Nha Trang is party central. The city has recently exploded into a full-fledged resort spot, feeding rapaciously on tourist dollars. Unchecked growth threatens to choke the city with over-development – on bad days, smog completely blocks the nearby islands from view – but good times still abound. Budget hotels and luxury resorts are packed with visitors enjoying cheap, high-quality snorkeling and scuba diving, daily jaunts to offshore islands, and nightly parties care of the city’s lively club scene. Vietnam’s best municipal beach and a laid-back, tourist-friendly population round out the closest thing the country has to a Pacific-flavored island resort atmosphere; the sparkling turquoise water is the stuff of dreams. The best time to visit is from March to September – rain and high winds prevail the rest of the year.
Nha Trang lies 450km northeast of HCMC and 175km northeast of Da Lat. Two-laned Tran Phu runs north-south along the length of the 6km beach; its north end offers spectacular views from the Tran Phu Bridge. Hung Vu’o’ng, a block inland, becomes Trang Hu’ng Dao and then Pasteur on its way northward. Le Thanh Ton shoots northwest from Tran Phu’s memorial tower, hits a six-way intersection, and becomes Thai Nguyen, which continues west as 23 Thang 10 past the train and bus stations. Near the northern end of Tran Phu, Yersin heads inland toward another six-way hub; from here, Quang Tru’ng runs north and continues out of town as 2 Thang 4, Le Lo’i runs west from Tran Phu’s north end to the town market.
The city’s most splendid attractions is its public beach. Ample sand and azure water run the length of town, with plenty of beach chairs and roving vendors offering everything from fresh mangos and English books to oil massages. For a more remote seaside experience, head north on 2 Thang 4 to the beaches of Hon Chong Promontory. After crossing the two harbor bridges, turn right, then left before the fishery university. Besides its beach, Hon Chong’s most striking sight is the yellow boulevard that forms part of the shore.
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Due to the waves of tourists that crash upon Nha Trang’s shores, most restaurants offer every type of international food possible. Save for a few places, this fare leaves something to be desired. Instead, try the fresh local seafood; restaurants in every price range serve succulent dishes featuring the daily catch.
If you enjoy the point-and-eat method of choosing your food, Vietnam was made for you. Meals are often comprised of a number of smaller dishes served together, from which you can pick and choose; even though you may not know the name or even the primary ingredients, it’s difficult to go wrong. Vegetarians, of course, may need to do additional research, as meats and fish are more often than not a part of the preparation. Learn the phrase “Tôi Ăn Chay” (“I’m a vegetarian”) and be persistent. Buddhist influence renders the country relatively amenable to meatless alternatives, particularly during religious festivals on the first or 15th of each month, and especially in the center of the country. But even meat-lovers should beware that they may encounter some unusual meats on the market—bear, camel, cat, dog, monkey, snake, swan, and tiger are among the options available. And we promise not to mention some of Viet-nam’s more unusual ingredients that often find their way into some of the country’s more specialized dishes, including mole blood, cock and goat testicles,insect semen, and snake penis. We promise.
You haven’t had Vietnamese food until you’ve had pho. You also won’t have any problem finding it within a few hours of landing in Vietnam—the streets are practically paved with fast-food pho shops and street vendors. Morning is the most common time to have the wildly popular noodle soup, but the dish is eaten nation-ally all day long. Typically, it’s served with beef, and the broth is flavored with a multitude of mouth-watering herbs and animal bones, but you can find any number of renditions, from chicken to seafood to tofu. Though it is widely considered a national icon, pho has actually been around only for the past 100 years or so. The exact history of this tasty noodle soup is uncertain, but the most popular belief is that pho originated in the northern part ofthe country, probably somewhere on the outskirts of Hanoi.
Pho was probably influenced by the French culinary tradition—the soup’s light broth is particularly similar to their consommé, and the use of beef itself may have been borrowed from the European tradition. Traditional pho in the north was simple—just rice noodles and a few bits of beef. After the 1954 Geneva Accords split the country in two, many northerners headed south to escape communism and brought with them their pho, which then met up with the flair and extravagance of southern cooking. In its new, rebellious incarnation, pho was spiced up with cilantro, basil, lime, chiles, and hoisin sauce; and new meats like chicken, meatballs, and tripe,were sometimes used in place of beef.
While the northern purists may have been be horrified, both north and south agree on the importance of pho, a meal that has taken on meaning far beyond its soupy nature. Some argue that pho symbolizes Vietnam’s adoption of French and Chinese culture to form something entirely their own, something respected and enjoyed the world over. It’s one of the world’s few such symbols that’s both edible and delicious.
The up-and-coming fast-food option of choice in Vietnam today is cơm, a rice-based dish. Cơm, like pho, is prepared in a number of fashions and with a number of ingredients, although the primary characteristic tends to be the grease dripping from the fried rice. Steamed rice-paper gai cuon, or summer rolls (sometimes falsely, and confusingly, labeled “spring rolls”) await those who oppose the practice of frying. In some restaurants, you can even exercise your culinary prerogative and wrap your own summer rolls from a medley of meat, veggies, and herbs; elsewhere, the masters take care of it for you. If you want the fried version (the real spring rolls, alias egg rolls), just ask for Chả giò in the south or nem rán in the north; though you can also find it all wrapped up in lettuce. It will satisfy regardless.
Most homes don’t serve either pho or cơm—they can generally be found only on the streets. Usually, families share a large communal bowl of rice and a bowl of some kind of broth or soup. Meat and a few vegetables are piled on top of the rice. Soy and fish sauce are within reach. None of the more exotic meats, such as cat, dog, or snake, would typically be served in a home; those are mostly reserved for fancier restaurants, where they are still slightly uncommon.
On the other hand, there’s no set culinary protocol in Vietnam. What you eat depends on where you are, unless of course you’re far enough off the tourist track that pho may be the only option—which, admittedly, isn’t a terrible fate. In the north, a history of Chinese influence makes stir-fry a popular cooking technique and soy sauce a popular additive. As you move south, you’ll encounter a wider variety of herbs (thanks to the resource-rich Mekong Delta) and spicier, chili-based curries similar to those in Thailand, as well as the famous and odorous fish sauce (nước mắm).
Central Vietnamese cooking is spicier, and perhaps more authentic, as it is less influenced by the Chinese and French. In the center of it all (both literally and figuratively) is Hue, the culinary capital of the country, which draws foreign and Vietnamese gastronomes alike with its unique fusion of traditional and contemporary tastes. As an important Buddhist hub, the city also happens to be a vegetarian nirvana. The “Hue pancake” (bánh khoái) is a blissful combination of pork or shrimp, mushrooms, bean sprouts and onions enveloped by a batter of egg, corn, and rice flour. Other pork-based delicacies include bánh nam (shrimp and pork with sticky rice in a banana leaf) and nem lai (grilled pork and greens in rice paper with peanut sauce). The spicy bún bò, a noodle soup thicker than pho, is made with vermicelli, beef, lemongrass, and chili, and it also reigns supreme in the imperial capital.
While the cuisine in Hue is hands-down the best in Vietnam, it’s hard to go wrong anywhere in the country, even in the markets and on the street corners; sometimes these the best and most authentic meals you’ll find. And always remember this: in Vietnam, the most unassuming stall or corner shop may serve a meal that changes your life. Seriously—it’s that good.
Hue may be a particular nirvana for vegetarians, but the fruit in Vietnam is magical to one and all. A wealth of indigenous fruits graces the country’s varied landscapes, particularly in the rich soils of the Mekong Delta, where you’ll likely encounter opportunities to sample more exotic varieties fresh off the tree. More famous fruits, including banana, mango, and pineapple are far better here than anywhere else, but don’t be afraid to venture into the unknown. Below is a comprehensive list of the bliss that awaits you.
Vietnamese think of herbs as vegetables, so there’s always a healthy array of spices and the like from which to choose at every meal. This practice is not borne of a lack of vegetables—most Vietnamese dishes are less meat-intensive than those of other Southeast Asian countries. The real reason for the emphasis on the enticing herbs is simply the need for variety. Although the average tourist will undoubtedly encounter a plethora of appealing dishes piled high with veggies and meats, many Vietnamese live primarily on rice and noodles, which necessitate the wide employment of herbs and spices for meals to be at all interesting.
Herbs grow rampantly on the edges of rice fields, allowing for heavy usage with each meal. Some of the more popular flavorings include black pepper, chili, coriander, ginger, lemongrass, mint, and star anise. Beyond spicing up the palettes of Vietnamese dishes, herbs are believed to provide medicinal benefits both specific (aiding digestion and blood circulation) and general (overall well-being). And of course there’s the ancient philosophy that they balance out the oft-excessive amount of starch (the yang of yin-yang) in the traditional daily diet, serving as an ideal and accessible source of yin.
Herbs and spices can only do so much before the Vietnamese chef arrives at the problem of making a rice- and grain-based diet exciting. Inevitably, one asks: why not try salting a lot of fish, fermenting them in a vat, and using their fluid leavings as a sauce? That’s the innovative solution in much of Southeast Asia, but no one does it better than the Vietnamese. Nuoc mam is quite potent, in terms of both taste and smell. Made from fermented anchovies, salt, and water, it is the most popular condiment in Vietnam—you won’t have to go out of your way to find the opportunity for a taste. The biggest producers are in southern Vietnam, in Phan Thiet and on Phú Quoc Island, where the fish roam free and in abundance. If you find yourself becoming a connoisseur of the powerful liquid, be aware of false labels, as most businessmen in the country are more than willing to slap on the esteemed Phú Quoc label to conceal lower-quality products.
To make the sauce, fresh anchovies and salt are layered in large wooden barrels, which are drained after three months. The liquid is then poured back into the barrel to ferment for another six months. It’s easy to become a nuoc mam expert: clearer sauce indi-cates more distillment and better quality. Less distilled (darker, more amber) nuoc mam is used in cooking, while higher-end stuff goes on the table.But even the most overpowering nuoc mam can’t compete with mam tom, a purple shrimp paste with an unbelievably noxious odor. Some travelers swear by it in soup; certain daring Vietnamese even eat it directly on dog meat. PlacePass claims no responsibility for the welfare of travelers who voluntarily ingest what is perhaps the worst-smelling thing in the entire world.
Even though the dehydrating powers of alcohol may not be the best way to beat the heat, the price is most definitely right. Bia hoi, the Vietnamese brew of choice, flows more freely and cheaply than water on the streets of Vietnam. You can also find a variety of name-brand international brews and higher-quality Vietnamese ones. Bottled water is also cheap; avoid drinking anything that comes from a tap and hasn’t been treated. Be wary of ice, as well, which is frequently just frozen tap water and can sneak easily into your smoothie or shake.
Other popular, non-alcoholic drinks abound. Fruit shakes of all sorts were a part of street fare in Vietnam long before they became a worldwide phenomenon. Sugarcane juice pressed fresh from the stalks is also a refreshing option; vendors often mix it with fruit and milk to create the heavenly liquid delight that is chè. Iced green tea, trà đá, also world-famous, is served with most meals when it’s not being shipped to various international destinations. When bought on the street, all of the above may be served in a plastic bag, with a straw—just go with it. Finally, mornings are the domain of Vietnam’s almighty coffee, which is purported to be some of the best in the world, particularly when served ice-cold and mixed with sweetened condensed milk. You would be insane to miss out on it while actually in the country.
People come to Nha Trang to party, and there is no shortage of options. Local expats know what the tourists want, and the result is a bustling nightlife scene dominated by Western-style bars and clubs. Most are found at the southern end of town, along Tran Quang Kai and Biet Thu.
Vietnam’s greatest writer is universally recognized as Nguyen Du, who wrote Truyen Kieu (Tale of Kieu), an epic in verse. Truyen Kieu is about the tragic life of an aristocratic woman, and it openly criticizes imperial society and describes the hardships of the peasants’ life. Vietnamese of all ages and social classes can recite passages from the epic. Though this and all other early Vietnamese literature was written in the Chinese chý nom script, when the French occupied Vietnam, they sought to curtail Chinese influence by banning Chinese and instituting the Latin-based quoc ngý script. Literature written in the vernacular flourished by the 1920s and 30s and played a significant role in the nationalist struggle against colonial power.
Vietnamese author Bảo Ninh’s The Sorrow of War (1996) is exceedingly powerful and one of the few well-known Vietnamese books written about the American War. The 2002 novel Catfish and Mandala, by Vietnamese-American Andrew X. Pham, tells of the author’s bike adventure through the country and his subsequent reconciliation with his country of birth. American author Karin Muller’s Hitchhiking Vietnam is written in the same vein. Poetry remains a popular literary form, though today’s poems are mostly written in reaction to the false Socialist patriotism that preceded it.
Pre-modern Vietnamese art was a reflection of traditional Chinese styles. Painting, never as popular in Vietnam as in other Asian countries, usually involved landscapes as well as figural themes such as dragons and unicorns. Portrait painting was popular among wealthier families for the purpose of ancestor worship. Lacquer painting was first introduced during the 15th century and involves applying up to 12 layers of paint extracted from tree sap to a wooden background; while time-consuming, the practice’s results are visually stunning. The method was traditionally used to decorate pagodas and palaces.
Early sculpture focused on figure-carvings of the Buddha, although the lotus flower was also a hit theme. The Hindu kingdom of Champa produced great sculpture, much of which is on display at the Chàm Museum in Ðà Nong. During the colonial period, painting and sculpture were heavily influenced by French Impressionism. During the 1930s and 40s, Vietnamese modernist artists reawakened national interest in art. Styles diverged during the war-torn decades following WWII. In the south, the style was more romantic, with the occasional violent,realist streak; in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, inspirational and occasionally ludicrous propaganda scenes abounded. Unsurprisingly, themes other than Socialist Realist ones were “discouraged” by the state. In fact, they still are—though to a much lesser extent.
Today, Vietnam’s artistic scene is centered in Hanoi, but traditional folk art (including weaving, musical instrument construction, and wood figure carving) is found in all regions. The handicraft villages surrounding Hanoi provide an opportunity to witness artists busy at ancient practices of metal work, embroidery, and paper-making. Every other year, Hue celebrates the arts with a large festival. The commercialization of the visual arts—often sold en masse in the streets—has led to a rebirth of traditional art forms, including lacquer- and silk-frame-painting. Since the opening of the economy to foreign influences, the government’s hand in the art scene has diminished, allowing for the creation of more controversial and individualistic works. Many new galleries are popping up in Hanoi and HCMC as a new generation of young painters and sculptors—many graduates of the Fine Arts University in Hanoi—draws both national and international attention. The artistic community near Ðà Låt is an ideal place to catch up on the latest national trends.
Traditional Vietnamese architecture, which stresses line symmetry and harmony, is largely influenced by the Chinese. Although some have been destroyed or have weathered over time, many pagodas, temples, and palaces have been preserved and still stand today. The Imperial Palace in Hue remains an impressive monument to intricate but simple style. In the south, the Chàm influence is more apparent and is markedly distinct from the northern style, with more blocky, meticulously carved surfaces and an emphasis on Hindu religious figures.
Indigenous Vietnamese dances differ greatly across regions, as each minority group traditionally performs rituals specific to its own village. Every year during the celebrations, men and women celebrate the new year with a ritual dance (called the Unicorn Dance in the south and the Dragon or Lion Dance in the north) that signifies peace, complete with elaborate choreography and costumes. All theatrical productions involve some sort of musical accompaniment. Hát tuong and cải lương (reformed opera) are popular in Central and Southern Vietnam. Tu·ng was influenced by Chinese opera in plot, costumes, and instrumentation, while cải lương combines elements of tu·ng with Western musical traditions. A third popular genre, múa rối nước (water puppetry), originated in the north. Wooden puppets cavort across the surface of a shallow pool, acting out fairy tales. Puppeteers, standing knee-deep in water behind a screen, manipulate the puppets with rods.
The best way to catch a glimpse of the rich traditions of dance and drama at work today is to schedule your trip around a festival—try if at all possible. Water puppetry is still big; the best place to admire it is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi, but you can also catch a show at The Golder Dragon Puppet Theater in Ho Chi Minh City. The biannual Hue festival is also dazzling, with its international performing artists.
Folk songs (don ca) originated in the countryside and were sung at festivals and in the fields. Musical theater is also characterized by regional variation. Most famous is the northern hát chèo, which combines singing, acting, and dancing. Đông Sơn drums, dating back to the earliest dynasties, are still used today, as are the Đàn bầu (monochord) and bamboo flute. During the American War, Western-style music became popular, particularly in the south. Lyrics were often politically charged and served as a means of resistance, although the government restricted complete freedom of expression.
Today, traditional music troupes sometimes stage performances in Hanoi theaters, and, more rarely, in HCMC. The Opera House in Hanoi holds regular performances, although the Western tradition prevails in this performing space. Popular Western music floods karaoke bars throughout the country. Vietnam even has its own pop idol contest on television, called Morning Star—A Destination. The government has expressed concern over the lyrics and dress embraced by popular artists, but the show remains a hit.
Vietnamese film does not have a particularly prolific history, although Vietnam itself is the subject of many American and French films. Most of the films coming out of Vietnamese Feature Film Studies in North Vietnam, until the market reforms of 1986,were essentially political propaganda. The focus turned to reunification after the war, and the films were largely the work of directors from the College of Stage Arts and Cinematography in Hanoi.
Today, however, a few Vietnamese directors are emerging on the international scene, with their aesthetically stunning work that centers on the challenges of daily life in Vietnam. The most famous director is Tran Anh Hung, known for his award-winning The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), in addition to Cyclo (1995) and The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000). Vietnamese-American directors Tony and Timothy Bui have added to this theme with their respective films Three Seasons (1999) and Green Dragon (2001). Daughter from Danang (2002), directed by Gail Dolgin, chronicles a Vietnamese-American woman’s journey to her country of birth to find her mother. Every other year since 2003, the Vietnamese International Film Festival has celebrated Vietnamese cinema in Irvine, CA. As for films about Vietnam, the options are endless. American War films abound; some are of legendary status, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987).
It may be hot, but nothing can keep the Vietnamese from upholding Ho Chí Minh’s high standard of physical fitness. Uncle Ho was a major advocate of exercise and sports, and ever since he came to power in 1945 and initiated mandatory exercise in high schools, the country has maintained an active national routine. Recently, international teams in sports such as swimming, table tennis, and karate have become increasingly more important to national pride. Martial arts are particularly popular.
Vietnam has become a power in the Southeast Asia (SEA) Games: they hosted the event in 2003 and won the third most medals out of 11 participating countries in 2005 (behind only host the Philippines and rival Thailand). Football (or soccer, in the US) is wildly popular all over the country, and the Vietnamese team is regarded as an up-and-coming power in Southeast Asia. The team won silver in the 2003 and 2005 SEA Games; irritatingly, it was the Thailand who beat them both times. Luckily, the women’s team redeemed them, winning the 2005 gold. The Vietnamese have never qualified for a World Cup, however. Another extremely popular street sport is shuttlecock, or da cau, a game in which the participants juggle a shuttlecock over a net with the feet and knees—some-thing like badminton without the rackets.
Whether they’re burning incense for souls of the deceased, reenacting the military prowess of historic heroes and heroines, praying to spirits on high, or simply embracing life and one another, the Vietnamese know how to celebrate. Festivals are marked by thrilling, electric colors and intense dress that reflects a joyous national spirit. Celebrations include the traditional —dragon dances, wrestling, cock fights, and elephant races—as well contemporary offerings like performance art. Many festivals are rooted in history and tradition, but today, new ones seem to be popping up left and right as the Vietnamese government strives to promote tourism and cultural awareness.
No matter where you are traveling, common sense begs that you be polite, considerate, and patient. But in Vietnam this is especially important, and even a simple smile goes a long way. In a country where price tags rarely exist and bargaining is a way of life, the only way to get by is to enjoy the process. Be persistent, as even a firm “no” will not always signify that the discussion is closed. At the same time be both courteous and patient—if you expect promptness, you will almost certainly be disappointed. If you must criticize, try to find a way to express your complaint as a joke. Displays of anger are frowned upon—they will cause your conversation partner to lose face, which shames him in front of his peers and plays a large role in Vietnamese social interactions.
Be sure to remove your shoes before entering a temple, and when invited into someone’s home, note whether your host takes off his shoes, then do the same. Dress modestly throughout the country, as Vietnamese styles of dress differ greatly from standards in Western countries, and be especially careful of your clothes when visiting religious sites. When you’re unsure, follow the locals, not fellow tourists. Women should be especially conscious of their dress, particularly in the countryside, where conservative clothing is the best way to go. Vietnamese women prefer light skin to a tan, so most wear long-sleeved clothing as much out of vanity as respect for tradition—follow the trend. Shorts are worn only by Westerners, and in any context they’re either inappropriate or awkward-looking; wear trousers instead. Nude or topless sunbathing is out of the question.
As a gesture of respect, take off your hat and bow your head slightly when addressing elders or monks. In Vietnam, anyone older than you gets extra-special treatment, so be sure to follow local customs of addressing your elders and superiors. The Vietnamese also tend to be a humble people; don’t be surprised when compliments are met only with modest recognition or even self-effacement.
The feet are regarded as the least holy part of the body. Don’t point the bottoms of your feet at any person or Buddhist image, as this is considered rude. Conversely, Vietnamese regard the head as the most sacred part of the body, so never touch a person’s head, not even a small child’s.
Don’t leave chopsticks sticking out of a rice bowl; it is thought to resemble the incense burned for the dead, and is considered bad luck. Most locals wipe their chopsticks off before use—a special napkin is usually provided for this purpose. If you take a Vietnamese friend out for a meal or drink, be sure to count their bill on yours—your company likely will, especially since your money likely goes much farther than theirs. Don’t be stingy with toasts when dining with Vietnamese; prepare to hear a lot of “chúc” (cheers). As a general rule, refrain from being the first to dig into the delicious meal in front of you, no matter how tempting it may be.
Give or receive objects or gifts with both hands. Wrap gifts in lucky green or red paper; never black and white. Money is discussed very openly in Vietnam, so don’t be put off if people are frank and inquisitive about your earnings. If you prefer to keep your financial life private, just smile and politely evade a direct answer.
Because of Confucian influence, the Vietnamese value family tremendously; in conversation with locals, be attentive to family details. Don’t be surprised if stares and shock abound should you mention that you are unmarried. If you are of marriageable age (in Vietnamese terms), just be sure to assure your friends that settling down is not far in your future, and unnecessary worry will be averted. Women may find it useful to wear a simple ring on their wedding finger.
Personal space doesn’t exist, per se, in Vietnamese society. Try not to be offended; pushiness is a way of life. Physical contact is usually the result of intense curiosity and is not intended as an offense. Even pointing and calls of “Westerner”—ong tay for men and bà tay for women—very rarely denotes any-thing ulterior or sinister, particularly in areas less frequented by tourists.
Homosexuality is not openly discussed or accepted in Vietnam, though major cities like Ho Chí Minh City and Hanoi have a small but growing gay nightlife. Most gay men remain closeted, and the gay community stays mostly underground. Public displays of affection between both heterosexual andhomosexual couples are considered distasteful. At the same time, people of the same sex often hold hands while walking. If you see it, don’t be surprised, and perhaps more importantly, don’t assume the couple is homosexual. The Men of Vietnam, by Douglas Thompson (Floating Lotus, 1998), is the first comprehensive guide to Vietnamese gay culture. Utopia-Asia also offers tips for gay travelers in Vietnam.