Team Select's own Mother and Daughter Duo, Rachel and Amy, were recently in Vietnam for the inaugural CLIA Asia River Cruise and Destination Forum. Before the Conference, however, they took the time to explore some of Vietnam's most popular cities, Hanoi, Hue and Hoi An, immersing themselves with small group (or private group) tours with Urban Adventures. Read Amy's blog to find out more...
‘Don’t worry, we don’t try anything as adventurous as that on this tour!’ Bell, our local guide joked, pointing across the street to where a man was barbecuing a dog on a skewer. ‘Only dishes with chicken, pork, prawn, and beef!’ Apparently, a lot of the young people in Hanoi are moving away from eating dog as something a bit passé, and the Vietnamese ‘never eat our own dogs,’ importing wild dogs from neighbouring Laos and Cambodia instead.
We hadn’t even been in Vietnam for twenty-four hours (at a push, we’d been there just over twelve!), and we had dived straight in to the culture, food, history, and sights of Hanoi with a couple of tours from Urban Adventures. Arriving at four ‘o clock in the morning, in the pitch black, the roads were eerily (and unusually) quiet, although there were some early risers heading into the city to bring produce for markets, and some of the market vendors starting to set up. By 8am, we were waiting outside the Hanoi Opera House to begin our ‘Hanoi Highlights’ city tour with Urban Adventures, and I had introduced mum to her first ever Ca Phe Sua Da (Vietnamese iced coffee) and had quickly got her hooked. We were due to attend CLIA’s first ever Asia River Cruising and Destination Forum in Ho Chi Minh City in a week’s time, but having both visited Ho Chi Minh City before but never the rest of Vietnam, we’d decided to spend a few days beforehand making our way down from the north to the south, starting with Hanoi and Halong Bay, before heading to Hue and Hoi An. For each of the destinations, I’d planned a number of tours with Urban Adventures, who specialise in offering excursions in 162 cities across 97 countries, and I had previously enjoyed some of their tours in Barcelona and Rome, as well as Delhi. With no more than 12 people in a group led by a local leader, it’s an intimate experience which feels like you’re exploring a city led by a new friend, and perhaps seeing and experiencing parts of the city that most other tourists might miss. Many of the tours are also available as private tours, too, and some of the cities offer ‘make your own' tour options to truly tailor to your interests.
Despite the somewhat slumbering reception we had first received at four in the morning, by 8am Hanoi was up to its usual frenetic self, and one of the first things visitors to Vietnam encounter is the sheer volume of motorbikes. Roughly seven million people live in Hanoi, and they estimate that about five million motorbikes are in the city, and it’s utterly mystifying how they all manage to get around as there’s no apparent traffic rules (you think it’s a one-way street, until a motorbike or two decides to drive in the opposite direction to the rest of the traffic). It’s as much of a mystery as to how they all manage to balance; you’ll see families of four or five (mum, dad, kids and babies), women sitting side-saddle, drivers texting away, carrying produce ranging from vegetables to chickens, or stacks of chairs. Perhaps the most surprising and humorous sight of all was the gigantic Great Dane dog we saw riding pride of place at the front of the motorbike, surely covering the driver’s view of the road! Yet it all seems to work just fine! Luckily, we didn’t have to negotiate crossing too many roads on our Hanoi Highlights tour, as we were picked up by a private mini bus.
The Temple of Literature is the first stop on our Hanoi Highlights tour, and – dating back a thousand years – it’s one of the oldest sites of the city. It’s very traditional in style, with courtyards, pavilions and temples, and depictions featuring dragons, cranes, and tortoises. The significance of the Temple of Literature is reflected in its depiction on the 100,000 dong note as one of the symbols of the country; education and knowledge are held high in the esteem of the Vietnamese, with teachers being highly revered. During our tour of the Temple, we witnessed a graduation ceremony, and a local school ceremony, complete with a priest leading the chanting, while incense burned, and a gong was struck. After our tour of the Temple of Literature, we crossed the road to find a traditional tea house for some Vietnamese tea, which can be served hot or cold, and with a number of different flavourings; I chose lotus flower seeds. Our tour then contrasted the serene beauty and ancient history and tradition of the Temple of Literature with Hanoi’s more recent, notorious past, taking us in our mini bus to visit the infamous Hanoi Hilton. Despite the bright yellow outside, our guided tour gave us a glimpse of the dark horrors inside, viewing the cells which would cram 30-plus Vietnamese resistance fighters under French imprisonment, and one of the guillotines which had been used to execute some of the prisoners. Spine chilling is an apt expression as the prison and its stark conditions leave you cold. Some of the cells featured uncannily lifelike models which were very disconcerting.
Afterwards, we were treated to a delicious bowl of beef pho, one of Vietnam’s most famous dishes, followed by a walk along Hoan Kiem Lake (otherwise known, quite prettily, as ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’), before arriving at our final stop, the magnificent façade of the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Hanoi is greener than I expected, with tree-lined boulevards, and park areas, including an area outside our hotel where locals practised their tai chi and martial arts in the morning, and dancing at night. Buildings are tall and narrow as space is at a premium in the city. There’s very many old colonial-style buildings with a faded elegance that adds to the charm, many of which are painted in pastel colours, adorned with balconies, gables, and sometimes even turrets. Many now have been converted to shops on the street level with large plastic boards declaring their name, and streets very often specialise in a product, with rows of shops selling Sellotape, pots and pans, or food products.
Having seen some of the city’s main highlights on our morning tour, we had a bit of time to explore the bustling Dong Xuan Market before our next Urban Adventures tour, which was Hanoi Street Food by Night, starting in the early evening at 5pm. Dong Xuan was only about ten or fifteen minutes’ walk from our hotel, and dates back to 1889, when it was first built by the French. It’s been renovated several times since, most recently in 1994, following a fire which almost destroyed the market. The market and its surrounding streets were a riot of colour and activity, with vendors selling flowers, fish, vegetables, fruit, or cooking snacks, and so much more. It’s the perfect place to start a street food tour!
Our first stop, and snack, on the street food tour was the classic banh mi, the famous Vietnamese baguette. The husband and wife team sell their renowned banh mi from just outside Dong Xuan Market, and use lemon juice as an extra special ingredient, earning their banh mi an enviable reputation as the best in Hanoi. It wasn’t long until our next stop where we popped into a family-run business that’s been serving for 40 years, and specialises in banh cuon thanh van, or steamed rice pancakes filled with shredded pork and mushroom. The rice paper made to use the pancakes is incredibly thin, almost transparent. Our culinary journey continued through to Hang Da Market, first going through the railtracks area, where some of the cheapest (and smallest) homes in the city can be found, some of which seemed to be hugging the tracks. When trains aren’t running, locals will go about their lives along the tracks, and it isn’t uncommon to see children playing on the rail lines, while women prepare dinner, cutting vegetables and herbs out there too. At Hang Da Market, we found a woman who has been selling delicious barbecue skewers from the same patch for 25 years. Luckily, the thit xien nuong wasn’t dog; instead it was pork. A short walk to our next stop, where we feasted on bun cha, or rice vermicelli with grilled pork meat balls. But this was by no means the end of our feast! Next up: chicken noodle salad (or pho ga tron), from a restaurant which has pioneered this new specialty dish which first came to popularity locally thirty years ago. Comprised of chicken, noodles, rice vinegar, soy sauce, bean sprouts and coriander, it tasted quite sweet. The next course was dessert, just a five minute walk away, and here we had a choice of three to choose from: sua chua nep cam (black sticky rice yogurt), kem xoi (green sticky rice with ice cream), or hoa qua dam (mixed fruits with condensed milk), before capping the evening, and our culinary journey of Hanoi, at a hidden treasure of a local café for ca phe trung, or the Hanoi speciality of hot egg coffee.
The next day was a relatively early start as we headed out to Hanoi Opera House for our meeting point for our next tour, this time a full-day excursion to the famous Halong Bay, one of Vietnam’s best-known attractions. Halong Bay is 105 miles from Hanoi, taking about three and a half hours each way. We were joined by three other people, so it was a small, intimate group, and there was plenty of space in our minibus. Our guide was fantastic from the beginning, with a wonderful sense of humour, and lots of knowledge about the area, giving us nuggets of information along the journey. Using local leaders is just one way in which Urban Adventures gives back to local communities; their tours will engage with local businesses – we’d already sampled quite a lot of that on our previous tours – but they will also work with local charities, too. En route to Halong Bay, we visited the Hong Ngoc Humanity Centre, which supports people in the area, including many who were affected by Agent Orange, by training them in skilled handicrafts, and giving them a large percentage of the sale of the goods they created. From there, we continued on to Halong Bay, which translates to ‘Bay of the Descending Dragon’, and there were a variety of legendary explanations for how the Bay came to be, at least one of which involved a dragon which breathed out jewels. These jewels would become the forest-clad limestone karst islands which jut out of the waters. When we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we would have our own junk boat exclusively for our group of just six (including the tour guide). Although the skies were overcast, Halong Bay is still very impressive, and it was relaxing to cruise along as we were treated to a scrumptious lunch featuring large, succulent prawns, fresh and tasty crab cakes, some ‘Halong Bay fish’ which was flavoured with ginger, amongst other tasty dishes. We cruised around for a bit, before stopping ashore one of the islands to visit the Thien Cung Cave (which translates as ‘Heavenly Palace’), which was only officially discovered in 1994 by a fisherman trying to escape from a terrible storm. The cave system was impressive, and it had been made accessible for tourists. The cave visit made an interesting interlude before more relaxing and scenic cruising for another hour or so before the return to Hanoi, where we were each dropped back at our hotels. Even when overcast, and not at its most spectacularly photogenic, Halong Bay makes for an impressive experience, and it’s little surprise that it is one of Vietnam’s most visited attractions, and recognised as one of the Natural Wonders of the World.
We’d managed to cram a lot into our two nights in Hanoi, on whirlwind tours highlighting the city’s culture and history, and delving deep into its cuisine, and taking the opportunity to visit the famous Halong Bay. But it was soon time to say goodbye to this charming city, and head off to our next destination, flying south to Hue in central Vietnam. Between 1802 and 1945, Hue was the capital of Vietnam, and the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors, who were more or less puppet emperors to the French. Hue is noticeably quieter and less chaotic than Hanoi! Shortly after we landed and transferred to our new hotel, we were due to meet our latest tour leader from Urban Adventures, this time for the ‘Royal City Street Eats’ tour. On this tour, we were picked up from our hotel and taken by cyclos to make our way towards the citadel, crossing the Perfume River, for a culinary journey delving into the flavours and textures of Hue cuisine. It turned out that we were the only guests booked on the tour, so we had our own private guide! What I particularly liked about this tour – other than the novelty of enjoying a cyclo ride – was that we really got to experience local food, as we were taken to cafes and restaurants only frequented by locals, so we got a more authentic insight into Hue which, as it turns out, can be quite touristic. Each restaurant or café would specialise in a particular dish and serve only that, so we visited a number of different places.
At our first stop, we sampled some of the fare traditionally eaten by the Emperors who once lived in Hue, savouring the trio of dishes commonly served together: banh beo (translates literally as ‘water fern cake’), banh bot loc and banh nam. ‘Banh’ is used frequently in Vietnamese cuisine, and whilst it translates into English as ‘cake’, it is rarely what we would consider to be cake. Instead, it’s more of a general term – whether sweet or savoury – to refer to dishes created from rice or wheat flour, and covers all manner of cooking methods, whether steaming, baking, frying, deep-frying or boiling. It is such a catch-all term that, whilst most commonly used for foods made from rice or wheat flour, it can also refer to certain varieties of noodle and fish cake dishes, like banh canh or banh hoi! This royal trio of dishes were more like steamed dumplings; the banh beo (or water fern cake) is a small, dimpled, white rice cake topped with dried shrimp and crispy fried shallots, fish sauce and rice vinegar, while the banh bot loc are small, transparent and chewy dumplings made from tapioca, and also filled with chopped shrimp or pork belly. Other stops on our foodie tour of Hue included a crispy Hue pancake, or banh khoai (which translates to ‘happy pancake’), a dish originally created to appease a hungry emperor, and hard to find outside of Hue. The folded over pancake is said to look like a smiling mouth, which gives rise to its name, and crispness is key to this dish. The rice flour pancake is filled with greens, pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, rolled up, and dipped into fermented soy bean sauce. We also enjoyed bun bo Hue, a beef vermicelli soup similar to pho, but differentiated by thicker and more cylindrical noodles, as well as its balance of spicy, sour, salty and sweet flavours, and the predominance of lemon grass. The restaurant serving the bun bo Hue is a popular hub with locals, open only in the evenings after 6.30pm, but still managing to get through 100 kilos of vermicelli and five big broth pots each day! After several tasty dishes, our tour finally wound down with a lovely traditional Vietnamese coffee.
Following our tour, we headed out to explore the area near our hotel, which was centrally located in Hue, near the river banks. Across the road, some of the surrounding streets are pedestrianised (called ‘walking streets’), and are lined with shops, bars and restaurants. While the area was clearly a hub for tourists, so there wasn’t the same authentic feel to the places we’d visited across the river on our tour, but there were also locals, particularly youth, including some boys playing football.
The next morning, I woke early (before 5am!) to the sound of wind and rain, and from that point, there was no reprieve; the rain was relentless throughout the whole day, until we went to sleep. While April marks the beginning of the rainy season in Vietnam, in our previous experience, rain tends to be short-lived and usually still quite warm, but this was more reminiscent of the weather at home! It’s fair to say that we had not packed for quite this level of onslaught! We braved the weather to head out in the morning to visit the Imperial Citadel, the walled enclave of the Nguyen Dynasty built by Emperor Gia Long in 1804, after geomancers had decided that the site in Hue would be the best place for a new palace and citadel. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Hue’s most popular attractions, and even in the rain, it was still attractive, with its ornately carved gates, pavilions, and palaces. Sadly, our afternoon tour was literally rained off, which was such a pity as it had been one of the tours I’d most looked forward to. Essentially the tour – with Urban Adventures – would’ve taken us out into the countryside on the back of a motorbike to experience a taste of Vietnamese rural life, heading out to a beautiful lagoon nearby, and interacting with farmers.
Thankfully, we awoke to much better weather conditions for our three-hour transfer to Hoi An. Although it was still a bit cloudy and overcast, the drive was quite scenic, following the coast line of the former South China Sea, and winding along a mountain, and we had a couple of photo stops, including a stop at an oyster farm, and a famous vantage point looking out over a stretch of bay and fishing village that was even once featured on Top Gear. Our guide showed us a photo of the same spot in sunshine – what a remarkable difference! As we made our way into Hoi An itself, we asked our guide about local dress making shops, and were taken to a family-owned tailors. Hoi An is particularly famous for its tailoring, creating both traditional and western fashions (very often within just twenty-four hours), and their tailor shops are popular with locals and tourists alike. Situated on Vietnam’s central coast, it’s also well known for its well-preserved Ancient Town, which has been recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. With streets strewn with colourful paper lanterns, wooden Chinese shophouses and temples, vibrantly painted French colonial buildings, and ornate Vietnamese tube houses, Hoi An is eclectic and beautiful, and utterly charming. It was probably my favourite city we’d visited.
As Hoi An was our final pre-conference destination, it was also our final foodie tour with Urban Adventures, and this Food Adventure did not disappoint! From the banh mi we enjoyed at a local bakery which has been making Hoi An’s most popular banh mi for over twenty years using the freshest local ingredients, to sampling dishes at the crowded Central Market, this was another culinary delight. We joined locals on the ubiquitous tiny plastic chairs to dig into tasty BBQ pork rolled with rice paper and fresh herbs, served with typical soya dipping sauce, passed women making vermicelli noodles on the street, and explored the many, many different food stalls both inside and outside the bustling Central Market, tucking into local snacks. After emerging out of the Central Market, we went deep into the heart of a maze of tiny alleys where we discovered a ‘secret’ local restaurant, which specialised in two of Hoi An’s specialties, deep fried wontons and white rose dumplings. One of my favourite dishes was perhaps the com ga chicken rice, where the chicken is boiled and cut or torn into smaller slices, seasoned with salt, pepper, chilli and Vietnamese coriander, and combined with rice which has been cooked with chicken broth and a dash of turmeric to give it a golden colour. The dish is then served with mint leaves and onions to lend further flavour, along with a pouring of the famous chili sauce, a familiar spicy element in the cuisine of Central Vietnam. As the tour began to wind down, we finished with a sweet dish – banh xoai – from a street vendor by the riverside close to the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge, Hoi An’s most recognisable landmark. Banh xoai translates to mango cake, which turns out to be something of a misnomer, as – despite what the name implies – mango is not included as an ingredient. Instead, you’ll find it’s made out of sticky rice on the outside, with peanuts and sugar inside. Locals claim the dish, which is round, white and small enough to fit in your hand, gets its name from its appearance, which is similar to a mango seed. This was probably the only dish I tried on any of the food tours which simply wasn’t to my taste at all – but you can’t win them all! After our mango cakes, we ended the tour with a relaxing Vietnamese beer (or coffee) at a local café nearby.
With our last day in Hoi An before flying to Ho Chi Minh City for the CLIA Asia River Cruise Conference, we had one more Urban Adventure, the My Son Discovery; this time, we were delving into history (with a touch of the present local experience). With an early start at around 7.30am, we were picked up from our hotel, with a number of other stops at local hotels for other guests on the tour with us, heading out into the rural countryside surrounding Hoi An and making our way for My Son, a cluster of ancient Hindu temples, built between the 4th and the 14th centuries by the Cham people. At one time, the site had comprised of over 70 temples, as well as numerous stele inscribed in Sanskrit and Cham, and the site was both used for religious ceremonies and a burial place for Cham royalty and national heroes. However much of the site has been destroyed by US carpet bombing during a single week of the Vietnam War; great crater-like scars of land still stand as testament to this. Although My Son is perhaps Indochina’s longest inhabited archaeological site, it’s less well known than Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex – which is arguably the largest religious monument in the world – and some of the ruins have details that were reminiscent to me of Angkor. It’s certainly an intriguing and fascinating place, as well as mysterious, notable not only as one of Vietnam’s most important historical sites, but as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, who noted that My Son’s significance showcased an example of evolution and change in culture, as well as evidence of an Asian civilisation which is now extinct.
With our early start, we were amongst the first to arrive at My Son, avoiding both the crowds and the hotter, more humid weather later. We’d already watched a traditional Apsara dance demonstration and had our guided tour before witnessing hordes of tourists approaching upon our return. En route to our hotel, we were taken to a local farm where we met Madame Soa, who showed us how to make rice paper pancakes, a simple but delicious local snack. Attempting to spread the rice flour over a hot stone to create my own pancake was such a fun highlight!
With a lot of help from Urban Adventures, we were able to immerse ourselves into three very different Vietnamese cities, from the contrasting chaos and tai chi of Hanoi, the imperial cuisine and citadel of Hue, to the charming, paper lantern-strewn, old town of Hoi An.
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