Category Archives: Vietnam

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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Filed under Natural Beauty, Sites, Transit, Vietnam

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: 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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