Vietnam: Ha Long Bay

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Aside from the Sunderbans in India, Ha Long Bay was probably the most disappointing destination for us. Considering that it tops many “must-see” lists (it was also named one of The New York Times top destinations for 2012), we were pretty excited to see the UNESCO World Heritage site.

And yes, it is beautiful. The 1,600 limestone islands and islets rising out of the Gulf of Tonkin waters into craggy towers are certainly a haunting site to see. I’m not sure it is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World…but it certainly is magical.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

So why were we unimpressed? Well, for one, we had crappy weather. This made for some atmospheric fog, but in general it’s not that fun to be on a boat on a cloudy, cold, and rainy day. Or two days. But the main reason we were so disappointed in Ha Long Bay is the available ways to experience it. It has become so commercialized that almost the only way to experience it, and certainly the easiest way, is via a tour company. While we are generally not ones for tour companies, it is possible to have a good experience on one. But that unfortunately was not the case at Ha Long Bay. As far as we could tell, the only trip on offer was virtually identical from all the companies. If you walk into any hotel or tour company in Hanoi they will happily set you up on one. After searching around and finding little difference (although we did hear stories of getting stuck on crappy boats) we booked through our hotel with Christina Cruises. This means that the bay is full of identical-looking boats and each group goes to one of two caves (which are super cheesy–we went to “Surprising Cave”), rents kayaks from the same few companies in the same place, and then heads to Cat Ba Island for a hike–it was pouring during ours–and a night at a subpar hotel. You’re also stuck on a boat for two days with a bunch of random people–could be great or could be annoying. In our case, it was mostly annoying, although we did chat a bit with some Vietnamese tourists visiting from Ho Chi Minh City. And did I mention the food is very average?

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

I know, I sound like an anti-social grump. But Ha Long Bay really is a special place and the tourist industry is turning it into a Disneyland of sorts, which is really so unfortunate. I would happily pay good money to go out on a small boat with a captain who could show me some sites that aren’t full of a bunch of other people. But that just didn’t seem like an option. If anyone has done Ha Long Bay this way, please let me know!

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

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Vietnam: Food in Hanoi

We were pretty excited about the food in Vietnam, and I wouldn’t say it was bad, but I would say we were a bit let down. We definitely had a few amazing dishes and treats, but overall we found most of the food to be lackluster. Perhaps our expectations were too high, or we just didn’t know where to go to get the best pho…but we did enjoy Hanoi’s robust market scene with lots of unique food (some a little too unique for our tastes, if you know what I mean. Frog legs and chicken feet, anyone?).

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Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

We did have an amazing meal at Cha Ca La Vong a restaurant famous for one dish: cha ca la vong, which is made by you, at your table, and is a legendary Hanoi recipe. A hotplate and pan plus all the ingredients (fish, scallions, sauce, turmeric, dill, and peanuts) are given to you and you sauté it yourself. Delicious and fun!

Hanoi, Vietnam cha ca la vong

Hanoi, Vietnam cha ca la vong

We also enjoyed our meal at Koto, a charming cafe across the street from the Temple of Literature (read more about that here). All the servers are local young people from under-privileged backgrounds being trained in the food and service industry. While the clientele were mostly foreigners, the food is authentic and tasty–there are great smoothies and juices and Manor had a yummy tofu dish. And we felt good about supporting them.

Hanoi, Vietnam, Koto

Of course we did have pho, Vietnam’s national noodle soup dish. It was hearty and soul-warming, always a good thing. You can find pho almost anywhere.

Hanoi, Vietnam pho

Hanoi is full of little outdoor “cafes” with miniature plastic tables and stools lining the sidewalk. I’m not sure what the deal is with the tiny furniture, but we knew we had to sit at one. When we saw people eating what looked to be some kind of fruity dessert we plunked down and ordered one. It was simple and yet so delicious it ended up being one of our favorite things we ate in Hanoi: cut up tropical fruit (dragon fruit, papaya, pineapple, mango, etc.) with condensed milk. So yummy!

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam fruit

Vietnam used to be a French colony, so there is some pretty legit French food in the city. While we didn’t indulge in a fancy French dinner, we did hit up a bakery that really impressed us with their croissants and other pastries. Although not authentically French, after so much Asian food it was nice to have a European treat!

Hanoi, Vietnam Fresh Garden Bakery

Hanoi, Vietnam

We also enjoyed some great ice-cream at Fanny’s, a Hanoi institution.

Hanoi, Vietnam, Fanny's

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Vietnam: Communism and the Museums of Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh

When you’re in Vietnam it’s fairly easy to forget you are in a technically communist country (except for the fact that Facebook is blocked!).

Hanoi, Vietnam

A good way to be reminded, and to learn about the history of Vietnam and how the war affected it (over there they call it the American War), is to visit a few museums.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

A must-see is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which is part of a larger complex. Not only does the mausoleum house Uncle Ho’s remains, but you can actually see his embalmed, preserved body. For real. It’s all very respectful of course, with a long, slow line of visitors filing past his body, which is flanked by guards. Naturally, there are no pictures allowed inside–in fact you turn over your camera and bag before entering.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The hours are brief (8:00-11:00 a.m. Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, last entry usually 10:15 a.m.) and it’s only open December-September because they send him off to Russia (you know, the professionals at preserving dead leaders) for upkeep October-November. The whole thing is fascinating, especially when you find out Uncle Ho actually requested to be cremated…

One Piller Pagoda

One Pillar Pagoda

Ho Chi Minh Museum

The surrounding complex contains the One Pillar Pagoda temple and some other sites, as well as an enthrallingly bizarre museum dedicated to…I’m not sure. Well, officially it’s to the life of Ho Chi Minh, but the museum is so all over the place, with communist undertones (overtones?) alive and well. The propagandic nature of the explanations really jumped out at us.

Ho Chi Minh Museum

Ho Chi Minh Museum

There are weird art displays accompanied by placards explaining their significance to the Vietnamese people, like a gigantic abstract table with produce on it that somehow symbolizes the Vietnamese people collectively farming to feed their families, as well as a Ford Edsel protruding from one wall, to symbolize the weakness of capitalism.

Ho Chi Minh Museum

Ho Chi Minh Museum

All these items share space with historical documents from Ho Chi Minh’s life, paraphernalia captured from American soldiers, and personal items that belonged to Ho.

Vietnam Women's Museum

We also managed to make it to the Vietnam Women’s Museum, which is fascinating and much more focused (and has much better placards in three languages). The museum focuses on women’s role in society, and has exhibits on everything from fashion, their role in the war, and their roles as mother and family provider. The fashion section has outfits from all of Vietnam’s various ethnic groups, detailing everything from wedding outfits to everyday clothing.

Vietnam Women's Museum

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The section on women soldiers is very informative and eye-opening, and while it still has propagandic undertones, it also manages to be very relatable. There is also an exhibit detailing how women from different ethnic groups collect and prepare food and care for their families–spoiler alert: it’s super difficult and time consuming work!

Hanoi, Vietnam

There’s also a military-type museum that we didn’t actually go to, but surrounding the building are lots of captured American tanks and aircraft on display. Yes, it was weird.

Museums in Hanoi are certainly eye- and mind-opening and an excellent way to learn about Vietnam’s culture. Coming from the West, this helped us begin to understand the cultural and political climate that has shaped Vietnam these past few decades. Of course we felt weird being there, as Americans, but outside of the slightly uncomfortable museums, all the actual Vietnamese people we met were very friendly and talkative with us, and they seemed happy to have us in their country–as guests.

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Vietnam: Finding Peace in the Hustle and Bustle of Hanoi

Hanoi, Vietnam

When we planned this portion of our trip we looked into various ways of getting from Laos to Vietnam. There are several border crossings, but everything we read seemed to indicate that these were somewhat unsafe and extremely inconvenient. In the end, we opted to fly, even though the short flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi was fairly expensive, we decided it was worth the extra time in Vietnam and lower stress level.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Friends had recommended the fantastic Charming Hotel, and we were incredibly pleased with our stay there. Many travelers we met along the way who had already been to Vietnam mentioned that Vietnamese people are unfriendly, but no one could ever say that having been to Hotel Charming. The staff are always smiling, they are extremely helpful, and the rooms are small but clean and modern. Even outside of the hotel we found people to be very nice; our theory is that after spending time in Thailand where people are constantly smiling and laughing, Vietnam may seem staid to some people. But we found that if you are polite and friendly, most people will be the same to you. That being said, two women did try to “hustle” us when they grabbed us and put their hats on us and gave us their baskets, offering to take our photo. Since we couldn’t resist, we said okay and were prepared to give them a few dong (Vietnamese currency). Instead, they asked us to buy a bunch of bananas from them, which we were happy to do until they wanted us to pay $5 for them! To be clear, a bunch of bananas in Hanoi would normally cost about 50¢!

Hanoi, Vietnam

In our brief stay there (4 days with a trip to Halong Bay in between), Manor and I both kind of fell in love with Hanoi. On our second day we agreed that aside from Mumbai this was the first city we had visited that we felt like we could live in for several months. There is just such an exciting energy that permeates the city, much like Mumbai and New York…hmm, I guess we like big, colorful cities!

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam motorcycles

The streets are always full of people walking or on bicycles or motorcycles–in fact, the motorcycles kind of take over the city, which can be rather overwhelming at times and we found ourselves again unable to navigate crossing busy streets, just like in Mumbai when we first arrived. It was interesting to learn that the two cities have very different methods of crossing the street: in Mumbai, you basically make a run for it and hope the autorickshaws don’t mow you down; in Hanoi people seemed to walk across the street very slowly, letting the motorcycles whiz past them on either side, until they successfully wove their way to the other side. We soon realized the best way to cross a busy street in Hanoi was to follow a local’s slow, deliberate weaving movements and try not to panic!

Hanoi, Vietnam

Perhaps the city’s chaos is best exemplified by it’s telephone and electricity system. Tangled wires criss-crossing over the narrow streets in the historic district are so iconic, they even grace touristy t-shirts. But the locals seem to find places to relax wherever they can manage, setting up games on the sidewalks.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

There are a few quiet places for some respite from the busy city and we enjoyed exploring them when we needed a break. The Temple of Literature has a beautiful garden and Temple of Confucius and is composed of multiple courtyards in the middle of the city; it also the home of Vietnam’s first university, the Imperial Academy, which opened there in 1076.

Hanoi, Vietnam Temple of Literature

Hanoi, Vietnam Temple of Literature

Hanoi, Vietnam Temple of Literature

Hanoi, Vietnam Temple of Literature

Hanoi, Vietnam Temple of Literature

Hanoi, Vietnam Temple of Literature

If you’re interested in some history with your peace and quiet, the ancient house on Ma May Street in the Old Quarter is the perfect thing. It’s a perserved home from the late nineteenth century, a two-story building surrounding a courtyard with idyllic balconies.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

There’s some lovely French-colonial style buildings throughout the city, lending some charm to the chaos. Even some of the government buildings are in this style.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Another place to enjoy a little peace and quiet is the Hoan Kiem Lake, situated in the middle of the historic part of Hanoi. The lake is quite large, and there is small temple at one end on an island connected by a bridge. In one room of the temple is a giant stuffed turtle, believed to be good luck.

Hanoi, Vietnam Hoan Kiem Lake

Hanoi, Vietnam Hoan Kiem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake

There are actually several large soft-shell turtles living in the lake, although they are endangered, and it is considered good luck if you see one. We were lucky enough to be walking by one day when a large crowd was gathering on the shore because a turtle had been sighted. While we didn’t actually see the turtle, the crowd’s excitement and joy at their good fortune was very catchy.

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake turtle

Hanoi Vietnam, Hoan Liem Lake turtle sighting

There are also a large number of couples taking wedding photos around the lake, most of them very traditional. But I loved this clearly funky couple the best!

Hanoi, Vietnam

Another way to relax? Smoke tobacco (or something else?) out of this giant pipe, like this guy we saw on the street. Apparently, this is totally normal, or at least no one else seemed to be gawking like we did.

Hanoi, Vietnam

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Laos: Sampling Laotian Cuisine in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is the capital of temples, but it’s also a great place to try some typical and traditional Laotian food. We did our best to get some variety in, eating some street food, at a local noodle-slinging restaurant, and at a fancier place that caters to travelers but serves traditional Laotian food.

When we saw/smelled this cute crepes cart, we knew we had to get something. And besides, crepes seemed like a pretty safe bet for street food.

The various flavored fillings were achieved with squirt bottles full of sweet syrups. I opted for the pandan flavor, having grown to love it in Thailand. Manor went with chocolate and nutella–a never fail combo.

The best part about these crepes? You got to choose your own adorable cardboard holder!

Both nights we were in Luang Prabang we ate dinner at the clearly local favorite restaurant, Atsalin on Th Wisunarat. We were drawn in by the cooks slinging fresh noodles in woks facing the sidewalk.

We both loved our noodle dishes, and even sampled some of the various condiments on each table.

For our one splurge, we decided to have lunch at the well-known restaurant, Tamarind, which is in most (if not all) guidebooks. They do a good job of explaining some of the traditional cuisine of Laos in clear English, and offer a nice sampling of these dishes, although at tourist’s prices. But without speaking the language, it would have been difficult to order these dishes elsewhere. They also offer cooking classes and sell a variety of gifts and foods to take home, like sauces, rice noodles, and dried seaweed.

At our lunch, we decided to start with a sampling of traditional Laos dips and relishes (called “jeow”), served with dried seaweed crackers, like those we had seen drying in the sun in Mong Ngoi.  We especially loved the jeow mak len, a kind of tomato salsa, and the jeow mak keua, an eggplant dip with chilies and coriander. And then there was the jeow bong, a relish involving water buffalo skin! Manor reported it was quite delicious.

For an entree, we shared steamed fish wrapped in a banana leaf, served with pickled vegetables. Because Laos is landlocked, all the seafood served here comes from the river.

And of course, we had to try one of their delicious juices, even though we knew we were over-paying! But I suppose it was worth it for the guaranteed lack of bacteria…

While we’re not likely to seek out Laotian food on our return to New York (if it is even possible to find!), I’m glad we got to sample another variety of Southeast Asian food.

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Laos: Temples in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is the ancient capital of the former Kingdom of Laos and is located in northern Laos, where the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers meet. It’s full of Buddhist temples and monks, making for a very lovely landscape. We had a couple days there, which were slightly dampened when one of our camera lenses stopped working. Otherwise, we enjoyed wandering from temple to temple and of course, sampling the delicious food along the way, which will be covered in the next post.

There are a wide range of accommodation options in Luang Prabang, including very cheap hostels and very expensive resorts. We opted for something in the middle, and were happy with B&B Guesthouse on Th Phommath. There’s a cute German cafe across the street with good breakfast and we rented bikes for a couple bucks a day, which is a great way to get around the city.

We started out at one of the markets, where we sampled several delicious fruits, including our favorite: mangosteens. Mangosteens are difficult to find in the US, and if you can find them they are expensive and not very ripe. We discovered them in Vancouver, where they are more available and affordable than in New York.

A beautiful dark purple outer shell encloses four or five pieces of soft, fleshy white fruit, in the shape of garlic cloves surrounding a lage pit in the middle. It has a mildly tropical taste and is quite juicy, but you need to eat about four or five to feel like you’ve actually had something remotely filling because they are quite small. We’d never had mangosteens ripe enough to peel with our hands; we’ve always had to use a knife to get through the hard outer shell. But these were soft and pliant–divine!

We started our temple tour at Wat Mai Souvannapoumaram (Wat means a monastery temple), which featured a beautiful gold mural, an emerald buddha, and long boats that the monks use for festivals. We continued to bike along the city streets, next stopping at Wat Sirimungkhun, which had a fantastic bell tower with a large drum inside it and a large gold buddha.

The nice thing about Luang Prabang is that it’s small and pretty hard to get lost. And even if you’re not sure where you are, there’s likely to be an interesting temple to wander into, which is how we found Wat Sop, which featured a small temple, but also seemed to be a monastery for young monks.

There were rice cakes drying in the sun, presumably to feed the student monks. Buddhist monks are not allowed to have money and therefore rely on donations from the people in the city to give them simple food. At dawn, the monks walk the city streets with bowls collecting alms of rice.

The largest, most famous temple in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong, a large complex with multiple buildings and pavilions. Unfortunately, the main temple was being refurbished, but we were still able to get inside. We also visited the funerary pavilion, which was chick full of processional items, and small pavilion housing a reclining Buddha. The mosaics and paintings were detailed and gorgeous; you could easily spend hours here.

Palanquin for funerals.

Another popular attraction in Luang Prabang is to walk up a hill called Phu Si, which has a large stupa at the top called That Chomsi, as well as a great view of the city. It’s also the starting point for the annual Laos New Year procession in mid-April.

Because it’s a holy site there are flowers for sale near the top.



By the time we walked back down the city was setting up it’s night market, full of stalls selling souvenirs.

We also visited the Royal Palace Museum, which is an interesting insight into local history, before and after communism. The palace was built in 1904 as a home for  King Sisavang Vong and his family and is full of interesting furniture, musical instruments, traditional costumes, and gifts given to the king from various countries throughout the years. You must be dressed appropriately (no shorts), but a sarong will be given if necessary. Unfortunately, there are no photos allowed in the complex so I can’t share any here! But a highlight was seeing the royal collection of classic cars in the adjacent garage, as well as a photography exhibit on monks.

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Laos: Mong Ngoi and Ban Na

At the end of our long and crowded boat ride the charming village of Mong Ngoi awaited. Only accesible by boat, Mong Ngoi is a small village consisting of a few dirt paths–no cars allowed. There are numerous guesthouses though as the popularity of “getting off the grid” rises with travelers. Because we arrived on the last boat only one place had an open cabin left, but the next day we moved to a cute bungalow with a hammock on a porch overlooking the water. I was still nursing my foot so we took it easy, lounging in the hammock, enjoying the cheap and popular all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets, and taking short walks.

Sheets of seaweed with sesame and tomatoes drying in the sun. This is a popular Laotian snack.

Rice cakes drying in the sun.

Woman doing laundry.

View from our second guesthouse.

Perfect sticky rice.

Fresh fish curry.

You can find US bomb casings like this one decorating homes and restaurants all over Laos.

They come up with some pretty creative uses for them…

The village Temple.

Young monks.

A very pregnant pig.

We became friendly with a couple from Canada who had gotten there a couple days before us and they recommended walking up to some caves near the end of the village. I hobbled along the path to the caves but decided to wait down at the bottom while Manor scaled the steep cliffs where the caves were. No one mentioned that the caves would be pitch black, but luckily Manor met some explorers up top who lent him their flashlight for a few minutes. The caves housed a large stone phallus and were atop a mountain with a beautiful view.

When we got back to the village a pig was being roasted, which although it smelled delicious we did not partake in.

As usual, Manor woke up super early and managed to get some nice shots of our view.

 

 

 

 

I was feeling much better so we decided to make the hike to the next village, Ban Na. At first we followed a defined path, passing bamboo dams and kids on bikes and walking over several bamboo bridges. But soon we found ourselves in a large open field. After wandering around for a few minutes we almost decided to turn back, but then a young Laotian man walked up and when we asked him how to get to Ban Na he said we could just follow him.

Crazy insect we saw…still have no idea what it is!

Oh you know, just walking some pigs.

Criss-crossing the field, which is likely impossible in the wet season, Ban Na was on the other side. Upon arriving we immediately sat down at the small (and only cafe) and ordered food and drinks–we had worked up quite a sweat! We also enjoyed some relaxation time in their hammocks before walking through the tiny village (you can walk the whole thing in about 15 minutes).

Fixing a fishing net.

Ferns drying to be used as brooms.

Basket weavers.

We walked back to Mong Ngoi and enjoyed the peace and quiet there, knowing the next day we would return to Luang Prabang, one of the biggest cities in Laos (which still means it’s pretty small…but still).

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