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.



Perhaps we were still feeling the crush-high of Hoi An, perhaps we had inhaled enough second-hand cigarette smoke on our reclined bus ride, perhaps our feet had been elevated above our heart for too long. Whatever it was, we stepped off the bus at the Hue bus station (note: not at all near the middle of Hue, as promised) with a sense of openness that doesn't usually accompany such moments. As we were being descended on by a troupe of twenty taxi and moto drivers ("moto?moto?whereyougo?cheapprice!moto?"), a young man that had been permitted to board the bus approximately one mile before the station approached us sweetly, noting once more that he was with a family run hotel smack in the middle of where we wanted to be located. He would give us a ride to said hotel "for a look" (my words) at no charge to us. Our usual reaction to this is (silently, Yeah Right.) "no, thank you" at various speeds and with varying smiles. This time, however, it seemed totally normal to say ... Um, ok, sure.

Happily, this story is not full of warnings and horror, as you might expect. We were not taken hostage to some rat den in the dregs of Hue and forced to pay millions of dollars a night for a hole. We were not even subjected to an intensely close follower whilst inspecting this room. Furthermore, we WERE surprisingly pleased by the location (down a lively and minuscule, but semi-residential alley) and presentation/amenities (clean, beside lamp, working hot water, shared balconies, no mold or smoke stains) and price ($8 per night, total) of this place. Furthermore, it was right across the way from the Liberty Bar, a small cafe owned by an ever-singing man, with a regular evening playlist that traversed American hits from the 90's and early 2000's and a few Jenga games. Moral of the story: we took a chance, followed our guts, and it worked out just fine. Sure, this isn't always the case, but we have reached a point where we have more of a game plan, even some hand signals if we are ready to leave, and it is much easier to weigh all of this rapidly now. Thank goodness for non-swindlers!


Our few days in Hue (pronounced hway) were punctuated by some simple exploring to the markets - both commercial supermarket and local mayhem-filled, as well as a visit to the Imperial City - a walled fortress and palace in the center of the city. This area was, not surprisingly, sufficiently destroyed by American bombings and is in the process of being meticulously restored. Still worth a walk and investigation, however, and the 3-D computer renditions of former activities, such as elephant vs. tiger duels, are particularly entertaining. All of these excursions were blanketed in grey and swimming through misty rain. The aesthetic result of this weather was a dreamy, somewhat dismal yet calming landscape which accompanied our wanderings.



One of our more cherished interactions belongs to the guesthouse in Hue as well. A young man working at the front desk came up to the balcony one morning while we were having breakfast. Through a lovely mishmash of conversation, we discovered that he is trained as an urban planner and working at the guesthouse as an interim between projects and studying his English. He asked us to help him with some standard, yet more complex, translations he was working on and we were happy to help. In the meantime, he taught us some Vietnamese that we may or may not have forgotten at this moment. This was a small peek behind the curtain of the day-to-day that we love being 'chosen' to be a part of. Then, not five minutes later, his coworker showed up with what we first thought to be a similar request. Her English was more akin to our Vietnamese, though still leaps and bounds ahead of us, so the exchange was slightly more confusing. The request itself was not exactly as standard as the first. She was hoping for us, me in particular - I'm assuming because we share a gender identification, to write a love letter to her boyfriend, or perhaps he is just her friend, in France. He had visited the country months before and may or may not share her feelings. Or it could be that he proposed marriage to her and would visit in a year. We aren't at all sure of those details, but the goal of the letter was explained clearly by her finally writing "Love letter. He gone." To add to this, it was made clear that we were to keep this secret and not share with her coworkers (I'm not sure how we would have done this, considering the myriad language barriers). Needless to say, the whole thing was incredibly charming, the request was fulfilled (creatively and with options to include or omit stronger statements) by the next morning. She was over the top with gratitude, the rest of our interactions peppered with knowing smiles and giggling.

The point being, regardless of the future life of this letter or the relationship it is now in the middle of, the tourist curtain was pulled even further back and we were smitten with it all. Oddly enough, we had read the trip advisor comments for this particular guesthouse (after staying a few days, out of curiosity) and they were relatively banal but good, one mentioning that they "think" it is a family run establishment and "nice enough." All of this led us to wonder how many people passing through actually speak with the staff beyond hello and how much and extra towel, please. In spite of this, or maybe because of, we had a good stopover in this former capital city.

We each grabbed a xe om (moto) towards the station on our last afternoon, armed with our evening tickets for the overnight train to Hanoi. Even then, my driver was making jokes about Eli's ride being more expensive (because he was heavier) and singing ridiculous songs about his wild driving and cheap price. He had me belly laughing most of the 3km ride, happy that a good sense of humor and general openness were part of our days, that is, if we invited it in a bit.