1. The liveliness
Who needs an actual shop? A motorbike aquarium shop in Ho Chi Minh city.
The moment you walk out of the airport you are surrounded with life. Coming from Finland, where it is cold a great part of the year and living outdoors is limited to the few summer months, the amount of life in the streets was a lovely and enchanting surprise. Cooking, eating, even sleeping (and on motorbikes, to make it even more exotic), everything happens in the street. The house doors are wide open, and not just in the villages. In the alley where our hotel was, elderly people spent time at the thresholds of their homes people watching, children played outside, the buzz almost never stopped.
2. The food
The famous pho – Vietnam signature dish
If you are on a strict diet, and are a picky eater, you will have a lot of trouble in Vietnam. The variety, quality and sheer presence of food literally everywhere will overwhelm you. From fresh produce sold at every corner, to delicious meals cooked and served also at every corner, you will find it difficult to resist. Not for the squeamish, though. Unlike Northern Europe, Vietnam is not a pharmacy when it comes to cleanliness. My favorites are the all different dishes with grilled seafood, the hot pot and of course the rolls. Many restaurants have you try to roll your own, which is great fun and involves much more skill than it seems.
3. The mix of the rural and urban
I visited two cities during my stay, Saigon and Nha Trang, and, even though Vietnam is a developing country, I never lacked any of the modern amenities. You can find the fanciest cafes and restaurants as well as the latest fashion and gadgets there just like anywhere else. But the charming thing about Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called) is that the country life is never far. You will see people hawking their produce just in front of huge skyscrapers with men in suits carrying laptops. Next to Ferraris there are chickens in the streets, and an overall down-to-earth approach to life. On one motorbike a person will be talking on a cell phone, and on the motorbike behind them somebody will be transporting an impossibly large pile of wood. And if you have the chance to travel around, the villages will transport you to a completely different dimension: much slower and more relaxed.
4. The coffee
I only learned recently that Vietnam is the second biggest producer of coffee in the world, after Brazil (yes, very ignorant for somebody who loves coffee, but I can always say: live and learn). The richness and variety of coffee makes it a paradise for anybody who likes their day filled with the taste and fragrance of a good cuppa. Vietnamese brew their coffee with small individual filters, and usually have it with condensed milk. This is due to the fact that fresh milk was traditionally difficult to keep in the hot climate. There are many different blends so I would suggest you to emerge your nose and palate to discover your favorite one. I loved the one that had hints of cherry and chocolate.
5. The traffic
Yes, I actually learned to love the traffic. Even though on the first day the taxi driver had to literally take the whole family by the hand to help us cross a street, you soon learn that there is a method to the madness. The incessant river of motorbikes is not as threatening as it seems in the beginning. With a bit of practice, you will realise that, as long as you do not hesitate, and time your crossing well, the bikes will just gently pass you by. A friend who has been living in Saigon for a while now described it well: the traffic there is like water: it flows, and doesn’t stop. If you make yourself a part of it, you will have no issues.
6. The countryside
Rower on the Mekong delta
On the several excursions that we took (to the Mekong delta, to the jungle, waterfalls, mud baths and different beaches), we had the chance to have a peek of the rural Vietnam. I fell in love with the vast rice fields, fruit plantations and small colorful homes. The place simply oozes fertility and joy. Yes, there is a lot of poverty, but not in the homeless sense that we know in the urban West. A simpler life, uncluttered with too much technology and in sync with the fertile soil was everywhere.
7. The presence of religion
Even though it is a social republic,governed by a communist party, Buddhism is very present in Vietnam. There are many beautiful pagodas to visit, where you can not only experience the art and the past, but also the every day worshipping habits of the local people. Every shop, restaurant and home have their own little Buddhist shrine, with offerings of food, drink and incense. This was a genuine surprise, as I grew up in a communist country and remember that there was no room for religion then.
My short stay in Vietnam was very intense: I collected many impressions, memories and lessons there. I soaked in a lot of beauty and saw a different way of life. I could go on about it forever, but a narrowed down selection of my favorite memories is above. I warmly recommend you to visit Vietnam!