For the past week I’ve been staying with some extended family of mine (for simplicity’s sake – an aunt, uncle & cousin) in the city formerly known as Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I have to say, this week has been one of the best all year and I can’t thank them enough for the wonderful time I had!
I’d met this part of my family before, but it’d obviously been a while considering they live in Vietnam, and I was in America. My plan all along has been to visit with them once I arrived in Vietnam, but because I was traveling with friends when I first entered from Cambodia, I decided to do my little backpacking jaunt first, and then visit them. I’m glad I did because I got to experience the “backpacker” culture of Vietnam for a good three weeks, and then one week of quiet, relaxation and peaceful company with the family.
There are so many things to say about my week with my family in Saigon. I was spoiled rotten, for one. The first time in a long, long time. And it felt good. Really good. It was wonderful to have a bedroom again. And to not have to worry about a single thing. My family took more than enough care of me and treated me to some awesome trips, delicious food and bought me more things than I can say I need. Honestly, it was so wonderful to visit with my family and get a truly unique experience in Saigon.
Some of my highlights:
Boat trip on the Mekong Delta
We visited some of the cities towns and beaches around HCMC on several different afternoons, but one day my family took me to the Tien Giang province for a boat trip around some of the islands in the Mekong River delta. It was a bit of a hike to get there, so we left early. On the way, we stopped for breakfast and I had probably what’s become my favorite Vietnamese dish: broken rice with pork. I’m going to miss the breakfasts in Asia – always meaty and more like dinner, none of this eggs & cereal crap.
Anyways, while making our way to the boat, we also visited a snake farm. There weren’t many people and the snakes were kept in pretty sad-looking cages (not to mention some other animals in even smaller cages), but it was relatively interesting to see. Apparently I should’ve been more worried about death-by-snake here in Vietnam.
After haggling for a good deal on a boat and a tour of the Ben Tre islands, we made our way to the first island. All the normal tourist traps fell into place: fresh honey, coconut candies, traditional music, tropical fruits. While normally I don’t like these kind of things, I really enjoyed it with my family. Seeing as how they were local, I realized that the international tourists go through the exact same motions.
I always love being on a boat and this trip wasn’t any different. We enjoyed a massive lunch (and a short nap on a hammock) on the second island we visited: Phoenix Island. There I learned a little about a seemingly cult-like figure known as the Coconut Monk, which was interesting but apparently not interesting enough to merit a Wikipedia article (or else I’d share that). Lunch, like I just mentioned, was massive: fish, dinosaur eggs, all the fixin’s.
Attending a Vietnamese wedding
Early during my stay with my family, they told me the family had been invited to a wedding. They asked if I’d be interested to see a Vietnamese wedding, and of course I said yes! I guess technically this wasn’t my first considering I was at my aunt’s wedding in Texas, but it was really interesting to attend one in Vietnam. This is the second “traditional” wedding I’ve attended on this trip (the first being my friend’s family in India) — another reason why I’m glad I brought a nice pair of pants, not just crappy clothing.
Like any good wedding, it was all about the food! I got to try a bunch of different, delicious meals. My cousin Tifo was kind enough to explain every bit of the process. Weddings in Vietnam are really just about the food. The actual ceremony is a small, family affair. The reception, though, is BIG and all about enjoying food, good company and lots of chatter. Not to mention the constant yelling of “Yo!” (“Cheers!”) every time someone new walked by the table, marking the beginning of a new round of drinks and clinking of beer glasses.
After the wedding, which really was more like a long lunch with hundreds of people, we drove down to one of the beaches where I saw the billion-dollar construction of a resort. For dinner that night, we had some delicious seafood on the coast, watching the sunrise. Dinner was sea snake, baby squids and shrimps.
Trying all those foods I’d avoided thus far
Almost immediately after I arrived at my family’s house, they wanted to know what things I was typically trying to do while traveling around the world. “Are you looking for cultural experiences, food, interesting people…” More specifically, they wanted to know what I was most interested about in Vietnam. My answer: the food.
So with that in mind, I spent the next week eating everything they put in front of me. From balut (fertilized duck egg) to dog meat. (Actually, they didn’t really like the idea of dog meat seeing as how they don’t eat it. Instead, Tifo took me and some of his friends where we all tried it for the first–or second–time.)
My aunt was also intent to have me try as many tropical fruits as possible. Many of them I’d had before without knowing their names, but notably, they introduced me to the amazingly delicious (really, I think it may be indescribable how delicious this fruit is) mangosteen. I have a new love in life and it is the mangosteen. I’ll be sure to plan my next trip to Asia around its harvest season.
Visiting the War Museum and talking history, politics
On another day, while my uncle and cousin were both busy, my aunt and I walked around central Saigon. I’d wanted to visit the War Museum because I really felt like I needed to get a better grasp on Vietnam’s history. Traveling as an American in Vietnam can sometimes be hard, and though there is a lot of propaganda, some of it is definitely worth seeing.
The museum is mostly photographs and a lot was definitely propaganda. When I first arrived in Vietnam, I was reading the book The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc. It’s a really interesting book and an even more interesting perspective of the war. The photograph you’ll probably recognize and I was surprised to see it in the museum, though without the back story you get in the book.
There was one other photograph in the museum which caught my eye. It’s John Filo’s photo from the Kent State protest. And what was so interesting about seeing this one was that the museum had the WRONG photo up! The famous has been notable recently because of an altered, photoshopped version of it that has since become more popular than the original. You can read more about the interesting history behind the photo here. I thought it was interesting the museum was using the wrong photo.
While staying with my family it was also interesting to hear some of their personal stories about Vietnam’s history. I learned about some famous generals from Vietnam’s ancient past, the Vietnam-China relationship and also of the Vietnam War (often called the American War here). There was a lot to take in.
Delicious meals, a comfy bed and good company
Really what was so wonderful about my week in Saigon was being able to spend time with a part of my family I don’t see often and haven’t had as much of a chance to get to know. My aunt and uncle welcomed me so graciously into their home and I loved every minute with them. My cousin Tifo was so kind to explain every little thing I didn’t know or understand, to show me around and to introduce me to his friends.
I left with more than just new underwear, clean clothes, new toiletries and new shoes. I’ve come away knowing more about my family and about Vietnam. But perhaps most poignantly, with a full belly.