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Living In Vietnam – The Food, Motorbikes And People Of Hanoi

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

Living In Vietnam
Living In Vietnam
Living In Vietnam

The Food:

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.  

Fish Sauce

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

Living In Vietnam
Living In Vietnam
Living In Vietnam


Transportation Prefered

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.  



Travel Inspiration

Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.
Lawrence Block

The People Of Vietnam

Living In Vietnam
Living In Vietnam
Living In 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.  

General Disposition

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.

What are your thoughts on Vietnam and their culture?  Is there something important we failed to mention or you disagree with?  Let us know! 

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