Kyra: After obtaining a 30 day visa-on-arrival in Vietnam, we decided to try our hand at slow travel. We booked an Airbnb in Hanoi for our first three nights with no other plans. We think that part of what made us love Hanoi and ultimately the rest of Vietnam so much was our ability to explore it slowly and organically, with no pressure to move to our next destination or fit all the highlights in. We ended up spending nearly three weeks in Hanoi (Hà Nội), Danang (Đà Nẵng), Hoi An (Hội An), and Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng.
December 13-20 and January 5-6
December 26-January 1
Kyra: As a lover and connoisseur of conspiracy theories, I was excited to investigate when our new friend Emily told us a number of Vietnamese believe that the corpse on display at the HCM Mauseoleum is not infact Uncle Ho himself. Unfortunately, given that much of Vietnam’s media is still censored, I couldn’t find much written on the topic – just a mention in passing here.
How we got there
Ben: Our flight from Bangkok to Hanoi was just the beginning in terms of our travel through Vietnam. We took more trains, taxis, vans, scooters, and runs than we had anywhere else. Additionally, a few of the trains were also our homes for the night and we found they weren’t too bad (apart from the setup and smell of the “toliet”).
Where we stayed
Kyra: We stayed in two awesome Airbnbs our first time around that I would highly recommend. They were both outside of the “major” tourist areas (a relative term in Vietnam) but well within walking distance or a short cab to anywhere you’d want to go.
Ben: We had some amazing hotels/airbnbs/homestays in Vietnam, but La Selva wins the hospitality award. We stayed there our second time in Hanoi. Let me list just a few of the things they did for us:
- After we arrived on a train from Dong Hoi at 5:30am, they brought us tea and coffee, then told us we could use an available room for one hour to relax and shower – this is a level of empathy rarely seen at any hotel.
- Everyone in the lobby talked to us and gave us tips on where to go (this was somewhat funny since we had already been to Hanoi for a week, but still appreciated their recommendations).
- They served an incredible breakfast (complimentary with our room) on the top floor of the hotel, including Vietnamese coffee, fresh juice, noodle dishes, french toast, and a chicken and egg sandwich.
- Knowing we had to catch an evening train, they prepared a to-go box with sandwiches, yogurts, and drinks since “the food on the train isn’t so good”.
- This level of hospitality was unprecedented and kind of spoiled a few of the other accommodations we had because La Selva was so cheap! It’s a top place to stay if you’re in Hanoi.
Ben: The Chu Hotel in Da Nang was our beachside home for the week of Christmas. We had a room looking out (kind of) on the ocean and spent our days making puppy chow, walking or scootering around Da Nang, strolling down the beach, meeting locals, and trying the food. Christmas day we found a nice little gift bag hanging on our door, including a number of the not-so-great chocolates we had purchased in anticipation of our puppy-chow making and donated to their staff.
Kyra: Homestays are very popular in Vietnam. They vary in authenticity but the concept is you stay in a room in a family’s house. Our homestays in Hoi An were about six guest rooms with breakfast included. At our first homestay, we enjoyed beers with the owner and played with Ruby, their 16-month-old daughter. At our second homestay, they put on a complimentary New Years Eve dinner for all their guests that was really special.
Ben: We tried to stay at the Phong Nha Farmstay, a newer hostel-like compound in the rice fields, but it was booked, so we chose the Duong Homestay. This was a very basic place, but close to our tour pickup point and in the middle of the small town. The best parts were the coffee served at breakfast and the fact that we somehow left our key in our door for the whole night and no one else used it.
Kyra: Vietnam is the first place on our trip that I was actually distraught over our dining options. At the beginning it seemed the only things available were some variation of noodles, soup, and cilantro. After 48 hours of picking cilantro out of broth with chopsticks I briefly gave up on local food and stumbled upon Pizza 4 Ps. They make their own cheese and cook their pizzas in a woodfire oven, plus the 4 Ps stand for, “Platform of Personal Pizza for Peace,” which is just another reason to love this restaurant.
Kyra: Luckily, we hung out with Emily, an expat from Pittsburgh, who told us about an Instagram account (Vietnomnom) that chronicles Vietnam’s famous street food and other Hanoi hangouts, which made them far more approachable.
Ben: One of our first days walking around Hanoi, we were on the prowl for some food and we saw something that looked like a cafe near a lake. After finding out they weren’t serving, we noticed a group snacking on something that looked like fried chicken – we of course asked if they spoke English (quite surprisingly, they did) and where they got such a snack. Instead of describing exactly where they got it more than 1km away, they just gave us two. We were grateful after our surprise died down and happily ate both – one was fried corn, one fried banana. The banana won far and away so when we found another lady selling them on the street, we jumped at the opportunity. Probably wouldn’t win any health awards, but that’s not really the point, is it?
Ben: The egg coffee is a spin on Vietnamese coffee, this one is crafted using an actual egg white, giving a foamy topping to the strong coffee beneath. The taste is just as sweet as normal Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk, but the egg gives added flavor to the drink. It’s something you need to try when in Vietnam, and what better place to do so than on a rooftop cafe?
Kyra: Eager to try more street food in Danang but apprehensive of accidentally eating dog, I found this awesome guide to grub in Danang.
Ben: One of the most appetizing budget meals we had was Ban Xeo at a place called Ba Duong. We spent about 30 minutes trying to find it because although most people knew where it was (Google Maps did not), they couldn’t tell us the unit of measurement away but we knew it was five something (5 minutes? 5 meters? 5 miles?). After passing by the sign, we circled back and drove our scooter down an alley, greeted by a few of the workers at Ba Duong. After sitting down, they just start bringing out food since it seems they only serve one thing: Ban Xeo (pictured below). It is a savory pancake filled with beef, shrimp, diced onions, and bean sprouts. Ba Duong serves these with a variety of leaves (lettuce, mint, and basil) as well as rice paper so that you can wrap everything up and eat it like a spring roll. These were flavorful, a bit crunchy (something we hadn’t found yet in Vietnam), and cheap. I think our entire huge meal ended up costing $3.15.
Ben: A noodle-based breakfast dish, this dish was a favorite and only found in Hoi An, Vietnam. The noodles are much thicker than the normal pho noodle and toppings include sliced pork and fried pork fat. We ate this dish probably 10 times each during our time in Hoi An and were always searching for the perfect Cao Lau (our first homestay was the closest to “perfect”).
Kyra: Hoi An is also famous for “White Rose” and “Wontons” (pictured below) which are made from the same dough. Both are readily available at the city’s central market among the sea of stalls with women who prepare and sell a number of dishes unique to the area.
Ben: This map will be different than the previous iterations because I started using an app that tracks everything about your day (places you traveled, ate, when you worked out, what your heart rate was, etc) and their forte is beautiful graphs and charts. Below you’ll see a nice idea of our path through Vietnam (minus our first week in Hanoi, a large city in the North of Vietnam).
Local View and Lessons Learned
Ben: I don’t have many specific lessons learned in Vietnam, however something our first Airbnb host told us was quite funny to me. We mentioned renting a scooter and wondered what the laws were for someone without a Vietnam drivers license. In Vietnam, he said, you’re required to have a Vietnamese drivers license in order to operate any vehicle (scooter or otherwise) on the road. However, he said that no one really cares who is driving scooters (as we saw from the countless scooters commandeered by kids under 12 years old). Additionally, he said that police won’t pull you over if they see you’re a foreigner because they can’t speak English, so it would be a waste of their time. The prospect seemed funny to me and of course Kyra and I never experienced this on our multiple scooter trips. The only time we even saw a policeman while riding he just smiled and gave us a big thumbs up.
Kyra: If you have a belonging (eg shirt, shoes, wallet) you love but it’s a little worn out or would look great in another color, bring it to Vietnam and have it remade. Labor is cheap and there are shops all over the place that can have your item ready for you in hours. Similarly, we learned that a number of outdoor gear brands have factories in Vietnam. Check the tag of your North Face rain jacket or Patagonia sweater – they probably say “Made in Vietnam.”
Kyra: The influence of Communism can be spotted in parts of daily Vietnamese life. For example, we learned that most cities in Vietnam have a curfew. Hanoi, for instance, has a midnight curfew. Any night we left the bar after that time the streets, normally boisterous, were completely deserted. As far as media, newspapers are censored and I found that occasionally Twitter, which isn’t widely used in Vietnam anyways, was blocked.
Kyra: Lastly, on sidewalks all over Vietnam, you’ll find people perched on plastic stools drinking tea and eating copious amounts of sunflower seeds.
Ben: Kaw mon (like “Come on” – Thank you
Kyra: Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo! – 1, 2, 3 Cheers!
Kyra: At our homestay in Hoi An, Ruby, a jolly 16-month-old won the hearts of every traveller. She was endlessly happy to be held and easily entertained by shiny objects.
Kyra: Most days in Hanoi, we spent some amount of time hanging out in coffee shops, sipping on Avocado smoothies or the famed egg coffee, and working. This picture was taken in one of Cộng Càphê’s seven Hanoi locations.
Kyra: Wow. From the moment we landed in Hanoi, Ben and I were completely astounded by how kind the Vietnamese people we encountered were. For instance, when we arrived at the building of our first apartment, we couldn’t quite find the one we were looking for, so ended up wandering around a bit. I accidentally walked into a woman’s apartment and instead of yelling at me, she smiled and showed us the way to our apartment. People waved at us, told us we were beautiful/handsome, and treated us to food and drink. The only thing they didn’t do was stop for us while crossing the street.
Motorbike Tour of the City
Ben: Before we landed in Hanoi, Kyra had messaged our Airbnb host, asking if she might know any locals we could meet – Vickie, our host, more than delivered. She told us that her brother, Son, and his friend, Jun, would meet us the next day with their motorbikes, in order to properly introduce us to Hanoi. We flew through the busy streets and arrived at the Temple of Literature, a series of very old buildings recognizing the achievements of great Vietnamese scholars. After snapping many pictures and getting a full history lesson from Jun, we headed off to the Hỏa Lò Prison, where John McCain was held decades earlier.
After weaving through the old cells and exhibits of the prison, it was time for some noodles. We ate a great, inexpensive meal and then scootered to the Old Quarter of Hanoi, a popular tourist spot. We drank beers that cost around $.80 – we thought it was an awesome deal until we found beers later that week for $.12/glass.
Kyra: Son is crazy obsessed (in an amazing way) with movies and has set a goal of watching every Academy Award winning movie.
Ben: We bonded since Kyra and I have watched at least one film per week throughout our trip. We ended the night with ice cream at a popular hangout in Hanoi. They sold both soft serve ice cream and frozen yogurt on a stick – we tried the “green rice” flavor and it was delicious. After the ice creams they dropped us back at the Airbnb and we said our goodbyes. Kyra and I gave each other a look of “how did that just happen?” and were really happy with how the day ended up.
Kyra: There is an almost overwhelming amount of street-level activity in Hanoi. Sidewalks – when they do exist – are vibrant displays of Vietnamese life. They are filled with men sipping tea and playing Chinese checkers, women peddling fruit and food, barbers, singing birds, and more. What was really magical about Hanoi was that the experiences we had felt happenstance and authentic. For example, walking down the street, we stopped to watch a few men play Chinese checkers and were invited to have tea and talk with them. Walking around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, a popular place for a stroll at night or on weekends, we encountered several groups of students who stopped us to practice their english.
Ben: I have to hand it to Kyra, she made this Christmas one of my best! She knew I was missing family and planned a lot of surprises and events in lieu of a White Christmas. To begin, she had the idea to make Puppy Chow, so we scoured the city for a day gathering up the ingredients (or close substitutes, Chex doesn’t have a big presence in Vietnam). We then walked to an apartment whose owner she had contacted earlier and the laborers at the building let us in and allowed us to cook in the kitchen (we used one of the only fully complete rooms in the building, in the owner’s apartment). The juice was worth the squeeze.
The next day she brought me to a surprise location: she had found two free passes to the local gym (think Lifetime Fitness in the US) and we took a yoga class, from an Indian instructor, speaking English. It was awesome. After eating some local food and touring the strange Cham sculpture museum, we ended with a great meal on the beach at a fancy resort. Our first tropical Christmas was a huge success.
Kyra: Hoi An is a vacation area, a town replete with shopping, food, and beaches. Vietnam isn’t as tropical as you’d think in January so we seized our opportunity on a sunny day to bike through rice patties to read on the beach.
Ben: We had been debating about what to do for New Years Eve until one morning at our homestay when we met Alex and Ellie, from Australia (Alex by way of Canada). We seemed to get along quickly and decided to hang out for trivia a few nights before NYE. We had an awesome time and thought we should all get together to ring in the New Year. Both of us found other couples to join us and we had a pretty decent crowd at an Aussie bar in Hoi An. Much drinking of cheap beer ensued and it was fun to be able to hang out and converse with some English speakers for an extended period of time. The night ended well, with some street food noodles and strange conversations with a local who spoke close to fluent English.
Kyra: I was particularly excited to learn that an old friend, Jason Ketover, happened to be in town on vacation with his family. All the pieces fit together perfectly and he met up with us to celebrate the new year!
Ben: Kyra did some great research on where to go in Vietnam and found an area with some of the largest caves in the world which were discovered in the last ten years. Like a few other places we’ve been, there was little information to go on so we booked a tour that was probably too expensive, but still enjoyable. The first large cave we saw was a little over 7km long and had a nice walkway set up for the first 1.5km.
Ben: Our second large cave was the Dark Cave, aptly named as we needed headlamps to navigate it. They got everyone suited up with life jackets, helmets, and harnesses, then zip lined us across a river to the cave’s entrance. We waded through water in the entrance and left our life jackets on a rock. We were then told to follow our guide through a tiny crack in the wall. Everyone was led through small passes in the rock which were very muddy, into an even more muddy pit where everyone sunk, laughed, and got covered in mud. After almost crawling back through another passage, we washed the mud off and swam through open water in the cave to another landing. Everyone was instructed to turn their headlamps off and we swam back from where we came in pitch black. Although unnerving, this made the entire tour worth it.
Ben: To finish up the day, we kayaked back to the main area where we could zip line into the river and swim or zip line to an obstacle course hovering over the river. At the end of the day we were exhausted, damp, and cold, but the tour was one of the more memorable outings on the trip.
Ben: Vietnamese coffee – this ultra-sweet drink was popular wherever we went. At the core, it’s a glass of condensed milk that is covered by a small drip-coffee on top, so the very strong coffee can mix with the sweet condensed milk. We heard that most doctors recommend you do not consume this if you have heart issues; and for good reason as it kept me awake all day.
Kyra: Wearing your pajamas in public. EVERYONE wears their pajamas all-day everywhere we went in Vietnam. Totally a trend I can get on board with.