Many people asked me why Vietnam? My only response was “Why not”. It was not on top on my travel bucket list, but still a fascinating country to visit. After traveling around Europe and North America, it was time to explore life in Asia. So four of us embark on a journey to Southeast Asian country and it was totally worth it.
Despite its bloody past due to the Vietnam war that took place for roughly 20 years and has marked Vietnam, it is today recognize as a country of welcoming smiles, natural beauty, bizarre foods, friendly people and influence of the West.
My first impression of Vietnam is formed on the road from the airport to the center of Hanoi, the capital city. Millions of bikes, bicycles. In the country with six million people, there are five million bikes. And it is intriguing to observe even four people riding one bike. A mother with three children riding a motorbike. It’s a complete chaos, feels like no traffic rules exist. Just horn and you have priority. Before entering the heart of Hanoi you can even spot a water buffalo on the road. Don’t be alarmed if you see a bread seller on the edge of five lane roads. If you survive the drive, don’t be so sure you’ll make it on foot. Crossing the road is a challenge on its own. My advice: Just go, start walking, but don’t run, stop in the middle if you must and never expect cars to stop for you.
Our first dinner is a cheap traditional soup called Pho. It’s a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, linguine-shaped rice noodles (called bánh phở), a few herbs and served with either beef or chicken. After seeing bizarre foods on the menus of some restaurants – popular dish in Vietnam is even a dog – I had to make sure I don’t get something like that in my food. I pointed on different foods and asked: Chicken? After many responses: “No. Nooooo Chicken”, I finally found the right meat. At least that was I think. Hopefully I really ate chicken. Well, it tasted and looked like it. Pho will cost you only a couple of dollars, and you can eat it on the street while sitting on miniature plastic chairs and table. You can find food in Vietnam basically everywhere, it is tasteful and cheap. Like I mentioned before, Vietnam also offers some bizarre foods, for instance snakes, rats, pigeons, tortoise, dogs.
If you have a sensitive stomach, I recommend staying away from marketplaces. While walking around one of the small markets on a side street, we can see from where all the meat in the restaurants comes from. Chickens are running on the street, couple of steps further their heads are being chopped away. And on the next stand you can buy this fresh meat. Smell is revolting, not for those with sensitive stomach. I tried to hold my breath and started walking faster. The smell gets worse around Hanoi due to short but strong rain showers. And be warned, it rains a lot. But with time you get used of the smell and of the rain. Mandatory equipment is an umbrella, or even better, a raincoat. Everyone is wearing one. Even those on motorbikes have a large one that covers the whole bike and it’s transparent in front for the lights.
In Hanoi you can find many pagodas. Pagoda is a tiered tower with multiple eaves, built in traditions originating in historic South Asia. It’s a place of worship. Tran Quoc Pagoda on the Truc Bach lake is one of the oldest ones in Vietnam. We also visited Chùa Mot Cot Pagoda (One Pillar Temple). It is a wooden structure built in 1049 and sits on stilts over a lake. King Ly Thai Thong had it built after having a dream in which Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the goddess of mercy, presented him with a lotus flower. Chùa Mot Cot Pagoda today is a miniature reproduction of the original, which was said to represent a lotus emerging from the water.
Don’t skip a visit of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh is an important figure in the country, if not the most important one. He was a Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader, who was prime minister and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He was a key figure in the foundation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. He was once an enemy of the West, but known as Uncle Ho in his homeland. He was Vietnamese hero despite bloodshed. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a large memorial, it was built in 1975 and it was inspired by Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow.