The Fernweh-farer: Following the Path in Vietnam
Updated: Mar 26, 2019
“Fellow travelers, this is what you want. This is what you need. This is the path to true happiness and wisdom.” - Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown, Season 4 Episode 5: Vietnam
When I began documentation of my travels two months ago, I specifically called out lack of adherence to a set schedule. I certainly prefer to post with semi-regularity and, ultimately, get to a weekly routine. Re-stating this now because more time has elapsed since my last share.
After leaving Thailand, I settled down in Vietnam for just short of a month - splitting my time between Hanoi, Da Nang and Hoi An. Like many other travelers, Vietnam has long been a destination near the top of my must-experience list. Multiple attempts to capture my feelings on this leg of my trip led me to multiple visitations to the drawing board. Decisions to scrap what I spent a few days getting down on paper followed by pressing myself to dig deeper into my thoughts and step-away to consider my perspective.
First, some context around why Vietnam presents additional pondering on this traveler‘s part. It has been an emotional post for me to write. No, I am not in danger of short-circuiting my laptop because of salt-tinged teardrops falling while I type. However, both while in Vietnam and thinking about it afterwards brings with it much joy but also a heaviness - that feeling of sometimes hulking pressure on the chest.
I, along with so many others, had a cable friendship with Anthony Bourdain. He did not know me, but he knew the collective “us.” Viewers who tuned in for each new episode with high anticipation and were as satisfied re-watching favorites from the catalog of 400+ episodes.
This will not be a piece that expounds on what I believe Bourdain meant to the travel world - there were plenty of those crafted after his passing and I am not qualified to render judgement on his impact. I can state with certainty he had a massively profound impact on my desire to see the world. He possessed a rare ability to connect with both the everyman and the seasoned traveler to peel back the illusion that travel is unreachable, dangerous or, worse yet, unnecessary.
In total, Bourdain did five episodes of his various shows in Vietnam. He talked often in public interviews about the “life changing” result of his first visit to Vietnam and the country dots numerous answers he gave to the “what is your favorite…” question over the years.
Whether sampling the potent locally produced alcohol in Ho Chi Minh, marveling at the elegance of the imperial city Hue in only the way he could articulate, or sharing a beer and bun cha with the 44th US President - he approached each visit with an air of “you must see/do this” that sparked the desire to explore.
So, Vietnam was an anchor leg of my round-the-world trip. One of a handful of locations where I took a work backwards approach to establishing my route. Starting in Hanoi, I landed to surprising cool and breezy weather that lingered throughout two separate stints in the capital city. With its location in the north, it remains much more seasonable there longer into the year.
A significant portion of my writing struggle revolved around focusing, versus not focusing, on Vietnam’s culinary greatness. Writing about the food in Vietnam seems a rudimentary exercise - chiefly on the heels of talking about my inspiration from the likes of Bourdain. The incredible delights served up on the street and doorways of residents are too diverse to count. In addition, I head to Japan after Vietnam…so we’ll save room for the food talk in later efforts.
I will put out this one nugget because, two months into my journey, it was perhaps the finest depiction of how food cultures can connect people on opposite sides of the globe. A popular snack item in Vietnam is their version of củ lạc, or…boiled peanuts! Puts a grin on this Georgia boys face weeks afterward. I bonded with two locals over multiple bia hoi (street draft beer) and a bowl of soft and savory legumes. My new companions were not altogether sold on my description of our more damp and salty version, but that did not preclude me from googling, emailing and spurring them to try the recipe at a later date. They were courteous enough to humor me on their interest in testing it out.
While a small sampling, visiting Da Nang and Hoi An in between trips to Hanoi was valuable in shedding light on the different regions of the country. Hanoi not only registered cooler climates but also had a slight social chill to it. Given the government footprint there and history as the command post of the north when the country stood divided, it is easy to understand the steely resolve many locals present. Not to mention, I identify this “take-it-or-leave-it” approach more in larger cities - which Hanoi is and then some.
I spent most of my time in the central coast region in the city of Hoi An. Easily one of the most scenic cities I have been lucky to wander aimlessly. The old town is a registered UNESCO heritage site and they have wonderfully preserved the buildings, colors and pedestrian friendliness in the age of motorized transit. The light pastel yellows, blues and greens capped by thatched terrace roofs with bring out the romantic in even the worst curmudgeon.
The preserved age of the old city mapped closely to the general population based on my observations. Residents and sightseers alike represented older generations, which played well with the laissez-faire vibe the city gives. I am happy to scratch that old soul itch, so I willingly embraced the slow pace. Corners serve as makeshift storefronts with smiling residents selling their wares and keen to share a story behind the relevance of the local crafts.
The city teeters in spots on the edge of feeling slightly “Disney-fied.” Meaning at some places in/around the city it leans into the tourism facade a little heavy-handed. For instance, there are two gates at random entrances to the old city where employees (of the city?) will cry out to confused looking tourists they need to produce an entrance fee. Despite this not being an enforceable thing and the option to go down any of hundreds of other streets without payment, I watched more than a few visitors express wonder and then proceed to take out their wallets.
Another example is one of the oldest around, and that savvy photographers well know of in advance. Lovely fruit and market vendors inviting you to take a picture of their spread, or further still, of them. Once a passerby takes this very considerate offer, they animatedly demand reimbursement for the courtesy. Remind yourself that this offer would be strange even back home from a stranger and, despite what you hope, it is unlikely this local resident is thinking “look at that person with a camera…they must work for Rolling Stone or National Geographic!”
Both were exceptions to an otherwise thoroughly enlightening visit to Hoi An. The magic of the city is on full display as the sun sets and the air grows somewhat less sticky. Lanterns illuminate each path and narrow alleyway, of which there are many, and bathe the grid in a gentle light which perfectly sets the mood for an evening stroll.
Hanoi by comparison is loud, fast and youthful. It is not overstating things to say the simple act of crossing the street takes courage and conviction. Locals adapt and see you, consider your pace, and veer around you like speeder bikes through the forest moon of Endor. Street crossings can serve as an analogy for the city - one must display confidence, go for it, and what you find on the other side of the road will prove very worthwhile.
The city nestles in an overcast blanket of foreboding clouds, but few instances of precipitation materialized. When rain occurred, it only provided ample excuse to duck into one of the hundreds of coffee shops on every block.
Hanoians have a profound passion for coffee. They devour it at all hours of the day and it serves its purpose of invigoration and an outlet for conversation among colleagues and neighbors. Based on my observations, the average customer can stretch 8oz. of coffee over forty-five minutes to one hour. Measured sips of the strong blend are offset by popping mini-mountains of sunflower seeds and discarding enough shells on the cafe floor to put a professional baseball team to shame.
Perhaps my favorite moments in Vietnam were the early morning walks I took to my preferred shop. I discovered it on my initial day and patronized it almost every morning from that point along with a handful of contemplative locals. First, it opened at 6am, which suited my early morning tendencies and it was an excellently crafted cup of either ca phe sua nong (hot coffee with condensed milk) or ca phe sua da (iced coffee with condensed milk). At 20,000 VND (approximately $.80 USD) per serving, it was one of the finest “deliciousness to dollar” ratios I have turned up yet.
Pull up a seat on the pavement and balance on the 1x1 foot plastic stool only a foot off the ground with your knees nearly touching your chest. It invites one to linger and observe the most astonishing people watching on the planet. Vespa scooters carrying everything from ladders to mini refrigerators, fruit vendors balancing their wares across their shoulders via dual bamboo baskets and scurrying pedestrians. All this occurring against a backdrop symphony of constant vehicle horns. The horn honking is persistent and supports no off switch.
Serving as a beautiful backdrop to the chaos, the French colonial architecture is also a constant reminder of Vietnam’s battered past. This past saw repeated efforts by foreign influences such as the French and Japanese to sustain colonial rule. The country then became a battleground as a line in the sand meant to check the spread of communism.
Obviously, the ability to fight off the latter efforts and Vietnam’s pride in their own autonomy is evident across the landscape. Numerous war memorials and museums are worthwhile visits. What struck me was the welcoming kindness of everyone I encountered. Conversations that referenced the Vietnam War (or the American War from the Vietnamese perspective) were somber and tinged with regret on the inexplicable loss for both sides. In a time too often marked by extended grudges and misplaced pride, being embraced by a society less than a generation removed from horrific events was quite awe-inspiring.
I spent my final day in Vietnam intentionally unstructured. I wanted walk the streets without my phone charting my path or earbuds obstructing the soundtrack. When you are not sure when you will next hear the distinctly Vietnamese scooter horn symphony again, all you prefer to do is, as odd as it sounds, hear scooter horns.
By no means did Bourdain discover the greatness of Vietnam but he was onto something with his expressed fondness for this country and willing to share with others. The country both embraces you and places you at arm's length enough to demand your own exploration. It is indeed delicious, and I apologize for the lack of food descriptors in this piece but if you need reminding then I highly encourage you indulge in the Bourdain catalog for the first time or for a refresher. I am eternally grateful he elected to share with us and it continues to inspire curiosity.
Ultimately, Vietnam is a captivating country and complete sensory marvel. Go, pull up a tiny stool, breathe it all in, linger and love.