Vietnam 2016: tasting Hanoi

After the snafu with our hotel, I was ready to get out and about and try some local beers (that potentially weren’t yellow). Thankfully, I had read up on a place that had a variety of brews available and we were not disappointed. Even better, Caps n’ Taps had a great second-level balcony that afforded an entertaining people watching experience from above. On our first visit I had the Shade Tree (dark) lager on draft while Eric tried the Big Ken Beer. On future visits, Eric really enjoyed the Lindemann Gold which resembled a lemonade shandy in appearance and taste. I stuck with my dark lager. :)

Caps  draft list @ Caps n' Taps

For dinner the first night, we chose the Gourmet Corner Restaurant, which was easily one of the best meals we had in Vietnam. We started with the Hanoi fried spring rolls (the simple dipping sauce was great) and followed it up with the Bun Cha (and extra noodles) for Eric and I had a small portion of the beef pho. We also split a bottle of rose bubbly and left completely full and happy. Everything from the service to the atmosphere was excellent.

Hanoi crispy spring rolls @ Gourmet Corner Restaurant  Pho @ Gourmet Corner Restaurant

The following night we went to Gia Ngu Restaurant, near Caps n’ Taps. The service was beyond attentive and we had several people stopping by to chat with us, ask where we were from and even help us out with the ingredients in what we were eating so we could recreate the meal at home! The Hanoi spring rolls were a little better at Gourmet Corner the night before, but these were still quite good. The waitress looked at me a bit funny when I ordered the beef papaya salad as my main course, but I told her I wanted that to be my last meal in Vietnam because it was my favorite. Eric, once again, managed to order something he had to assemble himself, this time Nemnuong (minced pork with herbs) that you wrap in spring roll wrappers with herbs and noodles. We shared the same rose bubbly we ordered the night before as it was still a good deal and once again, left happy and full.

Gia Ngu Restaurant  beef papaya salad @ Gia Ngu Restaurant

For our last lunch in Hanoi we went a little outside our comfort zones and ate upstairs at Bun Cha Dac Kim. They only serve bun cha and crispy spring rolls so we ordered one of each to split. The food was fine — although the meat was pretty fatty and the noodles and herbs were just sitting out so it didn’t inspire a freshness quality about the place. I am also certain we paid the “tourist price” for our meal as there were no prices listed anywhere and it seemed expensive for other meals we’d had. But it was an experience and we didn’t get sick as I am sure those red chilis killed anything harmful. :)

buncha_lunch

Vietnam 2016: shopping in Hanoi

Hanoi is a bustling city, and things are for sale wherever you look. Friday night our path from dinner to the hotel took us right past the Night Market. The crowds were fairly sizable, but not as tight or jostling as Taipei. Clothing was the dominant item, and we found a few items we liked including a polo shirt for me (helpful considering the clean/dirty clothes ratio at this point in the trip) and a fuzzy white vest for Leandra.

Eric's new 'Polo' shirt! hanoi-121
continuing my trend of purchasing questionable Polo merchandise; trying on a fuzzy vest

Saturday night was soggy with an intermittent rain, but we did brave the night market briefly, this time finding some socks. Saturday evening, Leandra spotted a sidewalk vendor selling Bat Trang pottery, including bowls similar to the ones we had on our cruise – in fact, it even had the Indochina Junk stamp on the bottom! A few other major hotels were represented in the collection too. She really wanted one with dragonflies on it so she quickly bought one before we headed to dinner. We liked it enough to return on Saturday to look for additional items!

buying Bat Trang pottery

battrang_bowl

Finally, one of our enduring memories of Hanoi are the ubiquitous shops selling North Face gear. Seemingly located every few blocks, one was across the street from our go-to beer place, so we ducked in to find out pricing. They wanted 850k (~$40) for a puffy jacket but we only had about 600k left, so we kept looking and found a store near our hotel that wanted 550k. I liked the blue (XXL by the way) but it had many loose threads, so I settled on a black model which seemed better constructed. Leandra offered 500k and they relented. $22 isn’t too bad for a coat even if it only lasts one season!

Vietnam 2016: sights with Hanoi Kids

The last three days of our trip were spent in bustling Hanoi, so we had time to see quite a few sights. While researching the trip I came across Hanoi Kids, a college club that pairs students wanting to practice English with tourists. That sounded great to us, so I wrote to reserve a spot for our full middle day, Saturday. After a few emails to clarify details we were all set.

On the appointed Saturday morning we met Tram and Lu at our hotel. Bother were very friendly,and we discussed some options for the day. Due to traffic they recommended against our first choice, the pottery village; instead, we decided to start with the Ho Chi Min Memorial complex.

After a short taxi ride across town we arrived at the entrance. Everything was rather confusing, with a multi-lane open street that we were supposed to not walk on, and a security check with little in the way of signage. Thank goodness for guides who could communicate with the guards!

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

There was also a street in front of the memorial that couldn’t be crossed until a certain point; basically, the site was rather officious. Most people were there as part of a bus tour, and there were many buses, so we stuck to the outside sights including some beautiful restored buildings and a lake.

Nhà sàn Bác Hồ

Nearby there was also the One Pillar Pagoda and a small shrine filled to the brim with shiny offerings.

hanoi-12  visual overload!

Next, we walked to the Temple of Literature. The grounds were beautiful, with old gates, bonsai trees, temples, and colors around every corner. Throughout the complex were stellae, stone columns with academic names from several centuries ago that were fascinating relics of ancient scholars.

Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature  dragon tiles @ Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature was our favorite site in Hanoi, well worth the admission fee.

From there we tried to visit the Citadel, but for some reason it closes between 11:30-2, so we missed our window. Instead our guides walked us through old town, including the Hanoi Cathedral, then on to the pagodas and shrines on Hoan Kiem Lake. We also got several recommendations for coffee shops and quick eats.

hanoi-22  St Joseph Cathedral

'Turtle Island'

Throughout Tram and Lu were a pleasure to be around, and they explained quite a few of the legends and stories around the temples and buildings. Even better, it was a lot of fun to talk with them in general on how schools work, pets, TV shows, and lots of other topics. It was a lot of fun to walk around with them and we absolutely recommend a tour with Hanoi Kids!

our guides from HanoiKids - Tram and Lou

We had most of Sunday to burn before our evening flight, so we went back to try the Citadel (ok, The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long) in the morning. After a reasonably long walk, we learned that Google is wrong about the entrance (it’s on the Ho Chi Minh side). Inside after going to the correct gate, we found lots of bonsai, some surprisingly large. The massive front gate is quite imposing, and was the backdrop for lots of posing students (recent graduates).

Hanoi CitadelDoan Mon gate @ Hanoi Citadel

We wandered the site for about two hours, checking out the stone dragon steps, and some mysteriously large citrus fruit attached to quite small trees (definitely grafted).

hanoi-100

Hanoi Citadel

We also saw the war room and underground bunker used in the Vietnam War; and on the side of the complex were some old US planes and tanks.

The bonus archeological site across the street doesn’t offer much (save for this pretty water cistern that Leandra liked), but the rest of the site is certainly worth a visit.

herringbone cistern

Vietnam 2016: Hanoi hotels

For the second half of our Vietnam trip we were in Hanoi twice, first for a single night, then for two nights. We carefully chose places based on quietness and breakfast options; unfortunately for us, we didn’t get to stay at either of our bookings.

For our single night we wanted to try the Art Trendy Hotel. Given our late evening arrival and the taxi scams that run in Hanoi we arranged for the hotel to pick us up. We knew something was strange when there were two drivers holding a printed sign with Leandra’s name… then the guy holding the Art Trendy sign with the matching code directed us to leave with the driver holding the other (fake?) hotel sign! Without much more explanation we drove off and arrived at the Art Trendy ~30 minutes later. We were warmly welcomed with a fancy banana drink and fruit.

hanoi-hotel-1  hanoi-hotel-2

After a few minutes we were told that due to a recent extermination treatment our room had a strong chemical smell, and we were offered a room at their sister property, the Hanoi Marvellous Hotel (also the name of the hotel on the second sign at the airport). The doorman called us a taxi and escorted us down the street where the night staff at Marvellous were waiting for us.

Our room was certainly a bit more luxurious and trendy than the one in Hue, with a small bench seat, robes in the closet, and a fairly comfortable bed. The room had multiple outlets available for charging, and was fairly quiet as it was an interior room.

hanoi-hotel-4

In the morning we noticed a small window in the corner that had an unremarkable interior wall view. The bathroom was nice with a rain shower head and a window that looked out at plants in an internal air shaft. Toiletries were probably the best of the trip, with a nice lemony scent.

Breakfast was served on their bright and cheery top floor. A rather small buffet was available, as well as items off a menu. It was totally fine though not as memorable as Hoi An or the Vedana Resort. As we sat down the staff asked and remembered our names which was a nice touch. After a quick breakfast we checked out and began our four-hour trip to Halong Bay, so we didn’t get a chance to see much of the hotel or surroundings in daylight. Overall, our few hours there were quite nice.

As we were returning from Halong Bay, Leandra’s phone re-connected to the cell network and she received a series of messages concerning our next hotel, Hanoi Charm Hotel. Essentially, our guaranteed room had been cancelled, and Booking.com was trying to work with the hotel to find us a new place to stay for the next two days. We emailed back asking for details and options, but response time was slow, and we eventually decided that we should just show up at the original hotel and figure it out from there.

Upon arrival at Hanoi Charm, we received the customary juice and fruit. The manager then came by to explain that they had recently been notified by the local authorities that their several year old building was too tall, and that they were in the process of removing their top floor! So, for the second time in Hanoi, we were escorted to another hotel, this time literally walked, as the Silk Queen was just around the corner.

The Silk Queen’s location along a main road was less desirable as it lead to more noise and exhaust. Our 6th floor Queen Suite had a terrace, which was nice in theory, but outside was noisy and the ground was covered in a layer of soot for our three day stay. The windows were also on the thin side, so we each slept with earplugs to drown out the road noise from below.

hanoi-hotel-6

The room was fairly spacious, with a decent sized wardrobe, desk, and a reasonably comfortable bed. As we were unpacking we noticed that the bathroom door wouldn’t latch shut, so on our way out we asked the front desk to have it fixed and when we returned later that night it was working again.

Breakfast was lackluster at best. Served in a dimly-lit space on the ground floor, you needed to provide a signed ticket with your room number, and we had to get new tickets from the front desk for each day. The food quality was OK but there were few options. The customary omelets were fine, and at least there was fresh passion fruit on the first morning. Unlike every other hotel in Vietnam, the staff here didn’t seem to do much besides take your ticket and occasionally deliver an omelet. Even the coffee was self serve; Leandra watched two bored employees stand around and chat while she helped herself. Overall our stay was fine, but we wouldn’t have chosen the Silk Queen, and I don’t see us returning.

On the upside, to help compensate us for our hotel issue, the Hanoi Charm Hotel provided a complimentary car for our trip to the airport. Just as we were buckling in, the manager hustled up and thanked us again for our understanding, giving us a small gift bag with Vietnamese coffee and coffee maker. Given their level of attention I would definitely try to stay at their (shortened) hotel in the future!

Vietnam 2016: Bai Tu Long Bay with Indochina Junk

Ha Long Bay is one of the most famous sights in Vietnam and there are hundreds of trip options available out of Hanoi – daytrips, overnights, large boats, small boats, routings, etc. Given our research we discovered that most companies crowded around the same few islands, with Indochina Junk’s routings through the neighboring Bai Tu Long Bay an exception (itinerary). From their set of options we chose the Red Dragon because it was a smaller junk with only 5 state rooms and a maximum of 11 people (plus our guide and boat staff).

The Shuttle

We never got a clear answer on when our shuttle for the Halong Bay cruise was going to pick us up so naturally the van arrived whilst we were still eating breakfast. The hotel staff told him we would be down in 15 minutes, so the driver decided to fetch another couple first. However, when we finished breakfast and checked out, an empty shuttle was waiting for us. Not sure if it just waited or no one else was ready either?!?

Instead of taking the larger complimentary shuttle bus we opted for the fancy van, which cost an extra $60 for both of us round trip. The van was quite pimped out with USB outlets, blankets, water bottles and mood lighting. There were two other couples in the shuttle with us for a total of six adults. We sat across from each other on the way there but I found the leg space a bit cramped so we choose the back for the return trip.

our luxury van to/from Halong Bay

The four hour ride is partially due to a one hour stop for a bathroom break and shopping. The sculpture garden wasn’t very high quality but at least we could stretch our legs.

rather sad sculpture shop

The Boat

We arrived at the ferry terminal around noon and were assigned a waiting area for our boat. Our larger bags were taken for loading, so we just followed our assigned guide through the organized mayhem of docks and waited for our tinder to pull up. It was a quick ride to the boat. Once onboard we met for a quick discussion about our travel and meal agendas and to hand out cabin keys.

getting ready to board the tinder to take us to the boat

Our cabin was all dark wood with a very hard bed (hardest of the whole trip) and decent storage given the size. Unfortunately there was only one outlet for charging electronics so we had to charge batteries in shifts. On the plus side, our ensuite bathroom that was bigger than expected.

our double room

The preset lunch menu was focused on seafood and Leandra enjoyed the fresh prawns and scallops. When they discovered I do not like seafood they made special dishes with chicken and an omelet despite my protestations. Quite nice of them to go out of their way, and tasty overall.

Once we left the busyness of the port it was easy to relax and enjoy the views. A large cave was our first stop which was somewhat interesting but crowded with a few other boats there at the same time. We both preferred the optional kayak ride away from the beach with peaceful views of the lagoon.

photo taking!

Thien Canh Son Cave
an uncrowded part of the cave

our junk, Red Dragon
our boat for the night

Bai Tu Long BayBai Tu Long Bay
the view for miles

At 5:30pm we headed back to the boat to switch out of our beach clothes, have a quick rinse, and enjoy more gorgeous views as we moved to the evening anchorage spot. The temperature was cool but pleasant, so we spent about two hours enjoying the views, and were the only people on the deck for most of it! And since the price wasn’t too bad, we split a Chilean bottle of white wine as it grew dark.

cheers from Cap La island in Bai Tu Long Bay!

Dinner was even better than lunch, and they automatically substituted the fish dish with a nice beef steak for me (Leandra may have been a bit jealous). The chef also showed off his impressive vegetable carving skills on several of the platters.

crispy spring rolls  carved from a squash!prawns

Overnight the boat engine was quiet, but we still found the room a bit noisy due to thin walls, so sleep wasn’t great.

Friday was still grey, unfortunately. The whole boat rose early; in fact, Leandra was still drying her hair at 6:50am when she got a knock on the door to come up for breakfast. [Considering meal time was listed at 7am, she was less than pleased.] After our meal, we got on our tinder to tour a fishing village. We were rowed by a woman from the village around the lagoon, which was quiet and peaceful – except for the occasional barking dog.

Vong Vieng floating village

Bai Tu Long Bay

The boat tour ends with a stop at a pearl shop where you can see how they ‘seed’ the oysters to produce pearls.

the process of irritating oysters

By 10am, they wanted us to check out of the room so they could prep for the next round of tourists. After checking out we lounged on the top deck and watched more islands go by. We also got the final bill which included the wine from the previous night’s dinner and to our surprise, the juice from breakfast. Apparently coffee was included but juice wasn’t, something they never mentioned at the time as Leandra would not have ordered an additional $3 juice. An hour later the tender transferred us back to land and our shuttle to Hanoi.

The Shuttle (return)

For some reason, the shuttle ride back to Hanoi was more bumpy and uncomfortable at times. The stop on this time was for a water puppet show – cheesy, but nice to get out of the van for 45 minutes. We were both glad for the experience and also glad we didn’t pay extra for it.

water puppet show

Altogether, getting to the islands is very touristy, but can be partially mitigated by certain choices. Given the uniquely beautiful landscapes it was worth doing at least once.

Vietnam 2016: living cheap in Hue

The Vedana Resort graciously allowed us to take their free shuttle into Hue, which was appreciated, but for some reason we stopped at a different hotel. It seemed like our driver wanted us to drop our luggage with this hotel while we went to the Citadel, but it didn’t make much sense and there was a bit of a language barrier. In the end we decided to go directly to our pre-booked hotel… but we didn’t know exactly where it was. Turns out we were only two blocks away, but we enjoyed the $1 cyclo rides nonetheless :)

my first (and only!) cyclo ride of the trip

The Hong Thien Ruby Hotel is located down a narrow alley, which the cyclos could navigate, so we were soon enjoying a fruit plate and juice. Given our 10:30am arrival we couldn’t check-in yet, but they held our bags and gave us a map for exploring. Later that afternoon we checked into the room and noted the following:

  • bed very firm, too much so for us
  • good size room, view to leafy tree area
  • strong wifi signal
  • down an alley, which made it quieter for sleeping
  • breakfast – small menu we could order from, including omelets, scrambled eggs, baguette, vietnamese dishes.

Hue was bigger than either of us expected, with a good amount of traffic. Our walk to the Citadel was good practice for later street crossings in Hanoi, and also took us through a nice riverfront park and across a bridge.

park along the Perfume River

The Citadel was large, more buildings than expected, worth a good 2-3 hours altogether.

Hue Royal Palace  red doors @ Hữu vu

Hue Royal Palace  Hue Royal Palace

Hue Royal Palace  Hue Royal Palace

Hiển Lâm Các @ Hue Royal Palace

There were quite a few bars and restaurants near our hotel, and we decided to try happy hour. Buy 2 mojitos, get 1 free seemed a popular offer, so we stopped at Gecko Pub which had a pleasant outdoor seating area. Definitely a tourist spot, but relaxed and enjoyable.

gecko-1

For dinner we had reservations at Elegant Restaurant and Lounge. I ordered the grilled minced pork on lemongrass (nem lui hue) along with an absurdly bright San Francisco drink (orange, lemon, pineapple, strawberry, grenadine). Leandra ordered the duck with passion sauce and a white wine. We were seated near two British couples, and we compared notes on places visited / to-visit over dessert.

gecko-2  gecko-3  gecko-4

The next day we had some time to kill before heading to the airport, so I grabbed my book and relaxed at the nearby cafes while Leandra took a cooking class at Kangaroo Hue.

cooking class prep @ Kangaroo Hue  Banh Beo Hue (royal steam cake)

all the dishes I cooked!
Leandra cooked all of this food! And brought some to me so I could snack on the way to the airport.

Hue was the least expensive city we visited, but it also held the least appeal for us. Perhaps the beaches would have been nice in better weather, but we felt like we saw what we wanted with the one night we had.

Vietnam 2016: overwater villa at the Vedana Lagoon Resort

Between Hoi An and Hue we spent two nights at the Vedana Lagoon Resort. Quiet and peaceful, it was a nice change from the hustle and bustle of the towns. Upon arrival our bags were whisked away and we were invited to sit on the couches in the open air lobby for check-in. After our long drive from Hoi An (about 3.5 hours) the hot ginger tea and fresh towel were quite pleasant. I was even able to add spicy crystallized ginger from a huge jar on the table. At this point we were given a thorough overview of resort options, and they also recommended against our planned tour to Bach Ma National Park due to lousy weather on the mountain.

Our assigned villa was #7. Talk about a nice view!

our overwater villa

phu-loc-villa-5

our lagoon view (from bed)

There was a massive deck with a roof overhang for shade/rain protection. The bed was huge, probably two queens put together and very comfortable. Opposite the bathroom there was also a large daybed with window. Plenty of space and options for lounging about with a book – which is how we spent most of our time in the room!

phu-loc-villa-1

phu-loc-villa-3

The marble bath tub shared our bedroom private lagoon views and there was also an outdoor shower and toilet (which we would have preferred be indoors). Each night we had a turn down service after dark — two ladies came sweeping in to set up mosquito coils at the front entrance and bathroom doors, light a citronella candle in the bedroom, draw the shades, and quickly tidy the room.

phu-loc-villa-4

In general, the food at the resort was very good. It was more expensive than the meals we had in Hoi An but not so outrageous considering there weren’t any other close options! For lunch on the first day I had the crispy pancake with the usual assortment of greens and dipping sauces while Eric sampled the Bun Thit Nurong (pork and rice noodles).

lunch @ Vedana Resort  pho for breakfast
pork and rice noodles w/ peanut sauce; beef pho for breakfast

my smiley dinner companion

For dinner the first night I had the Bo Nurong la lot (beef rolled in local leaf) and Eric had Ga Nurong Sa Ot (grilled chicken with chili and lemongrass). We also couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a nice bottle of bubbles. On the second night we split a bottle of Chilean white (a popular wine region for Vietnam) and I enjoyed the green papaya salad with beef while Eric tried the Heo Rim Vurong (stir fry pork). There is no photo of the amazing passion fruit mousse we had for dessert because we ate it too quickly.

The included breakfast buffet was very extensive, plus they had a range of made-to-order items available as well. I think more people were at the resort the second day as the buffet also had expanded options. The apple tartlets and creme puffs were especially good and of course, we both ate a ton of passion fruit.

Each villa was assigned two bikes to help speed up transportation around the resort, so I had a bit of fun on our bike ride off property.

phu-loc-villa-8

cow hanging out by the side of the road  fishing boats and rice paddies

We explored for about 45 minutes, then headed back to the room to read before I had my 3pm Swedish massage appointment at the spa. I arrived 30 minutes early to choose my oil preference (lavender) and camp out in the sauna for a bit before my treatment. My therapist, Ms. Mi, did a wonderful job and the whole experience was very relaxing and pleasant. Plus, I didn’t feel like like a slicked pig at the end of the massage. I tried to talk Eric into one but I think he’s still dubious after the Bali experience.

While the weather was grey and drizzly and the views quite monochromatic we still enjoyed the peaceful setting at Vedana for a few days.