A Shabbat-friendly Vietnam

This was destined to be a journey that would either strengthen or destroy the bond we always had.

A RIVER runs through the northern highlands of Vietnam. (photo credit: KEN GRUBER)
A RIVER runs through the northern highlands of Vietnam.
(photo credit: KEN GRUBER)
Discounting good health – a given on every list – what are the three most important things in your life? For me, this is a relatively easy question to answer: family (I’m including close friends, as they are like family), Judaism and travel. I simply cannot imagine an existence where these do not play a part. (Note to those who know me: I am not including music on my list, because – like oxygen, food, water and shelter – that falls into the category of life’s basic needs).
Whereas family and religious beliefs are the anchors that keep me grounded, however, travel is just the opposite- an opportunity to spread my wings, discover other cultures, and live a little on the edge. Yet I’ve just returned from a magical trip that allowed me to combine all three of my life pillars.
As much as I love to travel, Vietnam was never really on my bucket list. As an ex-pat American, I couldn’t imagine visiting the country that had been involved in shattering the lives of so many people in such an inhumane and pointless fashion. As a Jew, I wasn’t all that interested in touring a destination that had virtually no Jewish history or “content” whatsoever, not to mention the fact that it takes over 24 hours to get there, complete with lengthy layovers and totally inedible (kosher) airline meals.
And then my son decided to move there.
Having backpacked throughout Asia when he was a university student, he fell in love with Vietnam and was determined to return. He has now been living in Saigon (apparently, it is still OK to call it that in addition to its re-branded name of Ho Chi Minh City) for over a year, teaching English. He is not alone; young, educated, personable Westerners are in high demand to teach what is truly the universal language (I watched with fascination as Asians from different countries spoke English to understand one another, just as I have seen Europeans in Europe and Arabs in the Middle East do).
He gets paid “Western” wages in a country where 50 cents buys you a beer, and a beautiful apartment can be rented in the City center for less than $300 a month. Add to that a country that is beautiful, friendly, has incredible food and everybody owns/rides motor scooters – what 25 year-old wouldn’t want to live there?!
As I started to think about this trip – which would require more planning that usual to accommodate my Shabbat observance and kosher/vegetarian dietary requirements alongside all the sites I was determined to see – a thought came to mind: Since I was going to all this trouble anyway, why not bring along some like-minded travelers? Long story short, I teamed up with a travel agent friend of mine to develop a “Shabbat-friendly tour” of Vietnam, with the intention of marketing it to the masses.
Longer story short, with the clock ticking and no advertising budget, only three participants committed to join me: my siblings. Yes, totally unexpectedly, my two older brothers and younger sister decided – independently – that this not only sounded like an amazing trip, but an incredible way for us to re-connect. Not that we needed a bonding experience, mind you – we’ve always been incredibly close, but with a 14-year age gap, the four of us had never been alone together on a trip. And with no parents, children or significant others along, this was destined to be a journey that would either strengthen or destroy the bond we have always been so proud of and grateful for.
I am pleased to report the trip was beyond awesome. Vietnam is justifiably one incredible place. And though Jews were few and far between (more on that in a moment), and the two couldn’t be more different, comparisons with Israel kept on popping into my head. Both countries are relatively small, and are surrounded by not the friendliest of neighbors. Both have been war-torn and have come through with flying colors.
FOR THEIR size, both have amazingly diverse topography – within a 24-hour period I went from needing a parka in the northern highlands to shorts in the South. Mountain ranges, seas, forests and farmlands can all be experienced in a single day’s drive. Religious towns (in Vietnam’s case, full of Buddhist temples) exist alongside vibrant, secular cities (except for the oceanfront in Tel Aviv and the massage parlors in Saigon, the two are not that different!) And both have a fierce food culture.
Though I’m preferential to shwarma, falafel and schnitzel, Vietnamese eats are some of the best in the world. And thankfully for my “tour group,” courtesy of the aforementioned Buddhist population, vegetarian food could not be easier to come by. Or more delicious. In three weeks, I don’t think I ever ate the same dish twice. And we did manage to eat two kosher meat meals in the country, which is where the real Jewish content of Vietnam kicks in.
Good old Chabad. I dare you to go anywhere in the world nowadays and not encounter a picture of the Rebbe somewhere. In Vietnam they have not one, but three Chabad houses, each one quite distinct, reflecting the cities they are in.
My first Shabbat was spent in Hoi An, an ancient coastal town which readers of Travel and Leisure magazine recently named “The Best City in the World.” That might be a bit of an overstatement, but there is no denying that this UNESCO World Heritage Center is magical. And, like all gorgeous coastal towns in Asia, it is overrun by young Israeli backpackers fresh from the army.
So it was no surprise that the Chabad there – the newest and also (mistakenly) smallest – was packed with these folks looking for a taste of home. Not Friday night services, mind you – my brothers and I completed the minyan – but comradery and food. And delicious food at that – a traditional Shabbat meal of salads, fish, chicken soup and roast chicken with all the sides. And single-malt Scotch that was poured all night by the visiting young rabbi who had been “seconded” from Israel and was spending his last Shabbat among his new friends before returning home.
My second Chabad Shabbat was spent in their Vietnamese “headquarters” in Saigon (the third, which I did not get to visit, is in Hanoi; all three are “serviced” out of Saigon, ensuring they have rabbinic coverage/supervision and kosher food supplies). It is indeed quite the operation, and so busy that two rabbis and their families are stationed there full-time. Rabbis Menachem and Avrami Hartman (yes, they are related) have been there for 15 and three years, respectively.
In addition to overseeing all Chabad operations in the country and their own “house,” they also operate a school (mainly for their own kids, of which there are many!), a kosher restaurant (open 9 a.m.-9 p.m., six days a week) and bakery (the challot and babka we had were second to none). Friday night dinner, as in Hoi An, was packed, but the crowd was different. In Saigon, it is an older demographic, mostly Americans stationed there for work.
In typical “small Jewish world” fashion, however, I was seated next to a Toronto couple from my old neighborhood. It was a wonderful, warm, comforting (and delicious) evening, an oasis in the chaotic madness of Saigon just outside its doors.
My last day in Vietnam, I visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, an immense network used by Viet Cong soldiers in their resistance to American forces. This site, in addition to the War Remnants Museum in the heart of Saigon an hour away, are harsh reminders of the brutality of war and the destruction it leaves in its wake. Yet they are also symbols of reconciliation and forgiveness; the Vietnamese have moved on with their lives in a remarkably dignified and optimistic manner that is a wonder to observe.
So it is that I boarded my plane back to Toronto that evening with a renewed sense of well-being. For three intense weeks, my life’s anchors –  family, Judaism and need for exploration – had been put to the test and not only survived, but thrived. I can’t wait for my next “Shabbat-friendly tour” adventure.
Ken Gruber is a Toronto-based writer and can be reached at ken.gruber5@gmail.com. Reprinted with permission of the Canadian Jewish News.