Valentine’s Day. It was on this “special” date that I entered Vietnam, travelling solo. At the time, I had just left my job as an English teacher at Phnom Pehn, Cambodia. I needed something that would throw me out of my usual routine, and make me fall in love again with travel and myself.
I travelled very slowly: starting by boat, through the Mekong Delta, and after buying an accident motorcycle – my dear Dora, the explorer – I traveled from South to North, an analogy to my travelling spirit, since not only I was moving upwards on the map, I was also raising self-esteem and faith in humanity.
After almost three months travelling in Vietnam, it was not difficult to place this destination as the numer 1 of the most enriching countries it had visited so far, and it stays strong on the top 3 (along with Mongolia and Nepal). Writing about Vietnam always brings a smile to my face while tapping the keyboard, due to the countless happy experiences I have lived there. How does one compile and transcribe a feeling of humanity as great as this, in such a small text?
It’s easy to put food on the top of Vietnam’s positive memories. Vietnam has always been recognized for its delicious street food, but gained stardom after the iconic episode of “Parts Unknown”, where the late Anthony Bourdain invited Barack Obama, then President of the United States, to eat together um bún chả (pork with noodles,) in Hanoi. The “internet went down”, and today the little street food joint has even eternalized the moment with a small memorial.
Earlier this year, Netflix premiered “Street Food”, a documentary series focusing on street foods in Asia, and Ho Chi Minh City stars with dishes such as snails, phở (noodles soup), cơm tấm (broken rice) and bánh mì, the famous vietnamese baguettes.
Travelling south to the Mekong Delta, a boat trip through the floating markets and tasting fresh delicacies at the food stalls, we experience first-hand how products are made and handled, a delight to the eyes and to the palate!
A culture that tells the story literally on the plate, who knows how to enjoy the legacy left by those who were here in the past: French, Americans, Khmers or English, without regrets, is an excellent portrait of this people who knows how to enjoy the positive side of everything!
CÀ PHÊ ĐÁ – From coffee grains to secret coffee shops
For coffee lovers (like myself), Vietnam is a little piece of Heaven! In addition to having their own coffee bean production with a very peculiar taste, they also have a special way tp brew it, with a filter called “phin”; a way to drink it (usually with condensed milk); and, above all, the secret coffee culture of the hidden cafes.
Ho Chi Minh City is the city where most of these cafes are found – many in empty or abandoned buildings, settled on high floors or narrow alleyways that are difficult to reach – these are contemporary cafes that honour the coffee culture to an exclusive level. But there are also in the street carts or luxury cafes in Hanoi, this drink is totally idolized.
One of the most memorable places, for me, was Cafe Pho Co, where not only do you drink a great egg coffee (!!!) but also the whole place is amazing. Difficult to find (the entrance is through an unsuspicious silk store), the place opens up to the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake. Egg coffee is traditional in Hanoi, and you’re not expected to find it elsewhere in Vietnam.
See also: Cà Phê Adventures in Hanoi
From the Mekong Delta to Mai Châu, from the islands of Hạ Long Bay and Cát Bà to the caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang, Vietnam is “wow” after “wow”. The complicated geography is a wonder for the sight, the North being very different from the South, the special coastline, the inlands are incredible. In short, wherever you go in Vietnam, it is food for the soul and the sight!
The “inner self” journey follows the geographical journey as we learn more about the history of wars in the country. Heavily bombed during the Vietnam War in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, geography was an asset well played by the Vietnamese and a fundamental key to their victory. 40 years past, it is hard to imagine that in these caves have doubled as hospitals, helicopter and weaponry storage, and the winding roads served to confuse the enemy that where bombarding this beautiful paradise.
The largest cave in the world, Sơn Đoòng, was only discovered in 2009 when a tourist allegedly strayed from the trail for a wee, and eventually discovered the entrance to what is now considered to be the largest cave in the world. Inside the cave is the “Great Wall of Vietnam”, a stalagmite wall that reaches 100m, a delight for those who like to explore the unknown. Vietnam is like the Russian matryoshka: a surprise, with another surprise inside, with another surprise inside…
Life on wheels
Like it or not, bikes and motorcycles are an integral part of Vietnamese culture. It is inevitable to travel avoiding these two wheeled vehicles! In big cities where we find taxi apps such as Uber or Grab, we can choose four or two wheeled taxis. The vast majority opt for two wheels because with the chaotic traffic jams in Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi, and the same distance can have very different travel times, depending on the vehicle!
In Cần Thơ or Hội An, it is difficult not to ride a bicycle … With or without an engine, the two wheels prevail throughout the country. Whether you travel the whole country or just small city routes, they are everywhere. Riders of all ages, and all kinds: locals, young, older, foreign, solo or accompanied, often you’ll even see whole families riding one bike, pulling trailers, carrying fresh products to sell in the market. It’s fun to watch, scary to try and unforgettable to experience!
Another not-so-happy classic sight, is the tourists mid-leg bandages: the lack of habit or experience is notorious for those who forget that motorcycles come with a boiling exhaustion pipe, and get the classic burn from accidentally touching it. It’s a matter of curing the the wound with a sore cream, and lovingly keep this “warmark, made in Vietnam” as a souvenir for life!
To love and be loved
The best memory I keep from Vietnam is just love. The smile, hospitality, the spirit of these people who fought hard, but overcame the obstacles victoriously. A country that is home to more than 54 ethnic minorities, a country that has already been two, which was once a colony, which was already a victim and rose as a winner. A country that honours women, where half the Communist Party has a female voice, more than 11,000 women have participated actively and voluntarily in the War, and were fundamental for its victory, where March 8th is celebrated with pomp and circumstance.
Everywhere I stopped along more than 3300kms, I was always greeted with smiles (often edentulous but genuine),with good food, coffee and a large dose of humbleness. Vietnam was all the healing I needed for my soul, and strengthened my faith in humanity.
If there are any doubts for those who have not yet been to Vietnam, there is only question you should be asking yourself: what are you waiting for, to love and to be loved?
Here you can see the video of my Vietnam trip.
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