So I’m going to start by saying this, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with Vietnam, and I’ve only been here a week!
When we planned to come through South East Asia, I saw Vietnam more as a country that I really had to see, rather than having a huge urge to see, but as soon as we had our first night walking around the old quarter I knew straight away I would have a wonderful time here.
Hanoi itself is a really exciting city. We were staying in the old quarter, which is absolutely buzzing with life, with thousands of scooters, and amazing smells of street food. The city has a really cool vibe, it’s obvious why it’s such a backpacker spot. The nightlife is vibrant and chaotic at the same time, but everyone is out to have great time. But what I really loved about Hanoi was the way it transformed when the sun went down, with huge areas of the city becoming totally pedestrianised, transforming into beautiful walking routes, buzzing night markets and fantastic street food quarters. I should say now that over the whole time in Hanoi, we only ate street food, and all of it was outstanding!
What really helped is we booked the most awesome hostel that needs a special shout out. Nexy is a really unique and modern hostel, we were staying in a 14bed dorm that would never normally be my idea of fun, but the dorms don’t feel that big and offer loads of privacy. The hostel has a cafe, games room, mini cinema, awesome wifi, and is in the perfect location for backpackers to explore the old quarter (which is basically a right of passage for anyone stopping in Hanoi). What’s even better is they helped us out so much with booking onward travel, and offered loads of tours to all the big local sights, and more importantly the beds are SUPER comfy!. This is all good, but it was a very reasonable price too! This place is wholy recommended for anyone coming to Hanoi on a budget.
Vietnamese food is one of those cuisines that is not widely available in the UK (except for London) and when recreated by take aways is often done really badly. I was absolutely craving fresh fruit and vegetables after India; even though we were basically vegetarian for huge portions of our India trip, the vast majority of street food was deep fried, consisted mainly of potato and onion, and we couldn’t really eat the fruits because of the water situation (something we were strongly advised to be vigilant about). Immediately after getting to our hostel, we both went out of a food hunt. We joined my mates Tim and Steph (two mates from the UK also on a year away) and their two buddies for some Pho and Bun Cha; obvious choices to start with. The first thing that we get wrong in the UK is the sheer level of fresh herbs we add to such dishes. In Vietnam the pho busts at the seams with fresh herbs, which totally transforms the dish. Another regular Vietnamese addition is the sides of pickled sweet garlic and fiery red Chilis. I really like this as it totally enables everyone to tailor everything they eat to their own liking; it’s the small things that make the big difference.
Over the duration of our time in Hanoi we ate our way around the city, trying anything we could find. The food here is all super fresh, superbly spiced and flavoured, and unbelievably tasty. It also helps because we were only eating street food, you can add super cheap to the list too (everything was at least half the price of an equivalent dish in a restaurant). We found that we were really struggling to identify many dishes though, because of the language barrier. In India we could kind of get by because of the level of English influence around, but it was way more challenging in Vietnam. For this reason we booked on a street food tour to gain a better understanding. I’m so glad we did, as we ate some outstanding food that we probably would have never tried if just on our own sampling things. Here’s a little break down of the stuff we munched.
Bun Cha. Fish sauce and hot water based noodle soup (green papaya and honey for sweetness). Herbs used are mint and marjoram with minced pork patties.
Nom that bo kho (dried beef salad)- Green papaya shredded. Pork shrimp and mushroom dumpling. Dressing is fish sauce lime sugar water
Banh Cuon Nong- Soft rice paper dumplings with mushroom pork and shrimp. Crispy onions on top
Pho xao- Thick noddles with soy etc
Banh mi- French baguettes with BBQ roast pork, pate, cucumber, carrot, green papaya and chill sauce
And this was just a snippet! I hadn’t realised how much Vietnamese food relied on marjoram and fish sauce, beyond the obvious mint array of herbs.
Overall, the food has blown me away. This kind of cuisine is did initially something I’ll be doing way more of back home!
The history and culture
We all know some of the history, but I’d be lying if I said I had a clue about so much of it, which we came to learn about during our stay in Hanoi, a city that’s been riddled with war and destruction over the centuries.
On our second day we decided to go and explore the old prison, following recommendations from a few mates. Over the years the prison was used to secure everyone from political protesters to prisoners of war, dependent on when, what was happening at the time, and who was in power. As you would expect the stories we read and the conditions that we saw were quite shocking, but interestingly when the museum moved onto cover the POW imprisonment during the Vietnam war (known as the American war over here) the emphasis shifted more to showing the quality of care American forces were given. One thing that has jumped out at me is the shift in emphasis on war reporting when you’re looking from the “other side”, it’s not bad and I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s propaganda, but it’s certainly made me more aware of reading the content from our own reports.
This country has had such a turbulent power struggle even without the well known wars, it’s really quite amazing the Vietnamese people are still so awesome! It seems that the old leader, Ho Chi Minh has a large amount to do with this.
Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho as he’s known here, seems to have almost deity like status here. Just like we saw in India, his face was all over the place as much as Sheva was in Varanasi. He saw in the independence of Vietnam, the north/south battles, and ruled through a number of other periods of turmoil. When he died in 1969, the country went into a state of mourning only rivalled by the recent death of the King of Thailand! It seems that without his leadership, this wonderful country would be a very different place! We were fortunate to visit the royal palace in Hanoi where he lived, but he wanted to retain a simple way of living, so actually had a smaller property within the grounds of the palace. It seems that this simplistic but comfortable way of living is something again that has definitely rubbed off on the nation.
The city itself has so much beautiful history around, covering influence from China and France in the main. We spent a few hours touring the literary museum one day, and you could have thought you’d crossed into China because of the architecture, then you turn a corner to see the grand stately home like mansion buildings with a clear French influence. Running through the streets in the old quarter, houses and cafes have balconies and shutters you’d traditionally see throughout Paris, and in Some areas you could almost be walking down a street in Lyon!
To top this all off, Hanoi is a very cultural place, with art playing a huge part on the way of life, even the bin men have their own theme tune (no joke, they had a theme song that was played whilst collecting rubbish). To add to this, a clear French fashion influence and a pretty wonderful array of street performers makes Hanoi one of my top stops on this trip so far. However I knew that was likely to change; for my 30th birthday we had booked a 3 day, 2 night trip to Ha Long Bay, something that was destined to blow the bucket list out the water entirely!
Ha Long Bay
I seriously have no idea where to begin with this….
Ha long bay (meaning descending dragon ) is such a magical place, and I’ve never seen landscapes like it anywhere else in the world. To call it a bay is an understatement, it’s more of an archipelago of 2000+ limestone islands bursting out of the sea, absolutely covered in greenery and teaming with wildlife. I saw more birds of prey on this trip than I think I have in the rest of my life combined!
We booked on a trip months ago called Imperial Classic Cruise, which comprised of a night staying on the boat with kayaking and swimming galore, followed by another day and night on a private island, followed by another day on the boat with a cooking class. This operator picked us up from the hostel, and dropped us back so it was seriously stress free.
The boat itself was cool! We had a great upstairs balcony to chill out on, a private room with AC, food supplied (which was also good) and a great bunch of staff and some guests we really got on well with. We started the trip with a 90minute cruise through the bay getting a feel for the landscape. Honestly, it’s beautiful. I have taken far too many photos because everywhere you turn it looks different. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park for that whole 90 minutes. We were also given the opportunity to go kayaking for around 90minutes, setting off from a local floating fishermans hut (pretty cool). For me this was amazing, as we were able to really explore by ourselves and at points felt like we were the only people in the area.
After a bit of boat jumping we settled down to a pretty heavy night of unplanned boozing, drinking games, karaoke and general noise making with the other guests. We only went to bed when we cleared them out of beer and some guests started falling over.
On my birthday we set off around 8am to the surprising caves, a collection of caves only discovered in the last century. They are called surprising cave because the first cave is small, but the ones after come as quite a surprise. They are HUUUUUUUGE! The way it’s lit as well is pretty awesome, and something I’d recommend going to see. Sadly I think every tour operator in the bay seems to take people there is was absolutely saturated with other bodies… For me what made this little expedition though was the views over the bay. Take a look for yourself!
After this we boarded a smaller boat to head to our island break at sandy beach resort. The boat itself was rubbish and falling to bits, but it didn’t matter once we arrived at the island.
I actually couldn’t believe we were staying here. The resort consisted of about 20huts over the sea, with a central area for food and drinks. We were totally enclosed by the limestone cliffs which made it feel even more secluded. We spent the afternoon kayaking around the bay in the more choppy water, swimming and generally doing very little except standing in disbelief of where we were. This place was far from 5* luxury but it so didn’t matter, we had a wonderful time with awesome people and really didn’t want to leave.
Our final day consisted almost entirely of travel back to Hanoi, with a pretty average cookery class thrown in (making spring rolls hardly counts as a cooking class I feel). Sadly the rest of the day we spent on a bus, or doing life admin, but that’s the fun of backpacking!
I can safely say I love this place. Both Hanoi and Ha Long blew me away. If they aren’t on your travel lists, they bloody should be! We’re now heading onto a place called Dong Hoi to explore the Phong Nha national park, and the worlds largest caves for a few days before we explore the wonderful area of Hue and Hoi an. We will be taking our first sleeper bus tonight which will be an experience in itself I feel!