From the moment I arrived in Vietnam I was taken with this beautiful country and am already sad about the small amount of time I have to spend here before meeting up with friends in Thailand for the holidays (also not a bad thing).
Selma and I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Dec. 3. We got through the visa process and customs with no issues (screw you, Singapore) and that’s when the VIP treatment began. A family friend from home who has done business in Vietnam for 30+ years generously offered to have his assistant, Ngan, pick us up from the airport since he was not in town to host us. Not only was Ngan waiting directly outside the arrival gate with my name on a sign, she then proceeded to cart us around town (via taxi, which she paid for) to our hostel, an ATM and a shop for Selma to get a chip for her phone. She then took us to a fantastic restaurant where we shared a huge, traditional meal that I will never forget because it was here that I tasted one of the most delicious things of my life.
In addition to some sides (a sort of fried/popped corn clusters, peanuts, and morning glory and green beans sautéed with garlic) we were served an enormous, whole fried fish, swimming in a sweat and spicy sauce. I was about to dig in when Ngan asked, “do you know how to eat this?” Thank goodness she asked because I was about to make a real fool of myself, stabbing at the fish clumsily with my chopsticks.
From a plastic stand on the table, she pulled a dry rice paper disc and then turned it like wheel in a small amount of water. Working quickly she laid chunks of the fish on the paper and on top of it piled thin slices of pineapple, cucumber, and a variety of greens and herbs. She then rolled it up burrito-style (folding in the sides) and dunked it into the sauce that surrounded the fish. Selma and I followed suit, although we struggled a bit with the sticky paper. But when I took a bite…it didn’t matter how haphazard my roll looked because it tasted like sweet, salty, spicy fresh HEAVEN. While I saved myself from looking like a fool previously, I was not so lucky throughout the rest of meal. It was so amazing that I spent the rest of the time making “happy food noises,” rolling my eyes in ecstasy and licking my fingers.
After wandering through some shops we were beat so, since planning on leaving the next day by bus, we hugged Ngan goodbye. Later that day we walked around our neighborhood and were somehow coaxed into a SHADY massage/facial/pedicure – but it was only $10 for the whole shebang so why not? From the main street we were led upstairs to a small, cramped room where two other tourists were being massaged in plain view while we soaked our feet in pet-food-sized bowls of room temperature water.
After our “pedicures” we laid down for our massages where our “masseurs” chatted and laughed, at one point rubbing me with one hand while she talked on the phone. The highlight was when she used her fingernails to pinch a blackhead out of my back and then tapped me on the head, making me admire her handy work. It was like getting a drunk massage from my best friend Laura who isn’t shy about telling you if that zit on your face is “ready.”
We returned to our hostel, changed for dinner and made plans to meet up with Swiss Miss Melanie (from Gili Air), who was unexpectedly in Vietnam. The three of us went for Indian and then out to take in the nightlife of Saigon, which was… a lot. Bikes flying by, children breathing fire in the streets (no kidding), lights flashing and music pumping. We called it an early night though after a full day of traveling.
In spite of its grit I enjoyed HCM City and was sad to have just a day and a half there. But we were on a strict schedule, making our way north to Hoi An. To get there we were taking three buses, breaking up the travel time. Here’s what we had in store:
- First Bus – 5-6 hours to Mui Ne
- Second Bus – 4-5 hours to Nha Trang
- Third Bus – 12-13 hours to Hoi An