Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Performances and Shows

What we saw


I am no connoisseur of traditional dance or music of different places, but while traveling I don’t mind tagging along with Abhaya to see a few of them. Because like a lot of other things – from the people we meet to the food we eat to the sights we see – they reveal something about the place and people. We caught a Catru performance in Hanoi Old Quarter at a temple cum old communal house called Đình Kim Ngân – one among many such places to be found in the older parts of cities like Hanoi and Hoi An. This performance was organized by Hanoi Catru Club whose website was not working when I wrote this post. Thang Long Ca Tru Guild also organizes Catru performances. Their website was also not working when I wrote this post!

Catru was traditionally performed in royal courts and for the entertainment of the wealthy. The performance we attended also included other forms of songs and dances from Vietnam which had their origins in temple rituals or folk culture.

The Quintessence of Tonkin

Even if slightly expensive, The Quintessence of Tonkin is worth seeing for its grandeur and vision. It combines traditional performance forms with modern props and lighting to create an impressive and spectacular performance requiring the coordination of hundreds of performers. The venue is slightly far from Hanoi, but they provide shuttle services from (and back to) Hanoi. We caught the shuttle at a mall that was called (for some reason) The Office!

They have converted a large, natural lake with hills in the background into a stage. This part gives me pause because I wonder what this stage creation has done to the environment of the lake. But even if they have not, I think others copying the concept can do it responsibly. And I would want the managers of our heritage tourist spots to see this and get inspired. The Quintessence of Tonkin is what our light and sound shows need to become.  This is the 21st century and given how much visual stimuli is available to us, the light and sound shows in our heritage buildings have become staid and won’t entertain even small kids.  They need to upgrade and this show can show the way.

Water Puppetry

Water Puppetry is a traditional entertainment performance of Vietnam. While you can find the shows in all major tourist places, the authentic place to see it would be Hanoi. We didn’t see one of those street performances of water puppetry. But The Quintessence of Tonkin show mentioned above also included water puppetry among other kinds of performances.

What we missed

Variety Shows

On the pattern of Cirque du Soleil, there are a couple of famous variety shows in Vietnam, which can be watched in Ho Chi Minh City’s or Hanoi’s Opera Houses (or other venues). Unfortunately for us, on the dates we were in the two cities, there were no shows scheduled. IONAH and AO Show were the ones we were interested in.


Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Translate and Tripadvisor

Beware of Google Translate

Despite the huge technical advancement in the field, automated translations can be a source of humor, embarrassment, and bizarre inaccuracies. You have to particularly careful in Vietnam if you are relying on knowing English to decipher their script. If you are typing Vietnamese in Google translate, don’t do so without getting the diacritics right. Else you may get bizarre results. A sign we often saw on the road from Hai Phong to Hanoi, translated as “doubtful”. Since it made no sense to see so many of those on the road (coming to think of it, that sign will be scary to see on the roads), we tried again by observing and getting the diacritics right. Then it translated as “motel”. I can’t remember what exact word had we translated there (we might have made some mistake with letters too, not just diacritic). But here is an example I have been able to recreate.


Autocorrect doesn’t work very well if your diacritics are wrong, because slight change or absence of diacritic may very often still make a meaningful word, only a totally different one.

Even if you get diacritics right, the usual precaution of not blindly using the automated translation applies. At Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, there was a box outside the toilet, where you were supposed to give a small voluntary donation. Somehow something like a “voluntary donation box” had been translated to “quadrilateral” in English, much to our guide’s annoyance with the use of Google Translate!

An Altar for Tripadvisor

writereviewflyerThe tourism industry in Vietnam might as well make a pagoda for Tripadvisor in every city and an altar for it in their homes! Yes – like it or not – Tripadvisor has become the biggest source of customers for a large number of businesses in tourism industry world over. And hence far too many of them have gotten too busy optimizing themselves for Tripadvisor reviews. In Vietnam, it seemed to happen at another scale altogether. I don’t mind a gentle request for a review, but in some cases, they were annoyingly repeated. And in case of our very first tour to Cu-chi tunnels in HCMC, it was simply outrageous. The guide kept insisting that we should use our phone and the free wi-fi available at the site or the restaurant to write a review there and then. Because later we will forget. As if it is our duty to write a review! When I expressed my disinclination explicitly (because he won’t take polite hints), he went into the misery-tourism mode of how it is important for him to get all the reviews to keep his job etc. A quiet, young woman from Hong Kong who was also on the tour with us obliged. I was too annoyed to do that. But his continued insistence even after telling him in clear terms that I am not comfortable doing that spoiled the tour for me. It was perhaps no better or worse than a tour provided by any other company would have been. But simply because of this nuisance, if I had indeed written a review, I would have rated them rotten.

Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Drivers and Money Changers

Vehicles, Drivers, and Taxis


A fridge magnet bought in Vietnam

Vietnam is big on two-wheelers. A lot of Saigon traffic jokes are around the number of two-wheelers in the city. Apparently, the number of two-wheelers there stands at 70% of the total population!

Tour guides are perennially apologetic about the traffic and bad driving. But don’t worry about it if you are an Indian city-dweller. The drivers in the tourism industry, to my Indian taste, were driving a bit too carefully and a bit too slow. The snail-pace of the drive from Hai Phong to Hanoi fried my brains with boredom. But our Spanish co-passengers still seemed terrified. So, I couldn’t really have requested them to speed up.

They also seem to wash their vehicles a lot. They stopped, not for a food or toilet break on the five-hour slow, boring drive mentioned above, but for vehicle washing! Given that they dropped us at a handicraft showroom for the half an hour they took to wash the vehicle, I wonder if vehicle-washing is a euphemism of some kind!

Many four-wheelers have a plastic cover on the ceiling. These are well-fitted around the lights, air vents, and other fixtures; so most likely done by the car company/dealership or other professionals. Not sure what for though!

Taxis are the most convenient means of local transport, and rest assured they will scam the heck out of you. There are tons of taxi companies whose cabs you can hail. A couple of them are supposed to be reliable ones, whose meters won’t run faster than a cheetah and whose drivers won’t take you on a wild ride through nowhere just to push the fares up. But they have an ample number of copy-cats ever eager to dupe you. There are precautions you can take to identify the right taxis. From the information available online I compiled a guide for myself. Even then, after a couple of good rides, in the third one, the driver started taking us “for a ride” taking random turns after reaching close to the destination to avoid actually reaching there. When we objected he didn’t understand English (or pretended not to!). The taxi was from one of the “reliable” companies – we had made sure of that. But that went only so far. Finally, we asked him to stop and walked a short distance to the destination. After that, we stuck to grab and there the experience was pretty good in all the cities we went to. The only problem was that sometimes you have to speak to the driver on phone to confirm your location and language problems might surface. One way to deal with that is to choose a conspicuous starting location – say in front of a big shop with clearly visible signboard and enter the name of the shop in the app, instead of just your current location. Or to book from inside the last restaurant or shop you have visited and take help of their staff in talking to the driver.

Money Matters


An old lady selling fake currencies, which they burn for their ancestors! (yep – those are fake dollars)

Money exchange is easy, although you should be careful about where you do it. When we exchanged USD to VND at the Saigon airport we got a rate of ~22650 VND per dollar. Inside the cities, the prevalent exchange rate with money exchangers was 22500 VND per dollar.

Although it isn’t as official as in Cambodia, most shops and tourism companies will also accept cash payments in USD. But the exchange rate is always tipped in their favor. If they have quoted the price in VND, the scrupulous ones will take payment in USD at the rate of 22000 VND per dollar, the unscrupulous ones at 20000 VND per dollar. If the price is quoted in USD and you are paying in VND, then you need to pay 22700 VND for every dollar. So, the prudent thing to do would be to pay in the currency in which you have been quoted the price originally. That’s what we did most of the time.

There is one exception to this prudent advice though. Converting VND back to USD fetches even worse rates than any mentioned above. So, if you find yourself with extra VND towards the end, it is better to spend in VND even at an unfavorable exchange rate, because trying to convert it back to USD will only get you a worse deal.

Credit card transactions are not welcome and many places charge extra if you are paying by credit card. Many may not accept credit cards at all. We went with cash everywhere except any pre-bookings we had paid by card online. Withdrawing cash from ATMs seems to be a costly and confusing affair. Fortunately, USD we had carried in cash lasted for us and we didn’t have to make any ATM transactions.

Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Bad Water, Tepid Tea, Good Food

IMG_20171207_183004If drinkable RO filtered water is available, we couldn’t find it. You have to use bottled water and there is no way of avoiding plastic. If you are staying long enough in a city, you could buy a 5-liter bottle and keep it in your hotel room, refilling your reusable water-bottles with it. But that’s about it. Most tours specifically include water-bottles in their package. Apart from buying a 5-liter bottle in Hanoi, we almost always had water to drink from the bottles provided on the tours!

img_20171203_145642.jpgFood, on the other hand, seems safe everywhere. Tour guides do not hesitate in taking tourists to small eateries. Food is flavorful and we almost universally liked it wherever we ate. They do use too much pork for our comfort, but we found ample seafood to keep us happy.


At several places, tea served was often tepid, not hot enough for us. I can’t figure out if it was bad service, or that’s how they drink it. With coffee, if you ask for milk on the side, it might come cold, making your coffee tepid. So, you need to be careful about what you ask for! I stuck to black coffee when drinking it hot. Else I went for the iced coffee with condensed milk. It was tasty! Vietnamese coffee is strong and it is brewed with an implement somewhat similar to the south Indian filters.


Egg coffee is a specialty of Hanoi. We tried it somewhere in Hoi An before we visited Hanoi. It wasn’t the real thing; the raw egg flavor was too strong and texture not as creamy. In Hanoi, it was a different experience. You must drink egg coffee in Hanoi. It is made by beating egg (yolk?) with condensed milk and adding it to coffee. It gives a creamy texture to the drink and this invention was, again, a compensation for the unavailability of cream French had to endure in Vietnam. They wanted cream in their coffee! A chef in Metropole hotel came up with this recipe. Don’t know if French found it adequate, but it is quite a rage in Hanoi. And it is super-sweet! It tastes nice, but if you ask us, it is more a dessert than coffee.


Excluding egg coffee, I, personally, didn’t like Vietnamese desserts that much. There are all kinds of sweet soups available, many of them hot.

The local cafes, many a times, may have no food (by design!), and serve only drinks. We discovered that to our annoyance one morning in Hanoi when were hoping to grab a quick breakfast before a tour started. It might even be a Hanoi-only thing because I don’t remember running into this issue before that. Fortunately, we found egg version of their Banh Mi sandwich in a roadside shop and it was pretty good.

When you sit in a restaurant, especially in a tourist area, mobile roadside vendors may walk in and peddle their wares. The restaurant staff doesn’t stop them or send them away. I don’t know whether those walk-in vendors are protected by some law, or by some remnant of communist customs. People investing in prime real estate obviously do not like this encroachment. One relatively fancy restaurant we had walked into had a notice requesting their customers not to buy from those vendors, as it will encourage them to come in more often and disturb everyone. But they had no notice for the vendors themselves asking them to stay away. Don’t know what to make of it, but I found this interesting.

Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Like and Unlike Cambodia

Since we had visited Cambodia last year and since it is Vietnam’s neighbor with shared French colonial and early communist history, it was inevitable that we kept drawing a comparison with Cambodia.

The Milk Problem

IMG_20171202_161658_BokehHere is the most notorious similarity. Like Cambodia, fresh milk seems to be missing in action in Vietnam. These guys are wedded to their sweet condensed milk. The famous Vietnamese coffee also comes with condensed milk (when it doesn’t come with egg, but we will come to that later). A guide in Vietnam explained the history of condensed milk. Apparently, milk has traditionally not been a part of Vietnamese diet, but when French colonized them, they wanted milk! Since no milk was to be had in Vietnam, they had to get it from France. And getting fresh milk all the way from France was just not feasible. Hence, they got condensed milk and Vietnamese (and Cambodians, presumably for the same reason) continue to eat condensed milk while the French might have reverted to drinking fresh milk back home!

We heard that now Vietnamese government is pushing to feed fresh milk to children in a bid to make them taller! Vietnamese are apparently the shortest people in Asia.

Misery vs. Pride

One of the biggest difference I felt as a tourist between Cambodia and Vietnam is that Cambodia’s modern history has resulted in a sense of misery and gloom there, whereas despite all the wars Vietnam has fought through the 20th century and the devastation it has consequently suffered, there is an optimism and pride there. Not without reasons. They had to fight one big power after another and they came out on top every time!

The economic condition of the local population in Vietnam is definitely better than that in Cambodia and Vietnam feels more like in India in that regard. A rising and well-off middle class, although beneath that shining layer there is definitely a lot of strife and poverty for the masses, just like in India. The result is that in Cambodia (especially in Siem Reap) spaces occupied by the tourists and the locals seem completely separate, with even the supposedly cheap tourist hangouts being beyond the reach of the local population. In Vietnam that is not the case. The tourists here find themselves sharing space with the locals at the tourist sites, restaurants, hotels, everywhere (and that is definitely more comfortable and natural).

Communism and Communism

IMG_20171202_141205456Vietnamese communist regime had its share of typical communist excesses, but it never became anything like Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. So, despite today’s capitalist economy, technically and politically, Vietnam continues to be a communist country, while Cambodia is not.

It is interesting that in Cambodia today, Vietnamese capture of Phnom Penh is called liberation. For Vietnamese, it was just a war with Cambodia!

The Linga Commotion

Shivalinga produces similar delight and elicits similar suggestive jokes from guides in both Cambodia and Vietnam. Presented as a curiosity it seems to work with most western tourists at both places.


As Indians, visiting any India-influenced historical site (especially Hindu ones) with local guides can be incredibly frustrating. They just don’t have anything to tell you beyond slyly pointing out what Shivalinga stands for! In Cambodia, we thankfully went to the temples with our own research and books. We even revisited the main Angkor Wat temple on our own later because the first visit with the guide was not satisfactory. But we didn’t take the same precaution while visiting My Son temples in Vietnam and we regretted that. My Son contains the most famous remains from the Hindu Champa kingdom, which ruled what is today Central Vietnam. They were ultimately destroyed by the Northern Viets who were expanding towards South. Mainstream Vietnamese today trace their history to these Northerners and the few remaining Chams are a small minority in far south. Multiple tour guides told us that Cham script was undeciphered. But their inscriptions have been transcribed and translated and used to write history books! So that can’t really be true.

We should also have kept time for Cham museum in Da Nang, which might have made up for the deficiencies of My Son tour. But somehow, I totally missed it while planning.

Da Nang, by the way, was a major American air base during the Vietnam war and perhaps features in most American Vietnam-war movies!