Hoi An

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.

Where To Stay

La Residencia
35 Đào Duy Từ, Cẩm Phô
Tp. Hội An, Quảng Nam

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.

Take a Jeep tour.  More to come in the next post.

Hanoi: What to Do

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
30K VND
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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Vietnamese Women’s Museum
30K VND
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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bach Ma Temple
No charge
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.

Mido Spa
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.)

and for cheap!

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).

Coming Up: Halong Bay

 

Hanoi: Where to Stay

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.)

The ultimate cheap, fresh, delicious eats. Everything in this picture probably cost a total of $4.

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).

Essence Hanoi Hotel & Spa
22A Tạ Hiện, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm
Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam

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.

 

Cambodia Quad Bike Tour and the Floating Village

My last post about our SE Asia trip will conclude with a couple other activities that we did – one which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend as a must-do, and the other as a very much must-do.

We’ll get the Floating Village out of the way first.  I was underwhelmed by it.  This isn’t to say that the attraction wasn’t interesting.  It was just a bit too far out and a bit too expensive to waste time on if you’re on a time budget.  The Floating Village is about 30-45 minutes drive from Angkor Wat.  From there you pay $20 to hop into a boat and take another 30 minute boat ride down a river to the lake where floating houses reside.  Remember, the $20 fee is in American money, so in relation to everything else, it’s really expensive.

It was a nice day, so the boat ride wasn’t too bad.  But at the end of the day, all you really saw were a lot of poverty-stricken shacks.  In that sense, it’s good to see in that it reminds one of how much the rest of the world actually lives, and how we should be grateful for everything that we have.  And seeing this community living literally on the water (floating schools, stores, etc.) was very unique and something that I hadn’t ever seen anywhere else before.  But at the end of the day, I’d probably skip it for more time at Angkor Wat or other activities.

What was cool?  The Cambodia Quad Bike tour we took.  Now this is an activity worth doing.  The $35 we spent on taking the ATV tour in my opinion was the highlight of Cambodia.  This isn’t a knock on Angkor Wat by any means, but when I travel I do like to get my heart racing a bit and get the adrenaline going; this tour was the fix.  If you do sign up for the tour, sign up for the sunset ride.

The ATV tour takes you out to the countryside where you can ride through the rice fields past water buffaloes, beautiful landscapes, and Cambodian farmers at speeds up to I would say 40-50 mph.  Our guide, Heng, was great as well, stopping at various points to let us take photos and take photos of us.  But the best part of the tour was the sunset.  We stopped at a rice field with practically no one else around.  In front of us a family of about 50 ducks marched along without a care, and a water buffalo chilled beside us.  The sunset itself was incredible, so serene and vibrant with color.  Whereas the Angkor Wat sunrise was amazing to see because it was both iconic and awe-inspiring, the sunset we saw in the rice fields was spectacular because of the zen-like calmness it brought.  I can’t imagine a better way to have wrapped up what was such a whirlwind trip.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Going back to a more industrialized, urban country was a bit jarring coming from the serenity of Laos.  After our exhausting delay, and relatively frightening flight, we landed in Cambodia for the final leg of our trip.  Again, when you get to Cambodia, you’ll need to have cash on hand for the $35 visa.

Our hotel was The Golden Temple Hotel, which arranged for a tuk tuk to pick us up and bring us there.  The Golden Temple Hotel’s staff welcomed us with tea and a snack when we arrived. The folks there are incredibly helpful and accommodating.  The place itself is brand new, and only has 30 rooms so the staff does their best to get to know their individual guests.  The rooms are equipped with all the amenities to make a comfortable stay (HD TV, free WiFi, A/C, nice clean and new furniture).  The hotel also provides a cell phone for you to use (which is HUGE for those of you without an international plan), a free wine happy hour, a very generous complimentary breakfast every morning with a box breakfast for those who leave early for Angkor Wat, and when you leave they give their departing guests a free T-shirt and scarf as a thank you gift.  The deal we got through Expedia also included for each of us a free massage at the hotel spa and a free Khmer dinner cooked and delivered to your room.  What did we pay?  $80 a night.

So, yeah, that hotel might be the best value I’ve ever gotten at a place I’ve stayed traveling.  There’s only two things that they could improve on.  One, they need a few more lounge chairs by the pool.  And two, while the staff was great (and I really want to make sure that’s clear, they were GREAT), they were a bit overbearing in their attempts to accommodate every need.   While I do feel kind of like a dick for saying that a negative is that people were too nice, I do wish they scaled it back just a notch.

The location of the Golden Temple Hotel is also a huge plus.  It’s within walking distance of the Siem Reap Night Market as well as Pub Alley.  My first impression of these places was this: I hope that Luang Prabang doesn’t turn into it.  The Night Market in Siem Reap is the exact opposite of what was in Luang Prabang.  It was loud and seedy, with tuk tuk drivers and whores coming up to you constantly.  I almost punched a guy in the face because he grabbed by arm and spun me around so that he could get my attention.  Despite that, knowing that it is what it is, it is a rather fun place to go out if you’re looking to have drinks and a crowd.  Pub Alley is essentially trying to be the Bourbon Street of SE Asia, so there are plenty of different types of bars with large quantities of cheap drinks to be had.  Most of the bars have outdoor seating for people watching.  Our experience was even cooler because there was a power outage (not uncommon for SE Asia apparently), so half the street had no electricity and people were using candles for lighting giving the street a really cool, rustic, exotic look.

One place in particular that I’d recommend for drinks is Beer Battle, which has a bit of a calmer vibe surrounded by all the madness.   I would also recommend walking to the Night Market from there and grabbing dinner at Genevieve’s Restaurant.   This restaurant was the closest thing to a Mom & Pop place we went to all trip.  We honestly weren’t expecting much, but it ended up being a surprisingly good meal.  The owner is an Australian who opened up the place, named after his wife, and sends a portion of his proceeds to charity.  The staff he hires are all local Cambodians whom he hopes will one day take over the restaurant and make it their own.   He came by our table at one point, and it was had not to feel good about eating there after speaking with the kind, grandfatherly figure.  One thing to note – if you ask for spicy, they will give you spicy.  My buddy on the trip is Indian, and he had been noticing that there wasn’t any really spicy food so far on the trip, so he specifically asked our waitress to make our beef salad spicy, spicy.  I lasted one bite; literally one bite.  He on the other hand impressively finished the dish, but at the cost of practically not being able to eat the next day!

Coming up: The signature attraction of Cambodia — Angkor Wat.

Morning Alms Ceremony and the Royal Palace

Our last day in Luang Prabang was a short one since we were supposed to fly out for Cambodia in the afternoon (more on that later).  So we got ourselves up early in order to catch the morning tak bat alms ceremony in the center of town.  This ceremony is performed every morning at sunrise by the monks at the center of town.  I don’t know the actual count, but I’d say around 100 monks, dressed in their bright orange robes, ages ranging from young boys to grandpas, walk in a single file line down the street accepting sticky rice from worshipers.  This rice is not eaten by the monks, but offered to the Buddha when they return to the wat.  It’s a unique experience to see and one worth waking up before sunrise for.  If you do go to observe, don’t be a douche; respect the locals worshiping.  It’s poor taste to get in the way of the procession to take flash photos, and in my opinion if you’re not going to actually participate you should keep back a bit.

After the tak bat alms ceremony, we walked over to the Royal Palace Museum which is located where the Night Market is held.  The Royal Palace cost 30K kip to enter and houses an impressive display of royal thrones, garments, Buddhas, and swords.   Outside the palace, you can see the 83 cm-tall gold-alloy Buddha statue, which supposedly is what the city is named after.  Sadly, no photos are allowed once you get into the palace, so I’ll just need to describe to you some of the highlights.

The interior architecture is made up of a lavish Japanese glass mosaic that is truly impressive.  The bedrooms, throne halls, and reception rooms are all view-able throughout the palace.   Be sure to look at the paintings of the story of Prince Wetsantara as you walk down the hallways; its actually a very interesting fable and the story is broken up into a dozen paintings or so.  Also, one thing to check out is the reception room with all the gifts from other countries to the king.  Most countries gave a precious artifact or something that represented their country (for instance jade bowls, swords, jewelry, things of that nature).  Then you get to the US display.  What did they give Laos?  A shitty model of the lunar module that looked like a 12-year-old put together.  Now, that’s what we thought when we first saw it – my buddy and I were laughing in the museum about it.  It wasn’t until we looked it up after that we found out that the model itself wasn’t the gift.  Unlabeled was an actual piece of moon rock that was offered as a gift.  Well done US.

Heading off to Cambodia

After that, we made our way back to Le Bel Air to check out and headed to the airport.  On a trip as ambitious as ours, we would have been really lucky if we didn’t hit any travel snags, and in general we didn’t.  But inevitably, if you do do a trip like ours, something will come up and in our case it was a 6-hour delay at the Luang Prabang airport.   Annoyingly, our Vietnam Airlines flight was delayed due to mechanical issues coming out of Hanoi so we were stuck in the airport for half the day.  If we had known it was as delayed as it was, we would have just stayed in Luang Prabang for the afternoon.  But instead we were bored out of our minds in the tiny Luang Prabang airport and missed some valuable sightseeing time in Cambodia.  Vietnam Airlines did try to accommodate the passengers by providing food, but the “hamburger” they gave us was…well…pretty gross.  We did eventually make it to Siem Riep, Cambodia, although late at night, for the final leg of our journey.

Tuk Tuk – the Auto Rickshaw

A popular mode of transportation in SE Asia is the Tuk Tuk (pronounced “Duk Duk”), which is an auto rickshaw.  Generally cheaper than cabs if you can negotiate correctly, the Tuk Tuk is a fun way to get around.  But know that your heart rate will be accelerated as you ride on them.  Think of it like taking an amusement park ride without the benefit of a safety bar.  And again my mantra for SE Asia — Keep Your Elbows In!