After I returned from Vietnam, I stopped by my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Queens, New York, Little Saigon. I was excited to tell the waiter, Alex, about my adventures in Vietnam, but instead, everything went wrong.
Normally when I dine at Little Saigon, I’m with my father. During some lost-in-translation moment years ago, Alex thought that my father’s name was also Alex. (My father’s name is Sam. I should mention that this confusion is not uncommon when non-native-English speakers converse with my father.) We didn’t immediately recognize that Alex was also calling my father Alex. By the time we did, it was too late to correct him. So for years, my father just answered to Alex.
“How you Sam?” Alex said to me when I walked in. (Since the credit card that always pays for our meal says my father’s name–Sam–Alex has always assumed that someone had to be Sam. So if my father was Alex, then I was Sam.) It had been so long that I forgot to respond. “You name Sam, right?”
“Umm… It’s Noah.” It had always been one thing to let him make the mistake on his own, but it would be another thing to lie to him. I couldn’t do it.
“You father Alex though, right?” Alex asked.
Alex walked away and brought me V35–A big bowl of pho. I realized two things at that moment: We would no longer be Alex’s favorite customers and that the pho in Vietnam was a lot better than Little Saigon’s, which had overcooked strips of tenderloin floating in the broth.
It was the first time that I realized how much I missed Vietnam, a country that I’ve been hard on in previous posts thanks to a few scams and hassles I experienced there. I spooned the sub-par pho into my mouth and reflected on the best things to do in Vietnam.
Here are the Five Best Things to Do in Vietnam:
1. Vietnam’s Best Natural Attraction: Hiking Sapa
Most travelers to Vietnam will rave about Halong Bay, which is one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. But even more beautiful is Sapa. This mountainous region is colored jade by rice paddies cut into the hills and it offers Vietnam’s most spectacular hikes, (especially if you avoid the most popular ones that are flooded with tourists).
On my favorite hike in Sapa, we trekked through fog banks, over waterfalls, and past angry buffalos. For lunch, our guide brought us into his Hmong friend’s austere hut. The rain turned the dirt floor to mud and the children of the village gathered around the weak fire, while one of the mothers cooked greens and rice.
2. Vietnam’s Most Unique Attraction: Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi
Fighting the crowds in the summer heat, the nefarious line-police, and the soldiers in charge of shushing tourists are not enough to keep visitors away from Uncle Ho, who lies dead in a glassed-in box. Check to see that the mausoleum is open because each year Ho undergoes a few months of touch-ups.
3. Vietnam’s Best City: Hoi An
Whether you’re looking for tranquil beaches, chaotic markets, or peaceful rivers that run alongside historic towns, Hoi An has it all. Unlike the insanity of Hanoi and Saigon, you can stroll the streets in the old district without having to worry about the motorbikes that flood the big cities and make crossing streets there more nerve-racking than walking a tightrope over lava. Hoi An also has Vietnam’s tastiest cuisine, like white rose shrimp dumplings, fried wontons, and the thick-noodled cao lao. Lastly, it’s the city for inexpensive, quality, tailored suits and dresses.
4. Vietnams’ Best War-Related Sites: Hanoi’s Museums and Cu Chi Tunnels
Westerners visiting Vietnam should experience viewing the War in Vietnam (or the American War as the Vietnamese refer to it) from the Vietnamese perspective. Hanoi has the Vietnam Military History Museum, but my two favorite museums in Hanoi were the Hao Lo Prison and the Fine Arts Museum.
The Fine Arts Museum is not dedicated to war art, but it has a large enough collection of propaganda paintings, which have titles like “Hanoi Youth Setting Off to Fight Against the American Aggressor” and “They Conducted the A-Bomb Test Again.” The yellow-walled Hao Lo Prison was used to detain 72 American pilots and offers a glimpse into the lives of these POWs. John McCain’s flight suit is on display as are other unique artifacts.
Outside Ho Chi Minh City are the Cu Chi Tunnels. After watching videos about the vast network of tunnels, I journeyed through the jungle, where pool-sized bomb craters and booby traps that had killed thousands of soldiers sat. Then I crammed myself into a 70cm x 90cm tunnel and crawled 100 meters through another. Afterward, we fired M-60s because what better way to connect with the past than by popping off a few caps?
5. Vietnam’s Best Dish: Pho at Pho 10 in Hanoi
Pho 10 at #10 Ly Quoc Su Street only serves pho. You’ll drool watching the chef spoon broth over tender noodles and raw beef. I was satiated after my first bowl. But it was so good, I dropped another $1.50 to gorge myself on Vietnam’s best dish and then wash it down with a big Bia Ha Noi.
If you’re looking for a company to tour Vietnam with, which is a great way to avoid the hassles, consider my travel partner, Shoestring.