Southern Vietnam: Nha Trang and Saigon

We arrived in Nha Trang on an overnight train from Hoi An, jumped in a cab and took off towards the beach. We went to work finding a place to stay for the next three nights and found ourselves at a guesthouse with an ocean view (over several other buildings and a park) on one of the main streets.IMG_1256 (1024x768)We fell into a routine for the next few days. We’d wake up and walk one block down the street to enjoy a glass of Vietnamese iced coffee. We’d literally sit on tiny stools next to the gutter on the side of the road at the makeshift cafe.IMG_1247 (1024x768)This was the strongest and tastiest coffee we’ve had in Vietnam and was served by the happiest woman ever – a great combination and the perfect way to start the day each morning. We’d drink our coffee and unlimited ice tea (all for 50 cents) while we waited for our bahn mi sandwiches from the adjoining food stall.IMG_1248 (1024x768)The sandwiches, also 50 cents each, were ‘chay’ or vegetarian sandwiches. They were filled with three types of soy meat, chili sauce and tons of different types of veggies. Even though they were meatless, the boys both loved them. Three days and about five sandwiches later, I decided they weren’t my favorite.IMG_1249 (1024x768) IMG_1251 (1024x768)After our brunch of coffee and sandwiches, we’d head to the beach. The beach in Nha Trang gets a bad rap from other travelers but I’m not sure why. It’s clean and only one block from the downtown area. A beach is a beach and we had no complaints visiting it each day.IMG_1218 (1024x768) IMG_1241 (1024x768) IMG_1244 (1024x768)After beach time, we’d head back to the room to relax, shower and go out to dinner. One day we walked down the beach to a brewery/restaurant on the water where Andy treated us to their local beer and pizza. Other than a long walk through the city for train tickets and Andy buying new “Billabong” board shorts for a mere $7, we didn’t feel the need to do much else in Nha Trang aside from eat and go to the beach.

It was finally time to head to our last destination in Vietnam -Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon. The overnight trains were set to arrive in HCMC at 4 AM which was way too early for us so we decided to take a morning train that arrived in the late afternoon. Except for one or two other backpackers, we were the only foreigners in our train car. The seats were pretty comfy and we settled in for our seven hour journey to the big city.???????? ????????We arrived in HCMC and walked through the chaotic streets to find a place to stay for the next three nights. We bargained for a hotel room and went out to grab dinner at a pho restaurant we passed only one block away. This was one of the best beef noodle soups we’ve had. They bring out a plate of fresh herbs and chilis so you can doctor your soup up to your preferred level of spice and flavor (Chris’ version pictured below). We eat pho almost every day for at least one meal in Vietnam and it never gets old. It’s so good!????????Just down the block lies an incredibly lively street where we perched up on tiny stools with bia hoi for the night.  Both sides of the street are lined with bars, stalls and restaurants and every seat is facing the street. The street provides the best source of entertainment: people watching. We drank glasses and glasses of fresh bia hoi while getting to know the locals and expats and staring at the craziness happening around us. Street hawkers, motorbikes, lady boys, smells from the food stalls (good and bad) and police drive-bys… it all happens at once as you sip your beer and take it all in. The experience is very similar to Hanoi but the streets can accommodate more activity and in our opinion, are a bit wilder (and cleaner). Saigon is crazy and awesome. The photos we have are lame in comparison to the actual experience.???????? DSC00074 (1024x768) DSC00077 (1024x768)We headed home for bed and to call Bunny, Chris and Andy’s grandma, to wish her a very happy birthday (Happy Birthday Bunny)! Talking to the Buns gave the boys a second wind as she encouraged them to go out for more beer. They went back to the street stall we had just left and made friends with the owner, an 82 year old Vietnamese woman who spoke no English and ran that bustling beer stall like clockwork.DSC00078 (768x1024)The next morning, we went on an adventure to find the Lunch Lady who was spotlighted on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. The now famous Lunch Lady typically makes one type of soup or dish each day which she serves until it runs out, usually around 1 or 2pm.DSC00008 (1024x768)We sat down in the back of a street alley and ordered three mystery dishes. At the time, we had no idea what we were served but we later used Google to find out that it was a bowl of ‘bun thit nuong,’ which translates to ‘grilled meat on noodles.’ Turns out, it’s a popular Vietnamese cold vermicelli noodle dish topped with grilled pork, fresh herbs, vegetables and fried minced pork rolls.DSC00013 (1024x768)The accompanying fresh spring rolls were probably the best I’ve had (apart from the ones we made ourselves in Hoi An). DSC00012 (1024x768)I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to try one of her ultra-famous soups, but it was still really good. Chris loved it. Plus, the trip was worth meeting the Lunch Lady and seeing her happy face. Look at that smile!DSC00021 (1024x768)From there we walked to the War Remnants Museum, where we learned about the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese. Most of the exhibits were comprised of graphic photos taken during the war (which we’ll spare you), the aftermath of chemical warfare on its people, artillery and weapons used and old remnants of the war from prison camps and soldiers. Museums like that can put a damper on your day but we felt like we should have a look while we were there and admission only costs us 75 cents.DSC00023 (1024x768) DSC00028 (1024x768) DSC00048We spent our last day on a tour of the Mekong Delta. After much debate, we decided on a boat tour around four different islands. We took a bus straight south to the Mekong Delta and hopped on a boat to our first island where we visited a small village that produced coconut candy. We watched the demonstration on how it’s made (no machinery and no gloves) before tasting a few of the sweets for ourselves. ???????? ????????Afterwards, we hopped onto an awkward horse drawn carriage which pranced us down the street, turned around and brought us right back. It was just weird.????????We got back on our boat which took us to the next island for lunch. After lunch was free time to relax so we took some bikes and rode around the island for a bit.????????The next stop was a honey farm on a different island. We saw the beehives, tasted the honey and drank tea made with bee pollen. We broke into small groups for a canoe ride down the waterways. Being rowed down the Mekong waterways through the dense foliage of the island was definitely the best part of the day.???????? ???????? ???????? ????????We stopped in a village to taste the local fruits and drink some more tea while the villagers played music and sang for us. After a long day, it was finally time for us to head back into the city.???????? ????????In retrospect, we probably shouldn’t have gone on the Mekong Delta island tour because it left a lot to be desired. I think I was expecting to see more life on the delta…floating villages, colorful boats, fisherman casting nets, etc. If I could do it again, I would have reworked our itinerary to stay a night or two in the Mekong Delta so we could explore it on our own. Oh well, the eight hour tour which included our lunch only cost $8 so I guess we can’t really complain!

We spent our last night with Andy in Ho Chi Minh City before we had to part ways. Chris and I left on a bus to Cambodia in the early morning and Andy had to catch his (multiple) flights back to the States just a few hours later. We had such a good time with Andy in Vietnam – he’s just so easy going and the perfect travel companion. The night before we parted ways, he left us his goodies from the States, bought Chris two new t-shirts and surprised us with cold beers as a parting gift. We miss you Andy – so glad we were able to spend these past three weeks with you in such an amazing country!????????

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Central Vietnam: Hue and Hoi An

After an uneventful overnight train from Hanoi, we arrived the next morning in Hue (pronounced “Hway,” not “Huey”). We checked into a guesthouse and were off to explore the Citadel – a compilation of war monuments, relics, and government buildings from the former imperial city. We neglected to bring a guidebook or to research much about the Citadel so the extent of what we can share about the experience is the few photos below.DSC00608 (1024x681) DSC00636 (1024x681)The next day, we rented motorbikes to see the outlying sites around the city. This was Andy’s first time on a motorbike and he was a natural! We devised our own motorbike route and passed a village that made incense on our way to our first stop.???????? ????????We dismounted our hogs at the Tomb of Tu Doc. Tu Doc was an emperor from the 1860s who had 104 wives but no children (lucky or unlucky?)! It was interesting walking around the grounds, but it was so hot and humid outside that we decided to forego our next stop at another tomb to enjoy riding around the backcountry on our motorbikes (by far the best part of the day).????????Our last and favorite stop was Ho Quyen, an old combat arena used to fight elephants against tigers. The elephant is a sacred symbol in Asia so the tiger’s claws and teeth were often removed to guarantee the elephant’s victory. The pictures we took aren’t great because we could only look at the arena through the closed gates so you’ll just have to use your imagination of what a fight would have looked like back then.???????? ????????Our guesthouse was in close vicinity to some of the coldest beer (less than 25 cents a glass) and the most delicious pho bo we’ve had in Vietnam. The beef noodle soup was so fresh and served with hot doughnut-like pastries. So so good!

After two nights in Hue, we took a hot and mosquito-ridden bus to Hoi An. The plus side was the pretty scenery along the way.????????Hoi An is HOT so we splurged on a fancy guesthouse with a swimming pool on the outskirts of town for $10 per person a night. The pool, free bicycles, breakfast buffet, swanky marble bathroom and freezing air-con made it well worth it for the next four days.

Hoi An beams with vibrant colors of daily life. Local markets, street hawkers, custom tailor shops and restaurants line the streets. The downtown area is so quaint and pretty you can’t help but fall in love with the small riverside city.???????? ???????? ???????? ????????Even at night, Hoi An sparkles. Lanterns in the trees, along the bridges, streets and even in the waterway light up to make the town glow.????????Hoi An is also where we’ve found the cheapest bia hoi to date – 3,000 Vietnamese dong buys you a fresh glass of beer.  The exchange rate is about 21,000 dong to 1 USD so one beer would set us back less than 15 cents.???????? ???????? ????????Almost every day we stayed in Hoi An, we’d take the free bikes from our guesthouse and ride down the street through fields of rice paddies to the local beach. The ocean water from the South China Sea was warm and perfect for swimming. Aside from the faint mountains in the background and cute circular fishing boats, it seemed to resemble the beaches in North Carolina, especially Carolina Beach.IMG_1188 (1024x768) IMG_1198 (1024x768) IMG_1205 (1024x768)On our last day in Hoi An, we were picked up from our guesthouse by Secret Garden Cooking School for a private Vietnamese cooking class. DSC00814 (1024x681)Our guide, Loan, took us to the daily market to teach us about local Vietnamese fruit, spices and to tour the chaotic fish market. We took in our surroundings and watched as live snails and crabs tried to escape while eels swam in shallow bowls of water. Squid, shrimp and fish of all shapes and sizes were available for sale.???????? ???????? ???????? DSC00797 (1024x681)We walked back to the Secret Garden restaurant where our class was held and met our chef, Cuc, who has worked at Secret Garden for more than 10 years. Loan and Chef Cuc explained all of the vegetables, herbs, spices and ingredients we would be using. DSC00818 (1024x681) DSC00825 (1024x681)We sliced and diced garlic, shallots, shrimp, pork, lemon grass, carrots, lime leaves, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes into very fine pieces to bring out their individual flavors. DSC00809 (1024x681) ????????The first dish we started was a marinade for the chicken we would grill. The marinade was made of lemongrass, shallots, garlic, sugar, salt, pepper and tumeric. We set it aside to marinate while we worked on the other three dishes.DSC00831 (1024x681)DSC00830 (1024x681) DSC00834 (1024x681)We moved on to the fish in banana leaf dish. We started with whole pieces of mackerel and Andy added the same spices used in the chicken marinade as well as fresh chilis and wood ear mushrooms. The tumeric turned everything a neon yellow color but it smelled so good! Chris helped wrap the concoction up in a fresh banana leaf for grilling.DSC00829 (1024x681) DSC00828 (1024x681) DSC00832 (1024x681)Next, we worked on braised eggplant in claypot. I fried each piece of eggplant as we added the spices, herbs, fish sauce, oyster sauce, tomatoes, onions and basil.DSC00836 (1024x681)The last and our favorite dish to make were the fresh spring rolls. We started with the spring roll filling which was comprised of pork, shrimp, wood-ear mushrooms, carrots, shallots and spices.???????? ????????The best and most interesting part was making the rice paper from scratch. The process starts with boiling a pot of water. On top of the pot is a stretched layer of silk. The liquid rice paper is ladled on top of the silk and spread into the shape of a circle. You put the lid on to steam the liquid for just a few seconds before peeling the thin layer of now solid rice paper off with a wooden instrument resembling a large hooked chopstick.???????? ????????We placed the fresh rice paper roll on a lightly oiled plate before adding the meat and veggie filling and proceeded to roll them up like mini burritos. We each had a turn at this process and each of ours turned out a little different. We added a bit of sauce for dipping, fried onions, fresh mint and lettuce before digging in. They were absolutely delicious! One of the best and most fresh spring rolls we’ve ever had.???????? ????????Chef Cuc and Loan fired up the charcoal grill for us to put the fish and chicken on. It’s been so long since we’ve enjoyed food off the grill – the anticipation was killing us.????????We were taken to our table for drinks and they brought the dishes we created hot off the grill. It was all so good and tasted so much better because we made it ourselves.DSC00879 (1024x681) ???????? ????????The Secret Garden Cooking School was a great way to end our time in Hoi An. We left with happy bellies, new cooking skills and a new appreciation for Vietnamese food. Our instructor and chef were incredibly kind and enthusiastic about teaching us. We would have liked a little more interaction with each dish but overall, it was a great experience. If you are ever in Hoi An, see if you can book a cooking class with Secret Garden or stop in to eat at their restaurant. It’s in such a beautiful location and the food is delicious!DSC00813 (1024x681)We enjoyed one last swim at our guesthouse before our transfer took us 30 minutes away to Da Nang, the next town over. From there, we caught an overnight train to Nha Trang for some more beach time!

Disclosure: We received complimentary cooking classes in exchange for sharing our experience at Secret Garden Cooking School. These views and opinions are completely our own.

Northern Vietnam: Sapa to Hanoi and Halong Bay

Our overland trip from Muang Khua in Laos to Sapa in Vietnam goes down as our worst travel day thus far. The journey consisted of:

  • A full 24 hours of traveling (from 5:30 AM until 5:30 AM the next day) on two different “buses”
  • Chris and I literally jumping out of a window because our first bus (pictured below) caught on fire
  • Sitting in a super crammed minibus (50 people shoved into a bus made for 24) for 12 hours while enduring the various smells and bare feet of every person onboard
  • Waiting an hour on the side of the road along a steep cliff at 10 PM because a truck’s trailer came off and was blocking the road
  • Stopping at a roadside restaurant filled with live caged birds at 11:30 PM for dinner…yucky!

DSC09912 (1024x681)Exhausted and completely grossed out from our overland adventure, we were finally dropped off at the center of town at 5:30 AM. We found a great guesthouse which let us check in early and used their amazing shower to cleanse ourselves from our journey.

Sapa is in northern Vietnam (roughly 38 kilometers from China) at the foothills of the Himalayas and is known for its mountain scenery, rice terraces and local villages. Our first day was spent relaxing and walking around town eating pho bo (beef noodle soup) and fresh spring rolls.DSC09948 (1024x681) DSC09938 (1024x681)The next morning, we walked down to Cat Cat village to check out the views and see the local people. DSC09975 (1024x681) DSC09969 (1024x681) DSC09968 (1024x681)About a third of the cute Vietnamese children sported Donald Duck attire (shirts but no pants).DSC09981 (1024x681) DSC09982 (1024x681)We made it to the bottom of the mountain where there was a pretty waterfall and cultural show put on by the local people. During the last song, Chris participated by dancing with the ladies. DSC09990 (1024x681) ???????? ????????The next day, instead of signing up for an organized tour to visit some nearby villages, we talked to a young lady on the street and paid her to be our guide for the day. Her name was Soo and she was H’mong. We followed Soo for 2.5 hours through the mountainsides and rice terraces to her village of Lao Chai. The hike was breathtaking. Rice terraces lined the mountains as far as you could see. It was so pretty and unlike any other landscape we’ve seen before.???????? ???????? ???????? ????????We finally reached Soo’s village where we stopped at a hut to pick up some meat and veggies for our lunch. I don’t want to know how long the pork had been sitting outside in the heat on that piece of cardboard. After chopping off a few chunks with a machete and gathering the rest of our food supplies, we left in search of Soo’s house. ????????Soo was 17 years old when she had her son. She’s now 20 years old and lives with her husband in a hut on the hillside over their village. The hut is about 10×10 feet and has just two rooms covered by a tin roof. The walls are made of bamboo and the floor is a smoothed rock. If you huffed and puffed, you could probably blow her house down.???????? ????????We took in our surroundings and watched as dogs, chickens, naked babies and villagers stopped by Soo’s house for a visit. We wanted an authentic village experience and we definitely got one.

Soo lit a fire on the ground in the middle of the house to boil some water. She sliced, diced, prepped and cooked us lunch while taking care of her baby and entertaining us. We were full after a tasty meal of sliced pork and chilis, potatoes, scrambled egg, rice and greens. Our first home-cooked meal since Australia was delicious and totally hit the spot!???????? ????????We continued our hike past her village to another village called Ta Van. Again, the rice terraces were amazing! Truly beautiful.???????? ???????? ???????? ???????? ????????Once we reached Ta Van, it was time to say goodbye to Soo. She was an amazing tour guide and from what we could tell from our time with her, a great wife and mother as well. She arranged for two motorbikes to drive us back to Sapa. The 15 minute motorbike ride through the rice terraces while the sun was setting was so gorgeous. The village trek was definitely the highlight of Sapa and was definitely worth the horrible travel experience we endured to get there!????????We spent one more night and day in Sapa before catching our overnight train to Hanoi. We talked to several other travelers who didn’t have the nicest things to say about Vietnam’s capital city, but as soon as Chris and I stepped out of the train station, we both loved Hanoi. There are nearly eight million people living in they city and 3.8 million motorbikes on the roads. The traffic is ridiculous! It is a chaotic mess and prime for people watching. We loved sitting on the street corners watching the street hawkers, bicyclists and motorscooters whiz by carrying everything imaginable. One guy we saw was carrying five kegs on his tiny motorbike. DSC00599 (1024x681) ???????? ????????We were also super excited to be in Hanoi because that is where we planned to meet Chris’ brother, Andy, who will travel with us for the next three weeks through Vietnam! After 32+ hours of travel across 11 timezones, Andy finally arrived from Atlanta bearing gifts of reduced fat Cheezits for me. What an amazing brother-in-law! Upon his arrival, we hit the streets to introduce Andy to bia hoi (fresh draft beer) for 25 cents a glass. Even though the streets are jammed packed during the day, they were completely deserted after 11PM when we walked home. It’s another world at night.IMG_1079 (1024x768)We spent the next day walking around the city getting Andy acclimated to the humid weather and drastic time change. We also took him on a food tour of the city. Hanoi street food is amazing. Everywhere you look there are street stalls and food hawkers selling something tasty. We ate pho bo, fried cheese sticks, doughnuts, fresh baguettes and drank Vietnamese coffee (which is incredibly strong). It was all so good and so cheap.DSC00188 (1024x681) DSC00181 (1024x681)The following morning, we were picked up by reps from Aclass Opera for our two night/three day cruise through Halong Bay. We arrived in Halong Bay City and were ferried over to the Aclass Opera cruise ship anchored in the bay. We were welcomed with towelettes and a cold drinks (sweet tea of all things!) as our boat set off from the harbor.

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was also named one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World” last year. We caught our first glimpse of Halong Bay’s 2,000 limestone formations from the observation deck. DSC00507 (1024x681) DSC00533 (1024x681)Our room was a little crammed because we decided to all stay together so they squeezed a twin bed into the room along with the queen bed. The clean sheets, swanky robes and the spotless bathroom (which was equipped with a rain drop shower head and a regular shower head) made up for the lack of space. DSC00230 (1024x681) DSC00233 (1024x681)We sat down in the dining room for lunch and experienced what would be the first of many delicious meals on board. Every time we ate we were presented with a three-course meal featuring a different soup, seafood and various main dishes served all-you-can-eat family style.

Once our bellies were full, a dinghy took us to a floating village for some kayaking.IMG_1088 (1024x768) IMG_1123 (1024x768)It was late afternoon when the dinghy brought us to an island for a quick hike and bird’s eye view of Halong Bay – it was so pretty! This part of the bay is the calmest and most protected from the wind so all of the tourist ships dock here for the night.DSC00322 (1024x681)Once we re-boarded our Aclass Opera boat, we took our complimentary wine to the outside deck to take in the scenery. After dinner was over, we tried our luck at squid fishing but failed to catch anything.

About 95% of the people on our boat left the next morning because they only booked a one night stay. We had a whole other day to enjoy and woke up at 6AM to participate in the tai chi class on deck.DSC00348 (1024x681)With only five other people, we broke into pairs for a kayaking trip to explore some lagoons and two caves. Andy was paired with a girl from Kuala Lampur who was traveling alone. She couldn’t swim and had never kayaked before so Andy had his work cut out for him for the next 1.5 hours. DSC00399 (1024x681) DSC00401 (1024x681)Our boat took us to a private beach to snorkel and swim for a few hours. The visibility wasn’t great but it was cool to swim in Halong Bay and Andy spotted his first living starfish on the beach. The boys also spent some time jumping and doing flips off our boat into the bay.IMG_1155 (1024x768) IMG_1160 (768x1024) DSC00432 (1024x681)Lunch was served on the boat and it was just as good as the presentation – fried chicken, calamari, prawns, french fries, a whole baked fish, two different salads, spring rolls and fresh fruit. Mmmm…food coma!DSC00443 (1024x681)We hardly saw any other boats on this second day…it was just us and the karst limestone formations. It was so beautiful and peaceful. We relaxed on deck while our boat took us to a pearl farm and afterwards, to another island for a hike and more views of the bay.DSC00445 (1024x681)The weather in Halong Bay is almost always overcast so we were happy that our last day was pretty clear. We took the dinghy to a nearby cave which was nice but swarming with tourists. The best part was the views over the bay.DSC00505 (1024x681)Our last activity was a short cooking demonstration on how to make fried spring rolls.DSC00513 (1024x681) DSC00526 (1024x681)We spent our last few hours enjoying the scenery while the boat slowly made its way back to Halong City harbor for our transfer back to Hanoi.DSC00528 (1024x681) DSC00543 (1024x681)Our Halong Bay cruise is sure to be one of our highlights of Vietnam. It was so relaxing and truly amazing to cruise through the beautiful scenery for three days. The crew was incredibly nice (Andy is now best buddies with our day guide), the food was delicious and the accommodation was very comfortable. Most importantly, we all thought the itinerary was perfect – a great balance of activities and time to relax. We were really happy with Aclass Opera Cruise and would definitely recommend them if you are considering a trip to Halong Bay. We booked our cruise through a contact from GoAsiaTravel.com named Martin. He was very accom­modating with our questions and made booking a breeze!

We had one more night and day in Hanoi and decided to start the day by visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We waited in the rain with masses (literally hundreds) of Vietnamese school children, passed through security, checked our camera (which are prohibited) and were finally funneled into the mausoleum and around the glass-enclosed body of the former leader of North Vietnam, Hoi Chi Minh. There is no coffin, just his body laying out in the open on a pillow surrounded by several Vietnamese guards. Although he has been dead since 1969, his body looks lifelike. For two months out of every year, his body is taken to Russia to have “work done.” He looks like a wax sculpture and some people think that his body has been replaced with a wax replica.

We made one more stop at the Temple of Literature for a look around before breaking for a delicious lunch of pho and spring rolls.DSC00567 (1024x681)The time finally came for us to pack up and leave Hanoi. We really loved northern Vietnam, especially the scenery in Sapa, the dizzying way of life and local food in Hanoi and the natural beauty of Halong Bay. From here, we take a night train south to Hue!

Disclosure: We received a trip discount on our Aclass Opera Cruise in exchange for sharing our experience. These thoughts and opinions are completely our own.