Back in January 2014 we visited Vietnam. It’s somewhere that first caught my attention in one of the early ‘Hairy Bikers Cookbook’ DVD’s back in 2004 and it had been at the back of my mind as somewhere I had to go ever since. I have learned pretty quickly when it comes to travelling that the reality for me is after a few days, I’m ready to move on to the next place. The idea of spending 2 weeks in one place fills me with dread, I’m not judging anyone that does this in the slightest, it just personally isn’t for me. I love researching the trips and I’m fortunate that my partner is happy to go pretty much anywhere and leaves the finer details to me. He knows by now that I’m usually planning at least 2 trips ahead and he can always tell I’ve been looking when random travel ads start popping up on Facebook when he’s using the computer. I usually narrow it down to a couple of options for him to look at, we pick one and I take great delight in doing the rest.
We flew via South Korea to Hanoi (Slightly off course but it was cheaper 😉 ). After arriving at the airport and realising the pre-booked taxi wasn’t there we ended up hailing a taxi outside the airport. I’d read stories as most people have about taxi scams at airports so these sort of things are always at the back of my mind. There seemed to be a lot of confusion and blank looks when I handed over the address. After driving for a while on the main roads, we eventually turned up a back street which was no where near the area we were supposed to be and the driver pulled over, so the paranoid part of me was wondering what was happening. It turns out he didn’t know where he was going after all and wanted the phone number to ring our accommodation for directions. I really shouldn’t assume the worst. When we finally got to the accommodation I handed the money over to the front seat and he signalled for us to wait in the back and got on the phone again, clearly talking about us so we just sat there anxiously looking at each other wondering why were locked in the taxi. He put down the phone, smiled and opened the doors and let us out. Odd!
It wasn’t until I got into the room I’d realised in the dark I’d paid him in the wrong currency as I had a mix of Korean Won and Vietnamese Dong in my wallet. After a quick check on XE.com let’s just say he did very well as he got a fare worth 10 x as much. I can only assume he was ringing in to HQ to see if they would accept it. No wonder they did.
This was the first view of Hanoi we saw as we went up to the rooftop for breakfast. The host was very welcoming and eagerly showed us their breakfast selection. It’s always interesting to see the smaller hotels trying to cater for what they think tourists might want. Aside from the tropical fruits and chicken noodle soup which I assume would be typical of a Vietnamese breakfast they had chilled meat lasagne and chilled spaghetti bolognese, cold chips and toast and jam. I opted for the hot chicken noodle soup and the fruit platter and politely declined the rest.
I really liked Hanoi, we chose a time of year that was perfect for walking around. Only just T-shirt weather which suits me. The streets of Hanoi were packed with mopeds, many carrying oversized cargo or in one case a family of 5.
Hanoi was our first taste of “How to cross a road in Vietnam”. You don’t wait for a gap as there usually isn’t one, especially in rush hour! The advice we were given was just to make eye contact and walk slowly into the stream of traffic and the cars and bikes will avoid you. This is a very scary concept the first few times, but we were to learn that this was much easier in the quieter north city of Hanoi, not so easy in Ho Chi Minh city when cars are moving much quicker. It got to the point in Ho Chi Minh where we’d just go to places on the side of the road we were on as it was just too much of a challenge getting across.
Back in Hanoi, at night they closed off one of the long streets and it became a huge food market (yes that is a Doner Kebab stall :-/).
We ventured to the area of Hanoi I’d previously read about where you can buy Bia Hoi. This a beer which is brewed fresh daily and then transported in metal containers where you can either buy it from a selection of small bars or even from the back of a motorbike. The price was ridiculously cheap, 14p per glass.
The ‘morning after’ coffee was a bit complicated for my Bia Hoi addled brain to handle. We were presented with a metal filter slowly dripping coffee as thick as oil into a glass which had a layer of condensed milk in the bottom, we were also presented with a glass of ice and a glass of warm water. Embarrassingly I had to ask the woman behind the bar how to drink it which didn’t help in the slightest as she looked more confused at my question than I was by the plethora of drinking vessels in front of me. I had nearly ordered the Vietnamese egg coffee which intrigued me but that would have been even more confusing, I dread to think what that would have entailed.
After our time in Hanoi we moved on to Hue via sleeper train. I had read that you can take the 13 hour train journey in 1st class at a reasonable price and you just need to turn up on the day and buy your ticket. Great plan! …If they hadn’t all been full. The 2nd class option was also full so we ended up on 2 x 1″ mattresses in a tiny room with a couple of triple bunk beds sharing with 4 strangers. We were on the bottom bunks which were seats by day and no sooner had we boarded around 6pm the rest of our room decided they were going to bed so we had to. It was quite possibly the most uncomfortable 13 hours I’ve ever experienced. My partner had bruises on his hips by the time we got to Hue as the mattress was so thin.
We spent New Years Eve in Hue drinking Vietnamese “acrid wine” (their words, not mine) and for the whole 3 days the hotel had the Abba song ‘Happy New Year’ on constant loop in the lift and reception, I can’t hear that today without thinking of Vietnam.
The next leg of our Journey was a 3 hour train ride to Hoi An where we had the food tour booked. This was the selection of snacks on offer prior to boarding the train…
Hoi An was a stunning place, quite touristy if you happened to accidentally wander down the streets with the tailor shops but these are relatively easily avoided. There is no traffic allowed around the central areas so this coupled with the beautiful lighting at night gave it a magical feel.
Although we had a food tour booked in the morning I was keen to try the local specialities on the first evening. The first dish was ‘White Rose’ – Steamed rice flour dumplings with a small spoonful of meat or shrimp filling in the centre. The steaming process causes the edges to soften and warp and look like a white rose. This is topped with crispy shallots and accompanied with a dipping sauce made of shrimp broth, hot chillies, lemon and sugar.
The second was Cao Lầu, a regional Vietnamese dish made with noodles, pork, and greens.
The food tour was the best I’ve been on so far. Hosted by an Australian chap called Neville who was amazingly knowledgeable. The tour covered a trip around the market (please note that the photos below may be a bit …er ….meaty for any vegetarian audiences – you have been warned). There were a number of street food stalls visited and some in house tastings. The list of food we were given to taste was huge!
The tour started with a mixed fruit vitamin shake. Lots of flavours and textures. Small chunks of banana, lychee, dragonfruit and crispy toasted coconut with condensed milk and crushed ice. Eating for health is of great importance of Vietnam. We were taken to the perimeter of the market where we sampled fresh banana pancakes and Crepes with pork, shrimp and beansprouts before entering into a sensory feast. Everything looked so fresh!
We moved on to a couple of tasting houses where we were served a variety of dishes
Before leaving Hoi An we were able to sample some further dishes
We moved to Danang for a few nights where we found a bar serving mojito’s with the choice of fresh mango, passion fruit or ginger. Obviously we had to try all 3.
The final stage was a couple of nights in Ho Chi Minh city, we were supposed to take another long sleeper train journey but we bailed out and booked a flight after the pain of the last train journey. Below are some of the final dishes we sampled along the way.
If you visit anywhere and you’re curious about the food, I’d definitely recommend booking a food tour. You can usually get a good idea which are worth doing from Tripadvisor.
On the way home the overnight stop over in Seoul was a shock. we’d gone from +32°C to -4°C within a couple of hours travelling. We only had a very short stop over so didn’t get time to venture back into Seoul on this occasion…..hopefully next time.
Would I visit Vietnam again? 100%, I’d love to go further North and see the Halong bay area and south to the Mekong delta ………..next time.