Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Vietnam saga

Vietnam reminded me so much of my native state, Kerala, "The God's own country". The paddy fields lined with coconut trees, jackfruit trees laden with fruits, the canals and boats, it was really nostalgic. We love travelling and roam far and wide, but this visit to Vietnam - THAT WAS ONE TRIP - the brightest spot in my life! Can I pinpoint one reason why it is so? No, no way. There were too many things that made us happy, sad, exhilarated and frustrated, experience peace and wonderment, that made us fall in love with Vietnam and its beautiful, kind people.

                                                           Just like in Kerala.......

My childhood memories

I was a school girl when the Vietnam war happened. The newspapers and magazines carried pictures of violence against Vietnamese people by American soldiers. One particular picture  never left me - two American soldiers taking out the liver of a live Vietnamese man. I recoiled in horror on seeing that picture, my heart bled for those suffering innocent people. While visiting the war museum in Ho Chi Minh, I saw the tunnel where three children hid. They were drawn out by American soldiers, the smallest child ( 6 years old) was disemboweled and the other two stabbed. Oh Humanity, where were thou?

Bye to the past

With all those memories, I was expecting a heavy atmosphere, laden with sadness and depression while landing in Vietnam. To my relief and surprise, the atmosphere was so light, I could sense the peace, joy and grounding of the population. The people were kind and helpful. They are very hard working, with a pleasant countenance always.

We got friendly with a  staff in the tour agency. Vietnam war veterans in America suffered for years, in spite of best medical facilities and psychiatric counselling.  Then how come the Vietnamese people left the trauma and tragedy behind and moved ahead, we asked her.

" Oh, we just leave our past behind and look towards the future and work hard to make dreams come true. We have opened our land and hearts to people from countries that had oppressed us. War is no solution for any problem. Nobody wins in a war. I hope nobody suffers in future like our country suffered." Now, that is real wisdom!

For them, work is worship. Majority of people wake up by 5 am and others by 6 am. In the Ho Chi Minh city of ten million population, there are seven million two wheelers. So you can imagine the sea of two wheelers on the road. But you don't see the impatience as we are used to in India. Patience is a real virtue of these people, I wish to imbibe some of it.

The bus journey

The speed limit for buses in the city is 50 km/hour and in the highways it is 70. We took an overnight sleeper bus ride from Hue to Hoi An. The seats were at the level of the bus floor, and almost totally fully reclinable. When we arrived Hoi An, there was no tiredness at all, which is always there during our overnight bus journeys in India. We concluded that sleeping position on the floor and the slow speed of the bus didn't cause any jerks and it was almost like sleeping on a bed at home.

View inside the bus

Hospitals are hard to see

In Belgaum (which is not a very large city) where we live, when one walks, every five minutes we see a 'Multispecialty' or a 'Super specialty' hospital and all of them are thronged with patients.

In Vietnam, I hardly got to see huge hospitals, when we have traveled almost the entire length of the country. This set me to thinking. Their life is slow paced, they have a proper family life, which is considered a great stress buster. There is no compartmentalization of family life and business. In majority of the cases, the business (whether it is  a shop, hotel, or tour agency) is done in the front portion of their houses.

Many street food vendors are  house wives, trying to generate some extra income. In the evening, you see their kids sitting near them, either helping them, playing or doing homework.

They can squat on the floor for extended periods of time, which is very good for the health of the hip and knee joints. Their food is large bowls of non-vegetarian soup, with a plate heaped with a variety of fresh leaves. We could hardly find obese people there.

Their chairs and stools are so low, so when they sit, it is very close to the ground. I think this definitely keeps the people grounded, apart from the second important factor, making bonsais.

Bonsai galore

In Vietnam, you see bonsas everywhere. It is such a feast to the eyes. Tending to these trees, bringing structure and grooming the growth, must definitely be influencing their mental attitude too.


One of our tour guides who was a war veteran, told us that after the war, Vietnam was subjected to sanctions and trade embargos by much of the western world. There was a severe famine, which took millions of lives.

"We were really hungry, and there was nothing to eat. One family got five kgs of rice a month. A family usually has at least six members and rice is our staple food. So we got down to farming. Now 90% of the population are farmers."

And they have taken long strides in the field of agriculture. Today it is one of the largest exporters of rice, cashew, fruits and many other things.

The bamboo theory

During the day tour by bus and boat in Hue, we had a nice tour guide who was very knowledgeable. He told that there are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. It is easy for foreign invaders to divide and rule. Remember what happened in India? Chenghis Khan, the 13th century warrior in central Asia who founded the Mongol empire, one of the largest empires in history, tried to overpower Vietnam four times, but he had to retreat. How did it happen?

Vietnam had a clever leader in Minh Mang. He did two things:

1. He told the people that all Vietnamese people originated from same parents. There is the temple of mother of all Vietnamese people, 'Hon Chen' temple, commonly known as Goddess of Vietnam temple, located on the banks of the Perfume river. People from all over Vietnam come here to worship the mother.

2. All school children are taught the 'bamboo theory'. They are given chopsticks and asked to break as many as they can, with their hands, in a given period of time. Whoever breaks maximum number of chopsticks is then given a bundle of chopsticks, tied together. As the child finds it impossible to break the chopsticks bound together, the lesson " United we stand, Divided we fall" is driven deep into their psyche.
The base color of their national flag is red, to remind them that 'We got freedom by shedding our blood. Don't do anything that can take away our freedom."

Street foods

Street food is available everywhere. We had an equivalent of 'pazham pori' ( a Kerala preparation made by deep frying banana sliced covered in batter). The steamed rice cakes with slices of plantain in the center and served with sabudana kheer was awesome.

The street foods are costly as compared to the pricing in good hotels, we just couldn't figure out why.

Coconut candies were delicious. Spring rolls made by wrapping in rice paper and either frying or steaming were worth the try.

Food problem

For vegetarians, Vietnam may turn out a nightmare. Getting a fully vegetarian meal is like walking on thorns, like we suffered every day. But one can manage by doing some homework. Everybody cannot speak English.You got to learn some Vietnamese words and be on your guard when they are cooking.

Beef and pork are widely eaten. In a hotel where we entered for lunch, when we saw huge frogs and snakes in glass boxes (customers can point to whichever they want to eat and it will be cooked and served), we just turned around and fled. They even had rat dishes on their menu.

No milk and milk products

We saw lots of cows and buffaloes during our journey. While talking to our taxi driver/ tour guide, he told they are not milked. Beef they eat and buffaloes are for ploughing the fields. When we told that we drink buffalo milk in India, he was amused and started laughing. Condensed milk tins are available, which they gave us to add to the black coffee.

Marble mountain

The highlight of our journey was the visit to marble mountain . Marble Mountains is a cluster of five marble and limestone hills located in Ngu Hanh Son ward, south of Da Nang city in Vietnam.These mountains are dotted with caves, several of which have Buddhist pagodas.Marble mountains are of spiritual significance to the Vietnamese, and they were a base for the Viet Cong fighters during the Vietnam war. As you walk through the narrow spaces in the mountain, suddenly you come upon a huge space, with very large statues of Buddha and you are so humbled!

Memorable home stay

Home stay was arranged for us for a day at the Ba Hung Homestay in Binh Hoa Phuoc - Lonh Ho in Vin Long Province. They prepared awesome vegetarian dinner for us and gave cycles to go around the village.

The cabin where we slept

                                          Spent some time at night relaxing on these hammocks

There were many fish in this pond, they will come to the surface and flip when we stand nearby. Got to see mudskippers here for the first time

1 comment:

Unknown said...

haha... nice food comments :)
Vietnam looks great, very strange that the street food is more expensive than restaurants, and even stranger that dairy in South East Asia is almost non-existent and considered a "western" thing.