1. State of mind

    Both Vietnamese and foreigners like to have their say on Việt Nam and being Vietnamese. There is, indeed, much to complain about. There is also much to commend. But let’s cut people here some slack. Vietnam has seen more than its fair share of hardship. The country was at war nearly the entire 20thcentury, but you hardly know it looking at the place and particularly the people today. Then there was the wholesale chemical destruction of forest and farmland, the food shortages of the early 1980s and the infamous trade embargo that was only lifted in the 1990s. With a century of hardship behind them, the Vietnamese could be a vengeful and gloomy bunch, but amazingly, they maintain a sunny and positive disposition. That’s pretty cool.

    2. Surviving the traffic

    Dip, duck, dive and dodge and dodge again. Here same dodgeball rules apply to navigating the traffic here whether on foot or wheels. Let’s explain how:

    1. You are walking along the road, about to cross when a motorbike with passenger carrying a 4 meter long object meant for god knows what swerves around the corner almost taking your head off. Dip.
    2. You are out for a leisurely stroll or drive and you hear someone hocking up one hell of a spitball. A quick turn of the head sees a yellowish green glob of spit projected into the air and headed straight for your face. Duck
    3. You are driving along the street when suddenly a motorbike emerges, oblivious, from the adjacent alley and drives on the wrong side of the road heading straight for you. There is no time to swerve. Dive for your life.
    4. DODGE: if you are not doing this at least once a minute, something’s not quite right, or you are not in Vietnam

    3. City of Lego

    The way so many houses in Việt Nam look, you would think that the country’s architects have an obsession with lego. Indeed, in a city like Sài Gòn that was drab and colourless only a few years ago, there seems to have been an explosion in the use of colour and lego style building blocks. Hot pink squares rest on neon green rectangles next to bright orange and yellow squares. Any colour goes. Is there any rhyme or reason to the pervasive pastel madness? No, but it certainly adds colour to proceedings.

    4. Tò he

    Made from sticky rice dough, these toys were invented in the 1980s. With aged hands, toymakers stroke, pinch and shape colourful pieces of dough, the toys appear gradually before your eyes into tiny vivid animals or characters, like magic.

    At first toymakers only sold dough birds. Gradually they began to make chicken, pigs, fish, cattle and even characters from Disney cartoons. You can now find superman and spider man. Preparation takes several steps. Soak one kilogram of ordinary rice and 1/10 of a kilo of glutinous rice in water, grind it into powder, boil or steam it, cool it and colour it. The procedure sounds simple but it actually requires experience. The proportion between the two types of rice, for example, must be adjusted depending on the weather so that the dough will be durable. The colours are organic and mostly made from vegetables.

    5. Noise

    “Love is all around” argues Wet Wet Wet. In fingers, toes, the wind, many places. A more appropriate song for Hà Nội & Sài Gòn, might be “Noise is all around”. Revised lyrics could be imposed “I feel it in my eardrums, I feel it in my lobes” and internet nerds could swap the lead vocal track with clips of motorbike horns arranged in tonal cohesion. Construction, motorbikes and increasingly cars and trucks constantly beeping; the neighbour sharing his karaoke talents with the world for at least 100 meters around his house every night; people shouting sale pitches in the streets from 6am on. It never stops. In the middle of the night, construction noise continued unabated. It’s that society seems greatly immune to the notion of avoidable noise, of unnecessary vibrations travelling through the air and slapping around our collective cochlea with the speed and sheer brutality of that Japanese Sumo character in Street Fighter II. There is a growing understanding that noise can be avoided. Young people have made an unnamed blue themed social networking site that several groups have popped up to denounce littering, smoking and yes, noise pollution. They have been joined by thousands.

    6. Vovinam

    Asia is home to a range of martial arts such as Karate from Japan, Tae kwon Do do from Korea. Việt Nam has Vovinam or Việt Võ Đạo, a relatively modern martial art incorporating ancient forms of Vietnamese martial art with various other styles.

    Developed by Master Nguyễn Lộc in Hà Nội in 1938, Vovinam has grown into an internationally recognised sport with three federations in Việt Nam, Asia and Worldwide. Vovinam is not about starting fights. The primary objective of the sport is to develop a noble character and connect the body and mind spirituality. A 10 point philosophy stresses the importance of self-discipline, respect, compassion and honesty. With moves such as a flying scissor kick, vovinam is an exciting martial art to watch, with the various kicks, blocks and punches used in fights creating a show.

    7. Repair shops

    So you are having a bad day. You have lost your keys, your motorbike has a flat and there’s a hole in the crotch of your pants. It is easy to give up now, but don’t. Just wheel yourself to the corner of the block and everything will be fixed. Look for the signs: “Làm Chìa Khóa” for the locksmith, “Sửa Quần Áo” for the tailor and “ Sửa Xe Honda” for the motorbike mechanics. This is one of the beauties of Việt Nam. For any type of problem, help is always near. As long as you can pay for it, that is.

    8. Basket boat

     When the French ruled Việt Nam, they imposed taxes on boats. Many people couldn’t afford these taxes so they invented a new type of seafaring vessel. The villagers were able to evade the tax since it was not considered a boat. In ancient times, basket boats were used in warfare. Over the centuries, people used them to fight against foreign invaders. In small fishing villages, residents still depend on their basket boat to make a living. Made of bamboo, the boat costs between US$33-$66 depending on the size. The large one can seat up to four passengers. With plenty of bamboo on the land and lots of fish still in the sea, basket boats are likely to remain in use here for another couple millennia.


    9. Local iced beer

    Beer with ice. That’s right, drink your beer on the rocks. For all the snubbing Vietnamese may get for putting ice in their beer and wine, their response is“screw that, it’s damn hot in Vietnam and wait you will end up doing it as well”. And it’s true. If you were not from here, at some stage you probably will. The story goes that ice in beer is bad since it dilutes the drink and tarnishes its taste. The reasoning in Vietnam is simple: cold beer trumps bad hot beer, and some places quite simply don’t have refrigeration. The ice is brought in. Doctors also recommend drinking a lot of water while consuming alcohol to keep hydrated and to reduce that massive hangover the next day. Forward thinking to the Vietnamese.


    10. Nước mắm

    Fish sauce is known as “nước mắm” in Việt Nam. It has a salty flavor and fishy smell. It smells like unwashed clothes. Nước mắm may have a strong smell for the uninitiated, but it is no more intense than a Roquefort cheese or a gamey meat. One unique character of the sauce is that its fishy odour disappears when it is mixed with other ingredients like lime, sugar and chili. Fish sauce is to Vietnamese cooking like salt is to Western chefs and soy sauce to Chinese cooking. There is a Thai variation of nước mắm, but it does not compare to the original Vietnamese product. It is rich in amino acids, sodium chloride, and histamines and organic. Nước mắm can be served on its own with rice. It not only boosts the flavour with its salt content, but also adds a deeper savoury taste to dishes. It is never far from a cook’s hand so it is included in all recipes. Only in Việt Nam is fish sauce like fine wine.


    11. Public grooming

    Picking, plucking, squeezing, prodding, peering, snorting, hocking… the list to go on. Personal grooming in Vietnam is incredible, mainly because it is done everywhere and in plain view for everyone to see. Do grown men have no shame as they stand in the supermarket aisle with half their finger immersed up a nostril? Motorbike taxi drivers immersed in their own world gaze languidly into their motorbike mirror and squeeze spots while mothers hold their children as they take a dump in the middle of the pavement in broad day light. Then there’s the misuse of the nearest and most convenient wall and spitting without a care for anyone who might be in the way (well, I don’t want to mention this at all). One thing which does come from all this grooming is global fame. The southern Vietnamese are known worldwide for their skills with beauty salons and painting nails. There is always a silver lining - quite literally!


    12. Whale worshipping

    Fishermen have believed that whales are gods of the sea that have guided and protected them. The whales could become angry if they were not appeased with offerings and prayers. Both living and dead whales are highly revered in the local fishing culture. Whale temples can be distinguished from normal temples by their murals of mythical sea beasts, collections of whale and dolphin bones. Most fishing villages in the south have one or more temples dedicated to the whales. However, the temples in Phan Thiết & Vũng Tàu are the most renowned.



    13. Áo dài

    Robin William’s character in Good Morning Việt Nam was enamoured by it, irreverently remarking, “Dragon Lady with incredible figure at 11 o’clock. Stop the car!” indeed, he had a point. “The áo dài covers everything but hides nothing” goes one saying. The tight fitting, traditional dress is worn mostly by high school girls as a uniform, as well as flight attendants, receptionists and restaurant staff. Today’s version of the uniform covers the entire body, but its thin fabric can make the dress quite provocative. The áo dài is all right with us.


    • Nathaniel Liedl, Sarah Johnson & Trung Phan. (2010, February). Uniquely Vietnam. The word Ho Chi Minh City, p 36-46.
    • Trình Phố. (2008, January-February). The natural toy. Heritage, 88, p58-59.
    • Stephanie Cantrell. (2011, August). Mortal combat. The word Ho Chi Minh City,p70-71.
    • Thuy Duong. (2011, November). Back to the sauce. The guide, p38-39.
    • Adam Bray. (2009, May). The whale worshippers. Vietnam pathfinder, p81-83.
    • Mausoleums for Mister Whale. (2005 August 1). The SGT daily. 2494. Retrieved May 19, 2011 from http://www.saigontourist.hochiminhcity.gov.vn/news/detail_en.asp?id=3407
    • Duong Thanh Xuan. (2011, September). Round and about. The guide,p 28-29.
    • Jim Goodman. (2008, September-October). Baskets on the ocean. Heritage,92, 30-31.
    • Joe Ruelle. (2010, November). Hear Ye! Hear Ye! The word Ho Chi Minh City, p 156-157.
    • Nick Veltre. (2011, November). It goes to “11”. The guide, p48-49.


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