My parents have been worrying sick over my well-being for the past few months. While they were mostly fine with us traveling through Europe (except for a brief conversation I had with my father about Russia), they were secretly alarmed when we told them Southeast Asia was next. In true Japanese fashion, they tried to hide their concerns from me.
The Taiwanese student demonstrations were on the news every night and they silently beared it until we were a few days away from leaving. My mother asked why we felt the need to go to Taiwan, right now, in the midst of these demonstrations. They got annoyed with me when I responded that I wasn’t planning on participating in the protests.
Two weeks into my gastric issues in Vietnam, China started stirring shit in the South China Sea and bullying Vietnamese boats in Vietnamese waters. My parents were terrified. When I told them that we were watching the developments and we would be careful, they responded with a barrage of angry questions. “Why haven’t you left already? Why do you want to stay in Vietnam so much? Do you understand that Japanese factories were torched? Do you even watch the news? Why aren’t you leaving when the Chinese are escaping through the closest border available?!” I imagined a horde of middle-aged Chinese women with curly perms, colorfully patterned clothes and Louis Vuitton bags on their arms screaming and running along a dusty road towards the Cambodian border while deeply-tanned tuk-tuk drivers waited on the other side to whisk them away to Nowheresville, Cambodia.
Returning to Vietnam was something that I’ve wanted to do since I left at the tender age of two. I have absolutely no memory of the first two years of my life. For all I know I could’ve been in Djibouti during that time, but my mommy tells me that I was in Saigon so I’ll take her word for it.
I wasn’t sure what to expect in Vietnam since my mother and my aunts and uncles seem to hate it, but my cousins who have been back love it and return every year. I won’t go into detail about why my mother’s generation isn’t crazy about Vietnam, but it has a little to do with a traumatic fleeing from a new Communist regime that stole all of their life’s work, separated them from their families and threatened their lives. Something like that. That’s all water under the bridge now so I really didn’t have any major concerns about returning to the land of my birth.
After we landed in Saigon and breezed through Immigration, we hopped in a taxi and went to our hotel without any problems. I was expecting to have to bribe an immigration official with a crisp $5 bill, or pay off some baggage handler to give me my fancy first-world backpack, but everything was above the board. No funny business at this airport!
The first thing I wanted to do in the motherland was grab a bowl of pho. I thought I’d be blown away by the authentic flavors that only the homeland could produce and overwhelmed by the rush of emotion that comes with the memories that only a good dish can evoke, but I wasn’t. The pho was bland and didn’t have the intense and complex mixture of spices that I used to smell throughout the house when my mother would make it on those days when she didn’t have work and was able to get a hefty portion of beef bones and just the right cut of beef.
A good college friend once described to me a tour she took to the Yangtze River. Her advice if I ever decided to go was to never look down, because the smelly water was filled with garbage. She concluded matter-of-factly in the way she does that, “As long as you don’t look down, you’re fine.” Lowered expectations.
This was exactly how I felt in Halong Bay, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. And it would be a wonder, if it weren’t for the vast amounts of trash in the water. By this time, I was used to just how much the Vietnamese like to litter. They think nothing of finishing a bottle of soda and then tossing it out of the window of buses, taxis and trains. I tried to hand someone in a store a plastic safety seal from a bottle of water to throw away for me, and she pointed down, as in, “Throw it on the floor, where it will be swept up someday and will end up choking a baby seal to death in the ocean when it mistakes it for food.”
We knew some of what to expect of Halong Bay. We knew how overpriced the cruises were in relation to the delivered product and services, and how you have to really lower your expectations. Because as a blogger wisely pointed out, “The Vietnamese will promise you the world, but will only deliver broken dreams.”
N and I had opted for the two-night three-day tour — which tacks on an extra night in top of the tour that most tourists go on — after talking to a solo American traveler who told us that the extra day really made up for the shitty herding around she experienced the first day.
To learn about the various ethnic groups in Vietnam (and there are 56 of them), the Museum of Ethnology is a great place to spend an afternoon in Hanoi.
The circular main building is dedicated to exhibitions of the ethnic groups in Vietnam, and a separate contemporary building houses stuff from the rest of Southeast Asia. Behind both buildings are actual houses from ethnic groups which were relocated to this museum, and visitors can explore the inside of these homes to see how people live. It’s an awesome museum and well worth a visit.
Hanoi, like any other big city, requires some research if you want really great food. Sure, you can stop at any busy street food stall and have good food. If you’re lucky, it might be really good. If you’re unlucky, you’ll have wasted a couple of bucks on a forgettable meal. And, if you’re really unlucky, you’ll get e. coli and spend the rest of your trip on the toilet. I can’t help you with the potential e. coli issues, but if you want really great food then you should do a bit a research beforehand. You don’t have to go crazy finding the best of the best, but your experience in the city will be a lot more memorable when you know where to get some tasty grub. Since we didn’t have any locals to show us around we scoured the interwebs for the best places to eat and proceeded to chow down.
Here’s what we ate in Hanoi. Some meals were better than others, but all were popular with locals and tourists.
Cha ca: We had this dish at Cha Ca Va Long and it’s the only thing they serve there. It’s a proper restaurant so you shouldn’t have any problems finding it. We had a late lunch one day so we were the only ones there. We walked in, the woman looked at me and said two in Vietnamese and that was it. No hello, no menu, no specials of the day. A few minutes later she came over with a portable burner, a plate of bun (vermicelli noodles), a big bowl of greens, a small plate of peanuts, a small plate of sliced red chili peppers, and a small bowl of mam nem (pungent fermented shrimp paste sauce). A minute later she came back with a frying pan filled with sizzling fish chunks. The fish was yellow from the turmeric and smelled delightful. She started us off by tossing some greens into the pan and told us to assemble the dish in the two bowls that she placed in front of us. We put a little of everything into our bowls and HOT DAMN! that shit was good! We detected dill in the pan and realized that a bunch of the greens in the bowl were dill too. This was the first time I’ve had dill in Vietnamese food because it’s not a common ingredient in Southern Vietnamese cuisine. I’m not a big fan of dill, but it went very nicely with the other flavors in this dish. This meal was a bit expensive by Vietnamese standards, almost 350,000 VND for two, but you should try it unless you’re poor, in which case you should ask someone to take you there for your birthday.
Restaurant: Cha Ca Va Long: 14 Pho Cha Ca
Luon: Luon just means eel, but the eel here is not like the eel you’ve had at sushi restaurants. These eels are small and deep fried and they can be prepared several different ways. After we came back from Sapa we stayed at another hotel and lucky duckies that we are, our hotel was a block away from several excellent food establishments. One of them was this eel place called Nha Hang Mien Luon, translation Eel Noodle Restaurant. We had several meals here because each dish is pretty different, but equally delicious. I think most people order the mien luon for which this place is named and that was our fist dish too. It has glass noodles, fried shallots, mint, shiso, basil, cucumbers, crushed peanuts, and a generous helping of fried eel. There’s fresh lime and chili on the side that you can add to taste. This dish comes with a bowl of clear broth on the side and it’s beautiful way to end the meal. If you have room for another dish then you should also try the eel congee. It’s the best congee I’ve ever had. It’s made with broken rice and a broth that makes it a greyish color. They throw in a bunch of chopped herbs and a fistful of tender eel. Get the fried crullers and toss them in the congee so they soften up while you’re eating. Squeeze a bunch of lime in the bowl and go to town on it cuz this ain’t yo mama’s congee!
Restaurant: Nha Hang Mien Luon, 87 Hang Dieu
Bun cha nem cua: If you’re not tired of noodles yet, I’ve got another noodle dish for you! This one is a lunch meal, so don’t go moseying over here for dinner like we did one night just to find it closed. When we did come back here for lunch we found it packed with locals and tourists. The menu is short and posted on the wall with prices. Let me warn you, this is a very meaty meal. An order of their main dish comes with a bowl full of minced pork patties and slices of grilled pork and sides of greens and vermicelli noodles. You should also get a couple of the nem cua, crab spring rolls, which I actually liked more than the main dish. For the main dish you put the noodles and greens into the meat bowl and eat it straight from there. I really enjoyed the minced pork patties, but I thought the grilled pork slices were a bit tough. The crab spring rolls were tasty, but they’d be a lot better if they were fried to order and if the crab meat was dispersed in the roll more evenly. I had a couple of bites that didn’t even have a hint of crab and then another bite that was full of crabby goodness.
Restaurant: Dac Kim, 67 Duong Thanh
Bun bo nam bo: It seems like Vietnamese people never tire of noodle dishes. If you’re a practicing Muslim who can’t eat pork and noodles, you can come to this place for beef and noodles. This shop is crowded for lunch and dinner and the main dish is the standard vermicelli noodle with fried slices of beef, the usual suspect of Vietnamese greens, a generous topping of crushed peanuts and a bit of broth. There’s white vinegar, soy sauce, and chili on the table that you should add to taste. I found this dish to be a bit plain and uninteresting, but they must be doing something right since the restaurant looked full whenever we passed by.
Restaurant: Bun Bo Nam Bo, 67 Hang Dieu
Xoi: Oh, finally, a non-noodle dish! We had xoi on our first morning in Hanoi after a long overnight train ride from Dong Hoi. This was the perfect simple brunch dish for our sleep-deprived asses. I’ve never had xoi prepared this way before since the Northerners do things differently. If I remember correctly the menu was only in Vietnamese, but I’m not sure if that’s because I spoke Vietnamese so they handed me a Viet menu or if they don’t have an English menu. Kanako ordered a chicken and mushroom xoi and I ordered the mixed xoi. in addition to the toppings that we ordered, each dish came with a topping of mashed mung beans and fried shallots. The mung beans were something I’ve never had on xoi before and what an eye-opening or should I say mouth-opening experience! I suppose it’s a Hanoi thing, but this is the only way I’ll eat xoi from now on. Soooo gooood. You also get a side of pickled cucumbers which cuts the sweetness of the mung bean paste. Xoi is great if you’re tired of the ubiquitous bun dishes.
Restaurant: Xoi Yen, 35 Nguyen Huu Huan
Banh cuon: Remember my Da Nang food post where I mentioned the yummy banh cuon dish? Well, this Hanoi take on the dish is even better, in my humble opinion. This is another place that we came across completely by accident as we strolled the streets around our hotel. We saw a woman making the banh cuon using a crepe pan and I just had to try it. Kanako was a little unsure because her stomach was still giving her problems, but I lied and told her everything would be fine. We went in and ordered two plates of banh cuon. These delicate rice flour crepes filled with a mixture of minced pork and chopped wood ear mushroom were perfection. You get a side of greens, a slice of pork roll, and a warm diluted fish sauce broth for dipping. I’ve never had that type of sauce with this dish before and it was unexpectedly fantastic. While I was stuffing my face with banh cuon I saw a woman at the next table drinking something that looked like chunky soy milk so I ordered a glass for myself. It turned out to be soy milk with soft tofu, kind of like the Chinese soft tofu dessert. Mmmmm! We ordered two more soy milks to go and waited outside while they prepared our drinks. While we stood there a French woman was also waiting for her order and she told us that she has been living in Hanoi for over eight years and this was one of her favorite places to eat. Lucky us for finding this place! By the way, this is a small dish that isn’t enough to fill-up an average Westerner so be prepared to get at least two plates for yourself.
Note: I’m ashamed to say that I can’t find the name or address of this place, but I know it’s not too far from the Rising Dragon Estate hotel. It’s on a corner somewhere North or Northwest of the hotel and within walking distance. You’ll see a woman sitting outside making the crepes and if you look past her you’ll see people sitting at the four or five tables inside. If anyone finds this place, let me know!
Egg coffee: I usually have my eggs on a plate and my coffee in a cup, but the Vietnamese have figured out a way to save a plate. All you have to do is put the egg in the cup with the coffee. What? That doesn’t sound yummy to you? Well, trust me, it is. My awesome wife found this stupendous cafe that’s known for it’s off-the-hook egg coffee that’s like a drinkable dessert. The cafe is tad hard to find since it’s down a narrow alley where you might get run over by an exiting scooter, but it’s worth the risk. A woman will greet you at the end of the alley and present you with a short menu. We ordered their famous hot egg coffee even though it was hotter than a camel’s bunghole that day. After we ordered she directed us to go upstairs and find our own seats. There are three floors to choose from and we opted for the second floor with a nice view of Hoan Kiem Lake. A young girl brought our drinks up a few minutes later and I got all excited because it looked like dessert and you know I loves me some dessert. Well, it could’ve been dessert because it was rich, creamy, and sweet. Actually, it was a touch too sweet for my taste, but still delicious. This is a must try coffee drink while you’re in Hanoi. Just ask for less sugar if you can manage to communicate that to the woman taking your order.
Restaurant: Cafe Pho Co, 11 Hang Gai
Frozen coconut coffee: Ok, let me explain this sublime drink as best I can. It’s coffee with a huge scoop of something resembling coconut ice cream, but it’s not really ice cream. If you’ve ever had the coconut frozen treat from one of those NYC food carts with the big green umbrellas that advertise Coco Delicioso then you might have an idea of what I’m talking about here. Otherwise, you’ll just have to go try this drink for yourself. It’s so good and I can’t believe that I only had it once while I was in Hanoi. You can find this at Cong Caphe, a cool place to hang out day or night and not too hard to find since they have several branches in Hanoi.
Flan or kem caramen: My mama makes the best flan, but my mama wasn’t in Hanoi with us so we settled for the kem caramen at Duong Hoa. We found this place by accident after boo got her hurr did at an overpriced stylist. (Her haircut cost $25 dollars and mine cost $2.50!) We were walking back towards the Old Quarter when I saw a bunch of people around this shop. I looked over to see what all the commotion was about and immediately started drooling when I saw stacks of little plastic cups filled with custardy flan. We ordered a couple to go because I wanted to get back to the air-conditioned hotel room. Unfortunately, the flan didn’t hold up well to the jostling of our walk, but the flavor and texture was there and we knew we had to go back to have it at the shop. We went back on our last night and ate 4 between the two of us. We probably could’ve had more but we’re ladies and ladies don’t gorge on flan.
Restaurant: Duong Hoa, 29 Hang Than
During a motorcycle ride to a nearby Red Dao village, N’s driver tried to sell her on using him and his buddy for another adventure into the hills. When she tried to explain to him that we wanted to do a trekking tour, he laughed and asked her, “Why walk when you can just drive there?” Good question.
Well mostly because it’s easier to take in the views at a snail’s pace (which is us going up mountains) than on the back of a motorcycle that is careening around the mountains while simultaneously trying to bypass fast-moving cars and semis. The way these Vietnamese drive, it’s a wonder they manage to stay on the road at all sometimes.
So we signed up for a private trek with Sapa O’Chau, a tour organization founded by a Hmong woman, Shu Tan. Part of the cost of the tour goes towards the schooling of Hmong children to give them better opportunities through future employment. Attendance at the Sapa O’Chau school also includes food and lodging for the children. Our guide was a 20-year young Hmong girl who didn’t attend the school but did take English classes at the school. She was going to lead us to her home in Lao Chai, a big Black Hmong village about 10km from Sapa. Not long into the start of our hike through the town to Sapa, two Hmong women sidled up next to us to chat us up. “What your name?”
By this time, we were used to the Hmong women following tourists around town pretty assertively. “You buy something from me?” A no thank you will be quickly countered with a gentle, “Yes thank you.” And telling them that you already bought a lot of things will be answered with, “But not from me.” Surprisingly, the women are civil and friendly to each other even though they all crowd around selling the exact same things: little bags, zippered purses, pillowcases, bracelets, charms. “You buy something small from each of us and make us happy.” It’s a proposal we would consider if not for the dozens of other women who will ask you to do the same thing a minute later. And they’re all so damn nice, which makes it hard to say no. The Hmong learn their English from talking to tourists, and it’s pretty damn impressive. They speak way better English than the Vietnamese vendors we’ve interacted with over the past two months.
We didn’t mind buying from these two women, and they didn’t seem to mind walking all the way to Lao Chai with us. My lady (I say this because she chatted me up first) was cheerful and talkative, while N’s lady was quiet and wove hemp strands into string as she walked. I don’t understand this multitasking business, because our eyes were permanently glued to the uneven pathways as we walked and half-stumbled along. Oh, and I forgot to mention that they wear plastic sandals on these walks.
“You have a boyfriend?” I told Gom that I didn’t have a boyfriend, and she reassured me — a pathetic spinster in her eyes — that being single was good because I had the chance to do anything I wanted. She told us about how she recently married a guy who was a friend of her ex-boyfriend’s. She told us about a Hmong custom where a boy will ask a girl he is interested in to come live in his house for four days. She is expected to go, and she spends time with him and his family to see if she would be happy there as his wife. At the end of the four days, the girl decides if she wants to marry the boy. This is what happened with Gom, and while she wasn’t crazy about her husband, he was nice enough so it was OK. She turned her attention to us. “Everyone thinks you two look like boys,” she giggled. I told her that it happens a lot, and left her to wonder why.
We got up way too early in the morning to take a bumpy, nauseating ride to Bac Ha, where the Flower Hmong gather every Sunday to sell their stuff. There was freshly-harvested honey, bright red chilis, fruits, vegetables, moonshine-like rice wine, farm animals, metal tools and expensive pet birds. A major plus was meeting a great couple from California, and being able to explore the market with them. The tour stopped into a small village where we got a quick glimpse of life there. Another major highlight was stopping at the Chinese border and being given the chance to stare longingly at Mainland China, the land of opportunity. On the way home, a dog (that was probably purchased for food) shat in the box in the back of the van but the driver refused to stop, so we sat marinating in the smell for almost three hours. Good times in Vietnam.
If you really want to explore Sa Pa and the surrounding area, you need to get a motorbike. My first attempt at driving Kanako on the back of a rental motorbike in Phong Nha almost resulted in a couple of scraped knees and an early divorce, so we decided to hire motorbike drivers in Sa Pa to ensure the longevity of our marriage.
Unlike most travelers to Sa Pa, we decided to spend almost a week there. We like to be out of the city as much as possible and it’s not always easy because transportation is less available and less reliable when you’re leaving major cities, so when we have a chance to get out, we try to stay out for awhile. It gives us time to relax, recharge and, most importantly, catch up on Game of Thrones. OH. MY. GOD. THE. VIPER.
Finding a motorbike driver, also known as xe om, is easy in Sa Pa. They’re all hanging out on the corner of the main square waiting for people to come by and there’s a big board with prices to popular sites so ignorant tourists like us won’t get ripped off. The more proactive drivers roam around the town asking tourists if they need a motorbike. We decided to use the services of one of these guys to visit the two main waterfalls in the area, Silver Falls and Love Falls. The ride itself is worth the money. The unobstructed view of the mountainside on the back of a motorbike is stunning and the mountain air is refreshing as long as you’re not unlucky enough to get stuck behind a water buffalo that just dropped off a steaming turd. I’d also pay that money twice over to avoid the vomit-inducing minivan ride on the same road.
My wife likes to let people know that I “hate children”. When I argue that I don’t “hate” them (it’s such a strong word), this Baby Whisperer who I’ve married tries to reassure me that it’s fine and that I should just own it. It’s especially pleasant when she volunteers this information to strangers with children, who are left to secretly wonder if I’m the kind of monster who also hates puppies, cupcakes, rainbows and everything else that is good in this world.
Fortunately for me, N kept her mouth shut when we met an Australian couple with two young kids at the Phong Nha Farmstay. After a couple of exciting forays into the Vietnamese bush (hehe) with this family, we decided to join them on a full-day tour to see two caves in the Phong Nha National Park and although the cost of the tour was pretty steep for us ($100/person; we’re in Vietnam, people!), we decided that spending the day with this family would be more fun than being transported around with a bunch of strangers.
We got up at 6:45am and we were off on our journey an hour later, hopping onto an old American Army jeep and an old Russian motorcycle with Craig (an Australian) and Hung (a Vietnamese local) as our guides. They pointed out wartime scars on the landscape as we headed into the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. During the war, there were no American soldiers on the ground in this part of Vietnam (most of the fighting took place in the south), but they bombed the shit out of it for years, killing civilians and resistance fighters alike. During the day, people hid from bombers in the caves and worked on transporting supplies and building roads and landing strips during the cover of night.
The whole area is still covered with land mines that the Americans dropped during the war. Our guide Hung had deep scars on his arms and face from playing with a land mine when he was a child growing up in this area. He survived, but his four friends weren’t so lucky. Just the day before, two young boys living a few minutes from our Farmstay were killed while trying to pry open a land mine they had found in the mountains. I immediately thought of Bosnia — still deeply scarred from its war over two decades ago — and the chilling skull and crossbones signs we saw there, the international symbol for land mines. You can’t just bounce back from war, and this was a reality I had the luxury of never having to experience firsthand like these people did, and still do.
I felt it during the four-hour train ride to Dong Hoi. The subtle but unmistakeable rumbling of oncoming gastrointestinal distress. Remembering the 10-day involuntary cleansing ordeal I went through in Saigon and Dalat, I pleaded with my body and then tried not to think about it. After all, we were heading to the countryside to explore caves and harass cows and ain’t nobody got time for that. It had also only been about two weeks since the end of the first bout, and I had already lost at least 3kgs since I started traveling. I was withering away into a stick insect (plenty in this area). Completely ignoring my pleas, it started right after dinner that night and continued throughout the next four days we spent in Phong Nha, an otherwise relaxing country village.
We were staying at the Phong Nha Farmstay, which I expected to be a glorified mud hut in the middle of rice paddies (lowered expectations!) but it ended up being pretty nice and comfortable, complete with a small pool. Now I wouldn’t call this place a Farmstay. It’s more like a hostel or hotel, in the middle of rice paddies and farmers’ homes. I didn’t eat much that week but I also didn’t miss out on much judging from the taste of the food.
What kept me from just laying in our room like a useless lump on a log was an adventurous Australian family we met who was also staying at the Farmstay. It was their idea to rent mopeds to explore the countryside, and N somehow agreed to rent one of her own (I wasn’t there to stop her during the rental transaction) even though she had never ridden one in her life. Genius.
It all worked out in the end one afternoon, when Nigel (the father) kindly offered to drive the two of us on the back of one moped while Pip (the mother) and the kids rode on the other one. Nigel somehow maneuvered the cumbersome scooter around potholes, rocks, hay, rice drying in the sun and cow patties on the windy dirt roads towards the Chicken Lady, who is rumored to have the best chicken in the village. We got lost thanks to the crappy map the hotel gave us to decipher, but we got back on track once a friendly local pointed us in the right direction. So friendly that she got full cuddle time with my wife before we took off again.