A Visit to Vietnam

blog post #6 by 2015-16 student blogger James Toenders

I spent 2 full weeks of my Christmas holiday this year in Vietnam, visiting my partner-in-love Larrissa. We travelled from South to North and back by plane, bus and motorbike (the king of transit in Vietnam). I ate my face off and had some of the best experiences of my life. It’s hard to distill that down into a short format blog post, but here a few highlights from a trip that I hope wasn’t once in a lifetime.

When I tell people I was in Vietnam, everyone wants to know about the food; how were the bánh mì, the phở, maybe even the roasted dog?! Vietnam is synonymous with delicious street food, although their cuisine is generally tamer in flavours than other East Asian countries like Thailand, Singapore or Indonesia. The stars of the food we were eating (which was largely vegan and vegetarian) were super fresh herbs (Thai basil, coriander and mint), the French style breads left over from colonialism and the liberal use of fish sauce and fresh chilies.

The food that encompassed my Vietnamese food experience most fully was called bánh xèo. Sitting at children’s patio furniture on the side of the street, a woman wearing a fake Gucci tracksuit takes your order. She brings it to a quiet man standing over a small grill heated by a wood fire who starts to cook in even smaller frying pans. The server then brings over a platter of the holy trinity of fresh herbs, fresh greens, pickles, sauces and rice paper rolls. The cook himself brings over the beautiful bánh xèo: super crispy crepes filled with bean sprouts, prawn and pork. The bánh xèo gets cut into pieces using scissors; you assemble your own fresh rolls with crepe pieces and the ingredient rainbow in front of you. They’re the perfect little bundles of texture and flavour, and if you don’t mind that the cook is covered in filth and that you’re only inches from the ground, it’s probably the coolest eating experience of your life.

Besides the food, we got to see A LOT of the country: from Hanoi all the way up to Saigon. One of my scenic highlights came in the form of Bạch Mã national park, a mile high mountain in the south littered with waterfalls and underground tunnels. A car from the nearby city of Hue drove us up the single winding road, through clouds and around large rocks that had fallen off in the past, and dropped us near the top. From there we hiked another 20 or so minutes to the look out where you could normally see for miles, but that day we were enveloped in thick fog. We took the scenic walk down the path of the 5-Lakes: waterfalls that make 5 distinct pools of crystal clear, freezing cold water that the brave (read: idiotic) could swim in (we were the idiots). This was my first time in any form of jungle, and although I didn’t see any tigers (the French colonialists used to make the Vietnamese catch them to eat!), I did lose some blood to the leeches.

This trip also found me swimming in the Ocean for the first time in my life. We spent a few days in Đà Nẵng: a city known mostly for its beaches, which we spent all our time at. As soon as I started to get close to the water I could smell the salty brine that people talk about, and when I got in I had the most surreal experience. As a cook, people are constantly telling you that things taste like the sea: oysters, muscles, seaweed etc. Having never tasted seawater before, my first time in the Ocean all I could think was “THIS TASTES LIKE PERIWINKLES!” (Shout out to Leo Pereira!).

That same first morning on the beach, I had another super surreal experience. At around 10am, a group of men started forming around some ropes sticking out of the water. Soon they were starting to pull on the ropes, and while Larrissa and I were trying to decide what it was they were pulling on, people started to congregate and help the men. It suddenly dawned on me that they’re fisherman pulling in their nets and after quickly handing Larrissa my phone I ran like an excited dog towards them and joined in the help. The catch of the day wasn’t bountiful, maybe 20 or 30 small fish, but no one seemed too disappointed. After putting them all into a bucket in the back of a motorbike, the fish were swept off to the market down the street to be sold.

Vietnam was a truly surreal place. It was hot, beautiful and a little gross. The people were mostly friendly and accommodating and just wanted to say hi as you walked down the street. The food was always incredible, and in an emergency there was usually a Pizza Hut around the corner. I miss it a lot, but I know I’ll be back because I never actually ate the phở.

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