My first time in Asia! (Apart from being born in China, that is.) Still, I consider it my first as it was my first time flying west versus east for a trip. Anyways, I should give some background to how it all started…
You remember that time in whatever class it was that you were forced to learn about a subject that you had absolutely no care about and convinced yourself there was no need for that kind of knowledge outside of that class in the “real world”? Well sometimes, you actually do need that knowledge and you secretly have to thank whoever it was that made you learn about it. Take myself for example; saving the easiest international business course for my last quarter of college. Halfway through the quarter, we are split into groups and each assigned a random country to do a in-depth country analysis and report on. What country do we get? Vietnam. Up until that point, I knew about one word in Vietnamese and it was pho (which I also had not actually ever had.) Other than that, my knowledge of Vietnam was minimal, if exaggerating. Fast forward an A+, a few friends taking graduation trips to southeast Asia and some time off work, the slight mention of Vietnam paired with the annual father daughter trip kicking in early this year had my dad and I heading out New Year’s Day for my first trip to Asia.
Tips Before Traveling to Vietnam:
Bring a long skirt/pant/something to cover knees and shoulders at temples/pagodas.
Research and plan for travel time between locations, i.e. Sapa is a beautiful trip from Hanoi, but 9 hours one way.
Be prepared for humid temp. i.e. mosquitoes.
If you’re going to be in the jungle or remote areas, you may need shots, minimum a month out.
Don’t forget to apply for a Vietnam visa, which you can do here.
Lonely Planet’s Best of Vietnam guide is really helpful to hit all the hotspots in a short amount of time.
This quaint lantern-lit city was my favorite city out of our trip. Even though people say Hoi An is a bit touristy, if you go outside the busy main street, there is a humility and gentle placidness to this coastal town. Situated on the Thu Bon River, the “Yellow City” of Vietnam mixes Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese culture through colonial style. The sound of brooms sweeping storefronts at six in the morning sets the backdrop for a charming day within the hustle and bustle of Old Town. For us, the most perfect of mornings was spent waking up in our lovely hotel at The Quin Riverside Villa and renting bikes for a pedal around the sleepy town yet to rise. Stop for a Vietnamese coffee (the best kind of coffee) before walking through the market or riding across bridges and through the little streets lined with small shops and local boutiques.
Our very first meal in Vietnam was at Bale Well and well… it was dang good. There is only one option; a wrap-your-own-roll banh xeo with shrimp spring rolls, grilled pork satay, fresh herbs, some amazing sauce, and rice paper so need to worry about what to order, just order a drink, sit back, and stuff your face to your heart’s desire. It’s a bit hard to find, but once found you’ll find yourself amidst many locals and foreigners alike all enjoying a yummy meal.
Hoi An food culture is as colorful and lively as the buildings that make it up. Skip Anthony Bourdain’s banh mi recommendation and save your hunger for the ultimate feast in the form of a cooking class. To experience and taste the best of Hoi An food (and honestly some of our favorite food the whole trip), we more than recommend Golden Lotus Cooking School for a once-in-a-lifetime cooking experience. Probably my favorite meal of the whole trip was cao lau, Hoi An’s noodle specialty, which your very own chose and cooked for our whole cooking class. Our first choice for the Green Bamboo Cooking School had no more available spots, but Golden Lotus and Linh’s intelligence, kindness, and leadership went beyond our expectations. Though we did not do them, other Hoi An activities include taking advantage of the fantastic (and cheap) tailoring services, visiting the My Son ruins or the Tra Que vegetable village. Take note there is no airport or train station in Hoi An, it is only accessible by road. The closest main city is Danang from which you can taxi or bus to Hoi An.
Since we travelled south to north, there were a few ways to get between Hue and Hoi An. If you have the time and funds, without a doubt I would say a motorbike tour is the preferred and most fun way to travel. The best motorbike tour from Hoi An to Hue (or vis versa) is Le Family Riders, which gives you the opportunity to ride a motorbike, solo or with a personal driver, to travel across the Hai Van Pass to Hue. I cannot express how much fun we had doing this, along with all the fun stops and top sights in between.
Having been the country’s capital up until 1945, Hue is still known as the Imperial City. A lot of present day Hue is shaped by its past, as history continues to treasure the numerous pagodas, monuments, and temples spread across the small city. The most notable royal structure is the Forbidden Purple City; enclosed by the high stoned-wall Citadel and home of the Nguyen Emperors until 1945. Other top sights include the Tombs of the Emperors and Thien Mu Pagoda, of which you can visit from a wonderful and relaxing Perfume River boat tour as well. The influence of the imperial dynasty is reflected in it’s cuisine, as many dishes are the same dishes that were served to the Emperor. Hanh restaurant is a good one stop shop to try all of Hue specialities, such as nem lui and banh beo. For those with a little more spine, visit the Dong Ba Market where amidst hassling vendors you can find a tiny stall complete with tiny chairs to sit down and have some of the best Hue beef noodle soup, bun bo Hue.
We stayed at the Scarlett Boutique Hotel, which was a fantastic location for visiting sights in the day and experiencing the nightlife around the city center. If you need a slower afternoon, take an off the beaten path excursion to unwind at the riverside Cafe Tre Nga for a Vietnamese coffee then dip back to the hotel for a nice, relaxing massage. Had we planned a second day in Hanoi, we would have definitely done a day trip to Paradise Caves.
Ninh Binh/Tam Coc:
Since Vietnam is so big, it can be difficult to make it to those smaller, lesser known gems in the countryside, but the minute I saw pictures of Tam Coc I knew I had to go no matter how difficult.
In the words of my dad, for a “rustic and authentic” experience, booking tickets for the overnight sleeper train is a cheap and somewhat efficient way of traveling around the country. Ninh Binh is not much more than a city, but is the closest major station to get where you really want to stay in Tam Coc, which is about 4 km away. Tam Coc is also known as the Halong Bay of Land, with limestone rock formations towering over serene rice paddies and rivers running through caves. Though we didn’t get to visit Halong Bay, this natural paradise is arguably a more accessible and more authentic experience than the tourist-filled latter.
Our stay at the Mountain Lake Homestay was a dream. It is a family run homestay, the lodges are extremely clean and spacious, and the hospitality is impeccable. The family is so sweet, they treat you like one of their own and are truly happy to help you in any and all ways. From our homestay, we were able to enjoy all the main activities like biking to Bich Dong Pagoda, hiking the 500 steps to the top of Mua Cave, and my favorite, taking a boat tour through the Trang An Grottoes. To partake in the local food, Ninh Binh/Tam Coc is known for their delicious goat dishes which can found at both Thuy Linh and Father Cooking restaurant.
Otherwise known as the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is the city of in northern Vietnam. Though I have yet to visit Ho Chi Minh City, myself and many others share the notion that Hanoi has a more original, distinctive culture and history than compared to its more modernized and populated southern counterpart. Hanoi is dynamic and ancient, with handicraft traditional villages like the ceramics and pottery of Bat Trang or the silver-making street Hang Bac intertwined with cultural relics and picturesque scenery. There are many things to do and see in Hanoi such as visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (he’s literally in there) or walking around Hoan Kiem Lake, but most of the action lives within in the Old Quarter, a chaotic maze of energy and life. The best way to see the Old Quarter is just walking around on foot, exploring each nook and cranny for yourself.
And within Old Quarter is food. Lots of food. Lots of good food. And lots of amazing food. In Hanoi, street food is king. Like the architecture, Vietnam is still heavily influenced by the French, which can also be seen in Vietnamese food. Weaved within narrow alleyways and busy sidewalks, the best food is found across a range of family-owned restaurants and local vendors. For newbies, you can go on a street food tour, but since you’re reading a total foodie’s blog, I’ve compiled a short and sweet beginner’s guide of must-try foods in Hanoi and the best place to get them. You’re welcome.
Soleil’s Mini Food Guide to Hanoi
Pho: Anywhere. But it’s pretty popular here.
Pho Gia Truyen Bat Dan: 49 Bat Dan
Cha ca: I love fish and so do the Vietnamese. This dish is where they fry a delicate, fatty white fish in turmeric with dill and green onion and it’s really freaking delicious. We went here twice. The original place is at Cha Ca La Vong, but this is much much much better.
Cha Ca Thang Long: 19-21-31 Duong Thanh, Hoan Kiem
Egg coffee: Vietnamese coffee + egg + piece of heaven. It tastes like a liquid creme brulee.
Giang Cafe: 39 Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm
Banh mi: Vietnamese subway sandwich. This is tricky as each person has their personal preference, but I’d have to say my favorite was at Bami Bread. Finding the ‘perfect’ banh mi can be tricky as different regions of Vietnam prepare it differently, but can also be fun as each individual seeks out their own.
Bami Bread: 98 Hang Bac
Bun cha: Pork noodle soup with fresh herbs. You cannot, I repeat not, leave Hanoi with eating it. And this is absolutely the best place to get it. Alleyway, inconspicuous, unassuming, the flavors of gods.
Bun Cha Hang Quat: 74 Hang Quat
You definitely want to stay in the middle of Old Quarter for all the action, and there is no better place to stay than the Diamond King Hotel. Of all however many countries I’ve travelled to so far, the hospitality and service at The Diamond King Hotel is at the top. Their genuine kindness welcomes you in and their sincerity is overwhelming. We came in as guests and left as friends, I would stay there again and again.
Beyond Old Quarter, Hanoi also has a French Quarter on the southern end of Hoan Kiem Lake, which is home to many wide-open streets, high-end shopping, and grand government buildings. Head west for a little thrill at Hanoi’s “Train Street”, a street where locals going about their daily life with a train whizzing by a couple inches from their front door. Two trains run a day, at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., so you want to get there about a half hour early to get a lay of the land and choose your prime photo-taking point. There are a few spots you can watch the train from, but the main train street lies on a small street between Kham Tien and Le Duan, the exact lane called Ngo 224 Le Duan. If you have time to venture outside of the city center, head on over to The Hanoi Bicycle Collective to rent a bike and spend a half, or full, day biking around West Lake, stopping for coffee, feeling the cool lake breeze, and exploring the many pleasant attractions.
There’s more to Vietnamese food than pho and banh mis.
Prior to this trip, other than Peruvian food, my favorite food was Vietnamese food, but now I know my view was very limited and I now have a whole new belief system in what and how delicious Vietnamese food is. At home, I don’t usually eat soup, noodles, or pork, and yet dishes like cao lau and bun cha I still have dreams about. Oh and fresh spring rolls. Never forget the fresh spring rolls.
I look Vietnamese.
I kid you not, I had at least 8 Vietnamese people tell me I look Vietnamese. I disagree and have no idea what to do with this information.
The Vietnamese people are extremely hard-working.
Exploring cities in the early morning, eating on the street, and getting away from the crowds gave me an incredibly clear and honest look into the discipline that the Vietnamese have for every task they do. The vegetables that we so easily pick up at the grocery store are brought into the market balanced on the backs of old women from miles away. The reconstruction of villages are built off of determination for improving and positive change in their communities. Most importantly, I see the perseverance deep in their souls from the pain and trauma of the Vietnam War that has been turned into a beautiful glory of hope in their people that shows in their work and daily life.
The Vietnamese people are incredibly kind, sincere, and hospitable.
Especially since I work in the service industry, my whole perspective on service and hospitality has been rewired due to the overwhelming kindness of the Vietnamese people. Where I work, we have a very high standard for saying the right thing and being precise at every single moment. This all has a place and time, and I am thankful for those standards, but I have also been reminded that you don’t always have to know everything or say everything perfect, parallel to the Vietnamese speaking English or lack thereof, but that one feels most welcomed by the intention of the host. I felt the excitement from the Vietnamese every time I walked in the door and their silly grins of happiness made me smile. Not only were they genuinely happy to serve me, but they were also proud of what they were doing. They were proud of their country. It was such an honor to be on the receiving end of the pride that welcomed me to their country.
Family is not taken for granted.
In a country like Vietnam, rural and even metropolitan areas are not as with material things. Whether it be social media or large houses, the Vietnamese people don’t have much space physically or egotistically to waste effort on, so with the little space they do have, they use it for family. Gathering for dinner all together on the street at the end of the night to running full businesses together, the way they do life together and for each other is gracious and inspiring. Not to mention, it made me that much more grateful for the awesome family I do have, like my dad!
Go to Vietnam!
It’s super duper cheap, the natural beauty is incredible, the people are one-of-a-kind and the food is out of this world! I don’t know how much more convincing you need; seriously I’m planning my return as I type this. In all honesty, I would say it’s in the top 5 places I’ve travelled. The culture and food and community and food and scenery and food… oh and did I mention food? One of my New Year’s resolutions was to ‘travel somewhere new’ and I’d say 2018 is off to one hell of a start. Here’s to the next 350 days of adventures and crossing off more of those resolutions…maybe multiple times.