The catch-up continues…
Day 117: Another day lost to travel, another crap hotel
We left Phuket in the mid-afternoon and had a layover in Bangkok on the way to Hanoi, so most of this day was pretty uneventful. We arrived late in the evening and then spent way too much time figuring out the visa process at the Hanoi airport. This process was so ridiculous that I can’t retell it. Just know, if you need to go to Vietnam and you can’t get your visa ahead of time at an embassy (which we couldn’t easily do while traveling), the on-arrival process is ridiculous and should be researched ahead of time. We did the research and still found the entire process to be a little insane. Just…totally inefficient. ANYWAY. Our hotel had arranged for a driver to come get us and so once we found him, we made our way to the hotel to pass out ASAP. Sadly, the room we arrived to was a tragedy. Moldy ceiling, no proper windows, hardest bed in the world, leaky toilet, bizarre shower…needless to say, I was displeased. It was too late to find something new for the night so we sucked it up and slept as best we could.
Day 118: Sleeping Lucy & Ricky-style
Fortunately, the next morning we were able to find a room at the nearby Hilton and had enough points to cover us for two nights, which was precisely what we needed. Thank you, hotel gods. Of course, it was a two twin bed room so a little hilarious, but whatever–sleeping Lucy and Ricky-style for a couple of nights was really no sacrifice given the other improvements.
Finally, time to explore Hanoi! First up was a little lunch, at a place called Club Opera per the hotel’s recommendation. Quite tasty for our first meal in Vietnam!
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the Old Quarter, trying to navigate traffic without dying (not kidding, Vietnam traffic is absolute insanity) and doing some window shopping. The streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter are something to behold…a slightly crazy maze of themed streets (themed because every store on the street sells variations of the same product, e.g. shoes, clothes, yarn, tape, etc) that really should be named after the products they sell. Case in point, here’s a store that sells every kind of tape you could ever want:
It’s hard work braving the traffic to peruse the store windows but the laughs are worth it. Eventually it was time for dinner and we decided to try Moose & Roo Smokehouse, a popular BBQ-type place near our hotel. The general ambience was nice (though I could do without the smokers, but that’s a given everywhere in Vietnam) and they had a wide selection of beers and food, so definitely worth a try. My food didn’t quite hit the spot, but really, American BBQ has ruined me for life.
Day 119: The strangest mausoleum ever
We decided to give the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum a try given its popularity as a visitor spot, and really…I don’t know why this place is popular. This was really the strangest museum I’ve ever been in. Good thing it was cheap.
We also made a pit stop in the Old Quarter again, this time to find me some cheap-o knock offs to replace my very dirty and slightly falling apart sneakers. (Did you know that a lot of the brand names we know and love have factories in Vietnam? Which means this is one of the best places to find legit-looking fakes for very little cash money. Win-win.) We found a good knock-off pair for $15 and really, you can’t complain about that.
I was way over being around 5 million people so Ben was a kind husband and picked up take out for dinner from Pizza 4P’s, a place reviewed as the best pizza in Vietnam. We were too hungry to remember to take pictures, but we promise it was good. The pizza wasn’t as good as others I’d had in Asia but it was good enough, and more importantly, the burrata salad was TO DIE FOR. I would eat that every day for the rest of my life.
Day 120-121: Ha Long Bay adventures
A visit to Vietnam is not complete without a Ha Long Bay cruise, so off we went. We booked with Rosa Cruise and would fully recommend them. We got to do some kayaking and swimming, visited a pearl farm, had a lesson on the art of spring rolls, explored a massive limestone cave, and most embarrassingly–sang karaoke. (The karaoke was basically a forced group activity so there was no bowing out. Obviously I chose 90s tunes a la Backstreet Boys, NSync, and Britney Spears.) The weather was kind of crap (cloudy, some rain) most of the time, but it was still really cool and worth a visit.
Rosa Cruise delivered us back to downtown Hanoi once the Ha Long Bay visit was over and we made our way to the Hanoi airport (to note, the crap hotel that we left early felt so guilty about us hating the room that they booked our return taxi for free so at least there’s that) for our flight to Da Nang. After the initial Hanoi hotel experience we became wary of 3-star hotels and switched our original Da Nang hotel to a new (and way better) one in Hoi An, a smaller town near Da Nang, and thank goodness we did–our new hotel, Lasenta Boutique Hotel, was SWEET. I can’t tell you how happy I was when we arrived in the room…aside from our Bora Bora hotel (which was preposterous, so really it’s not fair to compare), this was probably our favorite hotel in Asia. Love love love.
Day 122-127: Rain, rain, and more rain
Apparently, rainy season was still going strong in the central part of Vietnam because it rained, rained, rained…every day, for most of the day. While a bit disappointing, this also meant we had the perfect excuse to be the lazy bums we secretly wanted to be. It was lovely. Our views weren’t quite what we had hoped, but even while flooded, these rice paddies were still pretty neat:
Of course there’s always time to eat, so we didn’t skimp on food over those few days:
Despite the rain, we felt obliged to at least try to visit the famous Marble Mountains of Da Nang, so one day we Uber-ed out that way with umbrellas and hopes that the rain would clear for a while. That definitely did NOT happen so the visit was a little miserable, but we did find the mountains to be impressive and would certainly recommend a visit…in drier weather.
There was one late morning where the clouds looked like they would hold, so we made a run for Hoi An’s Old Town for a quick visit. We purchased the official tour tickets so we could visit a couple of temples and other sites across the town and gave ourselves the speediest tour ever (the clouds were holding but looked ominous). It’s really a cute little town, with dozens upon dozens of shops offering everything from custom tailored suits and gowns to kitschy souvenirs. If we had the time, I would have totally gone for a tailored outfit–for those prices, why not?
Because of the constant rain, the river was having a bit of an overflow problem, but that didn’t stop the locals from going about their day!
Day 128: Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) by night
On our first real day in HCMC (we had arrived the day before but late in the day), Ben and I parted ways after breakfast so he could go join in as an advisor of sorts (?) in a hack-a-thon that his friend Tom was participating in as well. No better excuse for a mani/pedi. The best part? Walking into the shop and realizing that every other customer was a middle-aged Asian man. One was enjoying his pedicure and foot massage so much that he passed out and snored loudly for 20 minutes. The men of America have much to learn from the men of Vietnam. [BTW, walking to the nail place was without question a test of strength of mind and stomach because HCMC traffic is NO. JOKE. Pretty sure I almost died about 20 times.]
Later that evening, I met back up with Ben, Tom, and his girlfriend (now fiancée!) Lynh for dinner at Cuc Gach Quan. The food was delicious but perhaps my favorite part was the doors…
Later on we all went rooftop bar hopping, and can I just say that this is a much funner activity when done with locals? All Ben and I did was get into and out of cabs, letting Tom and Lynh dictate where we went. It was lovely. We were terrible about taking pictures from each rooftop, but the views were quite nice–there are lots of high rises going up all around Vietnam and it’s making for a great night sky.
Day 129: Really wish high school history classes actually made it to the Vietnam War
After a hearty Americanized lunch of burgers and fries at Chuck’s Burgers…
…We made our way to the War Remnants Museum, which focuses on the Vietnam War (though of course the Vietnamese call it the American War). There was way too much in this museum to be able to properly summarize it in a few words or pictures, but let’s just say that I really wish I had learned more about this war earlier in my life. It happens so ‘late’ in American history that you never seem to get to it in high school history classes, and my appreciation of history classes was so limited that I never bothered to take a US history class in college. If you’re American and, like me, have limited knowledge about our role in (and the events of) this war, you may want to take the time to learn more. I haven’t found a book I like yet, but I’m looking. This museum was definitely biased (quite a bit heavy on the anti-American sentiments) but based on what I saw, it’s not without reason. I think most of us have always known that war is ugly, but this museum really puts it all out there for brutal consumption. A sobering few hours, for sure.
After we finished at the museum, we took a little stroll by the famous Central Post Office–I wondered what could be so great about a post office, but this one was actually quite nice. It was super busy, so obviously a popular attraction, and it also had these cute old-timey phone rooms that people were using for photo ops. Worth a visit if you’re in HCMC and have the time.
Day 130: The day that should be remembered for other reasons but instead was ruined by pickled onions
By far one of the most popular spots to visit near HCMC is the Cu Chi Tunnels, a massive network of underground tunnels that were used heavily during the Vietnam War by the Viet Cong soldiers. It was a slightly strange experience listening to our tour guide explain how the tunnels were used to trick, thwart, and kill American soldiers–I felt sort of traitorous–but it was really interesting to explore the area and tunnels. We got to walk through a few of them (it the pitch black! 😱) to get a real feel for what the Viet Cong soldiers experienced…let’s just say that I’m not cut out for war (as if I didn’t already know that). One thing you can do while there is shoot an automatic rifle (you pay per round) and I had psyched myself up on the way to the tunnels to do it (maybe I’d finally understand the ‘magic’ of guns that Americans love so much)–but then when we got there and I heard other people shooting the rifles, I totally panicked and chickened out. Way too loud and terrifying. No thanks.
As we headed back to HCMC for drop off from our tour, our guide suggested we try one of his favorite local spots for lunch. I can’t remember the name of the broth/soup for the life of me, but it was similar to pho. I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of pho (mostly because I’m not a huge soup person in general), but this soup was pretty decent, despite my struggles to eat it–I am TERRIBLE with chopsticks and really…how do you expect me to eat slippery soup noodles with chopsticks? Like come on. I am simply not that coordinated.
The tragedy of this meal comes not from the food itself but from a fateful event with a jar of pickled onions (the offending jar is in the picture above). The jar was open on the table, our guide suggested we add some to our soup and I politely declined because I hate onions and I hate pickled things so really pickled onions is perhaps one of the worst things I can imagine. Well…I don’t know what happened but one second the guide was reaching over the table and the next second the jar of pickled onions had spilled all over me. My pants were completely soaked and my purse got wet as well. Our guide was super apologetic and obviously I knew it was a mistake so it was no harm done, but on the inside I was simultaneously gagging and having a panic attack about how I would get the smell out of my things. Little did I know how bad it would be…
When lunch was over, we walked over to a famous coffee shop that’s apparently been around for over 100 years and is a favorite spot for locals. I don’t drink coffee but was convinced to give it a taste. We got to check out the back of the shop and see how the coffee is made…an insanely rudimentary set up for how many customers they have a day! All in all, a nice distraction from my pickle predicament.
The rest of my afternoon was a little rough. I spent like 45 minutes soaking my pants in laundry detergent trying to get the pickle smell out and then realized that even after a shower, my legs still smelled of pickles! It was a little traumatizing. Another shower with vigorous scrubbing and too much soap seemed to do the trick. I rinsed my purse too with hopes that it would be salvaged but alas, such was not the case. RIP loyal travel companion.
To emotionally recover from the pickle trauma, Ben let me wander the streets of HCMC in search of a McDonald’s to continue my world taste-test. Once the Happy Meal therapy was over (BTW, Vietnamese Mickey D’s is pretty good, and they have legit BBQ sauce!), we walked around a bit and made our way to a real dinner. After months without proper Latin food, I had found a Cuban place (Cuba, la Casa del Mojito) in HCMC that was reviewed as being spectacular, so obviously it merited a visit. It was definitely not ‘spectacular’ BUT it was decent and, more importantly, they had plantains so I was in my happy place for a bit. This meal did confirm for me that if I ever want a total life and career change, I could start a Latin American restaurant in basically any country that we visited in Asia and make a solid killing simply by making authentic Latin food.
And so ended our time in Vietnam. It was rainier than I’d hoped and ended on a slightly sour (pickled) note, but we did truly enjoy our time there and would happily visit again. Next up: the Philippines!