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.

Next Stop, Laos?

Our sleeper bus to Dien Bien Phu, just under 40 km from the border of Laos, turned out to be one of the best sleeping experiences either of us has had while being transported somewhere. The double seats were long enough for my 6'1" frame to fully stretch out and so it was that with bleary but rested eyes we found ourselves pulling into DBP just before dawn. The city itself doesn't have a whole lot going on. For foreigners, it is mostly either a stopover point as the last city before the border crossing or a history buff bookmark as the site of the final battle with the French in the first Indochina war. After checking into a guesthouse for the evening, we spent the day exploring the quiet streets and searching for two things: food, and a place to exchange some Vietnamese Dong into Laos Kip.

20120125-172107.jpg Search number one was the money. You would think that banks at a border town listing exchange services complete with rates would exchange the local currency for the neighboring one. And you would be wrong. Not one but six different banks denied us the service ("We only exchange money into Dong") and three of them suggested we try the gold shop at the main roundabout intersection. "Sure," he said, in whatever mixed language understanding we could conjure, "hold on". We waited a bit while he shuffled through piles and stacks (literally) of money, taking in the fact that his gold jewelry shop was, in the back, outfitted with a complete dentist office setup and some sort of office. One stop shopping? He returned saying no can do and then showed us why: in his wallet a stack of US dollars, none of which would work to break our change as all he had was hundred dollar bills. So it goes.

Search number two, to soothe our disheartened souls, was to find some lunch. Fresh from the street food extravaganza in Hanoi, we headed for the market; a tidier, cleaner, and more open air affair than most, but still complete with piles of eggs in sawdust on a tarp, little mountains of chilies and limes and garlic, buckets of eels and other swimming critters, and, of course, food vendors. We spent maybe fifteen seconds looking at the sign for Pho Ga/Bo/Other (Vietnamese noodle soup with Chicken/Beef/etc.) before a youngish (maybe 25...maybe 35...?) woman with a huge smile came running (actually running) over to usher us to her booth. You have to just follow your gut in these situations sometimes and after trying to question whether it was possible to get Pho Vegetable/tofu with mixed results we decided to just go for it. WIN.


What we got not only ended up being one of, if not THE best bowls of Pho, with fresh tofu from the market and a language free conversation of smiles and laughter throughout, but also a lesson in Vietnamese. We're not sure if the dialect is really as different as they made it seem or if we're really just that bad at getting the nuances of speaking with tonal up and down languages, but they got a kick out of trying to teach us and we (mostly) figured out how to order the soup we were after. Five hours later, we were back for another round and before we could pay we saw our new friend run off, hop on her motorbike waving and smiling, and then return some ten minutes later with her three year old daughter in tow. This time it was our turn to try to coax some words out, as mother prodded shy (and chocolate lollipop preoccupied) daughter to say hello and try out her few English words.


What I haven't mentioned yet is Laos. In the few weeks leading up to our arrival there we'd been doing research on a route, learning key language phrases, and trying to get an actual idea of whether or not we could obtain visas at the border. Search the internet and you'll find enough yes and no reports about this particular border crossing to make it thoroughly impossible to feel sure. Could we have gotten it at the Laos embassy in Hanoi? Yup. Did we? Nope. Mark it up to our being to excited by what was in front of our noses, but we just didn't do it. To add to that, in pushing our time in Hanoi and Vietnam back, we were cutting into the time we had allotted for Laos. I wrote before about maintaining a flexible schedule but when it comes to major plane ticket purchases, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet - something we did, capping our time in Southeast Asia with a flight out of Bangkok on January 26. Bus tickets in hand, we went to bed ready to board the 5am minibus across the border (or at least to it, were we to find no visas available). At 4:15 the next morning, our alarm called us back from sleep and right into an executive meeting where we chose to follow our guts once more.

No Laos.

We were both looking forward to exploring this little country that we've heard nothing (truly, nothing) bad about so on the one hand it was kind of a bummer to let go of the idea that it would be a part of this particular trip. On the other hand - it just didn't seem right. It felt too short, it felt too rushed, it felt like we were cutting off Vietnam despite loving it...so we let it go, reminding ourselves, again, that A) there was never a chance this one trip was going to take us everywhere we want to go B) we can always come back and C) our trip means our rules and within that, there is no right or wrong. There is no "seeing the wrong thing" or "missing out", even when only judged by our own standards. There is only doing what we can and want to do and enjoying whatever that ends up being - something that has, repeatedly, been a harder to grasp reality than idea.

New bus tickets acquired, we got to spend a second day in DBP, making our way up the 359 steps to Victory Monument (where we were serenaded by two competing karaoke singers), enjoy another delicious bowl of pho and arrange ourselves a cheap last minute flight from Hanoi back to Bangkok the day our Vietnam visa expired.


Boarding another pre-dawn minibus in the freezing cold bound for Son La - a town known for its tea industry - the next morning, we were accompanied by a couple ladies in traditional outfits who gave up their breakfast out the window while sacks of rice came and went from the center aisle. Our stopover here served as part of our slow crawl back towards Hanoi, less a retreat and more a taste of what a future return trip (in warmer weather, or at least with our warmer clothes) might look like: a visit to the mountains of Sapa, further exploration of the fields that produced the oolong and green teas we were lucky enough to sample, and some of the local dairy pastures of Moc Chau. A couple extra days in Hanoi finished off what was left of our Vietnam Visas, afforded us a couple more tastes of the streets, and left our brains feeling more in sync with the locations and surroundings of our bodies - at ease with our decisions and excited for the trip when Laos, at last, pulls us across its border.

Food Porn: Hanoi

...as Eli said. The food! What graze-friendly gloriousness Hanoi invited us into. Strolling around, following our noses - and sometimes just following the basket that dangled off the shoulder of a speedy woman ahead of us in the crowd. We accepted the invitation, the challenge, with a good dose of excitement, and (if only at first) empty bellies. Having spent a few weeks in Vietnam before hitting the streets of Hanoi definitely helped us, both linguistically and digestively. Certain dishes were not without their surprises or mystery ingredients, but we were lucky to have mostly delicious, even if not the most attractive, experiences. We would first like to extend a big thank you to stickyrice.typepad.com. This exhaustively thorough blog introduced us to the complex Hanoi street food scene, inspired our boldly attempting mysterious eats, diminished the trepidation that often accompanies ordering and diligently identified things via both descriptions and locations of all kinds of finds. As for what really stood out, or quickly became a near-daily necessity, we made a selection of savory vs. sweet below - complete with notes about flavor, ingredients, surroundings, adventures or a combination thereof. Since neither of us eat too much meat, the savory side is likely an example of the simpler (yet still oh-so-satisfying) fare available. No fried tarantulas this time, just straightforward goodness enjoyed on minuscule plastic stool beside a swarm of motos and pedestrians.


Chao: A rice based soup, generally cooked into a downright gruel minus all of the bad notions that word conjures up. In traditional Chinese medicine, and culture, it is known as a congee and in Thailand it is johk. Served up from very early in the morning through early afternoon, it is topped with fried shallots, some green onion snippings (always cutting with scissors, these ladies are so reasonable and crafty), a dose of soft cruton, powdered pepper and chili, and whatever base meat or veg you choose. Most places specialize in one or two, such as trai (finely chopped oyster), ga (chicken) or more rarely rau (chopped vegetables). Our first chao trai feast treated us to a surprise, the flavor was so mild and lovely that we thought it was merely herbs and rice. We also met a lovely young woman from the Boston area who is working in the central highlands for a few more months, so good conversation accompanied our simple bowls. Eli was so hooked on this version that he kept an eye out for the same woman on each walk outside.

Pho: Best enjoyed for breakfast, this rice noodle soup was an old favorite in Boston, but was elevated to near transcendental experiences with the right combination of shredded vegetables, tofu, hearty lime slices, chopped herbs and fresh chili flakes. Our Hanoi go to was a small place called Coffee12 (we never figured out if that was the address or amount of hours open or what) that had lots of locals, sweet women working there and a clean, clean broth. A cleansing ritual and the right amount of warming for the brisk mornings.


Banh Gio Nong: We originally tried this because I recognized it from a stickyrice post. A sticky rice square patty is lightly stuffed with mung (yellow) bean paste and a small bit of pork belly. It is found crisping on a large metal platter over a wood burning fire, or perhaps a clay stove housed in a basket, and served in a banana leaf with a dash of fish sauce and/or hot sauce (get both!). Our first one was ordered from a small corner set-up; we walked down the street testing, then savoring it, and promptly did a u-turn to get a second one. We spent the rest of our time in Hanoi casually seeking a better one, but it remains the champion.


Banh Trung Cut: These almost raw looking steamed buns with filling are common and dirt cheap - a stellar snack, or meal, if you aren't wheat-free (ugh!). If you feel adventurous with the stuffings (we were only mildly so), you can order them off the back of bicycles - just listen for some random seeming hooting message and look for e bike with the big aluminum bucket in the back, steam billowing behind. Our go to, the Trung Cut comes with mushrooms, herbs, a hard-boiled quail egg and minimal amount of pork inside.

Bun Dau Mam Tom: A great example of trusting your own eyes (is that...it looks like...perfectly fluffy, fried tofu?), as well as able to eat fresh leafy herbs on the street and not contract something horrible, much to the chagrin of so many travel warnings. A simple plate of fried tofu, cool vermicelli, fresh herbs (purple/Thai basil, mint, shiso and something mildly sweet) and a shrimp paste dipping sauce. The latter part is an acquired earthy taste, and the strength depends on the maker, but it is necessary to complete the flavor walk that your mouth takes. A little extra mint, less sauce or extra sauce on the tofu followed with a shooter of basil - the dish shifts and melds, and the old woman who served it to you is endlessly entertained. Plus, it is nice to have something other than a one pot, or one hand, dish.



Banh Troi Tau: The pairing of all that is holy and wonderful, according to me. A laughably hideous bowl of utter perfection. Hot ginger infused syrup (not super sweet and the stronger ginger the better) with two rice flour dumplings suspended in it. At two averagely good shops there was always one with a black sesame paste filling and one with mung bean paste. Decent - and I will always choose the former as the last to be eaten. However, one magical place exists - open only after 3:30pm, a vacant door and stoop before, specializing in this and two other bowls of dessert only. It materializes with an air of mystery and utility, and locals literally stake the place out, either waiting upon every stool or trolling on motos, necks craned. This establishment serves one dumpling full of shredded coconut and one with the black sesame paste. Also, after tasting their ginger broth, the rest just tasted like sugar syrup. OMG. I spied a sad frozen version of this in a Bangkok store, but dare not spoil the taste memory. Should anyone know of a good place for this stateside, please-oh-please do tell.


Chuoi Nep Nuong: What a concoction! Whoever invented this one gets two gold stars and number two on the list of "Best Desserts of WonderWander's Hanoi" - a niche list if ever there was one, but don't think that means it's meaningless. Take one banana (the small, super flavorful kind, if possible), wrap in sticky rice and grill. Cut into a cup (with scissors, natch), drench in a warm tapioca/sweet coconut milk mixture, and sprinkle a few crushed peanuts to garnish. Delicious and practically even good for you, what with all that banana and all. Probably just as awesome with some cinnamon on top and a little vanilla ice cream underneath.


Che Con Ong: Definitely not a favorite, but it gets a mention because it could likely save your life. Were you to be stranded somewhere in heavy snows, with shelter but no food...this could last for a week or two, keeping you sustained until help arrived. A sticky rice patty drowned with ginger infused browned sugar syrup (not quite caramel flavor, but a good substitute word), served cooled and covered in a few crushed peanuts. We consider it the Vietnamese GORP, but not as addictive.


Chi Ma Phu: A practical dessert, should you be interested in the healing qualities if black sesame and something not super dessert-like, as we westerners know it. It is a mildly sweetened ground black sesame soup, served in small doses - and particularly good at the aforementioned magic hole-in-the-wall. What we liked most was the simplicity, almost an after dinner tonic dessert.


Banh Da Ke: A semi-sweet snack off the back of a bicycle - yes, please. One big, round, crispy rice cracker is covered in a smear of mung bean paste and sprinkled with what we think was crumbled, cooked egg yolk (but we really aren't sure) and sugar. It is important to use what Vietnamese you have to communicate only a little shake of sugar - otherwise, you will feel your enamel eroding with every bite. When light on the sugar, however, this is a great light snack that is not too savory and not super sweet. Almost a mild yellow bean hummus of sorts, surrounded by lightweight crunch and held within a square of yesterday's news.

You may realize by now (really, how could you not?) that our food experiences are integral to our place-making, be it that we are somewhere for only several days or a few months. Thankfully, though it might sometimes seem otherwise, our documentary process isn't a straight shot from the table or street to the digital realm. The tried and true, and far less obtrusive, in-between is a small and scribbled notebook with various lists of dishes, drinks or ingredients to hold on to. It is divided by country and contains the proper terms, ingredients, or sometimes simply the location of where we tried a specific bite. Beyond being helpful for our writing here, we have found that it has become a trigger unto itself - as we review certain details, or sometimes flip back to the start of the trip, new things emerge. Effectively, we are retracing our steps, solidifying the experience as memory - or redrafting it more thoroughly. What we look forward to most is doing this again, creating new recipes inspired by these notes perhaps - and thus, new smell/taste/life memories to go along with them.