Perhaps no country in the world hits such a psychological nerve as Vietnam. It is a notion that nearly divided our entire country 30 years ago, and yet today draws back thousands of Americans eager to fully understand the Vietnam experience — its people, culture, and ways of life.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I’m no stranger to the world. But despite my decades of world travel (plus the fact that we’ve been offering Vietnam as popular tour destination for years), I’d somehow never had the chance to visit Vietnam. Having just returned from 10 days of touring the country south to north, my only regret is that I didn’t make it there sooner.
In Vietnam, you won’t find any of the usual sites and sounds of typical Western countries, such as towering cathedrals, impressive monuments, colossal amphitheaters, or excavations of ancient civilizations. Rather, the fascination for Vietnam comes from its extraordinary beauty; simplicity of life; and warm, incredibly approachable people. Not that Vietnam is lacking in ancient civilizations and monuments, but the culture — like its Buddhist religion — shuns opulence in a way that we westerners might find surprising.
Life in Saigon, Vietnam’s largest city, is different from any other place in the country. On arrival, driving from the airport to the city, I was dazzled by the swarms of motorbikes that are this country’s major mode of transportation. Often, there are two, three, and even four passengers on a single bike. And they move like a river through the busy streets, flowing around anything — or anyone — that gets in the way.
As you can see, it was crowded.
Lesson one upon arrival from Man, our sweet and helpful guide, was in crossing the street without risking life or limb. It turns out that the trick to navigating safely is to keep moving, slowly but steadily, through the traffic, and to keep looking, not in the direction of the oncoming flow of motorbikes like you might think, but in the direction of your destination. Man swore that the motorbikes would just maneuver around me, and — to my amazement — he was right.
Here’s Man, a Friendly Planet Travel tour guide, giving us a few handy tips on navigating ourselves through the streets of Saigon.
Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called) has plenty of sites to explore, including a wonderful central market that filled with aromatic fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, clothing, shoes, and anything you might want, all at prices that might make you an instant shopaholic. There are also rows upon rows of food stalls in the market, where you can taste some of the delicacies that make Vietnamese cuisine so popular around the world.
If you’ve never tasted an authentic Vietnamese spring roll made from a paper-thin rice crepe, carefully filled and rolled up with sprigs of basil, cilantro, steamed shrimp, bean sprouts and dipped into a delicate, slightly spicy fish sauce, you’re missing an incredible treat. And without any help from sugar or addition of any kind, the pineapple, mango, mangosteen, and lychee are delicious. I couldn’t get enough of them (and I’m not known for my voracious appetite).
This woman is making the rice paper for spring rolls by hand. Delicious!
Stay tuned, because I’ll be continuing my Vietnam tales this week!