Waiter, I ordered my cobra well-done
“It make you very strong,” the old man said, grinning, as I peered into a large bottle. The bottle was full of a yellowish palm wine, but the unlit interior of the shop in Rach Giá, Viet Nam precluded a close investigation of its other contents. I took the bottle outside into the sunlight for a better look. The cobra staring out at me from the depths of the bottle I could have handled. The 6-inch black scorpion it held in its mouth was too much for me and I yelped and dropped the bottle. I don’t mind snakes, bugs, spiders or rats, but as for scorpions, well, they’re just wrong! The bottle smashed upon the pavement and I was splashed with wine and broken glass. For one horrifying moment I thought I saw the scorpion wriggling.
The old man had me at his mercy now, and demanded the ridiculous price of $5. I was amused at his audacity, but amazed that he was selling snake and scorpion wine as legitimate medicine for human consumption. “Vietnamese Viagra,” he called it, eyes a-twinkle. He made me laugh and he got his five bucks.
The best thing about Viet Nam is the Vietnamese people themselves. Virtually every Vietnamese I met was ready with a smile, was quick to laugh, and took delight in meeting Americans. While most of the Vietnamese I met outside the tourist areas did not speak much or any English, we had a lot of fun using sign language and charades to communicate. I managed to learn a few dozen Vietnamese words and phrases, which never ceased to amaze the Vietnamese, who regard their language as nearly impossible for Westerners to learn. The spelling is very unfriendly to English speakers and there are six tones. Get the right word in the wrong tone and you’ve said something completely different. Proudly showcasing my carefully rehearsed Vietnamese in a roadside café, I attempted to order a bottle of the local beer, charmingly called simply Beer 333. In a confident tone, I tried to say “Xin lôi em, tôi muon bia ba ba ba.” (“Excuse me, Miss, I want Beer 333”). I got a couple of the tones wrong and what I apparently clearly said to everyone’s amusement was “Excuse me, Miss, I want thirty-three old women.” Doubting my Vietnamese language ability and, presumably, my stamina, the smiling patrons quickly cleared up the confusion and even insisted on paying my tab.
The bottled and canned Vietnamese beers are good and are quite safe to drink. Mostly good, but less consistent are the Vietnamese draft beers called bia tuoi, or fresh beer. They have no preservatives and go stale quickly, so start early in the evening. If you drink with the locals, you can buy a round of 6 large draft beers and get change back on your U.S. dollar. Coffee and tea are good beverage choices, too, as the water is boiled. Vietnamese coffee is very strong and quite delicious. The spectacular fruit shakes are riskier, but I personally drink and eat anything but the tap water (even the locals don’t drink it) and have only been sick when I’ve eaten at a Western-style or tourist restaurant. In these restaurants the food is typically mediocre at best, it’s more expensive, and the turnover can be slow enough to lead to spoiled ingredients. Watch the locals and eat where they eat. They know when a street stall (dãy thuc pham) or a cafe is safe. You’d probably better drop your standards of hygiene a bit, though. All bones, scraps, used napkins, and such are often simply thrown on the floor. A typical meat-based dish at a street stall will cost between US 75¢ and US $1.50. Vegetarian choices are cheaper still.
If you’re an adventurous eater, Viet Nam teems with possibilities. I ate fermented shrimp paste, sea snails, water buffalo, cobra, kangaroo, (in a tourist restaurant and I later vigorously regretted it), frog, eel, goat and dog. All were delicious, except the dog, thit chó, which I found to be tough and greasy. If you’re bolder than I was, you can try crickets, water beetles and duck embryos, as well. If your meal seems a bit mild in flavor, keep in mind that the Vietnamese use a variety of condiments and spices. They’re on your table. Try them.
One wonderful Vietnamese condiment is fish sauce, nuoc mam. While you probably don’t want to see or smell it made, it adds a wonderfully complex and subtle flavor. Some of the best fish sauce comes from Phú Quoc Island, a Vietnamese island off the coast of Cambodia. Once a disputed territory, it was home to several large Vietnamese military bases and was off-limits to visitors. Now that Cambodia has relinquished its claim to the island, most of the bases are closed and the island is open to travelers. Phú Quoc has some wonderful beaches and great hiking, but limited visibility and over-fishing means the diving and snorkeling are only so-so at best. One can rent a motorbike for about US $6 a day (US $3 on the mainland, Phú Quoc is expensive by Vietnamese standards) and this is a great way to explore the island. Check with the locals regarding the condition of the roads, though, as washed-out bridges and huge gullies across the roads are not uncommon. I didn’t check first and spent three grueling hours covering a kidney-bruising stretch of fewer than 20 kilometers.
The roads are quite fine in H? Chí Minh City, although the traffic can be daunting. If you’re sufficiently intrepid to face the challenge of crossing the streets, this exciting, bustling metropolis is an excellent place to shop for art and personal services. Western-trained dentists, opticians and doctors are available and their prices are far, far cheaper than in the U.S. I bought a pair of eyeglasses in HCMC, and paid less than US $40 for the exam and the designer eyewear. Artists in oils, pastels, watercolors and acrylics also abound and many are excellent copyists. I saw several Westerners getting family photographs recreated in oils. Be careful about buying duplicates of copyrighted works, though, as they may be seized by U.S. Customs officials. Bootleg DVD and computer software shops are everywhere. You may be tempted to buy the latest Hollywood feature, video game or killer app for US $2, but bringing them back to the U.S. is now a crime. Don’t risk it.
For a more personal shopping experience, you might try a stay in Hoi An. This small, historic city in Central Viet Nam is home to the silk and garment industries. The tailors in Hoi An are very skilled and the prices are temptingly low. One can get a garment made for little more than the cost of the fabric. Most cloth shops have huge piles of fashion magazines and one can choose a garment from a photo, select a fabric from a staggering inventory, get measured and return the next day for a fitting. I designed and sketched a long overcoat, chose a wool/silk fabric, and the next day I was the proud owner of a beautifully-constructed, custom-made piece for which I paid less than US $30. I also had a favorite shirt duplicated in several different fabrics and colors. Be specific about the sewing, though, as I’ve heard stories of poorly-made garments that self-destructed in the wash. Specify linings, if desired, finished seams and blanket-stitching throughout, and you should be pretty happy with the results. You might want to take a careful look at the quality of the clothing on display, as well. Custom-made shoes are also available and I designed some wacky, colorful leather shoes that will be loads of fun to wear. I paid less than US $15 per pair and the fit is perfection.
Viet Nam requires American citizens to obtain a visa before departure. While you can go to the Vietnamese Consulate in San Francisco for your visa, I simply mailed my application, fee and passport to them, and had my visa back within 10 days. Some immunizations are recommended if you are traveling to rural areas, so check with the Placer County Health Department (moderately-priced clinic in Auburn) or your doctor (probably expensive) before you go. The Nevada County Health Department will not give travel immunizations.
A Western-style hotel room with private bath, air conditioning, TV, fridge, etc. is likely to cost between US $10 and US $15 a night unless you splurge for a luxury resort. A room with a private bath, a fan and no other amenities will cost between US $5 and US $8. A room with a shared bath is even less. If you’re seriously cheap, a dorm bed in a backpacker’s hostel will run about US $1 a night.
For more information on budget travel to Viet Nam, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and Let’s Go publish guidebooks which are valuable references. If you’d like to communicate with folks who have already been or who are planning travel abroad, the Lonely Planet Web site’s Thorn Tree Forum at http://www.lonelyplanet.com is an excellent resource.
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