My first (delicious) impressions of Vietnam

I have only been in Vietnam for a few days but I am already wondering how it took me so long to get here in the first place. Granted, I’ve just arrived and I am in Saigon**; the country’s geography is so stretched vertically and its history so tangled between north and south that there are little generalisations to be made, especially when I’ve only visited one city. From what little I do know, I suspect I will enjoy my months here tremendously. The food, the language, the people and the fascinating quirks that separate it from what I am familiar with – i.e., the rest of Southeast Asia – will make for a very interesting winter in Vietnam.

I’m writing this post from my apartment, a $350 a month serviced studio in a tiny building off a quiet alley in District 1. From the window, a nearby choir practices songs, with the nonstop honking from the main road only a distant echo here. Much like my temporary home in Bangkok, the apartment is in the heart of the city but yet strangely buffered from the chaos just at the end of the street. Birds wake me up at dawn – thankfully no myna birds within earshot – and it’s a leafy, quick walk to the main road. I came here in part to be productive with all the work I have to do; being able to get writing done in a quiet home space is a wonderful thing and I’m thankful to have it available.

** Note: people have asked why Saigon and not HCMC. I’ve used both, but asking around to Vietnamese friends, they too use Saigon. I’ve heard both in my short time here.

My alleyway in Saigon

My alleyway in Saigon

For first impressions, let’s start with the food. I’ve long loved Vietnamese eats, pouring over the Wikipedia entry for the country’s cuisine well before I set foot in the country. It’s one thing to long for food from afar, but another to eat it in-country. What we call “Chinese food” in North America is rarely like food in China and besides the regional differences in food preparation and ingredients are so disparate in the country that there really isn’t such a thing as “Chinese food” at all. Like China, the food in North, Central and South Vietnam is different one from the other, though each region does have restaurants from elsewhere in the country. I started off my culinary adventures with a bowl of Saigon style pho (phở Sài Gòn) and have been trying to eat at least one new dish a day.  As goals go, it’s an easy one to accomplish.

Saigon has packed, narrow restaurants from a variety of regions, some setting up in alleyways (called hem here, instead of sois in Thailand) and others squeezed between shops and schools. The next alley over there is a “snail and beer” joint where you pick out your snails, clams or prawns and they cook them for you. At the end of my alley, a rice place packed to the gills at lunch, serving a plate of white rice with choice of meat and vegetables, from crispy pork to sweet, caramelized cod to braised eggs. Much like Indonesia’s nasi campur,  it’s an “everything and rice” kind of restaurant, $1.10 a plate and the best thing to do is go back and try a new topping for your rice each day.

Everything I have eaten thus far has been fantastic, many of them served with a heaping bowl of green herbs (rice paddy root among them), and no meal has cost me over $3, with most ranging from $1-2.

A small sample:

Pho Saigon

Pho Saigon, with more herbs and a plum sauce that isn’t found in its northern version.

Pho herbs

Pho herbs – mint, rice paddy (yay!) and basil.

One of my first meals with friends - banh cuon, summer rolls, grilled pork with egg and rice.

One of my first meals with friends – banh cuon, summer rolls, grilled pork with egg and rice.

Fermented pork wrapped in banana leaf, Vietnam

Fermented pork wrapped in banana leaf, not your usual pre-appetizer.

Rice crepe found at the side of the road, a one-woman shop with a tiny grill and tray.

Banh Trang Nuong – great street food option.

Ingredients for rice crepe, Saigon, Vietnam

Ingredients for Banh Trang Nuong – pork, shrimp, green onions, fried garlic and a quail egg.

Cracking the quail egg

Cracking the quail egg

Mien Ga

Mien ga, a chicken soup with glass noodles made out of canna flour (a plant), and gluten-free.

Food aside, there are some very familiar sights here in Saigon. After spending close to three years in Southeast Asia, it’s always fun to register what is ‘normal’ and almost feel reassured that things are just as your brain expected them to be. For example:

  • The electric wiring, a tangled mass of renegade knots curled around wooden posts…

[Note: this piece was posted on Marginal Revolution and a commenter noted they are telephone and not just electrical wires. They look like a clump of indiscernible wiring to me, but I'll take his word for it.]

Electrical wiring, Vietnam

Electrical wiring funsies.

  • The tendency toward the shiny and logo’d accessories…
YSL phone

Louis Vuitton phone, as cheesy as it gets.

  • The street-side coconuts, perfect for quenching my thirst on a hot day…
fresh coconut water

50 cents for a fresh coconut.

  • And the beautiful flowers…
Flower, Saigon

Streetside flowers.

There are, however, some very interesting differences.

  • For starters, there is the staring and the waving. In my years in Thailand I never had people waving at me from their motorbikes, especially not in a large metropolis like Saigon. In Chiang Mai or in Bangkok, people ignored me wandering around – they were friendly, but only when smiled-at or when a conversation was in place. Saigon has been a strange otherwordly experience of staring, waving, hand-holding (from women only, of course) and comments about me being small and “Vietnamese-sized”. I found similar reactions to my size in Myanmar (the most memorable there being the “did your mother feed you as a child?” question – yes, yes she did!), but never elsewhere in the region. It’s been only a short time, and I’m curious if it stays this way.
HCMC, Vietnam

These girls asked to take a photo with me when I was wandering in the park – never happened in Thailand!

  • The motorcycle taxis here do not wear vests like they do in Bangkok, but they are required to give you a helmet – another change. (A positive one too.) They also sit at the side of the curbs, propped up and waiting for their next customers. It’s a wonderful sight, the drivers stretched out lazily and casually watching people go by. I found this driver to be particularly photogenic, and he welcomed me to take a portrait.
Motorcycle taxi, Vietnam

Sassy moto driver, Saigon.

  • Many more urban roosters outside the market areas, with feeding bowls and collars. I’ve seen chickens and roosters wandering market zones and towns throughout my time in Southeast Asia, but only in the Philippines were they prevalent in the main cities, likely kept for cockfighting.
Thirst urban rooster

Thirst urban rooster, Saigon

  • The parks here are packed, absolutely packed, as soon as school and work lets out. From late afternoon until 10pm at night, people are sprawled out on a tiny patch of grass, eating snacks, drinking tea and generally socialising with friends. Families bring their young kids, students bring other students and everyone seems content to sit in the green spaces, enjoying the cooler air. While there are some great parks in Bangkok, they tend to be quiet after 6-7pm, whereas here that is when they really pick up.
Sunset in Saigon

Sunset over one of the many green spaces in the city.

  • Since it’s Christmastime, I’ve been afforded a look at another quirk: the fact that as soon as the lights go up in downtown Saigon, people spend their evenings taking photos in front of the Christmas trees and window displays. Not “a few people” – thousands of people congregate on the downtown core and post in fancier clothes in front of stores, trees and wreaths that wrap the many buildings near the Rex and Sheraton Hotels, the bigger malls and the Opera House. No photos yet, but I will definitely take a few in the coming days, especially since I’ll be here through the holidays.
  • I’ve had several people ask why I am using chopsticks with my left hand. I took out a pen to show that I write with my left hand, which only caused more confusion. This was in smaller market stalls, but interesting to note regardless, as I’ve never had comments like this outside of Malaysia and Indonesia.
  • Finally of course, the traffic. The traffic! People warned me about it but it’s true, the traffic is incredibly frenetic, with honking all day long and motorbikes and cars all moving almost in a trance, gliding through the intersections in some intricate dance where somehow they (mostly) escape the chaos unscathed. I’ve put together a photo, but for a real glimpse, check out the video I embedded at the end of this post – it’s magic.

Differences aside – and I’m sure there will be many, many more since I did just arrive here and am still shaking off jetlag – I’m also lucky to have friends in town. James and Will, who I last saw in Chiang Mai and Girona respectively, are both here for a while, and it seems that in the coming weeks and months many others will be passing through the city. I’ve met other writers and expats in my short time here and look forward to learning more about the country through them.

I’m happy. It’s a gift to be able to choose where you want to live for the next few months, and I’m thankful to have decided on Vietnam.

More soon, no doubt!
-Jodi

Traffic in Frenetic HCMC, Vietnam from Rob Whitworth on Vimeo.