Trip Report: Journey to Vietnam & Laos

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Mar 1st, 2009, 11:36 AM
  #21
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Marya, yes, the Indochine we went to is on a side street, and actually Quan An Ngon was at the corner/end of this side street. It is a colonial, and I think maybe at night with lots of candles lit it is probably way more charming than when we saw it during the day. It's quite possible that our set menu were the leftovers of the bus group (I swear, like 30 people) and not representative of their al a carte menu.
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Mar 1st, 2009, 05:13 PM
  #22
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Just a note to all of you following along...
I'm going out of town for a few days and it's not clear if I'll have an internet connection. It may be a few days before I continue posting my report.
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Mar 9th, 2009, 03:20 PM
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It's been over a week since my last post, but I haven't given up!

LUANG PRABANG

The nonstop flight from Hanoi to LP was an easy 50 minutes and we arrived shortly after 10:00am. Upon landing, the majority of the people on the plane hopped in line to get a visa, but the process was very simple. We collected our luggage, found our guide Pheng waiting for us in the arrivals area, and we were on our way to Les 3 Nagas. I’m not sure if it was the pretty green scenery I saw from the plane, or the feeling of being in a small town after the energy of Hanoi, but instantly I felt relaxed and blissed out as we drove to the hotel. We had a mid-afternoon city tour scheduled with Pheng, so we had around 3 hours to unpack, relax and have lunch.

Our room at L3N was the Executive Suite, Room 7, on the second floor above reception (we had requested a Junior Suite but they were apparently booked up so we got an upgrade.) The room was extremely spacious and comfortable, with a sofa, table and chairs, desk and a balcony with 4 lounge chairs facing the road . The only minor complaint was the wood floors were very creaky, which probably bothered the people below us more than it bothered us.

After settling in we headed right for Tamarind for lunch, which was very close to L3N. It was as wonderful as everyone says, and was definitely one of the top 3 meals of the trip. We picked 2 of the items from the first section of the menu where you get smaller sizes of many dips and dishes, and 2 of the blended fruit juices. (Unfortunately I wasn’t good about writing down the names of our selections.) The spices and flavors were incredible. I was hoping we wouldn’t be full so we could pick a couple more things, but sadly we didn’t have space in our bellies for anything else. The next day was Friday, the day of their feast dinner, so we considered making reservations, but decided to check out the restaurant scene on Thursday evening before making up our minds.

After lunch we had a bit of time before our tour so we checked out a few of the shops (I was determined to get a couple of the woven silk scarves/table runners you see all over in Laos) and found a patio bar overlooking the Namkhan River and had our first Beer Lao (good!) At this point I was really wishing we had more days to stay and just relax and do nothing.

Our tour was a great intro to the wats and to get our bearings in the city. We started at the Royal Palace Museum, then went to Wat May, Wat Visoun and Wat Xieng Thong (the highlight, with the gorgeous tree of life mosaic.) Next we hiked up the steps to the top of Mt. Phousi and admired the view of the city in all directions.

That night we had our first chance to explore the main street through town. We checked out restaurants and shops and wandered through the night market. From my pre-trip research I had a few restaurants picked out and tonight I thought we’d try the restaurant at 3 Nagas. But after reading the menu it just seemed too contrived and upscale and I was in the mood for something more “real” or that seemed more traditionally Laotian. However, our problem is that we prefer to have a nice atmosphere and service, so street food, which of course is the most real, is out. Dining options in LP turned out to disappoint me because it seems like none of the places want to specialize in anything; they’d rather be all things to all people. I was turned off by all the menus that had Lao food, but also had pizza, pasta, burgers and all kinds of other western food.

In the end we picked the dining room at the Chang Inn, a small pretty hotel on the quiet end of town near L3N. They had a nice looking table overlooking the street and a menu that seemed promising. We tried to tell the waitress we liked spicy food, but her English was very limited and based on our food I don’t think she understood us. The meal was not bad, but not good, and the service was timid (as in hiding behind posts trying to avoid talking to us at all costs.) In retrospect it was probably a big mistake to skip the L3N restaurant.
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Mar 9th, 2009, 08:53 PM
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"At this point I was really wishing we had more days to stay and just relax and do nothing." - we keep telling people to allow more time in LP to do just that - good to have another testimonial to point to.
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Mar 10th, 2009, 11:08 AM
  #25
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Yes, thursday, I often wish this, but unfortunately limited vacation days usually mean the "relax" days get de-prioritized. Our dream for retirement is to take more leisurely vacations where we don't try to cram in so much.
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Mar 10th, 2009, 11:10 AM
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More LP...

The next day started early as we woke up to observe the monks on their 6:30am walk for food (totally worth waking up early for.) Afterward was a great breakfast at the hotel. Rather than a buffet, they bring out plates of fruit, a basket of yummy bread/pastries, and then you get 2 eggs (any style, gorgeous yolks a totally different color than in the US) and a choice of bacon or sausage, garnished with an interesting grilled tomato. The coffee was also excellent. The outdoor eating area (also the bar) has comfy chairs and umbrellas to protect you from the sun, and the temperature is really pleasant in the morning before the sun really starts blazing.

On the schedule for today was a morning Mekong River cruise to the Pak Ou Caves, then an afternoon drive to Kouang Si waterfall and the craft village of Ban Xang Khong. Somehow during the planning phase it had escaped me that the cruise to the caves would take 2 hours. But I occupied myself taking lots of photos of the people and scenery along the river. I guess I’d say the caves were kind of a letdown. But this may have been my own fault -- I think I had a grander preconceived picture in my head of what a cave full of Buddhas would look like. I’m still glad we went, but we were happy that the boat trip back to LP was downriver and only 1 hour.

Lunch was included in our package and I guessed we’d be eating somewhere near the caves. But we actually ate back in town and Pheng took us to Tamnak Lao, located on the main street almost across from L3N. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now that I’m re-looking at my Lonely Planet book, I think this restaurant is also known as Three Elephants. (I had read recommendations for Three Elephants but don’t remember anyone calling it Tamnak Lao.) We had talked to Pheng about our love of spices and she clearly had a chat with our server. She arranged a set menu and we had a fantastic lunch with the spice level right where we love it. We sat on the upstairs balcony and had a great view of the street activity. Definitely recommend.

The drive (30 or 45 minutes?) to Kouang Si waterfall was very interesting in that we had the chance to see smaller villages and rice paddies, but the downside was that it included lots of curvy roads and a van with questionable shock absorbers. I felt totally carsick, which is not at all normal for me. It was at this point in the trip my stomach decided it was not happy, and would remain fragile for the rest of the vacation. We had been taking Malarone for the last 4 days, so I think the slightly queasy feeling was partly a reaction to this. Plus perhaps the spices at Tamarind and Tamnak Lao, as much as I loved them, were messing with me. Who knows what else – the water? The exotic Asian fruit? The crazy-colored egg yolks? Anyway, the walk along the pretty, shaded path through the waterfalls definitely helped me feel better. The waterfalls and the surrounding tropical forest were beautiful. But then too soon we were back in the van, headed to Ban Xang Khong, a village very close to LP (maybe near the airport?) known for silk weaving and paper making. I enjoyed seeing the silk in all it’s different phases and watching women using traditional looms to weave. There were a couple of streets with simple shops that seemed authentic and not overly touristy, and I ended up buying 3 scarves ($4 each) of a loosely woven rough silk. These were more casual scarves to be worn around the neck, not the finer kind that you could use as a wall hanging or table runner. Good village to visit.

We made it back to the hotel with a bit of daylight left and enjoyed lounging on our balcony with beers and our books. Based on the slightly nauseous feeling in my stomach, Tamarind was out for the feast dinner. I really craved American style comfort food, and I’m embarrassed to admit I wanted to go to one of the places I made fun of the night before to eat a pizza. We ended up at Khmu, where they had pizza on a French baguette that was pretty good and settled my stomach nicely.
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Mar 10th, 2009, 11:40 AM
  #27
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The next morning we were free until our 1:00pm pickup for the airport. But first it was Immodium time as my digestive system was now in full revolt. Thankfully Immodium works well for me, so eventually we made it to another yummy breakfast. Since my stomach was under control it was time to do some serious shopping! I had browsed quite a bit over the last couple of days so I knew what I wanted. For the “finer” woven silks I had targeted Carusoe and Ok Pop Tok. The colors and patterns of their pieces were so different and more contemporary in style, and I ended up buying 3 scarves and 3 of the perfect wooden hangers to hang them on my walls. (Oh, BTW, I thought the Ok Pop Tok on the side street near L'Elephant had a better selection than their other store on the main street.)

We also visited 3 more wats that weren’t part of our tour. I took one of my favorite photos of the trip -- 4 novice monks sitting at a table under a tree that was in full bloom with flowers the same orange color as the monks robes.

With shopping out of the way we hit Morning Glory for lunch. Even though we weren’t super hungry we knew we wouldn’t have a chance to have dinner until after 9:00pm due to our flights. (To Hanoi, then a 2.5 hour layover, then on to Hue, arriving around 8:00pm.) We really liked Morning Glory. All the different fruit juice blends were so interesting and there were great sandwich options on crusty French baguettes. We both loved our BLTs (had to stick with “safe” food.) The breakfast and coffee options looked great for anyone who doesn’t have breakfast included at their hotel.

We still had an hour to kill so we decided to have a glass of wine at the hotel bar. They kept refilling our glasses (who are we to say no?) and suddenly the bottle was empty but we only were charged for 3 glasses, which was nice. So we were feeling pretty happy by the time we headed to the airport, and hey, by the way, it was Valentine’s Day! How nice to spend Valentine’s Day in 2 countries!

Throughout our stay I was so happy we decided to stay in town. It was so easy to pop in and out of the hotel to go to eat or go shopping. I loved L3N, its décor, and the bar/breakfast area in the front. The gardens behind their second building are also very pretty and would be a good place for hanging out. I’d recommend this hotel to anyone.

As we drove to the airport I saw again how the roads along the 2 rivers are so pretty and peaceful compared to the center road through town. As I mentioned before, I would have loved another day or 2 to just wander around the “back” streets. LP is on our “go back to” list for somewhere around 2029!

Hue is coming up next!
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Mar 11th, 2009, 06:04 AM
  #28
 
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Bniemand: Thank you for taking the time to write this excellent report! It brings back so many memories! I agree about those set lunches at the upscale restaurants. I, too, thought that the Ho mausoleum was a highlight. And Tamarind in LP!!

I will stay tuned!
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Mar 19th, 2009, 01:49 PM
  #29
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HUE

Our flights from LP to Hanoi then Hanoi to Hue were smooth and trouble free. Even though both flights were on Vietnam Airlines, after landing in Hanoi we had to collect our bags in the international area and then walk to the domestic departures area to check in for the next flight. I think this was mainly because our LP > Hanoi tickets were on a separate record locator than the domestic tickets for the rest our trip. But anyway, it wasn’t a big deal because we had a couple of hours between flights and the Hanoi airport is pretty efficient and not too big.

We were collected in Hue by our guide Hai and transported to the La Residence. On the way to the hotel I asked about the restaurants La Carambole and Tropical Garden – where were they located in relation to the hotel? The answer was they weren’t within walking distance, which surprised me. I think I had assumed La Residence was somewhat centrally located, but once I got my bearings (the next day) I realized it is a bit off to the edge of town. Not really far, but far enough to make walking to dinner in the dark when you don’t know exactly where you’re going unadvisable. Anyway, by the time we checked in and got to our room it was almost 9:00pm, dark, and we were too tired to even think about getting a taxi to one of these restaurants. But as it turned out, I was immediately in love with this hotel and the hotel restaurant turned out to be a great choice.

Other trip reports have commented on the Art Deco design of La Residence and this was one of the reasons I picked it. (I’m an interior designer and design is always a huge factor in my hotel choices.) But I wasn’t expecting to be so blown away. The detail of every single piece of furniture, stairway railings, light fixtures, tiles, woodworking, etc was so well executed and thought through. My only quibble was mildew; the bathroom, as well as the exterior of the hotel, as well as most of the buildings in the city, seem to be fighting a losing battle with mildew. Even though the temperature in Hue was not that hot (well, compared to Saigon,) it did feel pretty humid.

As I mentioned before, it was Valentine’s Day, and we were pleased to find the hotel restaurant ready to provide a very romantic dinner for us. They led us to a table outside with a nice river view, decorated with candlelight and roses. I had a simple craving for spring rolls and pho, and was very happy with the food. The menu had good Vietnamese choices as well as French and what I’d call American comfort food (burgers, etc.) The service was outstanding; extremely professional, a bit formal in a good way. The breakfast buffet was also located in this space and it was good as well.
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Mar 19th, 2009, 03:07 PM
  #30
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The next morning Hai and our driver picked us up at 9:00am and we drove to a dock on the river, sort of across from the Citadel. Our first stop on our city tour was the Thien Mu Pagoda, and we were taking a dragon boat along the Perfume River to get there. Of everything we did in Hue that day, this was the only thing that turned out to be disappointing. The water around the docks where the dragon boats were parked was covered with garbage. The boat was quite beat-up and sad looking (despite its brightly painted dragon-shaped bow) and seemed to be the home of a family. Dad was the driver, Mom tried to sell us cheap souvenirs while we sat scrunched in mini plastic chairs, and a couple of kids were roaming around the back.

The ride was short, thankfully; maybe 30 minutes. The most interesting part was that twice the boat had to pull up alongside government patrol boats, “officially” to submit some sort of paperwork, but Hai told us there was money hiding in the paperwork. Some sort of kickback or payoff for protection? Who knows, but it ended up being the only instance on the whole trip where we witnessed corruption.

Thien Mu Pagoda was pretty and we enjoyed it, but not a highlight compared with the Imperial City and the tombs of the emperors. Happily, our driver picked us up and drove us to our next stop, the Imperial City, and we didn’t have to take the dragon boat back to town.

I absolutely loved the Imperial City. We probably spent around 2 hours wandering around the grounds. This is the sort of place where I love having a guide. It’s huge and there are so many gorgeous buildings and other structures worth seeing. It’s nice being with someone who can lead you on a logical path. Not that you couldn’t do it without a guide, but I think you might end up missing things and doing lots of backtracking.

Next Hai dropped us at Tropical Garden for lunch. It was a pretty place and we ordered 4 different dishes to share. Sorry, I don’t remember what we ordered, but my notes say “just OK.” Hai told us we should try to go back for dinner since they have live music, but I was thinking we’d probably try to go to La Carambole. Oh, for lunch we had the local beer of Hue called LaRue, which was very good (but I think we decided the Hanoi beer was better.)

After lunch we drove to the Royal Tomb of Tu Duc. I loved this place too; very peaceful and park-like with tons of shady pine trees and lakes. The structures seemed to have been allowed to age gracefully rather than being over-restored in a fake sort of way. Next we drove to the Royal Tomb of Khai Dinh. Completely different than Tu Duc, but also gorgeous. After hiking up a ton of steps you’re rewarded with a shrine with an interior totally covered in mosaic murals created from pieces of colorful broken porcelain.

Our final stop of the day was the Dong Ba market. I love visiting markets not so much to buy stuff but to take photos, especially of the food. So Hai led us around through the fruits, veggies, meats, fish, etc and it was fantastic. He tried to tell me the market in Hoi An was better, but at the end of the trip after seeing markets in each city I decided Dong Ba was best.

A great day in general. I think I took more photos on this one day in Hue than on any other day of the trip.
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Mar 19th, 2009, 03:38 PM
  #31
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We were back at the hotel around 4:00pm, and concluded it was time to lounge by the pool with books and cocktails. The La Residence pool is really pretty, and there’s a nice pool bar with an interesting drink menu. The fresh fruit juices sounded so yummy that I opted not to get a cocktail.

After lounging for awhile we were feeling pretty hot and completely lazy and the idea of going out to dinner was sounding less and less appealing, especially after the pleasant experience we had at the hotel restaurant the night before. We decided to get cleaned up then have a drink at the bar (a gorgeous space just off the front lobby) and think about it. Well, after curling up on one of the bar’s sofas and enjoying a bottle of white wine, we were definitely staying put. And all I could think about was the cheeseburger and fries I had noticed on the menu the night before. I still feel sort of guilty about this; we hardly ever eat at hotels since I always love experiencing local restaurants and local cuisine. But we had another great experience, again sitting outside in the warm candlelit air, eating really good burgers and drinking more wine (red this time.)

The next morning as we left Hue to drive to Hoi An, I found myself wishing for another day in Hue just to explore the city on our own. The central (?) part of the city around Tropical Garden looked interesting, as did what appeared to be an attractive residential area between the hotel and the central area. Add me to the many voices on this forum who have said Hue deserves just as much time as Hoi An. Or more.

Up next: the drive to Hoi An.
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Mar 19th, 2009, 04:15 PM
  #32
 
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I take exceptional delight in your report on your time in Hue because it perfectly captures our feelings about our time there as well as yours. Aren't the imperial tombs sensational?! I was just pleased to see that you left town before dining at La Carambole; that was the only bad experience in town that we had. The front desk manager at La Residence pulled a face when we first asked about directions there -- afterwards, I understood why.

Thanks for a delicious review.
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Mar 20th, 2009, 12:11 PM
  #33
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Thanks for your comments marya. I feel better now about missing La Carambole! For the benefit of future readers, did you go to any restaurants in Hue you liked? The other places I had on my research list (and didn't go to) were Ca Thi, Lac Thien, and Tha Om.
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Mar 20th, 2009, 02:04 PM
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Our drive to Hoi An took the route through the Hai Van Cloudy Pass. Very pretty drive in general with lots of curvy switchback roads. When we got to the top of the pass the clouds were super dense so unfortunately we didn’t get the view I was hoping for. What I did get that I was not hoping for was car sick. Once again I blame the Malarone, but I’m sure it also had a lot to do with the excessive wine consumption the night before.

Next we stopped at Marble Mountain, which seem to sprout right up from the center of Danang. The caves and grottos were interesting, but the pagodas were sort of sad and unkempt and there was lots of garbage around. Also lots of steep steps, plus the heat and my queasiness, so I can’t say I enjoyed it too much. I was hoping for a good view of China Beach, but that required climbing to the very top and I decided it wasn’t worth it. But probably a good goal for those of you in better shape!

The last stop before Hoi An was the Cham Museum in Danang. I’d definitely recommend this to anyone also going to My Son. It’s a small museum and easy to see in under an hour. Full of amazing stone sculptures that have been restored to a level unlike anything you see at My Son. (Now I’m wondering if they’re reproductions rather than restorations? It’s not clear from reading the Fodors guide book.)

We reached Hoi An by early afternoon and had a quick lunch before our afternoon walking tour of the town. We ate at Citronella, located near the Japanese Bridge (on the opposite side from the center of the old town) at 5 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. I had not read about it in advance, and we were taken there by our guide. It had sort of a modern café vibe, and turned out to be pretty good. There were tables outside with a river view, but we opted for the shade inside. I had excellent Vietnamese iced coffee.
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Mar 20th, 2009, 03:28 PM
  #35
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Our afternoon tour included the Japanese Bridge, the Tan Ky House (very pretty mother-of-pearl decoration), the Museum of Trading Ceramics (ceramics not interesting, but the ancient woodwork throughout the house was quite nice), Phuoc Kien Hoi Quan assembly hall (highlight of the tour) and I think one other pagoda that I can’t identify.

With all my pre-trip reading I’d apparently over-romanticized the place and expected to love Hoi An. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I was disappointed that all the shops seemed to have identical cheap looking merchandise and very few shops were trying to do anything unique. I think if you just wanted the ancient town tour and a bit of shopping you could easily do Hoi An in a day and move on. If you’re interested in having clothing made or just relaxing at the beach/pool, you could add another day or two. On the plus side, there are a handful of decent restaurants (perhaps better than Hue in this respect.)

We stayed for 2 nights at the Life Heritage Resort. I debated about staying at a beach hotel but opted for town mainly to make it easier to shop and go out to dinner. It was the right choice for us. We had a Junior Suite River View (Room 208) and I really liked the room -- nicely decorated, spacious, great bathroom. The view of the river was fine but not as pretty as I thought it would be. I had imagined us hanging out on our terrace, but the real place to hang out was the gorgeous pool. (It was completely redone after the flood of 2007; make sure to look at the incredible flood photos hanging near the gift shop.) If we ever go back I’d save some $$ and get a garden view suite.

It was lounge-by-the-pool time again and we went with our favorite hot weather cocktail, margarita on the rocks with salt. Wow, they did a good job!

I had targeted a place called Song Hoai for dinner, but we discovered it had been renamed Sakura (or Hoa Anh Dao.) It has a great location on the river, and the tables upstairs with a river view are very nice. The address is 119-121 Nguyen Thai Hoc, very close to Tan Ky House. Our table also overlooked a plaza where a large crowd was playing some sort of cute gambling game involving singing and live music. Even though we didn’t understand the game or the music it was fun to watch. The traditional Vietnamese food was pretty good as was the wine list.

Up next: visit to My Son
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Mar 27th, 2009, 01:50 PM
  #36
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Visiting My Son is a really easy thing to do from Hoi An. (Our guide Hai + Driver picked us up at 8:30am and we were back in Hoi An before noon.) Our favorite travel experience of all time was seeing the Angkor complex in Siem Reap, so anything remotely resembling that will likely make us happy. And My Son is sort of similar architecturally, although significantly smaller. So yes, we really loved My Son and learning a bit about the Champa kingdom. Another nice aspect of the trip was the drive through the countryside, passing by simple villages and seeing more of the “real” Vietnam.

Lunch today was at Morning Glory (106 Nguyen Thai Hoc), which turned out to be our favorite restaurant in Hoi An. The food was great (a contemporary take on street food) and the interior was a bit more modern than most of the other places in town. Check out www.hoianhospitality.com for more info on Morning Glory and other restaurants owned by the same woman.

We then had the afternoon free for shopping. After a bit of internal debate I decided to have a silk blouse made at Yaly. So many people have recommended Yaly that I didn’t spend time shopping around at what seemed like the 100 other tailors in town. I ended up with a very pretty blouse for $26 in a fabric I love – not actually silk but a silk blend with a cool Pucci-like print. The quality of the tailoring is not outstanding, but in their defense they created it in under 22 hours. They measured me the first day, early evening on our way to dinner. The second day after lunch at Morning Glory I ended up having 3 fittings in the span of 3 hours while they tailored it to fit my body. Even if I never wear the blouse, I think I enjoyed the experience most of all. Yaly was super busy each time we were there; lots of people were having multiple garments made.

Other souvenirs purchased (between fittings at Yaly) included:
3 carved marble boxes with dragonfly designs $26
Small silk purse $6
Sheer gauzy-fabric blouse (the owner of the shop said her sister made it) $10

NOTE: right across from Morning Glory there is a shop whose name I don’t remember but there are signs outside about Fair Trade. If I remember correctly the people making the crafts sold there are disadvantaged or handicapped in some way. This store was really nice and one of the few that wasn’t selling the exact same stuff as everyone else. I didn’t end up buying anything there, but it’s worth mentioning.

Next up (you can probably guess): more pool-side lounging and margaritas.

We probably would have gone back to Morning Glory for dinner but the location was on the complete opposite side of town from our hotel, and of course we were feeling too lazy to walk. (Note the walk is only about 10 minutes, just so you understand our excuse was lame.) Our laziness was such that we briefly considered room service. Thankfully I had read about Dem Hoi (11 Pham Hong Thai) and noted that it was close to the hotel, just a few doors down from the hotel entrance, so off we went. It’s a small, simple place with a menu covering all the traditional Hoi An specialties. We really enjoyed our dinner here. The staff was beyond friendly and made sure our bottle of white wine stayed super cold, so by the time we left we were in quite a nice mood.
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Mar 27th, 2009, 02:23 PM
  #37
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We had the next morning free for shopping and hanging out in Hoi An before our 1:40pm flight to Saigon. When I designed our itinerary I thought this extra morning would be important because I expected to love Hoi An, but in hindsight it would have been fine to leave for SGN in the morning. Anyway, when we woke up we found it was raining. This was the only time during the trip we had rain. So we didn’t feel guilty at all about sleeping in, skipping the fine-but-not-great breakfast buffet and having a leisurely early lunch at the hotel bar.

The Life Resort bar is quite nice and has a really pretty patio with comfy chairs and umbrellas for shade. At this point in the trip we had maxed out on Vietnamese food. I mean we like it, but we don’t like it so much that we want to eat it twice a day for 2 weeks. So once again it was time for cheeseburgers and fries, and they did an excellent job.

Oh, and as I’m writing this I remember that the night before, after dinner at Dem Hoi, we stopped at this bar and split dessert and a glass of wine on the patio. Great wine list and yummy desserts.

At noon we were picked up and driven to the airport in Danang. Our flight left on time despite the mistiness that was still hanging over the area. We arrived in Saigon just before 3:00pm and were picked up by our guide Lam and driver and transported to the Park Hyatt. The hotel website says the drive takes about 25 minutes. I wonder if this is at midnight? Definitely more like 45 -60, weaving through the same sort of crazy/fascinating motorcycle traffic as in Hanoi.
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Mar 27th, 2009, 03:36 PM
  #38
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SAIGON

First, can I just say that I absolutely love, love, love the Park Hyatt Saigon. The service, the rooms, the gorgeously decorated public spaces, the restaurants, the food, the location were all fabulous. We stayed in a Park King room (room 736), the smallest option, and although it was not big the floor plan was extremely functional, and the décor was a modern take on French colonial with lots of silky fabrics.

After settling into our room we decided to take a walk around the neighborhood and the concierge helpfully suggested a route and gave us a shopping map. Earlier when our plane landed the captain reported that it was 93 degrees; by now it was a bit after 5:00pm, so it felt a little more comfortable. We strolled down Dong Khoi (the major shopping street) toward the river, then came back along Nguyen Hue and a couple of other smaller side streets. I spotted lots of great shops and was excited to do some serious shopping the next afternoon.

Time to think about dinner. The two places I had targeted were Quan An Ngon (same casual concept as the one in Hanoi) and Nam Kha (recommended by our guide and the concierge as the best upscale restaurant with traditional Vietnamese cuisine.) But as I mentioned before we were pretty burned out on Vietnamese food. The idea of staying in the hotel and avoiding the heat was really appealing and we picked the Italian option called Restaurant Opera, just off the lobby, with huge 2-story floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the Opera next door.

Restaurant Opera is really pretty, modern but very warm, with a big open kitchen in the center and a wood-burning pizza oven. The latest restaurant craze in our hometown Chicago seems to be places with imported-from-Italy pizza ovens where they make Naples-style thin crust pizzas. Our favorite new place has a spicy pepperoni pizza with truffle oil drizzled on top of it (I’m drooling as I type.) So I was beyond thrilled to see a pizza with prosciutto, arugula and truffle oil on the Opera menu. And it was every bit as good as Chicago. The wine list here (and the 2-story wine display case) was also outstanding. We sat at the bar that surrounds the kitchen prep area and really enjoyed watching the chefs at work.

Next up: city tour of Saigon
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Mar 31st, 2009, 03:16 PM
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Our city tour included Reunification Hall, War Remnants Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral, Old Post Office and Ben Thanh Market. Our guide picked us up at 9:00am and we were back to our hotel around noon. Looking at the map, these sites are pretty close together and you could easily walk from one to the other if you didn’t have a guide/driver. But with the heat and humidity I’ll admit it was nice to have a car with AC to take us from place to place.

Reunification Hall was extremely interesting. I loved the formal rooms upstairs with all the 60s style furniture, and when you see the basement with the maps and war rooms you can really imagine generals huddled around planning the next battle.

The War Remnants Museum is an emotional rollercoaster. The best rooms are the ones featuring photos taken by foreign photo-journalists for magazines like Life. They’re presented in chronological order and do a great job of painting a picture of life in Vietnam during this time for both soldiers and civilians. The really difficult parts of the museum are seeing the photos and displays related to the My Lai massacre, and photos of babies born deformed as a result of Agent Orange and other horrible chemicals. Then you move on and see a collection of cute drawings made by schoolchildren with the theme of PEACE. By this time you’re thinking how can they possibly forgive us? So by the time I left I was struggling to hold back tears. Our guide noticed this and says “Oh, you’re crying, I’m so sorry!” And we look at her incredulously and say “YOU’RE sorry?? No, WE’RE sorry!”

Next we stopped at the Notre Dame Cathedral, but it was closed and we weren’t able to go in. (Note: my Fodor’s guide says it’s only open from 8-10:30am and 3-4pm.) Right next to the cathedral is the Old Post Office. Pretty building, and you can be in-and-out in under 5 minutes unless you’re into stamps – the gift shops are filled with old stamps for sale.

Our final stop was Ben Thanh Market. More opportunities for me to take fascinating meat photos – my favorite is a photo of 2 girls crouched over a bucket of pigs feet, using disposable razors to shave the hair off the feet.

Then back to the hotel for a quick rest before lunch and shopping. For lunch we decided to check out the roof terrace at the Rex Hotel. After reading that it was quite the hangout during the war for officers and journalists, I had a romanticized vision in my head and figured it would still be a popular upscale lunch spot with the bonus of a nice view. Well, there is a great view, but it sadly is not upscale or popular. The place was almost deserted. The food was good but not anything special, so just based on the view I would recommend it for a late afternoon or evening cocktail. Also of note, the park in front of the Rex, called Lam Son Square, is very pretty and has my favorite statue of Uncle Ho.

We shopped mainly along Dong Khoi. I found a gorgeous leather handbag at Khaisilk (appears to be the Louis Vuitton of Saigon) and also bought more of the carved marble boxes (just like the ones from Hoi An; decided they’d make good gifts for Mom and Sis) at a nice store called Saigon Crafts. And my husband found a silk shirt – a rarity for him to find a souvenir of his own!

When dinner time rolled around I was actually thinking I was ready to eat Vietnamese food again. But unfortunately my husband was still saying nope, can’t do it. Thankfully, the other restaurant at the Park Hyatt, called Square One, offered a perfect compromise. Its menu has a great offering of both Vietnamese and Western food. We had a fantastic dinner with excellent food and wine and terrific service – the interior was also great, lots of reds and rich woods, dark and sexy. (Yes, I’m sort of feeling guilty about not venturing out of the hotel, but at this point in the trip we are so over eating out.)

Next up: Day trip to Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Dai Temple
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Mar 31st, 2009, 04:54 PM
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Our last day in Vietnam was a really looooong day. After checking out of the hotel we were picked up at 7:30am for the drive to Cu Chi, and I think it was the middle of rush hour based on the traffic. For awhile you’re on a main road that’s relatively smooth, but then there are lots of back roads that are in pretty bad shape. We had the misfortune to be riding in a passenger van that had horrible shocks. Plus all the horn honking, which is a constant on Vietnam roads, and which I had previously thought charming, was getting on my last nerve. I can’t remember exactly how long it took to get there, maybe an hour?

Happily, the Cu Chi Tunnels were totally worth the trip. A complete engineering marvel, and I can’t imagine how an invader could possibly think they could win against people who could build something like this.

Then it was back into the van for a bumpy ride to Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh. Again, I’m not remembering how long it took – maybe 1.5 hours? But it was important to hurry to reach the temple before the noon mass. We made it with just a few minutes to spare. The temple is visually stunning and a photographers dream. As for the mass, you watch the worshippers in their white robes from a balcony, and after about 10 or 15 minutes most of the spectators leave (it gets sort of monotonous.) It’s a beautiful place to see, and the music is interesting, but I don’t know if I’d say it was worth the long drive.

Then pretty much everyone who just watched the mass (easily over 100 people) herded to what appeared to be the only tourist restaurant in town for a below-average set 4 course lunch. We wouldn’t get back to Saigon until around 4:00pm, so there was really no choice and it was included in our tour.

The drive back to the city took about 2 hours and we both tried to tune out the horns and catch up on our sleep. Our flight to Tokyo wasn’t leaving until 11:55pm, so Buffalo Tours had arranged a day room at the Oscar hotel (too expensive to pay for an extra half day at the PH) so we could rest a bit, shower and change clothes.

We had time for a nice farewell dinner, and we weren’t going to leave town without trying Nam Kha (46-50 Dong Khoi, and as I mentioned earlier, highly recommended by the PH concierge and our guide.) Apparently it is known for a multi-course royal feast, and the menus we were given only showed the dishes for this feast. I’m sure it would have been good, but we weren’t that hungry and really only wanted a few dishes to share. We had to insist twice to our waiter to see an a la carte menu – we knew it existed because it’s posted outside the front door. The waiter also kept pushing us to buy the bottle of French red that was sitting on the table when we arrived. Despite these initial service-related annoyances, the meal was lovely (including a bottle of white of our own choosing) and the interior is just beautiful – very elegant with a serene reflecting pool in the center of the space.

And then it was off to the airport (same level of traffic and horn noise at 9:30pm.)

We weren’t in Saigon long enough to see very much of the city, but I really loved District One (I believe most of the hotels are in this area.) Saigon is a totally modern Asian metropolis, with all the energy of a big city, and nice surprises like parks and tree-lined boulevards. Plus Saigon has other modern conveniences like traffic lights and cross walks so you don’t fear for your life when crossing the street. But I think if I had to pick a favorite between Hanoi and Saigon, I’d pick Hanoi, maybe because it is more romantic or maybe more like what I thought Vietnam would look like. Hanoi wins on weather too; Saigon’s heat would probably have limited our exploring even if we had the time to do it.

OK, that’s it! Just a bit over a month to complete this report, and congrats if you actually read the whole thing because it is 15 single-spaced pages of 10 point font in MS Word. I hope this has been helpful!
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