Category Archives: Vietnam

BOOKS: Catfish and Mandala

I’d been wanting to read Catfish and Mandala: A Vietnamese Odyssey for several years now, so when I saw a used copy in a Kathmandu bookstore, I immediately snatched it up. I have not found many pieces of travel literature that focus on Vietnam and lately I’ve been especially interested in learning and reading about the Vietnam War, the country’s particular brand of communism and the economic changes that are rapidly taking place from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham served as a spectacular base and jumping off point for further research and learning about the Vietnam War. This book was the perfect place to begin my quest to truly understand this time period in Vietnam. Catfish and Mandala is Pham’s story about his deeply personal journey from his home California back to his birthplace in Vietnam. Pham was a child of the Vietnam War and his parents fled the country when he was around 6 years old. With a bicycle and a vague idea that returning to Vietnam after several decades as an immigrant in the United States would clear up some of the conflict that the uprooting created within his family, Pham departs from California with very little money and very few plans, expect that he wanted to bike ride from Saigon to Hanoi and visit his birthplace in between.

When I began Catfish and Mandala I thought the majority of the book would be dedicated to Pham’s actual bicycle journey in Vietnam. In reality, while the trip makes up a central role in the plot, the real meat of the book intertwines Pham’s troubled recent family history, told from both his point of view and from the point of view of his parents, who sacrificed a great deal for their children to get them safely out of Vietnam to a new life in America.

Catfish and Mandala is an important read for several reasons. First, it offers a very personal back story about the Vietnam War that I feel, especially as an American, I have heard very little about. I think it is important to understand wars and conflict on a larger scale, but to truly get a sense of what was going on in the country at that time, one must understand what was happening on a micro level, with specific people and individual family units. I had a similar feeling about First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, which is about the Khmer Rouge genocide in the mid to late 70s.

The second reason I think this is am important read, especially for Americans, is that it wonderfully illustrates the trials and tribulations of immigrants in the United States. Through Pham’s storytelling, we come to understand the economic and emotional strains that immigrant families experience in the United States. The reality for the Phams is, as often seems to be, quite different from what they dream America would be like while in Vietnam. This is often a sentiment I cannot really explain accurately when speaking with Nepalis who view the U.S. as some sort of bastion of hope and perfection, somewhere that if they can possibly move to, will be the solution to all their problems. In reality, many Nepalis and other immigrants who end up in the U.S. after much dreaming, work low-paying, low-skill jobs that many Americans do not want to do themselves. They are also isolated from their family and the tight-knit support system of their home country (for a further look into this issue, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is a great read). While many of the issues I hear about regarding immigrants to the U.S. deal with people who come illegally from Mexico, I think it would behoove Americans to read Catfish and Mandala to get a deeper understanding about the realities of an immigrant family in U.S.

I highly recommend Catfish and Mandala for those interested in both a broad and a personal history of the Vietnam War years. Pham’s words are carefully crafted and his story is poignant. This is an important book that puts into perspective recent Vietnamese history, as well as challenges faced by immigrant families in the U.S. Pham’s epic bicycle journey through Vietnam, of course, adds great adventure and texture to the book, which in the end, weaves together history, travel narrative and family lineage tales from abroad.

PHOTOS: Color and Texture at the Vietnamese Markets

It’s early morning at the market in Hoi An and women donning woven, conical hats bob up and down, organizing their baskets full of vegetables, herbs, and fruits. On the outskirts of the market are vegetable peddlers and inside, under the corrugated tin roof are noodle sellers, who are chopping cabbage and flouring rice noodles.

A walk through the markets of Vietnam reveals an astounding array of colors, textures and smells. Seeing the number of colorful vegetables and herbs at the market makes it easy to understand why Vietnamese food is so incredibly fresh and full of flavor. Pho vendors and banh mi stall owners are able to come to the markets every day and get the freshest ingredients, with dirt and roots still dripping off their ends. The variety of food, of all colors and textures, available at the Vietnamese markets seems to directly correlate to the diversity of Vietnamese cuisine.

Here are some photos that show the rich colors, textures and variety at the Vietnamese marketplaces.

Snapshot Story: Breakfast on the Saigon Streets

The streets of Saigon have already come to life just after the sun makes its appearance over the ragged, urban cityscape. Motos zoom by with passengers on the back, cyclo drivers push and pull their bandy legs on their vehicle’s pedals and the coffee vendors expertly funnel the rich, black, liquid caffeine from a silver, dented pot to glass mugs with bottoms full of cloyingly sweet condensed milk.

From a corner adjacent to my hostel in Saigon’s backpacker district comes a mingling of smells that is impossible to resist. There is the salty smell of frying eggs, the juicy aroma of sizzling meats and an overpowering and romantic fragrance of just-baked, crunchy baguettes. The street stall is run by a sturdy Vietnamese woman who doesn’t smile, she just concentrates on cooking her eggs to perfection.

I order a bánh mì trung with the works for breakfast. The sandwich, which I think is one of the more perfect breakfast foods in Asia, is a version of the famous bánh mì made with an added omelette. The woman hands me a steaming mug of coffee that looks like tar and tastes like heaven before she sets about making my Saigon street breakfast. With two swift cracks she breaks the eggs into the pan, moving the skillet about with the hands of an expert. A serrated bread knife cuts through the crunchy outside of the baguette to reveal a soft and puffy inside: the perfect loaf of bread, a legacy left by the French. The surly woman slices off pieces of páte and stuffs them into the baguette’s fissure. With chopsticks, she adds fresh herbs and vegetables: green onions, a few sprigs of cilantro, cucumber and shredded carrot.

In just a few minutes the sandwich is finished. The woman, with the corners of her mouth turned down, wraps the stuffed baguette in a piece of yesterday’s newspaper and snaps it shut with a thin rubber band. She hands it over, I pay and then unwrap the sandwich, feeling like it’s Christmas on the hot and sticky morning streets of Saigon. At that moment, sitting on the street corner eating my bánh mì trung off an old piece of newspaper and already starting to sweat from the southern Vietnamese heat, I am absolutely certain that there is nowhere in the entire world I would rather be.

The Mekong Delta

Mekong Delta VietnamAs a thick fog rises over the brown, meandering web of waterways, locals crouch on the back of their boats, faces shrouded in the shadow of conical rice hats. In the Mekong Delta, it is as if highways have materialized into a network of muddy canals, streetlights have changed into billowy palm fronds, and the urban ruckus of car honks has morphed into warbling birds.

The lush Mekong Delta spans 13 provinces at the southern tip of Vietnam and is home to about 16 million people, roughly 20 percent of Vietnam’s population. The Mekong River begins on the Tibetan Plateau and flows through SE Asia, splitting in Vietnam before spilling into the South China Sea. Although the Delta lies only a few hours south of Ho Chi Minh City, the people of the two areas enjoy drastically different lifestyles. Ho Chi Minh City boasts a 24/7 cacophony of honking and urban bustle, while the Mekong Delta lulls visitors with an infinitely slower pace of life.

Rice cultivation thrives on the Delta’s moist land and almost half of the country’s rice grows here. Because of the tropical environment and ideal growing conditions, the fruit farming business on the Delta yields luscious coconuts, mangos, longans, and dragonfruits. Fishing the vast waterways is also lucrative. According to Mekong River Commission, up to 1,700 species of fish live in the Mekong River, around 120 of which are commercially traded.

The people of the Delta have adapted their lives to the water. Everything floats-houses, markets and even gas stations. The Mekong Delta is famous for its floating markets, especially those in Cai Be and Can Tho provinces. Atop the murky Mekong waters, hundreds of local merchants meet every morning to sell brilliantly colored fruits, vegetables, and fish from their boats proving to be a unique spectacle that draws foreign tourists and photographers daily.

How To Get There:

The Mekong Delta is readily accessible from Ho Chi Minh City.  Although the Mekong Delta is steadily developing, there are not many places for tourists and travelers to stay overnight.  It may take some extra planning and money, but staying for a few days at the Delta is possible.  Most people decide to go on a full-day trip.  Almost every single tour agency based in Ho Chi Minh City offers some sort of day trip to the Mekong Delta, which includes transportation to and from, food for the day, boat trips and water.  It is best to shop around a bit for a good deal because prices vary.  Once a tour is booked with a specific agency, they will likely offer a morning pick-up service at your hostel or hotel, or you’ll have to meet them at the company headquarters.

The ride from Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta takes about an hour and a half, depending on how bad traffic is.  After the car/van ride, the next leg of the journey is by boat.  After all, the Mekong Delta is a series of tiny islands, so boat is the way to travel.  A large boat takes travelers from the dock on the mainland to a dock on the Delta where people transfer to a smaller boat that can maneuver through the muddy waterways.

What To Do at the Delta:

Travelers who take a day trip to the Mekong Delta will largely have to follow the itinerary, so this means not a lot of time to wander around aimlessly.  While organized tours can often be annoying and over-planned, tours to the Mekong Delta are actually quite nice because of the level of difficulty presented by the geography.  Because the Mekong Delta is so fragmented, this means that to get from one place to another, a boat is almost always necessary.  The organized tours will have small and medium sized boats ready for you to hop from one place to the next.  Some things to do and see while at the Mekong Delta:

•Go to one of the candy factories.  There is one major candy factory on the Mekong Delta, which most tour groups hit up.  You can watch the workers as the mold the soft candy into tiny pats, and of course, sample their product.

•Eat some fresh fish.  You’ll likely be “set free” for lunch in one of the local restaurants.  A large portion of people living on the Mekong Delta make their living fromMekong Delta Fishfishing, so the fish is guaranteed to be super-fresh and delicious.

•Try a plate of fruit.  The huge variety of fruit grows on the Mekong Delta, from pomellos and guava, to bananas.  A fresh plate of fruit makes for a great snack after hours of tour-group extravaganza.

Southeast Asia’s Best Coffee

Caffeine addicts will have no reason to fret while traveling in Southeast Asia.  Delicious, heavenly, earth-shatteringly good coffee is never more than a stone’s throw away.  Coffee in Southeast Asia, which is often sold by vendors on the street, is much different than what Westerners may be used to. Coffee sizes in the U.S. generally are between 12 ounces (smallest) to 20 ounces (largest). Even a 12 ounce coffee is gargantuous compared to coffee cups in Southeast Asia. Two of the best places for coffee in the region are Singapore and Vietnam.

Vietnamese Coffee

*Travel language tip: Make sure to specify which variety of coffee you want when ordering.

Coffee: “cà phê” (ca-fe)

Iced-Coffee: “cà phê s?a ?á” (ca-fe-sooa-da)


Vietnamese Coffee Set (


Vietnamese coffee is world famous for its rich, buttery flavor.  The country hasn’t been a coffee growing and exporting hub, for the French colonialists introduced the drink to Vietnam in the 19th century.  Now, Vietnam exports hundreds of thousands of tons of coffee every year and is the number two coffee exporting country in the world.

Where to find it:

Vietnamese coffee is almost as ubiquitous in the country as are steaming bowls of pho. Coffee vendors often line the streets and tiny cafes are tucked away in all corners of Vietnamese cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Keep your eyes peeled for people sitting on small plastic stools around vendor carts. For a more laid back coffee experience, try one of the street vendors. The coffee is guaranteed to be cheap and delicious. For a more restaurant-like experience, find a cafe. Cafes in Vietnam, which also serve a smattering of sweet pastries, have a very French vibe. If you were to close your eyes for a moment, it would be easy to image yourself sitting at a street-side cafe in Paris.

Vietnamese Coffee Filter (via

How It’s Made:

Vietnamese coffee is often served complete with a Vietnamese metal coffee filter on top of the cup (See image above). Beans are ground and placed in the cup-like apparatus with holes in the bottom. The metal filter is placed on top of the cup and water is poured in. The coffee slowly trickles down to the cup below. This is truly fresh coffee: watching it brew right before your eyes.

Sweet Milk:

Coffee with sweet milk

Coffee with sweet milk (via

Although you can get your coffee black, most Vietnamese prefer theirs with sweet milk mixed in. The sweet milk (also known as condensed milk) is a syrupy and creamy, and makes the coffee incredibly sweet. Sweet tooths will rejoice, but those who prefer their coffee black might be taken aback at the extreme sweetness of Vietnamese coffee.  The vendor will serve the cup with sweet milk already at the bottom, so when the coffee is done filtering you can simply stir it up and enjoy.

Singaporean Coffee

*Travel language tip: Make sure to specify whether you want black coffee or coffee with milk when ordering.

Singaporean coffee, similar to Vietnamese coffee, packs a big punch in a small package.  The coffee shop, also known as a “kopi tiam,” is about as ubiquitous in Singapore as shiny high rises and sparkling Mercedes taxis.  Kopi tiams can be found in the bottom floors of office buildings, in malls, in hawker centers, in MRT stations, on street corners and in bookstores.  In a word, you’re probably never more than a block away from coffee while in Singapore.

Unique Beans:

Although not all kopi tiams uphold this method, coffee beans in Singapore are traditionally roasted with butter to enhance the flavor and oily qualities that make the taste incredibly rich.  Once the beans are roasted, they are brewed in a metal pot to create a powerful, black elixir.  The price for a mug full of Singaporean coffee is very reasonable, depending on where the kopi tiam is located, a cup could cost anywhere from 25 cents to $1.50 (USD).

How To Order:


There are specific ways that coffee must be order to get the desired brew.  Singaporean coffee traditionally either comes black or with sweet, condensed milk.  It you want to  consume in the kopi tiam or hawker center, it will be served in a glass mug that will be collected when you leave.  The other option is to order the coffee “to-go” if you’d like to drink it on the run to school or to work.  Here is how to properly order your drink:

Black coffee (no sugar, no sweet milk):  “kopi-O” (ko-pee)

Black coffee with sugar and sweet milk: “kopi”

Coffee to-go (will be served in a plastic bag): “kopi-O take-away”