The people, animal, and food of Vietnam

April 30, 2013  •  2 Comments

Today, April 30th, marks the 38th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon in 1975 and forever remembered by all the Vietnamese people abroad as Black April. Conversely, in Vietnam, it has been glorified as Reunification/Liberation Day and made a public holiday to celebrate the day the North Vietnamese Army captured Saigon and ended the Vietnam War. Saigon was consequently renamed Ho Chi Minh City shortly after. However, to all the Vietnamese living abroad, this city will always be recognized as Saigon.


I was born and grew up in Saigon and left with my family when I was only 10 years old. Since then, I have been living in Southern California for over 20 years now. As westernized and fluent in English as I have become over the years, I have never forgotten my country of origin nor my native tongue. And as a fortunate result, my Vietnamese fluency has allowed me to travel easily throughout Vietnam each time I came back to visit and communicate effortlessly with the locals wherever I go. So instead of sharing with you how April 30th changed the course of Vietnam 38 years ago, I would like to show you what my beloved country looks like today. 


My journey started in Hanoi where I spent only a couple of days. I would start each morning by visiting my favorite kebab street stall for a delicious variation of the traditional Vietnamese bánh mì (sandwich), followed by a refreshing glass of sugarcane juice from a sweet lady vendor nearby.  Banh Mi Kebab in Hanoi, Vietnam

Sugarcane drink in Vietnam


The rest of my day would be spent wandering around and people watching at Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (Lake of the Returned Sword). It is a place where the young and old gather, where couples and groups of friends hang out, where backpackers walk on foot and tourists are chauffered on cyclos. 


After Hanoi was Sapa, an mountainous area indigenous to the H'mong tribe. Walking around town you would see many adults and children wearing their traditional garment. Most of them walk miles into town from their villages to sell handmade crafts to visitors. Some of them can be very persistent and followed my friend below in the red & yellow jacket for quite a distance in an effort to get her to buy from them. 


There are a few villages to visit in Sapa and Cat Cat is the closest and walking distance from town. It is the most touristic but still interesting nonetheless. On the way in, it was extremely foggy and I could barely see 15 feet in front of me.


Once I got to the village, the fog cleared up a bit, and I saw both children playing and doing their chores as I walked through the designated pathway.


In addition to children, there were also dogs and pigs up and about or sleeping soundly together. 


And in this last pix of Cat Cat village, you have a little bit of everything. 


Other than Cat Cat, the next village further away that I really enjoyed visiting via motorbike was Ta Van village. On the way there I saw many beautiful rice terraces, little girls selling hand-made crafts on the side of the road, and a small mud pond with some water buffalos. 


Once there, I explored the village on foot and came across some ducks, a little kid and his grandma, and a guy washing his motorbike in the river. 


The last and farthest village I visited also on motorbike was Ta Phin village. On the way there, I came across a little house that sat atop a cliff with a little girl playing outside as her mom was hanging clothes inside the front yard. 


There weren't that many people at this village the further in I went nor was there a place to park my bike so I decided to turn back without exploring the village by foot like these local ladies here. 


At the end of each day of exploring, I would always enjoy a hot cup of soothing Sapa tea to warm myself up from the cold climate of this region. 

Sapa Tea in Sapa, Vietnam


From Sapa, I had to head back to Hanoi for one night before continuing to Ha Long Bay. This area were filled with fisherman on small rowing boats close to shore and out at sea. While kayaking, I even saw a guy fishing from atop a huge rock in the middle of the ocean and also found my way to Monkey Island. 


My next place on the list was the Trang An grottoes where I was taken on a small rowing boat along the waterway and through each grotto via low ceiling caves. Although the most impressive part of the ride was running into the resident photographer that offered to take my picture as he rowed with his feet. He even had a little printer on his boat where he could print and provide the pictures for you after payment is received. 


I continued south from Trang An to Phong Nha for more magnificent and majestic caves before arriving in Hue. Being a university town, I saw students going home from school during the day as well as hangout at the bridge late in the evening to enjoy the scenery. 


Even this stray dog was relaxing by the river and enjoying the sites. 


Overall, it seems that Hue has a very relax vibe.


But what I enjoyed the most here were the Hue specialty dishes, which are the best here of course. My favorite is the bún bò huế (spicy beef noodle soup with added special crab balls and pork ribs).

Bun bo Hue in Vietnam


Second favorite is the nem lụi (chargrilled pork paste wrapped in lemongrass), wrapped with pickled carrots & daikons and vegies in rice paper and dipped in a special sauce. 

Nem lui in Hue Vietnam


Third favorite is the bánh khoái (crunchy tacos with shrimp, pork, wrapped in vegies and dipped in a special sauce). 

Banh khoai in Hue, Vietnam


All the other Hue specialty dishes are also delicious and definitely worth trying. See my Facebook page for a more detailed description of the dishes below. 

Banh beo in Hue, Vietnam

Hue Specialties in Vietnam

Hue Specialties in Vietnam Banh bot loc in Hue, Vietnam Banh La in Hue, Vietnam Com hen in Hue, Vietnam


And after stuffing my face with all these delicious food, I would always eat a healthy yogurt to help with digestion. 

Yogurt in Vietnam


After Hue was Hoi An, where it rained a lot and there's not much to see except old town. 


The most memorable thing here for me was actually the bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches) at a specific street stall acclaimed as "the best bánh mì in the world" by Anthony Bourdain. I was skeptical at first but quickly became a believer after my first bite. The cơm gà (chicken rice) Hoi An was also pretty good and worth trying. 

"Best Banh Mi in the World" according to Anthony Bourdain in Hoi An, Vietnam "Best Banh Mi in the World" according to Anthony Bourdain in Hoi An, Vietnam Com Ga (Chicken rice) Hoi An, Vietnam


From Hoi An was a long overnight bus ride to Nha Trang. And as much as I hated and avoided tours throughout my whole trip, I reluctantly signed up with a friend for a tour to go island hopping in Nha Trang. The snorkeling part of the trip was actually a lot of fun and the on deck karaoke entertainment was pretty amusing. 


Next stop after Nha Trang was Dalat where I wandered the street, ate some yummy grilled street food, and saw an adorable little kid having so much fun helping his mom set up at the night market. There was also a beautiful horse I was able to photograph at Thung Lũng Tình Yêu (Valley of Love). 

Grilled street food in Dalat, Vietnam


From Dalat, I headed to Mui Ne and lounged poolside for a few days before making my way to Saigon. I spent 6 weeks here eating my way around town. And because I didn't always carry my big dslr around, you will have to check out my Instagram feed to see all the food pix in Saigon. I did manage to visit and photograph the lunch lady stall made famous by Anthony Bourdain for all her delicious soups, each one different everyday of the week. Unfortunately, the lunch lady was not there when I had my camera but it was her sister instead. 

Lunch Lady in Saigon, Vietnam Soup from Lunch Lady in Saigon, Vietnam


When I am not eating, I am either at a coffee shop working or at Turtle Lake hanging out with all the cool kids.


Other times, I would walk around to find interesting people to photograph, like a street sweeper amidst the chaotic traffic, a wedding shoot in front of the post office, and a balloon maker at a flower festival for Tet (Lunar New Year). 


There was a special instance when I met up with a Vietnamese photographer who was shooting a promo for Panasonic SLRs at a temple somewhere I Saigon. I came early so had some time to explore and saw a small pond with the most turtle, large and small, I had ever seen. Some were gentle giants and others were more like big bullies.


Apparently, people can purchase a turtle, write a wish on their shell and release them into the pond for good luck. One of these little guy was trying to make a break for it but the wall was too high for him to crawl out. Another little guy seem content being there and making himself comfortable. 


Although the most surprising thing of all was seeing this guy go to town with a loaf of bread. 


Oh yeah, there was also a koi pond.


When my photographer friend arrived, there was a whole crew filming him and they also invited a model for the on-location shoot to showcase the camera. She was beautiful in her traditional Vietnamese áo dài (long dress). 


Before I left Saigon for Kuala Lumpur, I took a short trip to the Mekong. I was planning to drive all the way to Can Tho to visit the bigger floating market but the motorbike ride from Saigon was much longer than I thought it would be. Therefore, after a night in My Tho, I decided to visit a closer floating market in Cái Bè in the Tiền Giang province instead. On the ride there, I crossed several canals where people traversed by small rowing boats. 


I also passed by a market that was set up right on the small highway I was traveling through that sold live ducks, chickens, snakes, and other animals. And then there were this guy selling balloon animals. 


When I arrived in Cai Be, I had to hire a boat to take me out to visit the floating market early morning the following day. The sunrise was spectacular and river life was fascinating. 


Our boat also made a couple stop where I saw this couple making rice paper and their pet snake.


Happy New Lunar Year of the Snake. I hope you've enjoyed this post and will be inspired to visit someday. You can check out my other post to see the scenery of Vietnam. If you are interested in purchasing prints of the pictures above, visit my galleries where I offer a multitude of prints and products made from these images that you can buy and have ship to your residence anywhere in the world. 


I would also appreciate it if you can use the buttons below to tweet, +1, and like this photo travelogue to share it within your social network if you like what you see.



Beautiful photos, nice itinerary. I just came back from Vietnam and I really loved it. And I miss the simple comga ga in Hoi An :).
Filipe Morato Gomes(non-registered)
Beautiful post and photos, congrats. I was in Vietnam in 2004 and it still is one of my favorite countries. And the food, oh yes, the food... i love it!
Safe travels,
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