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LowCountryIslander's South East Asia Adventure

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May 15th, 2011, 07:59 PM
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LowCountryIslander's South East Asia Adventure

Although I've been a Fodorite for several years, I don't frequent the Asia forum often, mostly since my recent travels have been in Europe and the US, which is ironic because I originally joined Fodors because I had a question about a trip I was taking to Hong Kong back in 2004.

While doing research for this South East Asia trip, I read many trip reports on the Asia forum and decided I have really been missing out on some terrific stuff here by not reading the Asia board! So, in an effort to give back to those who have given me alot of great information here I decided to post a trip report.

As I've done with other trip reports I will post a "warning" note... I do tend to get a bit long-winded. If you like to read about flights, hotels, food, as well as the site seen and activities done you will probably like this report. I also tend to use exclamation marks and smiley faces, however I will try to keep them to a minimum!

This first post will contain a good amount of background information, which I felt would be needed since many of the Asia posters don't know me...however if you want to checkout my Europe trip reports (alot on Italy!) please feel free to do so!

Here's where it starts...

A trip of a lifetime begins... 3 weeks of travel spanning Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

The adventure starts in late February 2011 and ends in mid-March. It's a whirlwind trip beginning with dipping my toes into Hanoi and takes me to the far-off places of Hoi An, Hue and Saigon, in Vietnam. There is a too short stop in Siem Reap, Cambodia to ogle the grandeur of the temples at Angkor Wat. The finale takes me to Thailand, venturing into Chiang Mai and the metropolis that is Bangkok.

The people were welcoming, the food was fantastic, and the memories are priceless!

For a few years, Vietnam had been lingering on my mental “want to visit” list. It wasn’t at the very top, but it wasn’t at the very bottom either. A friend had mentioned interest in going there a few years ago, but we kept saying how expensive it would be, mind you, we never really took any big steps to find out what the actual cost would be, we just thought the airfare from the eastern USA would be exurbanite. Then a Fodorite friend went to Vietnam a couple years ago and I literally salivated over her photos and then when I read her blog about the trip, I knew I wanted to see Vietnam sooner rather than later.

I’m pretty well traveled throughout Europe, yet my only ventures into Asia up until now was a week long tour to Hong Kong 7 years ago and a 2 week trip to Turkey 4 years ago. Even with my self professed anal retentive travel planning attitude I will admit I was fairly intimidated to plan an “on-my-own” trip to Vietnam, so when a friend (RM) who coordinates small group trips for women sent an email about a 3 week trip to Vietnam, Cambodia & Thailand she was putting together, my interest was piqued and CL, my friend and travel buddy was also interested. We decided to go ahead and book the trip with RM. I will admit there are some positives and negatives about group travel, but the one thing I learned about myself, loud and clear, was that I could have easily planned this trip on my own. However, a plus was, all the “heavy lifting” planning was done for me, and to RM’s credit, we did stay at some fantastic hotels/resorts, probably much more high-end than I would have booked myself. A negative was there were some things I would have changed if I had done this on my own, but in the end, it was a great trip and it did to me, what all trips do to me…left me wanting more. More time to explore the culture, the food, the nature, and the people. Would I return to any of these counties? Yes, in a hot minute!

Here’s a little background on my friend RM: I met her several years ago during my Central Europe travels and found out she coordinates several trips a year with friends. It started out as a small circle of her friends going on the trips and over the years as these friends invited other friends and family members on the trips things started to grow and before she knew it, “Maiden Voyagers” was born. There are usually 2 domestic and 2 international trips planned each year, decided upon by the women who are in this group. And generally the trips average about 10-12 women.

Once the deposit was made it was time to start looking at airfare. I have become, what some may call obsessed, with accruing miles in my Delta Sky Miles account (I’m all about the miles baby!). I know I’ve heard from lots of people how terrible they think Delta Airlines is. However several years ago my airline options from Savannah, GA were slim, they are just now becoming slightly more varied, but back then Delta was the major player and I signed up for their Sky Miles program. Having now acquired gold elite status on Delta (which may not really mean a whole lot) I try to accrue miles with them or their partners as often as I possibly can, and I have been very fortunate to be reaping some upgrade benefits lately.

So the search for airfare to South East Asia begins. Since I know Korean Air is a Sky Team partner and I’ve heard a lot of good things about Korean Air and that is where I begin my focus. First I check out the online travel agencies. I find what I think are really good fares with the Delta/Korean Air combo.

Then I start researching the question, “if I book on an online travel agency will I be able to accrue the miles?” Because, lets face it, if I’m going to fly to the other side of the world to the tune of about 20,000 miles roundtrip, I better damn well accrue those miles! Well, I’m sure glad I did the research; turns out the really good fare I was looking at did not qualify for miles. That brought me very quickly back to the Delta website. I was able to find flights I wanted, I did have to compromise a bit on flight times but in the end, although I paid more than the “really good fares” at the online travel agency websites, I got not only the miles flown on the Korean Air outbound flight, but I got a 50% bonus mileage credit and yes, they counted towards my Medallion Qualifying Miles.

In the end I flew from Savannah, Georgia to Atlanta on Delta, from Atlanta to Seoul, South Korea and then Seoul to Hanoi, Vietnam on Korean Air. On the return I flew Delta (aircraft & crew) from Bangkok to Tokyo, Tokyo to Atlanta and Atlanta to Savannah. Let me tell you, getting the Tokyo to Atlanta flight was not easy, nor cheap, I could have flown for less if I flew from Tokyo to Seattle then to Atlanta and finally into Savannah, but I know how I am when flying home from a trip and the fewer connections I have the happier I am!

In preparation for this trip I did some research, but not early as much as I usually do. I did get the Lonely Planet Vietnam and Bangkok guidebooks, the Nancy Chandler maps for Chiang Mai and Bangkok (which I loved and was very happy I had with me), and of course I had consulted my Fodors family for their favorite restaurant picks in the places I would be traveling too, and they did not steer me wrong!

Although there were many meals included in the price of the trip, there were several days when meals were not included and then, as always, I wanted to make sure I had just the perfect place to recommend to the friends I was traveling with because after all, of the 9 of us traveling together about half really wanted to make our meals “count” if you know what I mean! It also helped that RM enjoys food and wine too and I was tickled when prior to the trip she had asked me to collaborate with her on some of the restaurant suggestions for group meals…yes my friends, we ate very well on this trip!
The last bit of pre-trip preparation was booking a hotel for 2 nights prior to meeting the group in Hanoi. Four of us going on this trip, me, my friend CL and our friends B & V decided we wanted to arrive in Hanoi a couple days before the tour started. This was one of the best decisions because in the end even with just having an extra day and a half in Hanoi it provided us the opportunity to see a little more of this incredibly interesting city, because once the group tour started, we were moving fast.

I could have easily made reservations at the hotel the group was booked into, but it was not within walking distance of the Old Quarter and after reading on Fodors about the Elegance Boutique hotels in Hanoi I knew exactly where I wanted to stay for the first 2 nights of this trip. I was able to book a deluxe twin, including breakfast for $75 per night and a pick-up at the airport for an additional $16. All the hotels we stayed at on this trip were good, but the Hotel Elegance Diamond was by far our favorite. The service was excellence, the room clean, spacious (roomier than I had expected), the breakfast was very good with a nice selection of eastern and western items and did I mention the staff, it’s worth repeating…the service was excellent. I was in the hotel business for 7 years and I have not experienced such terrific service for such a reasonable price.

And here’s where it all begins…

Saturday, February 26, 2011

When the alarm clock goes off at 3am I think to myself, “why did I book a 6:30am departure?” Then I remember how “antsy” I get at airports if I even feel the slightest bit of anxiety because of missing a plane. It’s my own paranoia and I’ve learned to live with it, and whoever I happen to be traveling with has to live with it too. Long layovers (at least 2 hours in my “book”) keep me calm and I’m sticking with it. Plus I know from previous experience once you buy that airplane ticket you are now at the scheduling mercy of the airline and more times than not when I thought I had plenty of time for a connection, times where adjusted and I was like the old Hertz TV commercials with OJ Simpson running through the airport…that is not going to make me happy and travel for me is about being happy.

CL and I are at the Savannah airport by 5am, car parked and bags checked. I was thrilled to have been able to check in on line the day before, because believe, me, when flying Delta and connecting on a code share partner that is not always the case. When I checked in on line I was delighted to find I had been approved for an upgrade on the Savannah to Atlanta leg, now a 30 minute flight in business class is not a big deal, but I do like having my bag tagged as priority.

The flight to Atlanta is uneventful and on time. We de-plane and by 7:30am we are having breakfast in the terminal. At 9am we proceed to the Korean Air gate and we are required to check in again with Korean Air to get Korean Air boarding passes and have our Vietnam visa checked.

The gate area begins to fill-up and I notice a rather large number of people traveling with children, who are now running around the gate area and I’m thinking, I sure do hope this exercise tires these kids out and it’s a peaceful 15 hour flight…my prayers were answered! I was pleasantly surprised to find that once on-board it seemed like there were no children at all on the plane.

I was happy to have done my research prior to selecting seats for the Atlanta to Seoul flight. The seats are in the 3-3-3 configuration, except for the last 2 rows, which were the 2-3-2 configuration. I was able to get the first row of 2 seats, so CL and I did not have to crawl over strangers to get out of our seats. We were able to board with the business class passengers thanks to the upgrade on the earlier Savannah-Atlanta leg and we settled in nicely. The seats felt slightly roomier than what I am used too. The entertainment system was great, so many movies to choose from! The flight attendants were extremely attentive, but what I noticed the most were the uniforms, a beautiful light blue and cream and white. It impressed me that they looked as fresh & crisp when we de-planed as when we boarded 15 hours earlier! The bathrooms were kept immaculately clean.

The food was good. We were served a meal about 2 hours into the flight, then a snack (a port bun…yum!), and then 4 hours before landing we were served a second meal. For a 15 hour flight it was very comfortable. I would not hesitate to fly Korean Air again.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

At some point we crossed the International Date Line and it becomes Sunday. We land in Seoul at 5:30pm local time. To my surprise it takes only 15 minutes to de-plane. We go through transit security, which was a breeze, found our way into the main terminal and found the gate for the connecting flight to Hanoi.

Before long our friends B&V arrive at the gate for the Hanoi flight and within about an hour we begin boarding the plane. One word of caution for anyone planning to use ambien or another sleep aid for assistance sleeping on flight. V had ambient, CL was exhausted and said she really wanted to sleep on the 5 hour flight to Hanoi. V offered her one ambient and CL took it. I am not exaggerating when I say within minutes CL was slumped over in the chair at the boarding gate; it was quite a feat getting her up and onto the plane. Later, she said she felt drunk and she did not remember getting onto the plane. Please if anyone wants to use ambient, or any sleep aid during a flight I suggest using it while at home to see how it will affect you. CL was lucky nothing more serious happened; it would not have been a good start to the trip!

The flight lands in Hanoi a few minutes before 10pm. We went through passport control with no trouble and onto baggage claim. Wonder of wonders, my bag is the first on the baggage carousel. We wait a few more minutes and we all have our bags. We walk into the arrivals hall and the driver the hotel sent is there waiting for us. It takes about 45 minutes to get form the airport to the Hotel Elegance Diamond.

The Hotel Elegance Diamond greeting was terrific; we are greeted and presented with a cool refreshing juice drink and towel. It feels great to finally be at our destination. The lobby check-in is an easy process and we are shown to our room in no time at all. We got upgraded from a deluxe twin to a family room! There are fresh flowers in the room and bathroom. The room is spacious, and clean and most importantly the beds are extremely comfortable. Within minutes we are asleep!
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May 15th, 2011, 08:49 PM
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You're off to a great start!

Lee Ann
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May 15th, 2011, 11:50 PM
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Loving it!
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May 16th, 2011, 03:59 AM
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The beginning of another great report! Curious to know what you experienced con-wise to the group travel. As you wrote, you could have easily planned this trip yourself but I imagine having someone else coordinate transportation, logistics (once you've reached destination) could be a great time / frustration saver?
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May 16th, 2011, 06:07 AM
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Great start Marcy! Can't wait to see how it goes!
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May 16th, 2011, 06:48 AM
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Thanks for the encouragement!

As I read through my original post this morning I have to apologize for the typos. Spell check is great, except when the word I've typed incorrectly is actually another word! "Ambient" should have been Ambien!
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May 16th, 2011, 10:53 AM
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Looking forward to more
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May 16th, 2011, 12:17 PM
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Nice start to your report!

Your friend was very lucky you were able to get her on the flight when she was barely conscious and that no one stopped you.
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May 16th, 2011, 01:07 PM
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Kathie...

Boy are you ever right, I was not happy with her for doing this and potentially putting herself in a situation where she might not have been allowed to board the plane. What a way to learn a lesson!

Hoping to get more posted tonight. Our first full day in Hanoi was spent walking the streets...on a street food tour that is!
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May 16th, 2011, 11:18 PM
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Planning the exact same trip right now... can not wait to read more!
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May 17th, 2011, 05:35 PM
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I'm bookmarking this for a quiet moment later tonight.

I look forward to hearing the stories behind all the great pictures you shared on FB!
~M
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May 17th, 2011, 07:48 PM
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Monday, February 28, 2011

It’s incredible how 8 straight hours of sleeping flat in a comfortable bed can make you feel so much better! I opened my eyes at 7am to gray skies and it stayed that way all day, fortunately there was no rain!

By 9am CL and I ambled up to the 12th floor restaurant to the breakfast buffet. The dinning room had nice views of the city in spite of the gray skies. There was a nice breakfast selection, not too overwhelming as we would find at future hotels. There were both western and eastern choices. My first taste of pho was here and I was not disappointed, but you do have to order the pho from the menu, it’s not on the buffet and if you prefer a half order that it not any trouble. I’m not sure if it was because it was the first “real” cup of coffee I had in a couple days, but the coffee here at breakfast was some of the best I’ve had (the best would come later in Hanoi). It had almost a chocolaty flavor and it was smooth. It was so good; I seem to recall having not 1, not 2 but 3 cups!

We had a very leisurely breakfast and after about 45 minutes B & V arrived in the dinning room. We sat for a bit longer chatting with them and then decided to meet in the lobby at 10:45 for our first Hanoi adventure.

During my pre-trip research I came across a company called Hidden Hanoi, I believe I found them through trip advisor. This company does cooking classes in Hanoi, but they also have a variety of market tours. I thought the Street Food walking tour sounded interesting and after consulting with CL, B & V we decided to go ahead and book the tour. At $20 per person for a 3 hour tour, I thought it was a pretty good deal, especially since the portions for tasting the food were very plentiful.

After a quick ATM stop the 4 of us piled into a taxi and went to the tour meeting spot. It was about a 10 minute taxi ride and the fare was $3.

The tour guide arrived on time and in addition to the 4 of us, there was a very friendly couple from Amsterdam, a total of 6 tour participants. The guide was very good; she is a former journalist and certainly knew her way around the neighborhood and market.

The tour started at a bun cha place, which I neglected to get the name of, however it was similar in atmosphere to another bun cha place (Dac Kim) we went to another day. The guide began the tour with some history of the street food culture of Hanoi and Vietnam in general and then talked more about specific dishes. The bun cha here was really good, I never imagined a soup could taste like a barbeque in a bowl, but this really did.
Once we were full of bun cha, we moved on to another street food vendor a few blocks away. I was so absorbed with watching all the activity going on around me, I failed to note the streets or general area we were walking through and if asked, I’d be very hard-pressed to give the location of the next stop on the tour, but the dish here was one of the more interesting. For lack of a better description it was a “dessert” soup, it was slightly sweet with black sesame and 2 little sweet buns floating on top, it was very good, yes there was slurping involved!

We then began a walk through a local covered market tasting all kinds of fruit along the way. Wow! There was some fascinating looking fruit that I had never seen before, some good, some not, but all very colorful. The final stop inside the market was for a delicious pork and green papaya dish, which was little more spicy than what I like, but the papaya was terrific. We finished off with a yogurt and fermented rice drink which was very tasty.

At 1:30pm the tour ended and we were not far from the Ipa-Nima store. This was the one and only must do on my list for Hanoi. Putting it mildly, I’m a handbag fanatic. During pre-trip research on trip advisor I stumble across a post about Ipa-Nima handbags and I became completely enamored. There are 2 stores in Hanoi which sell these handbags, one in the Old Quarter and the other is the flagship store at 34 Han Thuyen. Lucky for me the food tour ended near this street! It took about 10 minutes to find the street the shop was on and about 15 seconds to spot the lavender exterior of the shop with a rather large staircase leading up to the entrance. The interior of the shop matched the exterior, lots of plush purples. I took my time browsing since we were the only customers, in the end I purchased a couple new handbags and a couple cute change purses for my nieces (I couldn’t resist!). I had to refrain from purchasing the exquisite green python handbag; at the equivalent of $1000 it was a bit steep for my wallet!

After this bout of retail therapy we made a quick stop at the hotel and then CL and I went out to explore a bit of the Old Quarter and walking around Hoan Kiem Lake. Later in the afternoon CL and I met B& V on the hotel’s roof terrace for cocktails. B & V had arrived before we did and were chatting with another hotel guest who was in Hanoi on business, a very interesting man who had lived in the city for several years. The terrace is small but the views are pleasant.

At 7pm we walked to Restaurant Highway 4, we got a bit turned around on the way there, but within 10 minutes we righted our way and we were about 10 minutes late for our reservation. Earlier in the day I had asked the hotel reception to make a reservation there based on a recommendation I had for this place. What had appealed to me about this particular restaurant was the cuisine was said to be from the northern area of Vietnam, the area where Highway 4 leads. So, I thought it might be nice to try it since we wouldn’t be going to that part of the country. Another reason I wanted to try this place was because they offered a rice wine sampler. I’m not sure if I’ll be jumping at the next offer of rice wine, it wasn’t my favorite, but it was fun to give it a try and at least there were 4 different flavors!

We had 3 appetizers to share, the fried catfish spring rolls was the best part of the entire meal. The other 2 appetizers were grilled pigeon and a pork dish served with what we thought may have been fried crickets. The main dish we ordered was a steamboat, which is what this place is known for. The one we chose was the snakehead fish steamboat. When a propane burner was placed on the table we knew we were going to be in for an experience! After the burner arrived at the table a heaping dish with fresh herbs, a plate of noodles, a huge platter with a whole fresh fish and a pot of broth with vegetables were placed on the table. Now it was time to cook! The fish was good, very mild; the noodles had a slight “bite” to them. It wasn’t a bad dish, but it wasn’t fantastic, maybe we weren’t the best chefs, with that rice wine we were drinking! It was a fun experience and for $43 dollars for 4 of us, the price was reasonable.

After dinner we walked to the lake and found our way to the famous Fanny’s for ice cream and ended the night on a sweet happy note.
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May 17th, 2011, 08:45 PM
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we ate at that same restaurant on the small balcony but we had traditional food, all of which was very good..
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May 18th, 2011, 05:49 AM
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rhkkmk...

In hindsight I think my mistake was ordering the steamboat. We maybe should have each ordered an individual main dish. Live and learn. It didn't stop us from enjoying other meals!
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May 20th, 2011, 07:46 PM
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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Today was Hanoi Elegance Diamond Hotel departure day, sad to leave this great hotel, but excited to meet up with the rest of our group.

CL & I met B & V at 8:30am for breakfast and decided we would check out at 10am and move to the tour hotel, The Movenpick. We settled our hotel bill and took a taxi to the Movenpick. Our room wasn’t ready but we were able to store our bags and walked back to the Old Quarter for a nice wander around.

We poke around lots of little streets popping into shops that caught our interest and found St. Joseph’s Cathedral. The weather was nice and there was lots of activity in the streets which made for some great photo opportunities.

We passed a coffee shop with signs for weasel coffee and after a minute or 2 of convincing the girls we should try it, and some encouragement from the nice proprietress, we stopped for a cup. WOW! This weasel coffee was some really good stuff, very smooth, I loved it! The proprietress was very friendly and I thought I would ask if she knew where the Dac Kim Bun Cha place was. I had been keeping my eyes open all morning for this place and thought we were on the right street, but the street name I had in my notes and the street name posted were spelled differently, so I pulled out the address I had and showed it to our coffee lady. A big smile came across her face and she pointed us just down the street! How lucky were we that we had stumbled upon the right street.

We walked about 10 paces to Dac Kim and made our way through the crowded first floor to the back and up the stairs, past the 1st floor, past the 2nd floor, and finally at the 3rd floor we were told to sit. As we sat down, noodles were placed in front of us, then herbs, then broth, and then bowls with meat, there was so much food. And it wouldn’t have been a complete meal without some local beer, so we ordered 4 of those too. The food was delicious and the atmosphere was buzzing. We sat at a table next to a party of 6 adults and 2 small children. There was a French couple, a Vietnamese/French couple & their small children (the son of the French couple), and a couple from Hong Kong. What an interesting conversation we had. The French father was surprised to see 4 women traveling without spouses, and in his limited English he let us know how much he liked President Obama, the Vietnamese/French Couple lived in Hanoi and the French couple were here visiting them. They wanted to know about us and how long we would be in Vietnam, what we thought of the country and how long it took us to travel there among other things. It was one of the nicest lunches we had. And to be presented with a bill for $15 total, for 4 of us, the price couldn’t be beat!

After lunch we walked to the Hang Be Market area and explored the market. By 2:30pm we were all getting a bit tired, it was starting to get warm out so we walked back to the Movenpick Hotel and checked in. The hotel is a typical business hotel, nice lobby, clean and spacious but it didn’t have the ambience of the Elegance Diamond.

At 5pm we met RM in the lobby for a drink and got caught up with each others lives and the rest of the group trickled in. We left the hotel just after 6pm and walked to dinner at Wild Lotus restaurant. I really enjoyed this meal. The menu was set up with a variety of set menu options. CL and I chose to share set menu #4, the “Spice Journey”. We started with spicy shrimp soup, then a spring roll and a seafood/pineapple salad. The imperial steamed rice was fantastic with fresh peas and the best dish was eggplant (for those who know me, that will not come as a surprise, I love eggplant prepared just about any way!) with shrimp and meat. There was also a deviled soft shell crab tossed in there somewhere too! Dessert was a banana fritter with coconut ice cream. On a whole the meal was good, some dishes were hits, others misses, but he portions (even being enough for 2) were enormous. RM took care of ordering enough wine for the table and when we were finished, 9 happy travelers walked back to the hotel.
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May 20th, 2011, 08:23 PM
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anxious to read more....ain't hanoi fantastic!!!
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May 21st, 2011, 03:35 AM
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Me, too! Great installment, LCI!
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May 21st, 2011, 04:06 AM
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Very well written and most readable report! Eager for more!
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May 21st, 2011, 05:10 AM
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I'm enjoying reading your report and looking forward to more.
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May 21st, 2011, 08:50 PM
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rhkkmk...it sure is! I REALLY liked Hanoi ALOT. Maybe it was because I was there a couple days longer than our other destinations, but I would go back to Hanoi in a New York minute!

AMC...thanks!

EK...thanks for reading, I so enjoy all your trip reports!

Shelley...thanks for the encouragement.

Hope to get more posted tomorrow!
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