Monday, December 31, 2012

Good morning, Vietnam!

Vietnam: Eating our way from north to south in 11 days!

Vietnam has been on the list of places to visit for both Jane and me since 2006. It got passed up by the 'stans, Brazil, among many other places. But alas, Vietnam's time has come!

True to style, we booked our tickets one month before departure. T - 2 weeks, we realized we needed a visa. Oops. T - 1 week, we still had no set plans except for flying into Ha Noi, the capitol in the north, and flying out of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south with 11 glorious days inbetween. Needless to say, both of our work lives were insanely hectic up to the day we left. Vacation was much needed!

Our final route:

Ha Noi --> Halong Bay --> Hue --> Hoi An--> Mekong --> Ho Chi Minh City

A few days before arriving, we booked our first hotel and our side trip to Halong Bay. We basically figured everything else out on the go. Thank goodness for smartphones and wifi!

Ha Noi
After 3 flights and more than 24 hours later, we made it to Ha Noi, the capitol of Vietnam, at night. The next morning, we skipped our hotel breakfast and were ready to EAT on the streets!

At our first meal out on town. 
We just sat down at the first decent looking place on the street.

First stop: shopping for prescription glasses.

Isn't this first on everyone's Ha Noi list of top things to do? Jane knew people who lived in Ha Noi so we got the insider. We walked, or rather ducked, into about 20 shops/booths on one street, and 3 hours later ... voila! Our glasses were ready for $20!

Bun Cua. YUM!

This was by far one of our favorite meals. Soft, fresh noodles with meat folded in topped with fried shallots and cilantro. All for 30,000 dong ($1.50). Mad props for street food! Really, I could do an entire blog of just food, but will restrain from posting a pic of every single meal. Seriously, Vietnam might possible soar its way to the top of favorite foods in countries traveled.

Literary Temple, Vietnam's first university

Typical Street in Ha Noi Old Quarters

We enjoyed staying in this part of the city as it had narrow windy streets that you could get lost in, intricate buildings and most importantly was the center of street food.

The art of crossing
(There's Jane in the orange jacket buying something delicious)

OK, we've been in many crowded places, but street crossings in Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh were quite an art. Motorbikes were abundant interspersed by new, upcoming SUVs on tiny streets with no stop signs or light or anything. Free for all!

Simple rules for crossing:
1. When possible, follow a local.
2. Go at a slow and steady pace. No sudden movements.
3. Let the motorbikes avoid you.
4. NEVER go backwards!

That was our philosophy and I worked because we did not get runned over (though there were several close calls). Pure craziness!

In the photo above, Jane made a cross to see what was being fried .... and she returned with the best fried banana ever for 10,000 dong (50 cents), which we washed down with a beer and fruit smoothie. Risky, but so worth it!

It's pho bo for breakfast!

Just take a seat on those tiny stools and a steaming hot bowl is placed in front of you. No questions asked. That's what I'm talking about!

Ha Noi Opera House in the French Quarter

Jane's good friend's dad lived in Ha Noi for work, so he treated us out to a local night of delicious food and the National Symphony and Ha Noi's International Choir. It was an intimate venue. Perhaps there were as many people on stage as in the audience.

 2 single file lines of Vietnamese people (amd me) advancing in an orderly fashion to see a mummified Ho Chi Minh at the Maosoleum.

 All hail to Ho Chi Minh

Meeting up with Sabina from Brazil/Sweden

Sabina is a native Brazilian who I met in the Swedish Archipelagos back in 2009 and now lives in Ha Noi. She was giving us insight into the culture here. Always fun to reconnect abroad. Who knew Jane and I both had connections to Ha Noi?

 Famous water puppet show (aren't they a bit creepy?)

 Motorbikes, HALT! Huge 40th Anniversary Celebration 
.... of Vietnam shooting down B-52s in the war.
FYI, there was an acrobat on that stage in the middle of the road.

Halong Bay
We heard over and over again that Halong Bay is not to be missed. So, we went and it was definitely worth it. The beautiful scenery consisted of amazing rock formations protruding majestically from the still waters. Sure, there were a ton of tourist boats, but our company, Ethnic Travel, took us to more secluded sights. We definitely recommend them. We took a 4 hour bus ride outside of Ha Noi and then we spent a night on a junk boat in the bay.

Halong Bay

Man on cell phone rowing boat with feet in the floating village

Kayaking into the cave

This hour kayak in Halong bay into a secluded cave was one of our favorite moments in this entire trip! It was peaceful and seemed like a magical secluded world of it's own. Oh, and we saw monkeys!

1 - 2- 3 - JUMP! (take 5?)
Plunging off our junk boat, where we spent the night.

Now, for our last meal in Ha Noi.
Our street food hunt is serious! 
Dinner #1 to be followed shortly by dinner #2.
Sure you are only inches from the dirty floor, but these street vendors have been perfecting their recipes for over a century.

Our last night in Ha Noi we wove our way through the Old Quarter and got somewhat lost finding these things wrapped in leaves. Not as great as we hoped, but we redeemed it with a second dinner of crab pho and pork pho. Oh yes, we often had to eat 4-5 meals a day to fit in all our food goals. We just doubled up on breakfast or dinner.

Now off to Central Vietnam!

Biking Central Vietnam

Wake-up! We are in Hue!

 Ghetto overnight train from Ha Noi to Hue

Due to our late booking, we got stuck on the top of a 3 tiered bunk of a hard sleeper where we had to skillfully maneuver our way up onto our bed, and once there, we couldn't sit up. This train ride was NOT romantic at all. At least we had a bed. Oh what fond memories I have of the deluxe Chinese trains.

Hue in 5 hours. We didn't plan on stopping here, but we had sometime to kill before catching our next bus. So, we scarfed down a banh mi (sandwich) and headed out to explore. It was nice walking among the locals.

Local kids kicking some ball in the early morning

Imperial Palace at Hue, the old capital

Restored artwork

Admist the ruins.
Sadly the palace was destroyed by the French and the American War, but it was fascinating to see the ruins alongside of newly remodeled buildings. It was relatively deserted in the AM.

Hue was definitely a nice pit stop, but onward bound...
Sketchy bus to Hoi An

OK, that look is "what is up with this bus?" Yes, that is my travel towel I am laying on. I did not want to touch the seat. Between Jane and I, we have been on our fair share of buses in all parts of the world, but still this one took us by surprise. There was a row of 5 seats/beds behind me!

This was definitely the most brutal stretch of traveling in Vietnam. 12.5 hour ghetto train ride interspersed with 5 hours of sight-seeing followed by 4 hours of sketch bus. Keeping it real.

Hoi An
This quaint little town is the most touristed. Sure, it felt like we were in Epcot Center at times, but we actually enjoyed it. I think a huge part was because we got to hop on bikes and ride all over town and into the outskirts. We didn't care to see any of the sights, etc. so we really just meandered and of course ate. Oh yeah, and we got clothes made. Jane got a fabulous dress and two tanks and I got a dress and an awesome jacket.
 Narrow streets of Hoi An.
The town has French, Chinese and Japanese influences which show up in architecture and food. It was one of the few places not destroyed by war.

Coconut on the beach. 

We rode our bikes 6 km through rice fields pass resorts to this location. You're probably thinking, what more could you want? Well, about 15 degrees warmer, no wind and no trash on the beach would be nice. It's a shame that the land isn't better taken care of.

Hoi An waterfront

Ready to cook!
Fresh food at the market
One of the reasons why I loved the food so much was because there were so many fresh herbs. Also, every morning, they go to the market to use only fresh ingredients for that day.

Jane cooks "mother-in-law" soup

We took class at Morning Glory, which I highly recommend. Sure, it was cooking by numbers and all the difficult stuff was pre-prepared so you couldn't really screw up, but the food was so delicious! We made dumpling soup, spring rolls, bbq chicken, bun xeo (fried pancake goodness) and green mango salad. And we ate it all!

What to do with a free afternoon? Go for a ride!
Look! We didn't die!
I took this photo while riding on the back of my motor bike after releasing the death grip.

We hired motorbikes with drivers (yeah, the Thailand stint taught us that we are not skilled at driving this vehicle). My driver was proud of his new bike. He kept repeating "New. 10 days. 125 cc" Interpretation = I am going to go very fast. And he sure did. For $10, they took us out into the countryside to see ...

My Son Ruins

Sorry, am I ruining the picture again?

At first, we weren't going to see these ruins because we've seen many before including Angor Wat, the mother of all ruins. But, we decided it'd be fun to experience the countryside via motorbike. We actually really enjoyed the ruins in the jungle and the ride out on the motorbike was fantastic (once I learned to release the death grip). It's a totally different experience than being in a car. We saw lots of water buffalo and local towns.

Our last meal from Hoi An
Banh Mi (Vietnamese Sandwich) with secret sauce

This lady had some special secret sauce that made her banh mi tiers above others. For 20,000 dong ($1), we had to get this banh mi twice. Of course that meant having 2 dinners this last night, but that is not a problem at all. You gotta do what you gotta do.

Now, off to fly to Ho Chi Minh!

Delta Life, Saigon and the Seoul Dash

Living the chill Mekong Delta Life with the Locals

We arrived and crashed at our budget hotel in Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon). Immediately the next day we headed out to the Mekong Delta. We arranged a tour a few days prior with the company, Innoviet, because we wanted to do a homestay and didn't have spare time to arrange it ourselves. The company was excellent and we ended up being in our own private group.

Rowing through the Mekong Delta

Helping our host mom cook dinner.
Yeah ... that's a fake smile. Again, Jane and I are not quite the homemakers.

Floating Market before 7 am.
We managed to keep the early rises to a minimum on this trip, but this was an exception. We saw a local non-touristy market which was not as vibrant as expected, but still interesting. Locals bring their goods to trade here. That's durian and jackfruit in the background.We did not purchase that!

Biking around the delta.

This was one of our favorite activities. We saw no other tourists while winding through the narrow paths. We observed people going about their daily life and even heard "Watermelon! Watermelon!" (in Vietnamese of course) being sold from the boat guy on the canal. 

Rice fields abound.

Our host mom making rice paper.

She makes about 500 a day which takes ~5 hours and makes about $5. We were glad that our staying with them helps out financially.

Our host mom and her grandaughter. 

There was also her husband, another baby, Hue and a very excited puppy. Her daughter, son and their spouses live and work in the city.

This homestay was amazing. We were only there for 1 night/2days. It was very relaxing and remote, exactly what we wanted. We only wish we could stay out in the delta one more day. We definitely recommend Innoviet. It was a bit pricey, but they work closely with two local families and our guide was wonderful at giving us lots of insider perspective and history.

Cu Chi Tunnels

We headed back to Saigon. The next morning, after much bargaining and arguing via pen and paper, we finally got our disgruntled taxi driver to take us to the more remote Cu Chi tunnels (Ben Duoc) about 2 hours outside the city and 15 minutes farther than the popular one. It was totally worth the extra effort because we were the only ones on the entire grounds and got a private guide all for 1/4 of the price of the more touristed site.

Underground Tunnels

We got to experience these underground tunnels that the Vietnamese hid out in for months during the war. The tunnels were no more than a meter high and 0.5 m wide and there were 3 levels of them.

US helicopter

We were only in the tunnels for a few minutes, but the rest of our hour tour was more interesting as we saw the grounds of the battles, rebuilt huts and explanations of life during war.

Back in Saigon
War Museum

This was the only site in Saigon that we marked as a must-see. It was a very somber experience and interesting to see the war from the Vietnamese perspective. It seems that whenever I leave SE Asia, it is on a depressing note. The last time was the Phnoem Penh killing fields in Cambodia.

 View of Saigon from our hotel roof.

One of our favorite meals! We ate it twice.

Bun Bo Hue. Yummy spicy noodle soup. 

The first time we had this soup, a nice local at our table ordered for us. He got us "tourist" meat, meaning nothing too weird. The second time we ordered it on our own and we definitely got a more interesting variety, but still delicious!
 Madness in the streets of Saigon

Overall, Saigon wasn't our favorite city.  We aren't really the type to see every temple, museum, etc. We stayed 2 days in the city, but would've preferred one day less, but sometimes you never know. We did enjoy the food, fresh fruit juices and movie style cafes for people watching on the street. We ended up just chilling the last day anyways. We got a second round of relaxing massages and hung out at a local cafe reading.

Cold Seoul Dash

We had an 8 hour layover in Seoul. Should we stay in the comforts of the new, modern city airport or dash out into the cold streets in search for the perfect kal gook su? Definitely option 2!

Brrr! Yes, that is snow on the ground. 
We just came from 95 degree weather with 95% humidity.

Slipping through the streets of Myeong Dong

We were on a very specific hunt. The Myeong Dong Kalgooksu restaurant that Jane remembered from her childhood and then these awesome walnut red bean filled pastries. I'm all about traveling for food! With limited time, we literally had to dash around. Fortunately Jane has some memories of her summer spent here 5 years ago, but we still had to pop into a few hotels/tourist offices to inquire.

Success and happiness! Kalgooksu and mandu. The perfect meal.

We even found our pastries. Now we could leave Seoul satisfied. We made it back to the airport with plenty of time to spare for our last torturous leg home.

Sadly, homeward bound

Vietnam was all that we hoped for, and we have been hoping for a lot after all these years. We were glad that we saved this SE Asia country for later as we probably would not have appreciated it as much if it were sandwiched in with the other countries. Yes, it is probably one of the more developed ones, but it was still fascinating to explore. We also noted that we made two major upgrades in our travel style: budget hotels (yes, still budget cause we have to keep it somewhat real) and transfers to/from the airport. Since it's SE Asia we could afford these luxuries and we weren't traveling for long so as working women, we took full advantage of it! It greatly improves quality of travel.

Another awesome trip with Jane. There will be more in the future. Who knows when or where, but rest assured, it will happen!