Motorbikes & Food Everywhere: First Impressions of Vietnam
I’ve been in Vietnam for a little over a month now. My first few weeks were a blur of classes and getting lost in the maze that is Saigon. I spent the holidays in Thailand and Northern Vietnam and now I’m back in the city, getting settled in my new house, applying for jobs, and attending job interviews. In the short time that I’ve been in the country, I’ve made some observations.
Both Saigon and Hanoi are famous for their traffic. You can buy T-shirts boasting, “I survived Saigon/Hanoi traffic. With everyone in a city of several million possessing a motorbike, and prefering driving it to walking, there’s bound to be congestion.
The beauty of Vietnam, though, as opposed to most of the rest of the world, is that intense traffic need not stop a pedestrian from crossing the street. Most streets in the city, you approach a crossing, look both ways, find a small opening between fast moving cabs and buses, look forward and cross at a consistent speed. The motorbikes will wiz around you. If you hesitate, or attempt to make eye contact with a moto driver, you risk iminent death. Proceed with confidence; this system is effective most of the time.
With all these motorbikes, parking can be a bit of a problem. Within the Old Quarter of Hanoi, a one-thousand year old city, this is particularly troublesome. The sidewalks here are no longer sidewalks but motobike parkinglots. This means you are forced to walk in the busy road, and this can turn into quite a game as you dodge bikes, taxis, tourist buses and street venders.
Within the congested city limits of Saigon, exists a maze of alleyways connecting hidden houses, barber shops, cafes and convienance shops. You’ll pass so closely by people’s homes––a glimpse into a family dinner, men watching television, women cleaning, children playing–that you’ll either feel you’re seriously envading privacy or that you’re partaking in a case study of Vietnamese life. Enter one alleyway and you may be surprised to see which street you emerge. I doubt I’ll ever tire of these mysterious living museums.
If you’re poor or cheap, like me, then you’ll choose two main modes of transportation: walking or bussing. Walking can be pleasant if you can get over the temperature–humid and 86F (in the winter, and 94 during the summer). Walking can be highly entertaining, with blocks and blocks of busy streets filled with shops, cafes, street venders, restaurants, parks, business, and top-notch people watching. Just be careful crossing the street–see TRAFFIC above.
Bussing can be a cost-effective alternative to walking, IF you can figure it out and if you aren’t in a hurry. There are bus maps sold at some bookstores around the city; however these maps are as cryptic and mysterious as the alleyways. I’ve found routing my bus journey on Google maps is my best bet. Find the right bus, pay around 25 cents, hope there’s room to sit down, or stand and hold on tight. Notice how everyone stares at the foreigner. Hope you can figure out which stop to get off the bus.
Taxis and motortaxis are the luxury way of navigating the city. We stick with marked, metered taxis. Vinasun is the favorite; fair, reliable, safe, relatively cheap by Western standards, especially when split amongst a group of people. Other than when I arrived late in the airport, I never take them when I’m alone. I’m far too cheap for that. Like in Phnom Penh, it’s best to always know exactly where you are going before hopping in a taxi or on the back of a motorbike. It’s not unreasonable to bring a map or your mobile device as a reference for your driver and to follow along, monitoring his route.
Or for $300-$400, you can buy your own motorbike–however I’m still in the “terrified phase.” Though I’m determined to progress to the “healthy-nervous phase,” and try navigating the crazy streets on my own. I’ve heard it’s thrilling.
Ho Chi Minh City may be the greatest city in the entire world to go out to eat. You can’t walk 2 feet without encountering a cheap street food vender, a local spot, an expat-owned French/Indian/Middle Eastern/Italian/Chinese/Sigaporian restaurant, or even an American fast-food chain–and chances are you’ll never ever spend more than $10 on your entire meal. In fact–you can easily have a great meal, a couple beers, a dessert for less than $10. I’m going to have a lot of fun eating in Saigon. I’m already having a lot of fun eating in Saigon. The street venders alone are enough to spark my fascination until the end of time.
I try to order from every snack vender I see serving up something I’ve never tried. The other night I ordered blindly from a friendly vender selling from my favorite contraption–a pole propped on her shoulders balancing baskets on each end. Her treats, it turned out, were crispy and slightly sweet rice crackers, spread with a gooey honey & ginger mixture, topped with a healthy serving of freshly shaved coconut. Heaven for 50 cents.
I will note that the Vietnamese consume an absurd amount of rice. Hidden in every meal–rice noodles, rice crackers, rice chips, rice milk, rice desserts, steamed rice buns, rice dumplings, rice paper, glutinous rice, rice crepes, rice pancakes, breads and cakes made of rice flour, sticky rice, black rice, white rice…It has become my challenge to find a meals without rice. DO NOT COME HERE IF YOU ARE ALLERGIC TO RICE!
In all of Vietnam, if you plan to eat in the street, then you must become accustomed to sitting on tiny, doll-sized plastic tables and chairs. Go ahead–-pull out the tiny plastic foot stool, contort your legs and body awkwardly and attempt to find a comfortable position. Get past your strong feelings of ridiculousness and enjoy one of the best, most hearty, inexpensive and delicious meals you’ve ever eaten in a street, on a miniture table.
Vietnam has to be right up their with one of the best places to sit down and have a cup of coffee–when you take into account price + quality of coffee + sheer number of venue choices. Coffee culture is alive and thriving in Vietnam. Vietnamese people LOVE their caphe da–iced black coffee or iced coffee with sickly sweet, but oh so delicious, condensed milk. The coffee here is strong, and served with loads of ice–designed to sip slowly, letting the ice melt into perfect dilution. There is at least one coffee shop of some sort on nearly every block in the city. People can be seen clinking their spoons on ice, sipping their coffee all hours of the day.
The same does not apply to beer. Unless you like watered down, flavorless, light beer. In that case, the city is drowning in it. If you choose to drink outside, more than likely your bottle of already light beer will be paired with a mug and giant cube of ice.There are very few places which serve dark beer, let alone a decent one. However, I have a feeling there are at least a few spots selling a good porter/bock/stout–I’m determined to discover them. Though, in Hanoi, you can get an icy cold mug of home-brewed, raw beer at many street side cafes for a mere D$4-5,000 (20 cents). We’ve only found one similar place to this in Saigon, where–hidden in one of those magical alleyways–a tiny local, hole in the wall seafood restaurant sold micro-brew light and dark beer for D$15,000 (70 cents).
Pet dogs here are spoiled. The dogs in Vietnam are very often either obese (unlike their owners) or wearing clothing or obese wearing clothing. Also, I’ve seen a pecular number of dogs sitting on chairs. I’ve seen men on motorbikes carting massive crates overflowing with fluffy puppies. Apparently dogs are still eaten in some parts of Vietnam. I’ve often wondered if this is why they are often hefty. However, eating dog is not as common as in the past, and not as common in the cities; and even seen as taboo (unclean and unlucky) when eaten during the first months of the year.
Everyone says the South has nicer people than the North. This could just be an unfair stereotype–but I personally found this to be true. I’ve encountered so many nice people in HCMC. The people here smile more easily, have a more outgoing personality and are more helpful to foreigners, than those I met in the North. This was just my experience.
While in Saigon, more than one of us has experienced an older lady holding our hand and helping us cross a busy street, or guiding us to her favorite cheap food stall. We’ve had students bring us treats or gifts. We’ve had venders chase us down and give us our forgotten waterbottles, etc. Though the average vender will always try to overcharge you–this shouldnt be taken personal; they are likely also trying to overcharge the local person too. Bargaining is a normal part of most street transactions. You’ll just have to bargain harder as a foreigner.
Overweight Vietnamese people are extremely rare. I’ve been looking for them. In the month I’ve lived here, I’ve seen just one, truly fat woman. This is surprising considering the number of cheap eateries and the sheer amount of condensed milk, sugar, and rice products sold everywhere. There does seem to be a high number of adorably plump children. Beautiful little buddhas.
That’s enough for one post. I’ll leave you with…
Some random Photos from my iPod: