This time of the year, you may be thinking of wintry scenes of roaring fires and cozy cups of hot chocolate with cookies. But for folks like me, it’s the season to travel to Vietnam and other hot places in Asia.
I'm a wimp. Despite being born in Vietnam, I can’t endure the humid temperatures of Southeast Asia for long. I’ve lost my ability to weather the uncomfortable heat. I melt. I'd rather spend extra money on airfare to travel to the motherland in the drier, cooler months. Many people return to visit family for Tet (January 31 in 2014). I go just to touch base, check things out.
I’ve been fielding a number of emails lately about visiting Vietnam. The queries are coming in from first-time visitors to the country. I answered their questions but imagine that you have insights too. How about contributing your knowledge? Or posing a question yourself. I’ll share what I know below.
Where to go: Keep in mind the weather, and what you're willing to pack and carry. For example, during January, Hanoi (northern region) and Hue (central region) can be cold, damp, and dreary – like the Bay Area and Pacific Northwest. Saigon (southern region) is hot, just not super hot like say, in the summer months.
During this time of the year, I’d avoid visiting all three regions unless you want to pack for different climates. T-shirts and sandals are for Saigon and its environs. Go up to Hue and/or Hanoi and you’ll want to layer up; pack a sweater, jacket, and closed-toe shoes.
What to eat: I usually spot food that looks good and fresh, and go for it. I’m also looking at who is making the food. There are few restaurants or joints that I keep on my short list. Heck, I really don’t have a short list.
However, I keep a hit list of foods I want to try. For instance, if you can squeeze these three noodle soups into a visit to Vietnam, you’ll savor the regional differences: beef pho (northern), spicy beef and pork bun bo Hue (central), Phnom Penh-style hu tieu nam vang (southern). You may not get to the actual regions to savor dish in situ, but you’ll have a sense of the range of flavors in the Viet repertoire. For the ultimate, delectable mash-up, eat banh mi.
Prep your taste buds for parsing the Viet flavors with this essay on foreign influences on Vietnamese food by Saigon-based journalist Connla Stokes. Read travel guide books, historic novels like Camilla Gibb’s, and cookbooks to start wrapping your head around things.
Health precautions: Keep up your immune system before and during the trip to Vietnam. My friend, Dr. Mike, is an infectious disease expert. For tummy troubles, he recommended: Pepto Bismol as a first response, and if things get bad, try Imodium, but it can stop you up. How about Cipro? Only if things get really really bad, he said. Cipro is not as effective as it used to be because certain bacteria in Asia have learned to adapt to it. More on this post about safe eating tips in Vietnam.
Cooking classes in Vietnam: I have never taken a cooking class in Vietnam because I’m usually learning from things I eat and people I meet. That’s not for everyone. Increasingly you’ll find cooking classes in well-visited cities in Vietnam. Ask the hotel where you’re staying, look in English-language local papers, even check online before you go. The Hanoi Cooking Centre, owned and operated by Australian ex-pat Tracey Lister is terrific.
I just found this combo of hotel and cooking program from the Hue Tourism College at Villa Hue. There’s also this interesting offering from the Mai Home, which bills itself as the Saigon Culinary Art Center.
Street food tours in Vietnam: If you’re hankering for deep, food-savvy knowledge get a guide. In Hanoi, Van Cong Tu and Mark Lowerson make a great team for filtering the delicious finds in the nation’s capitol; details are on their Hanoi Street Food Tours site.
Saigon also has a similar Viet-Australian combination of tour guides in Saigon Street Eats. I kind of like the sound of these Back of the Bike tours because you get to zip around Saigon on the back of a motorbike, stop, then eat. If that’s not your speed, consider a walking food tour with Jodi Ettenberg’s just-launched Jodi Eats.
I liken Hoi An to be somewhat like the Santa Barbara of Vietnam. It’s pretty, hospitable, and easy. You can eat well by wandering the street, or hook up with Hoi An Food Tour.
Travel visas to Vietnam: You need a visa. It takes time to obtain. Note that overseas Vietnamese can get a 5-year exemption. I’ve written about the process in this post.
Be prepare, be flexible, and have a good time.
Do you have recommendations? Share them below. Thanks.