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Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer. – Unknown

HANOI & HA LONG BAY, VIETNAM

July 25 – 31, 2013

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A few years ago I came across a friend’s photograph on Facebook.  I typically take a quick look at photos in the news feed, sometimes I comment, but mostly I just move on down the feed.  This particular photo entranced me.  It awakened my desire to see and explore more than any other photo that I can remember.  It was magical.  It was breathtaking.  It simply blew my mind.  The photo was a scenic view of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.  I knew from that moment I would have to travel there one day.

A majestic view from above Sung Sôt (Surprise Grotto)

A majestic view from above Sung Sôt (Surprise Grotto)

Day Four

  • Leave Hanoi by van to Ha Long Bay
  • Over night Paradise Luxury Cruise with stops at Sung Sôt and Đảo Ti Tốp

From Hanoi to Ha Long Bay

By staying at the Hanoi Elegance Ruby, we were able to easily book our trip to Ha Long Bay.  The hotel arranged our pick-up, held our bags overnight, discounted our stay since we were not staying one night out of our planned stay with them, and booked us a new (and even nicer) room for the evening when we returned.  Amazing service.

After looking at several options, we choose to book our overnight cruise to Ha Long Bay through Paradise Cruises.  This company was one of the few that had spacious rooms with balconies as an option.  We booked and were very happy with our room.  The energy on the boat was quite low from most passengers.  This did put a bit of a damper on our stay since we like to eat, drink and be merry.  We still did…just by ourselves!  Towards midnight, we heard a boat that appeared to be having way more fun – great music, cheering and excitement echoed from their boat.  Ours was quiet and dim by that time.  So warning – if you are looking for a party boat or want to socialize and meet new people, then you should try a different boat.

Paradise Luxury & Cabin

Paradise Luxury & Cabin

 

Enjoying everything there is to offer...

Enjoying everything there is to offer…

 

FYI, there's no shop for miscellaneous items on the boat...  We were hanging out on our balcony when we heard voices down below.  We looked down and saw a small raft approaching with goods for purchase.  These ladies had everything from chips, candy bars, water, fresh coconuts and more.  We turned them away as we didn't expect we would need anything.  A few minutes later another lady came by and it occurred to me that we might need a bottle of wine for the room.  What are my chances?  Sure enough, she had a bottle of Vietnamese wine for sale.  Then I thought, is she going to throw it up to us?  Then, how I am going to pay her?  My thinking didn't last long...she had a net to make exchanges.  Awesome!  What's not so awesome...hot wine that has spoiled.  Oh well!  It was a fun purchase.

FYI, there’s no shop for miscellaneous items on the boat… We were hanging out on our balcony when we heard voices down below. We looked down and saw a small raft approaching with goods for purchase. These ladies had everything from chips, candy bars, water, fresh coconuts and more. We turned them away as we didn’t expect we would need anything. A few minutes later another lady came by and it occurred to me that we might need a bottle of wine for the room. What are my chances? Sure enough, she had a bottle of Vietnamese wine for sale. Then I thought, is she going to throw it up to us? Then, how I am going to pay her? My thinking didn’t last long…she had a net to make exchanges. Awesome! What’s not so awesome…hot wine that has spoiled. Oh well! It was a fun purchase.

 

As part of the cruise, the ship stops at several places to give you an option of hiking, kayaking, swimming or visiting a cave.  Here we are at Dao Ti Top.  We were able to climb to the highest for a scenic overlook and then hang out on the beach to relax.  It rained when we were climbing but cleared up just as we were heading to the beach.

As part of the cruise, the ship stops at several places to give you an option of hiking, kayaking, swimming or visiting a cave. Here we are at Dao Ti Top. We were able to climb to the highest point for a scenic overlook and then hang out on the beach to relax. It rained when we were climbing but cleared up just as we were heading to the beach.

 

Ha Long Bay - Bay of the Descending Dragon; a UNESCO-declared World Heritage area

Ha Long Bay – Bay of the Descending Dragon; a UNESCO-declared World Heritage area

Day Five

  • Return to Hanoi from Ha Long Bay
  • Dong Xuan Market
  • Dinner at Pho 10

After a wonderful night of dining, gazing at the stars, playing games on our balcony, we slept like babies.  The next morning our boat headed back to the port where our van was waiting to take us back to Hanoi.  My last thoughts on Ha Long Bay…simply majestic!

Our return trip took a few hours.  Along the way we planned out how we wanted to spend our last night in Vietnam.  There was one restaurant we had yet to try…but we had one very important stop to make before dinner.  After learning how to make traditional northern-style pho, we knew we would want to recreate it at home.  That meant we needed the secret ingredient since we were told it would be quite difficult to find it in the states…back to the market we went!

Sa sung; dried sea worms for pho from Dong Xuan market. They add a wonderful savory sweetness to the broth...all natural umami!

Sa sung; dried sea worms for pho from Dong Xuan market. They add a wonderful savory sweetness to the broth…all natural umami!

Dinner at Pho 10

A wonderful friend bought me the book, Where Chef’s Eat – A Guide to Chefs’ Favorite Restaurants.  I made a point to look up if there were any chef recommendations before heading to Hanoi.  Sure enough, I found one!  Pho 10 was recommended by Chef Neal Fraser as being a restaurant worthy of traveling out of your way to enjoy.  He was right on point!

A must try in Hanoi!  Delicious, inexpensive, packed with locals, and great service.  Don't expect to hang out...this is an in and out stop.  The servers are quick so that everyone can eat without a long wait.

A must try in Hanoi! Delicious, inexpensive, packed with locals, and great service. Don’t expect to hang out…this is an in and out stop. The servers are quick so that everyone can eat without a long wait.

Day six (really day seven but the first day was cut short) was spent eating a quick breakfast and heading to the airport.  We were sad to leave as we could have used a little extra time to travel to other cities in Vietnam but we had other plans… off to Taiwan for a road trip with friends!

Verdict ~ Visit Vietnam!  If you are in Hanoi, stay in the Old Quarter, be careful crossing the road, drink Vietnamese coffee like an addict, and take in the all the pleasures the city has to offer…great people, even better food, history, markets, street food, and more.  Whether you are in Hanoi or another city in Vietnam – make it a point to travel to Ha Long Bay and be prepared to revel in the beauty our planet has to offer. 

For more on this journey – check out Part One and Part Two

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 Little by little, one travels far. –  J.R.R. Tolkien

HANOI, VIETNAM

July 25 – 31, 2013

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Day Three

  • Orchid Cooking Class with Chef Tien
  • Dinner at Nha Hang Ngon
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Chef Tien

 

Orchid Cooking Class with Chef Tien

One of the best ways to learn about a culture is through their cuisine.  On our third day, we signed up to take a traditional northern Vietnamese cooking class at Orchid Restaurant (25 Hang Bac Str, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, Vietnam) with owner, chef, and local food expert, Chef Tien.

The class begins with a basic introduction into traditional foods and a quick review of the menu you will be preparing.  After that, Chef Tien takes you on an adventure to the local food market to shop for main ingredients.  Next you are back in the kitchen to learn, cook, taste, share, and experience great food from start to finish.

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Orchid Restaurant & Cooking School

 

At Dong Xuan market shopping for ingredients we needed for the class.  Chef Tien steers us towards a lady selling balut and encouraged us to try it.  Jonathan takes him up on the offer and is quite surprised that it was better than his last balut experience...

At Dong Xuan market shopping for ingredients we needed for the class. Chef Tien steers us towards a lady selling balut (duck embryo) and encouraged us to try it. Jonathan takes him up on the offer and is quite surprised that it was better than his last balut experience…

 

Trying out chả quế; a delicious meat pate flavored with cinnamon, star anis and other spices.

Trying out chả quế; a delicious meat pate flavored with cinnamon, star anise and other spices.

 

Pho Bo: basically a whole day of work goes into making this delicious bowl of heaven...this particular bowl was the best I've tried and yep, I helped make it!  Secret ingredient...sea worms.  Look no further, these add a depth to the broth that is hard to substitute (that's why we smuggled into the US...shhhhh).

Making phở tái; basically a whole day of work goes into making this delicious bowl of heaven…this particular bowl (with cooked beef and then topped with rare beef) was the best I’ve tried and yep, I helped make it! Secret ingredient…sea worms. Look no further, these add a depth to the broth that is hard to substitute (that’s why we smuggled some into the US…shhhhh).

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Hanoi style Vietnamese spring roll and a seafood salad

Here we are making cha ca (pan fried fish with turmeric and lots of dill); this is a famous dish in the area and we made it with a twist...rapped up with romaine and rice paper..

Here we are making cha ca (pan fried fish with turmeric and lots of dill); this is a famous dish in the area and we made it with a twist…rapped up with romaine and rice paper.

I highly recommend this class.  Just the trip to the market with a local chef was worth the experience; learning to make all these wonderful dishes…was the cherry on top.  No, wait, eating them was the best part!  So what do you do after about 8 hours of cooking and eating.  Nap.  Guess what happened after that…  Yes, I was hungry again.

Dinner at Nha Hang Ngon

I don’t know how we actually do it.  Jonathan and I don’t eat like ravenous animals at every meal when we are at home but somehow we easily fit in enough food for a family of four at almost every meal when we travel.  I would be ashamed or embarrassed but I’m not…because we eat it all (or nearly so) every time.  There’s always this looming feeling that if we don’t try ‘it’ now we may never have the chance to…so we order and we order and we order.  Needless to say, I was not hungry the next morning.

When you encounter a menu the size of a novela, you get one of everything that is most appealing...and if you're indecisive, just order it.

When you encounter a menu the size of a novela, you get one of everything that is most appealing…and if you’re indecisive, just order it.

What a day!  We learned so much and enjoyed every waking moment.  Vietnam has so much to offer and if you aren’t convinced yet…stay tuned for part three, coming soon!  A little teaser… on day four we head off on an overnight trip to Ha Long Bay.

 

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A soup like this is not the work of one man.  It is the result of a constantly refined tradition.  There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.  – Willa Cather

HANOI, VIETNAM

July 25 – 31, 2013

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Thank Goodness for Smart Phones & A Little Faith

Jonathan and I have found ourselves in some funny, albeit stressful, traveling situations.  For example, showing up very late to the wrong airport to board a flight to Singapore was about the worst prior to our most recent trip. So what takes the cake?  Trying to get your boarding pass two hours before your flight without a visa to the country you are flying to.  Yes, that’s us, standing at the United check-in line looking dumbfounded when the receptionist told us we weren’t able to get on our flight without our visa documents.

Going back to the city and waiting a few days to head to the embassy in order to apply was not an option.  All it took was a few reassuring looks between the two of us, a quick Google search…and poof!  We were ready to outsmart the system.  For about $40 dollars a person you can apply online for an express Visa.  In one day, you can receive a PDF document allowing you into the country.  It took some convincing, but we were able to get United to send us to Thailand (our last layover city before Hanoi) with the hopes that by the time we arrive, our visa documents would be ready.  United cancelled our flight from Bangkok to Hanoi and made it clear that if we were unable to get into Vietnam or happened to be stuck in Thailand it was all on us.  We didn’t flinch.  We boarded our flight with good faith that our online application would go through before landing.

For anyone who travels, not quite fully prepared (like us), then it may be good to know that Vietnam does require a Visa for entry.  Also good to note, the Bangkok airport has a printing station and passport photo booth to complete any Visa requirements.   Thailand saved us…as if we needed another reason to love that country!

19 Hours…

Our plan for Vietnam was to indulge in great food and overcome serious jet lag before heading to Taiwan.  Although the beginning of our trip was not going as planned, we finally landed in Vietnam and were back on track.

It took everything out of me to not check in the hotel and go right to sleep.  It was roughly 6pm and I knew that if I wanted to get over the eleven hour time difference I would have to keep myself awake until an appropriate time to sleep…and then I remembered how amazing Vietnamese coffee is.  What better way to keep myself up than a cup of cool, sweet addicting goodness!

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Vietnamese coffee at the ever relaxing and air conditioned, Align 3D Café.

There simply wasn’t enough caffeine in the whole café to supply me with enough energy for the evening but I only had one choice.  Power through it.  Next up, dinner.  Anything would do after two days of in-flight meals but we were lucky to find ourselves near the famous Bat Dan Street.  It is rumored that Hanoi’s best pho can be found here on this street.  After strolling along for several blocks we settled down for dinner at the only place with a line of families and couples waiting for a seat.  Score.  When in doubt, look to the locals for clues on where to find the best food. Finally, a decent hour to catch some sleep.  We headed back to the hotel (Hanoi Elegance Ruby) and collapsed…  The next thing I know, Jonathan is waking me up from a lovely, deep sleep.  Whatever he wanted I imagined would go away if I just ignored his calling my name but suddenly it hit me like an amplifying echo…wake up, wake up – it’s 4:30 in the afternoon….wake up, wake up, it’s….  WHAT?  I was baffled; where was I?  And how on earth did I just sleep – wait let me count…19 HOURS!  That, my friend, is what they call jet lag.  Avoid at all costs.

Pho on Bat Dan Street.  More subtle and less fragrant than other places but certainly fulfills any need for a comforting bowl of beefy goodness.

Pho on Bat Dan Street. More subtle and less fragrant than other places but certainly fulfills any need for a comforting bowl of beefy goodness.

Day One

  • Sleep until an ungodly hour
  • Dinner at Highway 4
  • Night Market
  • Drinks

Sleeping 19 hours straight only leads to one thing…a ravenous belly.  No, two things…a ravenous belly and severe grogginess.  It was dinner time when we finally left the hotel and entered the world of the living.

Highway 4:  Get the catfish rolls!

Bo Tieu Den:  Beef sautéed in black pepper sauce

Bo Tieu Den: Beef sautéed in black pepper sauce

Nem Ca Xa:  Catfish spring rolls

Nem Ca Xa: Catfish spring rolls

Feast for two!

Feast for two!

An Evening Out:  Night Market and Drinks

The local night market is a great place to roam and purchase souvenirs.  The market basically had the same items found in the shops around town during the day but the draw to this market is not what it has to offer you but the energy it encompasses.  We were only a few among the tourists.  This market seemed to draw the locals out to pick up essentials, mingle with friends and to grab a bite to eat.  For a city that has little to offer for night life, I thought this market was an enjoyable way to walk off dinner and spend the evening.

Nothing like a beefy after dinner treat...

Nothing like a beefy after dinner treat…

...sweet and savory treats.

…sweet and savory treats.

Late night beers...

Late night beers

Just as we were beginning to relax and take it all in with a few beers we were ran off by the police.  After living in NYC for a few years, it is quite normal for us to eat dinner at 9pm and then head out for a drink.  Not quite possible in Hanoi.  The police rolled up in a truck and banged their long clubs on the bar’s awning.  We were quite surprised but quickly realized we were expected to leave and the bar owner needed to close down quickly for the curfew.  Plan according if you are used to late nights!

Day Two

  • Morning run around Hoan Kiem Lake
  • Bảo Tàng Dân Tộc Học Việt Nam (Vietnam Museum of Ethnology)
  • Don’s Tây Hồ (A Chef’s Bistro)
  • Hỏa Lò (Hoa Lo Prison or “Hanoi Hilton”)
  • Dinner at Essence Café and Restaurant
Jog around the lake...

Jog around the lake…

Our epic night of sleep apparently didn’t do us any good – jet lag still had it’s hold on us.  So…after lying wide awake in the wee hours of the morning, Jonathan and I decided to go for a run.  Since we were staying in the old quarter we decided to head out towards Hoan Kiem Lake.  We may have been the only ones up due to jet lag but definitely not the only ones who happened to be out exercising.  In the early hazy hours of the morning, you will find crowds of people at the lake.  Some doing yoga, some Tai Chi, and others jogging along beside us.

Vietnamese coffee post run.  Our only defense against the 12 hour time zone difference...and well, it's simply addicting.

Vietnamese coffee post run. Our only defense against the 12 hour time zone difference…and well, it’s simply addicting.

Bảo Tàng Dân Tộc Học Việt Nam (Vietnam Museum of Ethnology)

The great thing about being on vacation means that you don’t have to follow a schedule.  The downfall is without proper planning and scheduling you just might miss some things.  We had planned to start out our day at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  Despite our early morning run, we took our time getting ready and enjoying breakfast.  By the time we arrived, the line was epic and it was raining.  We didn’t come all this way to spend an afternoon soaked and waiting in line…so we improvised.

We hopped in a cab and headed to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology.  Glad we did!  The museum, although small, had much to offer in the way of learning about the culture and makeup of the Vietnamese people.  The museum highlights the tremendous amount of ethnic groups the are the backbone of the country.  I learned so much and it was a great way to escape the nonstop drizzle.

Don’s Tây Hồ (A Chef’s Bistro)

Oyster bar and views of the lake.  Yes please.  For lunch, we headed away from old quarter and towards West Lake.  Here you will find a less populated and more relaxing area to unwind.  Don’s Tay Ho has an eclectic mix of modern and traditional Vietnamese food as well as some international dishes that draw in an array of locals and tourists alike.  We sat down and devoured a lunch that would have probably fed a group of four.

Lunch overlooking West Lake

Lunch overlooking West Lake

 

Hỏa Lò (Hoa Lo Prison or “Hanoi Hilton”)

I was intrigued by this place…any prison that has Hilton in it’s nickname seems worthy of a visit.  Maybe that’s just me; I do love sarcasm.  This prison was a bit creepy but didn’t leave you with the skin-crawling sensation you can get from such sites (I happen to like that). However, it was interesting to learn about the history of the museum and the people that were once imprisoned there.  As we walked through and I was taking it all in, it became very clear that much of the information presented to the visitors appeared biased.  Bothersome but still worthwhile.  I was quite excited to see the guillotine room.  I can’t really explain why this was appealing but it was…I also found the artifacts and media covering John McCain’s imprisonment interesting (he was held as a POW at Hỏa Lò Prison in 1967).

Hỏa Lò Prison

Hỏa Lò Prison

 

Dinner at Essence Café and Restaurant

Surprisingly enough, we were able to muster up more energy to shower and head out to dinner.  Glad we did too because we had a fantastic dinner.  Essence Restaurant is ranked number two on Trip Advisor for restaurants in Hanoi.  You can expect great service and authentic Vietnamese food… and a long wait time if you don’t make a reservation.

Essence Restaurant in Old Quarter

Essence Restaurant in Old Quarter

Want to read more about this trip, check out Part Two

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