Highlights: Vietnam


The first cup of coffee in Pleiku: We already mentioned this one, but it was a highlight so it's here. It was our introduction to Vietnamese coffee - robusta beans brewed almost like an espresso, so strong it leaves a yellow glaze on the cup, topped with sweetened condensed milk. "Chut-Chut" is key when ordering, as it means you'll only get a thin layer of sweet on the bottom of the glass, not the standard OD amount. Cooler weather and grey skies: Call us crazy but we're both more cold weather types than warm so stepping out of the Thai and Cambodian heat for a bit was a welcome relief. By the time we reached New Year's in no-heaters-Hanoi we were well chilled (stupidly having left our jackets in Bangkok) and realized that it was actually warmer outside than in. Perhaps just because of the exhaust fumes?

The rolling hills around Pleiku: Beautiful lush countryside. Who could complain?

Kayaking around Cat Ba: Beautiful unique sea mountain terrain. Who could complain?

Walking in Hanoi: We're walking explorers to the core and Hanoi's dense center brought us back into our element. It's just impossible to get the same experience in any kind of vehicle as on foot.

20 minutes on a moto to the bus station in Hanoi: ...and similarly, it's impossible to get this particular kind of experience any other way. (Moms and Pops, stop reading) We and our baggage clinging to the back of two motos through evening rush hour: navigating either or both sides of the road, around trucks, against on-coming traffic, stuck in packs of hundreds of other motos, red lights, green lights, 40kmh, 10kmh, 60kmh, brake, accelerate, arrive. Amazing.

Ban Beo in Quy Nhon and Hoi An: Technically this is a specialty dish from Hue but our experiences not only in its presentation and taste made the Quy Nhon and Hoi An versions far more memorable. Almost more importantly than the taste, even, were our surroundings for these two - wonderful people serving and, in Hoi An at least, great company taking us to the best local haunt and sharing dinner with us.

Custom tailored clothes: Take out the awesome ladies we went to to have the clothes made and it's still a highlight. Getting measured, going back for a fitting and coming out the other side with exactly what we wanted (yes, I really DO want orange thread as a highlight in the lining of my suit) was an experience we've never had, nor are likely to have again anytime soon.


Vietnam Women's Museum & Vietnam Fine Arts Museum: We covered this in the Hanoi post, but both were certainly highlights.

All of the food in Hanoi: Covered in full.

Good humor: We heard all sorts of mixed reports (from home, from other travelers, and even from our Cambodian guesthouse owner) about the Vietnamese demeanor. Everyone (read: the overwhelming minority) that said we would find smiles, a good sense of humor, and a warm, friendly welcome was completely right on.

Our Pho friend in Dien Bien Phu: Have we mentioned the smiles and good sense of humor yet?

Cong Cafe: Vietnam started with coffee in Pleiku and ended with coffee in Hanoi. For a former tea shop and self professed "not really a coffee drinker" to be writing this with excitement is a bit of a statement in itself. The coffee at Cong was excellent though the reason it gets mention here is for its ambience - i.e. it had one AND it was excellently designed - and their version of Vietnamese coffee with slightly sweetened yogurt. We failed at acquiring the name of this strange sounding (though delicious) beverage but will be eager to recreate it in the future.

Vietnam: First Impressions

A couple posts back, Casey shared an audio clip recorded during our ride from Pleiku, Vietnam, to Quy Nhơn, the coastal town in central Vietnam that is probably far more active in the summer than it is in mid-December. Our overnight stop in Pleiku would be sort of forgettable were it not for the spectacular cup of coffee we randomly happened upon there; one that we've been trying to replicate in its slow steep, chocolatey richness ever since and one that made perfect sense as we watched the sidewalks roll by on our way to Quy Nhơn. Every inch of sidewalk or yard in front of every house for mile upon mile was covered in robusta coffee beans (trivia: Vietnam is the largest exporter of Robusta beans in the world) drying in the sun.


Quy Nhơn itself is a post-war Soviet rebuild that, while featuring some beautiful coastline, was a sort of funny mix of Vietnamese style, with a definite Russian undertone; its monuments, a good amount of the architecture, and the sprawling layout taking us back to our time in Poland and Bucharest. We ended up walking a lot farther than expected the day we arrived due to not one, but both of the maps we had looking deceivingly walkable, and spent the following days a little more open to the idea of taking a moto taxi one or both ways. The weather, slightly chilly with an ever present ocean mist in the air, was quite a welcome (and dare I say, comforting?) change from Thailand and Cambodia's heat, despite successfully canceling out any ocean swimming ambitions we might have had.

If Pleiku will stick in our memories for that one coffee, Quy Nhơn will forever be there for introducing us to Banh Beo. Casey found it on a solo excursion one day, tucked in a side street under an almost collapsing tin roof with the friendliest family serving it underneath. We returned together the next day as they worked to prop up the roof and keep the rain from putting the cooking fire out, and proceeded to enjoy six little bowls of the thin steamed rice flour cakes decorated with dried shrimp, peanuts, cilantro, chives, chili paste and the small garlic we came to know in Thailand. Hard to describe in writing, so here's a picture, though it won't possibly convey how delicious they are.


This delectable little dish also proved an important key once we got to Hoi An, a rather harried five hour trip later that tied our Nepal record of Ten More People Than Seats In The Minibus. It was easy, after spending a few days in Quy Nhơn's less welcoming environs, for both of us to quickly take to the more touristy, though still remarkably charming city of Hoi An. It's a major stop on the tourist route, though still small enough that it doesn't seem to matter - the main draws being the amount and beauty of architecture that wasn't destroyed in the war and the plethora of tailor shops waiting to give you a day turnaround on pretty much any kind of clothing you can come up with. We had known this coming in and, despite dropping the ball on taking pictures of our new duds before shipping them off, left with a new suit for me (my first and only) and a new jacket for Casey, acquired between our visits to the historic old town sites and the worthwhile, yet souvenir afflicted market. What's most important about this story comes back to Banh Beo.

After randomly walking into a tailor shop that had a suit coat that caught my eye, we spent a while contemplating and chatting with the two friendly ladies that owned the shop, Lai and Diep. On our way out the door we asked if there was a good place to get some of our new favorite morsel and Lai erupted with laughter - either at our pronunciation, knowledge that Banh Beo exists or maybe both - and declared that if we came back the following day she'd take us to the best place. She didn't lie. She took our measurements and helped us choose our stitching and piping colors, then handed over the keys to her moto to me, instructed Casey to hop on with her, and led us to a house in an alleyway filled with people chowing down, the little bowls stacked high. Fairly different in their dressings from the version we had in Quy Nhơn, they were no less delicious and helped us get to know Lai enough that, twenty four hours and two suit fittings (yes, two in twenty four hours) we found ourselves sitting down with her to another local specialty, Banh Xeo.


All of this is details but, I think, serves to illustrate the experience we've had in Vietnam so far regarding the people and the experiences. The countryside has been nothing but beautiful and we've shared more laughs, smiles and jokes here than in Thailand and Cambodia combined, despite the unfortunate shared history that we, as Americans, share with the Vietnamese. Before arriving, we'd met and read about many who had found Vietnam to be less than friendly with only a couple reports to the contrary - another sterling example that, in traveling as in life, negative pre-judgements are a waste of time, save for the idea that they perhaps lower expectations which can then raise the effort put in and received.


After our second fitting, we boxed up our clothes for them to be shipped home and the next morning boarded a bus (an ever so strange sleeper bus, well actually two if you consider the transfer we were all inexplicably subjected to thirty minutes into our ride) to take us again north up the coast to Hue. Driving through town we passed the tailor shop where Lai, outside sweeping the sidewalk, happened to look up in time to see Casey waving through the window. A smile and a wave returned with enthusiasm and sincerity effectively sealed our parallel feelings towards the country in which we currently find ourselves.