Hanoi (the City within the River’s Bend) and Halong Bay, Vietnam

Lush mountains, ancient pagodas, polluted streets, mopeds, fascinating culture, incredible street food, hospitable, always-smiling people – I went in with no expectations and left feeling so fulfilled.

General Info:

  • Currency: Dong
  • Tipping: Not necessary, but 10% is appreciated
  • Respect the Food:
    • Must haves: Pho, Spring Roles, Banh Mi Sandwiches, Pork everything, Vietnamese Coffee and Teas (Au Lac Café) – the coffee has an amazing flavor, and it’s rocket fuel.

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  • Coffee Varieties:
    • Arabica: Most expensive and richest flavor
    • Robusta: Cheaper than Arabica – rich flavor
    • Weasel: Expensive and is made from coffee cherries eaten and defecated by chon Vietnamese weasels
    • Tea: Mainly green tea varietal scented with lotus flower

  • Cuisine: Lighter than Thai food, Vietnamese cuisine uses raw vegetables, soft seasoning, herbs and unique flavor combinations. Often described as textural, with fresh and sharp flavors, tropical in its core, it is seen as more colorful and fragrant than its neighbor China. The cuisine of Vietnam possesses a rich variety and is divided into three categories:
    • Bac (north) Northern Vietnam has long been influenced by its proximity to China and it’s the only region of Vietnam that experiences all four weather seasons, inspiring seasonal dishes. The food tends to be lighter and milder than other regions.
    • Trung (central) The dishes from the center are the most culturally authentic and representative of Vietnamese cuisine, influenced by the imperial cuisine of Hue city. The food is spicy and heavily seasoned.
    • Nam (south) Southern cuisine in Vietnam is the most plentiful of the three, rich in vegetables, rice and seafood. It has enveloped French, Cambodian and Thai flavors to develop a distinctive taste. Food in the south is more tropical and at times sweet.
  • Misc: People smile a lot & are very affectionate. Their communication system is interesting…and everyone is on a moped.

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  • Quick Visual Guide to Vietnam

  • Ride on a cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) but negotiate the price beforehand – it’s quite the adventure

  • Basic Language:
    • Hello: xin chao!
    • Good Bye: tam biet
    • Thank You: cam on
    • Yes/No: vang/khong
    • I don’t speak Vietnamese: toi khong biet tieng Viet

Hotel:

Dining:

  • Chez Manon in Hilton Hanoi Opera – the spring rolls were delicous.

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  • HOM Restaurant –  in the Old Quarter.

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  • **Hoa Sua Training Restaurant (No2, Hang Chuoi street: Tel: +84 4 3942 4448). This was the one restaurant I wanted to visit during our stay in Hanoi. It’s tucked into a tiny street in the Truc Bach neighborhood. Created in 1994, Hoa Sua is a vocational training school for disadvantaged youths —war orphans, street children, hearing impaired and physically disabled—giving them professional training in European and Asian cooking, catering and hotel services, sewing, embroidery, baking and languages. When it started, the school was graduating around 20 students a year. Today around 700 students graduate yearly and to date more than 6,000 graduates have found work in the tourism and hospitality sector. It was such an honor to support these students and have a delicious meal cooked with incredible ingredients and love.

  • Club Opera – the service was outstanding, the wine selection delicious and all the food on the menu was well-presented and authentic.

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  • Pho 24 – as you can see, I could not get enough Pho. No frills and scrumptious. Throw in beer and fresh coconut water.

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  • Banh Mi: I couldn’t stop eating the chicken version. Keith opted for the beef. Check out those Vietnamese pants!

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  • Stall Breakfast down the street from the hotel… more Pho and coffee.

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  • Quan Com Sai Gon: Beef Dish with french fries!

  • Tons of restaurants in Old Quarter – Banh Mi Sandwiches = heaven. I ate it so fast I forgot to take a picture. The coconut water and wine were fantastic.

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Must See / Excursions:

  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (Ba Dinh Square) + Pillar Pagoda (symbol of Hanoi) + Presidential Palace
    • We love learning the history of other cultures. Understanding their point of view on the Vietnam War and their interactions with the French before the US arrived was very interesting. Classic Brielle moment: I wore a dress with a wrap that wasn’t acceptable in the mausoleum. I had to buy pants (the vendor knew exactly what I walked in her store for and had pants that were in my size ready!) and a larger shawl. The queue was long but very efficient and to our surprise, we saw Ho Chi Minh’s actual embalmed body. It felt like we were going to a viewing. You are not allowed to speak – learned that rule quickly. Definitely worth seeing.

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  • Vietnam Military History Museum
    • Established in 1956, it houses the most famous ancient architectural relic, the Flag Tower. The museum features exhibits and relics from the two resistance wars agains the French colonialist and the Americans.

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  • Hoa Lo Prison Museum – a very humbling experience
    • Built by French administration in 1896, this prison held political prisoners, and during the Vietnam War, it achieved notoriety as a place of incarceration for downed US pilots who named it Hanoi Hilton. Named Maison Centrale during the French rule, most of the complex was demolished in 1997.

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  • Majority of the exhibits include a horrifying array of shackes, whips and forms of torture, along with solitary confinement cells, sewage system (escape route) and a guillotine.

  • An area is devoted to the American period, cotriving to show how well US prisoners, including US senator John McCain, supposedly fared in contrast to the brutality shown by the Vietnamese by the French.

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  • Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword): Similar to King Arthur and Excalibur, our hero, Le Loi, was said to have a sword of great power. The legend says that the blade of the sword, inscribed with the words ‘The Will of Heaven’ (Thuan Thien), came from the Dragon King in his underwater palace. A fisherman, who later joined Le Loi’s army, caught the blade of the sword in his net. The hilt was found by Le Loi himself in a banyan tree. The stories claim Le Loi grew very tall when he used the sword and that it gave him the strength of many men. The story relates how one day, not long after the Chinese had accepted Vietnam as an independent country, Le Loi was out boating on the Green Water Lake (Luc Thuy). Suddenly a large turtle surfaced, took the sword from Le Loi’s belt, and dived back into the depths, carrying the glowing sword in his mouth. Efforts were made to find both the sword and the turtle but without success. Le Loi then acknowledged that the sword had gone back to the Dragon King with the Golden Turtle (Kim Quy), and he renamed the lake ‘The Lake of the Returned Sword’ (Hoan Kiem Lake).

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  • Old Quarter (36 Streets) + Bach Ma Temple (Oldest and called White Horse Temple): Fun spot to walk around. Trinkets and treasures everywhere.
  • Dong Xuan Market: Oldest and largest market in the city
  • Opera House: Modeled after the Paris Opera designed by Charles Garnier. Before World War II it was the epicenter of the city’s cultural life.

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  • Halong Bay Overnight Cruise by way of Halong Phoenix Tours / Halong Scorpian Cruise. Main guide was Dan who was knowledgable, incredibly accommodating and very friendly. The car trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay was approx. 3 hours – it’s a long journey that’s why we did the overnight. (Thanks Lauren DiPrima and Linda Gomes for this gift):

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  • Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, all you can do is marvel at the other-wordly landscapes created by limestone outcrops.

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  • Kayaking in the rain – this was a lot of fun, but we realized how polluted the water was. So sad given how beautiful the scenery was. Tours and local folks pick garbage from the water to help remedy the situation. IF you go in the water – in whatever capacity – throw out your clothes or get them laundered quickly. I hand washed our bathing suits because they stunk to high heaven after. We then laundered them at the hotel.

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  • Met a fantastic Australian couple, Rosina and Mark. Enjoyed stories, copious amounts of wine/beer, and delicious Vietnamese food during the excursion.

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  • Cooking a Vietnamese Meal – Mark, Rosina, Keith and my spring rolls. Yes, they were scrumptious.

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  • Ti Top Island: The island was named after Russian cosmonaut Gherman Stepanovich Titov, a hero of the former Soviet Union, to mark the historic visit of President Ho Chi Minh and G. Titov on November 22nd 1962.

  • Illuminated Caves in Halong Bay

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  • How many drinks on the Witek Room? We were at the top of the list with consumption (typical). Rosina and I closed it down lasting till 1am respectively and waking up our crew for ‘one more glass of wine’.

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Vietnam in summary: Bruce Starr – everything you said was true. There was a rare sense of gracious charm and timelessness that blended cultural heritage in perfect harmony with growing modernization. Vietnam left its mark on me.