Taboo Breaking in Vietnam

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Nha Trang at sunset from a $15 ocean view room

Not long ago, it was taboo for Americans to travel to Vietnam. The Vietnam government didn’t make access to their country easy for Americans and sometimes they even made it difficult. American thrill-seekers adventurous enough to take the journey were few and far between.

Now Vietnam’s borders are wide open and the word is starting to get out. It’s no longer taboo to explore the former war-torn region.

Author Henry Miller said, “Whenever a taboo is broken, something good happens, something vitalizing.” Actually, that quote goes on to say some other stuff, but conveying the rest would ruin the point.

The scars of the war are still evident throughout the country, but those scars, geographic and mental, are beginning to heal. Now they are increasingly harder to find. What you see now is a tropical country that is beginning to take major steps toward development and adapting to international influences, all the while holding on to its cultural roots.

Weasel coffee found in Hanoi at a street shop.

Weasel coffee? What’s that?

Rooted in Vietnam’s culture is its little known weasel coffee, which is the outcome of coffee berries that are fed to weasels (actually civets) for a little magic intestinal chemistry. After their morning cup and while reading little newspapers, the little weasels (probably deviously scoping yard sales) do their business with coffee bean farmers eagerly waiting. The little candy bar (Pay Day) looking poop is collected and sorted for its treasured coffee beans. After passing through the intestines, the beans transform and become less bitter and more aromatic. You might be a little bitter after shelling out $150 for a pound of the poopy beans.

Expensive beans, but little else will cost you much on your Vietnamese adventure.

Nearby Thailand gets much more of American dollars and one reason is that accommodations are at least twice as much. But if you’re going to Thailand for its bustling capital or for any number of its tropical beaches, then you might want to save yourself a penny or two and opt for Vietnam.

Vietnam has two bustling capitals and an endless number of beautiful beaches that have yet to be destroyed by corporate resorts. The trend of big dollar resorts plaguing Thailand is beginning to infect Vietnam. But there are still hundreds of mom and pop mini resorts being run at the high levels without all the stars and a Zagat rating. Take advantage of them while they are still there. In another 20 years they may not be there.

The northern capital of Hanoi at times resembles a modern city, but just a little behind on the times. But it’s rustic and inviting. Hanoi’s multicultural history makes it a city with international cuisine abound. But why would a guy from Los Angeles travel to Vietnam for Mexican food? Well, he doesn’t. But after getting his fill on the local Pho (rice noodles) it’s nice to find some fairly authentic burritos for the tasting.

Street food: Roasted duck

Of course you’ll find more than just Mexican food. In the old quarter you’ll find just about every kind of restaurant. But getting there can be a hair-raising experience as you play Frogger for real with the countless motorbikes and scooters weaving in and out of lanes without abandon. The locals take it a step at a time and so should you.

A walk around the capital will reveal that Vietnam is crazy for coffee. The number of street cafes is mind-boggling. Baristas are to Vietnam what 7-11 clerks are to America—maybe even more so. And for a dollar and a half you will find that the Vietnamese like their coffee strong. Served black in an Italian style cup, the espresso-like coffee packs a punch.

The food, like most everything in Vietnam, is priced quite reasonably. You’ll discover that even the upscale restaurants are affordable and would be considered cheap by Americans from any region of the country.

Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to as Saigon by most everybody, is Vietnam’s southern capital and the escape point of the United States at the end of the war. Now Americans should be fighting to get back. This city is vibrant and intoxicating and that’s before you try any of the local Bia Hoi (street beer).

The Sailing Club beach in Nha Trang . . . not a sailboat to be seen.

But who escapes city life to visit the city? Vietnam is about the beaches. How about an ocean view room in a clean and pleasant hotel for $15? Late winter, early spring and fall are the best times of year to visit the beaches of Vietnam before and after the humidity sets in which can make things a bit hot, muggy and miserable.

Nha Trang is a nice place to settle in for a week or so. The Sailing Club (named because there was possibly a sailboat anchored off shore there once 40 years ago) is essentially an upscale beach club with good food and drinks at a price. A lounge chair and umbrella are a cheap and worthwhile option for spending the day on the beach. Get their early, though because spots are limited. Once there enjoy the service of the friendly beach vendors/peddlers. Fruit, snacks, beer, t-shirts, crafts and much more will be served to you at far lower prices than the Sailing Club. Come back in the evening when the beach party and bonfire gets started.

Nha Trang has endless international cuisine, from Italian to Indian and essentially everything in between. It has accommodations for backpackers and for Mark Zuckerberg (who is said to visit one of the neighboring exclusive island resorts that aren’t even worth mentioning unless you own a mega-social networking website). You’ll find that $15 is enough for an ocean view as long as it’s not peak season.

Where can you find these gems? Don’t sweat it. Take a taxi from the airport. When the driver drops you off at the beach with your bags (the cue) droves of commission seeking independent vendors will give you flyers and endless options (from hostels to resorts). Don’t worry, they aren’t adding to the cost of your room. It’s just how business is done in that part of the world. Take the first two or three flyers and take a walk. Just ask to see the room before you hand over your passport (your security deposit). You’ll know you’ve found the right place when you feel comfortable. Yes, you’re being told to plan a trip without reserving your hotel. Come on, it’s Vietnam. It’s an adventure. Let loose.

Food? Take a walk. Street cafes and restaurants of every style and scale are everywhere. Just don’t be the soulless dipshit caught eating at KFC. OK, you can stop in for a quick soft serve on your way back to the beach from your Swedish massage.

Yup. Spas are everywhere too. Nha Trang is all about relaxing and revitalizing yourself. OK, and partying. But you have to do something between parties. Try the local mud baths and sauna, too.

Spas aren’t your style? OK, get a street haircut or go snorkeling on one of the reefs or go para-sailing, jet-skiing, windsurfing, or just go to the bar. Which one? Why stop at one? Visit them all. Each has it’s own influence and vibe. Or just spend a week on the beach at the Sailing Club.

If you need to treat yourself and save some money at the same time, then Vietnam is the destination for you. Explore a true treasure before corporate hotels and resorts ruin this little secret. Who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself breaking a few more taboos of your own. Henry Miller knows when you break taboos, something good happens.

Now you know, too.


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