Our early escape from “paradise” (aka Bali) to Malaysia gave us some needed time to gather our thoughts, upload photos, and eat cheap Indian food before heading out to the next stage of our trip, Europe.
I can hardly believe our time in Asia is up, but I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit I’m totally ready to move on. The pushiness of folks in KL and Singapore, the unrelenting heat, and one too many Air Asia flights has led me to proclaim “I’m done” more than a few times in the last few days. (I also brazenly cut in front of someone at 7-11 today. And was proud of it. SE Asia can do funny things to you.) But obviously it wasn’t all bad. I mean, come on.
Biding our time in the business class lounge* at the Singapore Changi Airport, waiting to board our flight to Copenhagen (and then onto Istanbul after a Beer and Brats Layover in Munich), has proven to be a great time to reflect on the good and bad of the last few months. First up in the memory chamber? Vietnam.
Days spent in Vietnam: 21
Cities visited: We did the South to North “H” tour — Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, and Halong Bay.
Most days in one city: 7, in Hoi An.
Favorite place: Hoi An. Touristy? Absolutely. But stay a bit outside of the UNESCO world heritage area, bike to the locals’ Tiger market and the two lovely beaches. Eat great food. Take an amazing cooking class (see below).
Least favorite place: Hue. Totally uncharming and shadeless, with agressive (though beard-loving) trishaw drivers. Great soup though.
Favorite new food discovery: Tie, cao lao noodles and sinh to, both in Hoi An.
The chewy cao lao alkaline noodles, doused in a thin curry broth and topped with herbs, pork, and crackling, are most often compared to udon…by dumbdumbs. Yes, the noodles are thick like udon, but the texture? All ramen. More specifically, the thick yellow tsukemen ramen noodles.
The sinh to was the first taste I had on the fabulous Taste of Hoi An Street Food tour, and was absolutely something I would have never tried on my own. Not because there was anything exceptionally weird in this refreshing drink/sundae: chunks of papaya, mango, pineapple, dragonfruit, coconut jelly, avocado, cherries, topped with condensed milk, crunchy toasted coconut shavings, and shaved ice. It’s just that the last ingredient that would have turned me off from trying it on my own. Water and ice are minefields in many South East Asian countries, and Vietnam is no exception. Our guide, an affable Australian who retired to Hoi An years ago, assured us that the Vietnamese wouldn’t eat anything that would make them sick, and that this ice was safe for us as well. And it was. And holy crap, was that sinh to delicious.
Other food highlights: the super clear consommelike pho broth from a stall in Ben Than market in Saigon. The other bahn mi lady’s egg sandwiches in Hoi An (NOT Anthony Bourdain’s favorite Phuong — which was still excellent), on the side of the road on the way to Tiger Market. The bun bo hue at in Hue. The coffee across the street from the Danang train station. Dry pho noodles from street vendor in Hanoi. Bun cha Hanoi across the street from our hotel on Ma May in Hanoi. Passionfruit lassi in Hanoi. Egg coffee in Hanoi.
Worst food: The foul-smelling bahn mi across the street from the Danang train station. The “famous” bahn xeo from a place in Saigon.
Beer situation: Lager, but cheap. We tried them all.
Advantage over other countries: Relative to the other countries we visited, Vietnam’s markets were pretty amazing. Super fresh food and a discerning, food-obsessed nation made for beautiful and lively markets.
Most surprising: Another tie. First, how much Hanoi had changed in only four years. When we visited in 2009, it felt very much like a locals town, with little touristfocused business. Four years later, we were astounded to hear the booming bass and see hoardes of gapyear backpackers pouring out of the numerous youth hostels in the Old Quarter. I nearly lost it when I saw bahn mi doner kabob vendors lining the street. All this increase in tourism meant that we were much more “on display” as tourists this time around, and continually hassled.
Second most surprising experience: I got tired of Vietnamese food! I ADORE Vietnamese food. Ive generally declared it as my favorite cuisine for years, and after 18 days, I was done. There is a repetition in Vietnamese flavors that can sadly get a little boring. Our last meal in Vietnam was at an Indian restaurant.
Least surprising: the traffic.
Highlight: Catching a squid in Bai Long Bay. It involved a lot of beer and waiting, followed by excited screaming and a very agitated squid being hurled into the boat, right towards a nice English girl’s face. I was the only lucky one that night.
Lowlight: Though it is a funny story now, in the moment, the train ride from Danang to Hue was a lowlight. Cramped and filthy. Seats that leaned back into our laps. Bare feet on the armrests. And a 90 year old man in pajamas next to us, periodically peeing into a bottle held by his caretakers, and seemingly wheezing his last breaths. yeah. At least it was only $18 for both of us and the old man survived.
Best money spent: Another tie, between the Halong Bay tour and Taste of Hoi An street food tour. As the tour was pretty pricey, only one of us went on it, but I was able to sample many dishes that I would not have had the knowledge or courage to sample without the tour. And then of course, Steve reaped the benefits as well.
Halong Bay tours can be had for all price ranges, and was frankly super confusing and stresful to pick out a good one. Lots of stories about rats running around on deck and inedible food, along with lame guides. We opten for a more expensive one with Handspan, and it was simply amazing. We actually went to Bai Long bay, where there were no other tour boats. We kayaked around the bay, fished for squid, enjoyed happy hour, and a tour of the floating village.
Best value: Besides nearly everything that we put into our mouths, the best value was the Green Bamboo cooking class in Hoi An. 8 hour cooking class, with a small group of 8 people. Everyone picked their own dish from a list of 50+. We shopped for ingredients at market, and cooked every single dish. IT was incredibly thorough and I now know how to clean a squid, including removing the ink sac, spine and skin. Ample water and beer. And an INSANE amount of food. All for $35. (For a more eloquent write-up, check out our travel pals Jordan and Skyler’s review here) Really fabulous time. Runner up: Crazy delicious sloppy bahn mi in Hoi An. Like nothing I ever have in the US, drenched in homemade chili sauces.
Miss the most.: The deliciousness, cheapness (30 to 50 cents!) and ubiquity of Vietnamese coffee. That and the coconut man who saved me from passing out in Saigon.
*All on points, baby. Mileage credit cards and obsessive travel planning pay off. Big time. I just took a SHOWER at the airport. And then drank a glass of champagne.