Vietnam has been the talk of the season across all travel channels. And sure it’s for a reason. By the end of our trip we lost the count of number of cafes we visited, countless bowls of Pho we had and endless coffee breaks. But what really unites the whole of Vietnam is the fact that people live their life on street – they cook, they eat, they drink all on the street.
We started our journey in Hanoi, or a city by the lake. The whole of Hanoi seems to be gravitating toward Hoan Kiem Lake, it attracts morning walker, evening stretchers, single tango practitioners, portrait makers, food and handicraft hackers & not to forget the selfie takers at “The red wooden bridge (The Hue Bridge)”. A city where every second shop is either a café or a chic designer boutique, each have its own flavor and style to offer. We started our culinary journey with Vietnamese egg coffee and few delicious slices of cake at café Cho Po. Followed by stone baked pizza at 4 P’s and winded off the day with Vietnamese dinner at Eggs and noodles.
As for most of the pavements, the one outside our hotel, also gets converted into a breakfast joint, with small blue or red stools, steam and smell of meat and stock, people having their first Pho and tea/coffee of the day, shopkeeper cleaning and lining up their artifact and painting, women setting or walking across the street wearing “non la” (palm-leaf hat) and carrying a “don ganh” (two baskets slung from each end of a wooden or bamboo pole) or on the back of their cycle, selling from freshly cut fruits, buns, donuts to anything.
Small coffee stores selling coffee beans and blends of varied strength and flavor, art galleries displaying interpretation of Hanoi with the hats, out quarters and tangled wires being common. Every meal deserved to end with a cake or a pudding.
Beyond old quarters, we headed to La Salsa for Spanish tapas, central market to get a glimpse of the most freshest and colorful fruits on sales along with pickles of all kind. The street lined with clothing stores with mannequins displayed their latest offering on the pavement outside their shops, few selling Ao dai (traditional clothing) and its fusion version.
Another favorite hangout for us was St. Joseph Cathedral square, with sit-outs at coffee shacks brooding with hot or iced black coffee with and without the sweet milk, bite from Banh mi (baguette sandwich) & doughnut stands and cocktail at The Church Boutique Hotel. Not to miss out water Puppet show depicting the folk stories is a must, fire spiting dragons were our favorite. Also, for local craft “Amazing Hanoi” seems to be both well assorted and priced.
Our next stop was Ha Long Bay. Ha Long literally means descending dragon. It’s mesmerizing to be surrounded by these floating mountains and as the sun gets on verge of bidding farewell for the day it really get magical. Before travelling lot of my research went into finding the right cruise – cruise route, cleanliness, duration, food served and cost. There are lots of cruise companies ranging from $60 to $400 per night, per person. We went for mid-segment V sprit cruise 2D/1N @ $235 for the family. Iteniery for all the cruise companies is almost same, they even anchor together at night. Along the cruise we visited Dau Go Cave, a limestone cave shaped by nature and accentuated by the light show. On board across 4 meals Vietnamese cuisines from baked crab, barbequed oysters, to shrimp cooked in vodka to prawn tempura and many more basic to exotic dishes were served.
Our journey further continued on to Hoi An, translates as “peaceful meeting place”. We started off with a hearty lunch at The Brother’s Café next to Bon River, sitting there and watching boats passing by carrying tourist on a short cruise, small fishing boats waiting for their catch, coconut trees lining the other side of the bank. We followed it up with a stopover at Mia Café for a carrot cake. By the time we reached the old town (UNESCO world heritage site), the sun was down but the famous Hoi An lanterns in all shapes, sizes and colors were out in full glory, along with young girls selling floating candles, open air gallery, river side restaurants and café, tourist clicking non-stop pictures and selfies, it really felt both overwhelming and magical. The old town is a vehicle free zone with columns of old yellow houses with clay-tiled roof, French windows and door, lower part of the house partially infested with algae. Most of them now converted to order to made suit and shoes shops, art galleries and small museums along with lanterns and other souvenir shops. The next day we started with a stroll to the central market, the freshest assortment of fruits, vegetables, sea food, meat, spices, groceries and women churning out rice noodles for the Pho, followed by few hours at the beach. A portion of the market hosts food hawkers dishing out the best of Vietnamese cuisine, all under one roof. Our stretched lunch went beyond Pho with Banh xeo, Bun cha, Goi cuon, Cua lau and obviously coffee. Not to forget, a perfectly stitched Blazer in 20 hrs. Straight. We were staying at Ha An hotel, this clay-tiled roofed building mimics the Hoi An old town houses, with an environment and setting that complemented the place.
Ho Chi Min City was our last stop before heading home. We were staying at The Central Palace Hotel, next to The Independence Palace. After having lunch at Benthanh Street Food Market, we headed for Ho Chi Minh City Hall, a cream and yellow colored French colonial-style city hall, can be easily mistaken for an elegant building somewhere in France. Across the road from the building, almost 800m long promenade with shops, cafes, hotels and office building upto the riverside starts with a well-manicured garden, followed be a statue of Ho Chi Min, the point seems to be perfect for getting clicked. Once the sun goes down the festivity starts with the promenade being taken over by performers, hackers and the locals. The city is flooded with restaurants, cafes, boutique shops and occasional Art Galleries. Right across the famous Notre Dame Cathedral, a stretch of road (Nguyen Van Binh) dedicated to book stores along with couple of cafes, a real treat for any book lover. One of the building that we visited on Ly Tu Trong Street just across the vincom mall was a colonial era building with broad spiral stairs, grill elevator, but now accommodate stylish bars and cafes, boutique shops and an art gallery on the second floor. The next morning we started with a stroll to the Independence Palace, the place and point where the war ended, after so many years such places present themselves as exhibits minus emotion (fear, betrayal, anger, hope…).
Public transportation is not quite robust, hence dependency on cabs
At Hanoi airport, do enquire few taxi counters before closing the deal. It costed us VDN 400 for a drop-off at the old quarters and VDN 330 for the return journey
For Hoi An, booking the transportation with the hotel is preferable. It costs around $21 one way
Insist for a room with a view