I’ve been writing so infrequently that this is starting to become a travel blog. That’s totally not my intention – it just happens that I’ve been so fortunate recently, getting to see new places. I plan to write more often but, for now, I’m picking up on the real star of my Asia trip – Vietnam!
This trip was my most meaningful to date. I’m a first generation Asian American, born in the US, and my family is from Vietnam (even though we are ethnically Chinese, more on that later). Like many immigrant families that came to the US as a result of the Vietnam war, mine never talked much about their lives before immigrating. I suspect this is a difficult conversation and a chapter of their lives they’d prefer to leave behind. In my childhood, I seldom asked anyone about our history.
Over the years, as I became closer to my mother (ironically, by moving further away geographically), I started to become more and more curious. Why did we speak Chinese if our family was from Vietnam? What was life like there? She gave me little nuggets, but insisted always that this was so long ago, hard to remember, and didn’t matter anyway (not true).
SE Asia had always been on my bucket list, and it was clear that my motherland, literally, my mother’s land, had to be the main attraction.
I teamed up with my friend, Christina, for part of the trip, and planned parts of it to be solo. The trip ended up being a journey from central to south, with a stop on an island, each part with its own unique magic and one part with a uniquely horrifying stomach bug (more on that next time).
Let me share with you my favorite parts of the first stop – a coastal city called Da Nang.
My traveling companion and I decided this would be our ‘splurge’ of the trip, so we booked a fancy hotel along the beach with a balcony view. When we arrived, the weather was sunny, and holy shit, that view was breathtaking.
I achieved my dream to become a Vietnamese honey by way of buying a custom tailored ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress – a fitted longer top that goes up to the neck and covers the upper half of arms, and flows down to the knees, with two slits up on the sides that go up to the hip, flowing pants underneath. This is my favorite outfit and I’m waiting for someone to get married so I may wear it again someday. Honestly, this picture doesn’t do it justice so if I don’t get invited to your wedding, guess who is popping up for a photoshoot when the flowers are out in Central Park?
You guessed right, this Vietnamese Honey.
We visited a place called the Marble Mountains, which was an incredible site of Buddhist temples scattered throughout a mountain and inside its caves. We took an elevator up, and went walking / light-hiking around, and took many pictures (as my friend would say, disrespecting our ancestors for the ‘gram). This site was absolutely beautiful, nestled within nature and so well preserved, even though I got eaten alive by jungle mosquitos despite wearing 90% deet.
Marble Mountain was amazing and I highly recommend visiting if you end up in central Vietnam. But, be warned, it’s not friendly towards anyone unable to handle steep hills and uneven steps. The elevator will get you to the bottom of the top of the mountain, but you still have to climb around to see the sights. It had your girl sweating for the ancestors while bowing to all the shrines (mom would have been proud, I even did the one where you touch your forehead to the ground three times).
Then, we went in a cave.
Ya know I love a good pamper and now, the spa game is forever changed – I had the best massage and facial I’ve ever gotten in my life here in Da Nang. It was so good, I went back the next day again and brought my friend. If you are ever in Da Nang, it’s absolutely imperative that you visit Herbal Spa and ask for the longest massage possible as well as the herbal facial. Everything that lady put on my face smelled so good (jasmine, lemongrass, mint), at one point, I actually stuck my tongue out to taste the almond butter sweet smelling mask on my face to check if it was actually almond butter. Couldn’t tell – but could tell you it was sweet!
Let me say this: a 12 hour time zone change after 24 hours of travel is rough on the body, so every chance I got (almost every day) I booked myself a massage. It also doesn’t hurt that a three-hour, life-restoring treatment ends up being $21 dollars.
Finally, I started eating real Vietnamese food in all its fish-saucy glory, with a side of the herbs you can’t find in the US, ones I hadn’t even seen in San Jose, California. That’s saying something. I learned from my friend that (warning you now not to think I’m dumb) there are regional specialties within Vietnam that are super unique to those areas.
I believe food is the best way to connect to and understand a culture, so any chance I get to try new foods, I go in. I thought I knew Vietnamese food because I ate it growing up, but was so glad to learn there was much more than what I’d eaten. Having Christina as my beacon of light / food allowed me to try more varieties of Vietnamese food than I would have on my own, and it helped that she spoke Vietnamese, knew the regional specialties, and had high standards for the cuisine. All I had to do was open my gullet.
Here’s some of what I ate and I’m sorry that I had to put my vegetarianism on hold for this but also I can’t go to Vietnam and not eat as the Vietnamese do. My own ancestors would disown me.
My friend visited her family and came back with two big ass bags of magical, leaf wrapped sticky dumpling things that I am almost entirely sure I could not find out here. I know this was my first time eating these.
First are banh bot loc chuoi. I am not going to pretend I can pronounce that so I refer to them as the leaf wrapped clear gummy things with a shrimp inside.
I cannot tell you how badly I want to eat this again and how sad I am to know the East Coast doesn’t have it. I don’t even know if they have these in San Jose…Guess I’ll just have to go back to Da Nang.
So, in addition to my highlights, I do have to say central Vietnam is quite rainy and overcast much of the time, although it does not get cold. I love the sunshine so that was a bummer for me, but being surrounded by mountains, sea, and jungle did help me feel better even if the skies were gray.
Also, transportation-wise, I also want to reassure anyone who might be interested in traveling the cities of Vietnam that you are SO in luck. There is an app called Grab, which basically Uber (in fact, I think it might actually be owned by Uber), which will get you wherever you need to go as long as you have cell service. Unlike Uber, you pay the driver with cash, but that’s easy enough because the app shows you exactly how much to pay. Being able to travel from place to place so conveniently was super clutch. Also, the fun part is that in some places, you can either call a car or a motorbike to pick you up. It’s cheaper, easier and more fun to ride motorbike 😉
Thanks for joining me on the first of my motherland series. Next time, we’ll get into my adventures in Hoi An and Hue, and tell you how I almost died (not really, kind of).