The People: There’s something to be said for a culture so welcoming that people feel inclined to sing you a song after meeting you. The former Ambassador to Panama and Costa Rica bursted twice into Vietnamese ballads, while Tây Đô university students crooned ‘My Heart Will Go On.’ After visiting their English class, I was overwhelmed with homemade gifts including calligraphic song lyrics, origami paper and money, sugarcane juice, and even their school uniform.
One of my favorite memories was buying a $1 kite and flying it with several kids near Can Tho. The only English word they knew was ‘Hello’, which they repeated constantly to us. Their kites were homemade, and used two liter bottles to wrap the string.
The Food: Over the course of six days, I did not eat a single unmemorable meal. Vietnamese dishes meld all of the flavors – sweet, fresh, and vinegar. Every dish – from phở and gỏi cuốn (Vietnamese summer rolls) to bánh xèo on the street (see below) – was spectacular. Everyone on the ship is still raving over the food.
Nước Mắmz: When I first had nước mắmz (fermented fish sauce with water and sugar) on the table as a condiment, I thought it smelled like dog food. I tasted it, and thought it also tasted like dog food.However, the flavor profile changes completely when used as a dipping sauce. I first had it with spring rolls. Instead of tasting the fermented fish in the sauce, the sweetness came through.
My favorite use for nước mắmz was with river fish. The fish was deep fried, and was covered with an insanely delicious nước mắmz sauce topped with thinly sliced garlic and onions.
The Water Puppet Show: The stage was an indoor pond of water – with singers and musicians on either side. I didn’t understand a word, and I have absolutely no idea what I watched – but it was one of my favorite shows I’ve seen. The sheer confusion of wondering both what I was watching and how the puppets were moving made it a memorable experience.