Filled with vibrant cities, small hill villages and 2000 miles of coastline, Vietnam is compelling and exotic. Influenced over centuries by the Chinese, Portuguese, Khmer, Japanese, British-Indian, and of course, the French, Vietnam is culturally complex. At one point, the country was known as French Indonesia. Its staggering natural beauty, fresh, colorful cuisine and reasonable cost of travel is drawing tourists to this fascinating country.
With two weeks to explore this remarkable country, my husband, Gary, and I set out to see its highlights – Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong Bay.
Hoi An – Colorful Silk Lanterns
Hoi An’s Old Town, a UNESCO Heritage site, and mecca for photographers, remains a well-preserved trading port lit up at night by hundreds of colorful silk lanterns. Bright blue, green, yellow, red, white and pink lanterns dangle everywhere, glowing gaily throughout this Disneyland-like village.
The Hotel Royal Hoi An, an ornately decorated French colonial hotel on the banks of the Thu Bon River, provides a luxurious five-star retreat just a few short blocks from the Old Town.
For a small village, there is so much to do, see and eat in Hoi An’s Old Town! Our first night, we dine at the Morning Glory restaurant to sample traditional Vietnamese recipes like banh xeo, a savory crispy crepe filled with bean shoots and mint, fish in caramel sauce and Cao Lau noodles – Hoi An’s most famous dish.
In the morning, we wander through the town’s largest and most famous farmer’s market. A jumble of stalls overflow with fresh produce, herbs, handmade noodles, fish and meat. It’s here we learn more about the herbs and spices that make Vietnamese cuisine so enticing.
Foodies love Vy’s Market. Aromas of food cooking in wood fired stoves or over open flames fill the market. Different dishes at every station along every wall in this low-slung room tempt hungry visitors. A sign above one shouts out “Weird Wonderful Food.” Indeed, it is. One pot holds pig brains, in another cooked duck embryos. Other stations display bowls of stewed offal, spicy frog roti, pig’s ear salad, spicy snails and silkworms. Anthony Bourdain would be right at home.
Upstairs, we join a Vietnamese cooking class and learn to make white rose dumplings filled with prawns and shallots, served with a sweet and sour sauce. Next, we tackle rice paper rolls filled with basil, mint, coriander, shredded morning glory stem, bean sprouts and chrysanthemum leaves. The secret to a perfect rice roll is placing a smaller crispy fried egg roll in the middle to give it that added flavor, crunch and texture. The mango prawn salad is my favorite. Its sweet and tangy dressing tastes fresh and delicious but learning the proper technique for slicing and shaving the mango impresses me more. We finish with a banana flambé covered in coconut cream and sesame. A loud whoosh of flame startles us as we pour rum in the sizzling hot pan.
Our last evening, we dine at a restaurant named Secret Garden. The secret is finding this place, wandering through narrow streets, past resident’s homes, apartments, and backyards. But once we arrive, we understand how the restaurant got its name. Seated in an open-air platform surrounded by water and lush greenery, this backstreet restaurant is a treasure.
Hanoi – A Foodie’s Paradise
Next stop, Hanoi – Vietnam’s capitol and second largest city. Home to nearly 8 million people, we couldn’t have prepared for the crowded, chaotic rhythm of this city. But the dizzying variety of food, craft beer, and bargain shopping make Hanoi a fascinating place to explore. It’s also the jumping off point for our journey to Halong Bay.
We chose a hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter, not a location for the faint of heart. Traffic lights mean nothing. Sidewalks are crowded with parked vespas. What little space left is occupied by merchandise spilling out from the shops lined up along every street. Pedestrians must learn to flow with the crazy “dance” of hundreds of motor bikes buzzing through the streets.
Our first night here, we witness a massive gathering of residents celebrating a huge victory in sports. After ten years of waiting, Vietnam won the ASEAN Football Federation championship against Malaysia. Hanoi goes crazy! A massive, impromptu parade fills the streets, winding its way through the town center. We get caught up in the excitement as crowds cheers and sings and waves the country’s red and yellow flags.
On Sundays, streets along Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) are closed to traffic giving walkers a restful respite. Families and lovers stroll, stopping for ice cream, enjoying the view and soaking up the sunshine. Here you can see wonderful examples of the city’s colonial architecture.
But it’s the cuisine that draws many visitors to this vibrant city. A food-themed walking tour takes us through Hanoi’s largest covered market, Dong Xuan. Wandering through hidden alleys and bustling streets, we sample eel soup, dry beef salad, Hanoi’s dish Banh Cuon, and spring rolls. We even drink local craft beer as we perch on small plastic stools set in front of a pharmacy just across from the beer joints. A crazy jumble of delights, Hanoi’s food and beer scene is not to be missed.
Halong Bay – Land of Dragons
A friend once told me that Halong Bay, Vietnam’s “Land of Dragons,” is the most beautiful place he has ever been. An iconic image of Vietnam, this place has serious mystique.
Cruise ships on Halong Bay range from budget boats filled with backpackers to sleek, multi-storied modern yachts. Because this UNESCO World Heritage site can get overcrowded, we chose Orchid Cruise lines for an experience that would take us further away from the ships packed with tourists.
There are just 18 cabins on this luxury cruise ship. But luxury in Vietnam doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. Each room features floor-to-ceiling and end-to-end windows. A comfortable balcony provides a serene spot to drink in the floating scenery.
For three days and two nights we’ll explore this place of ethereal beauty. As we begin our cruise, we’re served an intercontinental lunch in a dining room surrounded by spacious windows. It’s hard to sit still as the beauty of Halong Bay unfolds.
Our ship glides through water the color of jade as we sail past Cat Ba Island, home to one of Vietnam’s largest national parks. Occasional ripples cut the smooth glass surface, shimmering as though a million tiny sardines are fleeing a hungry predator.
Dramatic limestone cliffs and rock formations, rising from the water like a dragon’s back, against the backdrop of the bay’s magnificent scenery look like giant green coated gumdrops dropped into the sea. Whittled away over centuries by wind and water, they’re breathtaking. At low tide you can see just how much nature has carved way. The famous and most photographed – Finger Island – looks like it would topple over in a storm.
The name “Land of Dragons” comes from Vietnam legend which says the Heavenly God sent a mother dragon and her offspring to the region to fight off invaders. The flock of dragons spat many pearls into the sea, forming thousands of rocky islands to block the enemy. When the attacking ships smashed against the rocks, destroying their fleet, the local people were saved.
After lunch, we explore the 2000-year-old Trung Trang cave on Cat Ba Island. Full of glistening stalactites that have been dripping for millions of years, the cave winds 300 meters deep through the mountains of Cat Ba National Park.
The evening begins with a glass of wine on deck. Hot and sour soup, mango salad with beef, and sautéed snapper make a delightful dinner. We watch the sun set over the Gulf of Tonkin, then join the other passengers in night squid fishing. Anchored in a peaceful bay, sleep comes easily tonight.
Our buffet breakfast in the morning offers omelets, eggs prepared to order, an abundant charcuterie board, fresh fruit, croissants, and a salad bar. A generous offering of hot Vietnamese stir fries and rice is served buffet style.
Exploring Viet Hai Village
Today we’ll visit Viet Hai village, on the other side of Cat Ba Island, to learn firsthand how a community can work together to feed itself. Villagers raise chickens and pigs. Their community garden is overflowing with cauliflower, strawberries, pumpkin, green beans and sweet potatoes. Villagers even make wine from flowers, bananas and snakes. A few brave souls in our group sampled the snake wine.
Back on the boat, anchored in an uncrowded cove, we witness more of the Vietnamese entrepreneurial spirit. A woman in a rowboat comes up to the side of our boat peddling wares.
Water is a way of life here. Floating villages crop up in sheltered inlets, along island coasts. Banded together with the most fragile materials, we wonder how these outcroppings fare in a terrible storm.
A refreshing cocktail whets our appetite before dinner. Tonight’s menu features mixed green salad with a balsamic vinaigrette, pumpkin soup, grilled prawns, stir fried vegetables and a refreshing dessert of ripe pineapple, watermelon and dragon fruit.
Our final morning, we awake early to breathe in the serenity. Guests paddle out in kayaks before breakfast, disappearing around small islands and reappearing again just in time for the ship to pull up anchor.
After a hearty breakfast, we start our slow sail past Cat Ba Island, back to civilization, filled with memories of beautiful, peaceful, ethereal Halong Bay. Considered by many to be the Eighth Wonder of the World, this is a place apart.
Heading back to Hanoi for our flight home, we say farewell to dreamy, exotic, vibrant Vietnam, filled with memories to last a lifetime.
Pamela and Gary Baker are freelance writers based in Northern California. They have written for regional, national and international magazines, newspapers and websites including International Living, Upscale Living, Via Magazine, A Luxury Blog, Northwest Travel and Life, Washington Tasting Room, and Australia and New Zealand Magazine.