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  • A quick, comprehensive guide to Vietnamese literature.

    Literature plays an important part in the development of any civilised culture, and this is certainly the case in Vietnam. Folk literature in particular played a very significant role in the preservation and development of the national language. Folk literary works were written in a wide range of genres, covering legends, epics, humorous stories, mythologies, fairy tales, proverbs, songs and poetry ( ca dao ) and so on. With all the different cultures of the various Vietnamese ethnic groups, folk literature was passed down orally from one generation to another, picking up many variations along the way. While the authors were pretty much always unknown, the main language was Vietnamese – and this served to bring a literary soul to the emerging regional lingua franca . Written literature , based on folk literature, was first seen here during the 10th century, and it underwent strong development from the 11th century right until today. For a millennium before that time, Vietnam had been dominated by China, and so the written works were deeply affected by Chinese literature, especially in the use of language. From the 10th-15th centuries, Chinese was used as the main language in almost all written works here, with poetry and prose expressing the Vietnamese soul and realities using Han Chinese words. This gave way to the use of the Nom script from the 16th to 20th centuries, which used Chinese characters to represent the sounds of Vietnamese. Many writers began to compose their works in Nom characters, especially during the 18th century, during which time the two forms of writing coexisted. Many famous female Nom poets appeared at this time, with the emergence of many satirical poets like Ho Xuan Huong, Doan Thi Diem, and Ba Huyen Thanh Quan. During this period, the most popular written works in Vietnamese were poems, especially long narrative poems in the form of stories, which were written based on the content of famous oral traditions in the classical language to create new and vibrant works.

  • The goliath of Southeast Asian exotic fruit.

    Vietnamese people may put on an expression of mild confusion if you start to ask questions about lemons and limes. Ask for a lemon here, and you’ll be handed something smaller and greener than you might expect – the reason being that in the Vietnamese language, the two fruits are just different species of the same thing, known collectively as chanh. All varieties of chanh are usually translated using the English term “lemon”. That being said, most Vietnamese lemons are invariably limes, and they’ve worked their way deep into the interior of the local cuisine. They’re usually used to lend their distinctive citric acidity to certain dishes, but are even more commonly seen juiced as a favourite drink to kick away the heat of summer. There’s no season as such for limes here, and you can see them all year round in this tropical country, although they’re planted in spring and fall in the North, and between dry and rainy season in the Central and the South. Another variety, red flesh limes (chanh đào) are planted in the northern areas and Dalat, and are available in October and November. Limes are one of the easiest fruits to find in Ho Chi Minh City, and you’ll see them on sale whether you’re looking for them or not. In general, it’s easiest to select limes by examining the skin. The bottom line is to choose limes with a thin, smooth rind, since these will be the juiciest. Also, press the fruit gently to make sure it’s not bruised. It shouldn’t be too hard and should allow a gentle squeeze. Normally, squeezing fruit while you shop is not recommended – but when it comes to picking the best limes, sometimes you have to bend the rules. The juiciest limes are those that give a little – these softer limes will have less pith, and therefore more juice. They're also much easier to juice and use in cooking or baking.

  • All that goodness in a pumpkin shell.

    The pumpkin ( Cucurbita pepo ) has the singular distinction of being one of the world’s oldest cultivated vegetables. Although it originated in North America, it’s now widely grown here in Vietnam, where it’s known as bí ngô , bí đỏ or bí rợ – and there are two main varieties. The first variety, vàm răng , is heavy and rounded, and it’s grown in Kien Giang, Can Tho, and Soc Trang. These pumpkins look a little like a slightly-squashed football with a thick, green-grey skin and chunky orange flesh, weighing in at around 3-5 kg each. The other one is called the Ban Mê Thuột pumpkin, which has an oblong shape and is lighter at around 1-2 kg each. The skins can be greenish-yellow or fresh yellow, and either smooth or rough with light yellow flesh. Although the tastes of these varieties are very similar, the first has a softer flesh and is more popular. In addition to these two, there is a third variety that’s imported from Japan and has since been grown in Vietnam for the past several years, referred to casually as the Japanese pumpkin. To most Vietnamese people, eating ground pork and pumpkin soup is a part of their childhood. The rich nutrition inside pumpkins is the main reason why parents often try to feed it to their kids – a single pumpkin contains 85-91% water, 0.8-2 grams of protein, 0.1-0.5 g fat, 3.3-11 g of carbs, and many other vitamins and minerals such as calcium, carotene, and phosphorus. Vitamin A is good for the vision, maintaining integrity of the skin, and as an anti-oxidant. In the United States, pumpkins are synonymous with Halloween. Here in Vietnam, beyond cooking, pumpkins are only used in traditional medicines. Its role in cuisine, however, is paramount. It can be said that Vietnamese people are good at taking advantage of many parts of a vegetable for different purposes – in this case, not only is the pumpkin’s flesh used, but also the seeds, skins, and even flowers have their own roles. Flowers are usually wrapped or stir-fried with pork, or made into soup with pork ribs. During summer, sweet pumpkin soup and cakes are one of the more common snacks enjoyed to beat the heat.

  • Beyond sand and sea, Nha Trang has something to offer to everyone... even on a rainy day.

    Looking at Nha Trang today, it’s hard to believe that the area used to be deserted until the 20th century. The city itself was established in 1924 by decree of the Governor-General of French Indochina, and since then it grew rapidly to become the bustling resort town it is today. Given Nha Trang’s short history, it’s not surprising that there are very few historical sites there – but whatever the city lacks in the sightseeing department it makes up for with its long sandy beach, as well as many modern attractions that have been built to draw in visitors from all over the world. The reason why most visitors come to Nha Trang is its beaches and warm sea water. Nha Trang Beach is by far the most popular among visitors, since it’s just a short walk away from the downtown area of Biet Thu. While the location might be convenient for a quick dip, the beach gets crowded and somewhat dirty due to the sheer number of people who attend it. For a more enjoyable experience, find a restaurant or bar that has cordoned off a portion of the beach for private use. As long as you order some beverages and snacks, you’ll be free to use the parasols and beach chairs; as an added bonus, you’ll also avoid being approached by touts selling fruit and steamed seafood. If you’d rather get away from the crowds, check out Bai Duong Beach a short 1.5 km ride north of the downtown area. While this beach is smaller, it is cleaner, much less crowded, and you won’t find a peddler in sight. Also, this beach is better for swimming: the water is warmer and the grade of the beach gentler – but be careful, as there are no lifeguards on duty. The only inconvenience is that you’ll need to bring your own refreshments or buy them from the coffee shops across the street. Water can be purchased cheaply at the hotels adjacent to the coffee shops for VND10,000/1.5 litre bottle.

  • Getting illustrated doesn’t have to be forever.

    Since ancient times, the henna plant has been used to make a special paste to colour hair, fingernails, and skin for women (and sometimes men) as well as leather, silk and wool. Henna tattoos are temporary skin designs made using henna paste products that resemble real tattoos and then fade away. Sometimes called mehndi , henna has a brown colour and lasts for two to four weeks after applying the dye, depending on how good the paste is and on the skin condition of the recipient. A mehndi may take from five to ten minutes to finish for a small area such as the palms, wrists, or feet. Henna is grown in both South Asia and Africa, although it’s most commonly associated with the culture of India, where henna tattoos are popular among girls – especially dancers who use it adorn themselves in celebrations and holidays. The tattoo is regarded as bringing blessings, luck, joy, and accentuating beauty. Henna is applied on a bride to wish her luck and happiness, and it’s believed that the longer that the henna remains visible, the happier the couple will be. It’s also used on pregnant women’s bellies to bless both mother and child. Henna is known to be longer lasting if well-preserved, usually best accomplished by avoiding direct contact with soap. A mixture of lemon essence and sugar will make it brighter and harder to fade. After the henna has been applied, let it dry naturally over a few hours (or ideally, through the night) and avoid using fans during that time. It has a dark brown or green-grey colour just after being applied, and becomes red-brown when it dries. Here in Saigon, the henna fashion was first imported by a small group of body painting enthusiasts who managed to kick off a trend within a year. As it causes no harm to the skin and doesn’t hurt at all, henna has attracted many locals, regardless of gender, to try it out.

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