I spent Christmas and New Year’s in Vietnam (Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City) and Taiwan (Taipei). Wonderful trip. Here are some impressions:
- Vietnamese people are obsessed with food. We were told that the average person eats more than three times a day. And in between eating sessions, they discuss past and upcoming meals. A country where the locals are obsessed with food means culinary delights await tourists — so if you visit, prepare to eat your way through the country. Where in Vietnam you’re traveling will bear on your food experience. It turns out that the Vietnamese people are highly regional in their tastes. More than one Vietnamese person said she can’t stand the food in other parts of her country; indeed, she and others bring coolers of food with them when they travel domestically. (I saw several of coolers at the airport in the domestic terminal.)
- How to tell whether one of the innumerable side-of-the-road food stalls/mini restaurants is a good one? One food tour guide offered this tip: look for dirtied, used up napkins on the ground underneath the tables. Locals will toss their used napkins on the ground, and a surplus of them on the ground indicates that a) there have been many customers at the establishment, b) the cook has been so busy cooking that she hasn’t had time to go pick up all the trash.
- For large people like myself, eating at the side of the road produced an amusing visual given the chairs seem to be made for kindergartners — they’re truly miniature.
- The Ken Burns documentary about the Vietnam War — or “The American War” as they know it in Vietnam — is incredibly informative. Haven’t finished the whole thing yet but well worth watching before traveling to Vietnam.
- Americans who travel to Vietnam tend to have the War as a primary frame of reference. For baby boomers especially, cities like Da Nang recall memories of events from the war. I’d guess that visiting Vietnam is partly an exercise of morbid curiosity for American baby boomers. For me — the war was before my time — Da Nang is simply the airport you fly in to in order to visit Hoi An. By contrast, among many Vietnamese people themselves, the War is mostly old news. Of the 100 million people in the country, ~25% of them are under age 18. There seems to be very much a look-forward mentality among the young.
- Vietnam is known for being cheap for U.S. dollar holders and we felt that almost every time we tried to spend money. $20 for 90 minute massages. A solid lunch would cost a few bucks. Manicures and pedicures for mere dollars.
Hoi An — A lovely small town on the coast, that’s peaceful and safe and boasts good food and 200+ tailors that make cheap custom clothing.
- This food tour in Hoi An was excellent.
- Our guide joked that men in Vietnam are very lazy. She then pointed out that at each cafe, in the middle of the day during the workweek, you’d see dozens of men sitting in the outdoor cafe smoking cigarettes and staring at their phones. It was true. In Vietnam claim about war being reason men flushed from workforce, and then women took over, and stayed in charge of the house.
- The regional noodle dish (is it a type of pho?) is Cao Lao and it was excellent. The water for car lao comes from a well in the area that’s 1,000 years old. If the water isn’t from that well, it’s not cao lao. Or so the story goes.
- A few years ago, Anthony Bourdain traveled to Hoi An, ate a Bahn Mi sandwich at a local place, and declared it the best Bahn Mi in Vietnam. Today, that restaurant has a line that circles the block. We didn’t go in but it made me wonder: Is that Bahn mi actually the best? Was Bourdain just in a good mood when he ate it? How many sandwiches did he really try in the country?
- The old town is lovely if a bit noisy with all the scooters honking, but bike a few blocks outside town, and you’re in the real Hoi An. Bike a little further out and you’re in remote rice paddy fields and corn fields, where chickens run around and stray dogs roam amid the peace and quiet.
- There are 200+ tailors in Hoi An who make custom fitting clothes for you. It’s the most famous tourist activity in the town and deservedly so. The tailor experience was professional, the clothes cheap but high quality, and of course all custom fitting. I got a suit, a few dress shirts, a blazer, and trousers — all for cheap and all fit to my body.
- Being in Hoi An for Christmas was kind of funny. The country is 90% Buddhist; no one around us seemed to celebrate Christmas. The hotel informed all guests that there was a “compulsory Christmas Eve dinner” that would cost $110 USD per person (!). At the dinner buffet, there was a huge ice sculpture that spelled the word: “X-Mas”. Tinny Christmas music on the speaker system. And staff kept saying “Merry Tristmas” — I guess because ‘Ch’ is hard to pronounce. Reminded of the podcast episode about the factory in China that manufactures most of the stuff found in American dollar stores, including Santa Claus trinkets. There was a line about one of the workers in the factory, surrounded by Santa Claus figurines seven days a week, marveling at Americans’ obsession with someone who apparently is a kind, portly man.
Ho Chi Minh City – The commercial center of Vietnam in the south.
- In the relative calm of Hoi An, some other travelers mentioned that HCMC was crazy loud and chaotic given the number of scooters and their penchant for ignoring street lights. “Try crossing the sidewalk and not getting killed by a scooter,” one traveler said. Perhaps because of that expectation-setting, HCMC seemed much more livable than I expected. Yes, there are a thousand scooters a second whizzing by when you try to cross the street, but it’s manageable, especially in the more built up neighborhoods.
- Pizza in Vietnam? Two foodies recommended 4 P’s Pizza in HCMC. Japanese-inspired pizza where all the cheese — not easily found in Vietnam — is homemade. It was delicious.
- The food/motorbike tour of the city was a hoot. College kids take you around on scooter (you ride behind them) and you visit all their favorite local haunts. Felt like a very authentic way to see the city through a young person’s eyes, and eat some delicious street food.
- Preferring more “active” / adventure travel to museums or buses, we did a bike/kayak tour in the Mekong Delta area, biking through the rural backroads, and riding in a boat through the floating markets — it was an awesome way to see this part of Vietnam and get a workout in at the same time. A small highlight: Throughout the day, anytime we passed young kids on bike, they’d yell out “Hello!” while standing on the street watching us. They had a giant grin on their faces — they seemed genuinely fired up to see us westerners in the area.
- The floating markets are going away. Used to be top tourist attraction of the Mekong Delta — to see the locals buy and sell on the markets. Now it’s just tourists who cruise by with a small number of vendors. As the local roads and other infrastructure have improved, it makes more sense for people to leave their houseboats and sell their goods elsewhere.
- The War Remnants Museum offered powerful exhibits about the Vietnam War, even if there was a real propaganda dynamic. Exhibits relating to how Agent Orange affects the 4th generation of Vietnamese were particularly moving.
- In HCMC, there was a general sense of growth and prosperity: people are busy, working, economy growing. A new subway system is on the way. New skyscrapers being built. Lots of potential.
- Grab (the Uber of SE Asia) was everywhere in Ho Chi Minh city. Dominant. Go-Jek (Uber of Indonesia) has just entered.
- My one word description of Taipei is “livable.” Efficient public transit, clean streets, good infrastructure, no homeless people, no litter. It’s a very green city. Lots of parks, green public spaces, and a sense of clean freshness everywhere. The national airline is EVA — Evergreen Airlines — perhaps that’s the hint. If I had other work reasons to be there, I’d be delighted by the opportunity to live in Taipei.
- The city didn’t feel overly crowded. especially when compared to other big first world Asian cities I’ve been in (Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo). Even in relatively busy areas, neither people nor cars made much noise.
- Eating at the night markets was billed as a primary thing to do. At the Shihlin night market near our hotel — the largest in the city — there were plenty of tasty food stalls. But standing and eating is tricky for me. I prefer to sit and eat over a table with silverware. The night market was a very fun scene but not quite as as extraordinary as it was hyped to be.
- There were at least five Nike stores in the Ximending shopping neighborhood — all legit stores, not counterfeit. I’ve never seen so many Nike outlets in close proximity to each other. After passing the first three stores, by the fourth time you see one, you break down and enter and buy something.
- Someone in Vietnam told us that Taiwan is “America China” whereas Hong Kong is “British China.” Sports is one area where this shows up. In Taiwan, baseball and basketball dominate.
- Taipei doesn’t have blockbuster tourist attractions. We didn’t see very many non-Asian tourists in the city. Taipei seems like a place people love to live in, but it’s not at the top of most Westerners’ travel lists.
- There’s a strong food culture, with night markets, hole in the wall shops, and high end restaurant offerings. Dumplings, various noodle dishes, stinky tofu, lots of pork. The Taiwanese people are very focused on food, according to our local food guide, and this makes a delightful place to eat as a tourist.
- The big local news while we were there was President Xi’s speech about Taiwan unification with China. Via the local newspapers, it seems many Taiwanese people remain quite wary of China and are eager — although not especially optimistic about — continued U.S. support.
- Globalization continues to shrink the differences between countries. For example, Din Tai Fung — the famous dumpling restaurant of Taiwan, which we went to and enjoyed — now has a location in San Jose, CA.
- Airbnb inventory was limited in Taipei. Those that exist offer odd formulations — e.g. 6 single beds in two bedrooms, or 4 queen beds and one bathroom.
- National Palace Museum has a nice East Meets West exhibit that showed artifacts exchanged between China and Western explorers and how that exchange deepened an understanding of the other’s culture.
- We bore witness to the city trash truck pull up playing ice-cream-truck music, and residents hustling out to drop off their trash. Exactly as described in this 99% Invisible episode.
- Good food tour in Taipei. Walk the streets and eat!
- Random: I was complimented on my chop stick use multiple times across Vietnam and Taiwan. It happens frequently when I’m in Asia. People in Asia may not realize how much chopstick use there is in the U.S.
Bottom Line: Vietnam and Taipei are lovely places. More broadly, Christmas/New Year’s continues to be a great time to get out of town. The past six years I’ve gone overseas during this time of year. It’s the least disruptive time to travel and be off the grid because so many other people are doing the same. Already thinking about where to go in 12 months…