Vietnam 2016: overview

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After a snowy February 2015 we decided that we needed to get away somewhere warmer for a chunk of February 2016. We eventually settled on a trip back to southeast Asia, this time to Vietnam. Our first impulse was to also include nearby Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but we eventually decided to take it easier on ourselves this trip and focus on one country.

Our travels took us through a portion of coastal central Vietnam including the towns of Hoi An and Hue, then onto the capital of Hanoi and a sidetrip to the famous Halong Bay.

This was one of the rare trips where we checked a bag going to our destination, and of course that meant our bag was lost for 30 hours. Thankfully we also brought one carry-on that had a few days of clothes AND we were in the same town for a few days at the start of the trip!

Since our trip was about two weeks we decided to get a data plan for Leandra’s phone to help with maps and other searches as we were traveling. A 10GB ‘unlimited’ plan was available at the airport for 200k (~$9) and the employee set everything up for us. Overall we found good coverage and speed on the Viettel network.

Other miscellaneous notes from our trip:

  • Nearly everyone in Vietnam had trouble with Leandra’s three syllable name, and often shortened it to one or two syllables
  • every hotel offered a welcome drink, fruit and towel (cool or hot depending on time of day / outside temperature)
  • fresh passion fruit was available almost everywhere, much to our delight!
  • ATMs were plentiful, though you were limited to 2M of the local currency (~$90) per transaction
  • We were rather unlucky to have grey skies for our entire trip – we were told that October and November often have better weather

Overall, we’re glad we focused exclusively on Vietnam, as it has a lot to offer, and there are many more places we’d love to explore in the future.

Vietnam 2016: hotel in Hoi An

lantana-5Originally we planned to stay at the Goda Boutique Hotel, halfway between town and the beach. However, as we were packing for our trip we noticed the weather looked like it was going to be cloudy for our time in Hoi An, so we changed to an in-town hotel and choose the Lantana Boutique Hotel Hoi AnThis change worked out well for us, as it let us walk into the old town in three minutes instead of a 15-minute bicycle ride.

We emailed the hotel to arrange an airport pickup in advance, as we had heard about quite a few taxi scams in Vietnam. Even after our baggage delays our driver was still waiting for us, and we made the ~40 min drive along the coastal route.

Upon arrival, the Lantana staff grabbed our bags and we were directed to seats in the lobby with a welcome drink and towels. Reception explained the hotel, services, and gave some advice about town. Impressively, many staff members knew our name by that afternoon! They offered us an upgrade for an $10 extra a night (with balcony) which we declined. I’m glad we did as the view wouldn’t have been worth it, and our room was just fine. We were given the key card to our room a few minutes later, followed by our bags shortly after that.

Our deluxe room was large with a desk, a good size closet (it could have use a few more hangars, but we never asked),  and extra chair. The queen bed was fairly firm as is typical in Asia. One wall had a big window that we had open most of the time we were there – there were lots of rooster and motorbike action in the neighborhood behind us, but we couldn’t hear it when the windows were closed.

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our view over the rooftops

Breakfast was included and there was always a seat for us no matter what time we came down. Buffet items included four juices, several fresh fruits (passion fruit!), cheese and meats, fried rice, pastries, etc., plus a cook station for omelets and noodles. Leandra appreciated the bottomless strong Vietnamese coffee! Overall a good offering, and the staff were helpful – if you put bread in the toaster they would offer to bring it to you at your seat.

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On Saturday we took the free shuttle to An Bang beach. The drive was about 15 minutes, and the staff member guided us to the correct beach “club” where we had free chairs. The weather was rather cloudy and windy, so the beach was mostly empty. We walked a bit, found some shells, and read our books. On a side note, the cocktails were probably the best we had in Vietnam – Eric tried the walking zombie, a mix of lemon, orange, pineapple and passion fruit, while Leandra had a very minty mojito. By noon lots of clouds were building, so we returned on the pre-timed shuttle.

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shuttle drop-off, our beach was about 200 yards down the path

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An Bang beach, a little chilly and cloudy but still sandy

That evening we tried the happy hour at the hotel, which was disappointing. The drinks were quite small with a lot of ice – thankfully they were buy one, get one free. The cocktail peanuts were nice though.

Leandra also tried out the spa with a manicure and pedicure, but her experience was poor. Leandra: When I had booked the spa treatment, the receptionist was trying to get me to come earlier in the day but we had our final fitting at the tailors so the timing wouldn’t work. When I arrived at 6pm, the manicurist was clearly waiting to go home. She was polite enough but sloppy with the nail polish application, even pulling the toe separators off my feet in such a hurry that the polish smeared and she had to redo three nails. I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t just sit there for five minutes and let my feet dry? The whole experience felt very rushed. Immediately afterwards she had her coat on and was gone. Clearly they were trying to accommodate me but frankly I would have just skipped it even for the $15 price tag. 

Our last night we had some loud Karaoke going on in alley down the street on Saturday… Glad our windows are good! Oddly (and thankfully), it stopped exactly at 9:45pm.

Overall we liked the location of the Lantana, and we would recommend it as a base for Hoi An.

Vietnam 2016: custom clothing in Hoi An

Eric and I knew we wanted to get a few items of clothing made while staying in Hoi An, but the sheer number of available tailors was overwhelming. Given our three full days in town, it made sense to decide on a place our first day, and I picked Kimmy Tailor after I fell in love with a trench coat I spotted on one of the mannequins outside. [Eric’s note: we had a list of five potential places with good reviews across several sites]

Ha and Vy did a wonderful job of making us feel at home – joking and offering suggestions. I didn’t think they were overly pushy but they definitely encouraged us to buy more and we had to politely decline a few times.

measuring for custom clothes!  my first fitting!
Eric getting his measurements done with Vy; me with my first fitting with Ha (I love this coat so much!)

After the initial consultation, measurements and a down payment we scheduled two more appointments over two days to test fit, etc. The first fitting was really for button-hole placement as everything fit great on the first try. We were both happy with our color and lining choices. Eric did manage to prick himself twice thanks to random pins, but there were no other injuries!

In the end we purchased one two-piece men’s suit, one men’s blazer, two button-down men’s dress shirts, one woman’s blazer, a trench coat and a tie for about $575 USD (including 3% credit card fee). We could have spent less money elsewhere but I am happy with the service and products we received here. And I still can’t believe these clothes were finished in just 50 hours.

all our custom clothes from Kimmy Tailor

The whole experience was really fun and I look forward to getting another chance on a future trip.

Vietnam 2016: My Grandma’s Home Cooking

I walked over to the meetup spot by 7:45am (!) to gather at the office along with three British women who were also taking the Market Tour portion of the class.

After introducing ourselves, we took a quick boat ride to the Hoi An market, then walked around for about an hour trying a large selection of fruits, steamed rice items wrapped in banana leaf, herbs, and bought ground Vietnamese coffee and a metal brewing filter. This was by far my favorite part of the class. I really enjoyed getting to sample all the fruits and seeing the busy market with people parking their motorbikes everywhere and running to their favorite stalls to grab food items for the day.

rambutans  fresh greens and herbs  the famous Hoi An rice noodles

Hoi An market

After the market tour, the four of us waited on the boat while Thom (our instructor and guide) went back to the office to collect a couple that was joining us. A forty minute boat ride later and we arrived on the island where we did the cooking. Interestingly, our vessel was stopped on the way by a police boat to check the pilot’s paperwork and accept a bribe. Apparently this is standard practice, even if your paper work checks out. Presumably you pay a lot more if it doesn’t!

The class started out with all of us sitting at a table and discussing some history of the island, and her grandmother who is in her 90s, over some fresh juice. Then we learned how to make rice pancakes from scratch, from hulling rice on one wooden machine to crushing it to make rice milk on another. We each got our turn making a pancake (over the fire on a cloth-covered griddle) that we used for one of our dishes later. I definitely won’t be trying that at home but I’m glad I got the opportunity to see what’s involved!

outdoor cooking class

For each of the dishes we prepared, a basket of raw ingredients and tools showed up. We got a quick explanation about what everything was and then we each peeled, chopped and prepared four dishes for ourselves. After each course, we took some time and ate the food — which was nice because I was starving by then!

egg and shrimp roll  food prep
papaya salad  grilling pork

My favorites were the papaya salad (so yummy!) and the pork spring rolls. Here are the four dishes we made:

  • Banh Xeo (small rice flour crepes) a specialty of Hoi An – with shrimp and folded into rice paper
  • Grilled, marinated pork brochettes with a special sauce – made into a fresh spring roll
  • Green papaya salad – with marinated chicken and river shrimps
  • Hot pot tuna (Fish prepared according to a local recipe) – served with steamed rice

The overall experience of the market tour, meeting grandma, and preparing all of the dishes from scratch was wonderful. I would highly recommend this class on a visit to Hoi An.

Vietnam 2016: food in Hoi An

Thursday

Walking around town our first day, Leandra was ready for a snack and steered us toward Madam Khanh – The Banh Mi Queen. Just up the street from a row of tailor shops we found the small cart and attached kitchen with a small line out front. Within about 10 minutes she had her freshly made many-layered sandwich. Total cost – 20K dong (~$.90)

hoi_an_banh_mi  'bahn my queen' sandwich

Later that evening we went to dinner at Morning Glory. I went for a passion fruit juice and Cao Lầu,  a regional Vietnamese dish made with noodles, pork, and local greens that originated in Hoi An. It was quite light with a pleasant peanutiness, and the rice noodles were a bit chewier than wheat noodles. I pretty much ate it all! After seeing several orders come through while perusing the menu, Leandra ordered the fresh spring rolls with shrimp and was not disappointed. Morning Glory was quite busy, so we were glad we had made advance reservations.

Morning Glory restaurant  hoian-food-1

Friday

While Leandra attended her cooking class, I was left to my own devices. That included a rich and crumbly brownie from Cargo Cafe patisserie, and a light lunch at Hai Cafe.  I started with a lemon lime juice drink, then was tempted by the beef in lot leaf (Bo La Lot) which had a pleasant lemony ginger taste combined with the smokiness of grilled lot leaf and a medium spiciness. I hadn’t heard of it before but it was quite tasty. As a bonus, Hai Cafe did not charge a credit card surcharge.

  Eric's view at lunch  hoian-food-3

For dinner we made reservations at Nu Eatery, a small restaurant down an alley that was well worth searching out. We split the pork buns to start, then Leandra ordered the sesame chicken, while Eric got the pork ragu that was incredibly flavorful, and just the right amount of spicy heat. After seeing the dessert list we couldn’t resist the coffee ice cream.

Sesame Chicken Com Ga  hoian-food-2

Nu Eatery dining room

Saturday

We were wandering around town in search of lunch but couldn’t decide where to go. We knew that Mermaid had the same owner as Cargo and Morning Glory, so we decided to try their restaurant on the farther side of town. Eric got the beef rice noodle bowl (very limey, with peanuts too) and a pineapple shake, while Leandra ordered the Cau Lok bowl and a local Larue beer. Our food was OK, but service was middling – it wasn’t a problem of language, but rather they were incredibly indifferent, especially considering it was 3p. This was quite surprising given the other restaurants in the group, and we wouldn’t recommend going to this one.

Given the service we skipped dessert there and instead picked up a chocolate passion fruit cake at Cargo for takeaway – it was amazing!

For our final dinner we made a reservation at Secret Garden. Tucked away down a back alley, you would never expect a restaurant much less the beautifully landscaped outdoor space. We were seated outside near one of the ponds. I ordered a lime juice and the chicken curry, which was really tasty. The potatoes were cooked perfectly, spiced but not spicy. Leandra ordered the local specialty “white rose” appetizer (a shrimp dumpling), then the beef curry. Two items to note- Secret Garden has a rather large wine list, and an overall swankier air with nice presentation and service. Of course, it was also the most expensive meal of Hoi An, but not bad by US costs and completely worth it. Also, we found that the online menu is not accurate at all, as they have many more items.

Secret Garden restaurant
'white rose' dumplings @ Secret Garden

Vietnam 2016: exploring Hoi An

Hoi An’s Old Town is a UNESCO heritage site, and really quite beautiful and pleasant to walk around. It is clearly a tourist area, but in this case it doesn’t diminish the charm as much as I might normally expect. Notes about town:

  • You are supposed to pay for a ‘permit’ to cross into the old town, but it is poorly explained and seemingly not enforced. We never paid, though we always had 120k ready in case we needed it.
  • Free wifi is available throughout old town

Our hotel was quite close to the Japanese Covered Bridge, so we passed by it several times a day.

Japanese Covered Bridge

and at night:

Japanese Bridge at night

The Thu Bon river runs through the middle of town, and the spanning bridges have some nice views.

Hoi An

Hoi An  taking a break

At night (especially on the weekends) there are many vendors selling lanterns for the water.

selling lanterns

selling lanterns  lanterns

Since it had recently been Chinese New Year, there were special displays in the river too.

Hoi An  New Years decorations along the Thu Bon River

Hoi An is famous for hanging lanterns which are absolutely beautiful at night.

lanterns

Hoi An

Hoi An wakes up slowly in the mornings, so few places are open before 8am, making it fairly quiet in town if you get out early.

Assembly Hall

Assembly House

As the day goes on the bustle increases, especially when buses arrive to drop people off at the perimeter.

cyclos!

 

Of course, most of the town is all about shopping, especially clothing.

Hoi An street scene

Since it really is an old town there are quite a few small back alleys to explore that can be quite photogenic.

green window

Some are little more than sidewalk width!

me in a narrow alley

Hoi An was a lot of fun to explore, with lots of sights, shopping and food – though touristy at times it is still well worth a visit.

Vietnam 2016: scenic views between Hoi An and Phu Loc

We had a nice driver from Hue Private Cars, he drove quite slow and carefully, and was open to stopping for photos. Our first stop was My Khe Beach (aka China Beach), quite close to downtown Da Nang with lots of nearby development.

My Khe Beach, aka "China Beach"

Da Nang was bigger than expected, lots of buildings and businesses that spread out for miles. We didn’t stop for photos, but we did see the Dragon Bridge from the car.

Dragon Bridge in De Nang

We eventually got out of Da Nang and started climbing up the Hải Vân Pass. Stunning views!

beach views

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shrine @ Hải Vân Quan

And a nice surprise waterfall too.

surprise waterfall

Views from the top of the pass were fantastic, though we wish we had sun for better saturation… The temperature was at least 10 degrees colder at the top, so we had to add a layer to stay comfortable.

From here the road went downhill until we had views of Lang Co Beach.

Lăng Cô

Our driver took us around the bay instead of the main road, so we had some nice views here too.

fishing boat in Lăng Cô bay

After another 15 minutes were dropped off at our resort. All in all, this was a very pleasant drive, even in the uncertain cloudy conditions. We wound up using this car service again to get to the airport from downtown Hue.