Food feels almost political among expats in Vietnam. Eat too much Western fare and you’re not truly cultured. Opt only for foods even the Vietnamese won’t eat and you fast become that guy. I’ve never been or wanted to be that guy—the one who enjoys trứng vịt lộn, fried bọ cạp, or sầu riêng not for its taste but as a conversation piece. I also don’t eat three Western meals per day; it’s simply cost prohibitive in a place like Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi.
My eating habits in Vietnam are most impacted by four factors. The first is that I’m single and live alone in a studio-sized bed and breakfast room; I do no cooking for myself here. The second is that my stomach has very little tolerance for ill-preserved food, something that’s found more often than not at Vietnamese food stands, especially towards the end of the day. The third factor is that I’m on the move a lot; my location often determines what I eat. And the last is that I simply miss the United States sometimes, in particular not only its flavor-laden fatty foods but also its high quality organic offerings.
For breakfast this morning I ate phở, but only because Hanoi is still very much in post-Tết hangover mode. My usual morning plate of xôi xéo with a side of seasonal fruit hasn’t been available for several days now and I’m fast becoming a bit sick and tired of noodle soup.
There’s a Vietnamese idiom that goes, “Ngán cơm thèm phở.” Literally translated it means that one is tired of rice so he craves phở. As most Vietnamese funny-isms go, though, the humor in the statement is derived from its second meaning, wives being viewed as rice, —always there for the taking and a bit boring—and mistresses being viewed as phở (in a word, desired). I often joke with my Vietnamese friends that I’m “ngán phở thèm xôi”. Phở is fine, but I can at most take a bowl per week. It just doesn’t do it for me anymore.
I should probably take a step back and talk about a fifth factor: money. Normally I spend anywhere from $250 to $400 USD per month on food, depending on where I’m at and whether or not I’m staying with friends or family.
My best friend from uni, who left Vietnam over twenty years ago, made his first return last month to spend time with me and become reacquainted with his old home. For 23 days he and I enjoyed socializing with my friends and sightseeing in Hanoi, Can Tho, Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Ha Long Bay. I’ve managed to process and upload a number of photos taken with my hand-held camera and will soon do the same with photos taken by my phone’s camera.
Pictures and writing may indicate otherwise, but I’m a terribly lazy traveler. I move slowly and the idea of bouncing from city to city in tour mode is to say the least appalling. Nevertheless, my best mate and I had to make the most of our short time together in Vietnam and I’m happy with the amount of fun we were able to have while negotiating my work schedule against his visit.
I’ve been in Vietnam for more than a little while. I don’t want to say I take the place for granted but I definitely do not notice things the way that I used to when I first arrived. The traffic, Vietnamese quirks, tipping etiquette, both passive-aggressiveness and pushiness, encrypted speech, and social hierarchy are all very humdrum to me now. Having a friend from outside bring all of that uncertainty and confusion back into view was, for lack of a better word, cool.
Sometimes I miss it, the first high in Vietnam. I’ll never be able to get it back but having visitors lets me at least touch it again through glass.
In February another friend from home will visit; in mid-March my grandmother will make her second trip to Vietnam; and in late March yet another friend will make the trip to Hanoi. I’m looking forward to taking more photographs.
Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and something that every visitor to northern Vietnam must experience. The sad truth about the place is that while it’s beautiful and memorable, the tourism industry there is incredibly in need of reformation. Price gouging occurs more often here than in other places in Vietnam, and boats are not always safe. If your level of calm is high and you’re able to handle these negatives, a trip to Ha Long Bay is necessary; otherwise, find somewhere else to visit. I took these photos during a trip with my best friend and roommate from college.
Emperor Tự Đức was the 4th Emperor of the famous Nguyễn Dynasty. His tomb is located near Hue and it has become—along with other tombs in the area—one of the premier travel destinations in Vietnam. It’s best to arrive very early at all tombs in Hue, as hoards of tourists and guests take away from the serenity of it all during midday hours.
Emperor Khải Định was the 12th Emperor of the famous Nguyễn Dynasty. His tomb is located near Hue and it has become—along with other tombs in the area—one of the premier travel destinations in Vietnam. It’s best to arrive very early at all tombs in Hue, as hoards of tourists and guests take away from the serenity of it all during midday hours.