Any ‘must-do’ article on Vietnam will insist visitors get a bespoke suit, enjoy the world’s cheapest beer, take a bicycle tour, and visit a Vietnam / American War site. I did all four and was not disappointed. But here are a few unexpected surprises I found along the way.
#5. Visit Hindu ruins
Imagine a much older Angkor Wat peppered with American bomb craters? Welcome to My Son, a Hindu complex and the cultural capital of the Champa people, where Vietnam’s ancient history meets its famous recent history.
Construction of this complex began five centuries before Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia. Restoration by French archaeologists was well underway when the Vietnam / American war broke out.
The Vietnam / American war tends to dominate tourists’ historic agendas while in Vietnam, and My Son was transformed by the war too. The Viet Cong used the ruins as a base and hide out, and the Americans responded by carpet bombing the site in 1969. Only 18 structures remain of the 70 or so originally documented by the French, and the bomb craters are well highlighted by the Vietnamese archaeological plaques.
#4. Get your broken electronics fixed
When I got engaged, my husband designed a unique ring for me. When we had the design assessed by a local jeweller in Amsterdam we were quoted €2000 just for labour costs, goldsmithing being a highly expensive skill. I took the design to my trusty jeweller in Dubai and had it made for €85 (not including gold and gems, of course!).
When our G10 Canon camera broke a few years later after a long day at the beach, we were quoted €250 just to open the camera up to see what was wrong inside. Our trusted local camera shop said sand is like lens cancer and in his experience it costs about €300-350 to fix. The camera was three years old at that point and not worth spending hundreds of euros fixing.
We brought the broken camera to Vietnam on the same hunch that convinced me to bring my engagement ring design to Dubai. In a small camera repair shop called ‘Trung Tâm Sửa Chữa Máy Ảnh Phạm Thê’, tucked away off one of Saigon’s biggest intersections, a very knowledgeable repairman instantly knew what was wrong and replaced the flex cable of our zoom lens for about €30, in under three hours. The camera now works perfectly.
How did I find this little gem? I searched for ‘camera repair shop’ on Google maps, and this was the closest one to my hotel. I can only imagine with some research the synergies you could make with other broken possessions and the highly skilled and inexpensive labour available in Vietnam.
3. Bespoke leather goods – design your own bag / shoes
Being married to a designer, I am constantly re-designing things in my mind. If only those boots were shorter. If only that bag was expandable. Those two colours would go perfectly together.
Everyone who comes to Hoi An in central Vietnam leaves with at least one bespoke piece of clothing, but did you know you can also design your own leather goods?
My husband had been looking for the perfect leather laptop bag / briefcase to accompany him on client meetings. Something unique and gorgeous. I had found a few online for €300-600, but he wanted to be in love with the bag first. Finally he had the chance to design his own.
I have several handsome leather bags at home that I use for work and errands, but none of them quite fit my daily lifestyle around the neighbourhood. My work bag, which mostly sits at my desk or hangs from my bicycle handlebars is too awkward to carry around as a shoulder bag, and my regular purse / diaper bag / shopper too heavy to wear on my shoulder when full. Here was my chance to design a collapsible / expandable shoulder bag that could also be worn as a backpack when pushing a stroller or wearing my baby in her carrier.
My husband helped with all of the design details and made the beautiful drawings, and we are now the proud owners of two gorgeous bespoke leather bags. His is made of Indian leather and lined with a velvety cotton (cost €70), mine is made of Vietnamese leather and lined with a sturdy cotton (cost €120). To my surprise, my husband likes my bag more. Patent pending.
2. Surfing – never share a wave
A primary goal of our family sabbatical is to become decent surfers. When we were researching where to stay in Vietnam for a month, my husband was delighted to learn that much of the coast of Vietnam has waves in January-March, though it was difficult to get really accurate information. He canvassed the coastline on Google Earthed and streetview and couldn’t find any surf schools or rental shops, and just hoped we could figure it out when we arrived.
In our delightful little village of An Bang Beach there were a total of four surfers, and one of them happened to be the husband of our host. He lent us a perfect 6’6 board (short enough for Reinier to learn how to turn, long enough for me to catch a wave) and we could surf any time the waves weren’t too big for us.
As one Australian tourist summed it up ‘the surf isn’t particularly good, but the fact that you have all of the waves all to yourself all of the time makes this a really remarkable place to surf’.
1. Gamble on anything, anywhere
Think it’s an innocent card game that family is playing on the sidewalk? We were surprised to learn that Vietnamese people love to gamble, and seem to gamble on anything and everything. The half dozen times I went to have my laundry washed down the road, a game of Big Two was happening in the front yard, with money being exchanged after each round. (I still regret bashfully declining their invitation to join a game)
We stayed next to a coffee shop and every morning for a month were awoken by boisterous laughter at around 5AM. During Tet (Vietnamese New Year), we began recognising the word ‘Canga’ amongst the raucous — a word we remembered from wishing people a ‘Happy New Year of the Chicken’ (Chúc Mừng Năm Mới 2017 ‘Canga’ — not sure about how to spell the last word for chicken, but the locals definitely said ‘canga’).
Finally one morning I got in closer to see what all of the excitement was about: a board game with different animals (including a chicken), where players roll the dice and some people win and others lose.
We saw gambling happening everywhere, especially during Tet. We even heard of places called ‘Bird Bars’ where people bet on which bird will sing the longest, but I could never verify this and doubted that singing was all the birds had to compete doing.
What surprises did you find in Vietnam?