Tag Archives: food


Hanoi & Its Old Quarter

Travelling is a little like golf. Especially long-term travel. It’s expensive. You walk around in very weird clothing and if you are a beginner, you will find yourself aimlessly searching for something in the bushes a lot. If it starts raining, you either get wet or you learn very quickly to carry an umbrella. Most importantly, you keep striving for that one particular experience that sets your whole body tingling with excitement, that one amazing shot that sets the hairs on the back of your neck on end and ensures you come back for more. Walking the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter in the late afternoon was one such experience for me. Just about every sense was engaged: the noise of the scooters as they shoot by, the sweat running down your back, the intoxicating smells of spices and the sight of the many Vietnamese preparing for the evening ahead. It’s a heady, concentrated mixture of South East Asia, concocted in one of its most interesting, crowded places. Tingling with delight, I zigzagged my way through the scooter-clogged sidewalks, a stupid grin on my face, passed men overloading their scooters with ridiculously huge cargo and women cutting up roast duck and suckling pig, businessessmen sitting on tiny, plastic garden furniture sharing unrecognizable plates of delicious snacks washed down with their fifth, six, seventh glass of Bia Hoi.

I truly wanted to bottle up this place, this moment, this experience so that I could take tiny peeks at it on those cold, wet, winter’s evenings in Cape Town. To feel the intense heat of the Vietnamese summer envelope me. To tiptoe over the slick, wet tiles of the pavement. To taste the divine soups. To be consumed by the alien and strange, yet amazing surroundings. To hear myself say once again: “What the heck is that?”

Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a bit more claustrophobic, a bit more cramped, a bit more chaotic than anywhere else we had been in Vietnam. The density of businesses, restaurants and hotels is amazing. The sidewalks are clogged with parked motorbikes, leaving little room to walk apart from in the road. There is a magnificent array of sights to see in the city, but I think its biggest attraction is to wonder the maze of streets, stopping when hungry for a snack or a drink and then continuing on. That’s not to say you shouldn’t visit Uncle Ho’s mausoleum (we didn’t as the queues to get in zigzagged up and down several large city blocks in the midday heat) or the botanical gardens, or the many, many museums. They are generally quite interesting, if not bizarre, and the ones indoors offer welcome respite from the midday heat.

Like it’s southern counterpart Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi has an incredible variety of places to eat. We sampled numerous dishes, from grilled pigeon to deep fried, succulent frog’s legs to snail soup. We even tucked into a coconut-basted skewer of chicken feet. But by far our favourite meal was Bun Cha, which consists of pork meatballs and slices of pork grilled over an open flame and served in a sweet, clear broth of sliced daikon and rice noodles. The fried spring rolls we had on the side were unanimously the best we’d had in Vietnam too. The place we ate it in was arguably one of the most filthy. The once white tiled floor was covered in used up tissues and beer cans. The alley alongside the restaurant was used as the kitchen. But it was packed to the hilt with hungry diners, 2 hours after lunch time.

Later that evening we spotted a spit-roasted dog on the side of the road, served as a beer snack. It was a sight that left me in a weird mood, deep down it felt shocking but logically it is no different to eating a pig or a cow or a rabbit. I guess some things would take a bit more to get used to.

Cruising the back alleys of Hanoi, there are even the remnants of a B-52 bomber that crashed into a tiny lake. It’s been left intact since the Vietnam/American war. A gruesome reminder that this now thriving metropolis was under siege from one of the most intense air bombardments in history. In a twisted sense of capitalistic fate, small cafés have popped up alongside the lake to entice tourists in.

Hanoi couldn’t be more different than Saigon. Where Saigon sported glinting malls loaded with French and Italian designer boutiques along wide open boulevards, Hanoi’s densely populated alleys and one way streets felt a lot more chaotic and a lot less westernized. The people speak less English and on just about every street corner there is a reminder of the American/Vietnam conflict. There is even a gigantic statue of Lenin. Somebody still held in rather high esteem by the Vietnamese government and a sight you wouldn’t see in many other places in the world.

While Ho Chi Minh City has a generous sprinkling of coffee shops, Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a beer snack mecca. Libby and I ended up one evening, drinking Bia Hoi (fresh beer) on the street sharing a table with a Nigerian soccer player and his Ghanaian manager, eating unidentifiable fried snacks and talking about the state of the Vietnamese soccer scene and Nigerian cuisine. I wish I had a photo of my astonishment when the Ghanaian started teasing the waitress in fluent Vietnamese. He had been there for only 3 years.

On our last evening, we went all out. After the inevitable evening downpour we cruised the streets until we found an enormous outdoor restaurant. Covered only by an awning from the nearby building. It was absolutely packed to the hilt. The kitchen consisted of 6 giant wok burners and the chefs – who seemed barely 16 years old – were churning out plateful-after-plateful of glistening, fragrant food. We managed to secure a spot in the middle of the crowd of locals and promptly ordered their speciality – pigeon, a plate of prawns and a bowl of deep-fried frogs legs. At the table next to us sat an amazed South African chef and his girlfriend. We must have seemed rather experienced, our battle hardened stomachs ready after the smelly markets in Hué, the backwaters of the Mekong Delta, the river view restaurants of Hoi An and the buzzing sidewalks of Ho Chi Minh City. For our final meal in this beautiful, upside down country, we couldn’t have chosen better.

Despite its gruesome history and its poverty, Vietnam is an amazing place. There is an energy and drive in its people to work together that’s helped them claw their way out of a very dark place. That being said, it has many issues that it is grappling with, some as a result of history, others as a result of the pace at which it is growing. From a traveller’s perspective, it is fantastic. The scenery is amazing, the food alone is a reason to visit and the people are warm and welcoming. When I had first considered Vietnam as a place to travel in, I was a bit skeptical. The stories of the scam artists and the chaotic roads put me off immediately, but I am glad I finally decided to take a peek. We will definitely be back soon. Not only to see the parts we missed, but also to dip our grinning faces again into those steaming bowls of pho, and down copious amounts of Vietnamese coffee.

A woman repairs her boat in Tam Coc, Vietnam

Huế – A Tale of 13 Emperors

I can’t help feeling a slight sense of irony as the train rumbled through what was once the DMZ at 5:30am. Passengers barely awake. The coach heavy with the stench of urine and the putrid smell of durian. We pass another military graveyard and monument to the fallen and cross yet another river, a new bridge being built alongside the current. Farmers are already in their rice paddies and fisherman rowing their boats in the rivers. This is an atmospheric, beautiful place no doubt, which makes it hard to imagine the sounds and scenes of battle. The Vietnamese however, don’t seem to dwell on the American/Vietnam war, as much as I had imagined they would. There is very little sign that anything significant had happened in this place apart from the tourist tours and the many old people in the towns missing limbs or younger ones with obvious Agent Orange birth defects.

We had just left Huề, the imperial city. The capital of southern Vietnam for the Nguyen family that ruled Vietnam for nearly 100 years. Over this century, there were in total an astounding 13 kings. The longest ruling king being Tự Đức, who ruled for 36 years. The lives of these kings reads like something out of Game of Thrones. Continously under threat of falling out of favour with the bureaucrats (mandarins) and getting murdered or tiptoeing around the French imperialists, their legacy of elaborate tombs and dilapidated temples still survives today.

Here’s a whirlwind summary of the lives of these emperors:

The first emperor, Gia Long, established his palace at Huề and was said to have had 800 elephants as part of the palace’s defenses. His successor Minh Manh had over 500 concubines where legend has it, he would sleep with five of them each night. Minh Manh is famous for having banned missionaries in Vietnam much to the irritation of the French. Minh Manh’s son, Thiệu Trị, went one step further and imprisoned Spanish and French missionaries which resulted in a military response from France. The French in turn easily defeated the Vietnamese due to their inferior equipment. Thiệu Trị is said to have entombed himself with all of his childless wives.

Tự Đức, the longest ruling king, was the last to rule independently before the French started to exert their control on the country. Impotent due to a bout of smallpox, Tự Đức was considered a great romantic. He was succeeded by his nephew, Dục Đức, who was in power for a mere 3 days before being poisoned by the mandarins. They had considered him unfit to rule due to his debauched antics. Next up: Hiep Hoa, didn’t fare much better and reigned for a total of four months. He was forced to commit suicide by officials after signing over Vietnam to the French as a protectorate.

Hiep Hoa’s successor and youngest son, Kiến Phúc, was just 15 when he inherited the throne and lasted for a total eight months before being poisoned by his adopted mother. Hàm Nghi, the eighth emperor, reigned for one year (1884-1885) before he was exiled to Algeria, where he later died at the ripe old age of 71. Before Hàm Nghi was sent to Algeria, he was kidnapped by the chief mandarin – Tôn Thất Thuyết – and taken to the mountains in an effort to use him as a figurehead for the anti-French revolutionary movement. His successor and brother Đồng Khánh was installed as emperor by the French and was seen as a French sympathiser which did not sit well with the Vietnamese. He reigned for 4 years.

Emperor number 10, Thành Thái, was less amenable to the French and resisted them passively. However, to show that he was friendly with the French he would cut his hair in a western-style and was the first emperor to learn to drive a car. It is said he would often sneak out of the palace to talk to the local people to understand their lives under the French occupation. In order to avoid constant scrutiny from the ever-increasing French spies in the city, he pretended to be insane. Seen as a harmless lunatic, he tried to build up resistance. When the French discovered this, they forced him to abdicate his position on the throne due to insanity. He died in Saigon in 1954 after returning from Reunion Island where he had been exiled previously.

Thành Thái’s son, Duy Tân, came to power at the age of 7 and reigned for 9 years. Following in the footsteps of his father, he too tried to resist the French colonists and was eventually discovered and sent to join his father in exile on Reunion Island. Ironically, he died in a plane crash in 1945, on his way back to Vietnam to oppose Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh army on behalf of the French. Emperor number 12, Khải Định, was very unpopular with the Vietnamese as he was seen as a French sympathiser and used as a puppet figurehead. He suffered poor health and became a drug addict, before dying from tuberculosis in Huề.

The last of the Vietnamese emperors, Bảo Đại, died in France in 1997. He was responsible for renaming the country Vietnam. The Japanese ousted the French during World War II and ruled the country through Bảo Đại. He eventually was forced to abdicate in 1945 when the Japanese surrendered, but continued to be chief of state until he was ousted by the prime minister in a fraudulent referendum in 1955 – the number of votes cast against him were higher than the total votes cast. Four of his five children still live in France today.

Much of the Perfume City and the citadel at Huề was destroyed in 1968 by the Americans during the Tet Offensive. It is nonetheless a fascinating place to visit. One can only imagine what it must have been like during the height of the Nguyen dynasty. Efforts are under way by the Vietnamese government to restore the palace, even though, in some parts there is virtually nothing left.

Aside from visiting the citadel, we also made a side trip out to see the fourth emperor Tự Đức’s tomb. Set just outside Huề, the tomb was also used by Tự Đức as a vacation home, where he would spend time hunting, fishing and relaxing in the peaceful surroundings. As strange as it sounds, nobody actually knows where Tự Đức’s body was buried within the complex. Even though there is a place marking his tomb, his body was never found. It is thought that he did this in order to prevent his body from being destroyed or removed by any subsequent rulers.

As we travel through Vietnam, we have noticed that each region has its own food specialities and even its own beer. Huề is no different, and served up one of our most memorable meals which we happened upon by chance in the backstreets of the city. Nem Lui is minced pork wrapped around lemon grass and grilled on an open fire. As with many Vietnamese dishes, it is served with sheets of rice paper, sweet, pickled daikon and carrot and fresh herbs. You then roll the minced pork up in the rice paper along with the pickles and herbs and dip it in a sweet and salty dipping sauce. It is absolutely delicious and is best washed down with an ice cold local Huda beer.

Most tourists take a tour of the DMZ in this area, but our time was running short and we still hadn’t seen any of the north of the country so we decided to head north out of Huề on the train. Partly because our previous train trip to Hoi An was so comfortable and partly because the train is a lot less terrifying than the dodgy roads. And so we found ourselves waiting at the station at 5:00am for our 5:11am train. It appeared exactly on time which is quite a feat, considering it had rattled all the way up the line from Ho Chi Minh City the day before. This train trip proved to be a little less comfortable than the first, since we weren’t able to get our own sleeper cabin and instead booked soft-seats in a compartment full of people. It was no less interesting though and probably more scenic as the windows are larger and easy see out of.

Along the way we passed river-after-river and miles-and-miles of rice paddies, mountains and villages. Our destination was the small town of Ninh Binh and our journey took 9 hours in total. Ninh Binh is the hopping off point for the area known as Tam Cốc (pronounced Tam Cop). Known as the “Hao Long Bay on land”, the rural area is studded with 300m high, limestone karst formations, surrounded by tiny rice, fish and duck farms. It is a spectacular, peaceful place. Getting there from Ninh Binh however, was less than peaceful. Our taxi driver took the long route, as usual, promptly “got lost” and pretty much scared the bejeebers out of anything that moved on the side of the road by blasting his hooter at them. He even tried to scare the piles of freshly cut rice right off of the road, before he ploughed straight through. We did eventually find our hotel and ended the evening off in the pool with beer for me and a round of piña coladas for the girls.

Tam Coc is one of those places where you could probably lose two weeks and not even notice. It is incredibly laid back, the people are very friendly and there is very little to do apart from visiting a few local temples and taking a ride in a sampan down one of the many rivers that wind around the hills. It was exactly what the doctor had ordered after wandering the busy streets of Huề

After soaking up the atmosphere of the countryside for 3 nights, we made our way to Hanoi on the train one last time for our last few days in Vietnam.

Trains, boats & Hoi An

Escaping Saigon the second time was easier than it at first seemed. Getting around Vietnam can be a little confusing sometimes, especially when multiple travel agents give you mixed answers to questions about taking a bus, train or plane. After a bit of research, it looked like the train would be the most comfortable but best value way to head north. So after getting back on a rather frightening minibus shuttle trip from the Mekong river (torrential rain, broken A/C and misted up windshield), we hopped on an overnight train to Danang. Called the Reunification Express, it rolled out of the station at 7pm vibrating with propaganda music over the intercom system. The rousing, chanting tune accompanied by the orchestral crash of symbols and a roaring Vietnamese choir, made me want to march down the aisles in my best backpacker clothes.

We’d managed to book a whole cabin for the four of us and while it was termed a soft-sleeper, it turned out to be quite hard. Thankfully, it was clean enough not to freak the girls out too much. They had also bought a box of disposable gloves at the supermarket and wet-wipes which resulted in fewer grimaces of disgust on their return from the squat toilet and smiles from the locals in the passage outside. Libby, in full bathroom regalia, reminded me of the ladies in the cold meat section of the supermarket. All she needed was an apron and a shower cap and I would have been ordering 200g of salami and ten slices of ham for my breakfast banh mi.

The night on the train was fairly uneventful, apart from getting attacked by what seemed to be a giant cockroach in my sleep (I didn’t see it but I definitely felt it crawling on me) and the sudden jerking of the train as it shuddered into stations or ground to a halt in a siding to allow oncoming trains to pass. I was amazed at how punctual it was – which may or may not have been as a result of the music – as it arrived dead on schedule at just about every station. Quite a huge difference from the Thai train Margarét and I had caught a few years ago that was running 4 hours late!

The views of the surrounding hills and countryside from the train are really beautiful. Most of Vietnam seems to be covered in rice paddies which gives it an orderly, rural beauty, dominated by lush greens and yellows. In the distance, on one side of the train are cloud-covered mountains which run up the western border of the country. On the other side we would occasionally, see the sea separated from us by enormous lagoons, dotted with fishing boats. I can understand why hiring a motorbike to ride the length of highway one from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi would appeal to so many people. It certainly appeals to me.

We rolled into Danang at 1pm the next day. It was hot and it was dry. Our destination was Hoi An, a short taxi ride away. Hoi An is a UNESCO world heritage–listed fishing village well known for its beautiful Japanese, Chinese and European architecture, as well as a tourist haven for both international and domestic tourists. To say that it felt a bit like a tourist trap when we arrived is an understatement. You got invited to look at just about every curio, art and clothing store in the town. At first, it is rather annoying but we eventually got used to it and just ignored the yells of: “BUY SOMETHING!” from little old ladies in the side of the road, or the dreaded: “YOU, YOU, YOU!”, followed by flailing and gesticulating of arms at t-shirts and beads. It is, as is the parts of Vietnam we had already seen, a picturesque place, without doubt. It also possesses a laid back charm and once you get over the tailor-touts and less than innocuous “friends” it does start to grow on you, especially in the evenings. The streets are lit up in the Ancient Town with colourful lanterns and on certain evenings the people release floating lanterns into the river. There is also a bustling local market, which is fascinating very early in the morning when the fishing boats offload their catches.

Hoi An, in the 1st century, was the largest trading port in Southeast Asia. It was controlled by the Cham empire and the port was used primarily for the spice trade which resulted in great wealth for the traders, as well as settlements of Dutch, Japanese and Chinese people. Huge ships would navigate down the river to offload and load up their cargo. Today the river is too shallow to accommodate large ships and the main source of income here is tourism. Hoi An got its UNESCO World Heritage status, in order to preserve the ancient buildings and architecture. The architecture reminded me a lot of Melaka in Malaysia, which was once a busy spice trading port too.

Our homestay – Riverside Impressions – was situated a little out of the main town. The owner and his family’s hospitality was excellent, especially their breakfasts which consisted of local Vietnamese dishes such as Cao Lao and various other noodle soups. The market was en-route to the old town from our homestay, and I quite often found myself standing on a street corner watching the ever moving stream of locals buying from and selling to each other, with the odd tourist wandering through, their scarf or fingers held over their noses to block the strong smell of the fish and chicken section.

I could definitely have spent another week in Hoi An. Lazing away with a cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee) in one hand on the side of the river with the fishing boats passing by. Even if it is a bit touristy. It does have a quiet laidback charm and is a place where you can relax and enjoy Vietnamese hospitality, not to mention the excellent food. We loved the Banh Mi (sandwiches) from a particular vendor near the market as well as the cheap half-priced cocktails. Some of which came filled to the brim in an ice bucket!

Mekong Escape

Six countries and carrying nearly five hundred cubic kilometers of water a year, the Mekong River is the lifeblood of millions of people in South East Asia. It’s hard to imagine that it starts life deep in the Himalayas and ends in the waterworlds of southern Vietnam. The road out of Ho Chi Minh City south towards the delta crosses numerous bridges, all of which were destroyed during the American/Vietnam war, but the biggest bridge of them all crosses the chocolate brown Mekong and leads straight into the sleepy town of Vinh Long.

We weren’t quite sure what to do when we were dumped on the side of the road at a petrol station. And within seconds we were swarmed by motorcycle taxis (xe oms). I tried to explain to them that the girls weren’t entirely happy with riding on the back of a motorbike, but my Vietnamese is worse than their English, to put it mildly. Eventually a shuttle bus stopped and gave us a short ride, closer to the town centre.

It’s a rather non-descript, shabby place, with puddles everywhere – giving me the idea it rains a lot here. Our plan was to head here in order to experience a bit of river life and stay in a homestay on one of the islands. We had eschewed the idea of doing it through a tour as it seemed simple enough to do it independently. We basically needed to pitch up in the town and somebody would find us. As it were and rather conveniently, within minutes of arriving, a woman appeared out of nowhere and asked if we would like to stay in her family’s homestay. I am usually very wary of situations like this, the first tout is normally the one to avoid, but she seemed to be genuine about the place, showing us photos and reviews. We told her we would get back to her after discussing it over coffee and lunch in the town. We’ve learnt over the years never to make quick decisions about things like this as that is how you quite often get scammed.

The people in Vinh Long seem to have caught onto the idea of having a siesta. There were very few stores open and only a couple of restaurants. and for good reason, it is stinking hot. Compared to Saigon, it was a ghost town. Margarét and I, left the girls at the restaurant and headed down to the riverfront in order to find a few more homestay touts. Before long we bumped into the same woman from earlier and figured it was probably the path of least resistance to go stay with her family on the island. After a quick banh mi with pâté we jumped on a longboat and were taken to the island.

The Mekong Delta is Vietnam’s bread basket. The area is dotted with fish and shrimp farms as well as fruit and vegetables. It is second only to the Amazon with regards to variety of species of fish and is home to the largest freshwater fish in the world, the Mekong Catfish.

Our homestay was a rather basic affair and was more like a guesthouse with shared bathrooms. The family was very friendly and could speak passable English, which helped a lot. We spent the afternoon relaxing in hammocks on their stoop while drinking beer and at times entertaining and being entertained by the family’s 3 year old daughter Thoi. She took a particular shining to the iPad and even knew a few English words such as ‘No, no, no, no!’, when Margaret wanted to hide it from her.

The island can be explored fairly easily on a bicycle and it was a lot of fun to ride around while getting glimpses of the locals going about their daily life. I couldn’t help noticing how self-sufficient the people are. In their small gardens were papaya, tamarind, jackfruit and many other fruit trees. The houses on the water all had a small fish farm and of course the ubiquitous, long-legged Asian chicken was everywhere. You can’t always see the river, but you can hear the loud outboard motors clack-clacking in the distance. I can’t help but think that life here is simplified for these people, it most certainly involves a lot of hard manual labour but everything seems to revolve around producing something to sell at one of the numerous floating markets and their lives are totally dependent on the river and its chocolate-brown waters.

Our first evening in the homestay was rather memorable for good and bad reasons. Firstly, the bad: we were joined later on in the day by a group of what seemed to be French teenagers fresh out of school. They were under the impression this was a hotel and that they were the only people staying in it. They had commandeered the stoop and lay in the hammocks chain-smoking cigarettes, flicking their butts and ash on the floor, as well as ordering beers from the people living in the house. At first, we tried to ignore them, since they pretty much ignored us (even when we greeted them) but they stayed up all night until 2am, talking and laughing really loudly outside our room. The rooms in the homestay are all in under the same roof with low walls as dividers. They don’t extend all the way to the ceiling. So when these people went to sleep, they were singing and joking with each other, oblivious to the fact that they were disturbing everyone. In the end, I had to yell out to them to shut up and go to sleep. This seemed to do the trick as they did just that. Suffice it to say, I was rather annoyed and the next morning, not a single one of them looked me in the eye on the way to our boat tour at 6:30am.

As for the good part of our first evening, we were served the most spectacular meal. I don’t know the Vietnamese name for it and among other things, we had deep-fried, whole, elephant fish, along with fresh greens, dipping sauce and rice noodles. We rolled pieces of the fish up with the other ingredients in rice paper and dipped it in the dipping sauce. It was absolutely delicious and definitely one of our most memorable meals in Vietnam.

The next day our boat tour was set to include a visit to a floating market, a honey farm, a coconut factory and a ride in a sampan through the canals. I really enjoyed the sampan ride and the views from our boat. The floating market was non-existent and turned out to be a stop at a lady in a boat selling expensive fruit and coffee. The honey farm and coconut factory were just tourists shops trying to sell us honey and coconut products and lunch was just a plate of fruit. We weren’t too upset since the experience of riding through the rivers and backwaters was really interesting. The French kids that had accompanied us on the tour passed out halfway through it and therefore weren’t a nuisance. We even got caught in a proper delta rain storm where Libby and I were soaked through completely. The amount and ferocity of the rain was rather impressive, but fortunately the air was very warm so we didn’t get cold.

This part of Vietnam feels very underdeveloped and is a great place to escape the tourist trail, but you will, such as we did, encounter the odd rude and oblivious tourist. Once they left, we really felt the air clear and were able to relax on the hammocks and enjoy the peace of calm of it all. It was however, the rainy season and it definitely rained a lot. Despite this, we had a lot of fun and I have to return in order to see a proper floating market. I am starting to doubt whether there is such a thing.

Saigon – Good Chaos

Touch down in Saigon. Immigration. Baggage claim. Customs. The intense heat and humidity of the evening air hits you like a punch in the gut. Wide-eyed but somewhat disoriented from 26 hours of traveling, we push passed the crowds waiting for their loved ones at the exit of Tan Son Nhat International Airport. We draw cash. The smell of South East Asia fills our lungs. I can feel that old adrenaline rush that is so familiar when encountering a strange city for the first time. It’s crazy to think we left Malaysia and South East Asia on our last trip here nearly 2 years ago. Libby and Elza eventually walk out the glass doors. Even more wide-eyed than us. Their flight arrived 30 minutes after ours.

Saigon, Ho Chi Minh city, some say has a population of 9 million people and approximately 11 million motorbikes. The chaos is all consuming. It’s a lot like those films you see in a biology class of red blood cells flowing around veins and arteries. Our taxi ride from the airport to the backpacker district in Phang Ngu Lao is 40 minutes of near misses amid the rapid hoots from the driver. Nothing could have prepared us for such a sight. Literally thousands of motorbikes swarm around us, driven by stoic faced commuters, some wearing face masks in order to lessen the petrol fumes, others sporting helmets saying “Smile and keep up” on the back, while some are conveying a family of four people.

The taxi stops across the road from our hotel. Bikes, cars and busses whizz by incessantly in both directions. I hand the driver a half a million Vietnamese Dong note and have to use my phone to calculate the change. The fare works out to be $7.50. The driver gets back in the car and disappears down the road, leaving us to figure out how to cross the road on our own. We watch a person cross and it looks like the best way to do it is to walk slowly and make no sudden movements. We wait for all the cars to clear from the road so that there are only bikes flowing by and walk. We make it and high five each other. Over the next few days we will become expert motorbike dodgers and see the “high-fiving” scene play out among other westerners that have just arrived in the city.

Saigon is a city that has outgrown it’s clothes. The only place more chaotic and crowded for me would be Delhi. But where Delhi was indescribably perplexing – filled with people sleeping on the streets and borderline dilapidated – for some reason Saigon feels orderly, like there is a method to the madness. Scooter riders slow down for you in order to give you a chance to cross the street. Xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers even go out of their way to help you find the nearest bus stop even though they know you aren’t going to use their services. One even halted traffic entirely by stopping his bike lengthwise across the road to help us cross the street so that we didn’t miss the bus.

We didn’t come to Vietnam to watch traffic though. Libby, Elza, Margarét and I came here primarily to eat. And my-oh-my is the food good. Every meal is amazing. You can’t really go wrong. A hawker on the side of the road selling simple Banh Mi (sandwiches) with paté, pickles and seasoned with sweet fish sauce offers food just as delicious as an expensive restaurant. You would have to be very unlucky to pick the wrong place to eat. Some of our favourites are Beef Phở (pronounced fur) – rice noodles in a light, delicious stock served with raw strips of beef that cook to perfection once placed inside. Pho is great because it can be tailored any which way you like with the various condiments and herbs accompanying it separately. Mint, basil, spring onions and other unknown fresh herbs add crunch and fragrance. While limes, chillis and fish sauce can be added to balance the flavour and give it a punch. My favourite condiment is the roasted garlic paste – I’ve been contemplating filling up my suitcase with it when I leave.

One of my favourite things to do in Saigon, was to find a beer garden in the early evening where you can sit on the sidewalk and watch the people and traffic fly by. The first time I did this, it was entirely by accident. The girls rushed off to go shopping at the market and on my way back to the hotel I thought I’d kill time by having a snack and a drink. From the moment I sat down, the waitress started bringing me various snacks. Roasted peanuts, some sort of sour fruit that you dip in chilli salt and quail eggs. The beer was ice cold, but it also comes with a huge block of ice in it, which at first was a bit weird, but once you get used to it, is really refreshing. I ordered a plate of clams in chilli sauce and started peeling one of the quail eggs. I don’t know why but the density of the egg felt slightly odd. I had this sinking feeling that this wasn’t just a boiled egg, it was a whole lot more. Peeling a tiny egg is not that easy. The shell comes off in tiny bits. I got as much of the shell off as I could. Dipped the end of the egg in the lime and chilli salt and tentatively took a bite. It tasted like strongly flavoured hard boiled egg except there was what looked like a bird embryo inside. I popped the rest of the egg inside my mouth, bits of shell and all and washed it down with a huge gulp of beer while looking around me to see if anybody was watching this foolish westerner and his cluelessness. A bit later I tried another one, this time I had seen how the locals eat it, they peel or bite the top of the shell off, dip the end in the chilli salt and suck the contents out. Suffice it to say, I didn’t have any more after that and view any eggs sold in Vietnam with extreme suspicion. And no, it isn’t the thought of eating an embryo that puts me off, it is actually that strong eggy taste.

Other highlights of Saigon, apart from the food and traffic watching, are: visiting the Binh Tay Market in Chinatown, especially the fruit hawkers on the streets outside among the utter chaos of scooters, bicycles and cars, visiting the War Remnants Museum to get a bit of Vietnamese perspective of the war, walking the narrow alleyways of District 1 and drinking the delicious Vietnamese iced coffee – which is so good we shipped 2 kilos of coffee home along with the neat little coffee makers they use to make it. Another highlight, was embracing our inner food nerd and seeking out the Lunch Lady. Famous for her soups and featured on Anthony Bourdain’s: No Reservations TV Show, she didn’t let us down. This was definitely the best Phở we’ve had so far – by a country mile.

Our first impressions of Vietnam are mostly positive, despite how crazy it is and the fact that it is the rainy season, but it would be a lot more difficult to travel here if the people weren’t so gentle, kind and open to helping travellers as well as genuinely interested in interacting with them. You are always greeted with a smile and I always seem to get a laugh when I thank them in Vietnamese, which might have something to do with my pronunciation. After all the wars and invasions this nation has been through, I wouldn’t have been surprised to get the odd cold shoulder or seen the odd scowl, but it rarely happens. Vietnam was at war for 30 years after World War II alone, kicked out the French, repelled the mighty Mongol army three times no less. They were occupied by the Chinese for 1000 years before forcing them out. Literally flattened by the American/Vietnam war but stand today as a nation that is said to become the fastest growing economy in the world by 2025. Oh and just to reiterate, the food here is amazing!

Next up, some rest and relaxation at a homestay on the Mekong delta.