultures, the Vietnamese seemed the most boisterous, yet very conservative as well. Many people come to Vietnam and think the Vietnamese are rude. We didn't really find this to be true. We do believe however, they have a very strong sense of family. Meals are a family affair where dishes are shared for the most part. Most of them live in a house with other family members and it's not unusual for them to have Grandma, Grandpa and all the children who were not married yet, living in one house. Many of them sleep in one room on the floor on bamboo mats, even if they have sufficient money to sleep in beds.
Thinking Outside The Box
They are people who do not initiate forward thinking. If given the opportunity to think outside the box, they still have difficulty, which may be relic of their time under Ho Chi Minh. The North still reveres "Uncle Ho" and his preserved body which lies in a tomb near the city center. We enjoyed the Vietnamese and were frustrated often by them. The culture is so polar opposite with our own, that inevitable differences in how or why things are done, can get difficult to understand. We would just say "TVL" which stand for "typical Vietnamese logic". We would get frustrated working with them at the International School and their general inability to act on what makes sense in our minds. It might make sense in theirs too, however they feel they are not in the position to speak or act on it. Maybe it's a matter of respect. However, the Vietnamese aren't lazy. They work hard for a living and work with pride in what they do, no matter what it is.
Change In Perspective
While living in Vietnam, we realized that we will never truly know how the Vietnamese think. Their perspective on life, love, food, are something we can never quite grasp. For that matter, we have learned that no matter where you go, you cannot truly begin to empathize with their way of life and vise versa. It is why we need to accept that others are simply different in the way they see the world around them. Each individual in the world who has ever lived or will in the future, sees the world differently. The Vietnamese are no exception and their foreign influences have shaped who they are today and how the think.
I can give you my point of view on Vietnam and Southeast Asia, yet it would be tinted with my own perspective of the world. I have realized this traveling. We cannot change the way others think, nor should we. We can send out the message that we have a different way of doing things and others will decide for themselves the best way to do things. Heck, we can even debate our point to a minimum. However, passionately debating our own point of view creates a mindset for yourself of closed mindedness to some degree or another.
We miss Vietnam for its own nuances and world perspectives. We miss Vietnam, and feel that someday we will be back to explore the areas we didn't and try to understand their life some more. There is an inexplicable draw to Vietnam that makes this place one of our favorite countries in the world. We have changed the way we think about other cultures primarily from our time living in Vietnam. Vietnam has made us better, more tolerant people. That is, after all is said and done, the reason we travel.