We booked an all day Jeep tour with Looking Glass Jeep Tours that drove us through Hoi An and the neighboring city of Da Nang, as well as the countryside in-between. Our driver/tour guide, Jeremy, is an American that has lived in Vietnam for about 7 years and was extremely knowledgable. His tour takes you to several historical sights, many of which are associated with the Vietnam war, in an open air Jeep that is a legit, Vietnam War-era Army vehicle. Overall, the tour is great, but there are pros and cons.
Jeremy plays a lot of 60s, Forrest Gump soundtrack tunes to give the sightseeing a great vibe and brings along old photos which he will superimpose over your view so that you can see comparisons of how the landscape looked during the war.
You get to see the countryside, which you probably wouldn’t see on your own.
Jeremy stops at different parts of tiny villages, like Hua Nan, including the schools. With bags of candy he provides, you can hand out sweets to the schoolchildren in the playground during their recess. It’s intense–my heart was racing as dozens of Vietnamese children came up to the Jeep to get candy. It’s an unbelievable experience.
He stops at a slate factory, where you can experience splitting slate with the local workers, and introduces you to a local fishing boat maker, who shows you how he makes the bamboo basket boats like the ones we rowed in near the Coconut City.
The trip up Marble Mountain is long and challenging, but the view from the top is glorious. You also get to see temples made of old, shattered Heineken and Budweiser beer bottles, and a giant cave that was used as a hospital during the war.
The lunch spot that Jeremy took us to in Da Nang was called Ba Duong. It’s located down a tiny alley that you would never find unless you were a local. There we feasted on Banh Xeo, my second favorite dish of the trip. Banh Xeo consists of rice wraps with these crunchy, corn flour tortilla like things, shrimp, pork sticks, veggies, papaya, and the key ingredient–a savory beef, peanut satay sauce.
It’s an open air Jeep, so it does get VERY hot, and you will get sunburned if you don’t put on the sunblock. Jeremy does provide water however.
Jeremy does get very political and keeps bringing up how all the farmers were getting kicked out to develop hotels, roads, etc. He will rant about how there’s no urban planning in place for cars, yet everyone has them now with no place to put them and brings up several other topics that can be a little draining.
The tour will at one point drive through a long tunnel (like miles and miles) and because it’s an open air Jeep, it’s really loud, and gets extremely hard to breathe. Believe me, it’s a very uncomfortable experience. So if that’s something you’re not willing to put up with for 10-15 minutes, don’t take this Jeep tour.
Of all the places we visited in Vietnam, it’s probably safe to say Hoi An was my favorite. Remember when I said that Luang Prabang was surprisingly my favorite part of our last SE Asia trip? Well in the same way, Hoi An is the city that wasn’t as famous as Hanoi or Saigon and that I knew the least about (like Luang Prabang), yet its small village, relaxing atmosphere made it the best part of the trip.
I really liked this hotel. The location is perfect because it’s right outside of Old Town on the west side, so it’s closest to all the street food and the Night Market. The room we had was large and comfortable enough for three people, had a balcony, and the hotel provides a really good breakfast buffet. The employees were also very friendly and helpful and the price, unsurprisingly, was great ($53/night). It’s a bit of a walk to get into town, but it’s not overly exerting. And it’s much quieter at night because it’s not in the center of everything.
What To Do
The best way to take in Hoi An is to just walk around and get lost with all the other backpackers. Hoi An isn’t as remote as Luang Prabang, which makes it a bit more manageable in terms of getting around (there are no rickety old bridges that you have to cross over and over again to get into town). But it’s also not as touristy as Siem Reap, so it’s not overwhelmingly in your face like that city.
In order to see most of the historical sights within Old Town like the Japanese Covered Bridge and the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation you need to buy a 120 dong ticket. You’re forced to purchase one at ticket booths on the outskirts of Old Town. Do not lose the ticket because they will check to see if you have one every time you walk in and out of Old Town.
Hoi An’s architecture was able to survive a lot of the 20th century wars, so strolling through town is like walking through a time capsule. In the evening, the Night Market bustles with pedestrians under the hundreds of colorful lanterns and, like the market in Luang Prabang, is filled with vendors where you can get souvenirs.
Get suited up. They may as well call Hoi An “Tailor Town” because there are dozens of tailoring shops that line the streets of this small town. Some are obviously better than others, but in general I think you’ll find a deal on clothes no matter where you go. My buddy and I ultimately ended up getting suits made at Kimmy Tailor (which is a top rated store in both Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor). For $420 I bought 2 tailored suits and a tie. The process took three trips over the course of our stay there, but they can do it in fewer if you’re pressed for time (they just won’t be able to make small adjustments).
As of this writing, the suits have held together well and are still top notch. A competing store that we considered, Bebe Tailor, offered 2 suits for $385, and while that price is lower, Kimmy’s employees seemed a bit more on top of their work and the material was a little bit better. But if you’re a woman, Bebe does offer far more women’s options (my sister ended up getting a tailored suit from Bebe for $150).
Eat all the cheap food. Specifically, eat Cao Lau. This is a dish you’re only going to find in Hoi An, and it was probably one of my favorite meals of the trip. The noodle dish is the perfect mix of pasta-y, salty, veggie, meaty, crunchy deliciousness with just the right amount of broth–all for $1. Also, go to Banh Mi Phuong and get a banh mi sandwich. Look for the place with a picture of Anthony Bourdain proudly displayed. Order the #9 (Pork, Ham, and Pate) for one of the best sandwiches you’ll get for 75 cents. If you go at lunch, expect a line.
Take a ride in a Basket Boat. In all honesty, we kind of ran into this activity by accident on our hike out of Hoi An to find Pho Dua Coconut City. On our way, we saw the Le Ha Basket Boat outfit and decided on a whim to give a go. For 100K dong, you can paddle your way through the coconut fields in a bamboo fishing basket. It makes for a fun, really unique experience. Our guide also provided us with Asian conical hats which made for some pretty ridiculously hilarious pictures. Note: I couldn’t find a website for the company; it was a pretty local outfit. At the end, our boat guide actually guided us back to her own house along the river where we disembarked.
Light a candle and put the lantern into the Thu Bồn River. Hoi An is the most tranquil at night, and the hundreds of candles floating down the river are a huge part of giving it that serene evening atmosphere. There are several meanings behind the floating candles, but I think it’s best to take the beauty of the tradition and interpret it however you’d like that’s personal to you.
A popular excursion from Hanoi is a trip to Halong Bay. While doing an overnight cruise isn’t a must-do, I would highly recommend it. It offers you the chance to take in the natural wonder leisurely, and there’s nothing like a quiet boat ride to de-stress you.
Before I get into the review of Halong Bay, I should begin by telling you that the weather was not nice. And apparently, that’s not uncommon. While I still enjoyed the time we spent out there, it would have been immeasurably nicer if the weather wasn’t cloudy the entire time. So keep that in mind.
The boat we chose for our cruise was Dragon Legend with the Indochina Junk company. This was not the cheapest option ($200), but quite honestly none of us wanted to go cheap on this since we’d be staying on the boat overnight. So I can tel you, the price is worth it. The staff was very friendly, and very organized. The boat was extraordinarily nice, the food was included and quite good, and the alcohol was reasonably priced (remember that reasonable in Vietnam still means dirt cheap). It wasn’t overly crowded (there were about 30 passengers) and the rooms were super clean/comfortable. The boat had a very nice sundeck, pool, and hot tub as well.
As far as the activities go, the cruise staff organized a 1-hour tour of the bay (we were actually in Bai Tu Long Bay which is the less touristy section of Halong Bay) via either kayak or ferry boat. They offered primarily two-person kayaks, however there were a couple of single person kayaks that you can specifically ask to use. Again, because of the cloudy weather, the kayaking wasn’t really all that great, but it was strikingly calm out on the water and very serene.
There’s also a cave walk that the staff will take you into, which again was pretty cool if you’ve never done before. If you have, it won’t be anything that you haven’t already seen to be honest.
Surprisingly, my favorite activity was the morning Tai Chi class on the sundeck. It’s hard to put into words how calming and mentally refreshing it felt to be doing those exercises in the cool, crisp, clean morning air.
Ultimately, I would recommend this boat and company, good weather or bad. If you get good weather, the $200 is really worth it at that point. But I’m confident it’ll be a nice excursion nevertheless.
A few days in Hanoi is chaotic at best because there is so much that you can do. Aside from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, Hanoi is full of activities worth checking out. There’s a lot to cover so I’ll get right to it.
Hỏa Lò Prison Museum
Open daily 8 a.m. — 5 p.m.
This is probably my favorite of the museums we visited purely because it was so visceral. Nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by POWs during the Vietnam War, this prison held Vietnamese revolutionaries during their struggle for independence from the French as well as famous Americans, such as Senator John McCain. Much of the exhibit consists of prison garments worn by Americans and a lot of propaganda videos portraying the prisoners as being treated super well (which were very amusing). But all these displays were a stark contrast to the dungeon cells that they kept unruly prisoners shackled down in, the main room made to fit only 40 prisoners, but held 100 with only one barrel for a toilet, and the several methods of torture on display, along with the french guillotine used for executions.
Vietnamese Women’s Museum
Open daily 8 a.m. — 5 p.m.
The Vietnamese hold their historical women in high regard, and that is reflected in this museum. This, along with the Hỏa Lò Prison, I think are a better combination of museums that show the history of Vietnam than the actual National Museum of Vietnamese History (coming up). The exhibits in this museum highlight all aspects of what it means to be a woman in Vietnamese culture and shows profiles of numerous women of different historical backgrounds. Some standout parts for me were seeing the bamboo tubes used to keep umbilical cords until that child passes away, a bracelet given to a girl fighting the French with her name on it, so that if she died her father could ID her body, and the picture of a mother embracing her son who she thought was a traitor for years, but in actuality was a double agent.
Walk around Hoàn Kiếm Lake
There’s no way you won’t walk along this lake at some point if you’re staying in the Old Quarter. Whether during the day or night, this serene body of water offers a nice getaway from the crazy traffic and there’s a good chance you’ll see folks dancing or doing Tai Chi on the shores. Take a walk over the Huc Bridge and check out the Ngoc Son Temple (Open daily 7:30 a.m. — 5:30 p.m.; 20K VND) to learn more about the myth of the giant turtle who lives in the lake and protects the magical sword used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam.
National Museum of Vietnamese History
40K VND/Adult, 15K VND/Student
Open daily 8 a.m. — noon, 1:30 p.m. — 5 p.m.
Closed 1st Monday of the month
For an overview of the history of the area, this museum encapsulates all of Vietnam’s culture and heritage dating back to its prehistoric periods. While the Hỏa Lò Prison Museum and Women’s Museum were a bit more engaging to me than this one, if you’re into archaeology, this is the place for you. On top of the prehistoric fossils and relics, the museum features several of Ho Chi Minh’s manuscripts, anti-French revolutionary artifacts, and more Vietnam War stuff. They say no photos are allowed, but no one seemed to follow those rules, so snap away.
Bach Ma Temple
Open Tue-Sunday 8 a.m. — 11 a.m., 2 p.m. — 5 p.m.
We stumbled upon this temple completely on accident, and were drawn in because they were having a concert that was open to the public. We discovered that it is supposedly the oldest temple in Hanoi. It had the most elaborate decorations of the temples we’d see in the city, and was so compact it kind of felt like going to your hoarder grandma’s house with all her trinkets and stuff everywhere (though this could be due to the fact that there was a concert going on).
Temple of Literature
30K VND/Adult, 15K VND/Student
Open daily 8 a.m. — 5 p.m.
This temple is dedicated to Confucius and is much larger than the Bach Ma Temple. It’s made up of multiple plazas and displays several dozen stone tortoises with doctors’ stelae (a stela is a tablet that acts as the story/diploma of the doctor). Multiple pagodas in the temple house shrines to kings and Confucius, and it’s easy to see how this quiet complex would be a nice place for studying.
Long Bien Bridge
If you want to go for a bit of a hike, check out the Long Bien Bridge. A symbol of the Vietnam War, this bridge was bombed by the Americans numerous times, but was always repaired and to this day represents Hanoian resilience. We didn’t actually make it all the way across, but that shouldn’t stop you if you want to try.
26 Hàng Mành, Hàng Gai, Hoàn Kiếm
Hà Nội 10000, Vietnam
Open daily 9 a.m. — 11 p.m.
Like the rest of Southeast Asia, there’s no shortage of places in Vietnam to get a massage. While I can’t speak to all of them in Hanoi, Mido Spa was quite nice. Being so affordable, I decided to try a hot stone massage for the first time and with that experience I’ve pretty much ruined all other massages for the rest of my life. The hot stones worked out the kinks better than any Swedish, Sports, Thai, or Deep Tissue massage I’ve done in the past. So with all the walking you’ll be doing, take a few hours off, and for about a quarter of the price you would pay in the U.S.– “Treat yo self!” (There are no photos because that would just be weird.)
Drinking on Ta Hien and surrounding area
At night, Ta Hien and the surrounding area turns into a smaller version of Pub Alley in Siem Reap. Tons of people are out on streets enjoying beers and street food. If you want to go really cheap, look for Bia Hoi (25 cent beers) signs and have a seat. Bia Hoi generally isn’t offered at the normal bars; it’s just random people who make kegs of it and sell it out of their homes, but it’s an actually pretty okay pilsner and, in some cases, tastes better than the already cheap $1 corporate stuff like Bia Siagon or 333. It was at one Bia Hoi stand that we met a couple from Chicago who were wrapping up a four year Peace Corps stint. We drank multiple beers together for three to four hours and our tab ended up being about $10 total! It’s in this area you can also catch live music on the streets, see the amusing “Obama” Bar, or go into a club and inhale helium out of weird balloons that they sell (really, really popular with the locals and the most bizarre thing I’ve seen at a club). They’re pretty strict about their curfew in Vietnam, so don’t expect to go out partying super late.
Dong Xuan Market and Night Market in the Old Quarter
Dong Xuan hours: Daily 7 a.m. — 9 p.m.
Like many other markets around the world, Dong Xuan Market offers the usual food, clothes, electronics, gifts, etc. for locals and tourists. On the weekends in the Old Quarter, several blocks are closed to motor traffic in order to have a pedestrian only street market that starts at Dong Xuan and runs south to the Hoan Keim Lake. It’s definitely worth taking a walk down to see, but for my money, I’d save the souvenir shopping for Hoi An (that post is upcoming).
While I’ll get to the rest of what to do in Hanoi later, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum deserves it’s own post. Ho Chi Minh is considered the father of Vietnam and is commonly referred to as Bac Ho (Uncle Ho) to the Vietnamese. His name and image are everywhere; even Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the Vietnam War. So a trip to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex is a must-do when you’re in Hanoi.
The complex is a massive memorial the holds the mausoleum itself, where you can view the body of Ho Chi Minh, along with other memorials, the Presidential Palace, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, and his Stilt House. It’s important to make sure that you make the mausoleum the first part of your trip to the complex (don’t confuse the museum with the mausoleum). It’s only open from 8 am–11 am on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (last entry is at 10:15 am) and is closed from September 4th–November 4th when the body is sent to Russia for maintenance.
When we showed up to the complex at 8 am, it was absolute chaos. Hundreds, possibly even thousands of people were everywhere. Soldiers lined the streets, directing different groups to different areas. The main square was an intimidatingly open space with lots of granite and Vietnamese and Soviet flags piercing the cloudy sky. In the middle was the mausoleum in all of its glory, standing tall and ominously with giant a red HO CHI MINH branded on it. It has the looks of a communist Lincoln Memorial. Hundreds of schoolchildren, all with the same adorable uniforms, stood in random lines at different points in the square. They all (and literally ALL the children) would charmingly wave and shout “HELLO!” to any person who remotely looked like a tourist. It was a strange contrast to the intimidating scene of Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place.
The square was so big that we had no idea where to go; there were lines everywhere. We first walked through a metal detector that we assumed lead to the right place, but each time we stepped in one direction, a soldier or guard would ferry us a different way. After thirty minutes of just walking with random groups around the mausoleum, we finally made it to what we thought was a ticket booth for the body viewing. We were wrong. It was a ticket booth for the museum complex. The person who worked in the booth spoke relatively good English and told us that it was free to view the body in the mausoleum, but we needed to get in line (obviously…).
So we walked back to where we started and just started to randomly ask every soldier if they could tell us where we needed to go. Finally, we found a sentry in a pearly white uniform who spoke English. He told us that we needed to walk down the street and find the end of a specific line, which he pointed us to. It was at this point that we picked up a lone Dutch backpacker who was also wandering around having the same issues as us. She had overheard our conversation with the English speaking soldier and that we actually made progress figuring out what the hell to do. So she tagged along with us as we walked, and walked, and walked until we found the end of the line.
From there, the hour and a half wait began. But it was not without it’s entertaining parts. Much like lines at Disney World, the line to get into the mausoleum wrapped in and out of random courtyards and gardens. We spent the wait time getting to know our new Dutch friend. She told us she was doing a three month solo backpacking trip throughout Southeast Asia because she just graduated from law school (jealous much?). And because she was a tall, blond, European, who stuck out like a sore thumb in the mass of shorter Vietnamese schoolchildren, she couldn’t go a hundred feet without being stopped by a random kid and asked to take a selfie. I’m not exaggerating–dozens of girls would stop her, ask for her to pose with them, and then walk away before the day was done. It was one of the more amusing things I’ve ever seen in my travels. But that’s what makes traveling great: the people you meet. Our new friend would eventually end up spending the rest of the day and night with us.
As you get closer to the entrance of the mausoleum to see Ho Chi Minh’s body, there are multiple signs with rules to follow. No pictures. No shorts. No bags. No chewing gum. No hands in pockets. No talking. On and on… You can tell that they take the body viewing extremely seriously, which is understandable considering that Ho Chi Minh is the biggest figure in Vietnamese history. As you walk up the stairs into the massive gray structure the decibel level of voices creepily gets lower and lower.
When you turn the corner to walk into the chamber, the lighting is a dark glowing red, and in the middle of the room, to my great shock, is the body Ho Chi Minh. It’s just there. Out in the open. I figured we’d see a coffin or sarcophagus, but no, he’s on fully display. Ho Chi Minh is dressed in a black robe with giant Vietnamese and Soviet flags hanging above and behind his body (think the Smithsonian Star-Spangled Banner sized flags). The body itself is in incredibly good condition, which makes sense considering that they send it to Russia every year for two months for ‘maintenance.’ It is an absolutely surreal, creepy scene.
As the soldiers move the visitors along, one of the most flabbergasting experiences I’ve ever had happened in my travels occurred. My buddy whom I frequently go on trips with is a great travel companion. I value his company whenever I’m off in some exotic land because he keeps his a good head on his shoulders and is always willing to experience new things. But there are times, such as this one, where I go…
So he’s in front of me in line, and we’re right at the spot where the body is directly facing us. He turns around, looks me in the eye, and laughingly asks “Dude, who is that?”
I see the Dutch backpacker and my sister, who are in front of him, turn their heads, completely dumbfounded. Under the watchful stare of the soldiers that fill the room, I tell my buddy (keeping my mouth shut to try and be subtle), “Duuuddddeeee, shut up and keep walking,” as I stare daggers at him.
When we leave the chamber (you only really stay in there for about thirty seconds), I ask him what the hell he was thinking and if he wanted us to get shot. I’m all for being a smart-ass and joking around every once in a while, but I could not believe he would make a joke right at that moment. However, what came out of his mouth next was even more bewildering.
“No, seriously…who was that?”
So after taking a cab to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, looking for how to get in for thirty minutes, waiting in line for an hour and a half, walking into the massive Lincoln Memorial type building with the giant words HO CHI MINH written on it, to see, without question, the biggest historical figure in Vietnam’s history, my buddy still brain farted the shit out of the experience and wasn’t sure who we were looking at…
When all is said and done, we had a good laugh about it. I handed him my Lonely Planet with the history of Vietnam earmarked for him to read while the Dutch backpacker retrieved her bag. Believe me, it will be a story I will be telling at his wedding, funeral, and many other events for years to come.
After the mausoleum visit, the rest of the complex is relatively anti-climactic. I’d say you don’t necessarily need to do it, but if you have time, since you’re there, you may as well. For $1, you can see his Stilt House, the Presidential Palace, and the museum. We didn’t actually go into the museum because it’s closed for two hours at lunch, so I can’t really give you a review of that. But the viewing of Ho Chi Minh’s body in the mausoleum itself is definitely something worth waiting around for and experiencing.
Like I said in my previous post, Singapore gets all the good press for excellent food in Southeast Asia. But in my humble opinion Vietnam takes top billing. Honestly, you can go to any street or alley and find something that delicious and cheap. Generally, throughout the trip, we found that actual restaurant food was never really as good as the random street food we’d find.
I’m so glad that this is a written blog and not a video blog otherwise I would have inevitably butchered the names of all the random food places we dined in. With that, here are a few eating spots I can point to that are worth trying out if you’re in that area (again, regardless of where you go to eat, it’ll probably be good).
Phở is the quintessential Vietnamese dish. You can get it everywhere in the country and regardless of one’s social status, you’ll see all types of people sitting on the little plastic stools enjoying a bowl. It’s made up of some type of meat (usually chicken or pork), herbs, noodles, with sides of vegetables, peppers, and garlic that you can add in. I generally eat phở in the U.S. for dinner, but I was surprised to learn that in Vietnam it’s actually a popular breakfast dish (the phở joint across from where I live isn’t even open for breakfast). So when in Vietnam, eat phở in the morning–which is what we did. It’ll only cost you around $1-$2 for a bowl. As we ate, it was relatively amusing to see the faces of the locals watching me take pictures of the food and venue. I’m sure it’s what I would look like if I saw a tourist taking a picture of a doughnut at Dunkin’ Donuts.
Here are two of the phở places we had breakfast that stood out.
Quán phở Sướng
24B Ngõ Trung Yên, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
This place was recommended by the hotel and it hit the spot. The phở was fresh tasting, hot, cheap, and delicious.
Bun Rieu Cua
40 Hàng Tre, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
This is a popular local spot to try bun rieu cua, which is a phở cooked in a with spicy crab broth. Lonely Planet said they only serve it for a few hours in the morning. And we could tell because there were several locals ready to sit when the place opened. It wasn’t quite as good as Quán phở Sướng because I found the crab broth to be a bit too seafoody, but it’s still very good.
Cafe 39 Tạ Hiện
Tạ Hiện, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
The Vietnamese love their coffee, and we, like the locals, drank this stuff pretty much every day (usually Iced to combat the heat). What sets Vietnamese coffee apart is the sweetened condensed milk they add in, giving it a uniquely sweet dairy flavor. I wouldn’t recommend ordering Vietnamese coffee without the milk because it is incredibly bitter on its own. While there are coffee chains all over, such as Highlands Coffee, those locations tend to overdo the sweetened condensed milk, so it becomes more like a frappuccino (though we did figure out that you can ask for half the amount of milk to make it less sweet). The best places to get coffee are just the random local cafes where you sit on the sidewalk, like Cafe 39 Tạ Hiện.
This no nonsense, no frills cafe always seemed to have people on little plastics stools spilling out of it into the street. As far as we could tell they only really sold coffee, which is fine because it’s not the most comfortable place to lounge around for a long period of time. But their coffee was the best we had in Hanoi.
Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim
67 Đường Thành, SHàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Yes, the name of the place is a mouthful. But on the flip side, because the name is so long it’s very easy to spot the sign on the crazy street it’s on. Very similar to phở, but much heartier and less brothy, bun cha is another noodle bowl that’s main ingredient is barbecue roast pork with thinner vermicelli noodles. Served separated, you mix together the chunks of pork, noodles, and vegetables together as you’d like it. Obviously order the bun cha, but I’d also recommend getting a side order of nem cua be(spring rolls) to share. Not everyone needs to get the spring rolls; one side order is enough for two people. The price is around $4 for bun cha and spring rolls.
Quán gốc Đa
52 Lý Quốc Sư, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Banh Goi are essentially Vietnamese empanadas and they make the perfect to-go food if you’re walking around Hanoi. There are different types, which I’m sure have specific names, but I ended up just pointing at different shaped ones and rolling with it. Most should have some sort of pork in them. You’ll see these everywhere, but Lonely Planet suggested this one stall near St. Joseph’s Cathedral that had some of the most dynamite finger food ever (you can get 3 for like $1).
35B Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Rice is unsurprisingly a staple Asian food, but I always thought sticky rice was more of a Laos, Chinese, Sushi type food and never really thought of it when thinking of Vietnamese cuisine. Most of the guidebooks say, like phở, sticky rice is generally eaten for breakfast in Vietnam. The Chinese in me wasn’t feeling that. I’m sure the locals do it, but where I come from, sticky rice is served with dinner and, unlike the phở, we weren’t really budging from that stance. Sticky rice is just too damn heavy for breakfast.
Xôi Yến is open all day and night, so people do eat it around the clock, and when we showed up at dinner time it was busy as ever. The sticky rice comes with your choice of two toppings. The choices vary from every type of meat to vegetarian options like dried mung beans. Again, it’s a cheap, quick option if you’re tired of noodle bowls and what something a little heavier.
Lonely Planet in general is a good guidebook, but there are some misses. Two in particular. The first one is Minh Thuy’s. It wasn’t even there. They said it’s a must-try and it doesn’t even exist anymore (I emailed Lonely Planet to tell them to update their guidebook for the next edition). The second place is Koto Restaurant near the Temple of Literature. This place wasn’t bad; generally it’s always nice to be able to get off the streets and sit down in a nice, air conditioned restaurant with tablecloths every once in a while. But the food was as “meh” as I can describe, and pricier than what you’d find on the street. The only reason I’d say it’s okay to go is because Koto operates as a hospitality training school for some of Vietnam’s most disadvantaged young people. So while their food might be pedestrian, and cost a little high, at least it’s going to a good cause.
Back in 2015, I went to Southeast Asia (which is documented on this blog) and the country we had to leave out of that trip was Vietnam. We told ourselves that one day we’d dedicate an entire vacation to explore the whole country. I didn’t think it would be a short 2 years later.
Of all the Southeast Asian countries I’ve visited so far in my life, Vietnam is now at the top of the list. It’s in the perfect middle ground of development where the cities aren’t so urbanized that you have all the seedy things like prostitution everywhere, but it’s developed enough that the water is relatively clean (don’t drink it, but brushing is okay), there’s Wifi everywhere, and the people are still very friendly (and not in the they’re trying to sell you something kind of way).
And it’s still really, really cheap. $1 = 22,600 Dong (VND).
Now that all the “dong” jokes are out of the way (trust me, I made my fair share)…
Aside from some tailored suits that I bought in Hoi An, which I’ll cover later, $124/a person (U.S.) lasted the entire 2 week trip. Seriously, it covered pretty much all the food and museums. You can easily get by on eating 3 meals a day for $5 and drinking 25 cent beer the entire time since bottles of water are given to you by the hotels. The museums cost somewhere between 50 cents to $5 in most cases (if you have a student ID, that’s gold for discounts). And souvenirs? You almost feel bad paying as little as you do for gifts. So has much as you’ll cringe throwing down inevitably four figures to get to and stay in Vietnam, all the expenses while in country will be minimal.
The food in Vietnam is also easily the best of all the Southeast Asian countries. Before my trip, I kept hearing about how good the food in Singapore was, but in my opinion the food I had in Vietnam was FAR better. Although there were some culinary gems in Laos that are tough to beat, on the whole the food in Vietnam was superior because it just tasted fresher and you got more for the money. Even the chicken in our $1 noodle soup bowls (Phở) on the street tasted better than any gourmet chicken I’ve had at a U.S. restaurant. I’m guessing it’s because everything in Vietnam is as organic/free range/whatever else roaming animals do to be tasty as it gets. And my companions went absolutely fruit juice crazy with every possible fresh squeezed juice available for them to drink at a fraction of the Whole Foods price. (“Where to Eat” will be posted next.)
Hanoi itself is quite intimidating when you first get in. It’s communist government is on full display during customs check at the airport. And once you get into Hanoi proper, it’s like walking into a frenzy of Evel Knievel wannabes. Remember my mantra when going to countries such as this: Elbows in! And that certainly applies here with all the scooters, cars, and people zig zagging each and every way. It’ll take you a day or two to acclimate to the streets and get to that point where you become calm enough to be a what I call a “precision walker” and just walk across the street with no fear as traffic flies around you (you will literally have scooters and cars come within inches of you).
The cab from the airport to a hotel in the Old Quarter, which is where you’ll want to stay while in Hanoi, should be about $20 or 450,000 VND (it really will take you a while to get used to paying for things in the thousands).
Located perfectly in the Old Quarter, a quick walk from Hoàn Kiếm Lake, most of what you’ll want to see in Hanoi is within walking distance or a short cab ride away from Essence. Like a lot of Southeast Asian countries, the hotel hospitality is top notch. As you check-in you’re offered tea and a hot towel. But unlike the hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the staff here isn’t overbearing in their want to please you; they’ll give you the space you need after a long trip to get there. The rooms are not the biggest in the world, but they’re clean, and each has a laptop for guest use. The hotel also has a spa that, when we were there, has a two for one massage deal. Ultimately, two of us would each get a massage for $15.
Raffles Hotel is like the “Cheers” of Singapore. It’s a super touristy site that you kind of have to go to if you’re in Singapore for the first time. The hotel itself is pretty cool; it’s one of those turn of the 20th century looking, old school hotels that gives you the feeling when you walk in that you’re a European on some grand, exotic journey.
It costs a pretty penny to stay there, but most people only visit for its claim to fame–the site of the creation of the Singapore Sling. Note: There is no dress code to get into the bar, despite what the guidebooks say. There is however a dress code to enter the hotel, but when we visited they weren’t letting non-guests into the lobby to take pictures anyways, something they supposedly normally do.
I had heard of this cocktail before, but as far as fruity cocktails go I never really tried it because a Pina Colada, Mojito, or Daiquiri was always closer to the top of my preference list. When in Singapore though, get a Singapore Sling. So we went to the bar, waited a generous 20 minutes or so to get in, dove into the free bowls of roasted peanuts they have out (there are peanut shells all over the place so if you’ve got an allergy, stay away) and ordered our whopping $31 SGD Singapore Sling cocktail. The drink itself is essentially pineapple/cherry juice with gin (a whole lot more juice than gin I’m afraid…). Was the drink worth that price? No. Was it good? Actually yeah, it was super refreshing after a hot day of walking around.
Afterwards, you can pop into the nearby St. Andrew’s Cathedral which is down the street. It’s worth seeing while you’re there, but nothing special so you can just make it a quick stop.
The museums aren’t worth visiting just for the historical lesson; they are a great excuse to get out of the heat! If you only have time for one museum, this is the one that I would suggest prioritizing. From this museum we discovered that for such a small city, Singapore does have an incredibly rich history. The closest thing I can compare it to is Jerusalem. Singapore, like Jerusalem, is a giant melting pot of so many Asian, European, Arab, and Australian cultures, and much of that history is on display at this museum.
A lot of the museum is dedicated to Lee Kuan Yew who in 1965 was elected the country’s first Prime Minister after years of French, Dutch, and Portuguese colonization. The highlight of the museum is watching him give his acceptance speech and pointing out that Singapore is “not just Malay, not just Indian, not just Chinese,” but a the “multi-racial” country that values all its diversity.
One rather unique exhibit is the Glass Rotunda upstairs. In there, projection lights shine through stain glass displays creating a pretty cool revolving show. And if time permits, stop into the Food for Thought café in the museum lobby. The food is more expensive than you would typically pay for in Singapore, but a portion of the proceeds go to aid charities.
The Peranakan Museum is dedicated to the local Peranakan culture and is an idealistic showing of how their local culture is a successful mix of several races into one. The museum is broken up into separate rooms, each displaying different parts of Peranakan culture: weddings, religion, home life, education, etc.
The big exhibit consists of really impressive glass beaded artwork from blankets to kitchenware to clothes. Other items on display include a cool food and feasting gallery, a room filled with shrines worshiping deities (including an odd Asian Christian one that has Jesus Christ surrounded by bunch of Asian stuff) and funeral room exhibit.
The funeral room in particular is a little creepy to be honest (there are signs warning visitors that it might not be good for children) with a coffin on display and examples of unsettling mirrors marked with a big “X” to mark the death of a family member. I’m not usually weirded out by that kind of stuff, but it did send a bit of a chill down my spine (though nothing compared to what would come in Hanoi…more on that later…).
Fort Canning Park and Marina Bay
Singapore has a ton of green space and a great harbor that are fantastic areas to just lounge around, people watch, and relax. Problem for us was that it was raining–a lot. So our trip from Marina Bay to Fort Canning was a deluge of a mess. As such, we opted not to spend the $$ to go to up to one of the popular rooftop bars on the water just to get the same sight that I saw on Table Mountain in South Africa…
That being said, the walk around Marina Bay is worth doing.
It’s also not hard to see that Fort Canning Park is a great spot to take a long walk as well on a sunnier day. One thing we did miss out on that I really wanted to see was the Battlebox Museum. Our Lonely Planet guide gave us incomplete visiting hour information–while the museum, yes, is open during the range of hours that the guidebook provided, it’s only open to those who have a guided tour, which happen only at 3 or 4 selected times during that range of hours…I was none too thrilled to discover that.
Singapore is the perfect Asia layover. It’s what I would call “Asia for the non-ambitious traveler.” What I mean by that is Singapore is incredibly comfortable, making it also incredibly standard. It’s a very, very easy city to negotiate; it’s super clean, modern, and everyone speaks English. The tap water is potable, and you really don’t need to worry about the food at all. The money is in Singapore dollars (SGD) and the exchange is an easy 1 SGD for every 75 U.S. cents (essentially making everything there a tad cheaper). Also, the subway is the most user friendly public system I’ve ever been on; it puts the subways in the U.S. to shame.
So would I go to Asia to visit Singapore specifically? No. But I would definitely use it as a jumping off point for the rest of the continent as it’ll help ease you into the area while you recover from jet lag. Which is what we did for a weekend before heading off to Vietnam for 2 weeks.
I would highly recommend the Quincy Hotel, but only if you don’t mind walking about 20-30 minutes to get to the historical sights. Keep in mind, it can get really hot in Singapore, so that 30 minutes walk gets pretty long. If you’re okay with that walk every day, then stay here. Also, it’s located just off of Orchard Road, the main boulevard with dozens of shopping malls (literally dozens of 9 level shopping malls), so if shopping is your thing you’re right where you need to be.
This surprisingly chic hotel has super modern rooms with some perks I’ve never really seen at any other hotel I’ve stayed at. The first big perk is this: free minibar access in your room. Yes, free. Every day they restock it with a few sodas, juices, and a couple beers that you can dive into without costing you extra.
The second perk is they’ll wash 2 pieces of laundry a day for you. Again, because you’re in a country that’s right on the equator, you’ll want to take advantage of cleaning up some of your sweaty garb. The breakfast buffet is excellent and the gym and pool are extremely nice. The pool in particular is outdoor, but covered, and the water runs to the edge giving it an infinity pool feel right into the Singapore skyline. And the hotel is relatively affordable; it only cost us a reasonable $150 U.S. a night (through Expedia).
Where to eat
Singapore is world-renowned for having amazing food. I don’t see why. I don’t mean to sound snobby, but the reality, in my opinion, doesn’t live up to the hype. I’m not saying the food was horrible; quite the opposite, the food was actually very good. It all tasted very fresh, and was super cheap (most entrées are under $5 SGD). And the Kopi coffee is delicious. But is it deserving of this whole, “Oh my god, Singapore has the best food in the world” reputation? Nope, not in this travelers opinion. But I’m fully willing to admit that maybe I didn’t go to the right places or maybe I am just a snobby dick. Who knows? But anywhoo…
Hawker Centers & Food Courts
These bad boys are where the local folks, tourists, pretty much everyone goes to get their grub. Many locals told me they rarely cook because it’s just cheaper to eat out. The Food Courts are usually located in the giant malls that I mentioned before on Orchard Road and other areas. They are a step above Hawker Centers which are their own standalone collection of food stalls. Both offer the same types of food, it’s just that the Food Courts are a little cleaner and a bit more expensive. We went to both, and both had very good fare at a very cheap price. But again, a lot of the food that you find in the Hawker Centers and Food Courts you can easily find in an American Super 88 Asian market. People would rather travel 10,000 miles to get the “real thing” than go probably 30 minutes down the highway for the same thing in the U.S.…
Keep in mind, not all Hawker Centers are 24 hours (a mistake we realized after going to one and finding it closed for lunch), so check the times. Also, for some reason Singaporean food centers seem to hate napkins. I don’t know why, but there were no napkins anywhere. So either bring your own or I hope you like having food grease on your pants (thank god for the free laundry service at the Quincy…).
The Hawker Center we ended up going to is the popular Lau Pa Sat, which is open 24 hours, and got a slew of entrees including Char Sew Noodles, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Basil Chicken (from a Thai stall), and Fried Kway Theo (essentially chow fun noodles).
We also stopped into a Food Court chain called Food Republic and had their version of Hainanese Chicken Rice, and a roasted duck dish.
Din Tai Fungs are located throughout Singapore, and I later realized when we got there that it’s actually an international chain that we’ve been to! We went to the location in Sydney in 2015 (I clearly need to read my own blog more often…). So it’s not exactly a local spot, but the locals themselves seem to love it as the location we were at inside the Wisma Atria on Orchard Road was packed. As with most of the locations, the Din Tai Fung kitchen is open for all the customers to see the dumpling chefs hard at work.
Just like in Sydney, I wasn’t blown away by the good, yet unspectacular food. However, their claim to fame in Singapore is the Truffle & Pork Xiao Long Bao, a steamed truffle/pork soup dumpling (I legitimately don’t remember this offering being in the Sydney location, and looking through the Aussie menu now I don’t see it). It ain’t cheap, even in American dollars. One dumpling is $5 SGD (to give you a reference, 6 of the regular pork dumplings is $8 SGD). But that one dumpling…ooh boy…it was damn good. It’s a delicious mix of truffle mushroomy, earthy, salty pork meaty, brothy, explosive flavor–all packed into one little bite. I chewed very, very slowly and let the flavors just marinate on my tongue.
My love of travel didn’t come out of no where. I’ve been fortunate enough to have parents who have taken me around the world and see the benefit of exposing their children to the vast diversity of cultures on our planet. So with that, our guest post today comes from none other than Mom! It’s a little lengthy, she’s big on narrative, but worth a read to avoid having to go through the horrible experience she just went through. Here she is:
“I have always enjoyed travel. The last few decades had seen me in many countries around the world and since my retirement, the frequency of my travel has increased. I just recently returned from a trip to Bangkok, flying from JFK, with a lengthy layover in Beijing on Air China. The flights to and from Thailand were so terrible that I need to share the experience with you.”
“As any seasoned traveler would know, one usually chooses an airline based on price and service. The Thailand trip was actually a vacation package deal including all airfares, international as well as domestic. The price was very reasonable because they booked us on Air China, which offered the lowest airfares.”
“Both the outbound trip and return trip each took approximately 15 hours in the air. Two meals were served between JFK and Beijing. The flight attendants could not speak English well (I think they probably understood English much better than they spoke it) so with the first meal served, I could only grasp the concept of either duck or beef for choice of entrée–I chose duck. The duck tasted like the back end of the fowl; it was absolutely offensive. The accompanying rice was cold and dry. I ended up eating just a dinner roll with a pad of butter. The second meal came maybe 8 hours later. Again, I could barely understand the choice of beef or chicken. Still reeling by the duck experience, I chose the beef and onion stir-fry. I had one bite and stopped. The beef and onion had a slimy texture, the type of slimy food would get just before turning rancid, usually after a day or so without refrigeration. I was nauseous for the rest of the flight.”
“Also, for the entire 15-hour flight, beverages were served only twice when the two meals were served. There were no beverage carts going up and down the aisles for the passengers at any other times during the other 14 hours. Fortunately, I had an aisle seat, so I was able to make frequent trips to the galley to beg for water. And when I did ask, the cabin crew had the audacity to give me attitude for asking! For water! Food and service on the return flight was no better; I chose not to eat and I was so hungry and dehydrated when I got off the plane.”
“Now, let’s get to the bathrooms on the plane. With over 200 passengers sharing 6 bathrooms in the economy section for 15 hours, it goes without saying that maintenance of these bathrooms is pretty critical. I’m not sure of the airline’s policy, but I was not impressed by the condition of the bathrooms on either flight. There was a clogged toilet in one bathroom and I stepped into a giant puddle of some liquid which I’m assuming was urine in another. Needless to say those shoes didn’t come home with me.”
“And that’s not all. At the Beijing Airport, I chatted with a family waiting for the same flight back to JFK (Two parents, an elderly grandmother, and a 10-year old son). Air China had scattered them all over the plane, not keeping this party of four together. The father asked the ticket agent at counter for, perhaps, just two seats together so that one parent could be with the young son. The counter agent couldn’t accommodate such a humble request of finding any two seats together on a Boeing 777. She told them to ask the agent at the gate for the seat changes. When they spoke to the agent at the gate, they were told that they should have had the counter agent to change seats, not at the gate. Ultimately, the family was able to switch seats with other passengers so that the child would not have to travel alone without parental supervision. It was the passengers who resolved the problem. The airline was no help at all.”
“This brings up the most important issue to anyone traveling and my final note–the airline’s willingness and ability to help during an emergency situation. Air China could not deal with a simple problem like seat changes for a family booked as one party. I doubt the company will assume responsibility for major issues like damaged luggage, lost children, or injury. On an international flight between Beijing and New York with passengers from different countries, the inability to speak fluent English by the flight attendants worries me greatly. If an emergency arises at 35,000 feet, I doubt the ability of the Air China crew to help me. I would not be able to understand their emergency instructions. Knowing the words duck or beef will not help at all. Personally, I will avoid flying Air China in the future.”