A few days ago, Meggie and I rode from Hue to Hoi An in the back of two motorcycles. It was a beautiful ride along the coast and passed through a small set of mountain reminiscent of Big Sure. Along with us was a Swiss couple who, a little braver, decided to drive themselves. We stopped for lunch on a large inlet by the ocean with the kind of seafood you could choose while it was still swimming.
Making conversation, I asked “What has surprised you most in Vietnam so far?”
“How modern and Western it is.”
This is is largely true. A great deal of development is occurring in the major cities of the country. Western amenities are readily available for those who are willing to pay. Many people speak some English and it is not too difficult to navigate even by hand signals.
However, there is still a lot that makes Vietnam unique. Here I will dive into a few of those things.
1. Pho is a breakfast food – and I love it.
In Hanoi the breakfast staple is pho bo, a brothy noodle soup served with beef. You spice it yourself and typically I would leave the stall or restaurant sweating profusely and not because of the weather.
2. Change is sometimes given in single wrapped candies.
Vietnam suffered from high inflation rates in the past. This has led to a high exchange rate and prices in the 10 thousands for most products. In Hanoi, the typical bowl of pho ran around 50,000 VND or dong, which is a little over 2 dollars US. The smallest bill is for 1,000 VND but vendors often do not have them. When making change at a mini mart, Meggie and I will regularly be given candy to make up for the last 1 to 2 thousand dong that they don’t have the bill for.
3. Copycat businesses
Most businesses only serve one thing and their name is typically the product that they sell and the street. Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su is at 10 Ly Quoc Su and serves pho, really good pho, I might add. Others have simpler names. Pho Thin, for instance, serves excellent pho but not on Thin.
It is often these businesses that get copied.
Meggie and I went out on our third morning in Hanoi looking for some breakfast pho at Pho Thin, which was really well reviewed. We walked about a kilometer from our AirBnB and came to a five way intersection with terrifyingly hectic traffic. (Traffic signals seem to be merely suggestions in the big cities.) We crossed over two streets, walked down 100 feet and there it was on our left, just like it was supposed to be.
As we sat down, however, things did not seem quite right. There was no one else in the shop. There was a swarm of flies hovering over the noodles. The meat looked oddly grey. I ordered anyway. “Hey, it has great reviews!” Midway through eating, as the sounds of the cook cough up what sounded like bucketloads of phlegm intensifies, Meggie and I decided that we had made a mistake. We paid and left.
Turning the corner back at the intersection, I realize we went one street too far. The real place was on the same side of the street, the same distance down, and had the same name. It was just on a different street.
This is a surprisingly common occurrence. When a business is successful, at least one other business will pop up with the same name.
All Vietnamese bathrooms are ‘wet rooms’. More or less, this means that the whole bathroom is the shower and there is a drain somewhere in the corner of the room. At first, this was a little challenging. Where do I leave my clothes? Towel? (Outside. Duh.) What happens when the whole floor gets wet? (It dries.)
However, the more I used these, the more I came to appreciate them. The space is simple and must be much easier to clean. It also affords the use of another Vietnamese oddity: the handheld bidet. Each toilet I have seen has an attached bidet hanging on the wall beside it that looks a lot like the sprayer from the kitchen sink. Let’s just say these come in handy when you can’t flush toilet paper.