There is a popular saying utilized by the Vietnamese – ‘same same but different’ – which, I feel, summarises my stay in this country so far. From Hanoi, to Tam Coc, to Hue, to Hoi An, to our current halfway point in Nha Trang; common threads run throughout the various cities we have explored: an undercurrent of cultures supporting the fragments of Vietnam which we have visited.
Around every corner a Banh Mi stall awaits, selling various sandwich fillings included vegetables, boiled eggs and chicken which is roasted slowly on a spit over a small fire. The smell of sizzling oil and spices travels down the street as vendors wheel their carts towards hungry looking tourists. Vendors plant themselves to the pavement, surrounded by an array of tiny plastic tables and chairs occupied, usually, by older men sipping hot green tea and smoking endless cigarettes in the afternoon’s warmth. Women sit on the floor using giant scales that stretch across their shoulders to weigh banana leaves, fish, pineapples and a million other curiously shaped vegetables.
Aside from the food, there are also the endless clothes shops that line the roads, spilling into even the empty alleyways, lining them with hanging t-shirts, trousers, skirts and shorts. The majority of these stalls sell clothes that are never actually worn by the Vietnamese, but are aimed the travelers that make up the thriving tourist industry which supports many of the country’s regions.
The most prominent theme, in my opinion, that runs noisely through Vietnam are the motorbikes. The roar and honking of these ever present machines reaches even to Phong Na’s isolated mountain peaks. Our first morning in Hanoi was spent dodging the swerving bikes that ignore any illusion of traffic regulations that a zebra crossing indicates. However, after a few hours and hesitating and finding ourselves trapped in the middle of extremely busy crossroads – the ultimate ‘deer in the headlamps’ experience – we stalked fearlessly down the chaotic streets. Motorbiking through the striking Phong Na scenery, down strips of tarmac that wove through thick emerald jungle and over rivers of bright green, I began to understand the attraction of this mode of transport.
Despite these characteristics, there is a uniqueness to each area we have explored. From the rippling blue lakes of Tam Coc, dotted with large uprising rocks that tower as high as city buildings. To the echoing caves and dense jungle that carpets the mountains at Phong Na. To the open beaches lined with palm trees at Hoi An. These unmistakable variations of scenery, the result of Vietnam’s turbulent weather systems, made me not want to miss a single stop.
Furthermore – last but most certainly not least – the countless foods I have sampled so far have exceeded all expectations. Secret noodle bars buried between clothes shops, street vendors cooking fried banana pancakes, women toasting sweet potato and coconut cakes on low fires (and I didn’t even mind the coconut!) A favourite so far: In Hanoi, a woman sits in a doorway, concealed behind a plethora of pots and pans which simmer gently, releasing aromas of frying meat and ginger. A single dish is served here and is delivered to your table almost immediately; a generous helping of rice noodles, cooked with various vegetables and tender strips of beef. This is then coated with toasted peanuts, chilli flakes and corriander. Bun Bo Nam Bo – undoubtedly one of the best Pho I have had, and for under three pounds.
Secondly, another street food restaurant that serves a single dish. A selection of stir fried veg (including pineapple and plenty of ginger), salad, shrimp spring rolls, and barbequed pork skewers coated in sesame seeds is delivered to your table. A woman stands at your table and rolls giant spring rolls using egg and rice pancakes to gather the ingredients. You dunk your tightly rolled parcel into a rich and spicy peanut sauce – another amazing and very cheap meal.
I will conclude with the dessert I have fallen in love with – the mango cake. I am still to discover the exact ingredients, but these are basically soft balls of ground rice, coated in icing sugar to create a pillowy case which conceals a peanuty, manogy center. I have been looking for more recipes including ground rice, as a gluten free alternative, and the Vietnamese definitely have a lesson or two for me to remember!