Category: Vietnam

It’s all a little bit peculiar

It’s a peculiar place, Vietnam.

Not in an obvious way though. The strangeness doesn’t jump out at you and slap you in the face. It only becomes clear when you look out of the taxi window at the life going on outside, focus a little longer on the little old lady standing by the street or the items sold by the shops on the main road.

You need to give yourself time to let the weirdness sink in.

Firstly, people walk around in their pyjamas here. Not just at home. I’m talking about people on the street, in the middle of Hanoi, or the middle of Ho Chi Minh city. They walk around the lake, which is surrounded by restaurants, as if pyjamas are the new jogging gear, and then stand for a while holding on to the railing, swinging their arms back and forth in some kind of tai chi exercise. Here in Ho Chi Minh, I’ve seen grandmas wearing pyjamas pushing their grandchildren along the road in prams, and even shop keepers dressed in pyjamas taking coffee orders.

You might think I’m joking – I’m not. I’m talking about silky pyjamas, striped Mr Bean pyjamas and soft winter pyjamas with small cute animals and hearts on them. In the middle of the day. In the middle of the city.

It’s peculiar.

Equally peculiar I find the size of furniture here. I love the street food culture – there’s a certain grubbiness too it, an Asia feel. Restaurants facing out onto the street, chairs and tables strewn across the footpath, with a direct view of the hectic traffic of scooters, bicycles, tuc tucs and cars in front. Women washing dishes by the drain beside bowls of green herbs, and men welding pieces of old cars back together. Children running around, laughing; tourists peering curiously into shops as they step over the activity of day to day business on the streets of Vietnam. But everywhere, it seems, there’s a children’s tea party going on. The furniture looks like it came out of a toy shop, and I’m amazed that I haven’t seen more people snapping the legs off chairs.


A third peculiarity lies in the ability of the Vietnamese to plant vegetable gardens everywhere. Naturally exceptional gardeners (even at Australian markets the Vietnamese sell the best fruit and vegetables), the Vietnamese have seemingly not only mastered the soil, sun and water requirements of producing top-quality green leafy vegetables and herbs, they’ve also managed to overcome all logistical obstacles a horticulturalist might usually face and started planting things on traffic islands, among the concrete retaining walls of man-made lakes and inside water-filled rice paddies. There they squat, among their coriander and lettuce leaves, wearing pointy cane hats and pruning away at dinner. It’s pretty amazing really.

And a little peculiar.

Another sign of the Vietnamese ability to think outside the box and deal with difficult situations is their method of crossing the road. To put it into context, I should mention that Vietnam’s roads are distinctively chaotic. While there may be designated lanes, no one sticks to them. Nor do drivers obey zebra crossings, red traffic lights, or any other type of human/vehicle intersection. Scooters and motorbikes are particular offenders, but buses and cars add their bit to the mayhem. So what do the innovative Vietnamese do? Shuffle. Yep, no joke. They shuffle. One foot in front of the other, they step out onto the busy six-lane motorway with no hint of fear, not waiting for the traffic to stop but letting it go around them. We’ve been practicing this technique, and I’m happy to report that there have been no accidents thus far. The trick, we’ve realised, is to make no sudden movement. You need to be 100% aware at all times of what’s going on around you, so woe to anyone who thinks they can cross the street without concentrating! It’s an art, no doubt, but a peculiar one.

There are many more peculiarities worth mentioning – the fact that people sleep on their motorbikes for example; head on the seat, legs draped over the handlebars. Somehow, they balance. Some of them even look quite comfortable. Very peculiar.

And the street side hair salons! No matter where you are, you will always find a barber ready to give you a quick chop by the roadside, with a mirror leant up against the outside wall of a building and nothing but a chair in front of it. Not a bad business model really… no overheads, no staffing costs, no rent… But getting your hair cut beside a motorbike parking area, underneath a grubby overpass – it’s a little unusual.

Then there’s the fact that throughout Vietnam you will find hidden remnants of European influence – the coffee culture, the French patisseries, the cathedrals with church bells ringing every hour. And, rather than going into a shopping mall to find what you need, you just need to know which city street to venture into, and you will find tiny stores packed to the roof with everything from soft toys to toiletries to biscuits to selfie sticks. Yes, that’s right – selfie stick stores. Don’t tell me that’s not a little peculiar.

I wanted to take note of these peculiarities this time, because if I ever come back to Vietnam, I’ll no longer notice them. These are the little snippets of a culture that only strike you as unusual the first time you see them – after even a few weeks in the country these peculiarities have become almost normal.

It’s this progression that I find fascinating about travel. The initial amusement and bewilderment at a different culture’s habits, the gradual getting used to the way things are done in the new place, and the eventual fondness of all that makes a culture unique and peculiar. The world is a fascinating place, and I am thankful to have yet again been given the opportunity to visit somewhere brand new.

In all of this, I am so thankful to God, our loving father, for blessing me (undeservedly) with such opportunities. My prayer is that they continue to mould me into a more appreciative, tolerant and loving person, and one who can share these experiences – through words – with those who may never get the chance to visit these places themselves.


A social media campaign and the hospitality of strangers

It’s been two weeks today since we first landed in Hanoi. When we arrived and drove through the Old Quarter, Tyson said that this may just turn out to be his favourite new city in Asia. The atmosphere was fantastic – cars, scooters and bicycles everywhere, people on the street wearing Vietnamese straw hats and selling fruit, flowers, donuts or socks out of cane baskets tied to the end of a broomstick carried across their shoulders. Old, tall, skinny buildings lined the streets, authentically run-down and housing a mixture of apartments and small businesses. Wide avenues, lakes and parks were reminiscent of the French influence of days gone by.

We’ve lived in four places in Hanoi now. At first, we spent a night at Luan’s Homestay, which we found on Air BnB. Family-run and located smack-bang in the middle of the Old Quarter, it was the perfect spot from which to explore the city during our first day.

After our trip to Halong Bay, we were moved just two houses down the street to an old hotel in need of love and attention, whose main characteristics were its thin walls and mattresses whose springs dug into your back. On our first night, a bunch of what sounded like 20 young Vietnamese people kept us awake until past midnight with drunken shouts up and down the stairwell and banging as they carried their passed-out friend to the room opposite ours.

Our third accommodation was where we spent the majority of our time, and it was also the furthest from the city centre – about a 45-minute bus ride away. It was here, in an apartment attached to a mall and adjacent to a main road, that we spent a week with YESD (Youth Employment and Society Development), a social enterprise founded by three young Vietnamese women whose aim is to help fight unemployment among university graduates in Hanoi, preserve the Vietnamese culture and provide authentic Vietnamese travel experiences for tourists. With a focus on organising responsible tours in Vietnam and creating positive change in a country still in the early stages of its tourism development (in comparison to some of its South-East Asian neighbours), we were there to volunteer, along with two Americans, a French girl, a Brazilian/British couple and a Mexican.

While Tyson had the opportunity to teach two English classes, our main focus was to help YESD with their tourism marketing. Wanting to start and finish a project in the short time we had, we decided early to design and launch a social media campaign to promote responsible tourism in Vietnam. And so, in just over a week, we designed a questionnaire, interviewed about 50 random tourists about their views on responsible tourism, collaborated with the Brazilian/British couple on a promotional video and launched a campaign to encourage travellers to be more conscious of how their actions when travelling can help create positive change. Needless to say, we were pretty proud of our efforts. Check out the final results here.

During our time with YESD, we were also blessed to be able to join a spontaneous two-day tour to Ninh Binh province, home of UNESCO World Heritage Listed Trang An Landscape Complex, Vietnam’s ‘inland Halong Bay’. What a spectacular spot! Limestone mountains covered in jungle alternate with partially submerged valleys and steep, sheer cliffs to form a natural area like something out of a Jurassic Park film. Below, a river meanders through caves and past rice paddies, and women who, before tourists arrived, were dependent on fishing for a meagre income, row visitors around using a combination of both their hands and their feet. I have never seen anywhere quite like it. This was definitely the highlight of our Vietnam trip so far, with Tyson and I agreeing that it was even more beautiful than Halong Bay. It was great to be out of the city, away from the terrible pollution, loud noise and busyness of Hanoi, and the experiences we had in Ninh Binh – cycling, hiking up mountains, riding motorbikes along the motorway, riding in an overnight lay-flat bus and staying with a local family – made the trip a unique and very authentically Vietnamese experience.

And here we are, back at No Bai International Airport, having just left our fourth accommodation near the West Lake of Hanoi. We spent two days here working on the YESD video with Roni and Hester, the Brazilian/English YESD volunteers. Our host was Robert, a gracious Canadian expat and the creator of his own English teaching programs for various groups of disadvantaged children in Hanoi. Robert is also a Workaway host (Workaway is the organisation through which we have been volunteering), and his apartment was the perfect spot from which to enjoy our last two nights in Hanoi. We were even fed Western food and wine – a pleasant alternative to the Vietnamese food we have been eating every other day and which has unfortunately caused Tyson and I to be sick a total of three times on this holiday!

Now we’re off to revisit our first Air BnB host Thong in Ho Chi Minh City, for a couple of days of exploring the south before making our way back through Kuala Lumpur to Brisbane.




An unexpected twist

Well this wasn’t meant to happen.

This day was meant to be filled with more cycling, beach time, relaxing and more delicious Vietnamese food. Instead, I was up at 1am with stomach cramps and aches, and by 6am I was sick and vomiting – something I haven’t done in years.

What happened?

Perhaps it was the local gin I picked at the bar we went to after our cooking class. Maybe there was something on the glass. Or maybe I just touched something and picked up some sort of terrible stomach bug. Whatever it was, it made me very ill, and though resting throughout the morning before our flight to Hanoi helped, by the time we got to the airport in the afternoon I was so sick I couldn’t stand up in the line up to get onto the plane. I was sick again – in public! – as we walked down the aerobridge to board the plane – and a doctor had to come to check my pulse and feed me electrolytes. Luckily, we were still allowed to board the flight, and were given a seat in the back row so that I could lie down and rest. My dear Tyson was an absolute knight in shining armour, taking control of everything and looking after me in every way he could. I don’t know what I would have done had he not been there.

Luckily, I was feeling significantly better by the time the plane touched down in Hanoi, and was happy when we arrived at our next homestay, run by tour guide Luang and his family, to a hot shower and warm bed. Luang was a gracious host, accompanying us to the local pharmacy to buy some medicine and inviting us to a free dinner with his family at home. We had an early night, and the resting seemed to do me a world of good.

The next morning, we were up early: Ha Long Bay was on the agenda. I was glad to be feeling better as I had really been looking forward to this part of the trip. We were picked up in a minibus and driven four hours to Ha Long City’s harbour, then transported (‘like refugees’) on smaller boats to our traditional junk boats and cruise ships which sat in the harbour ready to set sail. We had purposely picked a smaller boat, and had the pleasure of sharing our 8-cabin junk with two Norwegians, a couple from Belgium, a German/Japanese couple, a French family of four and an Indian family of five.

Ha Long Bay, often touted as Vietnam’s top tourist destination, has been UNESCO World Heritage listed since 1994. Its limestone islets – over 2000 of them – rise up from the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and feature caves, endemic vegetation and a variety of bird and other animal species. Nowadays, overnight cruise ships, like the traditional Vietnamese wooden junk boat we were on, meander around the islets while their passengers admire the beauty of this natural wonder which has only been managed as a tourism destination for the last 15 years.

The cruise was beautiful – we had the opportunity to go kayaking on the water, visit a local fishing village, go into a cave on one of the islets (sadly visibly affected by poor tourism management and planning) and enjoy a Tai Chi class on the sundeck of our boat. For New Year’s Eve, we celebrated together with other guests on one of the larger ships at a gala dinner with a buffet, live entertainment, dancing and games.

Unfortunately, after this, it was Tyson’s turn to get sick – most probably due to the consumption of an undercooked piece of pork at the gala dinner. Upon our return to Hanoi we were back at the same pharmacy, this time in search of Imodium. Though thankfully, both of us started feeling quite a bit better with the help of modern over-the-counter medicine, it would take a couple of days in Hanoi’s Old Quarter before we were back to feeling 100% and ready to embrace a new challenge: our first ever Workaway project.

A most delicious and adventurous beginning.

I could barely see – the rain lashed my face as we pedalled past rice fields, away from the local market and toward the small rural enclave that housed the family-run Coconut Hat Restaurant; our cooking class venue for the afternoon. Hoa, a woman in her early thirties, had picked us up at lunch time from Ms Tri’s House, our homestay in Vietnam’s beach town, Hoi An. After half an hour of walking through the local market together, Hoa pointing out different herbs, vegetables and cooking ingredients, we had mounted our bicycles (on loan from Ms Tri), slipped into our bright yellow ponchos and headed out of town. The air was nice out here – clean and fresh from the rain. The temperature sat at a pleasant 24 degrees. We cycled past rice paddies, small farms, a cemetery and across bridges over canals in which water coconuts grew. We even saw a lone buffalo swimming in a waterhole! Scenic, authentic, adventurous – ‘this is why I love travelling’, I thought, as our bike tyres rolled over bumpy roads and the wind blew the raindrops into my eyes.

It was our second full day in Vietnam. We’d arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) two nights earlier after a long day of travelling, and been greeted by rats scurrying along the alleyways as we walked to our first Air BnB accommodation. Thong had waited up for us although it was quite late, and showed us to our room on the 2nd storey, which consisted of a mattress on the floor and a bathroom across the hallway. We didn’t mind – the room was clean and the shower warm; all we wanted to do was sleep.

Early the next morning, we were on our way back to the airport again, on our way to Hoi An for a few days of R&R in this renowned tourist haven. We were greeted by Ms Tri with a huge smile and words of gratitude for choosing to stay in her home, and were given bicycles and suggestions of places to visit around the town. After a morning of cycling to the beach and eating fresh and absolutely delicious seafood, we meandered through the Old Town in the afternoon and tried to avoid getting ripped off by locals making use of the ‘three tiered pricing system’ – local price, expat price and tourist price (apparently, double each one and you’ll just about have it).

Today, we were to experience our first Vietnamese cooking class. Hoa, a friend of Ms Tri’s from high school, had opened up a restaurant with her husband four years earlier which served as a rest stop for people cycling through the farming areas surrounding Hoi An town. Today, Hoa’s husband takes tourists out onto the river in traditional, round basket boats to show them the unusual water coconut plantations, and then brings them back to the restaurant for the cooking class (and foot massage, if you book the whole tour). His wife Hoa, also mother to a seven-year-old girl and three-year-old boy, used to be a chef (‘not main chef’, as she enforced) and has now devoted her energies to raising her young family and teaching foreigners how to prepare some of the dishes Vietnam is famous for.

In a number of hours, we prepared spring rolls, green papaya salad, rice pancakes with shrimp, whole fish in banana leaf and banana pancakes. Hoa was a good teacher, even letting us drink beer as we cooked, and explaining everything in good English. The whole class was completely tailored – Tyson and I were the only students, and we could eat each dish as soon as we prepared it.

As we finished the class it got dark, and we were thankful for the small lamps on our bicycles as we made our way back past the rice paddies to Ms Tri’s house. With full stomachs and happy hearts at having met so many lovely locals already, we were excited about what lay ahead for us on our three week Vietnam adventure. Tomorrow, we would be off to Hanoi, Vietnam’s thriving capital, for a few days of street food tasting and a new year’s eve celebration on board a traditional junk boat in UNESCO World Heritage Listed Ha Long Bay.