Everyone hates the middle class white girl who goes to Asia to find herself. She’ll probably ride an elephant, whose care is questionable, and maybe pay to ‘volunteer’ with some disadvantage youths, all for that all important gap yah wanker Facebook profile. I however am not one of those girls, I didn’t ride an elephant, I didn’t pay to volunteer and my Facebook profile remains the same. I went to South East Asia for pure unadulterated pleasure; food, drink and the wonders of the world established my desire to visit a country so different from our own.
Vietnam, has an incredibly sordid and treacherous past. A long and drawn out war where Vietnamese were killing Vietnamese and US involvement was relentless, the powerhouse barbarically sprayed Agent Orange across whole areas and communities as if they were simply watering their thirsty roses. Forty-one years later and Agent Orange still affects generations today, and it’s taken until the glorious reign of my man Barack, for the US to stop sitting on their hands and attempt to reconcile with the people of Vietnam. Despite this gloomy past, Vietnam has rebuilt itself and continues to grow into a country rich in heritage, tradition and breath-taking landscapes, definitely a must on your middle class white girl travels.
Opting for the south to north route we began our Vietnamese adventure in the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, a place many travellers visit fleetingly with the War museum the main highlight of the city. What quickly became top of our agenda not only in Ho Chi Minh but in every destination up and down the country was shopping, eating and drinking.
Shopping in Vietnam isn’t remotely similar to how we know it back in Blighty. Set and labelled prices don’t exist, you ask them how much then based on your western complexion, thus the assumption that your money grows on trees, they pick a laughably high price which becomes your sole goal to lower. Bartering.
Bartering is one of the fundamentals of Vietnamese life and they’re basically top of their league. We dipped our toes in the sparing match formally known as bartering in Cambodia, but boy were we in for a surprise, quickly realising it was a whole different ball game this side of the border. Persistence is key, the Vietnamese really want you to buy their bulk bought tack over their neighbours’ identical tack and they’ll use physical tactics if necessary. My arm was grabbed multiple times trying to literally pull me into their shop and once in there my path to freedom, AKA the exit, was blocked by the seller’s sidekick.
Imitation is paramount when bartering with the pros, be stubborn, a bit bolshie and always remember the vital steps away from their stall in turn lowering the price step by step, voilà. Whilst in Hoi An, the infamous place for shopping and tailoring, we hand-picked and designed three leather bags which went from $350 dollars to $180 by literally walking out the door and down the street. Bargain!
Ho Chi Minh was also great for food, street food was everywhere and we had our first and one of the best Banh Mi’s in Vietnam, a sandwich influenced strongly by Frances previous occupation in the country, but stuffed to the brim of Asian delights. Head to Diem Tam Hong Hoa for freshly baked baguettes and an array of fillings to choose from, Banh Mi is basically an upmarket, better tasting subway and they really are addictive.
Whilst Vietnamese cuisine is probably the best found in South East Asia, their coffee is in a whole new realm. Whole heartedly in my European bubble (fuck you Brexit) I always believed Italian coffee was the crème de la crème, but oh how my world came crashing down with that first sip of Vietnamese coffee. Hot, cold, black, white or egg their coffee will blow your mind. Not only is the blend itself incredible their key ingredient us westerners have overlooked, makes Vietnamese coffee irresistible. Condensed milk made me crave iced coffee daily, making it sweet and creamy, a sure fire way to rotting teeth, but when something tastes this good, I’ll take toothless any day. Weasel Poo coffee is also a high flyer in Vietnam, a process which involves said animals eating the beans whole and then after nature takes its course are hand-picked and washed for your enjoyment. Obviously this procedure is highly professional and more importantly clean and the coffee these bushy tailed creatures create is unimaginable. Oh My Buddha, weasel poo coffee is creamy, aromatic and chocolatey leaving you blessing the ground the weasels walk on. No, really.
After Ho Chi Minh and a quick stop in Mui Ne to ride quad bikes on sand dunes, we arrived in Dalat the home of weasel poo coffee and a very strong correlation with the French Alps. Dalat is a mountainous region in the south of Vietnam where many reminders of its colonial heritage remain, French buildings and villas line the streets, French restaurants pop up throughout the city. If it wasn’t for the inconspicuous meats being butchered at the side of the road and the lingering smell of durian (a Vietnamese fruit banned in confined public spaces and airports because its stench is repulsive) you’d honestly feel like you’d stepped out in the midst of Mount Blanc.
Finally reaching central Vietnam and the glorious Hoi An, famous for its well preserved Old Town cut through with canals. A melting pot of styles with Chinese pagodas, brightly coloured French shop fronts and a Japanese bridge to be found whilst weaving your way through the ancient streets. One of Vietnams most wealthy municipalities it is a cosmopolitan city and culinary mecca which attracts thousands of tourists throughout the year. Tailor shops, stylish bars, and ample restaurants make up Hoi An, a glorious scenic town to stroll around and explore.
A morning on our $1 decrepit bikes took us on an exploration of the nearby rice paddies. If you’re lucky you’ll even see the infamous man riding his water buffalo and if you’re even luckier you’ll manage to sneak a photo before he demands you pay money for his dutiful service to the fans.
Our last stop in Vietnam was the capital city Hanoi and the UNESCO site, Halong Bay. Hanoi, unlike Ho Chi Minh remained authentically Vietnamese, a hard task in a world where western ideals are idolized. The old quarter a maze of streets, selling nik naks, food and housing glorious Vietnamese buildings. With most streets being allocated a category of items to sell, how they compete is beyond me, but you’ll find silk street, metal street, kids toy street, and birthday party decoration street.
Again no city goes untouched by French influence and the French quarter in Hanoi is an ode to Paris in every sense of the word, with Parisian bakeries, restaurants and chic buildings on every corner, why go to France when you can Vietnam and France in one. Hanoi is a base point for Halong Bay, probably the most popular destination in Vietnam. Unfortunately, you can’t just get a boat and go explore the bay willy nilly, unless you’re a certified millionaire. You have to go on an organised, forced fun, forced communication tour. I’m not insinuating I’m a loner who doesn’t want to talk to anyone, but I don’t want to talk to anyone. On our tour, we had a few questionable people and a Vietnamese family whose little girl was obsessed with teaching us the Vietnamese 1-10, the first couple of attempts were amusing but after the fiftieth I was not at all amused. The bay itself was obviously incredible, and the chance to stay on Nam Cat island in the bay and to go kayaking and swimming were once in a lifetime, and also handily offered rest bite from the painful small talk. Nevertheless, you can’t visit Vietnam and neglect Halong bay so just bite the bullet of sharing boat with potentially a bunch of weirdos for a couple of days, and hopefully you’ll never have to go on a cruise again.
Words by Liv Rafferty