After the cold weather we experienced in Japan and China, we were happy to arrive in tropical southern Vietnam. We sailed into the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) port among a variety of small fishing boats, all out to capture their dinner or market supplies. And what a surprise HCMC was – a big modern city with tall office buildings and banks, new malls, nice restaurants, and their own Time Square. Fanning out from there (which is the area they still call Saigon), the city becomes block after block of small shops and markets that seem to have been there for centuries. For a communist state, it sure has a huge number of mom and pop stores, selling everything on the sidewalk next to kindergarten-size tables and chairs to pause for a snack or drink. Diners and shoppers share the sidewalk with mopeds and nobody bats an eye. In a city of 7 million residents, we were told there are 7 million of these scooters. Crossing the street is an adventure, as the mopeds don’t stop, even at red lights. I found myself helping other international travelers cross the street, pretending to be confident and figuring there was safety in numbers.
I prepared for this port as always, by reading everything I could get my hands on and attending ship lectures, with the addition of watching Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary. Vietnam has a storied history, and there are many sites to visit to reflect on the war with the U.S.: The War Crimes museum, the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong, and the Reunification Palace. Other HCMC highlights included the Central Post Office (famous French architecture from colonial times), Dong Khoi Street, the Ben Thanh market, Cho Lon, and the Thien Hau temple. Outside the city, we were able to see proof that the nation is 45% forest; big, beautiful tropical trees filled the countryside, and getting there was a treat as we passed water buffalo, little villages, and rice paddies.
Now, on to the FOOD. Many people know that Vietnam is famous for pho, a delicious broth with chicken (or meat), seafood, vegetables, and lime. The country is also famous for its coffee, which has a nutty, almost chocolate taste. Their famous drink, Vietnamese coffee, is served with ice and condensed milk, a dessert in a cup! With just a week in country, I was able to enjoy not only pho and Vietnamese coffee but also com tam (rice with various spices), banh mi, spring rolls, elephant ear fish and so much other seafood I can’t list it all. There was also plenty of coconut water, mangoes, passion fruit, and dragon fruit. And lots and lots of fermented foods, oh so good for the gut - vegetables, fruit and fish.
The outdoor markets were impressively clean, with what seemed like miles of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood. When I say fresh, I mean there are rows of fish tanks, live frogs, and whole animal carcasses, ready to be taken home to eat that same day. Which brings me to our next culinary experience…
I led a cooking challenge field trip in which 25 of us SASers met with a chef from the Viet Nam Cookery Center. Having taught dozens of cooking classes in my life, I was happy to be a participant and couldn’t wait to see what she would have us do. 1st, we went to the open-air market, split into teams, and began a market race to buy produce we would need to make lunch. Off to her cooking center, where she demonstrated spring rolls, Vietnamese shrimp crepes, lotus stem salad, and 2 dipping sauces. Each team had to then go to their cooking station and recreate the dishes in an hour. The ingredients were authentic and fresh, and the results were incredible. We all came away with recipes and skills to cook Vietnamese food at home.
Lastly, and my favorite activity of this port, we left the inner city and visited a family in the Thu Duc neighborhood: a grandmother, her son and daughter-in-law, and their 3-year old son. The 3 generations live together as is custom, and the grandmother’s other children came to visit with us as well. Not only did they welcome us into their home but also taught us traditional cooking, and together we created a delicious Vietnamese dinner. Lots of conversation followed over tea and fruit; they shared their insights on traditions, education, religion, careers, and families, and I felt like I knew more about daily life. We also toasted the new Year of the Dog with them!
I asked the young parents what they would like my friends and family in the U.S. to know about them. They said Vietnam might not be the cleanest or fanciest country in the world, but it has the nicest people :)
Next stop: Myanmar