Vietnamese Market

2017 Vietnam: Culture & Cuisine Field Report

Pepper Trail|March 31, 2017|Field Report

Thursday, February 2, 2017 - Hanoi, Vietnam

After some long hours (or days) of travel, we arrived in Vietnam at last! The Hotel de l’Opera’s lovely breakfast served as the meeting place for our group, as we gathered together for the first time before quickly scattering on our first day’s adventures. One group set off for the morning Hanoi City tour, beginning at the Ethnography Museum, where we learned about Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups and saw full-scale replicas of their traditional houses, constructed by tribal craftsmen on the museum’s grounds. This was followed by a visit to the War History Museum and the notorious Hoa Lo Prison, constructed by the French to house political prisoners, and later known as the “Hanoi Hilton” when it held American prisoners of war.

Another group had a much more serene morning, meditating at the Sung Phuc Zen Monastery and visiting the nearby woodworking village. And yet another group headed to the Hanoi Cooking Center, where they visited a local market, and used the purchased ingredients to prepare spring rolls and an out-of-this-world ginger chicken.

The afternoon continued the “culture and cuisine” theme of this voyage, with one group embarking on a city tour, and another sampling some of Hanoi’s famous street food, ending with delicious Vietnamese “egg coffee” at a tiny coffee house hidden away in the maze of the Old Quarter.

After a brief break to freshen up, we traveled to the Kim Son Pagoda on the outskirts of the city for a fantastic evening of feasting and entertainment. Expedition Leader Michael Moore (affectionately referred to as MiMo) gave his official welcome, and then surrendered the stage to the Bamboo and Reeds musical group. This ensemble of five musicians and three dancers blew us all away with their incredible virtuosity on flutes, drums, and various Vietnamese stringed instruments, most memorably the “monochord” or dan bau, whose one string the master player could make sound like an electric guitar, a Theremin, a banjo, and a synthesizer. A well-deserved standing ovation signaled the end of an unforgettable first day in Vietnam.


Friday, February 3 - Hanoi / Haiphong / Embark Coral Discoverer

We enjoyed a fantastic morning in Hanoi, beginning with visits to two remarkable museums. The Fine Arts Museum has an unrivalled collection, from the dramatic Hindu sculptures of the Cham culture to exquisite Buddhas; the unique Women’s Museum celebrates the roles of women in Vietnamese family life, culture, and history, and has an extensive display on the “Mother Goddess,” a distinctly Vietnamese spiritual tradition emphasizing compassion and harmony.

Following the cultured serenity of the museums, we threw ourselves into the dizzying cacophony of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. This famous maze of 36 streets was established as the trading center of the original city, with each street devoted to a particular guild, from shoes to spices. Today it remains a hub of traditional trade, with a very modern overlay of souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, crowds of both locals and tourists, and, of course, a constant torrent of motorbikes pushing through the narrow lanes. It was an exhilarating and slightly terrifying immersion in the vibrant life of this fascinating city.

Lunch in the Wild Rice restaurant provided one of the great highlights of the trip, as we were joined by the US Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius. His eloquent and informative remarks on the political and economic relations between Vietnam and the United States gave us all new insights into these complex matters, and hopes for continued progress despite the uncertainties ahead.

We then said tam biet (farewell) to Hanoi, and set off for Haiphong and the Coral Discoverer. The two-hour bus ride took us through the rich rice paddies of the Red River Delta, and it was wonderful to embark the Coral Discoverer, our home for the next 10 days. The welcome reception and delicious seafood buffet set the tone for a fantastic voyage on this beautiful ship.


Saturday, February 4 - Halong Bay

We awoke to find ourselves surrounded by gray karst monoliths rising from the waters of Halong Bay, ghostly in the misty rain. This turned to a pelting downpour as we boarded the Coral Discoverer’s roomy Xplorer excursion boat and motored toward Cat Ba Island. Our local guide, Anh, told us that hard rains like this were completely unheard-of in February, which at least made us feel special! Amazingly, the clouds broke up as we neared Cat Ba National Park, and we were able to enjoy our hike in sunny weather. Led by MiMo and Jack Grove, about a dozen stalwarts made it to the top of Ngu Lam peak for a panoramic view of the forested interior of the island, while the rest contented themselves with climbing partway up the rough-hewn rock steps through the forest before turning back for some Vietnamese coffee at the park café. Meanwhile, Pepper Trail and his birders had some great sightings, including colorful crimson sunbirds and handsome stripe-throated bulbuls.

After returning for lunch on board, we set out again, this time for Viet Hai, a remote Cat Ba Island farming village. On the way, we stopped to offer incense at a colorful Taoist shrine. Viet Hai is nestled in a valley ringed by karst peaks, and its fertile fields are full of cabbages, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and a variety of other crops, which the villagers sell to the market in Cat Ba town. Our local guides provided fascinating commentary on the life of the village, including visits to the cemetery and the school. A few brave (or foolhardy) souls sampled snake wine (rice wine with snakes marinating in the jars), and everyone enjoyed a snack of tea and boiled sweet potatoes at the end of our exploration of Viet Hai.

Back onboard, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset cruise to our new anchorage, followed by the captain’s welcome cocktail party. It was a memorable setting, with the bright lights of Halong City in the distance, and the even brighter lights of the nighttime squid fishing fleet around us on all sides. All in all, an unforgettable first day aboard the Coral Discoverer.


Sunday, February 5 - Halong Bay

Today we explored the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay in two Vietnamese junks, cruising slowly through a maze of karst islands and picturesque islets with descriptive names like the Frog, the Human Head, and the Fighting Cocks—and coming up with a few names of our own, including the Whale and the Dreidel. A highlight of the morning was our sampan ride through the floating village of Cua Van. A few of us tried our hands at rowing these buoyant but ungainly craft, but quickly surrendered the oars to the local boatmen (and boatwomen), who made it look effortless. Any slight pangs of hunger some of us may have felt were relieved by the appearance of a local “convenience store” sampan, which pulled up alongside to offer chips, cookies, and beer, among other necessities.

Back on board the junks, we relocated to the Tien Ong Cave, one of the many caverns found in these limestone islands. This cave has been the subject of extensive archaeological excavation, and we viewed the middens formed of mollusk shells that formed the mainstay of the diet of the ancient inhabitants 8,000 years ago. The cave also featured impressive stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone features, as well as an inquisitive dog, who escorted us through the cavern.

After lunch onboard, our lecture program began in earnest. Kathleen Stephens gave us an overview of political and economic trends in Vietnam with, Vietnam Today and Tomorrow, and Pepper followed with, Wild Vietnam: A Legacy in Peril, which presented the country’s rich—and unfortunately threatened—biodiversity. Our first recap session rounded out an educational day with topics ranging from paleomalacology by Jack and karst geology by MiMo, to the water-based cultures of Asia by Ron Wixman and Hanoi-inspired poetry by Pepper. Never a dull moment on this voyage!


Monday, February 6 - Vinh Moc

After an unusual opportunity to sleep in until 8am, we awoke to find the Coral Discoverer making its way south at a leisurely pace through the Tonkin Gulf. It was a beautiful calm and sunny morning, and many of us enjoyed time on deck before heading inside for Ron’s lecture, Traditional vs Modern Agriculture in Southeast Asia. Jack followed with his presentation, Ocean Acidification and Biodiversity in the Sea, which explained this insidious threat to ocean life due to carbon dioxide emissions.

We reached the mouth of the Song Bo Dien River at lunchtime, and soon set off in the Xplorer to make a landing in the town of Cua Viet. There, we found ourselves to be local celebrities, as the provincial governor, reporters, and a TV crew were all on hand to document our arrival. We set off by bus for the bridge over the Ben Hai River, which marked the location of the former Demilitarized Zone at 17th Parallel, dividing North and South Vietnam. We walked across this bridge and visited the museum on the other side, showing scenes of the division and then reunification of Vietnam at this historic spot.

Our final objective was the Vinh Moc tunnels, where the residents of the town of Vinh Moc lived underground for much of the Vietnam War following the destruction of their homes by US bombing. Most of us ventured into the tunnels, which required us to stoop and navigate the narrow passageways for about 820 feet—a small proportion of the over 1.5 miles of tunnels that the villagers constructed. The determination of the people not to abandon their homes despite the extraordinary sacrifices required to live underground made a deep impression on all of us.

The return to the ship was an adventure, as the trusty Xplorer pushed its way through strong swells, leaving most of us damp but exhilarated from the sea spray. The rest of the voyage will see us coming in to docks, but it was exciting to have this taste of the expedition life.


Tuesday, February 7 - Hue

Hue is one of the greatest cultural sites in Vietnam, the seat of the Nguyen Emperors, the country’s last royal dynasty. One group devoted the day to exploring this rich history, with an extensive tour of the famous Chinese-inspired royal Citadel on the banks of the Perfume River.

The rest of us set out on a 6-mile bicycle ride to Thanh Thuy village, along a canal and past rice paddies, with memorable stops at a bustling rural market and the tranquil Princess Huyen Tran Temple. We cruised on small boats on the Nhu Y River, where our boatmen pulled up their traps and nets to reveal meager catches of shrimp and tiny fish.

A particular highlight was our cooking class, where we were divided into three groups, which prepared nem ran (spring rolls), banh khoai (prawn pancakes), and va tron tom thit (green figs mixed with shrimp and pork). Our actual contribution was mostly limited to slicing and stuffing—and, of course, the all-important eating!

Following lunch, everyone enjoyed a dragon boat cruise on the Perfume River. One boat had its progress interrupted by a line of about 20 water buffalo swimming across the broad river, truly a memorable sight! The last highlight of the day was a visit to an artist’s studio in Sinh Village, where we all had the opportunity to make woodblock prints of our signs in the Chinese Zodiac—personal souvenirs of an unforgettable day.


Wednesday, February 8 - Da Nang / Hoi An

We began our explorations of Da Nang and Hoi An with a visit to the Linh Ung Pagoda. Dominated by a gleaming white 220-foot tall statue of Quan Am, the bodhisattva of compassion (known in China as Quan Yin), this pagoda faces south over the bay and is located at one of the key points that make the Da Nang region particularly favored in geomancy. Having our serenity refreshed, our two groups set off on our adventures.

One group visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site of My Son; this was the spiritual capital of the great Hindu Cham culture. Located in a beautiful valley that for Cham geomancers represented the female principle and beneath a peak representing the male principle, the crumbling brick shrines and meditation chambers are a haunting remnant of a great lost culture.

Meanwhile, another group toured the city of Da Nang, once the site of the largest American air base during the Vietnam War. Today, Da Nang has transformed into a bustling resort center, with luxury hotels and condominiums rising behind the beautiful beach, known to Vietnam veterans as China Beach. A visit to the market was, as usual, colorful and interesting.

A highlight of the Da Nang tour was the Museum of Cham Sculpture, where the finest examples of the exquisite Hindu sculptures are preserved. This was followed by a visit to a contemporary marble carving studio, where Vietnamese artists carry on the tradition with amazing skill and imagination.

Our groups then met up for a memorably abundant and delicious lunch in Hoi An before beginning our exploration of this beautiful city, recognized as a World Heritage Site for its remarkably well-preserved 18th- and 19th-century buildings. The narrow lanes are hung with Chinese lanterns and lined with tailor shops and small stores selling lanterns, silk clothing, and embroidery, as well as every imaginable souvenir. Many purchases were made and happily displayed back on board—perhaps none more proudly than MiMo’s resplendent tuxedo, custom-tailored in an afternoon!


Thursday, February 9 - Qui Nhon

We enjoyed a relaxing morning at sea, enlivened with two wide-ranging lectures. Stanford lecturer Kathleen Stephens presented Vietnam and the Region, a brilliant overview of Vietnam’s relations with its neighbors, rooting present conflicts in their historical and cultural context; and Ron followed with Religious Culture in Vietnam, illuminating the country’s unique historical blend of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism in relation to world religious thought.

The small city of Qui Nhon offered a wonderful and relaxing afternoon. One group toured the city, with stops at the Whale Temple (where fishermen pray for full nets and safety at sea at an altar decorated with whale ribs), the Binh Dinh Museum, the spectacular Long Khanh Pagoda, and the beautifully restored Twin Cham Towers in the heart of town. They ended the day with a visit to Qui Nhon’s beautiful beach, which curves along the entire bay—and a few brave souls got their feet wet in the waters of the South China Sea.

The second group ranged further afield, with a visit to the Quang Trung Museum, where they were treated to a traditional martial arts performance—an “intangible treasure” recognized by UNESCO. The grounds of the museum also feature the replica of a long house and other exhibits of regional culture. These travelers concluded their day with a climb to the top of the massive Banh It Cham tower, built high on a hillside with a spectacular view of the city and its bay. The tower’s great terrace is large enough to accommodate a herd of cows, which we were surprised to encounter on our climb. Expect the unexpected in Vietnam!


Friday, February 10 - Van Phong Bay / Port Dayot / Nha Trang

The early morning found us entering beautiful Van Phong Bay north of Nha Trang, sailing between dramatic cliffs and past dozens of floating pens for raising prawns. Squalls of hard rain passed as we readied the Xplorer to head to shore, clearing just in time for our visit to Dam Mon village.

The birders set off with Pepper to see what they could find, spotting beautiful blue-tailed and little green bee-eaters, Burmese shrikes, Chinese pond herons, and red collared-doves. It was great to see an abundance of birds after so many stops with little sign of wildlife.

Most of us toured Dam Mon, a rare opportunity to see the life of a village without tourist development. We sampled street food, explored the fish market, and walked the narrow lanes where the villagers were going about their daily activities. Everywhere we were met with smiles—and sometimes more than that: one lucky guest attracted great interest from the local marriage broker! A delightful highlight was our visit to the village kindergarten, where children sang a Vietnamese song to the tune of Frère Jacques, and we sang back our English version, to their confused giggles.

We returned to the ship and set sail for Nha Trang; we soon arrived in the busy harbor and berthed near the Eiffel-tower shaped pylons supporting the tramway to the Vin Pearl Resort, Vietnam’s version of Disneyland. Our afternoon tours introduced us to this burgeoning resort city, with visits to the great Long Son Pagoda, the beautifully restored Po Nagar Cham towers, and one of the silk embroidery centers for which the region is famous. The final stop was the aquarium of the Vietnam Oceanographic Institute, where Jack led us through exhibits of sea turtles, sharks, and reef fish.

After an opportunity to rest and freshen up back onboard, many of us ventured out to sample Nha Trang’s famous restaurants and nightlife.


Saturday, February 11 - Nha Trang

Our second day in Nha Trang offered a menu of experiences—quite literally, in the case of the group who selected the cooking class option! They convened at the luxurious Cham Island Resort and minced and blended up a complete feast of Vietnamese delicacies. Following their well-earned enjoyment of this well-cooked meal, the group retired to the spa, where they were promised soothing mud baths. These turned out to be hot tub-like affairs, accommodating five or six guests in warm muddy water. Not quite as expected, perhaps, but everyone agreed it was fun and relaxing, and all emerged from their vigorous rinsing with that special spa glow.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were enjoying a variety of cultural demonstrations, beginning with mat weaving. The skill of the weavers with their simple loom was extraordinary, and their inventory of finished mats was soon snapped up by our enthusiastic shoppers. Then it was on to tour a restored 200-year-old traditional house, after which we transferred into small boats for a cruise down the Cai River. We enjoyed further stops for demonstrations of traditional clay stove-making (the ancient design shaped by hand and foot), and coconut harvesting.

A final stretch of river carried us past the boatyards where large fishing junks were under construction, and then to the steps of the Cham Island Resort, where we had lunch featuring the same menu that our fellow passengers had prepared for themselves earlier. 

By early afternoon we were all back onboard the Coral Discoverer, and heading south toward Ho Chi Minh City. A late-afternoon lecture by Pepper on Fighting Crime with Feathers: The Casebook of a Forensic Biologist provided a welcome diversion from the rather heavy seas, but the captain’s skillful handling kept us mostly riding smoothly on top of the swells.


Sunday, February 12 - At Sea / Ho Chi Minh City

We continued our voyage south for much of the day, taking advantage of the time at sea with a full schedule of talks. Pepper led off with his lecture, Love on the Wing: Mating Systems of Strange and Familiar Birds, followed by several guests who were Vietnam veterans and shared their wartime experiences. Each had served in different roles, and it was a rare privilege to hear their memories and perspectives.

At mid-day, we began our long passage up the Saigon River. A fantastic barbeque lunch on the sun deck provided us the opportunity to watch the scenery roll past, as extensive mangrove forests slowly gave way to urban development. Just as it was getting too hot to stay in the sun, Kathleen presented, America at War and Peace in Asia. It was the perfect capstone to our lecture program, and prepared us for our visit to the former capital of South Vietnam, now one of the most vibrant cities in Southeast Asia.

After the challenges of docking in the busy port, we set out for a short city bus tour late in the day; although the two temples that were our destination were closed by the time we reached them, the tour afforded views of Cholon, the old Chinese quarter, and was a suitable introduction to the hectic pace of life—and traffic!—in this city of over 10 million people and 8 million motorbikes.

We had a special honor when the American Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, Mary Tarnowka, joined us for dinner, followed by an open discussion over cocktails. She provided a great overview of current issues and American projects in the former South Vietnam, with two of her staff also giving summaries of their work in the political and agricultural arenas.


Monday, February 13 - Mekong Delta / Ho Chi Minh City

After an early breakfast, we were on our way to the Mekong Delta, two hours by bus south of Ho Chi Minh City. Our drivers somehow navigated the crazy city traffic, and we emerged unscathed into the quiet rice paddies and villages of the countryside.

Arriving at one of the many tributaries of the Mekong, we transferred to two tour boats and made our way upstream past houses on stilts, floating markets, barges, mats of water hyacinth, ferries, and sampans of every size and shape. Our first excursion off these boats was in small 4-passenger sampans, rowed by conical-hatted ladies who piloted us along a narrow canal cutting across a great curve in the river. It was peaceful floating through the mangroves, looking up at the gardens of houses along the water, with bulbul birds flitting overhead. Then we visited a village for demonstrations on the preparation of rice “paper” (crepe-like discs of steamed rice flour), puffed rice, rice candy, and—for a change from the rice theme—snake wine. There was also an opportunity to have a large python draped over our shoulders—an opportunity that a surprising number of our group took advantage of!

We had a great lunch at a restaurant next to an ancient house; the main course was “elephant-ear fish,” which initially mystified even Jack, but which a bit of Internet sleuthing revealed to be giant gourami. Whatever it was, it was delicious!

After the bus ride back to the ship, we had a quick turnaround to get into our evening clothes and head out to a performance of “A O” at the Saigon Opera House. This incredible performance of cirque-style acrobatics, music, and dance with an amazing array of bamboo objects of all shapes and sizes is a truly original Vietnam experience, and left us all buzzing as we headed to a memorable dinner at the Hoa Tuc Restaurant a few blocks away.


Tuesday, February 14 - Ho Chi Minh City

Our last full day in Vietnam proved to have some of our most memorable adventures! One group set off on a 7.5-mile bike ride in the countryside, through villages and across (and sometimes into!) rice paddies. Despite a few undignified dismounts, all agreed that it was just about the most fun they’d had in Vietnam, and any aches and pains were quickly dispelled by a delicious lunch at the end of their exertions.

The other group traveled to the HCM Cooking Class, located on an organic farm an hour and a half outside the city. Master chef and television-ready personality Luong Viet Tan first led us through the herb and vegetable garden, explaining the traditional uses of the various mints and other herbs, as well as such horticultural secrets as the use of chicken dung to increase the spiciness of chili peppers. We harvested ingredients for our cooking as we went, including snow-white oyster mushrooms from the impressive mushroom-growing operation. Then we assembled in the kitchen, for lessons on making stir-fry and barbeque sauces, and then a total of five dishes, with stir-fried pork with ginger and lemongrass being a particular hit. We all planned on trying out Chef Tan’s recipes, given to all of us along with our certificate of graduation, once we arrived home.

After a quick turnaround back at the ship, many of us set out again for a short city tour, with visits to the former South Vietnamese Presidential Palace, the Vietnam History Museum, and the famous Gustave Eiffel-designed Saigon Post Office. Then it was back to the Coral Discoverer for the captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner, followed by a wonderful slideshow of our voyage put together by Jack Grove. We have covered a lot of ground in the past two weeks, made great friends and lasting memories. 

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