Vietnam doesn't carry the same allure as other Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Cambodia. It doesn't have the well-worn backpacker trail, golden temples, or pristine beaches. Vietnam is not likely on the top of most people's lists for places they want to travel in Asia. The only reason it was on mine was one man: Anthony Bourdain. As an avid reader and watcher of his work, I became obsessed with going to Vietnam after listening to him wax poetic about it for years. This is how we spent our two weeks in that amazing country.
Going to Vietnam changed my life. Before our taxi blasted its way through the traffic-clogged streets of Ho Chi Minh City, my sensory perception of the universe was on a muted wavelength. Much like doing psilocybin mushrooms (I can only imagine), Vietnam heightened my senses: colors were brighter, noises louder, smells and tastes more pungent. It sounds cliche, but the country was on a wavelength completely different to the chilled-out vibes of the California coast I've lived on for the last twelve years.
After ten days of unrelenting heat, the seventy-degree weather and rain of mountainous Da Lat were a relief. We arrived at Da Lat’s regional airport from DaNang in a late afternoon drizzle. Our hostel, Happy Homestay, arranged the taxi for us and about fifteen minutes later we were in Da Lat. Walking into the lobby of the homestay, we were confused by the blasting television and the young man playing World of Warcraft on his laptop. A middle-aged woman smiled at us and greeted us in Vietnamese. I asked for Binh, the young man who I had been in contact with over AirBnB. I really thought were in the wrong place. I had heard multiple stories online of tourists being dropped off at a different place than what they told the cab driver. Turns out, this was not the case. Binh, in his puffy parka, runs into the lobby a minute or two we arrive.
We drop our bags off upstairs. There’s some kind of construction and the noise is relentless. Pounding, drilling, sawing nonstop. We hoped this was just going on during the daylight hours and things would quiet down by the time we were going to sleep. We were all really hungry at this point and asked Binh where we should go a meal. He pointed out a couple places including a chicken and rice place just across the street.
We headed over and were greeted by the female proprietor with a smile, almost all the people running restaurants in Vietnam are women. Her infant daughter toddled around in a fur-lined parka. Apparently, seventy degrees is cold in Vietnam. I found it refreshing in my shorts and tank top. She hands us a couple of menus and we have a seat.
Three of us ordered chicken with rice and cabbage and one person ordered fried fish, I think (it’s been six months since the trip and I can’t remember the exact details). The chicken was very similar to a lightly fried chicken you would have in the United States. The rice was lightly flavoured with vinegar and the cabbage was a lot like the greens you would get in the south. It was so unlike any of the other food we had in Vietnam: heavier, which made sense with the climate, and it felt like I could be eating this anywhere. It was really, really good. It was the perfect departure from the ubiquitous rice noodles, which while delicious I was getting a little tired of after ten days.
After our meal, we headed down to the local market. The road is quite empty for Vietnam and passes by a school, a public park where we saw a woman defecating out in the open, and the numerous small shops that are so common. Because of the rain, few people were out cooking on the sidewalk or napping on their motorbikes, which had so often been the background of our trip.
The local market is surrounded by hills covered with narrow, French-style buildings that you find throughout most of Vietnam. It reminded so much of San Francisco: the tall narrow buildings, the steep hills, and the cool, crisp air. The market features foods reminiscent of west coast farmer’s markets: mulberries, strawberries, and avocados. Da Lat is also known for its mushrooms, flowers, and coffee.
We retired early to the hotel because we would have an early morning start on our tour of the area surrounding Da Lat. Sleep was not something that came easily at the Happy Homestay. They were undergoing massive construction and the bed was possibly one of the worst we stayed in, though the worst really goes to the one with blood stains on it in the Mekong.
The next morning my boyfriend and I woke early to get coffee. The coffee in Vietnam is so good, especially for people who love strong coffee that gives you a kick in the ass in the morning. I like mine with condensed milk and iced. On our way back from the coffee shop, I spotted a woman making the delightful banh can. These are delicious pockets of rice dough cooked in a skillet similar looking to an aebelskiver pan with a quail egg cracked on top. They’re almost like the Vietnamese version of the best Egg McMuffin you’ve ever had. They serve it with chilli sauce and a fish sauce with green onions. We ate ours from a plastic bag on the curb outside the Happy Homestay.
Headed by Binh, the young man who runs Happy Homestay, our tour took us to the countryside around Da Lat. Covered with evergreens, this area is so unlike the rest of the places we went to in Vietnam. It reminded me of the countryside in the Sierra foothills. Our first stop was a coffee plantation where they make the famous “weasel coffee.” The weasels are actually civets who are captured from the forest and brought to the coffee plantation. The civets are very picky eaters and only eat the best coffee beans. These beans are then crapped out by the civets and roasted for your coffee drinking pleasure. The coffee is smooth and has a distinct caramel flavour. My friends, who are not coffee drinkers, enjoyed it, but I didn’t like the flavour. Plus, civet poop.
On our way to Elephant Falls, we stopped at a flower plantation, a strawberry farm, and what is called a “minority village.” The people who live here are from one of the multiple native ethnic groups of Vietnam. Most of Vietnam’s nearly 86 million people are from the Kinh ethnic group, which were originally from northern Vietnam and southern China. The houses are traditionally made from wood and differ in their architectural style from other Vietnamese houses.
A number of blogs claim Elephant Falls is difficult to find, but it had clear signage from what I could see. Yes, you will be charged a fee to enter. No, the walk down is not safe by American standards, but it’s not particularly dangerous either. I had a challenging time because the rocks were very high and I am very short. The rocks on the way down are also incredibly slippery and some of the time the only thing you have to hold onto is a vine or a rusty piece of rebar. However, the waterfall is large and the water plentiful. There are rocks you can go out to see the falls clearer, but I am a huge scaredy cat and I refused to go out to them. Off to the left is a pathway that goes under the falls. This, I really enjoyed, but be aware you will get filthy and soaked.
As we washed the mud off and dried in the sun, I watched a woman make traditional woven goods. The scarves around her were beautifully colorful and I would have loved to buy one, but they were a little out of my budget.
After the waterfall, we visited the Buddhist temple up the street then we got a lackluster lunch in a village restaurant. Our last stop of the tour was a silkworm factory. The factory’s air was fetid and stifling. The women worked for a piece work wage, a certain amount of money per kilo of processed silkworms. The women had to be careful working with the lye used to process the silkworms. Outside the factory were enormous piles of silkworm cocoons. It felt wrong going here as if this were a tourist attraction, and it felt like poverty voyeurism.
When we got back to Da Lat, we took short naps then my boyfriend and I headed out to see Crazy House. Crazy House is one of the top attractions in Da Lat. Designed by the daughter of a former president, the house is an ongoing architectural project and is unlike anything else in Vietnam. Part Alice in Wonderland, part jungle, and part Swiss chalet. I’ve never seen anything else like it. It was really fun to explore the different areas and enjoy the shade.
In the evening, Binh took us out for a food tour to some of his favourite street food places. We got what is called Da Lat pizza, banh trang nuong, which is made from a sheet of rice paper, Laughing Cow cheese, shredded jerky, spicy sausage, green onion, egg, chili sauce, and fish sauce. It was crispy, creamy, salty, and smoky charcoal grill. It was absolutely delicious and the best item of street food we had outside of HCMC. Other street food we had included bo la lat (a type of ground meat skewer wrapped betel leaf), bacon wrapped okra and a type of ice cream.
Da Lat was one of my favourite cities in Vietnam. It was relaxed, the weather was perfect, and food, especially the fresh produce, was spot on. I highly recommend adding it to any trip to central or southern Vietnam. It makes for a nice break from the unrelenting heat and traffic of the rest of the country.
Pho: it is what comes to mind when talking to many Americans about Vietnamese food. Banh mi and fresh spring rolls might also come into the conversation. While these foods are tasty, though personally, I find pho a bit on the boring side, they are just the beginning of a deep culinary tradition. In Vietnam, I felt I only got to Viet Nam Food 101: The Basics. So much food, so little time.
Awe-struck, staring out the window, Ho Chi Minh City grabbed my attention the way a Saturday night drunken cat fight might: you shouldn't be enamored with it, but god is it mighty fun to watch from the sidelines. Reading travel blogs and guide books, HCMC is a polarizing city: you either love the frenetic, do-what-you-want regardless of safety, beep-beep of motorbikes or you want to run away from the sun beats down heat to the mountain coolness of DaLat. Typically, I don't like cities. They're dirty, crowded, and I can never see the sky. Ho Chi Minh City is all of those things. On paper, I shouldn't like it. But for some reason, this place charmed me. I think it can be summed up in one phrase: the randomness of shit.
You should go to Ho Chi Minh City. You might love it or you might hate it. It is hot. The noise is relentless. And the backpacker district is full of women offering to jerk your boyfriend off. But how different from San Francisco is that? At least, there wasn't someone covered in blood and pus reeking of urine in the bus terminal.
Hands down the best item of food that I ate was in Ho Chi Minh: side of the road dumplings introduced to us by my cousin Jeff, who lives and teaches in Ho Chi Minh City. Food is abundant and cheap everywhere in Viet Nam. Mark Wiens at Migrationology has an excellent guide to the 25 foods to try in Ho Chi Minh City. Bookmark it before you leave or download the free e-book version.
With its lack of people dressed up in colorful costumes decorated with pink stuffed animals, you might come to the conclusion that HCMC lacks good people watching, but one of my favorite things to do was grab an iced coffee (more about that later) and watch people. I watched people exercising at night, processing chicken transactions, making out in parks, playing hackysack with a shuttlecock. It was fantastic. HCMC never lacked for a scene of people doing things that I found absolutely fascinating in its simultaneous mundanity and otherness.
Architecture and Green Spaces
With a blend of French colonial villas, modern steel towers, and manicured green spaces, Ho Chi Minh City's architecture displays the mixed heritage of the largest city in Viet Nam. While Ho Chi Minh City might lack in specific architectural wonders, it's the overall appeal of the 68 floor Bitexco tower next to a decrepit colonial villa and three blocks away a green oasis replete with benches, neon water fixtures, and pagodas.
Specific buildings to check out: Bitexco Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office, and Ho Chi Minh City Hall.
I have no pictures to represent one of the best reasons to go to Viet Nam: coffee. There's either a cafe or a woman in a matching floral patterned pant suit selling coffee. My drink of choice Cà phê sữa đá, high octane, coarsely ground coffee iced with a large portion of condensed milk. Oh, and a straw. Always with the straw. If you're not a coffee drinker, Viet Nam is full of delicious juices: watermelon, passion fruit, sugarcane. But really, relax in an air conditioned cafe with wifi and a cup of what might be the best damn coffee of your life.
The motorbike. A vehicle which blazes a exhaust filled line in the sand for travelers and travel bloggers alike. Read any travel guide or blog and you will hear about the horrendous traffic in HCMC. Understandable. Rush hour, crossing a roundabout for the first time and you make it across without an accident, you feel like you should get a gold medal. The trick my cousin taught me: put your hand up, walk slowly and diagonally, don't speed up and only stop if there's a car not a motorbike.
My favorite moments in the city were riding on the back of my cousin's motorbike. I loved threading through traffic, the musical horn notes blasting over the unbiquitous electronic store EDM, and taking in the sight of a guy with his entire family on his bike plus several dogs and possibly a mattress. There is no end to what you can fit on a motorbike.
My Cousin Jeff
Okay. Not everyone is going to want to visit my cousin Jeff, but he's a really awesome guy! After almost five years of not seeing him, this trip was a great time to reconnect. Plus, he was able to show us around a bit. It helps to have someone a bit in the know. Get your own cousin Jeff!
The Randomness of Shit
Asking my boyfriend what I should I include in this post, he said, "experiencing the randomness of shit you see between points a and b." I could not put this more eloquently. Choose a direction, go and see what you find. This really brought some of our best moments in Ho Chi Minh City. Sit down at a random bar or cafe and watch events unfold.
Random moments: coming across this food photo shoot near Ben Thanh Market, people exiting Catholic mass en masse on motorbike, massages at bars, people exercising in parks at 9 pm. It was wonderful to watch it unfold.
I love researching, planning and packing for a trip. Unpacking and doing laundry afterwards, not so much.
What I Brought
- Sandals (Tevas not flip-flops)
- Four pairs of socks
- Two bras (one sports bra and one regular)
- One swimsuit top
- 13 pairs of underwear
- One pair of light weight pants
- Ten shirts (mostly tank tops)
- Two pairs of shorts
- A jumper
- Two dresses
- A light hooded sweatshirt
Toiletries and Personal Items
- Three packages of tissues
- Three packages of wet wipes
- Make-up bag with cover up, one lip gloss, bronzer, blush, mascara, and chap stick.
- Travel sized toothpaste
- Travel toothbrush
- Travel sized shampoo
- Hand sanitizer
- Sun screen (50 spf)
- Bug spray
- Sony RX100 digital camera
- Gorilla pod
- Cell phone
- Cell phone charger
- Camera charger
- Viet Nam Rough Guide
- Caribbean history book
- Vietnamese phrase book
- Notebook and pen
- Day bag
- Dry bag
- Two packing cubes
- First aid kit with band aids, Dramamine, pain spray, Advil, anti-diarrhea pills, and condoms.
- Sleep sheet
- Inflatable travel pillow
- Microfiber Towel
- Money Pouch
What I Didn't Need and Why
- Sneakers. I never once wore my sneakers. I thought I would need them for hiking or the cave, but it was ridiculously hot (typically around 35 degrees Celsius) in Viet Nam and I never ended up needing them. They took up considerable space and weight in my bag.
- Jumper (or as the boyfriend calls it, "Cocktail Snuggie"). Who knew that onesies would be incredibly difficult to take off in a pocket sized bathroom with a squat toilet? I should have figured. In an attempt to use the toilet in my hotel room, I ripped an enormous hole in the back. It got ditched in our hotel room trash can.
- Four pairs of socks. Let me give you this important detail: I tend to only wear novelty socks and I only packed novelty socks. I hate socks. They feel like they're strangling my feet. As I never I wore my sneakers, I never wore my socks. The constant stepping in gutters, exhaust fumes, non-stop construction, and bug bites did leave my feet not looking their foot model prettiest.
- Scarf. The temperature barely dropped below 22 degrees Celsius and the blankets provided on sleeper buses were perfectly adequate if a little scratchy.
- Hat. My awesomely enormous old lady gardener hat would have been useful if I wore it. Instead, Tyler ended up wearing it most of the time and I came to the realization that I hate wearing hats.
- Packages of Wet Wipes. They were always giving us wet wipes. EVERYWHERE. Hotels, hostels, restaurants, tour buses, sleeper buses, airplanes. SO MANY WET WIPES.
- Hand Sanitizer. I just never bothered using it. Maybe I'm unsanitary.
- Gorilla Pod. Sure, my gorilla pod would have come in handy in a few places; I would have gotten better shots at the waterfalls and caves. While I wanted to document the trip and be a good travel blogger, I also wanted to enjoy my trip through my own eyes and not the lens of a camera.
- Swimsuit Top. The water in Viet Nam was delightfully warm and not full of jellyfish. My friends had a great time swimming in it. As we were going to be getting on a train not much later, I was not particularly interested in getting wet or having to change my clothes. I would recommend bringing a swimsuit if you're going to coastal towns.
- Money Pouch/Belt. This wasn't necessary for me. Viet Nam is a relatively safe country and I kept most of my money locked up in my hostel. When I went out, I kept my money in my wallet inside my purse.
What I Should Have Brought
- More Underwear. No mater how much I try to convince myself that the inside-out trick is acceptable, I don't really like wearing underwear multiple days in a row.
- Nicer Clothes. Business casual is my daily grind. Vacation=wearing cut offs and sandals. However, people in Ho Chi Minh City dress very fashionably and people take great care in their appearance across social strata. Grungy tourist was how I felt.
- Headphones. Noise, noise, constant noise. Viet Nam is cacaphonic. After a week of sleep deprivation, my friend offered me her headphones and I was finally able to sleep through the night. Plus, Viet Nam pop music is not my personal taste.
- Kindle. I'm definitely investing in a kindle after this trip. Lugging around multiple 500 page books, that's for travel noobs.
- Extra Memory Cards. Imagine this: second to last day on the trip and we're at Crazy House in DaLat. NO MORE ROOM ON MEMORY CARD. I have to spend a good thirty minutes selecting photos for deletion. On my cracked and scratched LCD screen.
- Laptop. Now, I would have brought a laptop if I actually had one that could work without being plugged in.
Advice: bring multiple layers and options. You may have access to a laundry machine in your hostel or hotel. You will be sweating a lot and pollution, while not China level, is bad. It feels nice to put on clean clothes when you've been sweaty and dirty all day. Make sure you have a day bag or a smaller satchel to carry items on day trips. It's nice to have a place to put your sun screen, guide book, camera, etc.