Hanoi, Ha Long and Hoian
12.12.2014 - 12.22.2014 60 °F
Our favorite destination in Vietnam was Hoian. Hoian is a little old port town located at the mouth of the Thu Bon River on the coast of Vietnam about half way down the eastern seaboard. The old part of the city dates back to the 15th century and is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Dusk in Hoian is when things really come alive. The whole city glows with with soft light. Lanterns, candles and lights line the streets and illuminate the french colonial shops, giving the whole city a warm and inviting feel. Friendly locals invite you buy a t-shirt or have some clothing tailored while you wait. Hoian is known for its custom made clothing; a city of only 120,000 residents is home to over 200 independent tailors. It seems that the whole town is either t-shirt shops, tailor or restaurants.
Hoian is also known for its food, which prompted us to do a “back of the motorbike” food tasting tour. Two local college girls arrived at our hotel on scooters to show us what culinary treats Hoian had to offer. Shawna and I each hopped on behind our respective driver and off we went to eat. And eat. And eat. We hopped from restaurant to food stand to backyard eatery for three hours. We ate so much that, at one point, we had to stop and rest to make room for our next meal.
Notable stops on our tour included a bhan mi shop featured on Anthony Bourdain’s culinary show (it was delicious) and a stop to eat balut. If you’ve never heard of balut, brace yourself. Balut is considered the worlds top challenge food. Essentially its a hard boiled duck egg, but instead of being an unfertilized egg, its an egg which has been allowed to mature inside the shell. After being prodded by our two young drivers, I tried the balut. It wasn’t the flavor that bothered me, it was the concept that drew the most consternation. I forced down two bites before I called it quits.
The following day we decided to do a cooking class that included a bike ride into the farm areas around the city. Riding a bike in any asian city is a thrill. Cars come at you from every angle and there aren’t any rules of the road that I could discern. Once we were out of town, things went a little more smoothly. We rode past ladies in straw hats casting fishing nets for their next meal, water buffalo with young grazing in open fields and neatly laid out rows of herbs that seemed to stretch for acres. On our tour we saw how cao lau noodles are made, stopped at an herb farm and concluded with a stop at the open air market.
While the cooking class was fun, we both decided that we enjoyed the thai cooking class in Chiang Mai more. In fact, I enjoyed the food in Thailand more than Vietnamese which was surprising because the few Vietnamese dishes I’d had at home, I really liked.
Before Hoian, we spent several days in Hanoi and a night in Ha Long bay. We both felt a bit overwhelmed on arrival in Hanoi after our bucolic stay in Long Prabang. The old part of the city feels crowded and dirty, the sidewalks are full of scooters, merchants and popup restaurants, forcing pedestrians to walk in the gutters. We even saw a restaurant owner butchering dog meat on the side walk. At this point in the trip we weren’t too interested in site seeing so we weren’t sure what to do or where to go.
The highlight of Hanoi had to be our walking street food tour. Our tour guide brought us to crowded hole in the wall restaurants that we would probably have missed on our own. He also instructed us on how to assemble and eat the various dishes brought to us. We tried bahn cuon, salty doughnut, crab spring roll, pillow cake, fried sour hem, pho, bun cha, che, vietnamese coffee, and bia hoi (local draft beer for only $.30)! This was the best food we had in our entire time in Vietnam. Probably the most worthwhile lesson our guide taught us, though, was how to cross the street.
The large cities in Vietnam have an unending stream of motor bikes crossing intersections without regard for street lights, making traditional street crossing an impossibility. Our misguided approach was to run, stop and run again, trying to weave and dodge between the bikes, causing several near misses. The proper technique is to simply step out into the street, keep walking in a straight line, don’t slowdown and don’t stop. The scooters simply flow around you like a boulder in a river. This was quite a revelation to us and made the city much less intimidating.
After Hanoi, we planned to spend two nights on Ha Long bay. Ha Long is a collection of 775 limestone islets which jut up from the water and can reach 200 meters in height. Ha Long literally means ‘descending dragon’ and has its own Loch Ness myth about a sea dragon that inhabits the waters. With the gray mist floating amongst the cliffs and the abundance of sea caves in the area, one almost wants it to be true. Sadly our trip to Ha Long was cut short due to bad weather; we only got to spend one night on the boat before being bussed back to Hanoi.
While northern Vietnam was enjoyable, we were particularly excited about the next portion of our trip. Our friends Chad, Shane and Joanie were on their way to meet us in Saigon!