Good morning Vietnam: what to expect from the forgotten gem of South East Asia

Vietnamese fish village
'Mum, I am going to Vietnam'. '....Why?wasn't there a war less than 20 years ago?'. 'There was, but now it's all about street-food, art, temples and they even have a Vietnam Idol'. Clearly both my mother and I had a lot of (wrong) preconceived ideas about Vietnam...

I have to admit that even the choice for this travel destination was the most superficial and random  thing ever. I had just left a stable job because of HR issues so I just wanted to leave it all behind and go ahead and travel...Somewhere exotic, humid but mostly far far away. I was scrolling my all time favorite site for adventurous travel, Intrepid Travel and they had a last minute offer for a 15 days trip called Vietnam Discovery. I went with my guts and instantly reserved my place, didn't even checked the weather forecast (terrible mistake).

Vietnam is definitely a country which is still struck by its troubled past but not necessarily and exclusively in a bad way. On one hand public services, people who work for the hospitality business and infrastructures are not fully 'ready' for us needy tourists so prepare yourself to be flexible and inventive. Sleeping next to huge mice, on crowded trains and/or in brown stained smelly linen are situations that all may occur but that is definitely something you can fix: just get a sleeping bag at the beginning of your journey (I am an optimist by nature if you could not tell). On the other hand, all the different dominations they had to endure trought the centuries (mostly Chinese, French and American) provided a fuller range of cultural beauty all around.

Banh Mi stand, Hanoi

I say that for experience: for 10 consecutive days I spent my early mornings sitting in a tiny cafe with  tecno music blasting in the background, sipping on thick Vietnamese coffee and condensed milk, gorging on a fragrant baguette called Banh Mi I had just gotten from a close food stand: a crispy sandwich filled with minced pork, raw vegetables, cilantro and cucumber all garnished  with a gloriously spicy sauce(the recipe varies from town to town, I just described the one I used to have in Hoi An...my favorite). Vietnamese food is not very popular in Italy, I am sure that 98% of the people doesn't even know of its existence; the sad thing is that I was one of them and to this day I have problems accepting that. 
I had no idea of the variety of street food choices I would have found, especially in Hanoi, the foodie capital! The main ingredients are basic but amazing because they are simple and local: pork, chicken, mint, lime, jack fruit(warning..it has a subtle scent of feet to it), varied vegetables and rice and noodles. Every town/region has a different take on its food choices (Pho, the famous noodle soup for instance finds its origin in the Northern areas because of its colder climate) but I think that even the most picky eaters will find something to their likings. Then again in the biggest cities they have hundreds of Western cafes and restaurant to choose and wifi is at every corner. 

Hoi An market place

Hoi An

As I would walk trough a food market, cycle along the Delta or get lost in a tiny street while being yelled at by a local on a scooter (it's gonna happen 100%), I would feel the need to stop for a second and take it all in.
Hoi An is worth a visit: it is a UNESCO site and rightfully so. Unlike the noisy Ho Chi Min, the 'Town of the lanterns' had a unique flair to it: it used to be a city of merchants so cultural influences from Japan, a multitude of tailor and jewelry workshop and night 'lights show' along the river make for a great destination for both a relaxing soothing time and for shopping.  

Halong Bay

Another national treasure is Vietnam's geography. The sites along the river, on the shore and up in the mountain are something which definitely needs to be explored, mostly because their economy revolves around farming so you will find a lot of hard working locals who live away from the busy capitals and they are gonna be genuinely happy to see you. The climate is mixed but I had 6 full days of tropical rain (buy a plastic poncho too, just in case).
That didn't stop us from enjoying ourselves in the touristy Na Trang (the best town on the coast for tourists who'd rather just have fun and party) or from having the right state of mind to appreciate the majestic beauty of Halong Bay. Imagine Frodo's face while he crosses Middle Heart but make it a nautical-themed movie..That's how you (the new hero in the picture) will feel crusing trough the rocky rocks of the Bay...Just marvelous.

Vietnam is like me when I was 13 years old: it has a lot to offer but doesn't have the right attitude,  will or experience to show its worth to the world yet. It will get there, I know that. That is quite a statement but I  stand before it because I saw a lot of good in people over there; no one ever tried to take advantage of the fact that I didn't speak the language and I got a lot of help every time I got lost (not gonna tell you how many times that happened). I was lucky enough to spend a night in the house of an old couple who lived war first hand and let me tell you...I cried like a baby. We had dinner with the husband and drank some Tiger beer (the best one, so cheap too) and then the wife came out when we were done because women have to eat in the kitchen; she squeezed every single one of us in a soft hug and greeted us with a toothless irresistible smile. They showed us pictures and made us take dozens of our own in true Asian style. It was a moment I will never forget.

Vietnamese smiles

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