Traffic in Vietnam is famous. Maybe not tourist-attraction famous, but definitely a phenomenon.
We’re talking about motorbike traffic. Motorbikes swarm Vietnam like monster bees. Buzzing, roaring, put-putting down every street, along every alley, across every sidewalk, squeezing through the aisles of outdoor markets. There are 90 million people in Vietnam and 45 million motorbikes. Cars? Maybe a couple million.
Traffic lights are a big deal, too. There aren’t any. OK, a few. But we’ve seen more traffic lights along Broadway than we saw in all of Ho Chi Minh City.
We faced the motorbike phenomenon on our first day in HCMC. There we were, innocent tourists, poised to visit Ba Chieu Market, a wonderful, chaotic place where you can buy everything from exotic fruit, to crazy shirts, to great street food.
It was right across the street — a multi-lane street flooded with an endless tsunami of motorbikes.
We looked at our son, Ben Shepard, and his boyfriend, Job Zheng, for help. They’d been in HCMC for weeks and were old traffic pros.
“What do we do?”
“Just start walking.”
This is how Ben explained it: “Wait until only motorbikes are bearing down — no trucks or cars – then step out. Walk, don’t run. Not too fast, not too slow. Steady. Everybody will swerve around you. It’ll be fine. We promise.”
What to do? On the one hand we didn’t want to die, on the other, Ben and Job were OK.
We held hands and stepped out. Thelma and Louise pedestrian style.
It was a kind of miracle. The Red Sea parting. The motorbike horde slipped around us, one side or the other. Nobody slammed on brakes, nobody yelled. Nobody seemed to pay us any attention at all except to navigate around us as if we were traffic cones.
“See,” said Ben when we reached the opposite curb unscathed, “that’s how it works in Vietnam.”
That’s the way it worked for our entire three-week Vietnam trip. In HCMC, Dalat, Hanoi, Hoi An and in Phu Quoc, an island off the southern coast.
The first step was always trepidatious but we eventually got used to motorbikes zooming all around us. Motorbikes are the ocean and pedestrians are the fish. You just start swimming. And we came to realize that the motorbike traffic is pretty slow, even in the countryside. No one was in a hurry to pass anyone or beat the traffic light – if there were any.
We aren’t exaggerating. You can Google Vietnam traffic and find a zillion mentions. But what we found more amazing was motorbike as pack animal. Three on a bike? Routine. Someone carrying a coop full of chickens? Sure, why not?
One day eating lunch in the Thao Dien district of HCMC, we made a list of what passing motorbikers were toting:
Seven empty plastic water jugs
A closet storage system
A mobile bakery
Several dozen coconuts in big red plastic bags
Two aluminum ladders
Side baskets filled with melons
A pet transfer service with a big cage on the back
A 4-foot-high batch of brooms
Five baskets of flowers
A knife sharpening service
Dozens of people with grocery bags
Dozens of guys delivering what looked like Amazon boxes.
But the most memorable? A whole family on one bike.
We must have seen a dozen. It was always in the same order: Dad driving, with one child in front of him; Mom behind, with a second child in front of her. This, too, was always the same: Dad and Mom wore helmets, the kids didn’t.
Safety is not a phenomenon in Vietnam.
John and Jody
Say “Vietnamese food” and most people think “pho.”
It’s the unofficial national dish. A rice noodle soup of light beef or chicken broth flavored with just about anything. Ginger, coriander, spring onions, slivers of chicken, pork or beef. Vietnamese eat it anytime, anywhere.
We had our share of pho — which, we discovered, is pronounced something like “phuh.” But pho, we also discovered, is just the beginning of Vietnam’s complex, spicy, exotic, seriously yummy cuisine.
Here’s a seriously yummy example: It was our first full day in Vietnam. We’d just visited the War Remnants Museum and the Independence Palace in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The Propaganda Bistro is just a couple blocks from both (making its name tongue-in-cheek). The perfect lunch stop.
The Bistro is a popular spot — for its mural-decorated walls as well as its food – so it took us a while to get a table. Once seated, here’s what the four of us ordered: wild pepper and green mango salad with baby squid and prawns; pumpkin flowers stuffed with mushroom patties in light batter with green chili sauce; fresh prawn rolls with palm hearts and julienne vegetables; crunchy tri-colored rice with shrimp/squid/fish balls; sizzling beef with caramelized shallots, pork sausage pate, and fried egg. And for the table: fresh bread and fried taro-and-sweet-potato shreds.
So much for noodle soup.
The truth is, we never ate in a fancier restaurant in Vietnam. We stuck mainly to street food or casual joints in night markets — which made eating as much of an adventure as touring. As we hop-scotched around the country here were some of our favorite foods.
Banh mi — Vietnam’s famous sandwich. Second only to pho in popularity. Basically, a baguette (introduced by the French in the 19th century) that’s filled with whatever you want. We loved Banh Mi 362, a busy take-out place in HCMC. One brunch we had a fried quail egg banh mi with ham and chicken and a banh mi “omelette” with egg and ham. Various other ingrediants were available — like cilantro, cucumbers, chilis, pickles and onion – we added a bunch of them and dug in.
We also tried banh mi at Banh Mi Phuong, a place in Hoi An that Anthony Bourdain once said had “the best bánh mì in Vietnam.” It was jammed. Long line for takeaway. Sorry, Anthony, it wasn’t the best. Not by a long shot. Also John walked through the kitchen to the bathroom. Unfortunately, some things you can’t un-see. Let’s just say the health inspector was overdue.
Ca phe trung — Vietnam is the second biggest coffee growing country in the world (behind Brazil). And it’s got a coffee culture to match. Coffee shops line downtown streets. Each one decorated with tiny plastic red tables — less than two feet high — surrounded by coffee drinkers.
Along with the usual lattes and cappuccinos, there are uniquely Vietnamese coffee drinks. We discovered “ca phe sua” – espresso and condensed milk – in HCMC. In Da Lat we encountered “ca phe muoi” — coffee mixed with a salty cream.
But the topper was “ca phe trung” in Hanoi. Otherwise known as “egg coffee,” it’s a combination of sweetened espresso with whipped egg yoke on top. It’s almost a desert. Think coffee meringue pie or coffee tiramisu or maybe coffee eggnog.
We tried our first ca phe trung at Café Giang (the owner’s father invented the drink), where it’s been served since 1946. We were there on a cool, grey afternoon and both floors were packed. Each ca phe trung cup sat in a small ceramic bowl. We’re not sure why. Maybe to catch any overflowing meringue.
Lobster — On the eve of New Year’s Eve, we squeezed through the crowds at Hoi An’s outdoor night market, which is on an island across a narrow neck of the Thu Bon River from the Old Town.
The market sells T-shirts and other tourist knick-knacks but most everybody is there for the food. There are dozens of stalls cooking an encyclopedia of foods. Squid, frogs, octopi, chickens, weird things we couldn’t identify. We headed to the far side of the island where the lobster grillers were at work.
We picked a stand at random (the cook looked like a nice lady) and put in an order. The nice lady grabbed a group of small lobsters out of a tank, chopped off some antennae and threw them on her grill. In 10 minutes juice dripping, succulent grilled lobsters were delivered to our tiny table in paper cartons.
Just about the best street food we’d ever eaten.
Pizza — We say “just about,” because we discovered the best street food ever in Da Lat. It’s called “banh trang nuong.” Better known to tourists as “Vietnamese pizza.”
Banh trang nuong is round and has a crust but that’s about its only connection to the Italian concoction. This pizza is sizzled on an outdoor grill starting with a base of thin rice paper. Instead of tomato sauce, they smear quail or chicken egg over the rice paper. Then come the toppings. Amazing stuff like shrimp paste or bits of dried pork, sriracha sauce, red chilis, and scallions. Even cheese and bacon for westerners who can’t completely let go.
When the cook hands you the finished pizza – about the size of a small dinner plate – you fold it over and take a bite. It’s like all of Vietnamese cuisine rolled into one: crunchy, gooey, complex, spicy, exotic, seriously yummy.
John and Jody
“Chuc Mung Nam Moi!”
That’s “Happy New Year!” in Vietnamese. It’s a much heftier greeting here than back home. Vietnam’s New Year is like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Fourth of July rolled into one.
When we arrived at Ho Chi Minh City on Jan. 9 the tinsel and “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” signs were everywhere and New Year’s Day wasn’t until Jan. 25. (Vietnam, like China, celebrates New Year’s based on a lunar calendar. Both were anticipating the upcoming Year of the Rat.)
At night, HCMC’s downtown was lit up like Las Vegas. Indoor and outdoor restaurants were jammed. Every store had New Year’s decorations.
A week later we were in Da Lat, a former French colonial city in the central highlands. One of its nicknames is “City of Flowers,” because it’s surrounded by thousands of greenhouses. Ten days before New Year’s, Da Lat’s flower business was going crazy.
Red and yellow are lucky colors in Vietnam and Da Lat’s streets were lined with people selling yellow chrysanthemums, red roses and, our favorite, the lucky kumquat tree. Really. Kumquats everywhere. Apparently, they symbolize good health and good luck for business. The trees, just a few feet high, were loaded with fruit and stuck in big flowerpots. And, of course, carted around on the backs of motorbikes.
And Hanoi seemed like a party town. During evening strolls around Hoan Kiem Lake, the town’s historic center, we passed choral groups and dance troupes; bad karaoke leaked out of bars and canned music blared out over pedestrian mobs.
We tried to greet people with “Chuc Mung Nam Moi!” but had limited success. Locals would look at us blankly for a second (“What are those crazy foreigners trying to say?”) then the light would dawn and they’d grin broadly and repeat it back or say something else festive – none of which we understood. Maybe they said, “Song lau tram tuoi,” which means something like, “Live to be 100.”
Along with kumquat trees, Vietnam’s New Year’s traditions include giving “lucky money” to kids, decorating the house, buying clothes, paying off debts, shooting off fireworks, and praying at pagodas. The whole thing lasts for days. Businesses close, school’s out, factories shut down, everybody heads to their parents’ place or grandparent’s or favorite uncle’s.
Without relatives to visit, we headed to the historic coastal city of Hoi An. Which, by reputation, is Vietnam’s premier New Year’s destination.
Hoi An’s original prime was in the 17th and 18th centuries when it was thriving riverside port (the coast is five miles off). Then the river silted up and Hoi An became a backwater to Danang, 30 miles to the north. But the ancient city, with its rows of mustard-colored merchant houses, was preserved.
When Vietnam opened up to the West in the 1990s, Hoi An was rediscovered. UNESCO made it a World Heritage site in 1999; tourists flooded in. Today the merchant houses are shops and restaurants and the Old Town is surrounded by hotels and resorts.
Tourism means Hoi An is in festival mode year-round. Lanterns festoon the narrow back streets, lantern-lit boats ply the Thu Bon River. But New Year’s Eve is something else. On an Old Town back street we watched a dance performance involving acrobatic teens, a pulsing drum corps and dragon costumes.
As evening approached, the quaint arched river bridges were lit up like airport runways. By dinner time, the tourist crowd was so dense at the night market we had to turn sideways to squeeze our way through. At night, the riverside vendors had sold so many small floating lanterns — each holding a single candle – looking down at the water was like looking up at the Milky Way.
Because both of us were nursing colds that day, we decided to forgo the downtown fireworks show. As we walked back to our hotel, the riverbanks were lined with tiny tables and chairs and festive visitors drinking beer. At midnight, the river surface flashed with reflected celebration.
“Chuc Mung Nam Moi!”
John and Jody
In our last postcard, we didn’t mention that the Vietnamese New Year holiday is called Tet.
We didn’t forget. But to many Americans the word “Tet” is synonymous with “Vietnam War.” The Tet Offensive was a country-wide surprise attack during the 1968 Lunar New Year holiday. It was the war’s biggest battle — more than 1,000 GIs died.
But Tet casts no such shadow here. In Vietnam it’s just a time for joy and celebration. Grudge doesn’t seem to be a Vietnamese concept. War? What war? During our trip we must have brought up the subject a dozen times. Each time – in the north, south, coast, inland — the answer was the same: “That’s the past, we look ahead.”
That’s Vietnam in a single sentence. The people we met were industrious, optimistic and happy. Laughter was everywhere.
A boat dock gate didn’t open – the gate man struggled with it, laughed, struggled some more, laughed, then let us around another side. A fruit seller thought it hilarious when we asked her to write out the Vietnamese name for dragon fruit (“thranh long”). When our tour Jeep stalled in a busy highway outside Hanoi, the pretty young tour guide just shrugged, laughed and sat back, putting her feet up on the dash.
Even the Cu Chi tunnels, a war site outside HCMC, felt more like a theme park than a memorial. The extensive tunnels, used by the Viet Cong to evade U.S. troops and napalm attacks, vie with gift shops, documentaries with jaunty soundtracks, booby trap displays, a shooting range and outdoor restaurants for the attention of tourists. When we visited the place was packed. People sticking their heads out of a tunnel entrance was the main photo op.
Even our Cu Chi guide, “Mr. Chi,” was ultimately dismissive of it all. “We can’t be Hobbits all our lives,” he said as we left for our boat ride back to the city.
Then there’s HCMC’s war museum. It’s grim. The third floor “agent orange” exhibit has gut-wrenching photos. But even here the Vietnamese downplay the past. An earlier version of the museum, opened in 1975, was called “The Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes.” In 1990 the name was changed to “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression.”
When diplomatic relations with the U.S. were resumed in 1995, the name was changed again. Now it’s called the “War Remnants Museum.”
At our hotel in Da Lat we kept asking Huynh Nghia, the friendly guy who welcomed us, what his job title was. Each day he’d laugh and give us a different title.
Finally, on our last day, as we were leaving, he said, “I’m manager, door man, waiter, bellhop, president! There are no titles here, we’re now just family.” And then he laughed and gave us both a hug.
John and Jody