10 Lessons We Should All Learn From The Vietnamese

1. An Emphasis On Learning A Second Language

I am eternally embarrassed of us Brits waltzing around the world using our mother tongue, expecting everyone to bow to us. I am as guilty of this, with barely passable French and absolutely no retention ability of a second language (one day though!)
It amazed me how vigilant Vietnamese parents are at ensuring their children excel at learning a second language. In fact, in remote parts of Vietnam local dialects are still found, so children learn Vietnamese as their second language!
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Two of my favorite students – aged 2!

2. Strong Family Values & Ties

While I’m not sure if I’d want to live under the same roof as my grandparents and parents, there’s something really lovely about being so connected to your extended family. When I was working as a private tutor in people’s homes I really got to see what family life is like in Vietnam: the responsibilities of each family member, where they sleep, what they cook… the list goes on. But family doesn’t just stop when you leave a home, there is such a strong sense of community in little neighborhoods which I guess is kind of what Britain and American used to be like back in the 1950’s. Everyone knows everyone, everyone helps everyone, it’s safe for kids to play out on the street, you buy your food from the ladies selling on your street, there’s no need to travel far for anything and people just seem content. There’s definitely something to be learnt from that.
Children of Vietnam

3. Willingness to say hello or to greet strangers (especially foreigners)

I’m working in London, and not once as anyone I’ve passed said ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ to me. I know that in Vietnam Westerns are somewhat of a novelty, but I loved how bold children were shouting ‘hello!’ from the back of their parent’s motorbike. The same goes for adults. It’s something I really miss.

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4. That life is much easier when there’s less emphasis on health and safety

Everyone comments on how chaotic Hanoi seems: the traffic, the beeping, the motorbikes swarming around pedestrians… But returning to a society where health and safety has gone bonkers (where your aunt who cooks for the homeless is accused of contamination for tasting her food with the spoon shes stirring it with)  it was refreshing to be in a place where there was less red tape and things were a little more lax. I mean don’t get me wrong, there are preventable fatalities and accidents all the time, but you never feel like you’re in a dangerous place.

5. You don’t need to drink alcohol to have a good time

In the Old Quarter at night you’ll see predominantly white faces guzzling the 5p Bia Hoi on yellow plastic chairs (like me, see below). Walk a few streets away and you’ll see the coffee shops full of Vietnamese teens drinking their bubble tea/coffee, taking selfies and catching up. While you do see Vietnamese people drinking, it’s no where near to the same extent us Brits binge.
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Us pesky white faces drinking cheap beer

6.  Buying you food from a market is the way forward

The journey from field to plate is far less in Vietnam. Turn down a side alley and the street will be teaming with market sellers, offering their fresh produce (sometimes a little too fresh, with fish in buckets half hacked up). Supermarkets are slowly being introduced to Vietnam as it slowly becomes more westernized, but having the option to shop from road-side sellers was always a plus.

 7. Bum Guns

Enough said.

8.  Respect for the elderly

I wouldn’t say our culture is disrespectful towards the elderly, but there is great pride in the elders in Vietnam. Perhaps because they lived through, or maybe even fought in the American war, or because there are visibly stronger family ties, but the elders definitely get looked after well. The pronoun structure in Vietnam reflects this – instead of I/He/She/We/They, the Vietnamese use a pronoun structure to reflects gender and age. Essentially as you get older your pronoun changes – but always ensure you’re not under estimating someone’s age as this denies them of the status they deserve!

9. The sentiment of giving spontaneous gifts

The Vietnamese are so forthright in offering gifts. Regardless of the occasion, you’ll always find a bunch of lychees thrust in your hand, or something like a little bracelet, a handmade card, flowers, the list goes on. It’s something us westerns only think to give to those closest to us, but it the sentiment really does touch.

 

10. Napping: without a care in the world where

God damn capitalism forcing us to work all day with no time to sleep in the middle of the afternoon. How my mood would be better if I could have a kip like the Vietnamese do!

 

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Ba Vi National Park, Vietnam

Ba Vi national park is situated approximately 60km west of Hanoi. Best explored by motorbike, the park takes roughly 2 hours to drive to (with plenty of opportunities to stop for refreshments), and will cost around 50,000 VND ($2.50) to enter. Ba Vi offers visitors stunning views across the province, an abundance of nature and golden silence, which makes for a brilliant day trip away from Hanoi.

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Upon entering the park, you ascend the mountains for 30 minutes which will eventually bring you out on a level, make-shift car park. You have the option of climbing two peaks which have pagodas at each summit: With your back to the road where you’ll have just come from, the pagoda to the left of you is said to be the easier incline to hike. Being used the chaos of Hanoi, it was treat to visit the jungle, take deep lung-fulls of fresh air and be surrounded by beautiful nature and traditional architecture.

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My First Attempt At Cooking Vietnamese Food

I’ve been busting to do a Vietnamese cooking course whilst in Vietnam but have always been put off by the cost. Frequenting Vietnamese markets regularly, I know the price of locally sourced ingredients (and that’s paying white-face tax), so I’ve been reluctant to fork out $60 upwards for a morning’s cooking experience. That said, I wanted to know how to prepare and recreate my favourite Vietnamese dishes in anticipation of my return back to the UK…

I was cycling on my way back from An Bang beach (in Hoi An) towards my hotel in the Old Town when I noticed a sign outside of a small restaurant saying, “Cooking Course: $10”

I was so astounded by the value I pulled in and spoke to the lovely My (a Vietnamese name pronounced “Me”), owner of the family restaurant and my head chef for the day. She advised me that I could choose two dishes from the menu to cook, but recommended the best two dishes would be her Nem (freshly made deep fried spring rolls) and fish wrapped in banana leaf. I accepted her recommendation and decided I would prefer to hold the private class the following morning at 11am in time for lunch.

It was great having a one-on-one lesson in My’s family home. She was really thorough in explaining the ingredients, how to select the best food at the market and was able to answer just about all questions I had on Vietnamese food and culture. The food turned out beautifully, and only set me back $10 for a 2 hour private class. Bargain!

To book a cooking course with My at the Bong Restaurant Eco Tour, click here.

Hoi An: The Prettiest Town In Asia

Still unbeaten and still bloomin’ pretty, Hoi An remains my absolute favourite town in South East Asia. There’s nothing I enjoy more than spending the day on An Bang Beach, spending the evening perusing around the quaint Old Town with all the twinkling lanterns and in between the two cruising around on a push bicycle soaking up the market, the myriad tailor shops and spice fields.

Here are some snaps from my most recent retreat to Hoi An:

 

For more on my adventures in Hoi An, read thetravellingtapir.com/hoi-an

The Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

If you told me a year ago that I would be willingly visiting war related museums and attractions I’d have thought you were mad. But there’s something about the Vietnamese/ American war which fascinates, shocks, saddens and intrigues me. On reflection, I think this may be because it was such a misunderstood war: no one really understood why America got involved, and no one really understood how brutal the war was besides those fighting and those who suffered. Having been to The War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and learning a little more about what really went on, I was eager to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels to see for myself where some of the most brutal and famous warfare happened.

Most hostels/hotels or travel totes in Ho Chi Minh City will arrange a half-day excursion from the city to the tunnels. Tours operate twice per day (in the morning or the afternoon) and will cost around 120,000 VND ($6) plus a 100,000 VND ($5) entrance fee. It takes approximately an hour and a half to drive to the Cu Chi province which gives you approximately 2 hours at the site with your tour guide. Whilst there are a lot of tourists, it is certainly worth the visit as it’s such a poignant place for the Vietnamese and their culture.

It was amazing to walk through the jungle and imagine the fear that gripped the American troops who were not at all prepared for the traps laid out for them, and also to imagine the resilience and comradery of the Viet Cong soldiers. Our group was guided through the jungle where we were shown the gruesome traps which awaited the Americans, a huge cavity in the ground’s surface where an American bomb was dropped and even allowed to walk through one of the original tunnels. The tunnels were incredibly claustrophobic and sweltering hot, it was difficult to imagine anyone surviving down there for more than an hour (in fact I bailed at the second exit)!

The tunnels are a three-tiered network of underground passages which span 200km over and around the Cu Chi district, homing nearly 10,000 Vietnamese civilians and soldiers for near enough 10 years. If this isn’t impressive enough, I was most amazed by how resourceful the Viet Cong troops were; making weapons and traps from pieces of sharp bomb shells, making shoes out of American tank tyres, and disguising kitchen vents with termite hills.

What really brought the experience to life was the firing range you could participate in if you wished. Personally this is something that I’m against, however from afar the gunfire and vibrations from the shooting range resonated the terror the American troops must have been experiencing wondering through the unknown and walking into the palms of danger. If you want to, the shooting range costs 300,000 VND ($15) for ten bullets.

Whilst it’s easy to sympathise with the American soldiers, I couldn’t help but feel quite proud of the Vietnamese. The American army were obliterating villages and vast quantities of nature through their use of illegal chemical warfare, yet it was basic knowledge of the land, sneaky and cunning tactics and brutal traps which enabled the Viet Cong to defeat the Americans altogether. We had a really inspiring morning at the Cu Chi Tunnels and highly recommend the excursion to anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh City or Southern Vietnam.

 

Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City is Hanoi’s elegant, wealthy younger sister who sits around taking selfies all day. Often mistaken as Vietnam’s capital city, old Saigon is trendy, cosmopolitan and economically booming, drawing large numbers of tourists year upon year. Having travelled Vietnam extensively, Ho Chi Minh definitely feels out of place, to the extent where I feel it’s more similar to Bangkok in terms of culture, appearance and vibe.

If you’re planning a trip to Ho Chi Minh City, I would advise that you allow two full days to absorb the sites, and a further two days to take trips out to the Cu Chi Tunnels (a half day excursion) and the Mekong Delta (full day excursion). District 1 is where it all happens: you can find the backpacker area (which personally I thought was as sleazy as Koh San Road), the CBD, the historical/cultural museums, monuments and buildings as well as markets, shopping malls and an abundance of places to eat/ grab a coffee.

As a huge lover of Northern Vietnamese lifestyle and culture, I wasn’t sure if I’d like Ho Chi Minh. I was, however, pleasantly surprised: the streets are wider (and quieter!) with huge, tall trees lining them, everything is landscaped and manicured, the people are beautiful and friendly, and above all the city feels much less polluted. It’s almost like going to a different country altogether as Ho Ci Minh city feels removed from the rest of the Vietnam I know and love – to illustrate, they’re currently collaborating with the Japanese to build an underground network which will shoot them into the next century!

I left Ho Chi Minh City feeling like I understood Vietnam a lot better. I was profoundly moved by the War Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels and had a newfound respect for how far Vietnam has moved on since the war. It’s somewhere that you’re unlikely to miss if you’re travelling to Vietnam, but shouldn’t be the benchmark for the rest of your travels around the country.

 

What to do:

 

What to see:

Ho Chi Minh City is a walking city. You can easily stroll through district 1 in a day and see most of the beautiful architecture and famous sights. Here are a few musts:

  • Notre Dam Cathedral
  • The Post Office
  • The Opera House
  • The Town Hall
  • Ben Thanh market

 

Accommodation:

Vietnam Hideout Hostel – We were thoroughly impressed by this hostel as it’s bang smack in the middle of the backpacker area, next to the bus station, is only 160,000 VND ($7 per night) and includes breakfast and some free beer. Beds were dead comfy and rooms weere clean and the hostel offered plenty of services.

 

Eating Out:

What should you eat in Ho Chi Minh City? STREET FOOD. By street food I don’t mean the dried out squid on the side of the road, but the little spots with plastic chairs and bright, unforgiving lights – this is where you’ll get the best home cooked grub and for next to nothing. Read my post on the best dishes to try in The Flavour of Vietnam: What you must eat in the south

If you are craving something other than Vietnamese food and an upset stomach, you must go to Baba’s Indian Restaurant.

My Encounter With A Crying Elephant

During my recent ventures around Southern Vietnam I saw one of the most heart-breaking sights I’ve ever seen in my life…

We had taken a picnic to a remote little forest outside of Da Lat. We were just about to tuck into our lunch by the resevoir when we noticed a ginormous, graceful Elephant walking towards us! We were totally baffled, but then it dawned on us that a western couple and a Vietnamese driver were riding the poor thing on a short circuit. As a huge Elephant fan I was both delighted and saddened to see the elephant, as knowing Asia’s bad reputation of caring for animals in captivity I could only presume the poor conditions it was being kept in. The Elephant (and passengers) gracefully stomped past us, narrowly avoiding our lunch, and after a short ride through the forest they returned to a nearby restaurant where the creature was being detained.

After our picnic we headed over to the Elepahnt. It was lunch time, in the background we could hear large groups of Vietnamese people delving into feasts, so our new friend was having a break from her duties as entertainment. We were happily touching her from a raised platform and stroking her tough old trunk when we noticed she was crying. Yes, crying. We couldn’t actually believe it, but real tears were dropping from her eyes. We were heartbroken and even more so when she wiped her tears with her trunk.

Elephants are a huge tourist trap in South East Asia, drawing large crowds of travellers eager to meet the beutiful beasts in their jungle habitat. Sadly, many of the Elephant rides, treks and even some sanctuaries abuse, sedate and enslave Elephants purely so tourists can take a slefie and ride on it’s back.

To be fair, I believe most tourists naively assume the animals are being kept in good and healthy condition and are disappointed to discover otherwise. More often than not the Elephants are trained using hooked sticks (the scars of which were still visible on our friend today), and live a much shorter life expectancy than in the wild – it’s been clear to me on the various occasions I’ve encountered Elephants in Thailand and Vietnam that the beasts are miserable.

Please, please, please think twice about supporting establishments that offer Elephant rides or use Elephants for amusement. There are some genuine Elephant sanctuaries and charities which are well worth supporting and absolutely deserve your money. Watching the Elephant chained by one ankle in solitary, with huge tears rolling down her cheeks was  a deeply saddening experience – I don’t think I’ve never felt more moved by or connected to an animal before. It reminds me that we have the power to boycott such places to avoid the continued mistreatment of Elephants, and indeed all other specieis in similar situations.

This is a really interesting article about the Elephant Do’s and Don’t’s in Chiang Mai: www.traveldudes.org/ chiang-mai-elephant-dos-and-donts

Da Lat, Vietnam

Da Lat is really quite different to anywhere else I have visited in Vietnam. In fact it doesn’t feel Vietnamese at all (besides the motorbikes, Pho restaurants and Vietnamese people, that is). I had been looking forward to visiting Da Lat the most on my tour of the south as it’s the wine region of Vietnam, a more favourable climate and a stark contrast both naturally and architecturally to the rest of Vietnam. Da Lat delivered on all three fronts, and exceed my expectations.

Looking around at first glance, you think that you’ve been dropped off in the Alpes: the steep, winding roads up to the mountain town are surrounded by tall forests of pine trees – a landscape like no other in Vietnam. Once over the crest of the hill, we were totally baffled to see what appears to be a charming little French town, surrounding a beautifully landscaped lake.

Despite being a relatively small place, Da Lat is becoming a popular destination amongst backpackers. There are plenty of options to do outdoor and adventure pursuits (such as canyoning, white-water rafting, abseiling, rock climbing and cave exploration) at a reasonable cost. This was something we decided to avoid on this trip, but heard form numerous sources that it’s well worth the money and one of the highlights of being in Vietnam.

If you’re looking for somewhere a little more familiar to home, a little less hectic than other Vietnamese towns, and lungful’s of fresh mountain air, you should put Da Lat on your travel bucket list!

Things to do:

  • 100 Roofs Cafe100 Roofs Cafe (tunnels bar) – You must visit this bar at least once during your stay in Da Lat. Created 25 years ago, the building has been transformed into a labyrinth of staircases, passageways, tunnels, alcoves and a rooftop garden. It was unbelievable! (Apparently this is much better than the famous Da Lat ‘Crazy House’)
  • Rent motorbikes – most hotels/hostels will offer a motorbike rental service, in Da Lat it was especially worth doing. It set us back 100,000 VND for the day and gave us total freedom to explore the countryside, the reservoir, the cable cars and the farms
  • Buy a picnic from the Big C supermarket, drive your motorbike to the reservoir and take in the view – an absolute highlight during my time in Da Lat
  • Thien Vien Truc Lam (cable car) – this was a really nice little excursion, and again, a very French thing to enjoy. A return on the cable car will cost you 70,000 VND which is well worth doing as there is a monastery and one end of the cable car (remember to dress modestly if you wish to enter the monastery) and beautiful views across the city and beyond.
  • Elephant falls – We didn’t really know what to expect when we ventured off to find the falls. True to Vietnamese form, it’s terribly signposted so we were a little bit lost, but it was brilliant once we got there (at last) The falls are relatively spectacular, but it’s the boulders and ambling you have to do to get to it which makes it really enjoyable afternoon. Staircases and steps have been carved into the boulders which make it relatively hard work (thank you Vietnamese health and safety…), but brilliant fun nonetheless.
  • Rent swan pedalos on the lake – only 60,000 VND and a pretty view of the town and the lake!

 

Eating Out:

When it came to eating out in Da Lat, we mainly stuck to the very Vietnamese streets our hotel was on, as they offered traditional Vietnamese cuisine at local prices. Our absolute favourite thing to eat was Cha Ram Bap (a Da Lat speciality). It’s essentially DIY spring rolls, with a bettered corn/rice falafel which you add salad and picked cucumber to and then dunk in satay sauce. Delicious, and only 15,000 VND!

Accommodation:

We spent three nights at the Thein Hoang Guesthouse on Nguyen Cong Tru street. It was a 2 km walk away from the tourist area, which we preferred, and excellent value for money. We paid 460,000 VND for a double bedroom for 3 nights (which worked out about 65,000 VND per person, per night). However, the room was very basic and being next door to the road meant that we were up with the Vietnamese traffic ever morning before 7am (which sort of worked in our favour in the end as it meant we made the most of the day).

 

Mui Ne, Vietnam

Mui Ne is described as the “up and coming” beach town of Vietnam. This would suggest that it’s in the process of being developed and relatively unknown to tourists. Wrong. Mui Ne is probably the most established (and perhaps the most disappointing) tourist town I’ve been to throughout my travels in Vietnam.

Mui Ne (pronounced “mwee-nay”) is in relatively close proximity to Ho Chi Minh City, offering city dwellers and travellers white sand and blue sky for a $6/ 6 hour drive. The town itself is one huge long strip stretching 4 miles along the coast. I was astounded by how long this “strip” actually was, it seemed to go on and on, yet you seem to pass the same scenery on repeat: resorts varying in size and luxury, restaurants serving international menus (i.e. wherever you’re from in the world you can eat your home comforts, but can’t for the life of you find a Vietnamese restaurant anywhere), gift shops and massage parlours.

The beach itself is wonderful, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s one of Vietnam’s best. What it does offer is water sports opportunities. Due to it’s positioning, Mui Ne’s coast seems to catch a lot of wind and swell making kite surfing, wind surfing and regular surfing possible. It’s relatively expensive to pay for a lesson but renting the equipment is quite affordable, so as there are limited things to do in Mui Ne I’d say it’s worth the expense. Find out more about water sports options here: www.vietnamkiteboardingschool.com

The main tourist activity is visiting the sand dunes at either sunrise or sunset. I would definitely say this is worth doing as they are quite spectacular (and only costs $6 to do). We opted for the sunrise excursion as we’d heard that the sand gets very hot in the afternoon, so despite the early start sunrise seemed the best option. The Jeep will pick you up from your hotel around 4am and drive for just under an hour to the white sand dunes (and if you’re lucky like us you’ll have the added thrill of a driver who falls asleep behind the wheel and swerves down the road!) The sun rise was really beautiful and the dunes were really well preserved. It’s possible to rent a quadbike for $10, but walking is a really peaceful experience as the sand is so fine and cool in the morning.

After sunrise comes the red sand dunes. These were slightly less impressive than the first dunes, but on this site you can hire a sledge and whizz down the sandy hills.  A 20 minute stop at a fishing town follows the red dunes- which I particularly enjoyed. There are literally thousands of fishing boats for as far as the eye can see, so we took a few snaps and scurried into a Pho diner to get a fix of cheap and authentic Vietnamese food. The next and final stop on the tour is Fairy Springs. We had relatively low expectations of this, but it was really beautiful. You wade upstream past stalagmites forged from red and golden sand, tropical palm trees and bullrushes for about 20 minutes. It’s really serene and extremely photogenic. Please note that as you enter the stream a local family tell you that you have to pay them to keep your shoes safe for you, this isn’t true as it’s free to walk up and you can keep hold of your shoes. Overall I’d say the trip is certainly worth doing, parts were a little naff but as the only tourist excursion to do in the town it’s worth seeing something other than the beach/pool.

Ultimately, if you want a low effort/ lounge-by-the-pool/ sunbathing/ chill out kind of holiday then Mui Ne certainly delivers. We ended up spending our 2 days in the town by our hotel’s glorious swimming pool, sunbathing with a Mojito in one hand and a book in the other. We stayed at the Mui Ne Hills Budget Hotel (click the link for a full review) and would highly recommend it to those travelling on a budget but still seeking some luxury!

As you can probably sense, I wasn’t hugely overwhelmed or inspired by Mui Ne. There’s just something really artificial about it. Then again, most people go to the beach for some sun and sea and not culture, so if that’s the case it’s ideal. It’s very affordable but dominated by Westerner’s and Russians – personally I’d recommend bi-passing Mui Ne and heading straight for Con Dao Islands which offer far more beautiful and quieter beaches.