On a short trip to Vietnam, my sister and I were introduced to a fascinating country full of personalities, complicated histories, mouth-watering food and helpful locals.
Through our journey from north to south, visiting Hanoi, Hué, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh, we saw patterns and reoccurring themes that stuck out to me.
Vietnam (aside from Bangkok), was my first time in an Asian country. Now having seen Cambodia, Laos and Thailand realize that many things I noticed in Vietnam aren’t unique to that place, but rather a marker of “Eastern” culture.
Without speaking the language and without being any sort of expert on Vietnamese culture, here are 11 things that caught my attention:
- Babies On Mopeds
My favorite is when they have mini pink sunglasses on and a Hello Kitty mask to protect from pollution. I can attest that to the fact that there is nothing cuter than a smiling giggling toddler with its hair blowing in the wind. Forget the car seat, high chair, and double seat belt- these youngsters are mere inches away from literally playing in traffic.
- Long fingernails
Once my friend Colin pointed this out to us in Hanoi, we couldn’t escape the long pinkie fingernail on the majority of men. After visiting more countries, we noticed that this trend goes beyond Vietnam. Rumors on its purpose ranged from cocaine addictions to an attempt to seem less “working class.”
- Burning Garbage
This smell will always take me back to being neck to neck with 300 other motorbikes barely escaping hitting a brave pedestrians and dodging honking trucks. The waves of smoke reach deep into your lungs and linger on your nose.
The massive billboard-sized propaganda posters found all throughout the cities and countryside of Vietnam give it a festive feel. The red hues and dramatic facial expressions lead me to believe they all discuss the merits of the communist party and praise it’s competence. Poster shops around the cities sell smaller versions that can be taken home as souvenirs. My only regret is not asking the meaning of the sayings on all of them. An interesting historical collection of posters featuring women can be found at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi.
- Fancy Male Hair Styles
One of the best aspects of traveling is seeing different forms of gender expression. Walking down the streets of Hanoi, I saw a young man sitting at a coffee shop in the old quarter. With his inch high gelled and perfectly manicured quaff I could have sworn he was the Asian Bruno Mars. Colin also bestowed upon us another gem of wisdom: if you see a guy on a motorbike without his helmet, it’s probably because he’s not excited about messing up all the hard work he put into his hair.
- Sitting Positions
Especially among elderly crowds, I caught myself wondering if Vietnamese people had different joint capabilities. We could see anyone from toddlers to grandparents squatting on the sidewalk or side of the road to rest, relax, wait, eat, or play. At the morning food market in Hoi An, I was flabbergasted by the contortion of a woman’s knee joints. At least 85 years old, the woman (not the same one pictured above) was squatting and bent over, toiling over sorting fresh herbs. Mesmerized, I recalled a few moments earlier when I attempted to sit in a similar squat and lasted no more than two minutes before I started to cramp up.
- Baby Chairs
Relating to the previous point, food stall eating areas, roadside cafes and coffee shops alike all offer the customer small, toddler sized seats to be in while they consumed their food and beverages. In order to sit in these, one must possess a flexibility of sorts and a much smaller behind than the average westerner.
- Aggressive Vendors
Hopefully this is the last time I talk about this topic (I have previously written about street vendors in Hanoi and women offering boat rides in Hoi An), but the in-your-face-aspect of Vietnamese business people is intense and unforgettable. Sitting at a food stall at a market in Ho Chi Minh, my sister and I were already scarfing down some Bun Thit Nuong, a noodle and pork dish. Other food vendors spotted us eating, and started to approach us with their menus. Approach is a rather subdued word, as they were anything but subtle. Trying to make her menu noticed, one of the women stood next to me and shoved it in line of my noodles.
- Coffee Culture
Vietnamese coffee is well known worldwide for packing a punch. Using sweetened condensed milk, coffee is sugary and strong. After my first day in Hanoi having drank two glasses, my hands were shaking and I had a lightheadedness typically indicating intoxication. With a number of different takes on it and a seemingly endless number of cafes, Vietnam appears to only consume caffeine.
- Dried Seafood
An apparent favorite of brave drunk tourists (here is a video of our attempt), locals are clearly fond of the dried fish, octopus and squid. Rubbery and accompanied by spicy sauce, it took me no less than over a thousand chews to swallow. The traveler experiences a wide range of aromas walking down the chaotic streets, but the smell of the dried seafood, much like burning garbage, cannot be forgotten.
- Crossing The Street
Another favorite aspect of Vietnam travelers love to point out, it is one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences. My friend Liz, who lives in Hanoi, told me, “when I wave the house everyday, I wonder if I’m going to die.” Crossing the street in Hanoi from the Hoàn Kiếm Lake to the gates of the old quarter, my sister and I met a couple of young girls. Noticing our fear, they comforted us and said, “don’t be afraid, walk slow and don’t stop, they’ll avoid you.” We took her advice, and they never came close to us (relatively). After that, I crossed the streets in Vietnam with the gusto of teenagers on the made-up drug HFS in the movie 21 Jump Street. It’s about learning to flow with the traffic instead of against it. Luckily people are kind and I can’t help but doubt that pedestrians would be treated as well in the U.S. Here is a video I took while crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh.
Have you been to Vietnam? What stood out to you?