The last few weeks have been tough. As I mindlessly scroll through news stories about border restrictions and canceled flights, I’ve been trying to resist the urge to close my blinds and turn inward.
The world is a classroom, after all, and I’ve always approached travel as primary research – the act of rolling up my sleeves and collecting my own data on how different people tackle this puzzling thing we call life on Earth. It broadens horizons. It deepens empathy. It’s been my ongoing education.
Why should the learning stop just because flights are grounded?
I’ve decided to embrace the couch, leveraging my bookshelf and streaming services to return to my favorite parts of the world from the comfort of my own home. This month, I’m going back to South-East Asia.
For vagabonds craving variety, there’s simply no better entry point to the region than Vietnam. With a diversity of distinct cuisines, cultures, and landscapes spread across its long coastline, the country captured my imagination from the very first visit.
My initial exposure to the nation’s unique, contrasting character was through the street food I sampled when I landed. In the northern provinces around Hanoi, I could taste the Chinese influences in each bite, with peppery dishes packed with pork, noodles, and stir-fried to aromatic perfection. Upon arrival into Saigon, I’d entered a different world entirely – sweet, spicier plates packed with sugar and coconut milk and heavily reminiscent of the Cambodian or Thai cooking that is popular across South-East Asia. But my favorite dish by far is banh mi – a tasty, colonial culture-clash of fried chicken with vegetables and hot chili sauce all tucked inside of a fresh-baked baguette. I was in love with Vietnamese cuisine before I’d finished my first bun.
The late Anthony Bourdain shared a similar fondness. The mercurial, globe-trotting chef often named Hanoi as the city he most enjoyed returning to, citing the romantic memories he held from his very first stopover:
“Going to Vietnam the first time was life-changing for sure; maybe because it was all so new and different to my life before and the world I grew up in. The food, culture, landscape and smell; they’re all inseparable. It just seemed like another planet; a delicious one that sort of sucked me in and never let go.” (Bourdain, as quoted in Conde Nast Traveler in 2014)
Bourdain’s love for Vietnam is infectious, as evidenced by the number of times he used his documentary-style food programs to justify repeat visits. (No Reservations features the country in three different seasons, and he twice returned for his CNN show Parts Unknown.)
These fun, freewheeling episodes are a fantastic place for the uninitiated to start, with a notable highlight being Bourdain’s final stop through Hanoi on Parts Unknown in 2016 – an excuse to examine how quickly Vietnam is modernizing, and a chance to sit down and chat with former President Barack Obama over a beer and a bowl of bun cha.
For those looking for a more journalistic account of how dramatically Vietnamese life has changed in recent years, Vietnam: Rising Dragon by the BBC’s Bill Hayton is a great start. With a blend of eyewitness stories and relevant case studies, Hayton unpacks the country’s modern economic rise by exploring its politics, international relations, and evolving societal dynamics in vivid detail.
This twenty-first-century version of Vietnam is evident as you walk the streets of its largest cities, but that isn’t to say the past is now out of reach. Much of the country’s charm can be found in its quieter outposts: the rolling hills around Sapa along the country’s northern border, for one, or the riverfront village of Hoi An in Central Vietnam, where you can still witness fisherman trawling back into town at sunset with the day’s catch.
Northern Vietnam’s Ninh Binh region is another area that is often overlooked. I visited recently while on an assignment for Kensington and had the opportunity to paddle along a stunning waterway with a local farmer and my guide Sandy, who chatted with me about local politics as we rolled past karst mountain formations and under freshwater caves. It’s a place stuck in time – the clip below is a time-lapse I captured from aboard the rowboat.
The opportunity to better understand the Vietnam War was another reason my trips to the country remain so memorable. I visited scarred battlefields, toured critical sites like the makeshift POW camp at Hanoi’s Hoa Lo Prison, and even heard first-hand accounts when I had tea with a retired Vietnamese Air Force MiG 21 fighter pilot on a Kensington trip. Most critically, I worked to move beyond the Western-centric perspective I’d held of the dark period that the Vietnamese still refer to as “The Resistance War Against America.”
For homebound history buffs who wish to truly delve into the subject from a multitude of perspectives, check out Ken Burns’ ten-part, 18-hour documentary The Vietnam War – a truly epic audio-visual account that brings the conflict to life through interviews and archival footage.
Exploring a country through books and film, may not replace the joy of experiencing it first-hand. But while stuck at home and still harboring a fascination with the world, it’s a close second.
5 Ways to Virtually Travel Vietnam
If you’re looking for something to help bring some calm to the present then At Home in the World by Thich Nhat Hanh is a great read. Written by a Vietnamese monk and peace activist, you’ll find yourself traveling to rural Vietnam while also understanding the upheaval of war through a local’s perspective.
Explore the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City’s outdoorsy street food culture on Netflix’s Street Food:Asia docuseries. It will leave you inspired to get creative in the kitchen
Take this time to tour Vietnam through its food. With no shortage of dishes to expand your palette you’ll find lots of recipes to try that aren’t just pho or banh mi.
With the promise of warmer weather a fruit smoothie seems all the more refreshing, and Vietnamese smoothies are some of the best. Using fruits like avocado, jackfruit and dragonfruit mixed with condensed milk or yogurt creates sweet and creamy flavors that are perfect for mornings.
While taking this time to get re-acquainted with the countries we love. We’re discovering them all over again through virtual tours. Explore Vietnam in 360 and take in the sights and sounds of its Heritage Sites.
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