Thursday, October 16, 2008

9 Things to Do in Vietnam

As any long term (be it two week or two months) blogger in Vietnam is wont to do, here is my obligatory "things to do in Vietnam" post.

1. Go get your hair washed

A lot of guidebooks that write about Vietnam gush about the affordability of it all.  I would generally disagree with this - yes, it is easier and cheaper to live comfortably here, but this country is certainly not cheap, but maybe that is because I've been to China a few times and compare Vietnam's prices to there.

Most everything here is cheaper than the US, but also most everything here is more expensive than in China. But that makes sense, for they were all made in China!  So you won't find much in the way of inexpensive goods, but you can find mind-blowing deals (if you're used to US prices) on services.

Housework, chauffeur and childcare services are insanely cheap in comparison, and about equal or less than China even.  But the average tourist isn't gonna use such services.

Instead, take in the affordable and very Vietnamese luxury of getting your hair washed. The hair salons in Vietnam do more business providing hair washes than they do in actually cutting hair. They'll also provide other expected services, such as mani- and pedicures, Asian style services, such as earwax picking, face washes, and clothed massages.  If you look real hard I'm sure you can find places that provide other services, but I'm pretty blind on that account.

A hair wash can be 50k or less.  Just remember to tip.  If you don't like to get your hair wet then go get a foot massage.

2. Enjoy the herb

I don't me the sticky sorta herb, but rather the panoply of SEAsian herbs that are virtually part of every local meal here.  In the US, even at decent Vietnamese restaurants, you're limited to generic things like cilantro, mint and thai basil.  Here, there is so much more, half of which I can only identify by smell and taste.  Out of all the food products in Vietnam, I think I'll miss the basket of herbs the most.  The main reason I like to eat seafood on the streets here is because of the herb mix that comes with it.

3. Go to the beach

I haven't really travelled around all that much in Vietnam, but I've been to some of the beaches here and they're definitely worthwhile. With its long coastline, Vietnam has a whole host of beaches to choose from - some are small and desolate (Sam Son), some are wide, crowded and dirty (Vung Tau), and some are pretty and peaceful (Cua Dai). Sure, it probably doesn't compare to Thailand, but life is pretty good whenever you have sand between your toes while swigging a beer, looking over the sound of crashing waves to the sun peeking over the horizon.

4. Get some clothes made

Before making this recommendation, a few caveats: custom tailored clothing is much cheaper in China (about 50% less), and labor costs here are cheap. Why is the latter a warning? Due to cheap labor, the concept of measure twice, cut once isn't employed here in Vietnam.

In all my dealings with the local labor pool, I find that folks are generally careless and error-prone. At first I attributed this to a lack of work ethic.  But I've slowly come around to the thought that such errors are due to cheap labor.  It costs so very little to rectify mistakes that it doesn't make sense within the local work culture to spend extra resources upfront to minimize mistakes.

It's sorta like the low-cost manufacturing facilities in China and elsewhere - it is cheaper to make 100 items with a 5% defect rate than 95 items with a 1% defect rate. If you engage in the former, you'll pay less and get more good product.

So, even though you should expect mistakes in your tailored clothing, and even though it isn't the cheapest in the world, why do I suggest getting clothes made here?  Because you'll likely end up looking pretty good when all is said and done.

Most Americans, myself include, wear off the rack clothing that is just too big for us. The locals, men and women, almost regardless of age, wear clothes so tight fitting, it would make Fredrick's of Hollywood proud.  So the tailors here are geared towards a more fitted, slimmer cut that ends up more flattering, no matter the customer.  Just make sure to emphasize that you want a more comfortable fit, or else you'll end up with some nut-hugger pants.

A dress shirt made in D1, depending on the fabric choice, costs between a regular off-the-rack Brooks Brothers shirt and the same shirt on sale. But the fabric and the cut will be much better.

5. Go to the mountains

As a country geographically oriented like Chile, the beaches are on the forefront of a tourists' itinerary. But if you want something slightly different, head to the mountains. Places like Fan Si Pan (the highest point in Vietnam), or Dalat or Tam Dao. One of the best times we've had was when we visited Tam Dao.

Of course there is Sapa also. But be aware of the "Sapa Curse" - it's a relatively well known and well subscribed to phenomena amongst the locals.  People say that if you go to Sapa, which is home to the ethnic minorities such as the Hmong and Yao, the women there will put a spell on you and you won't leave until you end up marrying a local ethnic minority and taking them back to the city with you.

It may be an old wives' tale, but I've heard of business colleagues who went to Sapa on vacation, disappeared for months, and returned with a Sapa wife.  And I personally know of a long term Hanoi ex-pat who met and married his wife in Sapa.

6. Play some golf

If you're an American golfer, you have got to play some golf when you're in Vietnam. The courses here are generally in very good condition, but besides that, having a caddy is just something that needs to be experienced. Sure, most of the caddies are not the sort that you would rely on for tournament golf, simply because, unlike the States, the average caddy here does not play the game so their knowledge of it is limited. But if you've thanked the inventor of the Izzo dual-strap, then you'll appreciate someone else humping your bag around the course.

Again, remember to tip, because they get very little, if any, part of the "caddy fee" that is on your bill. Locals tip between 100-200k per 18 holes.  I find that the local HCMC players tip more generously than their Hanoi brethren, so pay attention to where you're playing.

7. Go nhau

"Nhau" - it's a very Vietnamese word.  Loosely translated, it means go out drinking, but it's not really that.  "Go out drinking" sounds more like something you do on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday (and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) night while in college. 

It's not really that.  It's probably more akin to 'getting a pint' - but I dunno, I'm not from a commonwealth country.

No matter the proper translation, you should go out and nhau, especially with some locals.  It's practically a way of life here.   It's fun to sit on some plastic stools, grab some peanuts and Vietnamese style bar food (i.e. stir fried stuff that you can share and/or eat with your hands) and drink the local beer. Don't worry about getting too drunk - for all the bravado of the locals, by and large they don't drink all that much. When locals drink, they end up drinking more ice water than actual beer.

8. Slow down and look around

Visitors pretty much hang in the cities of HCMC or Hanoi, and longer term ex-pats definitely count these cities as their main stomping grounds.  The only comparison to these places are other Asian cities (well, perhaps S.America, Africa and the Middle East.. but I've never been).  It's crowded, it's hectic, and there is so much going on.

But once in a while, just pump your brakes and slow down.  Really look at your surroundings, and the people that inhabit it.  Take it all in and connect with this time, this place.

I am not talking about observing folks and passing judgments, ascribing some sort of bs quiet nobility to the poor and the working poor.

Unlike most American cities, you can see all of Vietnam from virtually any street corner here.  So slow down and breathe in the beauty, the warts, the frustrations, the wealth and poverty, the yearning, and the humanity of it all.  This is current day Vietnam looking back at you, so take it all in before looking away.

9. Leave

At the end of it all you should leave.   You weren't raised here, you don't have many ties here, you're not really from here.  A life spent with an updated passport and a visa needing to be renewed yet again is a life in limbo.

Stay too long and you'll end up like the well-worn caricature - a bitter, whiny, complaining, ugly foreigner.  Do yourself a favor and leave.  Or marry someone local.  I hear the weather is nice this time of year in Sapa.


Dave said...

Would like to live some comment for Section "GO NHAU"
Locals drink alot too, depend on where and which purposes you are looking at. At the ocassions, they focus more on hanging out and enjoy the company of friends and the food so they will drink less. But for the getting drunk purpose, I gotta tell you. Check out "Ruou De" loosely translated as King of Wine. It contains 60% of alcohol and they just pass shots around the table with dried squid or sthing similar

D. said...


Don't get me wrong, locals at times drink and drink a lot. But to the untrained eye it looks like everyone is getting their buzz on all the time, when in reality those corner bia hoi places don't really go through all that much product.

I've never had Ruou De (goat wine??), but have had something very very similar - straight white spirits mixed with the odd ingredient of the day that's supposed to impart strength and virility - whatever! It's as close to moonshine as I've ever had.

On the other hand, Ruou Nep (rice wine), is surprisingly tasty and low in alcohol content. A tastier, lower power sake.

Vietnam things to do said...

Vietnam has many variety of wine that I like."Rượu nếp" is an example.