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The 12 lessons I learnt in Vietnam about Vietnam

Last updated on: November 09, 2013 10:36 IST

The 12 lessons I learnt in Vietnam about Vietnam

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Vinay Menon

Vinay Menon backpacked in Vietnam recently. His fascinating account and his learnings:

Once upon a time, I was to get married to the girl whom I loved. I was so serious that I saved up money to rent a nice family oriented flat. But as true stories go, she left me and I was left with a broken heart and lots of money. This isn't about a love failure; it's about how I used that wonderful money to present to you...

The 12 lessons I learned in Vietnam about Vietnam (duh!)

Travel partners: Revanth (henceforth referred to as Roy), wikitravel and hostelworld.

Languages known: English, Hindi, Sarcasm.

Lesson 1: Bureaucracy and Miss Saigon

So Roy and I entered Vietnam via Ho Chi Mihn city, formerly known as Saigon. Most people call it Ho Chi Mihn city while the 'purists' still say Saigon.

The place initially looked foreboding and authoritarian with all the military uniform clad people walking around looking all serious and Communist. At least, with all their military efficiency, I'll get my Visa on arrival process done in no time, right?

After all the form-filling and the long queues and watch gazing, I had to fill more forms and wait in queues and gaze upon my watch again. While I waited, Miss Saigon beckoned with her arms wide open and in her sweet voice(and Vietnamese accent), "Come lil Indian man. Me hug you long time!". "Not now love" I replied, "I have to wait till they call my name, which they probably can't even pronounce". Funny accents are funny.

So I waited. The working pace provided tough competition to our very own government offices. The passports were ignored, scrutinized, stamped, ignored again, stamped again, thrown to a different table, ignored some more, shredded and launched into the outer atmosphere. It took a total of 2 hours before the passports rematerialized and were distributed. JUST like my country!

Thanks to our buddy wikitravel, Roy and I knew we had to take the No.152 non-AC bus which stops in front of the burger king outlet. The time we spent waiting, we acclimatized ourselves to the local currency. I mean, there's a 500,000 Dong note. Makes you feel like a lottery winner till you realize it's roughly Rs. 1500.

We switched to conversing in Hindi so that we could comment on the South-East Asian girls present. They're just so cute! Flirting aside, Miss Saigon, I do hope you are still single, for here I come.


Image: Imperial Citadel, Hue, Vietnam
Photographs: Vinay Menon

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Lesson 2: Harmony in chaos, ride like a Boss

Hostelworld had picked a nice and cozy 20$ per night room for us along a really narrow street which one might easily miss. There was restaurant nearby called the 'Taj Mahal'. It was probably run by a guy named 'Mahatma Gandhi' who was a part time snake charmer and rode a cow to work.

Now, I had read on many travel forums about how the traffic in the Vietnamese cities were chaotic and hellish and other Stephen Kingesque adjectives. Well, obviously they aren't from India.

But as it turned out, the traffic was something completely different. Image jam-packed bumper to bumper traffic with no one following the rules or signals but sans the honking or road rage. There were separate lanes for two wheelers and four wheelers. The footpaths on the other hand had as many people as it had square inches. JUST like my country!

You can only experience this fully the way we did, on a rented moto-scooter.

Now I began to see Miss Saigon for what she really was. An elegant woman with so much complexity, yet so much simplicity, who is both rooted in the past while still being modern and fashionable. Why you ask?

At every corner one would see a building several decades old. The most famous ones being the Notre Dame Cathedral (yes, same name) and the still functioning post office so old it had a map painted on the wall where they referred to Thailand as 'Siam'.

Almost every person who inhabits the city had a better fashion sense than me (which isn't saying much). You can find your pubs and skyscrapers scattered around the city as much as relics from the past. Like all good looking women, Saigon has the aesthetics to enthrall you to flirt with her. But when you get past the superficiality, you see her as someone who very well knows who she is while at the same time is ready to change with the times.


Image: Notre Dame Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Photographs: Vinay Menon

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Lesson 3: The greatest army below the Earth

North Vietnam was one of those rare occasions where the might of the US army was defeated. We were about to find out how at the Cu Chi tunnels (pronounced koo-chee). 60km outside of Saigon, they are an elaborate network of tunnels up to three levels deep and several hundreds of meters long. The Vietnamese people are petite and hence the tunnels as well. Smaller tunnels also meant stability against cave-ins when the surface was being bombed. And bombed they were.

We were treated to some sweet tapioca, Vietnamese tea and copious amounts of anti-American propaganda, the latter two surprisingly being out of my taste. The 'informative' videos were processed to have the vintage look and had actors who cheerfully pointed at the sky when an American airstrike is coming, skipping off happily and waving from within the caves. I was half expecting the then President Nixon to appear twirling his moustache and have Bugs Bunny pound him with a mallet. History belongs to the victors they say.

Highlight: We got to fire LIVE ROUNDS out of an AK-47! Thanks to wikitravel, this was one of the main things Roy was looking forward to. We took a moment to appreciate a country where safety regulations are low. I kept several bullet casings as souvenirs.

The Cu Chi tunnel area is littered with primitive yet deviously brilliant traps. Our tour guide, nicknamed Slim Jim (real name Thong, yes, Thong), gave us a hilarious description of each trap, including his own affectionate 'petnames' for each trap. One such trap, a two level spike pendulum set behind closed doors, Slim Jim refers to as Bangkok ticket, "When the soldier walks in and sees the spike swinging towards him, he blocks with his rifle. His upper body is protected but the bottom pendulum, still swings and hits him. This trap is literally below the belt. He then becomes a lady boy and buys a ticket to Bangkok to find a better life."


Image: Cu Chi tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Photographs: Vinay Menon

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Lesson 4: Com and Pho

Well, as it so happens, Slim Jim has an Indian friend named Bobby Khan, from Mumbai. Since he has been in Saigon exporting sea food for nine years, he's more Vietnamese than Indian. After lunch together, Bobby liked us enough to invite us over to his place for dinner and rice wine. He even paid the taxi fair. At this point I was sure he's more Vietnamese than Indian. Bobby and Slim Jim gave us an overview of Vietnamese people.

The South Vietnamese are the friendly sort; central Vietnamese people are the most sincere and nicest bunch while North Vietnamese are outright prigs (foreshadowing).

A much more interesting concept is that of Com (roughly pronounced 'come') and Pho (pronounced 'fa'). Com is Vietnamese for rice, the thing you have at home daily. Pho is Vietnamese for noodles, something you go out to eat from time to time. Com is a metaphor for your house wife. Pho is a metaphor for...well, whoever is free tonight.

It's as normal as we having dowry, I'm sorry, I meant tradition and a free car along with the wife. Slim Jim even suggested that Bobby get us girls for the Vietnamese experience. I didn't know if he was joking so we just did the best thing we could do in that situation -- more rice wine.

Now don't get me wrong, Bobby might have had a share of Pho, but he really loves his wife, which he proclaimed to do so several times, courtesy rice wine.

Bobby even fed us dinner, the only instance of Indo-Vietnamese food consumed by us during this trip -- rice, chicken, dal fry and soy cubes. Usually soy cubes taste like nothing for me, but our Vietnamese Bhabhi could cook.

Goodbyes exchanged, we set off to our bus's pick up point. But not before I gave Bobby one of my bullet casings. Wonder if he still has it.


Photographs: Vinay Menon

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Lesson 5: Europe too expensive? Try Da Lat

So we arrive at our next destination -- Da Lat. Sleepy, hung over and wearing shorts. Bloody cold! The beauty of Da Lat is that the place is pristine, well kept and clean. There's not a single piece of trash lying around anywhere. Well, maybe a single piece of trash but not two single pieces of trash lying around within the same vicinity. The medians between the roads have nicely trimmed grass with flowers, the trees are spaced at equal distances and also trimmed.

Wait! Where are all the tourists?

Little did I realise that this was the tourist destination for Vietnamese people as well. The whole country was hot and humid and this was a nice hill station get away type location. The Vietnamese people, who weren't locals, were the most fashionably dressed, with matching ear muffs and scarves and knee high boots and everything. Envious was I at their ability to carry this off.

The cleanliness, the way the people dressed, the architecture and the weather gave me the impression that I was in some place Europe. Rather how I had envisioned how Europe would be, which wasn't a big deal, thanks to Bond movies and the internet.

We rode around the soaking in the coolness and the Europeaness. We even rode to the parts outside of the town and saw few of the most jaw dropping spectacular views of the mountain ranges in Vietnam. We could hear waterfalls somewhere nearby but we were unable to locate them. So I bought a fridge magnet of the waterfalls and tell everyone I saw them.

Da Lat wasn't a place where there's much to do or see specifically. This irked Roy as he is still young and impatient and can only satiate his existence by jumping out of airplanes and similar activities. But I'd recommend a visit just to sit around and chill out -- figuratively and climatically speaking.

Next stop -- Nha Trang! After all these cold winds, a nice beach location would do me well.


Image: Bus station, Da Lat, Vietnam
Photographs: Vinay Menon

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Lesson 6: Caution! Scuba diving in Nha Trang is injurious to tattoo

Nha Trang! Very touristy as compared to all the other places we've been to. There was surfing and scuba diving and jet skiing all around. It also had the vibes of a place that isn't exactly KEWL but was trying hard to be, much like many Bollywood actors who've lost credibility over the years.

We stayed along a road that had nothing but pubs and restaurants on it. Good choice hostelworld! As always, we got a motorbike rental and rode around. There were many restaurants catering western food, but we picked the most Vietnamese and non-English speaking one. Ordering wasn't too hard, as all we had to do was point to a dish on the menu and make guttural sounds.

Riding around, we spotted a tattoo parlor. Roy, being a die-hard Iron Maiden fan, wanted to get a tattoo. I tagged along not intending to get one.

But I did get one, of my one true love, Ernesto Che Guevara. The guy inking me spoke no English and replied to my query of "Blood?" by repeatedly saying "No water!" (foreshadowing). Roy had chickened out seeing all the blood citing reasons like he wanted to bide his time to pick the right tattoo and that he would rather have an arranged tattoo rather than a love tattoo.

It was later when we checked online for fresh tattoo care that we found out that one can't get a tattoo wet for a week at least, thus no scuba diving the next day. I drowned my sadness in a jar of bubblegum flavoured cocktail.

The next day while Roy was slowly dying due to all the under water pressure, I was just sitting on the boat and enjoying the sea and the islands off the coast of Nha Trang. Anyone who appreciates the sea would've enjoyed it.

I did feel bad, however, when it was time for us to leave. Unlike most backpackers, we had a strict schedule of 11 days in Vietnam. This was the first time when we felt we could've stayed at a place a bit longer.

The staff at our hostel saw us off when we boarded the bus. They are just so cute!


Image: Scuba diving in Nha Trang, Vietnam


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Lesson 7: Hoi An, it's so ancient

We arrive at Da Nang and book our tickets to Hue. Wikitravel helped me pick Hue as a more interesting place to be in. Da Nang by itself was a nice city but it was the least bit touristy. We rented a bike to ride to the ancient city of Hoi An, 30 kms away.

En route, we stopped at a newly opened mall to get some breakfast and use the toilets. I had bought a Vietnamese straw hat and was walking all over the place wearing that while dressed like a bum. Forget sore thumbs, we stuck out like a pair of pulsating infected thumbs.

Imagine seeing a foreigner walking about the new mall opened in your city wearing a turban. Yes, I was that idiot in Vietnam. The people at the food court, however, helped me order the food from their stall and were really courteous, obviously seeing my buffoonish appearance and confounded expression.

Back on the road, we crossed the famous marble mountains, which are exactly that. All across Vietnam, we saw huge marble statues of apparently important people giving blessings by touching the tips of their ring finger and thumb together. Now we knew where they came from.

Everything in Hoi An was so ancient. We had ancient buildings where they served the food eaten by ancient people. The bridges had an ancient architecture, complete with an ancient shrine to anciently bless our ancient 5 meter crossing over the ancient polluted water. There was an ancient park too where ancient teenagers were engaged in ancient PDA.

Roy didn't see any ancient airplanes to jump out of, so he just relaxed at a restaurant while I went exploring on foot. I realized that we should've stayed in Hoi An for a day. It's not the place for parties or excitement, but where you can relax at a home stay and acquire local culinary skills. Next time baby, next time!

Thanking the ancient gods for not raining on us, we reached the bus pick up point early, only to find out the bus would be delayed. JUST like my country!


Image: Ancient City, Hoi An, Vietnam
Photographs: Vinay Menon

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Lesson 8: Vo Hue!

Hue is the old imperial capital of Vietnam. But what made the city interesting to us is not the history but a couple of motorbike taxi guys whom we befriended right after we got out of the bus. This was not mentioned in wikitravel.

They told us that the hotel we'd booked online was an out of the way and for the locals and that too for the privacy (Ahem!). We knew this con, but much later we realised that they were telling the truth. Oh Irony! It's been a while.

Since we had no plans for the night, they took us to their usual watering hole -- a roadside eatery with the furniture just a foot tall. Like all males from every continent, we bonded over beer, culture bashing and dirty jokes. They treated Roy to the local delicacies, mainly to do with pig fat and lots of unadulterated chilies, which had him bleeding through every orifice. It is here we found out how to say 'Cheers!' in Vietnam -- Vo! These guys were really serious with it as well, saying "Vo!" every 5 minutes or so, clicking our bottles and encouraging us to down our drinks. That night I noticed photos of women in lingerie in our room. I wonder why they were there.

The next day, the pair came to pick us up and take us to the pagodas. The problem with a place full of pagodas is that, you see one, you've seen them all. Roy was bored within 5 minutes and was checking out the surrounding fauna. They were just so cute!

There was even a location where the ruling King went to once too old, with the aim of enjoying his concubines and slowly dying. It's good to be the King.

A cookie for anyone who got the reference.

Once I was done sight-seeing and taking photos of every leaf and stone, our guides treated Roy's to Hot Pot as a B'day gift, which is pretty much soup filled with every creature imaginable. He celebrated it with Hot Pot, Hue beer and with one Indian and two Vietnamese guys. At the pinnacle of our camaraderie, it was time to catch our train to Hanoi.


Image: Tombs of the Emperors, Hue, Vietnam
Photographs: Vinay Menon

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Lesson 9: Everyone in Hanoi hates you

Hanoi was the most modern and crowded one yet and this place had really narrow lanes, or as they were called by the locals -- main roads. Another startling difference was the abundance of communist and anti-American propaganda. They were celebrating the 40th anniversary of defeating the US Air Force during the Vietnam Wwar. Now, I hate the US just like every other American, but there are such things as sore winners.

After navigating through a labyrinth of crisscrossing lanes, we reached our hostel. We were greeted by a hyperactive lady who showed us to our dorms. I say hyperactive since she was prattling on about how she found it scary to talk to complete strangers, while talking to complete strangers.

The people in the city were just as Bobby had told us. They were cold and least bothered of our existence, whether we went to buy ice cream(in a 11 degrees climate) or simply asked for directions. Bunch of rude bastards! JUST like my…you get the point.

Our agenda for this city was something known as Hanoikids, which is a non-profit group of college students who become your guides for a day. Apart from cultural exchange, they also got the opportunity to pick up some English, while we pay for their food and drinks.

Our little guides took us to the places of obvious tourist interests (read: boring). What was more fun was exchanging cultural nuances and superstitions. India always came as number one in superstitions(YAY!).

When Roy and I listed out all the places we'd been to in Vietnam, they were awestruck and said we had seen more of Vietnam than them. For the first time in our journey, we felt more like travellers, rather than tourists, bringing tales from lands afar.

We'd noticed that most streets around our hostel area had the prefix 'Hang'. Our Hanoikids told us it meant 'Good' and every street was associated with the product once sold. The lane Hang Ga once sold chicken, Hang Bo once sold boats and so on. We got back to our hostel and the X'mas eve celebrations were underway.


Image: Hanoi, Vietnam
Photographs: Vinay Menon

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Lesson 10: Rice wine and Gangnam style for X'Mas eve

So, the denizens of our hostel had gathered and were sitting around awkwardly in a semi circle while the hostel manager(who was more hyper than the receptionist lady) was trying to get a party going, wearing a suit and talking endlessly. Eventually he told us all to stand up and that helped more than anything for us to mingle freely.

This was followed by a game he wanted to play where we said 'Cheers!' in all the different languages available and take a sip. The Chinese lady went first and we all said "1..2..3..GAMBEI!" and took a swig. Then it was the Russian guy's turn, "1..2..3..Na zdorovye!". Badass!

At this point, Roy had an ingenious idea. Eventually we got to the Indians, the short Indian told them and everyone in the room said in unison "1..2..3..B******d!".

Yes, that happened.

So we got together to bitch about Obama, movies, Vietnamese people, carrots (what?), the educational system and last but not least airport security. By 'we' I meant a plethora of people I ran into, none of them being Roy.

It was nearing midnight and everyone wanted to head out for some real food (sliced tomatoes and carrots don't fill you up) and the real party. All we had to do was take left, straight, right at the junction, second right, straight till the major junction and a left and another right. Or was it a left? Either ways, once we get to the major junction, we'll figure it out. Just that we couldn't get there. This time around, 'we' meant half a dozen people whom I was leading, along with a skeptical Roy.

So after being lost for a drunken half an hour (1 drunken minute is 2.5 actual minutes), we followed the noise and got to the party! Real dance! Real music! Real…OH GOD! What's in the fruit punch? Rice wine? It tastes so hard and IS THAT GANGNAM STYLE THEY'RE PLAYING??!!

WOOOO! OPPA GANGNAM STYLE! Dance Roy dance, don't sit on your pants. That guy has awesome hair. Where's the bathroom? The lights are gliding. Green door opened. Cookies are good for trigonometry. The roads here are so nice. That place serves snake. Rain. JUST like my country. Funny accents. Just so cute. Soft bed. AH!


Image: Nha Trang, Vietnam
Photographs: Vinay Menon

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Lesson 11: How long are we in Ha Long?

My head hurts. My hip joints hurt. Water? Water everywhere! But not a drop to drink. We're late for our bus to Cat Ba island. I scarf down something which I hope was food and rush into our minivan.

Cat Ba is an island to the north of Hanoi and thus Vietnam. One has to go through the famous Ha Long bay to get there. It was one of the shooting locations for the Pirates of the Caribbean series. But I'll explain all that later. Right now, I need to somehow sleep off this hangover in the overcrowded 4 hour long journey from Hanoi.

Whatever I did remember of the North Vietnam country-side, it was full of huge billboards where the Communist hammer and sickle was radiating rays of sheer awesomeness in red and yellow onto a sample population of folk -- school girl clutching her books, a guy in worker overalls, a military policeman, a bespectacled business man and so on. They all looked proudly at the origin of the rays while most likely damaging their corneas.

After five hours of my judging of the hypocrisy around me and short naps, we had reached the miniscule city of Ha Long where we had to wait at the docks for our vessel to arrive.

After about two hours of lazily sauntering through the water, the main land of Vietnam was no longer on the horizon due to distance and the fog (or smog). Soon we began to see outlines of gigantic structures in the mist. These were the rock formations, several stories high, just silently observing our passing. They made the eerie effect of ship graveyard from the Pirates movies come to full effect.

On such a rock formation island was a huge cave full of stalactites and stalagmites, that were lit up with colorful lights. The whole experience of walking in the cave was trippy enough to make the real world outside boring and mundane. But we had no choice other than to exit our LSD cave to reach our final destination -- an unlit pier at the edge of Cat Ba island.


Image: A cave full of stalactites and stalagmites
Photographs: Vinay Menon

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Lesson 12: Save the Cat Ba langur, when you see one

After driving in near pitch black darkness, in a van filled to the last cubic centimeter with either people or luggage, we arrived at the central part of the town of Cat Ba, which was completely empty! It was like the zombie apocalypse had hit. We walked around and found close to no one even in the places that had 80s music playing and a pool table waiting. Why was it always 80s music? Is that a zombie apocalypse thing?

Did I say that the girl at our hostel reception was cute? So yeah, she was totally cute! We'd told her to give us a wake-up call in the morning. She knocked at our door at our given time and smiling brightly and waving energetically announced "HI! I wake you up. BYE!".

So, we being the cheap Indians we were, picked the half day trekking experience, which segregated us from the main group and paired us up with Allen, our guide who ran up the incline as fast I could blink. He had so much energy, he would scuttle between Roy and a dead beat me. He even waved his fan to cool me down. We were on our way to the top of the highest mountain on the island.

Atop said mountain, there is a rickety rusty tower. I hesitantly made my way to the top from where we would see a huge part of the forest, and nothing but. 2.5 kms above sea level! James Cameron later sued me for even thinking of his iconic line.

Tired, we got back to the base of the mountain. All around, we saw T shirts and other paraphernalia about the endangered Cat Ba Langur, which they claimed can easily be sighted on the forest trails such as the one we took. I highly suspect that the animal has been long extinct and the islanders were using the ploy to earn a few bucks during off season.

The following day, we woke up early, packed up and left for Hanoi, from where we'd set off for Laos. Vietnam was the best place I had been to in South-East Asia. So far.

The journey continues.


Image: Off the coast, Nha Trang, Vietnam
Photographs: Vinay Menon

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