Vietnam, Land of Motorbikes

If I had to describe Vietnam in one word, it would be “motorbikes.” Not only do they clog the streets and the sidewalks, but hawkers are constantly yelling at you to take a ride on their motorbike-cum-taxi. Tomorrow is our last day here, so below are a few of my other impressions from our tour of Vietnam, which included Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, and Saigon.

  • Vietnamese cuisine boasts a lot of rice and rice noodles, soups like pho, fresh herbs, and lemongrass. One specialty of Hanoi is Bia Hoi, fresh, weak beer you can get for under 50 cents.
  • Lots of restaurants are simply a cluster of plastic stools around a food stall. I’m told this is because many residents technically have no permit to live in the city, so they can’t open an official business.
  • Vietnamese trains are a bumpy and boisterous experience, with attendants knocking on your sleeping compartment around 7 am to offer breakfast and locals opening the blinds and chattering at a similar hour.
  • Copycats abound. We saw things like an HP hotel with the Hewlett-Packard logo (the old one), a Donut’s Donuts with Dunkin’ Donuts colors, and taxis that imitate the “reputable” brands (Vinasun and MaiLinh become Vinason or Vinasum and MeiLinh or MaiLin).
  • Vietnam has a higher concentration of tourists than China and the country caters to them, with tons of hawkers, bootlegged Lonely Planets, and Western restaurants featuring burgers and pizza.
  • The critters you’ll see the most of in Vietnam include tiny ants, which we found in all our hotels and hostels, and wall- and ceiling-crawling lizards.
  • Even the biggest cities, Hanoi and Saigon, don’t seem to have huge downtown areas with modern skyscrapers. (The photo below is Saigon and its most conspicuous skyscraper.)
  • Houses are very narrow, with a thin facade facing the road. Our host in Saigon lived in a 4-floor house with one bedroom and ensuite bathroom on each upper floor.
  • Vietnam is cheaper than China, with private rooms for as low as $9 and meals for under $5. (Hanoi is cheaper than Saigon.)
  • Almost every shop, hotel, and restaurant has a table full of food and other offerings for ancestors, and you’ll find incense sticks stuck on everything from sidewalks to tree trunks.

How (Not) to Get Tailor-Made Clothes in Vietnam

Hoi An is a coastal town in central Vietnam and a World Heritage site. It’s also a haven for those seeking custom-made clothes, with tailors on (and in between) every corner. So we couldn’t resist giving it a try.

I started with a green satin dress and dress pants, added two shirts, and finally ordered a forest green winter coat, all for $125. Fred got a three-piece suit, a white dress shirt, and two jackets. We dutifully got measured by a friendly but pushy assistant who kept asking, “You happy?” and we came back the next day to try on our creations.

Unfortunately, we weren’t prepared for all the alterations that would be necessary, from a tailor that came highly recommended (we don’t recommend them). I wanted a low-backed dress with wide-set straps, and they had trouble getting the top to fit snugly – so much trouble that I had to be motorbiked to the workshop so I could try on the dress after three, four, five alterations. The workshop was a small three-room building strewn with fabric scraps and Vietnamese men playing cards on the floor. The aforementioned talkative assistant herded me into the bedroom and quickly pulled clothes on and off me, examining the fit. (Finally, they got it right.)

Fred wasn’t so lucky – apparently (though I can’t tell), his suit still has flaws. Also, the dress shirt isn’t high quality material, and the casual jacket isn’t casual. Plus, he discovered that they were cheating us (and everyone else) with an exchange rate of 22,000 dong for every USD, when it should have been 21,000.

Here are some photos: