The capital of Vietnam, is a beautiful city with a “small town” feel. It offers plenty of great sight-seeing, spectacular street food, and friendly people. When you visit Vietnam, I highly recommend spending a few days here to absorb the great vibrancy of this city, and of course try the delicious local food! And if you only have a couple of days, don’t worry too much about sight-seeing, just find a cafe with a good view and everything great about this place will happen right in front of your eyes. There is a lot going on everywhere, all the time!
On my first day in Hanoi I met my friend Daniela (from LA) and her friend Judy who happened to be ending their vacation trip here. We did some sight-seeing and tried some of the superb street food- Pho Bo and the popular Banh Mi. We also went to see the popular water puppet show, an art form dating back to the 11th century, at the Thang Long water Puppet Theatre.
The next day I was joined by Ismary, one of my best friends of 23 years. My friends Susie and Steven, whom I met in Indonesia and now live in Hanoi, offered to take us around the city on their motorbikes, the Vietnamese way!
Finished the day at a popular food place where we tried Xoi Ga; which is sticky rice with chicken and corn.
The last day in Hanoi, Steven took us to some more of his favorite spots to try Mien Tron Bo, another delicious local dish of stir fried noodles with beef, onions, peanuts and broth.
We went to Cafe Pho Co; we walked through a silk shop front and headed upstairs to the fourth floor to find magnificent views of the Hoan Kiem Lake. Cafe Trung is a popular Vietnamese Egg coffee- a dark coffee topped with a foamy layer of sweetened egg cream.
More pictures of our tour around the city:
More pics from of the Ngoc Son Temple with Ismary:
Hanoi is beautiful at night, specially around the Hoan Kiem Lake; which is all lit up:
I was scammed for the first time in ten months of traveling! We took a bike rickshaw from the West Lake area back to the Hoan Kiem Lake. I paid the man with a 500k dong bill; which is the equivalent of US$22. I expected US$14 back in change but when the man left I realized I had received a 20 dong bill instead of a 200 dong bill. I ended up paying US$16 for what should have been a US$6 ride. The guy kept saying “happy new year to me” and I didn’t understand why until I noticed I had the wrong change in my hands. I hear scams happen often in this city but… I guess my fault for not knowing my bills well 😛
Ismary treated me to a luxurious cruise for my birthday in Halong Bay and the less visited, but equally beautiful, Bai Tu Long Bay. Although Halong Bay is frequented by hundreds of tourists and is overwhelmed with boats, it is still well worth a visit; preferably overnight to cover more territory. Halong Bay is a Unesco World Heritage site of magnificent tall limestone pillars coming out of the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. As part of the two-day tour we visited the floating village of Vung Vieng and Sung Sot Cave.
Sung Sot cave is mesmerizing, just like any other cave in Vietnam, however, it is lit up like a Vegas or Disney attraction; which in my opinion ruins the natural experience a bit…
A well preserved traditional Far-East trading port and a UNESCO World Heritage site. This city is a delightful old trading center; which was of high importance for the country in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was settled by Chinese (from various provinces), Indians and later, the Dutch. You can buy a ticket that will gain you access to the old part of town and is good to visit five of the historical sites; which can include the Japanese bridge, the Chua Ong temple, any of the Chinese assembly halls, any of the preserved merchant homes, and small museums. You can easily spend a few days here admiring all of the heritage houses of beautiful Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese architectural styles, and enjoying all of the amazing food you find in every corner.
Pictures of the Chinese assembly halls, where the Chinese traders congregated and worshipped their ancestors:
The colorful streets of Hoi An:
We visited the best Banh Mi place in town (according to Anthony Bourdain)- Banh Mi Phuong and it was absolutely delicious!
We took a small wooden boat on the Thu Bon river:
This city at night gets even better! the water front stays fairly dark but the rest of the city is completely lit up in different colors; which really stand out near the water:
We took a cooking class at the Hoi An market with the sweetest mom and daughter team. The class was held behind their stall; the daughter cooked with us in the back while the mom managed the business in the front.
One of the recommended side trips from Hoi An is Ang Bang Beach. You can rent a bike from any of the Homestays around town and reach the beach in about 25 minutes. The ride goes near beautiful rice paddies and some beautiful residential areas with big vegetable gardens:
Sa Pa and surrounding towns
To make the most of our time in the north we pre-booked our stay and activities in Sapa through Rose Travel agency in Hanoi; which turned out to be a great decision (thanks to Steven for introducing us to Rose, awesome lady!). We took the sleeper train from Hanoi to Lao Cai and were picked up by a minibus with the rest of our group to go to the town of Bac Ha, about two hours from Sa Pa. The main reason to see Bac Ha before heading to Sa Pa was to experience its famous Sunday market. This is the biggest minority people’s market in the entire north of Vietnam. Here you find hundreds of stalls selling everything from vegetables, to clothes, to souvenirs and even puppies and water buffaloes. It was entertaining and also very colorful. You see the different women from the Black and Flower H’Mong tribes, as well as the Dzao everywhere. They wear their traditional and very distinctive dresses. The Black H’Mong wear black hemp clothing; which includes a jacket with embroidered sleeves, an apron, and leg wraps. The Flower H’Mong wear bright-color embroidered costumes and very colorful head wraps. The Dzao women look very similar to the H’Mong but wear red head wraps and seem to shave the top of their heads from what I could tell.
After visiting the market, we headed to Sa Pa, now one of my favorite places in Vietnam. This is a beautiful hill station established by the French in 1922. It is located in the northwest part of the country in the Lao Cai province. Sa Pa sits against the Hoàng Liên Mountains, the last most eastern part of the Himalayan range. Sa Pa is a great town to base yourself before going out for a two or three day trek in the mountains. The town itself is very touristy, full of great restaurants, bakeries, massage parlors, and outdoor gear shops catering to every trekking need. As you make your way out of town and into the mountain areas, you will quickly be surrounded by superb scenery of rice terrace fields up and down all sides of the mountains around the Muong Hoa Valley. We joined a group to do a two-day trek to the nearby village of Lau Chai where we stayed at a Homestay (a local family’s house). As usual we had great food, tried some of the local rice wine; which is offered at every homestay in Vietnam, and enjoyed amazing views from the hill. We were lucky to get good sunny weather but typically in March this area is blanketed by heavy fog. Most of the area’s inhabitants are part of the H’Mong, Tay and Dzao minority groups. Some H’Mong women accompanied us on our trek in the morning in hopes that we would buy souvenirs from them after.
Our second day was filled with more beautiful terrace fields, a nice waterfall, and scenic villages as we made our way to the town of Tava:
Oh! and the best part of this trip was accomplishing the mission of finding the old rope hanging bridge in Sa Pa. I had a giant picture of this bridge hanging in my old living room. I promised myself that one day I would travel the world and find it and I did! 🙂
After Ismary left I stayed a few more days in Sa Pa and joined a small group to hike up to the top of Fansipan, the tallest peak in Vietnam at 3143m (10,308ft). The trek takes two days to complete, it is on rough, rocky, uneven terrain; a lot of it is in lush forest, slippery at times but as you climb up you get stunning views of the surrounding mountains. We had porters who took care of carrying the food and water and cooked all our meals (the easy life). The final ascent to the peak was very rough. The terrain continued to be slippery and quite steep, we didn’t have very much water, and we were all on very little sleep thanks to some of the porters getting drunk and staying up the previous night. But we all made it to the peak safe and sound!
I took a bus from Sa Pa to Ha Giang, the province to the east of Sa Pa. Unfortunately I was robbed on my way there; a drunk guy on the minibus went to sleep in the back seat near all the bags and dug through the outside pockets until he found some stuff he liked… my dirty socks, underwear, bicycle cable lock and my backpack rain cover. Good thing he didn’t take anything too important but lesson learned… lock all pockets in the future! No one speaks English in this town but it was fun trying to communicate with signs. I ended up having dinner with a lady that sat at my table, we shared some food and laughed a lot trying to communicate. I looked up places to stay on booking.com and found the Ha Giang Homestay in Thon Tha Village, 4.5km away from the center of town. It looked nice and remote so I decided to venture out. I ended up in a nice homestay with Mr. Quyen and his wife in a very rural and beautiful area, surrounded by beautiful mountains and rice paddies everywhere. Mr. Quyen cooked a nice lunch for me and I visited with some tourists that came around from other nearby homestays.
It seems a few homes here are part of a tourist group that receives foreigners and offer motorbike tours in the region. I asked Mr. Quyen if he could take me on his bike to do the famous Northern loop visiting Quan Ba, Dong Van and Meo Vac, all the popular and scenic places in the province. A permit is required to travel to the latter as it is located near the China border. Unfortunately we had a misunderstanding on the price so I had to cancel the trip at the last minute. He seemed to be upset but didn’t want to negotiate further. He just kept chain smoking and not talking and told me to take a taxi back to Ha Chiang (instead of taking me on his motorbike). I returned to the city center and ended up booking a two-day tour for US$100 through an agent in Hanoi (online), and funny enough she ended up hiring Mr Quyen’s friend to be my new host and guide- Mr. Thien.
Pictures of Mr. Thien’s homestay:
It turns out the Homestays and motorcycle tours in Ha Giang are all done by the same five guys who share all the work. I stayed at Mr. Thien’s for one night and did the two-day trip with him, Mr Quyen, and Mr Banh and a couple from Germany. We had a a great time sight-seeing the beautiful landscape of the region.
Pictures of a day hike around Thon Tha with Mr. Lim:
Dong Van turned out to be a nice little town, catering to tourists with some great homestay and restaurants. Meo Vac was a lot smaller but very nice. The famous Ma Pi Len pass was completely covered in fog but we still got a nice view of the roads and the river below right after it. I can only imagine how spectacular this entire trip would be in sunny, clear skies. I still got to see plenty to be completely mesmerized and satisfied with my trip. We covered a total of 316km (186mi) and my butt and knees hurt like never before! It was a great experience that I will never forget. If you get the chance to venture out further than Sa Pa, go to Ha Chiang province, absolutely spectacular!
On the way back we visited a small village where they made clothes from plants by hand:
Back in Hanoi…
Took sleeper bus back to Hanoi to get my visa extended for a month to travel further and see Central and Southern Vietnam.
The best part of going back to Hanoi was hanging out with my friend Steven again and trying more great food and the Bia Hoi. Bia hơi is a type of draft beer; which is super popular in Vietnam and available everyday in street corners and local bars. Steven took me to his favorite spot where we tried the day’s fresh brew. We had a bunch of beers and I think we only spent US$4 each. 🙂
Rose helped me book some day trips while I waited for my visa. I visited the town of Ninh Binh and the Perfume Pagoda. In Bin Minh we went to Hoa Lu Tam Coc. Hoa Lu has the remains of temples dedicated to King Dinh and King Le, two heroes from the 10th century that chose this place to build the citadel. From there you hire a local to take you on an hour long boat ride on the Hoang Long river to Tam Coc or the three caves. The way there is stunning as we were surrounded by limestone mountains and rice paddies. It was very impressive watching how the boat drivers use their feet to row.
Perfume pagoda– This is an important pilgrimage for Buddhist Vietnamese. They visit this pagoda at least once a year and people come from villages located as far as three hours away. They start their journey very early in the morning so we passed them on the river as we were just beginning.
An hour later we reached a complex of fifteen pagodas on the Ben do Yen stream, and we visited two of them. We visited Ben Tro to see the Thien Tru pagoda at the base of the mountain:
And then climbed up the long way through lots and lots of food and souvenir stalls to the Dong Huong Tich cave to see the Perfume pagoda at the top of the mountain. It is called Perfume due to the incense burned inside to worship the female buddha inside the Huong Tich Cave. The devotees buy a lot of gifts for the Buddha and their ancestors.
And on our way back we found some interesting dishes for lunch:
My last days in Hanoi were spent visiting the Ho Chi Minh (HCM) Mausoleum again so I could see his body, the HCM museum, and trying snake at a nearby village.
The Mausoleum: We were in line for 1.5 hrs to see his embalmed body. People were cutting in desperate to get to the entrance faster… when we finally reached it, we were all ushered in in two lines and the whole experience inside took about one minute. You are not allowed to take any photos of the body or of the inside of the mausoleum. There are four military honor guards at all four corners of the body. The body is beautifully lit up with dim lights and kept inside a wooden sarcophagus with a glass top. You can walk around it slowly and get a perfect view but if you stop for even a second like I did, the guards tap your shoulders hard to make you move. The body is intact and in perfect condition There are military veterans and old ladies in line praying as they see the body. Thousands of Vietnamese (and others) go through here every single day to pay their respects.
Ho Chi Minh or “Uncle Ho”- known by most as the Communist revolutionary leader; who (as part of his many important political titles) led the North Vietnamese army during the American (Vietnam) war. This man is truly loved and revered in all of Vietnam. You see clear evidence of this everywhere but much more so in the North. He was seen as the true leader of the people that wanted a free, communist, and united Vietnam. He was a simple man who dedicated his entire life to his cause. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to see the end of the war or see the reunification of North and South. Putting politics and the war aside…his life story is very impressive and he has gained the admiration of many non-Vietnamese people, including myself. The love for this man by the Vietnamese is almost cult-like. You see his face everywhere, on billboards, on schools, in businesses, houses, etc. I really enjoyed learning about him. Here is what wikipedia has to say about HCM: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ho_Chi_Minh. There is also a good documentary on Vietnam and the war from the BBC if you would like to refresh your history: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhL9pkCvuwo
And for the grand finale… Effie invited me to travel to a village near Hanoi where we could try fresh snake. We opted for the easier option of just having the meat without seeing the snake get killed or gutted. But we saw it all anyway when a group of Americans arrived and asked to do the whole experience. They also drank the blood, the bile and one of them took a shot of rice wine with the snake’s beating heart inside! yuk! sorry no pictures of that…
It actually tasted ok, a bit chewy and rubbery but it was nice. The fried ribs were the best, probably because they were fried.