Usually I plan our vacations but I was overwhelmed with work and studying earlier this year and asked Jarques to do it. He did it so well I think he should plan all our trips from now on! <3 Here’s a summary of our adventure!
The Flight There
Time to fly! I was excited for Vietnam but dreading the 14 hour flight in economy seating. 🙁 Somehow the flight overall was decent. The seats were comfortable enough that I slept through the entire flight except for the food, thanks to my husband who reliably woke me up. The movie selection was plentiful, food was decent (beef bimbipap for dinner and sausage with omelet for breakfast) and service was good.
It’s 3:30am and we’ve arrived at Terminal 1 of the Seoul Incheon International Airport (https://thepointsguy.com/2015/06/layover-guide-to-seoul/). I’ve heard great things about this airport: free and fast WiFi, a movie theater, nap rooms, observation deck, Korean Craft Gallery and really good shopping! But damn it’s early and nothing was open. The earliest lounge wasn’t open until 5am and currently all the napping areas were taken. We passed by the time by exploring the quiet airport, taking photos with the Line Friends and scoping out the whole length of Terminal 1 for future shopping scores before taking a short nap in the lounge.
12:00pm and we’ve arrived in Hanoi! The immigration process was fast and painless thanks to the fact that Jarques applied for our visas online prior to arrival (this is a must do or else you will find yourself lining up in two separate long lines when you arrive)
When we stepped out of the airport, we found our hotel driver waiting for us and quickly headed to the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The streets and roads of Hanoi are definitely something to experience. The lanes are more ‘suggestions’ than rules because our driver was making his own lane the entire distance from the airport to Hanoi. I thought he was in the passing lane, but Jarques so astutely pointed out that it was not a lane but actually the shoulder of the highway. Nevertheless we arrived at our hotel safe and sound!
We stayed at Oriental Suites Hotel and Spa the first day and would be bouncing around different hotels due to our traveling schedule. At the hotel lobby we were greeted with a lovely tropical drink and snacks. The hotel manager sat us down to go over our welcome package, details of our stay and made note of our plans to ensure we would be well taken care of. We were really impressed with the service. When we got to our room, it wasn’t the most spacious but it had flower petals everywhere and the necessities we needed for the night. The staff noticed it was Jarques’ birthday week and got him a small birthday cake! We did not tell them what this trip was for but they really paid attention to the fine details which was really sweet! It was truly one of the best hotel experiences either one of us had and we would definitely stay here again in the future.
Crossing the Street
We dropped off our luggage and headed out to explore the city. This was my first introduction to navigating the streets of Hanoi. Scooters by the dozens were zipping by at every moment inches away from me. There were no stop lights, no rules, just an unspoken chaotic web of scooters, cars and bodies. I was advised before our travel “to just walk and not stop for any of the cars or scooters.” That really was all the information you need to get from point A to point B. Luckily I also had Jarques because honestly without him, I would only be able to explore the square block I was staying at. Jarques just took my hand, said to trust him and guided me across the street. When he walked, I walked. We did not stop for the oncoming scooters because they moved around us. Someone recently asked me if crossing the streets of Hanoi was like playing Frogger. Frogger is too easy for Hanoi! You just learn by experience. By the end of the trip we got the hang of it and so can you! ☺
We made it safely to our food adventure, Café Giang, the home of Hanoi’s infamous Egg Coffee. We seated ourselves on the low plastic stools in the corner of the top floor and people watched while enjoying Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. What is egg coffee? An egg yolk is mixed with other secret ingredients to form a golden yellow thick and creamy almost custard like cream sitting over the most flavorful coffee and sweet condensed milk. You can have it hot or cold. We preferred it cold. You mix the concoction into one creamy blend and enjoy! It was delicious and like nothing we had ever had. We could not get enough of it! We had it everyday we were in Hanoi and only at Café Giang because we thought it was the best!
Introduction to Hanoi’s Culinary Experience
Soon we were off for our first Vietnamese meal, bun cha at Duc Kim! It is delicious roast pork and pork meatballs marinated in dipping sauce served with rice noodles and fresh herbs and lettuce with a side of imperial rolls. The dipping sauce was not overly tangly or fish sauce tasting as I expected. It was perfect!
Next we headed for our first authentic pho at Pho Suong for beef pho and quay (fried breadstick). All I can say is Hanoi pho is fantastic. We got a hot piping bowl of pho and after savoring my first bite of the noodles, tender beef and quay I look up to find that Jarques has inhaled his bowl. Needless to say he enjoyed it. The broth was clean and tasted of just pure beef and fresh herbs. We were hooked!
Up next was beer in Bai Hoi Corner. There are plenty of bars on this street so take your pick, sit down enjoy some beer and people watch. We found a nice spot at a corner bar, took a seat on the small plastic stools outside and enjoyed several different beers Hanoi had to offer. We tried a new beer Tuborg (a Dutch beer) which was surprisingly tasty!
Now it was time to head to Sapa Valley. The staff at Oriental Suites didn’t want us to go hungry so they made us sandwiches to go with fresh fruit, coffee and water! Again they provided excellent service! <3 <3 At 730am we were picked up by our driver from Trekking Sapa and started our 5 hours drive to Sapa Valley. When we arrived at our hotel we were greeted by our hiking guide, Mau, a local Sapa villager. We quickly dropped off our luggage and Mau takes us to lunch at Little Vietnam where we have a traditional five course Sapa meal.
Now with full bellies, it was time for our hike. Mau asked us if we wanted the natural route or the more paved route. Obviously we chose the more natural course primarily for the views and also because we believed we could handle the physical challenge ahead of us. We started the hike around 230 pm and had about 4 hours of hiking ahead of us. We started the first hour of the hike with several steep trails. Mau was panting and I had sweated through my entire shirt. ☺We went to three different villages, up and down more rough trails. Every time we reached the peak of a trail, I turned in awe to see the beautiful natural wonder that is Sapa Valley. It was truly breathtaking.
Day one down, day two hike to go! This time after meeting Mau at our hotel lobby, we were joined by two other villagers. We initially thought they were trying to get us to buy their goods but they didn’t ask us to buy anything, instead they joined us for the hike. One older woman wearing flip flops basically held my hand throughout most of the 3 hour hike >.< I really wouldn’t have made it without her. Or at least would have gotten hurt without her. The other woman was carrying her one-year old son on her back also schooled me during the hike. When we stopped for lunch they did end up asking us to buy some of their souvenirs. We didn’t mind since they both helped me make it through the hike safely.
One of our favorite moments in Sapa was not just the breathtaking views but a moment in one of the villages we visit. We walked past a toddler playing outside with alarge piece of wood and hacking it with a knife more than half his size!!! Both of us stare at this moment with wide concerned eyes while Mau was laughing at how much fun the child was having. What different lives people have in Sapa! It made me uncomfortable to see the toddler with that knife, but this was their way of life and it worked. Children flourished. Parents weren’t concerned. Apparently injuries weren’t a concern. Ok, have at it kid! I just smiled and waved at the kid as he continued to enjoy his game of hitting the wood with his knife.
Dry Chicken Pho
Once our adventure on Sapa came to an end, we were back to Hanoi for one night before heading to Halong Bay! Guess what we did? EAT!!! We didn’t get back until 9pm and there was only one place on my food list that was open late, Pho Hanh. Luckily I watched a youtube video of this place or else we would never have found it because it was down a nondescript narrow alley that lead us to a small kitchen with 2 metal tables filled with patrons gobbling up their dry chicken pho. It was heavenly. The chicken was so juicy and tender, the sauce on the noodles were of a delicious umami flavor. The meal came with a side of refreshing chicken broth. Every bite was heavenly and we just sat quietly savoring it all! This was Jarques’ favorite meal because he requested it again 2 days later and still can’t stop talking about it.
It’s 7:45pm and after running back from grabbing food from several places (I had was determined to eat as much food in the short period of time we had in Hanoi) we were headed to Halong Bay with Paradise Cruises. Again, I am impressed with Jarques’ planning because we are sitting in a fancy luxury van with nice cushioned seats, wifi and usb chargers! Luckily this drive was only 3 hours and also included a midway rest stop to shop at a souvenir store.
We made it to the Halong Bay Paradise Cruise Hotel where we checked in, got blue wristbands to designate which boat we would board and waited. During the 30 min wait, the company offered free snacks and we enjoyed some beer and wine. Once it was time to board our ship, we were shuttled to the ‘Paradise Luxury’ boat. We met the staff who gave us an adorable welcome dance and were given a key to our room. Jarques had booked a room with a balcony so we could relax there in the evening. Once we dropped off our luggage, we had a nice four course lunch.
After lunch we set off to our first outting, the Pearl Village with some kayaking. Then we headed off to Song Sut Cave, an enormous cave with amazing stalactites, stalagmites and rocks. It had so many different areas to explore! It is a must explore in Halong Bay.
The next day we headed off to Luon Cave for more kayaking and met some monkeys on the way!! Too bad another tourist group began throwing fruit at the monkeys which made them all scatter away 🙁 After Luon Cave we headed over to Ti Top Island. Jarques and I opted to hike to the top of the Island instead of going to the beach for a swim, because, well I can’t swim, so that was an easy decision. It was one hell of a steep hike! My legs were burning at the top but again the views made it worth it.
When we returned from Ti Top Island, we learned that there was a rough storm coming in and all boats were being asked to return to the mainland for docking. We were given the choice to stay on the boat overnight at the dock, stay at a Paradise Cruise hotel room or return to Hanoi early. We opted to go back to Hanoi since there weren’t additional activities planned on the boat later that evening or the next day. Unfortunately we had to pay $95 for the private car back to Hanoi. In retrospect we probably could have just booked a one night two day cruise for Halong Bay instead of the two night three day cruise which would have saved us all of this hassle. We are still very appreciative of the staff, especially Mr. Lee, at Paradise Cruise for helping us arrange safe transportation.
Last 24 hours in Hanoi
Since we returned early from Halong, I was going to take advantage of our time in Hanoi by eating!
We had breakfast at Banh Cuon, which is a sticky rice cake with beef and mushrooms. Jarques and I only ordered one dish because we planned on eating a lot that day but if you don’t plan on doing that, do order more! It was much tastier than it looked and came with a spicy dipping sauce!
After visiting a few attractions including the Military History Museum (and the Hoa Lo Prison (aka Hanoi Hilton), we made our way to Bun Cha Huang Lien. This was the bun cha restaurant that Anthony Bourdain and former President Barack Obama ate! We had their bun cha and seafood spring roll. The spring roll was huge and tasted so good when accompanied with the dipping sauce the meat was marinated in. The roasted pork was flavorful and the pork meatballs were so juicy! If you go up to the second floor of the restaurant, turn to your right and you will find the table and utensils used by Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama encased in plexiglass. (I couldn’t help but take a picture! Sorry I couldn’t all the plexiglass in the photo, that would have required me to get on top of some people eating.)
Next up we had banh xeo (banh xeo nem cuon) also known as the sizzling pancake. As we walked up to the restaurant, an elderly Vietnamese woman was sitting surrounded by several small frying pans filling them with an egg mixture and then topping them off with beef and mung bean sprouts. We sat down and I tried to order one banh xeo but the young woman who took our order kept putting up two fingers. To not offend her, we decided to just go for two and damn was she right! We would not have had enough to eat if I only ordered one because it was that good! The order comes with a fresh plate of herbs and lettuce and dry spring roll wrappers cut in half. Take the half spring roll wrapper, place whatever greens you want in it and then a piece of your banh xeo, wrap it up and dip it in the dipping sauce and enjoy!
Our last meal in Hanoi was…you guessed it, pho! This time we went to Pho Hang Trong for their beef pho. Again the pho was delicious. I can only rave about the food in Hanoi. You can’t go wrong! What was amazing about our culinary tour of Hanoi was that after having 5 full meals, Jarques and I never even felt stuffed! The food was delicious and light! Which actually means you can probably have more!!!
Thank you Vietnam and the people of Sapa, Hanoi and the crew members at Paradise Cruises (Mr. Lee, Anna, Rebecca and many more behind the scene) for showing us the beauty, kindness, culture and joy of Vietnam. We only had enough time to visit a sliver of what your country has to offer but we definitely plan to return soon to explore more of your treasures!
Places we ate in Hanoi
- Cafe Giang (39 Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam)
- Bun Cha Dac Kim (1 Hàng Mành, Hàng Gai, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam)
- Pho Suong (24B Ngõ Trung Yên Đinh Liệt, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội,)
- Xoi Yen (35B Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam)
- Bami Bread (98 Hàng Bạc, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn
- Pho Hanh (65 Lãn ÔngHoàn KiếmThành Phố, Hà Nội, Vietnam)
- King Roti (34 Hanggai, Hoankiem, Hanoi, 34 Hàng Gai, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam)
- Dinh Cafe (13 Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam)
- Banh Cuon (12 Hàng Gà, Hàng Bồ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam)
- Bun Cha Huong Lien (24 Lê Văn Hưu, Phan Chu Trinh, Hai Bà Trưng, Hà Nội, Vietnam)
- Banh Xeo Nem Cuon (22 Hàng Bồ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam)
- Pho Hang Trong (8 Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam)
- Banh Mi 25 (25 Hàng Cá, Hàng Bồ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam)