Christmas is big in Vietnam.
Religion doesn’t play a major role. The country’s main religion is Buddhism (there is a Catholic minority of 8-10%, a legacy of the French colonial period), but Vietnam has embraced the commercial aspect of the holiday with a zeal beyond anything either of us has ever seen in the West.
Enthusiastic displays of Christmas spirit are everywhere—think large plastic snowmen, lit from the inside; fake snow blowers; and “sexy santas” hanging out in department stores. In a major victory for Fox News, we saw only one “Happy Holidays” sign, which adorned a large international chain hotel, the Intercontinental. Every store, restaurant and hotel rocks to up-tempo Christmas carols.
The first hint of the Vietnamese obsession with Christmas that we saw came on the Sunday after Thanksgiving when, in true American commercial spirit, our hotel in Hanoi put up a huge fake tree, lots of fake presents, and enough tinsel to make Liberace blush. (One example of the secular nature of the Vietnamese conception of Christmas is that all of the trees we saw were topped with a star and not an angel—a star being perfect for Vietnam, as the emblem of the country’s flag, and a nod to its communist past.) The hotel employees, we think, were contractually obligated to wish us a merry Christmas every time they saw us from when the tree went up until we checked out. We would say that Ho Chi Minh is turning in his grave, but we saw his grave, and he was at a standstill.
Although the French religious influence in Vietnamese is waning, we are glad to report that the French culinary imprint is alive and well. Good quality baguettes are widely available, and red wine is more popular and more affordable than anywhere else we have been so far in Asia. Vietnamese-made wine, produced in Dalat, is increasingly popular, and a bottle of the Dalat vintage goes for about half the price of a French one. All of our hotel breakfasts contained a selection of cheeses and pate, not to mention delicious and exquisitely presented pastries.
Vietnamese coffee is also a major positive. Two of our guides took us to their local favorite cafes, one in Hanoi and one in Dalat. The coffee we enjoyed in both places was extremely strong, rich, and slightly salty, in a pleasing way (each cup costing well under a dollar). The country’s best coffee, we understand, comes from beans extracted from weasel dung. The theory goes that the weasels identify the choicest beans and that the enzymes from their digestive systems improve the flavor. We reserve judgment, as we did not have the opportunity to sample any on this visit (that coffee costs $6,600.00 per pound!).
After Hanoi, we flew into Hue (pronounced alternatively “way” and “hoo-ay” by various people we met), the ancient capital. Hue marked the beginning of a relatively cold and rainy stretch of our trip that lasted for the better part of a week, until we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (“HCMC”), located in the country’s south (monsoon season lasted an unusually long time this year). Hue, and its environs, hosts some fairly impressive tombs of the Vietnamese emperors who reigned over the country before the Communist takeover in the mid-20th Century.
Our favorite was the tomb of Khai Dinh, who was the country’s penultimate emperor, a tiny man, and flamboyantly gay. Bao Dai, his “son”—we heard from different people that Bao Dai’s true father was either one of Khai Dinh’s servants or one of Khai’s brothers—was the country’s last emperor. Bao Dai was a massive man (making the claim that he was Khai Dinh’s son a running joke among the Vietnamese). Bao Dai’s influence was largely muted by the French, and at the first sign of trouble with the communist insurgents, he absconded to France where he spent the rest of his life with his many concubines, playing golf and bridge and sailing his yacht.
The best meals we had in Hue were at Nina’s Cafe—we liked it so much that we went twice. Nina is a twenty-year-old, tiny and very perky Vietnamese woman who told us she had opened the restaurant when she was seventeen. How a seventeen-year-old had the wherewithal and means to open a restaurant we can’t be certain (her parents were around, doing paperwork and preparing food, and the smart money is on their having decided to make their daughter the face of the business). What we can be certain of was the quality of the food—delicious and fresh vegetables like morning glory (water spinach) sautéed with copious amount of garlic and rice-paper pancakes with shrimp and beansprouts, a regional specialty. Jude especially enjoyed the banana pancakes and one very tasty mango shake.
The restaurant itself is semi-exposed to the adjacent alleyway. Neighbors and neighborhood animals seem to come and go at their leisure. The restaurant is decorated the way you would expect a restaurant opened by a teenage girl to be decorated—lots of pinks and hearts, and many pictures of her with friends making peace signs.
From Hue we drove south with our guide, Anh, to Hoi An, his hometown. (Anh is a great guide with a thick Australian accent, gleaned from the mainly Australian tourists he shows around. He also has a large repertoire of American idioms and slang, picked up from American tourists of different generations, which he was eager to use on us. Before taking our photo, he would say, “OK, guys, time for a Kodak moment.”)
Hoi An is a charming old city, which had its heyday in the 16th and 17th Centuries, when it was a massive trading port for Japanese and European merchants. Nowadays, the entire Old City (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is full of little streets, old merchant homes, and lots of lanterns. The Thu Bon River runs through the heart of town, traversed by a historical Japanese covered bridge. We enjoyed our time there, eating cheap street food, including a number of bahn mi sandwiches (fantastic!), and socializing with the very outgoing locals.
One highlight was eating dinner at Ahn’s house. Anh’s son, Phuc (introduced to us as Peter), is Jude’s age, and the two of them played nicely together, while we scarfed down some seriously good local cuisine prepared by Anh’s mother-in-law.
On the drive to Hoi An, we stopped briefly in Danang, a beach resort, which was a major R&R spot for GI’s during the War. They hung out on China Beach (now named “R&R Beach,” as, according to Anh, the Vietnamese are adverse to all things Chinese—2,000 years of off-and-on war will do that to a society). Danang is littered with golf courses and very exclusive-looking resorts. Anh told us that the condo prices would make our heads spin. More interesting was the Cham Museum, containing an impressive collection of Cham statues and pottery (the Cham style reflects elements of Buddhism and Hinduism; there were a lot of Ganeshes and a lot of Buddhas as well).
It was at the Cham Museum, though, that I noticed something wrong with my right lower eyelid; it had swollen up to the size of a ping-pong ball (not really, but it was huge and pretty gross). Anh’s diagnosis? “I think it was the squid you ate last night. I don’t think you need to see a doctor.” Hmm. I needed a second opinion. I told the receptionist at our hotel in Hoi An that I wanted to see a doctor. Although it was a Saturday, she had a doctor from the local hospital on the phone with me in under a minute. I told him what was going on, and within about 15 minutes he had showed up at our hotel room with one of those old-school black doctors’ bags. He took a look, and prescribed some eye drops, an anti-inflammatory, and a penicillin-based antibiotic, which he pulled out of his bag and gave to me on the spot. He told me that the infection had been caused by the pollution in Vietnam, and cautioned me to wear sunglasses in the future. The total cost was a fraction of what my co-pay would have been at home, and the entire cost should be covered by our travel insurance in any event. The medicine worked and the infection went down, though it took several days. The experience was much cheaper, quicker, and more efficient than any doctor’s visit I have ever had in the US.
Next up was Dalat. Dalat was first established by the French in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, designed as a health resort/retreat. The French picked the location for its sweeping mountain views and cool year-round climate. Today, like a Swiss resort town, Dalat is home to wide boulevards and a number of attractive chalets, making it a one-of-a-kind cultural mélange. It is a popular honeymoon destination for Vietnamese couples (we saw many of them), and Ahn took his there. We did not spend long in Dalat, but two of our favorite sights were the Crazy House (designed by a female Vietnamese architect, who still lives there, and has obviously taken in a lot of Gaudi) and Bao Dai’s summer palace—it is clear that this man knew how to live it up.
Our final stop in Vietnam was HCMC. The first word that comes to mind to describe the city formerly known as Saigon is “bustle.” This is a boomtown and people are on the move in a way that is jarring to the senses of travelers, like us, arriving from sleepy Dalat. The roar of a million mopeds accompanies you wherever you go. (For some reason, everyone wears helmets, unlike in some other parts of the country; we didn’t have a chance to talk to anyone about why this is, but were glad to see this emphasis on safety.)
HCMC is definitely a much more modern city than Hanoi. There are many more Western chains, bright lights, cafes, restaurants, people wearing suits, and construction cranes. Comparisons to Hong Kong would not be off the mark. And much as we enjoyed Hong Kong, we enjoyed HCMC as well; there is something charming about these modern gleaming Asian financial capitals. The tropical heat was a welcome relief after the mountain chill of Dalat. The city is also more walkable than most others we encountered in Vietnam, owing largely to the fact that people use sidewalks for walking (so sidewalks are not always occupied by parked mopeds and restaurant seating), and to the fact that people obey traffic lights.
One of our favorite experiences in HCMC was visiting the War Remnants Museum. Like the war museum in Hanoi, there are many vehicles on display on the grounds. Unlike the museum in Hanoi, the vehicles’ doors in the War Remnants Museum are bolted shut, meaning no climbing aboard by two-year-olds. It was still a great museum. Some of the displays, such as an exhibit on the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people, were far too graphic to show Jude, and we had to skip them.
Another great sight was the Reunification Palace. This palace played home to the South Vietnamese presidents during the War, which came to a dramatic conclusion on April 30, 1975 when communist tanks came crashing through the front gate. Somewhat anticlimactically, the first tank ran out of fuel while driving from the gate to the palace’s front door, but a second tank came along and finished the job (replicas of both tanks are on display on the grounds; nobody knows where the original tanks are).