Vietnam is fascinating. It’s popular. The food is delicious and inexpensive. The history is dense. It is, where value for money is concerned, the ideal place for an exploratory holiday. However you decide to spend your time, the dollar takes you far.
Food and drink
There’s nothing like the genuine pho served in the sardine-tin souphouses of metropolitan Vietnam. The dish, in essence a large serving of beef noodle soup, is both affordable and filling. It’s available any time of day. Dial up the authenticity and try street cart pho, which you’ll eat sitting in quaint plastic chair and table settings arranged beside the cart. Fried chicken legs are popular because they’re fun to eat; when you’re done, you drop the bones on the floor. They’ll be swept them later, as is customary. It’s a big faux pas to put the bones back on your plate.
Like Australia’s cities, Vietnam has its own coffee culture. The scene is grown from the ever-present influence of the country’s French colonial roots, and as such, promises weird twists on traditional roasts and blends. So, you get things like Vietnamese iced coffee, which combines locally-grown beans with sweetened condensed milk, blitzed over ice. Ask for a cà phê sữa đá. It’ll cost you about AUD$1.
Cheap eats abound. In fact, you can make fun discovering how cheaply a tourist can eat. For instance:
- Iced tea (Tra da) – AUD$0.10 for unlimited refills
- Rice paper salad (Bánh tráng trộn) – AUD$0.60
- Minced pork sandwich (Bánh mì xíu mại) – AUD$0.75
- Sticky rice with ice cream (kem xôi) – AUD$1.10
The Vietnamese are renowned for their friendliness and hospitality. They gather in big groups and mark dining with a jovial “mot, hai, ba, yo!” which means “one, two, three, in!”. It’s an equivalent to “cheers” and signifies an ingrained commitment to total inclusiveness. At restaurants or on the streets, this call will inevitably be heard as strangers unite in the sharing of food and drink.
Beaches and cities
You might not associate Vietnam with beaches, but the country has over 3,000 kilometres of gorgeous coastline favourably comparable to Bali’s best stretches. That means crystal clear water, sand as fine as icing sugar, and numerous islands visible from the mainland. Do Nha Trang. Vũng Tàu is popular with Ho Chi Minh locals seeking a weekend getaway – besides the beach, the place has colonial-era architecture, broad boulevards and an electric bar scene.
Outside the omniscient social formality of Hanoi and break-neck pace of Ho Chi Minh City, there’s Ha Long Bay, which is a World Heritage-listed hotspot renowned for its limestone inlets. A short drive south and you’ll find Hoi An Ancient Town, a one-time trading port with 600-year-old buildings, most of which are still intact.
See Cai Be Floating Market, located along the storied Mekong Delta. There you’ll watch local marketers swap goods from boat to boat. Dubbed the ‘rice bowl’ of Asia, the floating markets are a new experience for the foodie traveller.
To completely cover Vietnam, try taking the Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi. The ride has several stops, ensuring you’ll see countryside in between Hue, Nha Trang and Da Nang.
The Cu Chi tunnels present newcomers with something of a cultural challenge. The tunnels are what remain of an underground network Viet Cong soldiers used to avoid – and incite – conflict during the Tet offensive. The tunnels may be eerie, and the overarching subject matter confronting, but it’s worth hearing the site’s stories. If you’re game, try squeezing your way through the narrow, dark passages. Just make sure you pick a tour guide with a reliable sense of direction.
Taxis, predictably, are considerably cheaper than in Australia but they come with risks. Always do your research prior to visiting a certain town to find out the exact details of reputable taxi companies. Scam companies will often try to deceive tourists by using the same colours and a similar name as the good ones. When getting into a taxi, always insist the meter put on straight away, otherwise many drivers will not put it on and overcharge you at the end of the journey. It’s also a good idea to bring a GPS system, either self-contained or on a smartphone, so you know your taxi driver is taking the correct route.
Tour guides speak English but most Vietnamese don’t, so it’s a good idea to brush up on some Vietnamese phrases before you go. To help you on your way, here are a few useful phrases:
- Hello – Xin chào
- Thank you – Cảm Ơn
- Good bye – Tạm Biệt
- I can’t speak Vietnamese [well] – Toi khong biet noi tieng Viet [gioi lam]
- How do I get to __? – Lam sao toi den duoc__?
- Beef Noodle Soup – Pho bo
- Chicken Noodle Soup – Pho ga
- Vietnamese Iced Coffee – cà phê đá
- The bill (literally ‘money’) – Tien tien
- Waiter (to get their attention) – Em oi
- Waitress (to get their attention) – Anh oi
Despite the friendliness tourists experience, Vietnam has retained a singular sense of culture untainted by gimmicky attractions purpose-built for visitors. You won’t be disappointed.