Last year, rather than attending my traditional KFC christmas party and New Year’s Eve public drunkenness at the local temple, I met up with a few old friends from around the world, for 2 weeks of fun and adventures in Vietnam.
Technically the longest vacation I have had in… many many years1. Our (very) haphazardly planned trip to Vietnam surpassed most expectations and turned out surprisingly well, in light of the low number of missing body parts upon return.
A full recount would be way too tedious, so a few (badly outdated) Cliff notes instead:
Ho Chi Minh City is everything friends had told me: noisy, smoggy, dirty & not pedestrian-friendly at all (not very friendly to anything attempting to use the road, really). But still surprisingly fun and enjoyable for a few days. The War Museum is predictably a bit of a downer, with unintentionally hilarious bits of naked propaganda here and there. I found it particularly funny that the French chapter of the independence war got a very dismissive 3 panels at the start, before getting into the proper meat of the exhibit: a whole floor of “how we kicked the yankees out”.
I really, really like Vietnamese coffee.
Upon arrival in Phu Quoc, a couple hours and two laboriously-obtained motorcycles later, we were roaming around, exploring lodging options, when a bizarre series of circumstances2 brought us to a cool backpacker retreat. Although we ended up turning down their fun-looking rustic treehouses for the comfort of some modern bungalows down the road, we received an invite to their Christmas BBQ party. Christmas eve was therefore spent in the hills of Phu Quocs: eating, drinking and puffing, surrounded by enough blonde Scandinavians to shoot a half-dozen Leni Riefenstahl films.
The mandatory walk back late at night (no way to ride a motorbike on that trail, let alone pissed in the middle of the night) led to some nervousness: in complete darkness and with the sound of very angry neighbourhood dogs closing in behind us. Come to think of it, I was pretty relaxed about it, but my travelling companion, who had made the rookie mistake of leaving the party neither drunk, nor high, was slightly less confident about the continued well-being of his shins.
New Year eve celebration mostly took place on a warm sandy beach and featured prominently our own personal jazz-jam take on 1990s dance masterpiece What Is Love. Also: my getting chatted up by a lovely, albeit very drunk, ozzie lady who only interrupted her courtship to introduce me to her husband: a rather disinterested, but not overly friendly bloke of size and girth roughly comparable to that massive guy on Game of Thrones… Since my own posse of effete, lanky and/or not-suicidal friends were not very keen on backing me up in that fight, we called it a night soon after and made it all home with our teeth intact.
After spending the first half of our Phu Quoc stay toward the southern part of the island, where the main city and most of the [rather limited] beach bar action are located, we drove north and laid claim to a bunch of beach bungalows in a sleepy family resort on an otherwise deserted stretch of the coast: making for a very picturesque, if rather quiet, few nights. Also making for a lot of interesting culinary expeditions to random roadside stalls or the nearby fisherman’s village, for meals that did not come from the resort’s very mediocre kitchen.
Much delicious (and somewhat unidentified) food was had in the course of these few days. Usually amidst a lot of pointing, hand waving and fruitless attempts at using our pathetically inept 5 words of Vietnamese. The one time we ended up masticating a plateful of chewy offals freshly off that roadside BBQ stand, did convince our group to dial back the culinary experimentation by at least one notch. Still managed to have the best pho I ever had: until that day, I had foolishly lived under the impression that there was no such thing as truly amazing pho, only bad pho and decent pho.
Same dodgy roadside stands appeared to sell their own brand of moonshine to motorists who would stop and bring their own empty plastic bottle for refilling. After being offered a round of generous, blindness-inducing, shots by the neighbouring table, we decided it would be a great idea to bring back a bottle with us to the bungalows. With ample use of sign gestures3 and after cycling through every possible type of beverage they could think of, we eventually managed to convey our order to the shack lady, who gave us a look of concerned but resigned horror, before filling up an empty plastic bottle from what appeared to be a large water-cooler-type container in the back. As it turns out, despite its strong rubbing alcohol aftertaste, that locally-produced firewater made a fairly tasty mix with coke and proved a great addition to our late-night beachside sessions.
My last couple days in HCM were filled by a pretty flawless sequence of meals at local places picked and recommended by helpful locals, down to the order itself: written in the local idiom on my phone, that I would then present to the waiting staff with a smile and my best attempt at butchering the Vietnamese word for “please”. Amazingly, none of these pre-written orders turned out to include insults directed at the staff’s mother, or instructions to hack me to pieces.
When reạđing Vietnấmềse tềxt ớn a smằrtphờne, it is very difficult repressing strong OCD ữrges tộ wipe one’s screền cleấn. And it would be equally futile trying to read said text to a local in any hope to be understood. Under its deceptively friendly use of roman letters, Vietnamese is just as hermetic to tone-adverse foreigners as its Chinese cousin.
Short version: Vietnam was unexpectedly great fun, thanks to a concerted effort to avoid famous tourist spots and stay abreast of local alcohol-making trends.
- assuming we conveniently exclude month-long bouts of fun between jobs [↩]
- not involving a map left behind by a psychotic Scot in a Bangkok guesthouse [↩]
- the unmarked bottle and its content had been introduced to us by our friendly companions under the linguistically-dubious appellation of “VIETNAM!!!” [↩]