That’s Different, Vietnam!
After two weeks in Vietnam, culture shock has finally kicked in. Cravings for the familiar instead of the novel are running rampant. I found avocados and almost started crying for joy. I have PB&J sandwiches planned for breakfast tomorrow; I can hardly wait. People told me Vietnam would be different. I believed them, and now I know it for myself.
In Minnesota, when someone says “that’s different” it usually means that it isn’t good. I don’t mean it like that! Vietnam is different – not in a good or bad way, just different. Here’s just a few ways that life in Vietnam is different from how I grew up in the States.
It’s no secret – how and what people eat says a lot about their culture. I spent the weekend staying in a traditional Vietnamese home, eating and living as they do. We ate on the floor for all of our meals. No chairs. No pillows. Just me and the hard tile floor.
Rice is served into a little bowl for each person, and then you use chopsticks to grab one bite of food from the shared plates. Often you dip that bite into a spicy fish sauce and hold it over the rice bowl while you bring it up to your mouth. Bites of rice are eaten in between the bites of the other food.
Honestly, I don’t really know what most of the food was on the shared plates. Processed meat is everywhere. It looks like slices of tofu, but then they say it is pickled pork tongue. Fortunately, fish is easy to identify since it is usually left whole. The grilled fish is delicious!
In Australia, lemon pepper squid (calamari) is on every menu. I asked a chef if squid could be cooked any other way. No, he said. Well, no one told the Vietnamese that! In Vietnam, they sauté squid whole with lemongrass and chilies. Then they eat them whole in one bite or rolled in a rice paper wrapper with some greens. The ink gets everywhere!
I did not enjoy eating squid whole. By the fourth consecutive meal with squid, I discovered I didn’t mind the body. Consequently, I would remove the head, the bone, and try to squeeze the insides and ink out before dipping the body in spicy fish sauce. That was palatable.
Restaurant menus are rare. You just look at the food and tell them what you want. I don’t recognize anything. We ate at a seafood restaurant, and our Vietnamese friends just looked at the seafood, told them how many kilos of the various types they wanted and – this is the strangest part – how they wanted it prepared! I don’t even know where to begin to do that.
I love hiking. I’m all for a challenging hike. But the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails are a breeze compared to the hikes here. Vietnamese hikes have no maps. (They laughed at me when I asked.) There are paths, but the paths end suddenly or become impassible for anyone other than goats. Marking paths isn’t even a thought.
I spent one day hiking around the Nui Chua National Park with five Vietnamese friends. Our goal was to climb to one of the mountain peaks, 1000 meters above us. No one knew more than that. We found a path that was paved and followed it. Slowly, it became a dirt path; then we hopped across a river, through a field, and then…nothing.
We scrambled through the thorny forest until we heard some voices. So we hopped across another river and climbed a fence to discover a family living in the middle of this national park. They pointed out the way and soon we were walking along the edge of their rice fields, hopping over another fence, and back into the thorny forest.
Enough. We turned around and went to the beach.
Everyone drives motorbikes here. Sidewalks are for parking motorbikes, not walking (no one walks). At night, motorbikes are brought inside (usually the hotel lobby for us). Since our bikes leak gas, we turn off the gas at night so it doesn’t stink up the hotel – a lesson learned from a sleepless night filled with gas fumes.
Passing other bikes is generally done on the left, but not always. Turn signals are used but are often forgotten on or are broken, so hand signals are more reliable. But with the throttle on the right hand, signaling a right turn often becomes more effort than it is worth. Turning left is terrifying. Don’t wait for the traffic to clear. Just turn at a steady speed, and the oncoming traffic will swerve around you. It’s an act of trust, really.
We’ve been driving the motorbikes along a bunch of coastal roads over the past week. The scenery in Vietnam is out of this world! I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.
Today the bikes are getting some extra attention. We found a reliable and reasonable mechanic in Phan Rang so we gave him a laundry list of noncritical things to fix, and spent an extra day in the coastal town. We’ll pick up the bikes in the morning before heading away from the coast into the highlands – after my PB&J breakfast sandwich, of course!