The Untold Story Of “Real” Vietnam”

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I had been living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for 6 months with my husband, Bill. We had moved to Vietnam after a 3 week adventure where we fell in love with the people, the culture and the food. We packed up everything, rented our house and obtained Visas by becoming English teachers. Bill’s brother, Joel, also lovingly known as “Big Cat”, decided to come and visit us after we had been living in Ho Chi Minh City for a few months. This was a huge honour as it had been difficult to convince many to take the 20 plus hour trek to get from Toronto, Ontario to Vietnam.  That first 15 hour plane ride from Toronto to Hong Kong is a doozy.

We picked Joel up at the Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport and instantly, he was drenched in sweat. 2009 was a recording breaking year for heat, sometimes upwards to 40 degrees. It was always a gamble to go outside. It reminded me of what it was like in the Maritimes in the winter when it was -30 degrees. You just didn’t want to go outside if you didn’t need to.

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We picked Joel up and decided to take an adventure up the coast to Vũng Tàu. From Ho Chi Minh City, you can take a hydrofoil boat and it takes about 1.5 hours. You can also scooter around the south China sea to get there but it takes over 3 hours. We had done it once and it was a pretty amazing experience. We went through rubber tree fields, filled with hammocks and even took a pit stop to nap. You had to share the road with huge diesel trucks and that can be a game of cat and mouse so hydrofoil boat was our preferred method of travel. Although the boat leaked in many places and you couldn’t be quite sure how many times the crew had practiced the safety demonstrations, it was some amazing to float through the channel and take in all there was to see; all the barges, the jungle and then the open sea.

Vũng Tau is a great escape from the city that had a good amount of resorts along the beach with mountains as a backdrop. Vũng Tau was quickly changing at this time; even Jean Chrétien, a former Canadian prime minister, was rumoured to have purchased a large piece of land for a casino. We stayed at a seaside resort where we had taught English at one point; the Lang Rung Hotel. This hidden gem is absolutely breath-taking. All of the seaside rooms are steps from the ocean. You have the seabreeze and the crash of waves waking you up and putting you to sleep at night. You can eat oysters the size of your hand or turtle if you choose (we didn’t). They had tanks of eels, lobsters and crabs and many things in between. Dinner was always an adventure. You had to be okay not knowing what you were ordering and hoping for the best. Usually, it was the best meal we had ever eaten when we took those gambles. They baked oysters that were to die for.

After our first night of rest, we woke up early and hit Belly’s. Belly’s was a local hot spot run by a Kiwi who was came to Vietnam and never returned to New Zealand. He was rumoured to run the restaurant in the day and a brothal at night. He had a daffy duck tattoo on his head that looks like daffy was cutting the grass (aka his hair). So if you stubble upon this place, make sure you say hi to Belly and order the eggs benny.

After breakfast, we scooted off into the horizon in search of the South China Sea. We wondered upon a dirt road where we saw a gang of men sitting on the shore, in typical Vietnamese stance, bum between legs, by three commercial wooden fishing boats.

After a short conversation in broken English, my husband asked if they had any “bia” or beer. “No…no money”, they replied. We scooted off to the nearest shack and got a case of Saigon Red for $6. We needed ice for our warm beer as it was a typical 35 plus day. We found a hut that cut a huge block of ice with a machete and headed back to the boats. The next challenge was how to get on the boats. The tide was high and there were no docks. There were huge woven baskets that we were convinced to get in so we could be reeled to the side of the boat and lifted in. This didn’t seem plausible with two 230 lb men but they made it happen! When onboard, the boat was littered with Vietnamese flags and rows of lights as squid fishing is done at night.
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They took us into the galley and everyone climbed up onto the table and sat cross legged, smoking Marlboro reds and opening beers. Karaoke quickly started with “The Backstreet Boys”, “NSync” and some other throwbacks I hadn’t heard in years. They knew every word. By the 2nd beer, we were all sounding pretty good. The fisherman bbqed some fresh squid and we all dug in with some fresh salt and toothpicks. I can’t begin to describe how good this salty delight was. It was warm, melt in your mouth and some refreshing with a cold beer. It was absolutely the best squid I have ever tasted in my life. And then, as it always does, the rice wine came out. It wouldn’t be a Vietnamese meal if the rice wine didn’t appear. As strange as this Vietnamese moonshine tastes at first, the more shots you have, the less pungent it gets. So we all had our fair share of rice wine and decided to head back into the sunset. After spending a couple of hours with these total strangers, we left feeling like family, having a crazy adventure on a squid boat, and feeling like we had experienced “real” Vietnam”.

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