If it weren’t for the hammer and sickle fluttering in the wind from almost every street light, and the propaganda posters which pop up everywhere from high streets to farms, one would not think that Vietnam was anything like a Communist country. Ho Chi Minh’s face can be seen everywhere, from bank notes to the banners adorning every street in the capital but there is something decidedly Capitalist about the beat of the drum which the population moves to.
Last week we read an article, on the BBC website, which said among the nouveaux riche $35 bowls of Phó (a noodle soup dish that is popular throughout the country and normally costs about 1 Euro) were all the rage (click here for the article).
Walking down the street in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Kawasakis, Suzukis and Vespas crowd every pavement, while in the big cities LVHM and other luxury brands have outlets (one wonders what percentage of the population can afford to shop there though, because most of the people appear to be wearing fakes).
The new skyscraper in HCMC’s financial centre with its spacey viewing deck, which charges $10 entry, is another symbol of plenty towering over the beautiful colonial centre which seems to be developing with a disregard for the crumbling suburbs. There is a sense that here “some are more equal than others.”
But in the midst of all this one sees the poorest members of the society eking out a living in the gutters of the city. To survive they must work as there is no safety net. To be childless in old age must be terrible for those who are too frail to lug heavy loads, sell fruit on street corners, play courier or run errands for others. At night a steady army of amputees, elderly people and filthy street urchins approach tables in the tourist areas hoping for alms, which will make the next meal, the next day possible.
Filing past the body of Ho Chi Minh, inside his marble mausoleum, I wondered what he would have made of the expensive restaurants, exclusive bars and the luxury cars, which members of the Party elite (and many others) seem to favor.
At the bottom of the staircase leading up to the mega statue, which commemorates one of the defining battles that led to the independence of Vietnam in Dien Bien Phu, we met two Germans looking to change any Lao Kip we had for their Vietnamese Dong. However we had exchanged our money before crossing the border, but we did spend about half an hour exchanging travel tips as we were heading in opposite directions.
The German couple said that Vietnam had been interesting, but lamented the number of rip-offs and scams they had experienced; cautioning that prices in Vietnam are not set and overcharging is rife. They mentioned feeling like walking dollar signs, constantly being overcharged and having to haggle over items which one would normally expect to have a fixed price, or even despite a fixed price had been given, e.g. at the hairdresser.
To survive here, you really need to know how to haggle and barter. In the two biggest cities Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, comradeship seems a thing of the past. Now it is all about the money – every man for himself.
At hotels prices may decrease as much as 50% if you know how to haggle; everything from bus tickets, which ranged from 250,000 Dong (or 10 Euros), at one travel agency to 170,000 Dong (7 Euros) two doors down, is negotiable. The price depends on what you look like i.e. how you are dressed, and how well travelled you look (or gullible the salesperson thinks you might be).
One morning as we were checking out the statue of Lenin, which is down the road from Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi, a man cycled up with a stack of books. He offered to sell us the Lonely Planet Bangladesh and Sri Lanka guides (which we will need in a few weeks). His asking price? 500,000 Dong (20 Euro). Now that’s what we call a rip-off! In HCMC, we were quoted 60,000 for the Bangladesh guide. In Vietnam, we soon learned that you really have to shop around!
Unfortunately we experienced very bad weather during our travels in Vietnam, so sampling the local cuisine became one way of passing the time in the depressing cold of Hanoi and helped us to wait out the rain from Hué to Nha Trang.
Some of the standard fare we sampled included Phó, the national dish of Vietnam, which seems to be everyone’s first choice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Phó is a broth, which contains white rice noodles; depending on the cook they may be thin or thick. Meat (pork or beef) is also included and green leafy vegetables. One also receives lime to squeeze into the bowl. The best Phó we sampled was about 10 minutes after our arrival in the northern town of Den Bien Phu.
Our favorite dish in Vietnam has to be the spring rolls. In each restaurant they are a bit different. The extra salty spring rolls in Hué were particularly good as were the fresh spring rolls, which are uncooked (sometimes called summer rolls). In Hoi An we were able to sample White Rose, a local specialty made from shrimp and rice paper.
Two other great things about Vietnamese cuisine are the baked goods – fantastic patisseries all over the country serve fresh baguettes (the French did do one good thing for the region) and the famously thick, dark and incredibly strong Vietnamese coffee. It is perfect for that caffeine injection in the morning and given the pace of most Vietnamese cities, you need it (well I need it, unfortunately I was not successful in converting Martin into a coffee drinker).
Finally if you are game, try the local Dalat wine. It’s not the best wine we have ever had, but we did manage to polish of a bottle with a couple of baguettes by the river in Hoi An one evening at sunset. We can also recommend La Rue and Saigon beer. In Ho Chi Minh we found that most of the Germans, being the bargain hunters that they are, had done their due diligence and discovered that the cheapest place to get beer was a Bangladeshi restaurant in the backpacker ghetto. At 8000 dong or less than 30 Euro cents for a 450 ml bottle of beer, developing a ‘Bavarian Belly’ is incredibly cheap.