Hanoi, Hoi An and Da Nang
It feels strange to write a blog post back home, after my trip has ended. But I want to fill in the legs of our trip I haven’t written about yet, in Northern and Central Vietnam and later the Thai islands Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi. And mostly, I want to share Daniel’s photos from these places. Daniel is continuing to travel for the next month, through Laos and Sri Lanka. It feels surreal to re-adjust to my normal life, as the experience of traveling was so far outside of it. I feel like I was gone for much longer than two months. I’m trying to maintain the changes in perspective I experienced while traveling, and aspects of the lifestyle such as walking every day.
We spent my last two weeks traveling through Hanoi, Hoi An and Da Nang. It was really nice to slow our traveling pace during the portion of the trip that felt most like a vacation. For each place, I’ll share some of our most memorable experiences. In Hanoi, we stayed in Old Town. At night, there are a ton of people on the streets, enjoying pubs, and on the weekends, a lot of live music on street corners. Our favorite bars were Corner Pub Hanoi, which had good rock music, a pool table and Rolling Stones mural and décor and King Pirates Pub. It was funny that more customers came to buy pirate hats than drinks. We enjoyed the Hanoi Street Food Tour with our guide Vi, which was recommended by my friend and colleague Kristy. Daniel and I are vegetarians who eat seafood, and Vi did a great job providing food we could eat, except for a funny moment where she served us bone broth soup because it wasn’t meat, just “bones to make the soup sweeter”. Visiting the Fine Arts Museum was another highlight that I recommend checking out. It had classic to modern art exhibitions, and I loved the Vietnamese methods of silk and lacquer painting. It was interesting to see depictions of war, and how only Vietnamese soldiers were portrayed, never the enemy, except for one abstract painting with a wounded soldier with blue eyes.
Unfortunately, we found it difficult to not get ripped off in Hanoi. Through our hostel, we booked a boat tour in Ha Long Bay with APT Travel and a night bus to Da Nang with Queen Café open bus, both of which were misrepresented to us. We chose the two star, mid-priced boat tour because it promised more stops and kayaking time, and then realized that the star system was a scam and everyone was on the same, cheapest tour. We paid for a bus with a toilet and Wi-Fi and it didn’t have either and only made 1 bathroom break in 12 hours. The bus was overbooked so a woman lay on a pad between my and Daniel’s seats. We also experienced a lot of forceful solicitation, i.e. someone who removed Daniel’s shoe, put glue on it and demanded money. There appeared to be an expectation for tourists to spend a lot of money and not budget travel. I wondered if there is a belief, especially in Northern Vietnam, that Americans owe them.
Hoi An has embraced tourism in ways that I enjoyed more. The whole city has free Wi-Fi, and I felt like the locals I interacted with were genuinely interested in talking with me. We stayed at Hoi An Viet House Homestay, which was at least as nice as advertised, and my favorite hostel on the trip. Old town Hoi An, a 15th century trading port turned UNESCO World Heritage site, is picturesque, like walking through a post card. There are restaurants and bars topped with bougainvillea flowers along both sides of the Thu Bon River, and the streets are lined with paper lanterns.
I had a fantastic experience having a dress made for me by Phuong at Five Seasons. Hoi An is known for its clothing stores and tailoring, at high quality and much cheaper prices than in the U.S. I met with Phuong multiple times to pick a design and fabric and for a fitting. I was disappointed when my original fabric choice wasn’t available. I returned to the shop and mentioned that Daniel and I had planned to go to An Bang beach for sunset. After a quick trip to the fabric store on her scooter, Daniel joined us on her sister’s scooter, and they raced against the sun to take us to the beach in time for a beautiful sunset. I am happy with the dress and to have this special reminder of my time in Vietnam.
A lot of the restaurants offer cheap cooking classes where you choose and learn to make dishes from their menu. We had a mixed experience with a cooking class at Café 43. The food was tasty, but the instructor appeared distracted and when I asked her if she liked teaching the class, she responded that it was boring sometimes. Our favorite restaurants were Ganesh, a delicious and family run Indian restaurant, Banh Mi Phuong, which Anthony Bourdain designated as the best banh mi, and Chien. Chien is a large restaurant facing An Bang beach, and has delicious, fresh from the sea food at low prices. Afterwards, for no additional cost, Chien provided shaded lounge chairs. We also enjoyed Soul Kitchen which has live music from Friday – Sunday nights. I go to the beach a lot at home, but CA central coast beaches are not like this one. The water is clear and warm with gentle waves, and I felt ecstatic as I swam.
I also really enjoyed getting a henna tattoo from Van at Henna Art Hoi An and talking with her about her artistic interests and my perceptions of being a tourist in Vietnam. The tattoo got many compliments, including from the proprietor of The Dive Bar, who recognized it as his wife’s work. The Dive Bar was our favorite bar, and is so named because it is run by Cham Island Diving Center. We also recommend Blue Coral Diving, a.k.a. Hoi An PEDI Dive Center, which took us on a day trip snorkeling at the beautiful sites of Cua Loa Cham Islands. Before this trip, I had never been snorkeling, and I loved it and may even face my fear of sharks and learn to scuba dive. There were no other boats at our sites, and the diversity of fish and coral was incredible.
We spent my final days in Da Nang, which is the biggest city in Central Vietnam and boasts 30 km of uninterrupted beach which were the inspiration for the famous surf scene in Apocalypse Now. Da Nang is being built up as the next major tourist destination in Southeast Asia, and there is a lot of development happening. Every street on the main area is full of hotels in various stages of construction. I hope the ecology of the beaches and surrounding areas is maintained as Da Nang grows.
Marble Mountain is a must visit attraction. On the largest of five limestone and marble hills, visitors can take an elevator up, climb the peaks for panoramic views, and explore Buddhist places of worship within caves. We also strongly recommend the restaurants Burger Brothers, which had a great fish burger, and Taco Ngon, where we ate some of the best tacos we have ever had. We spoke with the proprietor, and she shared that her initial attempt at a restaurant with Taiwanese food wasn’t doing well, and her boyfriend who is from CA, suggested she put her food in a tortilla because everyone loves tacos. A year later, they are a great success.
Our favorite bar was Minsk, which had a nice laid-back island feel. Daniel surprised me with two tiny kittens, which had been left at the bar in a box earlier that day. Our waitress assured us they would try to find them homes. They spent the evening taking turns playing and sleeping in my lap, and it was hard to give them back at the end of the night.
We rented scooters and took day trips along the Son Tra Peninsula on Monkey Mountain and Hai Van Passes. Daniel compared the Hai Van Pass to Highway 1 in CA, but with way fewer cars and better roads, and placed it in his top 3 scooter rides. The views were breath-taking and it was a lot of fun to explore roads in the jungle until we found a destination or turned back when the foliage reclaimed the road. On my last day, we rode Monkey Mountain Pass, visited the giant banyan tree at Hon Nghe Point, which is more than 1000 years old, had lunch at the second restaurant down the rocky stairway from Bai But sitting over the ocean, and climbed a lighthouse. In the jungle facing the beach below the lighthouse, we watched a family of endangered monkeys, the red shanked douc.
I am deeply grateful to have had this opportunity to travel and explore Southeast Asia. Now that I’m back, several people have told me they didn’t know whether I’d be able to handle the challenges of backpacking. I’m glad no one said this to me before I left! While traveling, I was challenged by the heat and humidity, bugs, long days and nights of travel and living out of a backpack. I was often tired and on some days I felt ill. These challenges were far outweighed by all that I got to see, do and share with Daniel, and what it was like to let go of planning. I feel proud of how I adapted. As I had hoped, I got to step far outside of my normal life and spend time with different sides of who I am. I aspire for traveling to be an ongoing part of my identity.