Archive for ‘Vietnam’

December 31, 2011


by Johnny

After we left Ha Long Bay, we took a four hour minibus back to Hanoi, an overnight train to Lao Cai and finally an hour minibus to Sapa, an ex-French hill station in northwest Vietnam near the Chinese border known for its gorgeous terraced rice fields and colorful hill tribes.  Don’t worry, our overnight train this time around was much nicer, and we both managed to get some solid sleep (thanks, Ambien!).

Our first reaction to Sapa was…where is Sapa?  When we arrived at 7:00 am it was so chilly and foggy that we could barely see 10 feet in front us (which we later learned is often the case in Sapa in December).  Unfortunately, we couldn’t check into our guesthouse until 11:30 am, so we grabbed some coffee to kill some time in hopes that the weather would clear.  Slowly but surely the fog began to thin out, and we found that Sapa was a pretty cool little town.  Perched high up in the Hoang Lien Mountains, which include Fanispan, Vietnam’s highest peak, Sapa feels more like a European ski town than a dusty, Southeast Asian village.  After checking into our hotel, taking an icy cold shower (that was fun) and resting our eyeballs for an hour, we explored nearby Cat Cat village in some beautiful and welcomed afternoon sunlight.

The sun finally came out in Cat Cat village
Piggies in Cat Cat village
Some Hmong men carrying home a hide… …with baby in tow
Sapa is cute kids central
Bamboo Hand woven blankets in Cat Cat village
Some kids enjoying the afternoon sunlight in Cat Cat village

Sapa lies in the Lao Cai province, which is home to some eight different ethnic groups, most notably Black Hmong and Red Dao, and on our second day Anna and I joined a one-day trek to learn more about these people.  Our trek was led by a Hmong woman named Bam, who was five feet tall, full of energy and spoke by far the best English out of anybody we’ve met thus far in Southeast Asia.  We were amazed to learn that she can’t even read or write, and that all the English she knows she’s learned from speaking with travelers such as ourselves.  We met Bam and began the 4 kilometer walk to Lao Chai village, when it soon became apparent that we were being followed by about 10 other Hmong women.  Bam explained that these woman bring goods to the Sapa market in the morning and then follow tourists back to their villages in hopes of selling them some souvenirs.  A little tacky, we thought, but we ended up talking to and learning a ton from each of them during the three hour walk…well worth the $5 we spent on a handmade scarf and bracelet afterwards.  Throughout the day, Bam explained all about the different hill tribes in the area, each distinguishable by their own language and elaborate costumes, and it was touching to see the simple way these people live.  As a bonus, we were blessed with some sunshine, and the surrounding scenery was some of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen.

Heading down the hill with some Black Hmong
Locals sifting through some cinnamon Cutest pup ever?
Black Hmong Hmong woman heading back to her village
Weaving some scarves Bam’s handmade clothing for her daughter
Kids playing in Lao Chai village
Red Dao Red Dao
Anna and Bam shootin’ the breeze Anna and La
We thought it was cool all the kids were playing marbles
Johnny, Bam and Anna

We really enjoyed Sapa, but it’s definitely one of those places you wish you could’ve seen 20 years ago, as it seems to be on the precipice of becoming Disneyland-esque.  There was a ton of new construction when we were there and no shortage of hawkers.  But it’s not all a tourist attraction.  For each Hmong woman stopping you in the street to sell you trinkets, you see one heading over the hills with a basket full of vegetables to feed her family.  We met some women who still burn their foreheads with the end of fire-heated buffalo horns to cure headaches.  I guess I’m trying to say that there are plenty of authentic experiences to be had in Sapa, but go now before it’s too late.

December 27, 2011

Ha Long Bay

by Anna

Hanoi was fun, fast-paced and crazy! After almost a week of dodging motorbikes and listening to a constant cacophony of horns, we were ready for some fresh air and peace and quiet. Ha Long Bay was the perfect overnight escape, and a destination that we’d both been looking forward to for a long time. Recently named one of the “New 7 Natural Wonders of the World” and already a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay was one of those places that we’d read about and seen magnificent photos of and couldn’t wait to experience in person. With nearly 2,000 limestone islands steeply rising from tranquil green waters, the scenery did not disappoint.

Our boat, or “Junk,” also exceeded our expectations, and we only wished we had booked longer than two days/one night on the Dragon’s Pearl. Our cabin was beautiful with a million-dollar view, every meal, which had around 10 courses, was delicious and the crew was super friendly. We even lucked out with sunny weather – a welcomed site after perpetual gray skies in Hanoi .

Our Junk, The Dragon’s Pearl
Our cozy cabin for the night Lunch on the deck
Loving the sunshine, view and peace and quiet!

After a yummy lunch packed full of fresh seafood our boat docked near one of the islands in the bay where we climbed up to see some views and explore a couple of caves. Many of the islands are hollowed with caves, rivers and lakes, and local fisherman used to live in them. Unfortunately many of the stalagmites and stalactites had been stolen or sold off before the bay became a protected area, but the caves were still magnificent and beautiful. We also had the chance to take out kayaks and paddled through and around dozens of islands. This was one of our favorite parts of the trip, as the sun was starting to sink and we were surrounded by towering silhouetted peaks in every direction. Once back on the beach we laid on the sand and watched the sunset, a truly relaxing and mesmerizing experience.

After a lovely evening on the boat with another delicious meal and the company of new friends, we awoke early the next morning to more blue skies and a visit in small bamboo boats to a local floating fishing village called Vong Vieng. The woman rowing our boat was nice enough to offer us some traditional hats, soon followed by some neon orange life vests, so we looked pretty ridiculous cruising the bay (we noticed that no one else in other boats had on hats OR vests…hmmmm). The fishing village was amazing…like a land lost in time. Colorful little houses stacked in a row with beautiful boats tied up at their front doors…the 50 or so families had been living there for generations. We stopped off at the local school to see the cute children hard at work and then headed back through the maze of islands to our boat.

We were sad to say goodbye to Ha Long Bay and wished we could have had more time just lying on the Dragon’s Pearl deck, taking in the natural wonders around us. But travel called, and we were soon off to our next destination – which proved to be just as naturally and culturally amazing – Sapa.

December 27, 2011

Hanoi Is Bananas

by Johnny

Stand on any street corner in Hanoi and observe the surroundings for a few minutes and you’re bound to have your mind blown.  You’ll see a woman steaming some crabs on a sidewalk full of tiny plastic chairs, a man selling $0.30 glasses of bia hoi out of what appears to be his bedroom, women in conical hats selling exotic fruits you’ve never seen before, a beautiful French villa juxtaposed with modern office buildings, and a seemingly endless flow of scooters, one of which is carrying three butchered pigs and another of which is somehow carrying a family of five.  Welcome to Hanoi, the craziest city Anna and I have ever visited.  Nothing comes easy in Hanoi, including crossing the street.  With no gaps in the never-ending blur of scooters anywhere in sight, you basically just have to go for it and trust the scooters will swerve around you.  It was actually pretty scary at first, but after I channeled some wise words from one my heroes, Bhodi from Point Break, (“Fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause all your worst fears to come true”), I was OK.

Trying to make our way to the Dong Xuan market Walking down one of Hanoi’s quieter streets
Steaming some crabs on the sidewalk Cooking some bun cha on the sidewalk
This is pretty much the scene on every sidewalk in Hanoi
Bird cages and scooters everywhere
Hanoi’s night market
Ready…GO! Playing Frogger

When we weren’t dodging scooters, we managed to see some of Hanoi’s historic sights.  We based ourselves in the city’s Old Quarter, which is pretty much a tourist attraction in itself with its ancient architecture and maze of narrow streets.  We really liked walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and found it to be an oasis of peace in this otherwise maddening city.  We also visited the Temple of Literature, which was built in 1070 and functioned as Vietnam’s first university.  But our favorite attraction had to be a water puppetry show at the famous Thang Long Theater.

Thap Rua (The Turtle Tower) on Hoan Kiem Lake
Temple of Literature Temple of Literature
Temple of Literature Temple of Literature
Waiting for the water puppets…where’s Waldo? Water puppets
The Huc Bridge on Hoan Kiem Lake Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Getting into the Christmas spirit at Quan An Ngon restaurant

The highlight of our stay in Hanoi was definitely a street food tour with Tu.  Tu was born in Nha Trang in central Vietnam, but has lived in Hanoi for the past 10 years writing the popular Sticky Rice food blog.  We really wanted to eat as much of Hanoi’s world famous street food as we could, and we figured having a local show us the ropes would be better than us running around the city pointing at menus we couldn’t understand.  The tour was fantastic.  It felt more like going out to eat with a friend than an organized tour.  Tu picked us up at our hotel and basically told us, “I’ll just keep taking you to my favorite places until you tell me you can’t eat anything else.”  For the rest of the night, Tu took us across the entire city and down all sorts of back alleys to his favorite food spots, and we were definitely the only Westerners to be found at each of them.  We must have tried at least 10 different dishes.  Although our tour was supposed to finish at 8:00 pm, it was nearly 11:00 pm by the time Tu dropped us back off at our hotel, where Anna and I immediately changed into our elastic pants for rest of the week.

Tu and Johnny Tu and Anna
Fish porridge at Doan Xom Bun cha
The polarizing durian fruit Vietnamese tea and fried bananas in coconut rice pudding
Pho ga (chicken noodle soup) A sampling of sweets in the Old Quarter
Banh cuon (rice pancake with pork, mushroom and shallots) Sweet drink with wild rice and yogurt
mmmmm…fish cakes! mmmmm…pho ga!
mmmmm…frozen yogurt with Vietnamese coffee! mmmmm…Vietnamese sweet tea!
Capping off the night with a young sticky rice cake
December 18, 2011

Top 5 Reasons We Did Not Enjoy the Overnight Train in Vietnam

by Anna

5. The train looked like it rolled out of 1955, and I’m pretty sure that was the last time it had been cleaned.

4. The ride felt like Thunder Mountain Railroad…sounds fun, but not for 16 hours or when trying to balance over the metal hole in the bathroom.

3. The entire train car reeked of rancid, stinky feet as everyone on it removed their shoes about an hour into the journey.

2. The shady man across the aisle from my seat chain smoked with his two-thumbed hand in our non-smoking car and stared at Johnny and me for most of the trip.

…and the #1 reason we did not enjoy the overnight train from Da Nang to Ninh Binh…

1. Cockroaches! The fearless little pests crawled on the walls, the backs of the seats and even on to us a few times.

The train from Ninh Binh to Hanoi wasn’t much better, but at least it was only a couple of hours. This time, the only seats available were the top bunks in a four-person sleeper, and the woman beneath Johnny’s bunk hacked up a lung the entire trip. The best part was that she would hock up her loogies into a plastic tupperware sitting on her lap. She had quite a collection going by the time we got to Hanoi. Oh…the joys of travel!

December 17, 2011

Ninh Binh Stopover

by Johnny

We were really enjoying our introduction to Vietnam in Hoi An, but unfortunately the weather wasn’t doing us any favors.  With rain, rain and more rain in the forecast for the rest of the week, we decided to leave central Vietnam and head north a couple days early.  After an, ummm, interesting overnight train ride (more on this soon), we arrived in Ninh Binh.  Ninh Binh itself is a bit of a hole, but the stunning karst landscape on the outskirts of town, often called “Ha Long Bay in the rice paddies,” makes it worth a stop.  With only one full day, our guesthouse suggested we borrow their scooter and ride to nearby Trang An to check out some of the famous caves and grottoes.  When we pulled up to Trang An, we found a handful of Vietnamese women offering to row us around in their tiny boats for a couple hours for a few bucks.  Although we were skeptical that a four foot tall, 70-year-old woman could get us very far (I nearly passed out while rowing our boat on Lake Bled), we decided to go for it.  We’re glad we did.  The scenery was incredible, and the accompanying peace and quiet (Vietnam is crazy!) was just what we needed.  Also, much to our surprise and delight, rather than row around these giant limestone cliffs, we were able to row right through them, as centuries of erosion has produced numerous caves and underground waterways.  For the next couple of hours we explored this beautiful landscape, passing only  hidden pagodas and a handful of Vietnamese locals (who somehow row with their feet).  Super cool.  So, how will “Ha Long Bay in the rice paddies” stack up to the actual Ha Long Bay?  We’ll find out soon.

December 16, 2011

Hoi An, What a Charmer!

by Anna

We had read that Hoi An was one of the prettiest little towns in SE Asia…a bold statement! After spending a couple of days there, I can vouch that this is true – at least from what I’ve seen of SE Asia so far.

Although we didn’t luck out with the best weather, the rain didn’t deter us from exploring the lush, colorful streets of the Old Town which happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hoi An was a major trading port back in the day (15th-19th century), drawing many foreign influences to the area, resulting in the eclectic architecture of the city. The narrow streets lined with oversized palms and ochre-hued buildings gave us the strange sensation of being transported back to France or Spain, while Chinese-style carved wooden shop fronts with mossy tiled roofs and an intricate Japanese covered bridge give the area a distinct Asian flare. The lanterns hung from the trees and zig zagging across the streets and tiny women in conical straw hats grilling Bun Cha on the sidewalk snapped us back to the fact that we were in Vietnam. The combined aesthetics of Europe and Asia made for a unique and fascinating setting. The food followed suit, with stacks of fresh baked baguettes alongside piles of dragon fruit, rice noodles and all types of green leafy herbs at the market along the river.

The market was chaotic and sensory overload. We couldn’t wait to try the new flavors that awaited us in Vietnam. We read on the menu of one of our favorite restaurants in Hoi An, Morning Glory, which “brought street food to the table,” that Vietnamese get homesick without fresh herbs and that dishes strive to achieve a balance between yin and yang. I’m all for this philosophy because all the food that we ate in Hoi An was amazing and has left me with a crispy pancake addiction and Johnny with a Banh Mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwich) addiction. We are also both most likely to OD on Vietnamese coffee before we leave the country, because it is so freaking delicious! It is served in a glass topped with a small metal French drip filter, only adding to the anticipation for the first sip as it drips slowly in front of you, the rich scent wafting up into your nostrils. We would switch back and forth between black coffee and white coffee (a sweet delight with condensed milk) depending on our mood.

The market
Vietnamese food philosophy 101 Chicken rice packed with fresh herbs
Banh Mi Pre-stirred “white coffee”
I love you, crispy pancakes De-boning fish steamed in banana leaves

We spent our two days in Hoi An just wandering around enjoying the narrow streets, peeking into the many historic pagodas and temples and pretty craft shops, watching the action taking place in the tailor shops (Hoi An is known as the best spot to have clothes and shoes made-to-order, and the town has more than 200 tailors to choose from!) and of course, eating. Although Hoi An has become a pretty touristy spot, we still really enjoyed our time there and couldn’t think of a more charming introduction to Vietnam!