Governed by Chinese dynasties for over a thousand years, ruled by the French for a century and occupied by American troops for over a decade, Vietnam has – remarkably – managed to uphold a vast array of cultural practices. To the rest of the world, some of these traditional customs seem pretty strange, but they're still prevalent throughout this fascinating country. Here’s a selection of some of the oddest things you'll see during your trip to Vietnam.
There’s nothing comfier than a pair of pyjamas. And in Vietnam, it’s far from a faux pas to wear a pair during the day as you go about your work. In fact, particularly among women in rural areas, it’s basically the norm. Pyjama sets come in a range of styles, from matching floral T-shirts and shorts to full-length loose trousers with colourful button-ups. At first it might seem bizarre, but before you know it you’ll be envying how practical and relaxing they look, and maybe even getting a pair yourself.
Vietnam is the second-largest coffee exporter in the world, but most of the traded stuff is the cheap, instant kind. Within the country, however, high-quality, rich percolated coffee is ubiquitous. The pièce de résistance is the disgusting-sounding cà phê Chồn, coffee made from weasel poo. The weasels eat berries containing coffee beans, and they have a natural inclination only to pick the best, ripest ones. The berries are digested, but the beans come out the other side whole, transformed with a new, richer flavour. Once dried and cleaned (phew), the beans are then roasted to produce some of the world’s finest coffee. It’s exquisitely rich, chocolaty and gunpowder strong. It’s also ludicrously pricey – 100g costs around US$90, but at the farms you can get a cup for just US$2.75.
Though eating snake is something of a tourist gimmick in Vietnam, it’s still a popular local delicacy, so don’t be surprised if you come across a couple of local guys in a quiet rural town slaughtering a viper in the middle of the street and draining its blood. The method of extraction appears quite brutal: the snake’s head is tied in a noose and then killed with a slash to the neck. The dangling tail is cut open and the snake’s blood drips into a bottle containing rice wine, to create “snake wine”. The still-beating heart is then cut out and consumed with glee. Not a pretty sight.
Fried crickets are popularly guzzled down with a few beers in Vietnam, and they’re a common feature of parties, along with fried butterflies and worms. On the cricket farms in the Da Lat region, thousands of the spindly little critters are kept in egg boxes, with sugar-cane branches to keep them warm. Once fried, the crickets are actually unexpectedly flavoursome and meaty, and if you can get over the repulsiveness of what you’re consuming, they’re pretty moreish.
It might seem odd that the world’s most beautiful natural fibre comes from worms. However, witnessing the age-old silk extraction process from mulberry-fed grubs in the highlands of Vietnam is a surprisingly enjoyable experience. The white fluffy-looking silkworm cocoons are boiled in large vats, killing the larvae inside. Women catch the white strands of silk flying free from the cocoons and attach them to spindles on a machine that unravels the delicate fibres. These are carefully wound onto reels and finally woven on looms into sheets of lovely cloth. The boiled-up worms are then removed from their cocoons and, in typical Vietnamese style, fried and eaten. The outside is crunchy and slightly tangy, while the inside is an odd gooey texture with a mild yet slightly retch-inducing taste.
In northern Vietnam, it’s common to see a large bamboo pipe, or điếu cày (literally “farmer’s pipe”) being passed around after a meal, which is smoked with the aim of aiding digestion. Roadside restaurants, particularly in Hanoi, often have one which customers can help themselves to. Inside the water pipe is a very potent form of tobacco which sends even the heaviest regular cigarette smoker’s head spinning, heart beating fast and hands shaking. The high amount of nicotine pumped into the bloodstream combined with an intense intake of smoke causes can cause novice smokers to vomit. You may prefer to just drink the free green tea…
Who ever said thrill seeking and religion couldn’t go hand-in-hand? At Suối Tiên Theme Park just outside Ho Chi Minh City, visitors can pray before a holy Buddha statue before jumping on a Ferris wheel that looks like the multicoloured electric halo commonly seen behind statues of the Buddha’s head, or hurl themselves down a waterslide and emerge through the beard of a giant sculpted sage. Statues of creatures sacred to Vietnamese Buddhism – dragons, tortoises and phoenixes – are represented throughout the grounds, and staff in golden monkey outfits run around causing trouble. At the crocodile farm, you can even buy a real, live baby croc to rear, though you might struggle to get it on a plane home.
The Vietnamese are well known for eating unusual meats often controversial to foreign tastes, such as dogs, half-developed chicken eggs, crocodiles, turtles and water rats. So it should come as no surprise that porcupines, despite their unappetizing looks, are high on the list of strange-yet-popular menu items. Once their spikes are removed, they look even less appealing, with a knobbly tough-looking skin, but their meat is juicy and aromatic, the taste comparable to that of duck. Farmed porcupine is expensive, in the region of $30/kg. Dubiously cheap ones are best avoided, as they were probably killed illegally in the wild.