It’s probably not common to combine visits to Japan and Vietnam in one trip, but we did it. We had friends we wanted to see in Japan and Vietnam sounded interesting, so why not? There’s quite contrast between Japan and Vietnam. They have almost nothing in common, but each was intriguing in their own way.
We were lucky that we had two friends living in Tokyo and one in Kyoto. Ahmad Coo, my buddy from UC Berkeley journalism school, is a producer for the morning news show on Bloomberg TV and Marc Denny is the sports editor for the English edition of The Asahi Shimbun newspaper. And, my former colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle (Marc worked there as well) Sei Chong, an editor for Reuters news service in Seoul, flew in for the weekend to hang out. My friend Rick Elizaga, who I worked with at the old Web site Channel A, is living in Kyoto with his wife Mari, and they took us to traditional Japanese lunch.
So now I present the Top 10 (+1) Things We Saw and Did in Japan and Vietnam:
No. 11: Tokyo train and subway system â€“ Two train systems and several subway systems, some operated by the city and some privately run, ferry millions of commuters each day. Public transit in the city is very confusing to the uninitiated. For American tourists, the main problem is the bare minimum of English signage and directions. Luckily, we had Ahmad, Marc and Sei to show us the ropes. But alas, we did what many rookies do: get on a train heading the wrong way, get off at next stop, go back, get on another train, end up going wrong way again. We got straightened out eventually and got comfortable riding the trains. Be sure to get a Japan Rail Pass. It’s really worth it.
No. 10: Bun, Cha Ca â€“ The food in Vietnam bursts with flavors and just seems tastier than what you can get in the United States. We had bun at a little hole-in-the-wall called Bun Bo Nam Bo. It’s listed in guide books but we didn’t see any other tourists there. A small bowl of delicious bun is 75 cents. Cha Ca La Vong has become part of the tourist route and there was a large group of travelers there when we arrived. The specialty is chunks of white fish pan fried with dill and tumeric. You get the pan delivered to your table and mix in rice noodles, peanuts and other toppings, sort of like hot pot. The funny thing about both places is they serve one thing and one thing only. Just tell them how many you want.
No. 9: Yakitori, Tempura, Tonkatsu â€“ On our first night in Tokyo, Ahmad took Ramie, Marc and I to a yakitori joint in Shinjuku where you could get almost anything grilled on a stick. We also tried the raw chicken. Ramie ate it right away. It scared me at first, but Ahmad said the chickens are raised clean in Japan. It was served sliced like sashimi and tasted like sashimi. Ahmad also took us to a tempura place near the Imperial Palace that was the best I’ve ever had: crispy and not soggy and cooked to order. “The Japanese have perfected the art of deep frying,” Ahmad said. A few days later, Sei took us to the Harajuku-Aoyomo location of Maisen, a chain that specializes in tonkatsu (fried, breaded pork cutlet), and it was as good as the tempura. Cooked perfectly and not soggy like the tonkatsu you get at most places in the United States.
No. 8: Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo â€“ There aren’t too many things worth getting up at 4 a.m. to see (we happened to have been awake due to jet lag anyway), but going to the fish market is one. Known as world’s biggest wholesale fish market, it’s also a tourist stop, but it didn’t seem like it at first. You walk in and all the buyers and sellers are going about their business selling and buying every kind of seafood you can imagine. There’s no organized tour or anything like that. You’ll see giant tuna all around and guys with saws cutting the heads off. It’s a whir of activity, and if you don’t watch out, you’ll get run over by motorized carts that are whizzing around. After our self-guided tour, we stopped at one of the sushi shops and had fresh fish at 6 a.m.
No. 7: Harajuku, Tokyo â€“ The scene at Harajuku is bewildering but says a lot about Japanese society and how many people in Japan become obsessed certain fashion or music and take it to extreme degrees. Not that it doesn’t happen in other countries, but there probably aren’t many places in the world where you find men dressed as little girls, teen punk rockers screaming their lungs out, a guy lip syncing 80s songs in English with his back to the crowd and goth chicks all in the same little walkway between Harajuku Station and Yoyogi Park.
No. 6: Golden Gai, Tokyo â€“ Ahmad also took us here on our first night. It’s a small area in the Shinjuku district with several alleyways with a bunch of tiny bars. Most can only seat 10 or fewer people and many have themes. One of Ahmad’s favorite places shows pro wrestling (the WWE variety) all the time. It was busy, so we ended up at one with a 60s rock theme. The bar tender’s English wasn’t that good, but he was friendly and told us he was in a band as we enjoyed some fine Japanese beers.
No. 5: Mui Ne, Vietnam â€“ This beach area about a four-hour drive northeast of Saigon was our last stop in Vietnam. Our friends Gavin and Thu spent part of their honeymoon here and they recommended it. For some reason, this area is popular with Russian tourists. We were the only non-Russians at the hotel we stayed at until our last day. Mui Ne has a long, white-sand beach and it was beautiful. In reminded me of Ko Samui in Thailand (where we spent part of our honeymoon), though not quite as developed. Judging by all the construction we saw, it won’t be too long before it becomes an overrun tourist spot. The area is also known for its red sand and yellow sand dunes. It was kind of odd to see a desert so close to the ocean. Fishing and making fish sauce are two of the leading industries in the region.
No. 4: Heated toilet seats â€“ Japan leads the world in toilet technology, and the bathroom in Ahmad’s apartment and the hotel we stayed at in Kyoto were outfitted with a heated toilet seats with washlets. Basically, the seat heats up when you sit down, and when you’re done, you can turn on warm water jets that shoot up to clean you off. Sounds a little outlandish, but it’s actually very nice on a cold morning.
No. 3: Moped traffic in Vietnam â€“ The first thing foreign visitors probably notice about Vietnam is the chaotic traffic. Like in many Asian countries, they drive like maniacs here. Most people drive scooters or motorcycles, and it’s a cacophony of exhaust spewing tailpipes and horns. Oh, the horns. They are everywhere nonstop! It takes about a day to get used to the idea of walking into traffic to cross the street, but that’s what you have to do, or you won’t get very far. The oncoming traffic (hopefully) will maneuver around you. It all seems to work in its own way. I thought I was going to die by moped, but we didn’t witness an accident the whole time we were there. Here’s a couple of videos of the traffic:
No. 2: Halong Bay â€“ What’s bringing more and more tourists to Halong Bay are the 700 islands and islets that jut out from the emerald waters. The myriad of rock formations and the shapes and contours, along with the shimmering bay makes this a spectacular site. Words can’t describe it. The one negative about this must-see spot is that there are too many tour boats on the bay. At some point it’s going to have an impact on the environment if it hasn’t already.
Japan, where we spent about nine days, is clean and orderly other than when youâ€™re jammed inside a subway car during rush hour in Tokyo. The cities in Japan are modern and have most conveniences familiar to Americans, but (understandably) most public signage is in Japanese, making it difficult international travelers.
People in Japan are polite and helpful if they speak English, but you sense an underlying uneasiness Japanese society has with outsiders. Ramie and I also read â€œShutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generationâ€ while weâ€™re there, which painted negative view of Japanese society. It was insightful and, right or wrong, influenced my view of Japan.
Vietnam is still very much a developing country. We spent about 10 days here. The infrastructure is not what Americans would be accustomed to and the standard of living for most very low compared to Japan or the United States. At least in the touristy areas, it seemed like English was more commonly spoken than it is in Japan. Travelers who canâ€™t adjust to maneuvering in busy street traffic or breathing car exhaust may want to take a pass.
As in Japan, the food is wonderful. Maybe itâ€™s the freshness of the ingredients or the potency of the spices, everything just seems to pop with flavor.
A great trip overall despite some rain in Vietnam and the blisters I got from walking so much.