Vietnam Ventures

An introduction to Vietnam submitted by one of our fabulous subscribers, Andrea

Two years ago in December I had the amazing opportunity to go to Vietnam with one of my best friends. You could say that she’s a pretty experienced traveler in the region considering the fact that she spent the first eleven years of her life there. So when she asked me the summer before if I wanted to accompany her back to her homeland (after figuring out that no, she really wasn’t joking), I quickly jumped on board!

And I’m so glad I did – it was the experience of a lifetime!

(International Travel Hint #1: If you ever get the chance to travel to a foreign country with someone who not only speaks the native language, but also speaks your own, DO IT!)

Several months and 15 hours in the sky later, we touched down in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It was surreal. Just the day before, I had been in LA, the center of everything stereotypically American, and then all of a sudden I was halfway across the world in a country so very different from my own that I didn’t even know how to cross the street or use the bathroom. How’d that happen?

After being hit by some pretty severe culture shock, I quickly realized that this was going to be an all-or-nothing experience. So I went all in! This was the beginning of a monthlong journey full of discovery: a new language to hear, tastes to try, sights to see, and people to meet. Sounds like an adventure to me!

We based ourselves in a southern city called Cần Thơ, where my friend’s father lives. We stayed at his house.

(Travel Hint #2: If your bilingual friend has friends or family abroad and they’ve been kind enough to invite you to stay with them, DO IT! Immersing yourself completely in the culture is the best way to go.)

Cần Thơ is a river town; it lies along the Mekong delta. If you ever go there, you must visit the floating market. Yes, it is just as awesome as it sounds: it’s a market on the river, only accessible by boat. Get up early because the market is going by sunrise and you’ll be duly rewarded: you can buy banana leaf-wrapped rice cakes, fresh seafood, and juicy sweet fruity tropical treats like longan and lychee.

We traveled to central Vietnam and made a few excursions to other southern cities, and wherever we went the people were friendly and very hospitable. Though of course I couldn’t understand a word they were saying (though some people spoke a little English), they all greeted me with smiles and fed me plenty of food!

People dress pretty casually there. They were in shorts and t-shirts mostly because it was so hot and humid. We wore the traditional ao dai dresses for the wedding we attended while there. These are long, silky, classic Vietnamese gowns, slitted on both sides at the waist, worn with pants underneath. They can be very colorful and ornate, sometimes accented with floral patterns. I got to keep the ao dai I wore, and it’s one of my favorite souvenirs.

In case you’re wondering, along the way I did in fact learn how to cross the street and use the bathroom (not at the same time, of course). That rumor you hear about risking your life every time you cross the street in southeast Asian countries…it’s true, it is a life-threatening adventure. Motorbikes (kind of like a motorcycle, but made to fit more people) are the sole mode of transportation in most of the areas of Vietnam I visited. Stoplights there are few and far between, so usually you have to jaywalk. But standing around waiting for the next gap in traffic is like waiting for pigs to fly, so eventually you just have to go for it and hope you make it to the other side alive. It’s a real lesson in bravery and initiative.

As for the toilet, BYOTP (very important travel hint #3). Tissues will do just fine too. You’re not gonna want to throw your paper in the toilet, that’s just for your personal waste. See that trash can on the side? Bingo! If you forgot your toilet paper, hose yourself down and call it a day. You can be proud of yourself for saving some trees.

Now that we’ve left the bathroom, let’s talk about food! Yum!

I don’t think I’ve ever tasted so many new things in my life before. I am an adventurous eater and a food lover so this was definitely one of my favorite parts of the trip. The Vietnamese diet is very healthy, fresh, and delicious. We almost never ate bread (we had rice instead) and the meals were rich with fruits and veggies. There is a lot of really wonderful street food in Vietnam. Whenever you’re hungry, which is a lot when you’re sweating everything off in the humidity, you can stop at a sidewalk restaurant and enjoy some hot phở (traditional Vietnamese soup consisting of rice noodles, broth, small herbs and veggies, and meat or seafood) or pick yourself up a fruit smoothie or some scrumptious egg rolls.

Other than this amazingly delicious and healthy fast food operation, there is another food service Vietnam has that I find to be absolute genius. Basically, it’s a very fancy take-out service.

Call up the restaurant and they will deliver your meal to your door (via motorbike) on real plates and bowls with real spoons and chopsticks (none of this silly paper plate or plastic/styrofoam business), enjoy yourself eating up, then call back when your plates are empty and they’ll come pick up all your dirty dishes. You just win all around: there aren’t any dishes to do and you don’t have any waste.

It is very eye-opening, experiencing a new culture, and I learned so much! There’s tons to see and lots to do, and you grow through the adventure. Whenever you have the chance to travel, DO IT!

And I would highly recommend Vietnam as one of your future destinations.

Sven’s World: Our Interview with a Travelling Gnome

We’re here to interview Sven on a lovely morning at his home in sunny California, US of A. He stands all of 3” tall, black boots planted squarely on the coffee table, valise held at the ready, and full of perky expectation.

Q: Good morning, Sven. Thank you for giving us the chance to meet you. You appear ready to dash out the door at any moment. I’ve heard that you claim to be ready to travel at a moment’s notice.

Sven: Yes! It’s really all I’ve ever wanted to do. I lived in a bookstore briefly and met a fellow by the name of Flat Stanley. After hearing his wild adventures and seeing some of his photos, I knew it was the life for me. I met my owner soon after. She and I discussed it over non-fat vanilla lattes and felt a connection right away. It was obvious we were meant for great travels together.

Initially, I seriously considered becoming a pirate. After all, Flat Stanley was a little…flat. I’m made of sterner stuff. But I simply can’t pull it off with this hat.

Q: Your hat is quite remarkable. I like it.

Sven: It stands tall in the wind, yes, and the red makes me easier to find when I’m lounging in the bottom of a huge dark purse, but a pirate captain requires a skull and crossbones at the very least. I tried on a Native American ceremonial headdress in Taos once. But it wasn’t the same.

Q: When did you begin your travels?

Sven: It would’ve been 2008. I was young and cocky then and jumped at the first travel opportunity that came along, taking off with a stranger. Well, I was held hostage in Cambria for weeks until I made my way back home. Lesson learned! I’ve avoided hitch hiking ever since.

Q: I see. Have you traveled outside of California?

Sven: Yes. Here and there in America of course. Road trips through Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, skiing in Utah, and deer hunting in Texas. A flight to Virginia. A flight to Maui for snorkeling and whale watching. Southwest Airlines are fairly nice, by the way, and Alaska Air served mai tai’s on our flight to Hawaii, so they rank well in my book.

Q: Tell me a little about your road trips.

Sven: I used to have a bucket seat near the A/C but now I ride at the bow of the Black Pearl, as I call our car. My job is to watch for pirates…er…cops in the fast lane. It’s an honor I don’t take lightly. While I won’t ask for bathroom breaks, I very much insist that we stop for amazing sunset photo ops, where ever we happen to be at dusk. “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” and all that.

Q: Any particular memory from a road trip?

Sven: Well, you really must stop at THE THING.

Q: Um, THE THING?

Sven: Oh yes! All there is for simply miles upon miles of cactus habitat in Arizona on your way to New Mexico is billboards. They all advertise for THE THING, which is the only THING for pretty much ever that you can stop and take a break at. Even I’m stiff after hours of driving, and the shocking secret they keep hidden there is so worth it.

Q: What is it?

Sven: (Chuckling) Oh no. You’re going to have to go there yourself and find out!

Q: Hm. I see. How about international travel then?

Sven: I have excellent photos from New Zealand! You really must go. Halfway around the world, I did some pretty awesome kayaking, hiking, and sightseeing of course, and I am thinking of doing Australia this summer. Outback and all, you know. Possibly don my formals and attend a wedding.

Q: You have a passport?

Sven: Of course. I keep it updated at all times, just in case.

Q: In your valise there?

Sven: Of course not. My valise is filled to the top with jellybeans. Mostly black ones. You should never go anywhere without snacks handy. (He shudders slightly) You never know what a native will hand you for dinner.

Never check your bags by the way. I pack light, and only have this carry-on. I had it tattooed with a plumeria during my stay in Maui. Special treat.

Q: Would you ever fly solo?

Sven: You mean by mail? Never! There are many places I want to go in this big beautiful world but I have no intention of asking the government to take me there. Have you seen the way FedEx throws…er…delivers packages?! Outrageous. Go with family. Always.

Q: I’d like to ask, before we finish, if you have any travelling “incidents” you’d like to share with our readers? Many times, travel does not turn out to be as smooth sailing as it was planned.

Sven: I’m so glad you asked. Sometimes it’s the “incidents” that were unplanned that become your travel book’s best memories! Yes, there was the time I went skydiving without a parachute, out a window while dining at Cheeseburger in Paradise in Lahaina. It may have been the mai tai in a pineapple that got to me. Luckily, I landed on my pointy hat in the sand. So it’s good for something after all.

I had some minor hand surgery the summer I went to Texas, connected to holding a fiery sparkler on the Fourth of July. Texans do love their pyrotechnics! At least they didn’t tie me to a rocket. I know that’s what they were thinking. I’ll be a pirate…but not an astronaut.

(Sven pauses for a moment.)

And then there was the time I underwent complete Humpty Dumpty emergency surgery.

Q: I’m afraid to ask.

Sven: You should be. I was “skipping” along the surface of a swimming pool. Unfortunately, the pool stopped, but I did not. Striking the concrete, I broke completely in half. I’ve only felt that kind of terror once before, while being chewed on by a recalcitrant raccoon. Now I have the scars that prove I’ve been places and done things, by jove, and what’s a little inconvenience when one is having grand adventures?! I’d like to see Flat Stanley top that one!

Q: Perhaps you, maybe, should not try to walk on water in future. It really is past time for us to go. I’d guess by looking around your lovely home that you could be just as content staying here as travelling abroad.

Sven: Yes, I work a little, church a little, once in a while attend an Aztec or Padre game. We play monopoly and I get to be the banker. I dabble in real estate on occasion. But in my heart, I’m just waiting for the next big trip.

Q: Thank you so much for sharing your travels today. We look forward to hearing about your next grand adventure, where ever the road may take you.