Miss These Things

For all Vietnam’s delights, there are sure to be some items from home you yearn for but simply can’t find.

By KEVIN RAISON on January 08,2019 09:39 AM

Miss These Things

Photos: Thuy Duong

Vietnam has many things unique to the country. There are certain items here that, found outside of the country, pale in comparison or come at a fantastically higher price, and plenty of others that simply seem almost impossible to find. However, there are also certain things that a foreigner might feel Vietnam lacks. For example, attire, and especially shoes, for “larger” individuals.

“Damnit, I absolutely have to find shoes today. My flight is tomorrow and God knows Catherine is never going to let me forget if I don’t look up to snuff at her wedding,” I think to myself. It’s just buying shoes; how hard could it be? After visiting six different shops, I learned how hard it can be.

Anyone over a size 43 will know that finding formal shoes is nigh impossible in Vietnam. Sure, there’s maybe one cheap, plasticky fake-leather pair on Hang Giay Street that are wildly expensive, which would get you through a Chinese wedding in Singapore, but a quality shoe that fits and will last any real amount of time? Likewise, those who know their way around the gym are perhaps well aware how the largest pair of jeans in a store in Vietnam often fit like skinny jeans - if at all. Thank goodness it’s so cheap to have clothes and shoes custom made. Never have I found such an abundance of highly-qualified tailors working at more than reasonable prices. The bespoke suit I bought half a decade ago still fits just right with not a tear nor a thread out of place - it’s never even lost a button. If you’re in need of custom work done, check out Zed’s Threads. It’s a touch more expensive than if you were to have a tailor in the countryside do you up like I had mine done, but their English is good and they’re very professional and the convenience of their in-city location makes it very much worth it.

Miss These Things

By and large, one can find most of what one needs in this country

By and large, one can find most of what one needs in this country, but there are some things that seem just about impossible to come across. Besides the above commentary on attire, food products might be the next most common thing a foreigner in Vietnam might find hard to come across. There is a plethora of import shops that do a good job of stocking a broad range of products, but one thing that hasn’t yet seemed to arrive in Vietnam is peanut butter made from just peanuts and salt. Really, it should be quite simple; there’s no need to add unquestionably bad-for-the-health partially-hydrogenated anything to it, and there’s certainly no need to add sugar. Finding popcorn one can cook at home made without hydrogenated ingredients is also something I’ve yet to do in my five years in the country. Perhaps it’s because such products containing hydrogenated ingredients are no longer generally regarded as safe. To quote the US Food and Drug Administration’s webpage on the topic of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) “removing PHOs from processed foods could prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year.” Seems like companies still sell the products here, though. Lastly, I’ve recently found myself craving Westernized Chinese food. I know, it’s a guilty pleasure that I’ll never be able to find here, but still I reminisce. One the flip side, there is North Korean food, with staff actually from North Korea and traditional performances as well. Besides Vietnam, there’s only one other place I can think of where a person could enjoy such a treat, and I’m certainly not going there any time soon.

Beyond the food, Vietnam’s drinking culture has come a long way. It wasn’t long ago that the only drinks available were blond lagers and, occasionally, the rare dark beer, especially Dai Viet Black, rich and warm at 6 per cent alcohol - by far the strongest beer on the block. And then other imports and, especially, the microbrew scene exploded. Now, one can find beers of almost every imaginable flavor at specialty bars, from non-alcoholic up to 12 per cent. But think about the last time you went out for drinks; remember the cocktail list at all? Besides whiskey, which has a touch of variety, it seems like spirits tend to be the same vodka, gin, rum, tequila, and a couple of cream-based liqueurs anywhere one goes. But Porto? Probably not. Chartreuse? Chances are no. And yet there are faint glimmers of light in the dark of a night out without something special to set it apart. The Mad Botanist will bring grins to the fans of gin, while Mad Society’s whiskies can whisk you away on a night to remember or not recall at all, if that’s your fancy. For other more obscure and, especially, European alcohol it seems most places are still lagging. There is one other particular place that brings me cheer during the holidays though. Eggnog is hard to find in Hanoi, but the Kumquat Tree speakeasy bar provided me the best one I’ve had in Vietnam last year - and believe me I have certainly tried to find better.

However, Vietnam has the advantage of providing a broad array of different food, many of which are cheap and certainly are likewise flavorful. I truly think it’s impossible to get the same value for money spent anywhere else in the world. Vietnam also has “bia hoi”, or fresh beer: a low alcohol, ultra-cheap and refreshing drop one can enjoy all through a football match and still only be moderately buzzed. While I’ve found alcohol-free beer back in the US, I’ve yet to find the same mild brew here. The same can be said for quality Vietnamese rice wine, the kind that the local hotpot shop makes on the side and which has a fantastic nutty flavor that equally warms the soul as it does the face.

As one spends time in Vietnam, they might start to realize there are things they took for granted in their home country and which aren’t really common in Vietnam. A willingness to say “I don’t know” for example. Maybe it’s the schooling, but it seems that shop staff or random folks on the street often feel obliged to provide an answer with certainty, even when it’s wrong.

On the other hand, something that Vietnam does have that is seldom equaled is a willingness to share. When I first got here, seeing my Vietnamese co-workers lending and borrowing money without a second thought was something I hadn’t really seen outside of the country and I certainly couldn’t have imagined it where I used to work in the US.

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