Our First Time in Vietnam!!
When Zach and I decided to go to Vietnam, for myself, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. It is a major country in Southeast Asia on a major coastline, with many ports of entry (land and air), and yes, the US did take part in a war here, but that could not affect our adventure in 2019.. right? Our families, having lived through the Vietnam War, cautioned us on the possibility that locals could view our presence in distaste. I had no idea that it wasn’t until the 1990’s that American citizens could enter the country for tourism purposes, which is NOT that long ago. Zach and I did not know what to expect from entering this country, how our presence would be viewed, or what our encounters with the Vietnamese would be like. Of course, many tourists enter Vietnam every day. We witnessed this at the Visa-On-Arrival counter. There are hundreds of people of different nationalities trying to enter Vietnam on a daily basis. However, we feel like we are undeniably U.S.-looking… Nike shoes, bright colored clothes, not covered up from head-to-toe, very pale, and with the American accent. In our minds, we look like Americans, so naturally, we think anyone and everyone can plainly spot us as such. This, of course, may or may not be paranoid thinking.
Our first test was getting through Vietnam Immigration in the Ho Chi Minh airport. If you care to know what that entailed, read the small bit below. If not, skip it.
We had our filled out NA1 forms, the 4x6cm visa pictures (they were actually 3.5x5cm but were accepted without issue), $25 US dollars each, and printed copies of our VOA (Visa-On-Arrival) letters signed and sealed by Vietnamese immigration officials prior to our arrival. In total it cost us $62 dollars and 2 hours to enter the country.
We had no issues getting our visas or with the immigration officer who stamped our passports, although we did see the woman in front of us quickly pass cash to the immigration officer, we think we witnessed a bribe, and it was exciting. It did, however, make us a bit nervous as we each stepped up to the officer’s desk to get stamped through. He asked 2 questions, “How long is your stay?”, and “Do you have your flight number?”. Thankfully, he was asking for the flight that brought us into the country, not the flight that would take us away, which was good because we didn’t have a flight out, we would be exiting by bus.
After getting through to our baggage, and into our Grab (Asian Uber) what struck me the most was the amount of traffic. It was 8 PM on a Friday night, but you would have thought it was rush hour. However, the difference is that the majority of vehicles on the road are not cars or large trucks, they are small, fast-moving motorbikes weaving in, out, and around each other trying to get through. Traffic stops are barely paid any attention to, the law is more, “if no one is coming, go for it.” Which compared to all the traffic we experienced and witnessed in Thailand, was considerably different and overwhelming. There are THOUSANDS of bikes on the roads at all times of day, it is truly a sight to be seen. I certainly would not fare well driving in such conditions, I do not know how our Grab driver was able to maneuver a sedan through the hundreds of bikes fighting for the same lane.
The second thing I noticed that was much different between Thailand and Vietnam was the loss of what I’ve been calling, “bow-culture”. I hate to compare two countries who over the past 100 years have been through very different histories, but I feel like it is worth mentioning the difference in how people greet each other since learning how to say, “hello” is one of the 2 words I try to know and use when I get to a new country. Not once do I recall being greeted with a Vietnamese greeting, “Xen Chao” (zeen-chow), and there was a noticeable lack of bowing with hands held together at the chest. It just must not be a thing people do in Vietnam, but something I had gotten used to seeing and doing in Thailand. I would say the majority of the people we spoke with, vendors, restaurant staff, etc. knew to greet us with “hello”, and made good use of broken English. I can only assume this is because of their history and time spent with US foreign invaders.
WARNING: History Lesson Ahead.
We thought it was necessary to spend our first full day exploring the War Remnants Museum, which chronologically maps out the many wars that make up Vietnam’s history. The best way to describe it is: it’s complicated. First, it was the French, then it was the French and the US, and then it was the US and multiple other countries. And when it was all over and Vietnam had its independence, the government still fell through, but somehow Vietnam is a semi-communist country to this day. After reading the timeline it was difficult to know who was really to blame for any of it. One thing is undeniable, the US used some pretty awful weaponry.
One of the saddest things we learned was that the war is still affecting the Vietnamese people today. Agent Orange toxins are still found in regions of farmland, and 4 generations following the war are still being effected with birth deformities. There are still thousands of bombs in the soil, and even though there are groups who can detect, locate, and defuse them, hundreds of people are killed each year.
That is what we learned. I’m glad we did, but it was very sad, and definitely the most sensitive subject we have faced on our trip thus far.
BACK TO THE HAPPY STUFF.
We loved walking around Ho Chi Minh. What was really nice was that it isn’t a place with the soul purpose of tourism. This means being able to walk down the street without being honked at by taxi drivers every minute, or being asked if we needed a tuk-tuk on every corner. People generally ignored us, and it was nice. We loved seeing the French colonial architecture, stopping to get 25-cent ice cream cones at our beloved MiniStop, and sitting down to write postcards inside the old but beautifully preserved post office.
We also fell in love with a particular Banh Mi sandwich that we kept purposefully returning to. Located just across the street from the big Bitexco Financial Tower, NHU’ LAN has a beautiful shawarma-style roasting meat set up right next to one of the counters (we believe it is pork), and it looks and tastes delicious.
We got our order right on the second try by pointing right to it, not knowing how else to communicate that we want the rotating meat, not just the regular ham. Ask for it on a Bahn Mi roll, and they’ll fix it up nicely with patte, mayo, veggies, chili’s, warm it up a little, and it only cost 25k VND (=$1.07).
Over the short span of one and a half days, we ordered SIX Bahn Mi. Simply put, we really loved it, and yes six sandwiches is excessive BUT, this is the first time we had BREAD in about three weeks. Not just regular bread either, really good crusty on the outside, soft on the inside, French bread! It made a mighty fine sandwich, we could not help ourselves! I like to think we deserved those six Banh mi. Especially since we were walking the entirety of District 1 in 90 plus degrees for 12 hours each day! We regret none of it!
We also purchased a few of the little sausage filled pastries they had in a warming unit next to the shawarma deal. It was labeled, PATESO, so that’s what we called it. If there is another name, we apologize. These were also absolutely scrumptious, flakey, buttery, sausage-filled delicacies. At 12k VND (=$0.52) each we should have bought more!
Our time spent in Ho Chi Minh was really lovely. We were blessed with decent weather to explore as much as we could on foot, and we feel like we got a good sense of the people in the city. Nowhere else had we experienced as many motorbikes lined up on sidewalks, as much traffic, and as many food carts devoted to one thing: banh mi. I haven’t even mentioned that we did sit down for a bowl of really good Pho in the Ben Thanh Market. We were there for breakfast before the madness began, and we had the best bowl of beef pho ever.
The broth was so full of beefy flavor, the meat was tender, and the noodles were slurpy. We added on all the herbs and sprouts we could. It was divine, and only cost 40k VND (=$1.72). We tried one other bowl of pho during our stay, and it was not nearly as delicious as our first at the Ben Thanh Market. If you don’t make it to Ben Thanh to barter for something, and they have everything, at least go for pho. It will be well worth it.
After our time in Ho Chi Minh we traveled 4 hours south to Can Tho, but that is a different story! Thanks for reading!