A Shabbat-friendly tour of Vietnam

A woman and child from the north (Ken Gruber photo)

Aside from good health, what are the three most important things in your life? For me, this is a relatively easy question to answer: family, Judaism and travel.

Whereas family and religious beliefs are the anchors that keep me grounded, travel is just the opposite – it’s 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 expat 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 country that has virtually no Jewish history 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’s OK to call it that, in addition to Ho Chi Minh City) for over a year, where he teaches English. He gets paid Western wages in a country where 50 cents buys a beer, and a beautiful apartment can be rented in the city centre for less than $300 a month. Add to that a country that is beautiful, friendly, has incredible food and everybody rides motor scooters – what 25 year old wouldn’t want to live there?

As I started to think about the trip – which would require more planning than usual to accommodate my observance of Shabbat and my kosher dietary requirements, while still allowing me to see everything I wanted – a thought came to mind: since I was going to all this trouble anyway, why not bring along some like-minded travellers?

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. But 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 it not only sounded like an amazing trip, but an incredible way for us to reconnect.

Not that we needed a bonding experience, mind you, 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 travelling with us, it was destined to be a journey that would either strengthen or destroy the bond we have always been so proud of.

Vietnam is an incredible place, and though Jews are few and far between, comparisons with Israel kept on popping into my head. Both countries are relatively small and are surrounded by not the friendliest of neighbours. Both have been war-torn and have come through with flying colours. For their size, both have amazingly diverse topography – within a 24-hour period, I went from needing a parka in the northern highlands, to wearing shorts in the south. One can experience mountain ranges, seas, forests and farmlands all in a single day.

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 parlours in Saigon, the two are not that different). And both have a lively food culture.

Though I’m preferential to shawarma, falafel and schnitzel, Vietnamese cuisine is some of the best in the world. And thankfully for my tour group, vegetarian food could not be easier to come by, thanks to the Buddhist population. And we did manage to eat two kosher meat meals, thanks to Chabad.

Vietnam is home to three Chabad houses. My first Shabbat was spent in Hoi An, an ancient coastal town that 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 Site is magical. And, like all gorgeous coastal towns in Asia, it is overrun by young Israeli backpackers who are fresh out of the army.

A street market in Hoi An (Ken Gruber photo)

So it was no surprise that the Chabad House there was packed with Israelis looking for a taste of home. They were not looking for Friday night services, mind you (my brothers and I completed the minyan), but camaraderie and food – and delicious food at that. We were treated to a traditional Shabbat meal full of salads, fish, chicken soup and roast chicken, with all the sides. We also enjoyed single-malt Scotch, which was poured all night long by the visiting Israeli rabbi who was spending his last Shabbat among his new friends before returning home.

Outside the Chabad Saigon (Ken Gruber photo)

My second Chabad Shabbat was spent in its Vietnamese headquarters in Saigon (the third site, which I did not get to visit, is in Hanoi; all three are serviced out of Saigon, ensuring they have rabbinic supervision and kosher food supplies). It is quite the operation, and it’s 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, they operate a school (mainly for their own kids, of which there are many), a kosher restaurant and a bakery (the challahs and babka we had were second to none).

Our Friday night dinner in Saigon was also packed, but the crowd was different than in Hoi An. The dinner in Saigon was filled with an older demographic, most of whom were Americans who are stationed there for work. In typical “small Jewish world” fashion, I was seated next to a Toronto couple from my old neighbourhood. It was a wonderful, warm, comforting (and delicious) evening, an oasis in the chaotic madness of the city.

On my last day in Vietnam, I visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, an immense network used by Viet Cong soldiers during the war. It was a harsh reminders of the brutality of war and the destruction it leaves in its wake. Yet the Cu Chi Tunnels, and the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, 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.