Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Good Eating Vietnam!

It's pretty cold in Beijing these days so a conference trip to Hanoi was definitely welcome, and I reserved the weekends for exploring. The early December temperatures in northern Vietnam seemed to be around 20 degrees during the day, but a bit chilly for a t-shirt at night. Just like the Finnish summer weather really, only less rain, much shorter days and far more pollution. The conference people were nice enough to book a hotel, a tour to Halong Bay and even an airport pickup for us. The hotel in Hanoi was the Government Guest House, which at US$35 a night is rather expensive for Vietnam, but it was central and comfortable.

We started up by going to a tour of Halong Bay. It's a scenic seaside area about 170 km east from Hanoi, known in China as Guilin on water -- the readers outside China (Blogger is blocked in China so I suppose most readers would be elsewhere) may not know Guilin so I'll point you to the pictures I took there in 2005 for reference, here and here. The tour group consisted of me, one of my colleagues and two professors from Beijing, and our Vietnamese guide who spoke good English. Generally language skills seemed to be at a shortage in Vietnam, but people catering for a lot of tourists speak some English and most people in Halong Bay speak good Chinese, as it's pretty close to the border. Halong itself is a small city at the seaside and with the foggy weather that seems to be a common feature in the winter time the scenes weren't overly impressive, for the proper scenes you have to take a boat to see the thousands of islands.

The houses in Vietnam are quite interesting, they make relatively high and narrow buildings and paint the front... but not the sides that are a little less visible from the main street. In Hanoi these would be right next to one another, outside the city there's plenty of space between houses but they still make them quite narrow. We had a relaxing start for the tour, staying overnight in Halong before heading to see the islands. So we had dinner (food was rather similar to Chinese, and nothing extraordinary) and went to see the night market. It was quite lively, and prices are low. They also readily accepted the Chinese yuan in Halong, but not in Hanoi where they'd only take Vietnamese dong or US dollars... actually it bothered me quite a bit when people would tell me prices in US dollars when I don't have any and don't want any either! Vietnamese dong is one of those currencies that force you to learn even the big numbers in the local language and where you have to count the zeros in the bills to make sure you don't give them 100,000 rather than 10,000 dong. (1 CNY was a bit over 2,000 VND, therefore 1 EUR would be around 22,000 VND).

We got our own private boat, a big boat, to tour the islands. We started by seeing some limestone caves on one island, quite large caves although I've seen several bigger ones in China. Just like in China they were lighted with colourful lights to make them more impressive, but seemed to have less of a tendency of naming all the formations, or perhaps I just wasn't paying attention. Afterwards we continued on the boat to see quite a few islands pass by, the rock formations were indeed similar to the little mountains in Guilin, but perhaps due to the fog it didn't really look as impressive. Very nice nonetheless. The also made us a lunch on the boat, a pretty good one, too. The guide told us that Vietnam is one of these weird "socialist" countries just like China where people have to pay for the education, healthcare and so on. And they're actually really expensive, for example a year in the university (including living costs) apparently costs about 10,000 USD, and even in the highschool level it's around 1,000 USD a year! This is a lot of money in a country where the average salary in Hanoi is less than 250 USD per month, with a lot of people making a lot less. Apparently the government does offer free education to the poorest families though.

The three hour drive back to Hanoi was interrupted by a stopover at a place selling touristy things at very high prices, probably due to a deal with the tour company. But at least it was fun chatting with the staff who after my greeting thought I'd speak good Vietnamese, which, unfortunately, isn't the case. My Vietnamese seemed to be lacking at least as badly as my Korean, especially as people didn't seem to understand even my "Tôi là người ăn chay" (I'm vegetarian). I probably got my tones wrong, or then it's just so rare to be vegetarian that people look confused even if you do say it right.

In Hanoi even crossing the street is an adventure. There's heavy traffic in Beijing also, and drivers don't care much of the rules, but it's a lot worse in Hanoi... well, a lot different at least. The main difference is that rather than cars, the streets of Hanoi are filled with motorbikes. Unlike cars the motorbikes can navigate around people crossing the street, assuming they don't change pace suddenly. So that's what you do, forget your fears and just walk at a steady pace and watch the traffic magically go all around you. Worked amazingly well. We went off for a walk on the market streets nearby, filled with little shops selling all sorts of tourist crap and tours and people walking and selling fruits and French bread and asking you if you want to go somewhere by motorbike and of course swarms of tourists... it's very crowded and loud. We went for dinner at the Tamarind Cafe, which is a vegetarian restaurant right in the middle of this area. It seems almost all of the clientèle are foreigners, even the prices are only listed in USD. The food was pretty good, but unfortunately the vegan options were few and not clearly marked. They had a marking for foods that contain egg but no markings of the dairy that seemed to be infested in most of the dishes here, unlike the regular Vietnamese cuisine.

The next few days went with the conference... but a mention of the food. They had arranged lunches and dinners at a restaurant near the conference venue, and had a vegetarian table for me, 3 Indian and 2 Taiwanese people. The first lunch looked quite scary, it seemed they were serving us chicken and who knows what. Around came a rumour that those were mock meats and not real ones, but we shied away from them nonetheless. As we pointed out that we'd feel more comfortable with "regular vegetables", we did get those on the following meals. Ah, and breakfasts were at the hotel, the only vegetarian option without egg was French bread with jam and butter, which I always asked without butter but they only did so on the first morning. The butter was separate though, and in a tiny jar that I didn't open so hopefully they gave that to the next person rather than throwing it away. They also brought a yogurt to everyone despite it not being mentioned in the menu but hopefully they also gave my unopened one to the next person.

The conference organisers had also arranged for us a city tour, funnily enough in the evening, but the Ho Chi Minh square was a very interesting sight even in the dark. It seemed like a smaller version of Tian'anmen, with similar texts and a mausoleum for Ho Chi Minh. The main part of the square were smaller patches of grass, 79 of them, to celebrate the 79 years that Ho Chi Minh lived. Seemed a popular place for locals to take the kids to play also, safe from the traffic. After that we went to see a Vietnamese water puppet show, which apparently is a local tradition over 1,000 years old. It was really cute, much recommended when you visit Vietnam.


Originally I was planning hiking at Sapa after the conference, but Christmas shopping is a pain that must be dealt with every year, and it made more sense to do that in Hanoi than Beijing. Actually the couple of days there wasn't enough to find gifts for everyone as I did want to see some of the sights in Hanoi also. And that meant I could test the other vegetarian restaurants! While the food in those was similar to the Chinese vegetarian, there were enough differences to make it feel exciting, and a great idea that the Chinese vegetarian places don't have is the menu idea where you can order a meal for one consisting of a little bit of several dishes, at a price only a little bit above that of one dish. The sharing idea that they have in China is great when you have several people, but if you eat alone it gets really dull and you don't get to taste many things. These Vietnamese ones had both as you could order either way. Perfect.

I used the list of restaurants from Happycow. Dakshin would supposedly have been the nearest one but I couldn't find it, either it's been replaced by a regular Vietnamese restaurant or I'm blind or stupid or the address is wrong. I didn't go to the faraway places at all but rather visited Nang Tam twice, it was good enough to justify that. Adida was very nice also, with very good service, which I'm not saying just because the waitress called me handsome, honestly! :-P And one thing to note is that it is quite possible and easy to get vegan food from the regular restaurants as well, ok, I'm not saying I'd know with absolute certainty they don't use animal oils but at least the food tasted good. And while these vegetarian places (with the possible exception of Tamarind Cafe) are very reasonably priced also, eating in random places costs next to nothing. During a long walk from shop to shop and sight to sight it's quite relaxing to just stop at a corner bar, sit outside on the terrace and have a couple of beers and perfectly good tofu for 23,000 dong or less than 1.5 USD.

Enough about food and on the the disturbing part of the country. One evening I was walking around the beautiful Sword Lake (Hoan Kiem Lake) when a student in his early 20s came to talk to me. He told me he gets some food and study money by helping tourists find what they're looking for. Sounds nice, until you hear what they tend to look for. That's ladies, or even more disturbingly, boys. This was reaffirmed a few days later alongside another lake (there are tons of lovely lakes in Hanoi!) when a group of boys with ages ranging from 12 to 28 came to talk to me, speaking barely understandable English. One of the older ones was asking if I liked boys, and pointing to the younger ones in the group. Sheesh! I just don't know what would be the best way of helping these kids, just giving some money to the few you happen to meet doesn't really seem that much. Ideas welcome.

Overall Vietnam was a positive experience though, it's a beautiful country with very friendly people and plenty of historical sights, as well as good food. Next up, Shaolin and then Finland... Happy travelling to everyone! The pictures (a lot of them since they include photos taken by a colleague) are here.

Luckily enough I arrived in Beijing just in time to witness the first snowfall of the year the first morning here! Don't know how much of it there will be later either, it's a very dry climate, but it did bring a nice contrast to the summer weather (well, Finnish summer weather :-P) of Vietnam.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Did your belt survive this time?

Travegan said...

Yes, luckily, despite the food being much better this time! :-P

dreamy said...

cool! I didnt knew vegetarian food was easily available in vietnam. Or if it wasn't, how did u manage to always find vegetarian food in unfamiliar places?

Jari (travelling-vegan) said...

Well, Happycow is a friend. I don't think vegetarian food in Vietnam was too difficult at all, the cuisine seemed very similar to Chinese so there's tons of stuff with veggies and tofu. I don't know about the oils, hard to verify those when you're not fluent in the language...

viagra online said...

the blog is very well written and describe everything I like and explain as lo!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Jari.

I visit your blog accidentally.I lived in Vietnam for a while, so I feel related to your experience. Regarding educational cost, the information was incorrect though. In the main cities such as Hanoi, HCM city, high-school and college students have to pay less than 200 per semester (less than $400/year). Many urban students are waived from tuition if they do well at school. In rural areas, tuition is subsidized by governments.
Also, if you could have had a local friend be a host, the food part might be different.