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Trip Report Spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet : Three foodies tour Vietnam

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Years ago, as a community nurse in Inner London, I visited very many Vietnamese families who had just arrived in the UK having left Vietnam on perilous trips in small boats. As a nurse you are enormously privileged as people share with you their life stories, their food and the tales of the country they have left behind. I sat in the flats on the drab estates they had been relocated to, being offered Pho and hearing their personal stories watching their children become streetwise and picking up 'Sarf London' accents whilst the parents struggled to come to to terms with the immense changes in their lives. At the time any concept that I might actually visit Vietnam and see it all for myself was very remote as the country was ravaged by war and closed to the world but their stories stayed in my mind and it became a dream that I was able to fulfill in September this year,

The three of us [me and my partner both in our 50s and our 18 year old son] are not very good at organised tours, we hate being pinned down to a particular schedule, we like to see a few things in depth followed by a good long lunch rather than rush around a hundred sights and, for us, holidays are predominantly a chance to spend time together rather than an opportunity to meet other people. We therefore decided to book independently, it was exceptionally easy to do via internet and all contacts responded very quickly and helpfully and everything, including all the taxi pick ups, worked like clockwork when we got there. Unless you particularly want to take a tour I would think even inexperienced travellers would have no difficulty in happily going it alone in Vietnam.

For planning we used fodors forums [I found Aussiedreamers trip report "Cambodia and Vietnam, a life changing journey" hugely helpful ] the sticky rice food blog , Lonely Planet and the DK Eyewitness guides which helpfully all gave a slightly different perspective. We decided to spend time in the north [Hanoi and Sapa] and the centre [Hue and Hoi An] rather than trying to cover the whole country.

I deliberated for some time about the Visa position wondering whether to go in person to the Embassy in London or whether it was OK to order a visa in advance on line. In the end it looked such a hassle to go to the embassy as you had to go twice during working hours which meant two days off work that I took the plunge and ordered on line from http://www.myvietnamvisa.com. I chose this firm as it had been referenced in some papers such as the UK Independent as well as getting positive reports on this forum and so seemed likely to be bona fida. All went well with very quick responses and visa documentation arrived as promised a couple of days later and was rapidly processed at Hanoi airport. I would highly recommend this option as only took a few minutes to sort.

We had originally planned to fly direct to Hanoi from London on Vietnam airlines but at the time of year we went [first two weeks of September] this service stopped and you had to go via Charles de Gualle in Paris thus adding some considerable time to the journey. As the only attraction of Vietnam airlines from a long haul perspective had been the non stop service we switched to Thai air via Bangkok. This was a good choice with reasonable legroom for economy, pleasant service and a truly excellent in flight entertainment system with more choice of films than you could see in a lifetime and which kept us all happy for 12 hours. Our baggage went straight through from Heathrow to Hanoi but for us the interchange in Bangkok involved a very lengthy and poorly signposted walk from one side of the large airport to the other but we were soon on an equally comfortable Thai air flight to Hanoi which again had a good entertainment system. The final descent for my much longed for arrival in Hanoi was therefore accompanied in a rather surreal way by a back episodes of the US version of "Who do you think you are?"

Passing through customs and collecting visas was quick and we stepped out into the hot and humid evening air to see our waiting taxi driver [booked through the hotel] waiving our names on a sign. The drive into Hanoi was dark along a two way highway with fascinating little glimpses into better lit side streets where people were sitting eating and drinking on low stools on the pavements or shopping in little stores or hurrying home from work. As we got nearer the centre more lights appeared with the ubiquitous chain restaurants featuring as in the world over these days but we suddenly veered off to the right into a maze of tiny streets switching back and forth between them to the point loosing all sense of which way we were facing and amidst an almost medieval backdrop of small shops and stores with people, motorbikes, street food, small fires and goods flowing onto the street and into the road.

We had booked the "Hanoi essence" hotel for our stay in Hanoi which is right in the centre of the old quarter. A top pick on trip advisor with the sort of praise that was so good that one felt a bit suspicious, however we were very soon to join the effusive posters as we thought it was a simply perfect city hotel. Very cheap by UK standards, comfortable smart rooms including wifi and laptops, a decent restaurant with room service and the best and most helpful and friendly service we have ever experienced,

We collapsed into our rooms [a family suite for circa £70 that had two interconnecting rooms with two bathrooms] after nearly 24 hours since leaving home. Dizzy with jet lag and excited by having successfully navigated from our home in the London suburbs all the way to central Hanoi we discovered that room service was as cheap as chips and we got a bit carried away ordering umpteen dishes, some beers and a bottle of wine. It arrived very quickly with a relay of staff bringin it up from the kitchen downstairs on several huge platters covered in palm leaves and in little whicker baskets: banh xeo, nam bo ban bo, spring rolls, noodles spilled all over the sides. I am ashamed to say we ate it all.

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    Despite the central position of the hotel our room was very quiet and we slept well. Then that lovely feeling you have as you wake up on the first day of your holiday when all the excitement stretches before you and your work fades into a comfortable distance. Breakfast was in their attractive air conditioned dining room and was decent with a cold buffet of pastries cold meats and cheeses and a short menu of items such as pancakes cooked to order. The music playing was the only odd note and UK readers will understand how bizarre the selection was when I share with them that the theme tune from Eastenders featured predominantly within it.

    We decided to do a small walking tour that morning to orientate ourselves and with the help of the hotel map set off through the old quarter towards Hanoi’s central lake. Our passage was slow both because the streets were teeming with people and it was very hot indeed so we stopped to buy and drink bottled water. Whilst some shops sold souvenir type items they mostly appeared to be trading much as they must have done for the last hundred years. Some streets specialised in food with unrecognisable vegetables or fish or noodles being prepared in the outside shop fronts. Other streets featured shops with big uncomfortable looking wooden furniture or were full of things like car batteries. There was no hassle at all and no one took any notice of us as we weaved through the area. As many commentators report crossing the street in Vietnam is an act of faith. Following the advice of walking slowly and steadily into what felt like a certain death situation worked well [I found that closing your eyes helped in this technique !] and the flow of motorbikes and cars parted at the last moment and let you though.
    The lakefront is landscaped and clean with little paths running through gardens and plenty of benches to stop and rest on and people selling cold drinks etc. We walked slowly around the lake enjoying the sense of being in the heart of the city but in a relatively peaceful location. It was the Vietnamese national day in a few days time and preparations were in full swing, with a huge series of balloons and banners being floated out into the centre of the lake and a series of huge floral displays spelling out with civic pride the dates of liberation from French rule “1945-2012” being set up by the waterside. There were also a significant number of couples getting their wedding photos taken. The brides in elaborate westerns style wedding dresses and the men in formal suits. Given how hot it was it must have been a real trial to stand around all decked up in this finery and indeed some of them looked decidedly naffed off, with the men retreating to a seat in the shade with a cigarette whilst the women had their hair combed into exactly the right twiddle in the full sun. All this activity kept us fascinated for at least an hour until we got to the bridge to the temple on an island in the middle of the lake.

    The temple and setting was pleasant but what caught our eye was more so. A large family gathering had assembled on a small plinth under a canopy just in front of the temple and were sitting down placing a range of food items including fruit, tins, packets and what looked like a sort of jelly type cake in front of them together with some false money which they subsequently burned. Then followed some chanting and drumming and dinging of a bell all in a relaxed but serious manner. This went on for some time and they were seemingly not bothered by the occasional tourist taking photos or walking up to them to see what was going on. At various points they released little birds and a large butterfly they had in cages into the sky who then took flight swooping over the lake into the distant haze. We were sat at a discrete distance on a bench but when they finished and gathered things up they smilingly came over and offered us some of the ‘cake’. Our surmise was that this was part of the ancestor worship we had read about with offerings being made to family members and other loved ones who were now dead but it was in no way a gloomy moment more a sociable family gathering feel as if they were having a picnic which I suppose in a way they were. A lovely and peaceful vignette.

    Buoyed up by the success of our first ventures we returned to the hotel for a cold shower and a chance to regroup and determine where we would go for Lunch. We settled upon a French restaurant which was a few minutes walk away called “Green Tangerine” In the old quarter it was in an atmospheric 1920’s house which you entered through a narrow courtyard and up some polished wooden stairs into a long thin and airy dining room with large wooden ceiling fans and air con, so perfect for us. We had the set lunch which, at around £9 [circa 15 usd] per head, seemed stunningly good value for money as compared to our more familiar central London pricing. I had a duck and aubergine salad to start with followed by fish and saffron with bacon “Cha Ca La vong” style [particularly yummy] and a crème brulee and raspberry iced desert. Another particular standout which my partner enjoyed was the green tangerine sorbet. All this was accompanied by a good bottle of white wine for us and a cold beer for our son who does not enjoy wine [yet]. The restaurant website gives a good indication of the style of the place and has the current menus online, for lunch we did not book and it was perhaps only a third full but maybe busier in evening.

    We retreated back to the hotel for a siesta and thumbed through the guidebooks reviewing options for our evening entertainment. Having eaten so well for lunch we decided we did not want another formal meal so we agreed to hit the street food options. The old quarter took on a different atmosphere at night, chock a block full of young people, possibly students, drinking freshly brewed beer perched in groups on little blue plastic stools at the street junctions. Everyone chatting at the top of their voices, snatches of music coming from the bars. We suddenly felt a bit old amongst this sea of youth [well my teenage son did not he would have fitted in well age wise apart from fact he is blond and about a foot taller than his average Vietnamese counterpart] and we made our onwards without stopping through streets edged with food stalls some serving barbecued food that we had a suspicious feeling was dog. Little braziers were set up along the pavements with all sort of kebabs sizzling on them or little pans cooking spring rolls, the scents all mingling in the night. We reached our destination, a place recommended by lonely planet, at 14 Pho Hang Ga which only served Banh Cuon which are little rice pancakes cooked in a wok and wrapped around a pork and prawn mince, topped with crispy fried shallots and a vinegary sauce. Whilst the décor was very basic and the floor was messy with screwed up paper napkins of previous diners [ a feature we later learnt was encouraged as showed the popularity of a place] it was friendly and we were soon seated amidst many convivial local families enjoying a night out. With only one thing on the menu we held up three fingers and in a few minutes were tucking into platefuls of banh cuon. They were just so good and we got ample for three for around £4. Encouraged by our ability to secure a plate of food with only one word of vietnamese between us [hello] we moved on to our second stop. This was Bun bo Nam bo serving a Southern dish of the same name at 67 Hang Dieu. Noodles, a little broth, a little beef and some green vegetable and peanuts together with your own mix of relish from bottles and little plates set out on the table. Another success again priced at around £4 with plenty for three and we rolled back to our hotel sticky, happy and licking our fingers

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    So glad you discovered my favorite bun bo nam Bo restaurant. I'm salivating thinking about it. Great beginning of your report to one if my favorite destinations. I also loved the green tangerine restaurant.

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    Thanks everyone for your encouraging posts. Craig I remember reading your trip report with enjoyment before we went.

    On the second day we asked the hotel to call a taxi to take us to the Temple of Literature. Like may of the sights in Hanoi this is not one of the world's top sights but is charming in its own way. The journey was only around ten minutes taking us out of the old quarter and into wider more modern streets with a distinct French influence. The Temple of Literature was the cultural heart of the area in the 15th century and where many people studied. A striking feature of the grounds are the numerous huge stone tablets set in large stone turtles which hold the names of graduates of the place many years ago. Also in the grounds are huge lily ponds looking like ancient swimming pools set amidst stone surrounds. The Temple itself is wooden with huge Chinese style doors. Incense hung in the air and a small group playing live instruments adding to the somewhat languid atmosphere.

    We made away across a scarily busy road to KOTO a popular restaurant com training school that is in all the guidebooks for lunch. The main restaurant was all booked up but happily they ushered up some stairs to a rather laid back bar area all over low sofas and soft cushions. The food was good, my son and I ordered plates with a selection of different fried items on them [all good] and my partner had a Thai beef salad. Not very Thai in his opinion as incorporated some pineapple but still very tasty. The White chocolate cake for dessert was excellent fluffy and very chocolately indeed. The freshly made smoothies we had with this were also to be recommended.

    Refreshed we set off on foot back towards the centre of Hanoi to visit the Hoa Lo prison. This was only about half a mile away and again we enjoyed seeing the local life en route. As it was lunchtime may locals were gathered together on the streets on the low blue stools which we were becoming familiar with to enjoy fresh cooked food from local stalls. Somehow seemed much more fun than the quickly grabbed sandwich I eat at my desk most days.

    Hao Lo prison is worth a visit both for its colonial past and its more recent history as the place of captive for downed US pilots in the American war. Some good photographs and a display particularly celebrating Vietnamese women 'freedom fighters' caught our eye.

    We then flagged a taxi down in the street outside the prison
    [taxis in Vietnam are everywhere and we found them clean and cheap and got us from A to B very quickly] and drove back to the hotel. Later that afternoon we asked the reception staff to book us a table for the evening at the Madame Hien restaurant which they did with their usual smiles and efficiency and then we went off to the water puppet show only a couple of minutes walk away. We had booked this in advance of arriving in Vietnam, again through our hotel and were were not at all sure what to expect. The theatre is quite modern [looks sort of 1970ish] and has been built explicitly as a water puppet venue. Musicians in traditional dress sat at the side of the stage and the pool within which the play took place was where the stage would normally be. We enjoyed this more than I thought we would, the puppets scampered happily in various poses over the water depicting traditional activities from across Vietnam. Coupled with the music it was an amusing interlude and I imagine had quite a bit of skill behind it. A definite yes from us.

    Madam Hien was another short taxi ride away and another very attractive villa from the French colonial era. It was busy when we arrived with many parties in the outside courtyard area and it made for an attractive and vibrant setting. We however made our way to our table which was on inside on the first floor in a spacious and attractive colonial style room [again worthy of note that it was air conditioned and cool for those for whom this is important]. The food was quite good here but the service was a bit slap happy and there was an unfortunate mix up with one of our main courses and it arrived very late indeed albeit with profuse apologies.

    We all had a different form of pork for our main course and my son had "five flavours grilled farm piglet" which was a hit but a lot to eat in one sitting ! I had a "collection of Che" for pudding. Che is something I had not tried before made with red beans, mung beans,black eyed peas kidney beans etc mixed with ice, fruit and coconut cream. I was not sure if I would like it but I instantly became a fan. It has a silky sweet taste punctuated by the less sweet but greater texture of the beans and the juiciness of the fruit. These were really good.

    The whole meal of three courses for three people with a gin and tonic before hand, a bottle of wine, a couple of beers and coffee for two in a very good setting came to around £60. We were beginning to understand that although the flights to Vietnam from England were expensive we would recoup this, and more, because eating out was so good and so cheap.

    The next day was out last in Hanoi as we were getting the evening train to Sapa. We decided to indulge ourselves and arranged to have the room until 6 pm that day for a relatively small extra payment and also booked one of the Hanoi essence's cheapest rooms for the early morning when we returned before our onward flight. For us this initially seemed a bit extravagant but turned out to be money well spent as it meant we could leave our bags and all wash and brush up in a cool a calm setting before and after travel. I would definitely recommend this approach given the rigors of the overnight journey. We set out to the old french district for a wander around, the smart Opera house, the boulevards of houses with shuttered windows, the Hotel Metropole all looked as if they had been magically transported from our trip to Paris earlier in the year. We wanted to see inside the Metropole and so decided to have lunch there in order to have a legitimate 'snoop' around. It looked very nice and very calm. We asked where the buffet lunch was being served and we got escorted around the building in person by a be-suited flunky making charming conversation as we passed around a central garden and conservatory area. The buffet turned out to be rather good priced in USD at 29 each. So expensive for Hanoi but there was lots of it ! Hundreds of dishes of Vietnamese food [be careful to get the right restaurant as we had nearly got sucked into what looked like a traditional carvery lunch venue]. Prawns Banh cuon being cooked in front of you, banh xeo, beef with lotus leaf, beef in betel leaf, lots of different deep fried delicacies, aubergine all followed up with some absolutely fab good minature french pudding. The tarte au citron was worth the journey alone. If you were wanting somewhere to try different items which was guaranteed to be clean and pure this would be a good place albeit it did not quite have the atmosphere of the street that we had so enjoyed on our first night, indeed it felt very like having brunch in a ritz carlton !

    We returned to the hotel to repack our luggage so we could take just what we needed for our few days in Sapa and store the rest at the hotel. We then made our way to "six on sixteen" in Hanoi which was the sister hotel of Sapa rooms where we were staying in Sapa and through whom we had booked the next stage of our trip. On arrival there we were seated at a long table and our tickets and transportation were sorted out with the friendly and chatty Australian owner who was in Hanoi that week and, after a drink and snack, we were packed into a taxi and driven to the station. The station forecourt was incredibly chaotic giving the impression that the entire town was leaving for the hills that very night and we were extremely glad that we had someone to guide us to the train. Going through the neon lit waiting room you entered into what looked like a shunting yard with the trains high above you looming out of the darkness and hissing off into the night. Health and Safety regulations clearly played no part in station management in Hanoi but after much humping of bags over train tracks between various trains our guide pointed out our carriage and we clambered aboard. We had booked a four bedded compartment for the three of us and it was like an oven when we got into it, shutting and locking the door as instructed to stop anyone else thinking they could hitch a ride in it.

    Loud multilingual conversation went on in the corridor as other passengers joined the train, mostly commenting in a variety of different languages on the extreme heat. The train pulled out into the night, slowly lumbering with noisy creaks and sudden bounces through the Hanoi suburbs and across a long bridge. People in houses along the tracks carrying out their family life oblivious to the people peering out of the windows. Just when all hope had been given up the air conditioning did finally start to work and we found we could just about breath again, but the beds were pretty hard, the darkness outside became impenetrable and we knew that it was going to be a very long night.

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    I could not decide what was best, should I try and sleep as the train stopped and started with up to an hour in halt mode and then a sudden rush of activity as it lurched forward, or should I give up all hope and read by the little light on my kindle. After a mixture of both approaches over several hours I saw my son hanging over the top bunk peering down at us in our lower tier trying to determine if we were also awake. It was 4.40 in the morning and the train was going nowhere. Toxic with lack of sleep and giggling at ourselves we all admitted to being wide awake and deeply uncomfortable. The air in the cabin was stagnant and having set off in searing heat it was now uncomfortably cold so we pulled the blankets provided around us. It transpired that there had been heavy storms and serious landslide higher up the line and that we were badly delayed. The dark cloudy night turned to a damp dawn and a then into a wet day and small groups of passengers gathered in the corridor trying to work out what was going on. After many hours stationary with no explanations offered in any language we did finally get going again albeit very slowly and many hours late we pulled into Lai Cao where the line terminated.

    We exited the train only to find that the minibus scheduled to take us up to the hotel had failed to wait for us. Everyone else got into their transportation and the three of us were left alone in the square of what is a rather bleak frontier town between Vietnam and China. A moment of panic settled over us until we realised that our dollars could readily buy us a lift onwards to Sapa and we were soon involved in a dangerously enthusiastic ride up the steep mountain road, veering in the path of oncoming traffic and careering around the bends as only locals can. We were then rather unceremoniously dumped in the main square of Sapa with no indication at all of where our hotel was. Lack of sleep meant that a sense of humour loss and a family row was only seconds away but fortunately we were able to dig out the map in our lonely planet, and after several false starts we orientated ourselves and found the right road.

    Our hotel "Sapa rooms" is a place we have mixed feelings about. The downstairs restaurant/lounge areas was really very nice with great food, wine and excellent coffee and all in all an extremely decent place to chill out in. So good in fact that we did not really try many other places in Sapa. The bedrooms, however, were in dire need of a refit. Whilst clean and reasonably comfortable they looked distinctly past their best. Tiles falling off the walls in the bathrooms, bits of wood nailed onto gaps in doors, and a general feel of uncared for shabbiness. However they were not hugely expensive and we have stayed in a lot worse in our backpacking days so we decided to accentuate the positives and enjoy the good bits.

    It was pouring with rain and Sapa was perhaps not at its best, we splashed around the town that afternoon looking for a cash machine and feeling a bit dejected. The town is an unappealing mix of modern buildings, the old French hill station having been badly damaged in border disputes with China a few decades ago, but eventually we found the cash machine at the top of the main street. I am of an age when I am still pleasantly surprised to find that, instead of a complicated transaction involving sign language and Thomas Cook traveller's cheques with real personnel in a confusing foreign bank, I can swiftly tap my number into a machine in a remote location and an electronic message can be sent all the way back to my bank in England enabling money to appear in my hand from the slot within seconds!

    Supper in the hotel restaurant made up for the less than stellar start to our Sapa trip. The room was lit with candles and the atmosphere was relaxing and soothing and the food was home cooked, straight forward and tasty. There was a choice of Vietnamese and western options and both were good and well priced. The caramel fish claypot dish was unusual [in a good way] featuring shallots in a slightly sweet sauce and the Hunters beefburger was fresh and juicy[the website has a full menu and prices listed on it for those interested]. Some very nice red wine and proper coffee completed our transformation and we went to bed happy and cheerful.

    The next morning we had booked a trek with a guide and when we woke it was still raining hard. I peered out of the window. Outside the local taxi drivers were grouped around in dismal groups smoking whilst awaiting trade for the day and the clouds were very low over the town. I decided I did not want to ruin my rather posh mac which was the only rainwear I had brought with me and so went out first thing, only a few steps away, to the market to find a substitute. What I found amounted to a bin liner which looked mad and which crackled loudly and distractingly as I walked. My partner refused to wear his and went out in search of something less embarrassing and found a North face rip off [which was such a success that it has come all the way back home with us] and also bought some trainers for a very low price. Armed with this eclectic array of new clothing we met our guide Shui Mi [?spelling] in Sapa rooms entrance [we had booked the trip through the hotel] and she was simply superb, friendly and willing to answer all our questions but also quiet and unobtrusive when we were just wanting to stand and absorb the spectacular views.

    The trek to Tavan was around 7 miles in total and was just brilliant, well within the abilities of two rather unfit 50 somethings [we had wondered before hand if we would be ok but it was mainly downhill and so easy and at no time did we feel we were being hurried or stressed]. The first mile or so were shrouded in the clouds with only glimpses of what was to come but after that the skies cleared, the bin liner attire was removed, and we were amidst mile upon mile of the rice terraces with blue skies and views up and down the valley. The rice was in the early stages of harvest in the first week in September [there is only one harvest a year in the North] standing mostly tall and a vivid green and yellow in the fields but with some crops already cut down.

    Apparently the rice terraces were created many years ago when the area was first settled and are still tended daily by hill tribes all wearing different dress according to which tribe they originate from. Whilst there were many tourists about and we were followed by a posse of women hoping that we would buy slightly tacky souvenirs from them it is by no means completely spoilt yet. Traditional dress is clearly worn as an everyday outfit rather than purely for tourists, in distant fields you could see people tending the rice crops, buffaloes ambled around [apparently they are worth a fortune], chickens and hens pecked at the ground and artificial duck ponds were carefully constructed between the houses. Little channels of water irrigated the fields along wooden troughs and the tribes people’s simple thatched huts clustered together in sheltered areas.

    Each settlement had an impressive modern school building painted the colours of the Vietnamese flag and education was clearly held in high value. Our guide also told us that health care was provided with each village having its own health centre and nurse practitioner with more complex medical facilities back in Cao Lai. She was proud to tell us that in that part of Vietnam health care was free for everyone at the point of delivery and was offered according to need not the ability to pay and we were equally proud to tell her that the same was the case in the UK National Health Service in which we both work.

    At the end of the trek we were swiftly picked up by a mini van taking us back to the hotel along a road on the ridge above the valley we had walked down. When we got back to the hotel lounge the smell of freshly cooked banana muffins wafted temptingly towards us and we enjoyed a plate of these with more of their excellent coffee.

    After a short snooze and time to read and reflect on the day’s outing we walked around town that evening looking for another restaurant, identifying some from the guide books, but none that we found looked nearly as nice as our very own Sapa rooms so we returned for another mellow evening there. If we had our time again I think we might have stayed at the more upmarket Victoria in order to secure a better room and a fancier train ride but I strongly suspect that Sapa rooms has the better restaurant. This was homely food and by no means ‘fine dining’ but we found it was all very enjoyable indeed.

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    Loving this report. How unfortunate that your train ride was so bad. We were able to sleep, although the smoke was awful. We lived sapa. Your report makes me want to return to vn.

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    Continuing to relive our trip thru your TR. I can relate to your train trip. While our train trip from Sapa to Hanoi was not delayed so not as bad as yours sounded, we had trouble sleeping and found the ride not so great. Also loved the food at Sapa Rooms where we ate 2 times. I had wondered about the rooms as we stayed right down the street at a not upscale, but very nice place, Sapa Boutique Hotel.

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    We had hoped to do a cookery class the following morning at Sapa rooms sister hotel which looked to have a great view as well as a cookery class but unfortunately the chef was not well and hence the class had been cancelled that day. We switched to a half day trip to silver falls and we were pleased to find that we had the same guide as the previous day. Whilst by no means as spectacular a trip as the previous day’s trek we had an enjoyable morming. The mini van picked us up from the hotel and climbed in the opposite direction to Tavan up to a high mountain pass. Up here the vegetation was different, not so much rice fields but more vegetables including a kind of squash that grew like vines across trellises and some fields of roses each of which had a little paper ‘hat ‘ placed on which we assumed was to keep it warm. Some of the small houses seemed isolated and remote and I imagine that life is still pretty tough. From the top of the pass you could see for some distance in each direction, mountains rolling away back down towards Hanoi, but after a short stop we turned around there and went back to the waterfall. This is not Victoria falls but it was pleasant to wander up the stairs built into the side of the falls with the sound of water rushing past and down the other side before returning to Sapa.

    We had scouted out a good lunch spot the previous day and went to The ‘Hill Station’ which was good on a number of fronts. Firstly there was a remarkably decent selection of European cheese that was in very good condition given the distance it had travelled and which was served at the right temperature with fresh bread on a platter. There was an equally pleasing glass [or two] of red wine to go with it. This bar/restaurant is in a traditional house which has been stylishly converted and we lingered there for some time with coffee just enjoying watching the world go by.

    We then returned to the lounge at Sapa rooms where we had left our luggage to await our mini bus back to Lai Cao and the station for our return trip to Hanoi. The return journey was not as stressed or as lengthy as the journey up. The hotel minibus arrived promptly and we were waived off from the hotel by the smiling staff, we were dropped off in a cafe across from the station and tickets were given to us by the cafe owner whilst we had a drink. In the first instance we were given tickets for a later train than that on the docket we had received from Sapa rooms but when we queried this the chap went back and exchanged it for the earlier train. The clickety clack of the wheels went much faster on the way back and whilst not much sleep was had we arrived on time just before dawn at Hanoi station feeling a bit tired and grubby and with our bags full of muddy shoes and damp rainwear. It was at this point that we congratulated ourselves on having decided to spend a bit of money reserving Hanoi Essences cheapest room so we had somewhere to change and shower before our onward travel to Hue.

    The streets were just beginning to come alive in Hanoi as the taxi took us back to the hotel, people were doing their exercises beside the lake gracefully and peacefully, shutters were being rolled up on shop fronts and goods were being stacked outside on the pavements ready for the day’s trade. It felt like coming home to arrive at the hotel with the staff saying welcome back and asking about our trip before telling us that the luggage we had left in the hotel had already been placed in the waiting room . The bliss of a fresh clean and bright room at that time in the morning after a long journey was inestimable and the three of us showered and rested and rearranged our, now rather dirty, luggage before enjoying breakfast. The reception staff checked with the airport that all was well with our onward flight and booked us a taxi to the airport for mid morning.
    We flew Vietnam air to Hue having booked without any problems online via their website in the UK [seemed much cheaper to do this direct with them rather than with any of our more normal flight sites such as Kayak]. The flight was a good price and the plane was clean and comfortable and bang on time.
    Arrival in Hue signalled the start of huge tropical downpour. It was raining fit to bust but the hotel car and driver was there as per our booking and we were given cold towels and a small bottle of water in getting in. It was lunchtime by now and despite the rain, which was torrential and creating little floods along the streets, everyone was out on the streets with colourful plastic macs cycling home for lunch, sitting in shop doorways or enjoying a snack or a drink in little gatherings on the typical low stools.

    We stayed at ‘La Residence’ in Hue and we liked it a lot. Whilst we are not really big Art Deco fans [we enjoy the older ‘Arts and Crafts’ style much more] we did like the way the interior of the hotel had been styled to capture the era of its building when it had been the French Governor’s residence. We had booked two inter connecting ‘river view’ rooms and were glad we had paid a little extra for the river view as, once the rain had finally stopped, it was very pleasant to wander out onto the balconies and look over the pool towards the citadel and the perfume river. We also overlooked the hotel’s well kept vegetable garden in the corner of the plot. These were the smallest size of rooms and yet we found them well designed and certainly large enough for our purposes.

    Our first task was load up the laundry bags with dirty clothing [The red mud from Sapa trek had by now got everywhere] and send it all off to be restored to an orderly pile of clean and ironed clothing. Our second task was to order lunch from the good room service menu which came swiftly. Huge fresh deep fried prawns and a crème brulee for me both of which were much enjoyed. We then had a quiet afternoon reading and exploring the hotel and grounds.

    That evening we ate in the ‘La Residence’ dining room, which is a huge room with very smart service, again all attractively themed to the Art Deco era, all over palms and black lacquer and waiting staff in retro black and white outfits. The food was good but we suspect the dining room would have been busier had it been a bit cheaper. The price was the most expensive by far that we had in our whole Vietnam trip with the total bill for three coming to around £130 including drinks and wine [as I write this now some months later this sounds entirely reasonable, indeed cheap given the style of the venue, but by this time we had got used to the very Iow Vietnamese prices]. I had a fish in a Vietnamese coffee sauce which was interesting but I was not 100% sure came off, but my son had a wonderful squid dish that he still talks about now. Some reports on trip advisor suggest that this restaurant is “Michelin starred” quality. Well we thought it was all good but not that good.

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    Marija, I am sure you will enjoy ‘La Residence’ as it is an exceptionally pleasant hotel with a calm atmosphere, gracious staff and a fantastic setting. I am very jealous indeed that you have your trip ahead of you !

    Dgunbug, I am just catching up on your TR on China which I am also enjoying as it is one of my next 'must do' places.


    The next day the rain had stopped, the sun was out, and we enjoyed the hotel and grounds a bit before heading off out for an early lunch and then onwards to the Citadel. We had picked a lunch spot a few streets away from the Citadel and took a taxi to it. The taxi driver was very friendly and keen to find out our nationality on identifying that we were English got a bit carried away with loudly naming with increasing pleasure and excitement a completely random selection of English football teams [presumably those that previous passengers had supported!]. His pleasure at this trick of memory was infectious, and despite my partner laughingly explaining to him that actually rugby is the better game, he carried on until we arrived at the restaurant some ten minutes later.

    We had arrived outside “Les Jardins de la Carambole” and this restaurant delivered one of the most enjoyable meals of the holiday [and competition was stiff!]. Set in a quiet street which, at that time of day, had teenage school children cycling along on their way home from morning classes all in crisp white shirts and coloured scarves around their neck. A cockerel in the next garden made the occasional call and the restaurant with its wide verandas with large ceiling fans and French shutters was a simple but pleasing setting. The menu is huge covering traditional French cuisine, local specialties and all points in between and we were a little worried that this was not a good sign. However the service was fast and charming, tall glasses of Bia Hoi [freshly brewed beer] were brought for my partner and son and a glass of cold white wine for me. We chose mainly from the Vietnamese side of the menu spotting items that we had not encountered further North. Prawn and pork mince wrapped up in a rice pancake and palm leaves and ‘poached’ on a stick, the best squid I have ever had deep fried in a green chilli crumb crust, banana blossom salad, duck with chill and lemon grass plus a load more. All the flavours were fresh and clear with a little bit of bite to them, the setting was lovely and yet I suspect we got change from £30 for all of us. The sort of holiday lunch in the sun that you dream of on a dreary grey December day like today!

    Afterwards we almost had to drag ourselves away to tour the Citadel with its proud display of the Vietnamese flag flapping over the scenes of one of the worst battles of the American war.

    The Citadel itself is being slowly repaired, with some of the building opened up and some still partially closed and roped off. We saw rows of wooden doors and ornately carved eves being carefully lined up and being painted the day we were there. In one of the buildings there were some interesting photos of the era of French rule [how on earth they dressed up in all those fancy Imperial robes in the heat was beyond me]. It is a big and interesting site but perhaps not enough remains of the buildings themselves for one to truly imagine how it was in its heyday. There were few people about and we wandered over to the back gates and back down to the front again via a side path before stepping outside again facing towards the impressive river frontage.

    We had sat in our hotel room earlier that day watching old news reels of the battle for control of the Citadel courtesy of the hotel’s uncensored internet access on ‘You Tube’, revisiting the era when this dominated news screens across the world including those on the black and white TV in my childhood home in London. To then casually stroll along the very same boulevards depicted in those 1967 news shots, now lined with carefully tended grass and well kept gardens was most surreal. I found it encouraging to contemplate how, from the point of complete human despair on all sides within the battle for Hue, a thriving peaceful city where taxi drivers wanted to make you laugh and feel welcome had emerged

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    My son and I enjoyed the pool the following morning whilst my partner write some postcards and had a beer in the bar. Both sections of the party enjoyed themselves. The pool is large and very nice and well situated with the bonus feature of the staff bringing around cold towels and little snacks of fruit. The negative is that as soon as we arrived [we were on our own that morning] they turned on some quite dreadful music. I suspect that they would have turned it off if we had asked but as we were only there for less than an hour it seemed a bit unnecessary to make a fuss.

    We had booked a taxi tour of some of the imperial tombs that afternoon through receptions. The taxi would pick us up and take us to the three sites that we had picked out of the guide books, wait for us to look around at each one and then bring us back to the hotel. This cost us about £25 and we thought it was great value. As a family we are not keen on being shown and told about everything in great detail as we much prefer to read about the places in advance and then just amble around on our own absorbing the atmosphere when we get there. This taxi tour was therefore perfect and although you had to pay entry fees at each place it worded out very cheap for the three of us.

    My partner had chosen the various sites whilst enjoying the delights of the bar that morning and he made an excellent selection as they were all quite different. We started off at Minh Mang and just as we got there the heavens opened, however this was not a problem as the souvenir shops at the car parked rented out umbrellas ! Armed with a range of brighty coloured numbers we set off down a windy entrance road towards the tombs. We were almost alone on the site, the rain dampened any external sound and it was hugely humid and atmospheric, with big languid lily ponds, misty horizons and the large Chinese style painted wooden tomb structures. Up and down a sequence of steps to different buildings we imagined what it must have been like to plan your death and final resting place so well in advance. Apparently they visited it with their families whilst it was being built and long before their final departure.

    The weather transformed itself and by the time we arrived at our second location the tomb of Khai Dinh it was all blue skies and blazing sunshine and hence an uncomfortably hot climb up the exceedingly steep steps [we were glad we had brought bottles of water with us]. This is much more modern as he did not die until 1925 but was impressive in its location and the ornate decorations of the buildings on the top.

    The next destination was the tomb of Tu Doc and we probably liked this the most. It felt more of a palace and gardens than a tomb with a lake and a series of attractive pavilions to wander around. Again we were almost on our own which added to our enjoyment of the place.

    We rounded off the tour with stop at the river bend where the Thien Mu pagoda is situated, this was busier but not spoilt and the vistas along the river were splendid. We enjoyed watching the world go buy on the lane along the river bank outside, again seeing many sprucely dressed school children returning from school on their bikes, chatting to each other and passing things from one friend to the other as they passed us by. Several times a week I hurriedly walk in London over Westminster bridge between two offices that I work at and brush past tourists gazing at the houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey wondering why on earth they are getting in the way and hanging around such an everyday sort of place and yet here the tables were turned, the school children were just going about their daily life whilst I was the one to stand and stare. Life can be so good !

    After an excellent afternoon we returned to the hotel and, whilst were tempted with a number of places in the guidebooks, we returned to 'Les Jardin de la Carambole' restaurant again that evening as we had experienced such a good lunch the previous day. This is not really like us as we like to try a variety of places but we were not disappointed. We started the meal with a sample of their cocktails. Much fun was had and the food stood up well to the test of a second visit. If this place was at the end of our road we would be there every night! Not fancy, not super stylish but for us a really great all round package of decent intersting well priced food with good service in a relaxing setting. Funnily enough on that second visit we bumped into a couple of American women who we had seen in our hotel in Hanoi and who we then subsequently met again in a restaurant in Hoi An. On that last meeting we briefly chatted with them and they said they had also been to 'Jardins de la Carambole' twice because they had enjoyed it so much, so it clearly has a winning global formula.

    The following day we left Hue and through the hotel we had booked a taxi over the Hai Van pass to our hotel in Hoi An. I suspect there were cheaper ways of booking this transfer as we had a huge mini bus just for the three of us but this was easy and comfortable and we had been able to secure it in advance via and email to the hotel. The Hai Van pass had featured on 'Top Gear' trip to Vietnam which is a hugely popular British TV programme. My son's entire preparation for our travels had been to watch this episode and so this particular day was key. It did not disappoint as the weather was superb with sun and blue skies and the spectacular scenery and distant views were all we had imagined. Long sandy beaches stretching on both directions as you looked down from the top of the pass, Danang in the distance a sprawling port and city but also many much more local scenes with little fishing villages and green and verdant farming plots. Again smart school buildings and lots of busy road side restaurants were clear features of what looked like a hugely thriving community life.

    Danang itself [or the bit of it that we drove through] was not to our eyes very attractive, prosperous but modern and dull with lots of blocks of featureless flats and rather lifeless large resorts on the beach front. Clearly expecting a lot of visitors, perhaps from the expansion of the airport, many new hotels and timeshare type apartments were being built along the sea front and whilst they might be nice inside they did not appear to be near any local life and were surrounded by concrete and dual carriage ways and an unnecessary number of small roundabouts.

    Out hotel, the Victoria, happily side stepped this being set in mature gardens on the beach and within a stones throw of the old town and World Heritage site of Hoi An.

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    Hoi An was the spot where planned to chill and read and do little else and this lazy brief was well fulfilled. We were superbly lucky with the weather which could have been a bit wet in September but for the whole five days we were there we experienced widespread sunshine and a sea breeze. We had booked two rooms at the Victoria Hoi An, one was their most expensive and one was their least expensive. It cost about £ 220 per night for the two of them together with breakfast included. Both were good but the beachfront suite was fabulous. Floor to ceiling windows from the spacious bedroom gave a 180 degree view of the beach and sparkling ocean in front of you. A large veranda, complete with hammock, laid back wooden chairs and on one occasion a small frog, was perfect for sipping a room service cocktail as the sun went down to the sound of the waves. From this private vantage point we spent several peaceful evenings watching the little lights of the fishing boats appear as they set out to sea in the gathering dusk exactly as they must have done for many decades. A second reasonable sized room at the back of the suite with sofa and chairs gave a real feeling of space and enabled late TV viewing without disturbing a sleeping partner. The bathroom had a huge stone bath which was inset low into the floor, whilst the only shower was outside in a sort of mini open air courtyard all over arty pebbles and stones. Maybe we are getting old and boring but we thought this was all a bit of a palaver and would have preferred a normal bathroom all inside and set at a normal height ! However, overall the room was a huge hit with us and we liked the proper coffee machine and the wi fi and efficient room service that came with it. Our son’s much cheaper room was on the other side of the hotel overlooking the road and the river but was also spacious and pleasant and we would have been more than happy with this had we not been tempted by the luxury of a suite.

    We also liked the grounds of the hotel which were well kept, green and verdant and with beautiful flowers and small ponds surrounding the low rise rooms. The pool was large and very attractively positioned right on the beachfront, surrounded by palm trees and, hooray, hooray, hooray, no music at all being played around it ! We had no difficulty at all at that time of year getting sunbeds at any time of the day and there was pool service for those whose state of relaxation made it impossible to go the few yards to the bar. With my kindle in hand and all the books it contained, I was in my idea of heaven !

    In contrast to all this splendour we were, however, not particularly impressed with the hotel’s restaurant and food. The restaurant is a very large and pretty featureless modern room and the service was fast and very friendly but far too chatty for our liking. We were constantly asked endless trivial questions by the waitresses [of the how old is your son, where are you from, is it always cold in England, how many other children do you have variety] Not wishing to appear rude or to rebuff efforts that were clearly really well meant, and possibly even part of their training, we found this endless trail of questions repeated every breakfast very tiresome after a few days. We can only presume other visitors liked all this more than we did and indeed we noticed others chatting away quite happily for hours but it was not for us. Whilst obviously it is nice to exchange smiles and a few pleasantries this was in the extreme and we never experienced anything similar anywhere else in Vietnam. The food was entirely wholesome but rather bland and not zingy and interesting. Breakfast pastries were a bit stale on a couple of the days we were there and the breakfast selection, whilst plentiful and varied, was laid out in a dispersed and rather bitty way across another huge and rather characterless side room adjoining the restaurant. Daily specials appeared for lunch such as Spaghetti Bolognese that we felt were neither Italian in taste nor local but rather had a somewhat dull ‘lowest common denominator’ feel to them. Fortunately none of this slight downside to the hotel particularly mattered as we were only minutes away by the free mini bus or very cheap taxi from the delights of Hoi An where there are more good restaurants than you could possibly get through in a single holiday.

    Before we had left for Vietnam I had read a post on Fodors written by jgg which referenced a food tour in Hoi An [thank you jgg for your great trip report] and whilst I noted it with interest I did nothing about it at the time as I was concentrating on lining up the flights and hotel bookings. However whilst in Hue my partner had picked up another positive reference on an online blog to the tour ‘The Original Taste of Hoi An’ and we decided rather on the spur of the moment to book it via their website.

    http://www.tasteofhoian.com/index-2.html


    A quick email exchange later and our booking was secured, but if you are more organised than us it would probably be best to book further in advance in order to be confident of getting a place. This turned out to be the absolute highlight of our trip and if you have even the slightest interest in Vietnamese food, history or daily life and culture then you simply must join this tour whilst in Hoi An. It ranks amongst the top of our ‘all time best ever’ family days on holiday.

    Run by a couple of Australians, Neville Dean and his wife Colleeen, who in retirement, have followed their hearts to live in Hoi An, the tour has been created to respect and showcase [and keep alive by funding] all manner of traditional local foods which might otherwise be overlooked by tourists. Starting in a local backstreet market we sat with a small group of fellow tour members by a roadside food stall drinking Sinh To Trai Cay [the most amazing fruit shake you will ever have], watching the daily life unfold from the privileged position of insider knowledge and listening to Neville’s stories and hearing of his love of the Vietnamese people that he had met through his work and of the local customs and culture. We spent the next five hours moving slowly through the market and the surrounding streets, with plenty of well timed shady and cool breaks, sampling food from the stalls, from local trade people on passing bikes, from little shops, and from carefully prepared trays of multiple delicacies in selected restaurants. This sounds a long time to be out on one tour but it was all so hugely well organised and a real education for us on so many dimensions that it just sped by. The whole experience was almost like a terribly clever and entertaining play in a ‘theatre in the round’. We wished we had experienced it earlier in our trip in order to have been even more confident with our local food selections, in particular in ordering produce from food stalls.

    Our remaining nights in Hoi An were therefore taken up with trying out a number of follow up recommendations from the tour; “Thuan Y” restaurant in its spectacular setting right on the river front, lantern lights from across the passage reflected in the water, a very simple interior with peeling walls and a motorbike stowed away at the back of the room, great food. The aubergine was particularly yummy, baked until silky, rich and slightly sweet with the tang of the rich garlicky sauce. Fish stone baked with lemon grass. Fresh beer and wine, knockdown prices, another winner. “White Sail” restaurant set back slightly north of the main tourist streets. This was the scene of one of the tour’s ‘taster’ selections and we went back for more, and more. Huge fresh wontons with tangy salsa, more excellent aubergine, Cao lau [pork with noodles and greens], spicy salty squid. More sticky fingers.

    Eventually the holiday and the eating had to end. We returned to the UK in one long journey jumping from Danang to Hanoi, from Hanoi to Bangkok and from Bangkok to London Heathrow. Apart from a rather hot and crowded wait for check in at Hanoi this journey was really not too bad and I am glad we did not bother with cost and fuss of an overnight stay en route.

    Like its food Vietnam is a wonderful place of great depth and contrast. Spicy, sour, salty, bitter and sweet, I commend it to all fodorites.

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    Thank you so much, loncall, for an incredible report. I'm looking forward to trying “Les Jardins de la Carambole” in Hue, as well as several other restaurant you've recommended. Sounds like we should sign up for the Hoi An food tour. Again, thanks for all of the valuable info and the excellent writing. I know our trip will be better because of your efforts.

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    Wonderful report! Brought back so many memories of our trip there last year. The food tour in Hoi An sounds fabulous. I couldn't agree more with you on Danang - I was surprised how awful it was. We were told that a lot of American retirees are buying the condos and timeshares esp vets which I found rather ironic.

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    <<<The food was entirely wholesome but rather bland and not zingy and interesting>>>

    Yes, but I could live on pomelo, and they had mountains of it!!

    <<<We were told that a lot of American retirees are buying the condos and timeshares esp vets which I found rather ironic>>>

    Me too!

    Great report!

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    sum, I do hope you enjoy Vietnam as much as we did.

    Marija, I am pleased you enjoyed Jardins de Carambole. I am following along with your blog and am really looking forward to hearing about your experiences in Vietnam

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    Thanks for the great report. We are off on Friday to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Your restaurant suggestions are fantastic. My mouth was watering as I was reading! It is printed and packed!

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