Vietnam was always a place that intimidated me: the crazy streets and unwieldy traffic, the complicated visa process, the potential hostility towards Americans. Watching Anthony Bourdain visit several of the amazing cities within Vietnam comforted me, prepared me, inspired me, and excited me. I’ve been back to Vietnam, a country he calls “one of his favourite places on earth,” several times since my first trip, and I love it more each time I’m there. I went back to Vietnam in mid-May, this time to Hanoi. This post’s for him…
So let’s talk about this awesome place. Hanoi is:
- The capital of Vietnam
- The country’s second largest city by population (after Ho Chi Minh City)
- Located in northern region of Vietnam, situated in the Vietnam’s Red River delta
- Known for its old architecture and rich culture with Southeast Asian, Chinese and French influences
I went with a group of 15, so everyone had begun trickling in from Singapore starting on Thursday morning. I had previously had a client meeting booked for Friday afternoon but wanted to leave Singapore as soon as it was over, so I (foolishly) booked a flight that included a six-hour overnight layover in Kuala Lumpur. I kind of never want to talk about that experience ever again in my life, but the important thing is that I (eventually) landed in Hanoi on Saturday morning, got my visa sorted at the airport, and headed to the hotel to meet the gang.
First thing’s first after a harrowing flight (and always, in life): food. I was able to catch the tail-end of breakfast at the hotel, with a mix of morning classics as well as some more traditional Vietnamese dishes. There was not much on the agenda for the day when I arrived: some wanted to spend time at a spa, some wanted to shop around, others wanted to get clothing tailored. So we split up into a group (this is the nature of large group trips), and I headed out with the gang that wanted coffee. Because, priorities. We made a few stops that morning: first coffee, a few minutes at the tailor, shopping around a bit, and then lunch. We ate at a nice French restaurant in the Old Quarter called Green Tangerine, with a solid prix fixe menu that had us full and happy afterwards. From there, we went to the Vietnam Military History Museum. You always need a bit of history when in Vietnam! The museum had a pretty baller collection of war relics documenting Vietnam’s struggle for liberation, with pieces dating back 4,000 years ago, those from the nation’s Chinese colonisation, through to the French period, the brief Japanese period, and all the way through to the Vietnam (or American?) War. At the back of the museum was a B-52 (the jet, not a reunion concert of the American new wave band, much to my disappointment), and some other strategic bomber jets. Pretty cool! But when I say I that never in my life have I felt as overheated as I did walking around in the beating sun, I’m not being dramatic—we were all dripping in sweat and needed to find cover after some time. It was time to go back to the hotel and cool off.
So what next for the gang? We had a bit of “free time” (am I at summer camp?) before our dinner reservation that evening, so I took it as an opportunity to walk around the downtown neighbourhood and do a bit of exploring that I had missed out on the day before. I walked over to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a stunning neo-Gothic structure consecrated in 1886 that is still alive and vibrant thanks to the area’s large community of local Catholics (thanks, French colonisation!). The outside is impressive, standing at 31.5 meters, or 103 feet, and there is beautiful, French-produced stained glass on the inside. I have just learned from a quick Google search that the church was built by French missionary Tonkin Paul-François Puginier (what a name), with Paris’ Notre Dame in mind. Cool! I did a bit of shopping and ended my summer-camp free time with a coconut iced coffee, or coffee with coconut milk over ice, or the most amazing and delicious beverage a dairy-free person that is also addicted to caffeine (hi) can drink. From there, I headed back to the hotel, changed and primped quickly, and met a few people from the group upstairs for some rooftop beverages before dinner. See below for stunning sunset panorama.
We ate dinner at Chim Sao, an authentic culinary experience of northern Vietnamese country cuisine with a laid-back family-style dining vibe (we sat on mats and shared our dishes). The restaurant is housed in a 1930′s French-colonial style two-story residence in a section of town filled with residences and art galleries. It’s looks pretty unremarkable, but the food was delicious! They also had extensive options for the veggie heads like me, so I was very happy with the dinner as well. Our waitress let me know they had run out of wine at the restaurant (absolute blasphemy!!), and as I don’t drink beer, the only option was a rice wine with an alcohol content of 42%. When in Rome (Vietnam)! After a mere two drinks, I really had to stop myself. Additionally, there was a large group of super obnoxious (read: drunk) women at the adjacent table, I think all simultaneously experiencing mid-life crises, and we asked the staff to request they politely STFU. Once they left, it was much better and we were able to enjoy the remainder of our meal in peace. After dinner, some people were feeling very tired, and also aware of our 7AM wakeup the following morning, so they headed back. But I hadn’t experienced the nightlife in Hanoi as I arrived late, and I am also not one to always make “responsible” decisions, so a few of us headed out to hit the town.
It must be worth pointing out that on our way to the bars, we ran into two people from Brooklyn, New York, and I ABSOLUTELY had to take a photo with them. They were living in China, but were born and bred in the 212—smallest. World. Ever. The club we wanted to hit up was closed, so we stopped by another one nearby—a very expensive and exclusive spot where we stayed for about 10 minutes before deciding to call it a night. We headed up to one of the hotel rooms to continue chatting and have another drink, before hitting the sack about 30 minutes later. The next morning would be an early one, and responsibility won out in the end.
Our bus was scheduled to leave the next morning at 7AM, which I clearly thought meant 7:15-ish. But I was startled by the promptness of the group—I had never been part of a large, traveling group that arrived on time for things! It was truly remarkable, but at the same time stressful because I am not known as one who is generally able to operate my life in such a way that allows for promptness (I’m working on it). I rolled up at 7:05AM, last one obviously, and we hit the road. Where were we heading? Halong Bay!
Halong Bay, or the Bay of the Descending Dragon (hardcore), is a UNESCO World Heritage site 3.5 hours east of Hanoi. It is a mystical and magical bay, dotted with nearly 2,000 mostly uninhabited limestone cliffs. On the agenda for us was a two-day, one-night cruise on this beautiful bay, and we couldn’t have been more excited.
We took a small boat out to our private charter, a two-story cruising boat, and explored the space (see photos below). I was completely awestruck by what was around us: emerald waters and bright blue, endless sky, as well as what wasn’t: people, congestion, traffic, noise. It was engulfed by silence (outside of our own group), and we were without Wi-Fi: the perfect trappings for an immersive and rich experience together, the 15 of us (good thing I like these people).
After setting down our bags (guess who bagged a private room, woot woot!) and relaxing on the sunny deck for a bit, we headed to the main deck for a delicious lunch of Vietnamese dishes. The staff were incredibly accommodating with our (my) dietary requests, and the meal itself was delicious and extensive. After lunch we changed into our swimsuits and took the boat over to a nice area with kayaks, where we spent about two hours in the afternoon. The experience was one to remember, mainly because it involved kayaking through a pitch-black cave filled with bats and sharp speleothems (to find this word, I Googled “very scary and sharp formations inside a cave”). Our tour guide brought a single headlamp on the trek for the 15 of us, and kept turning his head to point out different mineral deposits along the way. NOT THE PRIORITY AT THE MOMENT, SIR.
After exiting the
death gauntlet cave, my kayak partner Micah and I decided we would rather spend the rest of the kayak tour relaxing and saving our own lives, so we let the group go onto the second cave and paddled around a bit in the bay, chatting and enjoying the happiness of not catching rabies and losing both your eyes in a dark lagoon. It’s the little things, really.
Once we reunited with the group, it was back to the dock and back to the boat. As the sun was setting and leaving the bay covered in beautiful sun sparkles, we decided it was the perfect time to swim. The tour guide was encouraging us to jump off the boat into the water (the same one that thought it was cool and kosher to supply one headlamp for a group of 15 in a blackout cave—shocker). I am a bit of a scaredy-cat when it comes to these things, but after observing my friends/human sacrifices expose themselves to potential danger first, I felt okay about it and jumped in with the rest of the group. We spent about an hour in the warm water, tiring ourselves out just before heading back on the boat to clean up and head to our next event: cooking class!
We gathered around a table in the dining area, ready for our tutorial on making spring rolls. Some of us were better than others from the start, but before we knew it, we were all rollin’ like Coolio. And the best part was that these spring rolls turned out to be our appetiser before dinner! And speaking of dinner, it was served on the top deck of our boat, under a beautiful starry sky. Plus they let me take of their auxiliary cord, so dinner was accompanied by some fabulous Sam jams, if I do say so myself (just thought of the phrase #SamJams and I’ll be using it exclusively to describe my music moving forward).
Our big group dinner was super fun, made more fun by the game our insane tour guide set up for us, that involved three volunteers using a cucumber to move a tomato over the finish line. This was before we even started really drinking. Please don’t ask any questions about this—I was and still am as baffled as you are. But hey, anything in the name of entertainment! What followed after this was a night of good drinks, good tunes and good friends. What a party.
I was so scarred by the scorn I experienced upon arriving at the bus five minutes late on Sunday morning, so when our tour guide told us breakfast would be served the following day at 7AM, I was there, in my seat, at 7AM sharp. The memo I missed is that it would be a rolling timeline, as in breakfast would be served as people woke up. Damnit! Time management, never a strong suit. People began trickling in over the course of the next 90 minutes, recapping the evening and drinking/chugging coffee in order to come back to life.
It was a pretty rainy day, so our morning activity of fishing was a no-go. Instead, we visited a nearby floating village. On the way over, our tour guide had us participate in a “traditional ritual” where we banged sticks against the boat, making noise to “wake up the fish” and lure them to the surface for a plentiful fishing session (I’m dubious about this approach). Anyway, these floating villages are pretty miraculous: at one time, each village was a completely self-contained society, existing in perfect harmony with the land and sea, with houses, shops, schools, and even police stations within them. Their boats and houseboats were tethered together to provide safety against the elements. Today, the floating villages are still preserved, but the inhabitants mostly live inland, but still carry out their work tasks here, like fishing, net weaving and, what we were there to see: pearl processing, one of the richest sources of business from this part of the world. Some interesting facts we learned from visiting this pearl farm (and also the most obscure knowledge to will now have in your brain):
- Pearls are the only gemstones in the world to have been extracted from living animals
- A pearl is formed when a mollusk secretes a protective substance called nacre around a small bit of organic matter, or as a result of damage to the shell
- While some oysters die after pearl extraction, there are mussels which remain alive even after the removal of pearls (the ones we eat)
- Most of the pearls found in jewelry are cultured, which means that an irritant, such as a small bead, is purposely placed in an oyster or mollusk to ensure pearl production (natural pearls are extremely hard to find)
Seeing the intricate production process of these beautiful pearls made me very appreciate of their use in jewelry. So, another fun fact is that I am totally open to someone buying me a necklace or bracelet containing these little beauties.
Our time in Halong Bay wrapped up quickly after this, with a nice lunch and final farewell to our boat crew. We boarded the small boat again and headed back to the island, then back to Hanoi via bus. We had rented a nice, big house for us to stay in for our remaining night, and after calling the owner to clear out a few surprises (ahem, used condom) from the rooms, we headed out for some coffee and a liquor run. Our dinner that night was—what else—banh mi, the staple, easy-to-eat sandwich with juicy layers of roasted pork (or tofu), pâté and crunchy vegetables. No visit to Vietnam is complete without one. Or five.
We headed back to our apartment for some pre-drinks and “friendly” card games, which turned into a savage matchup of friends who I learned, in the heat of fire, are actually insanely competitive. I was pretty new to this game and came in almost last place, but actually my friend Faz took last place, saving me from total embarrassment. But as the game involved a set of rules to follow, and mandated drinking each time you broke one of the (confusing and hard-to-remember!) rules, I was pretty out by the end. We had had a few very early morning wakeup and, coupled with the intensity of the rice wine we were playing with, I was exhausted (and tipsy) by the end. (I said I’m not one to always make “responsible” decisions, but sometimes I am!)
This was really a trip for the ages. Sometimes it’s nice to travel solo or part of a duo or small group. But other times, traveling as part of a larger group is just the best. There are always other people around to share in your good times—and that was certainly the case with this bunch. Going to Hanoi, and especially to Halong Bay, where we had no Internet, gave us all the unique chance to bond, learning more about each other, our families, our interests and dislikes, than any weekend in Singapore would have done. Being part of such a fantastic group of people made this trip one of the most fun and memorable in my time here in Southeast Asia. Thank you, squad! Looking forward to our next trip.
Some photos from Hanoi and Halong Bay: