Vietnam lies on the map almost like a S-shaped dragon, living with its folklore and legends side-by-side with technology and contemporary nuances. Here’s a primer on its food, people and places.
Translated phonetically as Ahhh! Ohhh! Show, this is Vietnam’s stamp of contemporary dance-theatre on the international stage. At the Saigon Opera House, Grease meets the Orient and together they dine with Cirque du Soleil. A blend of acrobatics and dance, Vietnamese performances float and fly across the stage with bamboo poles, baskets and disks, simulating a boat, sometimes a caterpillar, sometimes a bridge. Its creators hope to bring it to India in June next year. (www.aoshowsaigon.com)
Da Nang in central Vietnam wears the badge of being a city of bridges. Among them is Cau Rong or the Dragon bridge. True to its name, it is both a dragon and a bridge. While it connects the Da Nang international airport to the rest of the port city, this sunshine yellow, dragon-shaped steel bridge spews fire and water at night. Stop by for the light show as the LED dragon comes to life, pausing one’s breath and eternally, the traffic on the road.
Not the flower, a dynasty. Between the 2nd and 15th centuries, the Champa dynasty reigned in central and south Vietnam. Its culture and society drew influences from India. The Chams were Shiva worshippers and Sanskrit was the official language. The Museum of Cham Sculptures in Da Nang cradles relics from the Cham civilisation including sculptures in sandstone, terracotta, and bronze; there are rare lingams, even a bronze Tara. One of Southeast Asia’s unique museums, sculptures of Shiva and Vishu show the gods dancing, sleeping even fighting. (www.chammuseum.danang.vn)
Vietnam will make you a millionaire. Dong, its official currency, comes in notes of 500d, 1000d, 5000d, 10,000d, even 500,000d. So if you were to exchange 100 USD, be sure to come away with millions. A simple meal on the street could cost 1 USD or about 21,194 VND (Viet Nam Dong).
Vietnam saw a century of French rule and it’s no surprise that more than six decades after their exit, the French haven’t left the building, metaphorically speaking. Their design styles take pride of place in Hanoi (the capital) and Ho Chi Minh (HCM) city or Saigon. Be it the Opera House in the Capital or the Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral in HCM. One is never far from colonial houses, parks, cafes and libraries inspired by the French. There is also the Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi designed by Gustav Eiffel, built in 1898, it still stands against the backdrop of Hanoi’s largest ceramic mural wall. And as you ramble around the streets, bite into the baguettes or croissants. Another legacy of the French, the Vietnamese have customised it with meats and greens to make it a favourite food on-the-go.
Like every self-respecting South Asian country, Vietnam swears by its rice. Get rice paper and roll your prawns and greens into a spring roll, make noodles with it and dunk it in broth and lavish beef or chicken into it or drink wine made from it. Any corner you turn, there’s no escaping, rice will catch you. But the good news is, with meats of every kind, herbs and spices, these “one-pot” meals will leave you satiated, feeling virtuously healthy. Vietnamese cuisine is as good on the streets as it is in a fine dining restaurant. Their flavours don’t lie. And then for the seafood fanatics, this is home. From clams to oysters and lobsters to abalones, these are sweet meats of a pure kind.
One of the seven new wonders of the world, Halong Bay was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. In Quang Ninh province, about four hours from Hanoi, the 3000-odd islets leaves visitors with the hope of all things magical. Emerald green waters host over 2000 limestone islands, some shaped like fighting cocks, turtles, even a human head. This is one place where you leave the noise behind, within and without, and soak in the silence and majesty of one of the world’s most awe-inspiring geological wonders. There are boat rides for a day for USD 70 while the luxury ones can go up to USD 400. Watch the water glitter like diamonds as the sun is overhead and see it melt from a green into a trusting blue as night descends. As the islands stand shoulder to shoulder for kilometres together and then part to rise up again, this is nature at its kinaesthetic best. The bay is also known for its naturally formed caves, where stalactites in all shapes and sizes hang from ceilings, some even make way for phallic humour. One such is the Surprise Cave or the Sung Sot Cave on the Bo Hon island.
Some of the world’s leading chains have factories in Vietnam, including Nike and Mango, even McDonald’s Happy Meal toys get made here. Head to Saigon’s “air-conditioned” markets to shop for clothes and shoes from leading brands; they are quite a steal. Vietnam is also the second largest exporter of coffee, after Brazil. Next time you walk into Starbucks, take a good look at the beans, they most likely will be from Vietnam.
If there’s any place where cultures sit on the same bench in class and share notes, it is here. A country that has seen Chinese rule, French attacks and US bombarding, it chooses to pick up the good and leave the bad behind. In doing so, from language and food to movies and music, Vietnamese culture has only grown richer. From Confucius came the priority for family and its elders, focus on learning; from the French, many architectural designs and food; and from the US, movies and engineering. But that’s only part of what Vietnam is. A drive into the countryside will show gravestones in paddy fields, telling you they hold their traditions close.
Ky Su means engineer in Vietnamese. Known for their complex tunnel systems, sometimes multi-tiered, which helped them survive French and the American armies, Vietnam today is inching its way to engineering success. Its cities are seeing rapid expansion with new roads being built and new buildings erected. One can be critical about its unplanned route, however, if there’s any hope, it’s in architects and engineers who are winning laurels for their country with bamboo engineering and sustainable designs. Vietnam is pulling all stops as it lays out roads into the countryside and lifts bridges over ‘troubled waters’.
If Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli can sing in six languages, Vietnamese can speak in six tones. A single word can have multiple meanings based on the tone. For example, ‘ma’ depending on high, low or flat tones can mean tomb, mother, ghost, a grain of rice or even a horse. Don’t fight shy of working out the combinations to get the meaning right. In fact, the locals are delighted when they see tourists digging their heels to master a word; be sure, they will shower you with giggles and laughter. Else, English is seldom heard on the streets. French would do too with the elders.
Vietnam is one of the largest exporters for rice in the world and much of it comes from the Mekong delta in the south. The land of rivers and isles, Mekong is a déjà vu of Kerala’s backwaters as one navigates on tiny canoes, through willow-rich, murky alluvial waters of the Tien River. Tuck into mangoes, plums, and mandarin oranges; take a boat trip; listen to some folk music; or simply lie in a hammock for an afternoon siesta. And when all else is done, remember that the Mekong river ties over six countries together, starting all the way from China, down to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Surrounded by mountains on three sides and the sea on one, Nha Trang city settles neatly into a valley. While its beaches and diving attract tourists, a fair number come to partake of the island’s delicacy, the bird’s nest soup, known to be the caviar of the East. This gluey brown sweet soup is rich in proteins and ideal to boost the immune system. A delicacy in this part of the world, it costs approximately 200 USD for a bowl.
It’s tough not to say Vietnamese and Oriental almost in the same breath as pagodas and temples dot its landscape. But a must do is the Vinh Trang temple in My Tho, on the way to Mekong. This Buddhist pagoda dates back to mid-1800s and combines Khmer architecture with European nuances. Delicately detailed, its walls, doors and pillars are ornate and colourful. This is also home to sky-towering and earth-embracing Buddha statues – a laughing and a reclining Buddha. Soak in the ambience, watch monks as they pray, stroll about the garden and get acquainted with the bonsais and waterbodies. It promises to be a soulful experience.
The Thang Long Water Puppet show in Hanoi is an ode to ancient Vietnamese puppetry practised in rural areas way back in the 11th century. Accompanied by an operatic orchestra with flutes and cymbals, the puppeteers stand in knee-deep water hidden from view while the puppets float, jump, dance and glide through the water. Folklore and stories of harvest are told in Vietnamese though one really doesn’t need language to participate. Get a seat close to the stage, how else will the dragon squirt water on you?
This central province holds two UNESCO World Heritage sites – Hoi An, the ancient town, and My Son sanctuary, a site with over 70 Champ temples. Hoi An was an international trading port, and a symbol of that is the Japanese Covered Bridge made by merchants in the 17th century. On the bridge is a tiny temple dedicated to the god who protects from storms and floods. Legend has it that a monster, Cu, with its head in India, its tail in Japan and body in Vietnam, would cause disasters whenever it moved. The bridge was built to pin down the monster. Today tourists and locals walk over the bridge, without a thought of monsters and floods, as before them are wish-fulfilling lights. Tiny flower paper floats with candles inside are sold in street corners, which actually make a wish come true, especially if it’s a full moon night. The Thu Bon river that flows beneath the bridge shimmers in the still of the night, carrying many dreams of wandering tourists. Stroll about in this vehicle-free, old-world town, sit by a shack and drink icy sugarcane juice or crackle a coconut candy. Take a cooking class at the local restaurant or get an Ao Dai (their traditional dress) stitched in less than 24 hours. It’s Vietnam in a capsule.
At the gate of the Reunification Palace or the Independence Palace, one can almost hear the rumble of army tanks and the whirr of helicopters. A symbol of South Vietnamese power, the building hosted Saigon’s president until the anti-Communist regime collapse in 1975. It was bombed during the Vietnam War, its roof used as an escape for American troops, and was ‘gate-crashed’ to finally unify north and south Vietnam. Magnificently, the building stands today as a memory of all that Vietnam fought and stood for. (www.dinhdoclap.gov.vn)
As the lights dim and all you need is a drink, head to Caravelle Hotel’s Saigon Saigon Bar. An iconic spot, American correspondents had their daily briefings here during the war. It opens a panoramic lens to the city from the Saigon Opera House and the Rex Hotel to the neo-Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral. This rooftop bar on the 10th floor gave reporters uninterrupted views of the river, where much of the fighting happened.
Thang Long Royal Citadel
A UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, this complex is packed with archaeological and historical layers. Set in the heart of Ha Noi, the entire complex has remnants of palaces, pavilions even military bunkers, which tell of its importance as a power hub from the early 7th century. Thang Long, the old name for Hanoi, was the capital of the independent country and had seen many dynasties in power. There’s much to see, from drainage canals to foundation columns carved with dragon motifs, 15th century walled wells that give water even today to decorated roof tiles and tower platforms with carved dragons in white glaze. The intricate detailing in the carving in floor brick tiles, terracotta jars, and dishes tell of the expertise and clever craftsmanship of those times. A fascinating experience is of stepping into a war bunker, named D67, which was built during the second World War for Polit Bureau members and the army for their strategic meetings against the US army. Nine metres deep into the ground it unfold a unique story, through photos and maps, of Vietnam’s war-ridden past. (www.hoangthanhthanglong.vn)
The Vietnamese are punctual people and they never fail to remind you that, if you have arrived late. As in most Asian countries, there are unsaid etiquettes to be followed: be modest in your clothing; don’t pick fights, it’s uncool to get angry in public; and always finish your meal, it’s rude to waste food.
In their attempts to promote Vietnam as a ‘safe and friendly’ destination, many tourist spots in the country have tourism policemen. Dressed in green, they are actually a voluntary youth benefit service, who help ward off persistent street vendors and sometimes, even help you cross the road. Don’t hesitate to ask for their help, though keep a phrase book and map ready; few speak English.
If you are anywhere in central Hanoi, you cannot miss the four-km mosaic wall that runs along the Red River dyke. Vietnamese artist and journalist Nguyen Thu Thuy conceptualised the idea to celebrate 1000 years of Hanoi, and Vietnam’s history, bringing together over 100 craftspeople and artists, both domestic and international. The kaleidoscopic wall has won the Guinness World Record for the largest ceramic mosaic wall in the world, giving the city and the country, not only a reprieve from the floods but also an urban intervention to be proud of.
That’s the chant you will need to remember as you weave through the many alleys and bylanes on a two-wheeler taxi. In a country, where two-wheelers are in the air you breathe, all you need to do is stretch out your arm and wave to halt a Xe Om. You will have a fleet by your side, ready to take you places. And rule of the thumb, always agree on the rate before the ride and bargain, like you would back home.
Ying and Yang
This principle cements life in Vietnam. Tradition and modern structures live across the street and fresh and fermented and sweet and sour walk hand in hand into your mouth every time you eat a meal.
Called ‘seated meditation’ in Zen Buddhism, this pretty much sums up the country, in their approach to life. And you as a traveller, Zazen is exactly how you need to take in the city — one breath at a time, allowing images, thoughts and ideas to freely pass through the doors of perception.
(This reporter was invited by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Vietnam for a press tour)