Bollywood and butter chicken have done more for cross border unity than any politician.
What do I and Aishwarya Rai have in common?
We are both Indian beauties.
Or so I, and my friend Luna, was told at Nha Trang.
It was the fourth day of our trip to Vietnam. The man at the reception of our hotel looked at us and said, “You are from India.” It wasn’t a question but a statement. “Indian women are easy to recognise, they’re very beautiful, like Aishwarya Rai.”
I wanted to protest – isn’t Sushmita Sen prettier – but I didn’t want to burst his Rai-bubble. He followed that up with a million dollar question. “Why are there no Indians winning the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants anymore?”
Ho Chi Minh City street food
This was my first visit to Vietnam – a country abundant in delicious street food, great beef, stunning hillsides, spectacular landscapes and a strange love for India. Luna and I had planned this trip eight months in advance, after an online airline sale. We chose Vietnam over other South East Asian countries because initial research made us fall in love with the food, the landscapes and the fact that the currency works in our favour – 1 INR is 332 Vietnamese Dong (We drank pints of beer for Rs 12!).
Dalat manmade lake, google image
Mother Nature has been kind to Vietnam, a country that has struggled through war and hardships and a weak economy. The country’s natural beauty varies when moving from the north to south. Up north are natural wonders like the karsts and isles in Ha Long Bay and Hanoi’s many lakes. Central Vietnam has sand dunes in Mui Ne, sandy beaches in Nha Trang and in the South, the Mekong Delta gives a look at an ancient riverside lifestyle and a habitat.
Beauty in diversity certainly holds true in Vietnam.
The first thing we did after landing in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) was to head to the Burger King and scarf down beef burgers; made of real beef, a luxury we aren’t afforded in Mumbai.
Saigon is a vibrant place. During the day, walking about its streets armed with a map to help with directions, we discovered the city’s touristy side. While I clicked pictures of the churches, the post office, opera house and gorgeous cafés, Luna insisted on clicking places whose names were funny. There was Blessing Hotel, the Hoka (ho ka loosely translated in Marathi means yes?), the Hotel Tan Hai and Que Sera Sera (remember the Hindi song?) coffee house.
We shopped for coffee at the Ben Thanh Market, visited the night market and ate noodles in a park that had senior citizens practicing ballroom moves in one corner and youngsters skateboarding in another.
Pham-ngu-lao (backpackers area). Image credit: theleapfrog.weebly.com
And we always wound up at the noisy backpackers’ area, filled with tourists sitting on small stools on the pavement and drinking beer. The first night, we met up with a friend I had made on Instagram. As talk about India came up, we asked him about his favourite Indian film. “There’s this story I like. It talks about child marriage….it highlights the social evil of a young girl who is dragged into child marriage.” After much thinking, we realised he was talking about Balika Vadhu, the child marriage saga that is still burning up TV sets back home.
A few days in, after having our fill of grilled pork and meat, our Indian stomachs were craving for some ghar ka khaana, specifically dal-rice and chai. A quick Google search took us to the Taj Mahal restaurant. The very Indian name aside, the place was actually run by Pakistanis. Over plates of butter chicken, rice, masala pappad and masala chai, we listened to the owner Mr Zaman, talk about the city. Soon, others joined in.
Two hours later, we realised that though a border may divide us, we share many habits. Chief among them was the penchant to freely dispense advice – they told us where to exchange Indian currency, taught us a few basic Vietnamese words, recommended places to visit and how to get there and generally, did not stop talking.
2 Idiots in Da Lat
We landed in the hill station of Da Lat on a freezing morning; the place was one of Mr Zaman’s recommendations. The peaceful town is known for its manmade Xuan Huong Lake and for its Eiffel Tower replica – basically a communications tower. There’s also a flower garden, the kinds you see Bollywood songs of yore shot in.
Eiffel Tower replica, google image
One of the girls at our home stay in Da Lat squealed with delight on hearing we were Indian. “I love Indian men,” she said. “They’re so handsome.” She then proceeded to talk at length about her favourite Indian movies - at that moment she was obsessed with 3 Idiots and had seen it a 100 time, 99 times more than I had! Before leaving, she made us promise to get two Indian men along.
Da Lat old railway station, google image
A search for food took us to the Dalat Train Café – a restaurant inside an abandoned train compartment. We entertained ourselves watching the tourists take photos on the tracks – trains were clearly a novelty for them and a daily reality for us. But to pay tribute to Luna’s obsessive Bollywood-ness, we recreated the iconic ending of DDLJ minus the cloying patriarchy, bloodied clothes and heavy ghagra. We did have very amused onlookers though.
It was in Da Lat that we learned of another Indian obsession.
One evening, we stopped at a market stall to buy dehydrated food – fruit, fruit peels, strips of beef, dried fish - while nervously eyeing the dead snakes in murky liquid peering out at us from wine bottles. The shop owner and her husband were very distracted – they would hand us a bowl and retreat to the back. Curious, we craned our necks to see what they were watching and were greeted by the black kohl-lined eyes and huge bindis signifying vamps in Indian television. They were watching the country’s favourite show, a dubbed version of Balika Vadhu. They watch it with the same fervor Indians would an Ekta Kapoor serial.
Later that night, we toasted our desi finding by eating a Vietnamese pizza – it looked like a masala dosa stuffed with vegetables and fish sauce.
Street market in Ho Chi Minh City
It is easy to find India everywhere you look in Vietnam. We played a local version of tambola complete with wooden boards as tickets and lots of singing. Just like in India, we had some of our favourite meals on the street - the staple Banh Mi (a baguette sandwich filled with different meats like grilled pork, pork liver, cold cuts etc), noodle soups and broths, freshly toasted crisp, thin waffles; bite sized pancakes, dried banana crisps and caramelized, crispy banana pancakes. To travel within cities, we took the night buses (think Bombay-Goa Volvo buses) – a cheap option once you look beyond the boxed in seats, no Wi-Fi and extremely cramped toilets.
Vietnam is a tourist’s delight. The currency is cheap, there is Wi-Fi everywhere you go, you can bargain before buying anything off the street, you can survive on street food, there are hostels everywhere and the transport network is very thorough.
Language (and pronunciation) is an issue, so use a map and point out locations when asking for directions.
Many eating joints give you wet wipes but these aren’t always free so ask before using them.
Vegetarians should check if their food contains fish sauce or dried shrimp (they consider this veg) before eating.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Gail Storm
Cover photo credit: Eshna Goenka