VIETNAM FUN FACTS - Did you know?
Nuoc mam (fish sauce) is the one ingredient that is quintessentially Vietnamese and it lends a distinctive character to Vietnamese cooking. The sauce is made by fermenting highly salted fish in large ceramic vats for four to 12 months. Connoisseurs insist the high-grade rocket fuel has a much milder aroma than the cheaper variety. It is often used as a dipping sauce and takes the place of salt on a Western table. Insist on the real thing- you will not have been to Vietnam otherwise.
Another Vietnamese speciality is ruou ran (snake wine). This is basically rice wine with a pickled snake floating in it. This elixir is considered a tonic and allegedly cures everything from night blindness to impotence.
Seriously Feng Shui
One tradition that remains central to Vietnamese life is geomancy, or feng shui as most of us know it today. Known as phong thuy to the locals, this is the art (or science) of living in tune with the environment. Westerns planning to go into business with a Vietnamese partner will need to budget for a geomancer to ensure the venture is successful.
Pagoda or Temple?
Traveling around Vietnam, there are a lot of pagodas and temples, but how does a person know which is which? The Vietnamese regard a chua (pagoda) as a place of worship where they make offerings or pray. A Vietnamese den (temple) is not really a place of worship, but rather a structure built to honor some great historical figure.
Tet: The Big One
Tet is Christmas, New Year and birthdays all rolled into one. Tet Nguyen Dan (Festival of the First Day) ushers in the Lunar New Year and is the most significant date in the Vietnamese calendar. It’s a time when families reunite in the hope of good fortune in the coming year, and ancestral spirits are welcomed back into the family home. And the whole of Vietnam celebrates a birthday: everyone becomes a year older. If you are visiting Vietnam during tet, be sure you learn this phrase: chuc mung nam moi - Happy New Year!
The Conical Hat Dance is one of the most visually stunning of Vietnam’s folk dances. A group of women wearing ao dai (the national dress of Vietnam) shake their stuff and spin around, whirling their classic conical hats like Fred Astaire with his cane.
Aquatic Punch and Judy
The ancient art of water puppetry (roi nuoc) was virtually unknown outside of northern Vietnam until the 1960s. It is at least 1000 years old. Contemporary performances use a square tank of waist deep water for the ‘stage’; the water is murky to conceal the mechanisms that operate the puppets. The performance is a lot of fun. The water puppets are both amusing and graceful, and the water greatly enhances the drama by allowing the puppets to appear and disappear as if by magic. Spectators in the front-row seats can expect a bit of a splash.
Hill Tribe Speed Dating
Scenery aside, the other major drawcard in Ha Giang is the annual love market of Khau Vai. It takes place but once a year and draws H’mong, Dao and Tay hill tribes from all over the region. The love market is speed dating, hill tribe style. Original swingers, the good folk of Khau Vai have been wife and husband swapping for almost 100 years. Youngsters come to find a friend. Old flames fan the dying embers of a lost passion. It is an adult friend finder before the internet made it easy. However, they are not in the market for Westerners.
Vietnamese Chewing Tobacco
One thing you will undoubtedly see for sale at street stalls everywhere in Vietnam is betel nut. This is not a food- swallow it and you’ll be sorry! The betel nut is the seed of the betel palm and is meant to be chewed. The seed usually has a slit in it and is mixed with lime and wrapped in a leaf. It’s strong stuff that you can barely tolerate at first, but eventually you’ll be hooked. The first time you bit into a betel nut, your whole face gets hot- chewers say it gives them a buzz. Betel nut causes excessive salivation and betel chewers must constantly spit.
When most people think of fishing in the mountains they conjure up images of hooking river trout or lake bass. But in the arid foothills of the south-central coast there is a whole other kind of angling, and a walk in these hills can yield one of the strangest sights in Vietnam- lizard fishing. The traditional way of catching the lizards is by setting a hook on a long bamboo fishing pole and dangling bait from the top of a boulder until the spunky little reptiles strike. Lizards are served grilled, roasted or fried and are often made up into a paté and used as a dip for rice-paper crackers.
A perfect combination of Dalat’s bohemian tradition and its taste for kitsch, Hang Nga Crazy House is a guesthouse in the form of a giant surreal artwork. The architecture is Gaudi-meets-Alice in Wonderland and cannot easily be described: there are caves, giant spider webs made of wire, concrete tree trunks and scary-looking animals with glowing red eyes. Yes, it’s tacky and exceedingly commercialized, but many are astounded to find such a countercultural construction in Vietnam.