There is perhaps nothing more joyous to me than sharing a home-cooked meal with family. The first thing my mother says whenever I visit is “What do you want to eat? I’ll make all your favorite dishes.” Food is how we express our love. Some of my favorite childhood memories include rolling eggrolls with my mother, or seeing my mother get together with her friends to make bánh tét for the Tết festival (Vietnamese lunar new year). The many hours it takes to make bánh tét (a sticky rice cake with mung beans and pork belly wrapped in banana leaves) allow for a lot of bonding time that to me, is as satisfying as the food itself.

Most Westerners know Vietnamese food from the popular soup phở or sandwich bánh mì, but there are so many more delicious regional dishes that are less known and harder to find, especially with the limited availability of Asian ethnic food where I live in Southeast Michigan. In Detroit, I mostly make Vietnamese food at home to avoid the inevitable disappointment of not-Mom’s cooking. In Vietnam, I can eat to my heart’s delight in Saigon, a street food paradise. My favorite thing to eat in a night market? Snails! Particularly the spotted kind called ốc hương. Typically at a seafood market or restaurant, you pick your seafood, let them know how you want it cooked (steamed, sautéed, or grilled), and choose what type of sauce or toppings you want it coated in (tamarind sauce, coconut curry, chili and garlic, peanuts and green onion, etc.).

Another favorite dish difficult to find in the U.S. is mì quảng from central Vietnam. Most people don’t know that phở originates from North Vietnam and that the other regions of Vietnam have their own soup specialities like bún bò Huế from the city of Huế. Mì quảng has wide noodles, a low turmeric broth, meat and/or seafood, lots of herbs, peanuts, and a big piece of sesame rice cracker (bánh đa mè).

Exploring Saigon on foot allows for the ability to stumble onto hidden gems. One of the silver linings of the French occupation was the introduction of coffee into the culture, and you can now find a café on almost every corner. I love taking a long walk and finding a new café for a refreshing glass of iced coffee any time of day. Tucked away in an alley by some train tracks was this massive oasis replete with plants, a water feature, and generous seating.

It’s safe to say I am obsessed with flowers. Whether I’m growing them for dyes or just for beauty, I love to have them around. In Vietnam, there is a particular flower called bông giấy (also known as bougainvillea). The name translates to “paper flower” because the leaves are very thin like paper. It comes in many colors, but I find pink to be the most vibrant and popular in Vietnam. You will often see mature plants cascading over balconies or fences, providing a gorgeous pop of color that will brighten your day.

Vietnam is essentially a long, slender coastline, and I would be remiss to leave without heading to one of the many famous beaches. My parents and I flew to Da Nang in central Vietnam to spend some time on the long stretch of white, sandy beaches the city is known for. In the distance, you can see the Lady Buddha Da Nang statue, which is the tallest one in Vietnam and said to protect fishermen at sea.

One of the stranger tourist attractions I’ve been to in Vietnam is a place called Bà Nà Hills high in the mountains just west of Da Nang. This resort in the mountains requires a long cable car ride to get to and was originally built in the 1910s by French colonialists. In recent years, it has expanded into a theme park and is a popular place for tourists as well as newlyweds looking to stay in a romantic European setting. Also in the same space is a Vietnamese Buddhist pagoda, so it’s an odd juxtaposition of early 20th century French architecture with Vietnamese religious architecture side by side.

The one thing Vietnamese know how to do is relax. Judging by the number of hammock rest stops on the side of the road, the work hard, play hard culture lives on in Vietnam. We take a long siesta for lunch, and I quickly got accustomed to my afternoon nap. Many of my Vietnamese friends were shocked by my descriptions of work life in America. The desire for work/life balance is strong in Vietnam, even if you are not well off. More than the food, crafts, or beaches, I try to remember the mindset and joie de vivre of the Vietnamese people until I can return again.