uncle ho
Portrait of Uncle Ho in the colonial post office

After two days in Hoi An we got on the soft sleeper train from Danang to Saigon which was definitely a “learning experience” in that I learned not to take trains in Vietnam. The soft sleeper was a tiny cramped compartment which we shared with two Parisian old ladies, the mattresses only a bit thicker and the same width as a Chinese hard sleeper, the sheets dirty, the whole compartment generally filthy. The train was only going like 20 mph and running on a single track, often stopping to let other trains pass. The result was a 17 hour journey and you couldn’t see much out the window as it was covered in metal grating. The Parisians were happy to escape at the beach destination Mui Ne. Except for Mui Ne with its sand dunes the environment was generally quite tropical, with little towns here and there. But I wasn’t too bored, I slept on and off, lulled by the mechanical gallop of the train which reminded me of a Russian symphony.

We finally arrived in Saigon where we stayed at the Intercontinental, finally there for two nights instead of our usual one. Here it was 90 degrees and yet people had their winter coats on. We wandered around the area, District 1. Immediately I was struck by the skyscrapers, large Parisian buildings wrapping around corners, scores of international restaurants esp. Japanese and the relative order to the traffic – here the motorbikes were matched by cars and stuck to the side of the lanes. And people were not wearing conical hats! Street food was there as usual but in less density than Hanoi, though we did enjoy an amazing banh mi with chargrilled chicken and bun bo hue, a fiery noodle soup with fried tofu and sausage, which we ate at a stall in a lot on a cornet. At night we went to a few bars, most of them pretty dead even though it was Thursday at 10, and found drinks costing $7.50! After Hoi An that seemed outrageous.

making chicken banh mi
Chicken banh mi
making bun bo hue
Bun bo hue

museum of fine arts
War-era art in the Museum of Fine Arts Saigon

The next day we explored Saigon, visiting the Museum of Fine Arts and the Presidential Palace. The Museum had all sorts of artifacts but I was most interested by the Revolution-era art. Propagandist yes but I enjoyed the honoring of peasants, workers and women. I remember a bronze statue of a wrinkled old lady – not your usual majestic or cerebral subject for a statue, but someone who deserves more honor and dignity. The Museum was housed in an old colonial building which was very French and lovely, though I think most recently owned by a rich Chinese.

presidential palace
Beautiful ’60s architecture at the former South Vietnamese Presidential Palace

The Presidential Palace however was a pretty nice modern building, erected in 1966 with lots of open spaces, flat in shape but with generous cross ventilation. Here we saw various meeting rooms of the South Vietnamese government, the president’s living quarters and game room, the underground bunker. There’s a Huey helicopter on the roof next to the spot where the palace had been bombed and a tank in the courtyard. I didn’t do too much “war stuff” in Vietnam but got some interesting glimpses in Saigon.

On Saturday we would get on a plane to Siem Reap!


Hoi An

Learning about Chinese influence in central Vietnam

Now a few days into our trip we flew to Danang, a big industrial city in the middle of Vietnam. The airport used to be an air base of the South Vietnamese; its capture was a major turning point in the war and some hangars were still lying around. We got in a cab to Hoi An, about 45 minutes from the Da Nang airport.

ha an breakfast
Amazing breakfast at the Ha An Hotel

We stayed at the Ha An Hotel which was in a beautiful colonial-style setting, the rooms, lobby building and restaurant surrounding a courtyard. This hotel was maybe one of the nicest I’ve ever stayed at, for like $40/night. On arrival we enjoyed free welcome ginger tea and fruit on the terrace of the lovely restaurant. The room was elegant, cool, high-ceilinged, with an in-room computer, sliding door opening up to the courtyard-facing verandah and nice and authentic-looking pottery and lamps–excellent attention to detail. And the breakfast was an amazing buffet of Asian and Western food and pastries with made-to-order pho, omelet, other noodles and banh mi.

We spent the morning and afternoon in Hoi An wandering around and into old buildings in the Old Town. Besides the local Vietnamese who fished and made silk, Chinese and Japanese traders came to Hoi An long ago, leaving traces in the city’s architecture. Many buildings, including historic temples which served as congregation halls for Canto and Fujianese migrants, are Chinese in style, usually two stories with courtyards and shrines inside. The Japanese also built a covered bridge over the river. Despite all my time spent in China, the temples didn’t bore me, they involved different colors and details versus their Northern and Shanghai counterparts.

Old Town Hoi An

Hoi An is quite touristy. The place has lots of women inviting you into their stores or restaurants or offering banana pancakes but they aren’t persistent. One perk about the tourism factor there is a street full of tailors who will make a suit or dress for you same-day. The styles weren’t fobby, either! Unfortunately I didn’t have space in my bag to shop but if I were to come back I’d save room–the place also had some decent shoes hot out of the factory, and custom leather places that would make sandals or bags. Yet, Hoi An was not 100% touristy. You still have your schools, wet markets and locals strolling about in the evenings, and some cheap restaurants when you get away from the tourist strips.

paper lanterns
Floating lanterns for sale

We also biked to the beach at sunset; it was a cloudy day and not too warm but a nice walk. In the evening we enjoyed the Hoi An riverfront, all aglow with the illumination and reflections of lanterns everywhere and some paper candles floating on the water. It looked so brightly Asian it seemed fake, like an attraction at Epcot. We had $3.50 drinks at our pleasant hotel first. Other places were selling cocktails for $2 in their low season desperation.

In Hoi An we enjoyed a couple banh mi from carts (much better than US versions!), cao lau – chewy yellow noodle with fatty pork and a broth on the bottom, mi quang – chewy yellow noodles with shrimp, shrimp chips, shrimp paste, pork, peanuts and broth, banh bao – little pork and shrimp dumplings with big soft wrappers and hoanh tanh, fried wontons topped with fresh tomato etc.

cao lau
Cao lau
mi quang
Mi quang

We also did a half day trip to the My Son ruins, built by the Cham empire in the 8th to 11th centuries. Most of this Hindu temple complex in the jungle had been destroyed by American bombers, and the French had absconded with the statuary heads to display in the Louvre, but some bits still remained, made of rust-colored bricks.

my son
Hindu carvings at the Champa ruins of My Son

On a Boat off Cat Ba

The Lonely Island has changed life as we know it.

On Friday night my boyfriend Daniel arrived and we slept a few short hours at the Hilton Hanoi Opera, just a few steps from the Grand Palais Theatre-styled opera house. We would wake up at 5 to go to Cat Ba island. With an unclear idea of what we were doing, we took one bus, one speeding cab (with a driver singing boy bands and J.Lo), one speedboat and one minibus to arrive at Cat Ba town to meet up with our tour operator Cat Ba Ventures. We were late but we had a private tour booked so they were forgiving. After some street coffee from a tiny metal dripper, we got into our boat, the Dolphin junk. For $163 pp we had a guide, chef and captain, a big bedroom for ourselves and above that a roof deck with a double chaise for lounging.

Our guide was a young guy named Hang who wore a puffy winter jacket and in the water, a turquoise pith helmet. He used to be an office worker in Hanoi but moved out to Cat Ba to be a tour guide, talking to foreigners by day and playing soccer by night. He was very friendly but gave us privacy and spoke good English. He was always singing pop ballads – he says the Vietnamese have a saying, it doesn’t matter how well you sing, only how much you sing. 🙂

We headed out of Cat Ba town, first passing a large floating fishing village. This would be our first glimpse of the aquaculture that is integral to economic life in the archipelago. Everywhere we’d see floating houses, lone little boats on the hunt for today’s catch, women scooting around rocks like crabs looking for oysters, squid boats with their hanging lights and in the floating villages grids of underwater tanks housing all the sea creature goodies. Fishermen in the area catch fish big and small, squid, octopus, cuttlefish, shrimp, oysters, blue crab, lobster, etc. It goes to market and ends up in Hanoi and other inland cities.

boats Local boat going by

Then off into the karsts! We spent the morning cruising Lan Ha bay, much less crowded than famous Halong bay. We sat on our roof deck looking at every strange karst island, each weathered differently by wind and water and covered in trees. We came at low tide which exposed the striated limestone being steadily worn by the ocean. We loved the striking landscape dotted by the fishermen and women in boats.

Exposed bottoms of the limestone karts

Lunch on the boat

All of our meals were amazing spreads prepared by our personal chef. Over our four meals on deck we enjoyed fried fish, squid with fruits and vegetables, shrimp and tofu scallion fritters, fresh fried dough pancakes (for breakfast) and much more. I felt like royalty! The food was all amazingly fresh (they got the fish flopping out of the water from a floating market) and I loved all the flavors. The tomatoes were so umami-rich and the dishes were often made zesty with the addition of starfruit and pineapple. Yum!

inspecting today's catch
Our crew inspecting a fresh catch. They procured some little fishes for their own lunch.

Kayaking around tranquil lagoons

Both afternoons we went kayaking through little caves in and out of secluded lagoons. We saw a group of big monkeys rumbling through the trees in one! With barely anyone around it felt so tranquil to kayak through the turquoise waters together, the only sounds being the splash of our paddles and the occasional rustling of an animal. We also did some swimming the second day when it was sunny – the water is quite peaceful everywhere – and snorkeling to see some very interesting coral. Both Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long bay also had little beaches at the base of the karsts but we didn’t have much time for a beach stop.

Sunset just outside Ha Long Bay

cat ba morning
Morning at one of Cat Ba island’s beaches

We were sad to leave our boat when we returned to Cat Ba at sunset. We strolled around the town, which has a nice waterfront walking areas around a bay of little colorful fishing boats and a strip of hotels facing this bay. We hunted for crab in the darker more local areas but were eventually told that in Vietnam you can only order crab in the morning. At one point walked through a little alley where families were all eating rice in front of the TVs in their shophouse ground floors which had been converted to living rooms (meaning you could see right into them, as they had no front walls). In the morning we also walked to Cat Ba town’s three beaches, deserted and beautiful, though colonized by resorts. If I were to do this trip again I’d spend a week in Cat Ba, which in addition to those karsty beaches has a huge national park, kayaks and motorbikes for rent and not many people at this time of year.

We endured another bus-boat-bus combo to Hanoi where we stayed at the Hilton again. I took Daniel around the streets and the lake. We enjoyed banh xeo, these savory coconut milk pork pancakes which you wrap up with lettuce and rice paper and dip in a broth, and bun cha, a rich soup with vermicelli noodles topped with BBQ pork, pork or crab patties wrapped in leaves and topped with the usual cilantro etc. Also some great, flaky fries cha gio, or spring rolls – the best I’ve had this trip.

Banh Xeo
Banh xeo
bun cha and cha gio
Bun cha and cha gio

Hanoi: City of Street Eats

conical hat ladies
Conical hats in Hanoi

I wish I had some wondrous tale to tell of my life-changing arrival in Vietnam. Instead, I mainly felt stressed by my inability to speak the local language and by the prospect of being ripped off by my cab driver and having to fight with him without speaking Vietnamese. It was a gray day and passing by the giant sprawl of slightly dilapidated shophouses I wondered whether Vietnam would be awesome or just poor. When the cab dropped me off at my guesthouse in the Old Quarter I was even more stressed by the swarm of motorbikes on the streets – there are no traffic lights, not many cars and certainly there is no order. I nestled into my room with its dark wooden Asian furniture and took a nap to prepare myself.

street blur hanoi
Traffic in the Old Quarter

Hanoi doesn’t offer much to see besides a few historical sights so I decided to just wander about. The Old Quarter is a maze of leafy streets, crammed with graying, peeling shop houses, motorbikes parked on the sidewalk and buzzing through the street. Crossing the street is quite a challenge as most bikes just zoom by with a “beep beep!” Eventually I learned you must cross slowly and carefully to give the drivers a clear idea of how to pass you. Basically, you deal with Hanoi traffic as if facing a tyrannosaurus rex: no sudden movements or you die.

The bottom of the shophouses contain a whole mix of retail stores, cafes, single item restaurants and also supplies–whole stores full of mattresses, styrofoam, wire racks etc. The restaurants are all garage-like hole-in-the-walls but they house secret recipes crafted over the years, and in fact they are not the lowest rung on the dining totem pole: most people eat right on the street, sitting on tiny plastic stools, either gathering round a spread of plates with friends and mugs of draft beer or hunched over a bowl of noodles. Some old ladies in conical bamboo hats carry all the noodle soup supplies on their back, and then they just sit and set up “shop” at a convenient corner.

The hawkers are almost 100% women, quite different than say, Malaysia or Colombia. I found all of Vietnam strikingly egalitarian, and it’s hard not to respect the old ladies sitting over their vats of soup, stirring their centuries-old food secrets.

Hawker ladies everywhere

banh cuon
Banh cuon

banh goi
Banh goi

bun bo nam bo
Bun bo nam bo

I spent most of my two days alone in Hanoi wandering around eating yummy food. The highlights: banh cuon, a pork and wood ear mushroom rice roll, covered in fried shallots and herbs and dipped in a light but savory broth. Banh goi, a savory rice doughnut filled with vermicelli and pork, deep fried to be somewhere between a doughnut and a yakionigiri. Bun bo nam bo, a zesty beef noodle soup with fried shallots, lemongrass, bean sprouts and herbs. I loved the food because it was generally savory but also light, and included a range of textures and flavors (often includes something crunchy, often savory, spicy and acidic).

hoan kiem lake Exercise at Hoan Kiem Lake

I also walked several times around Hoan Kiem lake, a pleasant public space where I’d see old folks doing some kind of tai chi, groups of school children in their tracksuit uniforms practicing their English on the occasional white tourists, teenagers enjoying themselves and couples taking wedding or engagement photos by the iconic sights. The men wear Western suits (or in one case a military uniform) and the women wear ao dai, a tight, smock-like dress with half-length sleeves over pants. I also went to the Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple from the 11th century honoring the scholar. This place also had a big wedding party, a graduating school or university class taking photos and groups of young soldiers so I had a great time people watching!

graduation at the temple of literature
Young scholars taking graduation photos at the Temple of Literature

Although I found Hanoi stressful at first, I grew to take comfort and serenity in its motorbike chaos. Crossing the street became a fun game! Of all the places I traveled in Southeast Asia, I thought Hanoi had the best energy, the most distinct and original character – also the least Westernized and touristy. Not cosmopolitan but on the rise, making it fascinating!

crossing by hoan kiem
Traffic by the statue of Emperor Le Loi