For many visitors, my amazing country can be a culture shock (mostly good!) in so many ways. I thought I would share just 5 interesting facts in this post about daily life and my people – yes, it does only happen in Vietnam!!
1. Vietnamese Local Markets
Local markets remain the very heart of Vietnamese life. The lively atmosphere together with a myriad of market vendors along narrow walkways selling a huge variety of goods ranging from fresh fruits to vegetables, spices, herbs, meats, fish and clothes is what first hits the visitor.
But look at my photographs closely, this is Con Market in my hometown of Da Nang, what do you see?
Yes! The majority of people at our local markets, both sellers and buyers, are women.
In Vietnam, most women go to their local market twice a day to buy fresh ingredients for preparing lunch and dinner. A visit to a local market is not just for buying fresh ingredients but also to greet, talk to each other and socialise. Kitchens are where Vietnamese wives, mothers and grandmothers show their love through preparing delicious and healthy dishes with all their wonderful flavours. In my country, there is an idiom about the role of wife and husband: “Men build the house and women make it home”. Even though nowadays in Vietnam both men and women have equal opportunities in all aspects of life, women still manage the household and have prime responsibility for the family.
2. Nón lá – Our Palm Leaf conical hat
No matter where you go in Vietnam, from small villages to big cities, the image of Vietnamese ladies wearing Nón lá (palm leaf conical hat) is common. So what are the significant and interesting things behind this iconic image of Vietnam?
Nón lá is made of sun-dried palm leaves and bamboo. A piece of ribbon is stitched to the hat making a grip from the neck and suiting most head sizes! Nón lá is really cheap at around 30.000-60.000 VND (about 1.5-3 USD). Nón lá was originally used for protecting people against the hot Asian sunlight and heavy rains. Nowadays, as well as its original use Nón lá has been designed to be a special souvenir for our international visitors, and an innovation for modern couture.
Nón lá has become an indispensable part of Vietnamese daily life, famously for our Vietnamese farmers working in the paddy fields or our ladies carrying “Quang Gánh” (two baskets hung from either end of a bamboo pole) filled with fruits or agricultural products or noodle soups… and walking along the street. Nón lá is simply a beautiful creation of the country, embodying my country’s spirit and history. When visiting my amazing country, why not take Nón lá as a special souvenir from Vietnam for your friends.
3. Drinking beer – Vietnamese style!
Do you add ice cubes to your glass of beer?
This sounds strange for most of my international visitors, but serving beer with ice is common in Vietnam, even though the beer is served cold. Adding ice cubes does not affect the taste as much as you think, in fact ice dilutes the beer and reduces its alcohol content – so people can drink more! More importantly, having a beer with ice cubes is a perfect way for our Vietnamese people to ‘freeze the heat’ and quench their thirst, especially in our hot and humid days.
When drinking Vietnamese beer (and sometimes coffee) I recommend you try drinking like the Vietnamese. Raise your glass in the company of friends, counting “Mot, hai, ba .. zô” (One, two, three…Cheers!). Don’t hold back, say it as loud as you can and I am sure the beer will be even more refreshing.
4. Ăn trầu – Chewing paan
When travelling rural Vietnam you often find our elders have black teeth and red lips, the result of chewing trầu (paan) for decades. Chewing paan has been a custom in Vietnam for thousands of year dated back to the time of Hung Kings in our Hồng Bàng period, our older ladies find the use of Paan to be a beauty aid…………………..
Paan is a combination of betel leaf, a wedge of areca nut and a little lime paste. All of them are chewed together, creating red juice in your mouth, offering a sweet taste from areca nut, spicy taste from betel leaf and hot taste from the lime paste – with the added benefit(!) of the areca nut ‘refreshing’ the mind.
Chewing paan has been an indispensable part of Vietnamese people’s daily life. Traditionally, betel and areca nut was used to start a conversation, bringing people closer together. Betel and areca nut are also served as offerings in many important ceremonies such as engagements, weddings, as sacrifices to our ancestors and gods and representing love and happiness.
Indeed, in my country, the areca nut and the betel leaf are such important symbols of love and marriage that in Vietnamese the phrase “matters of betel and areca” (chuyện trầu cau) is synonymous with marriage. Areca nut chewing starts the talk between the groom’s parents and the bride’s parents about the young couple’s marriage. Therefore, the leaves and juices are used ceremonially in Vietnamese weddings
Nowadays, our young people are not interested in chewing paan, yet some elders still retain the custom. But you can still find fresh betel leaves, areca nuts and lime paste in many markets in Vietnam for locals to prepare offerings to their ancestors and gods or as little gifts for their elders.
5. Ốc lể/Ốc gạo – ‘BABY’ snails
Ốc lể/Ốc gạo (literally meaning baby snail) is our smallest sea snail with a variety of colours and patterns on its shell. One cup of snails sells for about 15.000 VND (65 cents) but can take you up to a day to eat them all. This dish might not fill your stomach but is often a perfect snack for our grandmothers and mothers – who can graze for hours!
Our local vendors, often wives of fishermen, soak the baby snails for 1 – 2 hours to remove sand and dust. They are then cooked with lime, lemongrass, chilli and salt. The street vendors sell the cooked baby snails with a small bag of sweet sour chilli sauce and thorns from citrus trees (to extract the baby snail from its shell!)- the preferred thorn is from the grapefruit tree to give the sweet flavour of grapefruit.
The time after our Lunar New Year is the baby snail season and lasts into the sixth month of our Lunar calendar. During this period, especially here in Da Nang you will find many vendors in the markets or on the streets selling cooked baby snails. They remain a favourite snack for many Vietnamese people of all ages.
I hope you enjoyed this post, please feel free to ask me any question on Vietnam you like if you are intending to visit my amazing country in the future!