Making Sense of Vietnam

Sin Chow--hello from Vietnam. It is 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon, Dec 23, 2008.  Happy Chanukah! We have been here a full week, stopping in Hanoi, Hue , Danang, Hoi An, and Saigon and haven't had a chance to report in until now.  What a textured and complex country.  We flew in not knowing what to expect, carrying our physical and emotional baggage, and we'll leave tomorrow for Cambodia so gratified we came, but still mystified by the immensity of what we experienced.  An absolute assault on our senses and a must not-miss destination.
First, politically.  While the Chinese and French have been gone for a long time (Chinese for centuries and French for decades), their influence still lingers in architecture,  cuisine, and language. Yes, it's a communist country and yes the north won the "American" war.

Three-quarters of the population was born after 1975.  The  Buddhist influence is strong so most people (not the  government) appear to have let go of their anger about the  war (at least toward Americans).  There is no social egalitarianism here.  There is extreme poverty and great extravagance.  And while seeing Ho Chi Minh laid out was chilling in more ways than one and seeing the omnipresent red flag with yellow star is powerful, we are past the cold war, Vietnam's business presence is growing.  It was not at all uncomfortable being an American here. Of course, you need to take the anti-American museum captions and displays with a grain of salt.  For instance, we stayed at the Hilton Hanoi and visited the Hanoi Hilton where we saw the day-to-day activities of the American POWs glorified.  And we contrasted Ho Chi Minh's office and lodgings with the opulence and corruption of the President's Palace (now Reunification Hall). We traipsed through the woods and crouched through the Cu Chi tunnels where many thousands lived and over 10,000 Viet Cong died from the late 40s to the mid 60s, witnessed those horrific living conditions (yet awful traps) firsthand.  Our favorite guide told us that Ho Chi Minh city is only called that by people in the north; it's Saigon to those down south who refuse to be "brainwashed" (his word).  So, we are more conflicted than ever.

Moving to that assault on the senses and starting with the visual gifts of this fascinating country.  Vietnam is a spectacle of colors--from the beautiful flowers everywhere, to the markets with their full array of magnificent silks, lanterns, vegetables and fruits, clothing, meats, candies, teas, and fish.  From the breath-taking scenery on the Hai Van Pass to Danang (rivals the road to Hana but wilder) to the 19th century royal palaces and tombs and ancient city, to the beautiful lakes in Hanoi, China Beach in Danang... all was beautiful. Of course, the presentation of the food was every bit as beautiful as in Thailand. The adults (many wearing masks as protection against the pollution--no emission standards here and also they'll go to great lengths to keep their lily white skin white) and the children were so memorable.  The teeming cities with almost more motor bikes than people and the cyclos galore (these are tricycles with front seats for one passenger each).  We took 4 cyclo rides.  The carry-poles (bamboo poles carried across the shoulders with two baskets carrying a wide range of items ranging from fruits and vegetables to French bread) were everywhere. We loved watching citizens of Hanoi playing badminton and/or doing aerobics or Tai Chi on our early morning walk.  The water puppet show in Hanoi and Cham Hindu statues from the 7th century on (in a wonderful museum in Danang) were visual treasures. The rice paddies nearing harvest time. The Christmas decorations.  We could go on and on.
But sight was not the only sense where we were assaulted. Vietnam is a cacophony of sounds.  The cities with their constantly-blaring and beeping horns; the gentle chanting of Buddhist novices at the Tu Dom pagoda outside Hue.  The constant chiding of street merchants for us to buy a T-shirt, a postcard, take a picture.  The harsh staccato language  with six tonations (the letters "ma" are pronounced in 6 different ways--each with very different meanings.  A slight slip of the tongue could mean disaster!).  [The written language is just over a century old, by the way, and uses Roman characters.]  Other sounds: the crashing of the surf at China Beach .  The constant din outside our window in Saigon past midnight.  The Christmas carols (in English) sung by a choir of high school students at our spectacular seaside resort in Danang (a growing tourist destination). 

As to the sense of touch.  There are silk merchants and tailors everywhere and two actually reeled us (Ok, Wendy) in by the sumptuous silks.  So soft and luscious to the touch and now I am the proud owner of several custom-made jackets and camisoles that may not get a lot of wear but will have been completely worth it based on the precise tape-measurement experience.  Of course, Wayne is concerned that I will give these items away which will not be the case...but given the amount of food that has been consumed it may very well be several years before I can wear them.
On to the sense of smell.  We won't easily forget the smells up and down the side streets of Hanoi at breakfast time (people preparing noodles, rice dishes, meat curbside--then dining with their neighbors). The smells were even stronger at the small country village outside Hoi An.  As we watched the old women whack at the fresh meat and fish, we couldn't help but back away.  But perhaps the smells in the Saigon Cho Benh Thanh (Central Market) were most pungent.  This market, taking up a full city block, was pulsing with merchants selling every conceivable type of product--including, but not limited to, electronics, bed linens, lingerie, toys, fish, meat, vegetables, and fruits. We had an actual durian encounter, as you may know, durian is the absolute smelliest fruit around (our hotel in Danang actually had signs forbidding durian in the rooms). The 91  degrees outside only intensified the "fragrances" coming from this market.
Alas, we won't forget taste.  We liked Thai cuisine, we loved Vietnamese cuisine...not quite as sweet as Thai, not quite as hot, with French influence.  All of our meals were good.  We had two particularly lovely lunches in beautiful settings (one on the river in Hoi An) where we feasted on carmelized eggplant, beef with peppers, chicken with vegetables, prawns in all shapes, flavors, and sizes, lots of pork, and the ubiquitous white rice (once my favorite food). But our first dinner in Vietnam was perhaps our most memorable where we dined at the Ba Mien restaurant in Hanoi and chose the set menus.  While my menu included 10 items, they were not served in true degustation style...but rather, in groupings of 2 or 3... so only 3 courses.

I should make clear that several couples on our tour group keep Kosher so are eating fish and vegetarian.  They have done very well.  But neither Wayne nor I have any aversion to shellfish (and Wayne loves his pork)... so we have been exposed to the full array of dining possibilities.  For this particular meal (loosen your belts), I started with crab meat and aloe vera salad, Imperial Hue spring rolls with pork, shrimp, star fruit, green banana and herbs, and Fried Hanoi spring rolls with crab meat, minced pork and glass noodle.  These were served together on a plate with a candle.  The soup was next--asparagus soup with crabmeat, mushroom and steamed crab meat dumpling.  Next, came the main course(s) which were grilled scallops with lemongrass scent, wok fried Wagyu beef cubes and capsicums with black pepper sauce, rice with wok fried vegetables and braised abalone (which I ignored).  The dessert course included banana custard with caramelized bananas and passion fruit sauce and tea with green tea macaroons. Please understand, the serving size for each item was relatively small and the pacing was appropriate.  With 10 of us at the table and most of us having the set menu, the total cost was Nine Million Five Hundred Thousand Dong! (covered by our tour except for alcohol which was minimal in this group).  That's about $45 each (the U.S. dollar goes a loooong way here).
We leave for Cambodia (Angkor Wat) in the morning.  We will leave you with one more impression of Vietnam. The traffic is crazy and you take your life in your hands each time you cross the street.  One of our local tour guides (and all 6 of our Vietnam tour guides have had the same last name--Nguyen,pronounced Nwin, by the way) gave us some excellent counsel.  Nghi (pronounced Near as in near and far as he told us) suggested that we keep three principles in mind:  Be confident, walk slowly, and never look back. We added another, it's now or never. Traffic lights are just a suggestion, not to be taken seriously.  With these principles in mind, we successfully and safely navigated many busy streets in Vietnam .

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