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a southern yankee abroad

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vietnamese food

Hustling in Hoi An

IMG_8167.JPGHoi An absolutely swept me away. It’s a beach town in central Vietnam, but the main attraction is the “Old Town,” which consists of several preserved houses and temple, shops, tailor shops, bars, and restaurants along the Thu Bon River. The charming bridges and architecture and cultural vibrancy of Hoi An reminded me a lot of Florence, Italy. After arriving the first day, I relaxed by the pool for a bit before joining my trip friends for a walk through the Old Town.

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Hoi An is well-known for its tailor shops. Before coming to Vietnam, I had decided not to have any clothes made because 1- I already have way too many clothes, 2- I really wouldn’t have room to carry it in my backpack, and 3- I’m on a student budget these days 🙂 However, my resolve was weakened by a little Vietnamese lady named Loi who just wouldn’t leave me alone as I was walking through the main market. After I spoke to her for a few minutes and she showed me pictures of her kids (so cute!), I followed her to her tailor shop in the center of the market. I told her and her colleague I couldn’t buy anything, but then they started showing me pictures of all the beautiful dresses they had made for *tourists* just like me. I gave in…they took my measurements and I had 2 dresses custom-made for just $60. I tried them on the next morning and they fit perfectly! I also bought a bag and another romper from two other shops. While I know I need to pay more mind to my budget for the rest of the trip, I am very happy with my purchases. After all, I am helping the Vietnamese economy, right?! Also, I really admire the hustle of these women…they are doing good business in the streets of Hoi An.  

 

After shopping in the morning and visiting some preserved structures in the Old Town, I joined my group for a bicycle ride through the countryside of Hoi An. We biked through rice fields and a few surrounding villages, with a few stops along the way. First, we stopped at the home of the oldest farming couple in Vietnam. This couple has been married for over 65 years and they still tend their own farm! The husband was a Vietnamese soldier imprisoned by the U.S. They were very gracious and even let us water some plants with them. Then, we stopped at a home to see how rice wine is made and to have a taste (pretty strong stuff…be warned). Then, we biked to a bamboo forest and took some bamboo rowboats for a ride before hopping back on our bikes and returning to town. My favorite part of the ride was giving high-fives to all the children in the villages who would greet us as we rode by! They were absolutely adorable.

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After revisiting the tailor shop the next day, my group learned how to make five different types of Vietnamese noodles (cao lau, banh cuon, pho, bun, and mi quang) with an organization called Streets, which provides English and job skills training for local youth in Hoi An. We were able to meet several of the students, and one taught me how to count to five in Vietnamese (mot, hai, ba, bon, nam…san sang!) I spent the afternoon by the pool again before heading to a cooking class with Hai at Green Mango. Hai was Bill Clinton’s personal chef during his visit to Vietnam, and he was absolutely fantastic! The class was very different from the class I took in Thailand…not only because Vietnamese food is very different, but also because of Hai’s unique interpretation of Vietnamese cuisine as a professional chef. Hai was extremely efficient and gave everyone “jobs” to do in order to prepare large shared dishes. We made fresh spring rolls, banana leaf salad with fresh papaya (my favorite!), bun cam tim tron, pan roasted sea bass, and mango sticky rice for dessert. It was delicious! We sampled every single herb we used (my favorites were holly basil and shisho, and I learned the difference in cilantro and culantro!), and Hai was very thorough in explaining how the herbs could be combined to add fullness and flavor to each dish. Hai is truly a master at his art, and I highly recommend his restaurant Green Mango to anyone traveling in Hanoi, Hoi An, or Saigon! IMG_8267


Hoi An was one of my favorite places so far because of its ideal blend of history, culture, and countryside. I definitely feel like I could spend another week there at least. But, there is more to see before I leave Vietnam in a week’s time. For now, it’s onward to Hue!

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Adventures in Saigon

My visit to Saigon was a whirlwind. With 10 million people, it is larger than NYC in population (8 million). The first thing I noticed in Saigon is it seems almost everyone drives a motorbike, and there are almost no traffic rules, which can make crossing the road a life-or-death experience! The motorbikes actually turned out to be a very important factor for me during my time here (more on this later).IMG_8058.JPG

The first thing we did in Saigon was eat at Pho 2000, which apparently is a place Bill Clinton ate at during his visit to the city a few years back! IMG_8042.JPGThen, I and a few trip friends checked out the War Remnants Museum, which documents the “American war.” I was definitely prepared to read about the war from the communist Vietnamese perspective, but as an American it was still really hard to see and learn more about the atrocities committed during the U.S.-Vietnam War. In particular, I learned about how the use of Agent Orange is still affecting many Vietnamese today. It really struck me to see a picture of a girl my age who was born with several birth defects because of her parent’s exposure to the chemical weapons, yet who maintains a positive outlook on life. I had learned about this in high school, but not in this level of detail.IMG_8049.JPG

On the second day, I visited the Cu Chi tunnels and learned about the fighting tactics of the Vietcong during the war. I even crawled 50 meters through a tunnel…not for the claustrophobic! That afternoon, I got lunch at the Ben Thanh market and then met up with my good friends Chau and Will, who happened to be in Saigon from NYC! It was so great to see familiar faces from home in Vietnam. 🙂 We visited the Independence Palace, which was like the Vietnamese version of the White House during the war. Then, we went for a swim on their hotel rooftop. President Obama happened to be visiting Saigon that day, and we could see his motorcade and hear cheering of people lined up along the street from the rooftop. It was a very interesting experience to be this close to the U.S. President on the other side of the world!

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President Obama’s motorcade from the Sofitel Saigon rooftop…lots of people gathered and cheered when he passed by!

Then, I almost got stranded…

My traveling group planned to leave the hotel that evening at 6:30pm to catch an 8 hour night train to Nha Trang. I left Chau and Will’s hotel at 5:30, giving myself an hour to get back to the hotel and meet my group to leave the city. However, the traffic in Saigon (which is already insane) was even crazier than usual due to President Obama’s visit. After 15 minutes, I finally hailed an empty taxi that could take me to the hotel (as printed on a map on a business card from the hotel’s front desk I was carrying). My taxi driver spoke no English, and after sitting in traffic gridlock for 15 more minutes, I knew my chances of making it back to meet my group by 6:30 were growing slimmer. As we sat still in traffic, I kept noticing motorbikes weaving in and out and around traffic, and even over pedestrian sidewalks! I knew this was how I could get back in time. I paid the taxi driver, then hopped out to ask a random (but friendly-looking) Vietnamese lady if she could give me a ride on her motorbike to the hotel. I handed her the printed card, and she motioned for me to hop on. I couldn’t believe I was sitting on the back of a random motorbike, in the rain, weaving in and out of crazy traffic with a woman who didn’t speak English, in a huge city where I was completely lost on the other side of the world.

Despite weaving around cars and over sidewalks, traffic was so congested that we had barely made progress in 20 minutes’ time. My phone now read 6:20…my group would be leaving Saigon soon. I realized I would have to find a hotel and book a train for tomorrow by myself if I did not make it to the train on time. We were moving along so slowly on the motorbike at this point. I recognized the road we were traveling on was the road that would take me back to Ben Thanh market. From there, I felt confident I could find my hotel. I thanked the lady, offered to pay her 50,000 dong (she refused), and hopped off the bike to start running down Le Thanh Ton Road. At this moment, my long distance running skills really came in handy!

After running about ¾ mile in the direction of the market (dodging motorbikes all the while), a kind Vietnamese man on a motorbike flagged me down and offered me a ride. I had a good intuition about him, so I handed him the card and off we went. About 5 minutes later, we were in front of my hotel. I thanked him profusely and also offered 50,000 dong (he also refused) and rushed in to find my group had already left. I frantically grabbed my items, caught a taxi, and took off for the train station, praying I would make it in time. Fortunately, traffic had cleared up and I made it on the train with a few minutes to spare.

I learned a few key lessons from this incident: 1- Never underestimate Saigon traffic. 2- Motorbikes are handy. 3- Despite our best planning, we sometimes find ourselves vulnerable. The humanity of helping someone else who is lost and desperate crosses all language and cultural barriers. I will forever be grateful for the woman and man who gave me rides on their motorbikes that evening. Without them, I could have been stranded by myself and had to pay a good bit more out-of-pocket to meet back with my group. I really feel like they were guardian angels to me!
I am taking away so many great memories and lessons from Saigon. I love the energy of this city, and as I find myself saying a lot these days I hope to return someday.

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The Mekong Delta and On to Saigon

After crossing the border at Phnom Den in Cambodia into Vietnam yesterday, we stopped for lunch in Chau Doc and then continued on to the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta was one of the places I was most looking forward to on this trip. Last night, our group spent the night at a “home stay” in a typical Vietnamese home outside of Can Tho.

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Home stay in Can Tho, Mekong Delta

We had a home cooked meal of Vietnamese pancakes, pumpkin soup, tofu, clay pot pork, green beans, rice, and the best spring rolls I’ve ever had. It was delicious! Later in the evening, we all settled into our beds complete with mosquito nets. It was actually very comfortable. I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of very hard rain, amplified by the tin roof. I don’t remember hearing rain that hard in a really, really long time. It really was raining so much that I thought it was going to flood! Some water came through the cracks onto me and my bed, so I made sure to cover up my phone and computer with a blanket. Despite thinking we would get washed away, I woke up in the morning with the house still intact.IMG_8004.JPG

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IMG_8008Early the next morning, we went to the floating market on the Mekong River. The floating market is comprised of vendors on their boats in the middle of the river, with customers weaving through on their own boats and then hitching to whichever boat they want to shop from. The boat shops display what they are selling on tall bamboo canes on their boats (like a flagpole). The first boat to approach sold Vietnamese coffee, and it did not disappoint! We then hitched to a pineapple boat, where a lady cut and sold fresh pineapple. I learned the vendors live on their boats 24/7 until it’s time to go back to the farm to work and restock, after which they return to sell on the boats. Most locals visit the markets a few times a month to shop for food. It was a really unique place. IMG_8037.JPG
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Floating market, Mekong Delta

After the market in Can Tho, we drove about 4 hours to Ho Chi Minh City (otherwise known as Saigon). I am slightly anxious about this visit, as I know a lot of what I will be seeing relates to the U.S.-Vietnam War. I know there are two sides to every story, so I am interested in learning about the war in this context and from the Vietnamese perspective. So…we will see how Saigon goes! 

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On a pineapple boat in the floating market!

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