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

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

Dec 21st, 2012, 04:45 AM
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Spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet : Three foodies tour Vietnam

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.
loncall is offline  
Dec 21st, 2012, 06:03 AM
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Wonderful! We're leaving for Vietnam on January 8th so I'm very eager to read all about your trip, especially the food. Waiting impatiently for more.
Marija is offline  
Dec 21st, 2012, 09:09 AM
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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
loncall is offline  
Dec 21st, 2012, 11:09 AM
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Adding to my restaurant list. Thanks!
Marija is offline  
Dec 21st, 2012, 12:38 PM
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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.
dgunbug is offline  
Dec 21st, 2012, 12:57 PM
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Terrific start. I love Hanoi, and will take note of the cheap eats - I already know the Green Tangerine.
thursdaysd is offline  
Dec 21st, 2012, 01:40 PM
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Enjoying your report. We had a fine time in Hanoi - and wonderful food.
Kathie is offline  
Dec 21st, 2012, 01:41 PM
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We were in northern Vietnam a few years ago, so following along to see what's changed...
Craig is offline  
Dec 21st, 2012, 02:21 PM
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Bun bo Nam bo - food to die for..delicious! Enjoyed dinner at the Green Tangerine too.
yestravel is offline  
Dec 22nd, 2012, 09:50 AM
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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.
loncall is offline  
Dec 22nd, 2012, 10:49 AM
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Eagerly (and gratefully) waiting for more!
Marija is offline  
Dec 22nd, 2012, 11:23 AM
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These are terrific reports and I know your information will be very helpful as I plan our SE Asia vacation for next November. Looking forward to reading more!
barbarasa is offline  
Dec 22nd, 2012, 05:04 PM
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Never been so just loving your style of writing in the TR!
Shanghainese is offline  
Dec 22nd, 2012, 11:10 PM
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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.
loncall is offline  
Dec 23rd, 2012, 03:37 AM
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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.
dgunbug is offline  
Dec 23rd, 2012, 04:44 AM
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What a great report, so well written. I totally relived my days in Hanoi thru your eyes.
Nywoman is offline  
Dec 23rd, 2012, 06:24 AM
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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.
yestravel is offline  
Dec 27th, 2012, 02:36 AM
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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.
loncall is offline  
Dec 27th, 2012, 03:23 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 4,203
What a great report! La Residence hotel is in our future as well. Glad you liked it.
Marija is offline  
Dec 27th, 2012, 05:24 AM
Join Date: Jul 2008
Posts: 2,764
Still reading and enjoying your wonderful report.
dgunbug is offline  

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