A Day on Bikes in the Mekong Delta

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 9 & 10 November 2018

When I’d visited Saigon last year with Ak, we’d contemplated taking what sounded like a great bike tour down in the Mekong Delta with Grasshopper Adventures. However, the weather was iffy and the prospect of driving in a minivan for two hours only to ride around on bikes in the rain sounded less than ideal.

So, I was determined to make the trip this time, not least because the weather had been delightful and not too hot (by southern Vietnam standards). Of course, the fly in the ointment was my traveling solo – there needed to be at least one other person signed up for the trip if it was going to take place.

I’d submitted a request a month prior to my trip and there were no tours available during my stay. Amazingly, though, two days into my trip, I got an email from Grasshopper Adventures that a tour was available for Friday. Hooray!

I showed up at the designated meeting point and met, Dat, our guide for the day and two fellows from So Cal, Albert and George, friends since high school and regular travel buddies. We piled into our minivan and made it to our starting point in about 90 minutes.

Well! I’d not really known what to expect, especially after my friend Vu had warned me to be prepared for a super touristy experience. I suspect this may be true at the floating market or some other destinations in the area, but we really spent the entire visit as the only foreigners around, pedaling our way through gorgeously lush countryside and narrow paths shaded by banana and palm trees. It was really one of the best bike riding tours I’ve been on.

One of our first stops was at a local home factory where they made straw mats that Vietnamese use for sleeping and sitting. I was a little leery at first, since so often stops like these on tours are really about the gift shop. Not this time! This was a genuine local workshop and we got to see the folks producing the mats while Dat explained to us the economics of the product and the history of this particular workshop. We met the 82-year-old matriarch (with whom I foolishly neglected to take a photo!), who’d only just recently retired from running the show and handed the reins over to her son-in-law. She was pleased to meet us and Dat interpreted for us as she thanked us for coming to visit. Her grandson (or maybe great grandson?) was also there and practiced his very-good English with Albert. Everyone we met there was delightful and welcoming and it was wonderful.

Rode some more, passing by duck farms, herb farms and the occasional cow. Our next stop was a cocoa bean farm. Dat walked us through the whole tree-to-bean process, as we ambled through a grove of cocoa trees before visiting the main part of the farm where the beans were harvested and prepped. The cocoa pods contain white-fleshed lobes of fruit, each with a bean inside. We tasted the fresh fruit and saw the various stages of the beans as they are dried and peeled. The smell of the place was like a strong dark chocolate along with a fermented edge. We tasted the dried beans which was as expected, a sharp bitter chocolate.

We met the farm owner, who shared a shot of chocolate booze with us – it was very similar to sherry or port. The farmer works directly with Maison Marou, a Vietnamese chocolatier started by a French company. The maison produces chocolates all sourced from several regions in Vietnam, making both bars and fancy boxed chocolates.

It was a wonderful visit – and again, it was really focused on learning a bit about this farmer, his work and his crop rather than an opportunity to hard sell some gewgaws to tourists. Obviously I’ll be making a trip to Maison Marou once I’m back in Saigon to pick up some of the single-source chocolate bars made from the beans on this very farm.

We continued our ride and the countryside remained glorious. Since we we were all three keeping a good pace with Dat, he took us on a little roundabout route to our lunch destination so we could get some more time in the saddle.

Lunch was at a private home that was also a small farm. Our meal was prepared from ingredients harvested locally and it was delicious. I mean, it was delicious in and of itself – but after a long ride, we were all pretty famished and wolfed down just about everything in sight: fried rolls, stir-fried beef, greens, pork and vegetable soup, fruit and plenty of rice.

We also met some adorable baby boars frolicking near their parent’s sty – and I just pretended that I hadn’t eaten their siblings for lunch. Awkward… but still delicious.

Next we needed to board a boat – but our captain was apparently a bit behind schedule, so we wandered a local wholesale fruit market nearby. As happens frequently, my beard was a source of mirth and fascination for some of the locals. According to Dat, one of the ladies selling oranges thought I was quite the handsome devil! A woman of good taste clearly.

Soon enough, our long boat arrived and we spent a little bit of time on the Mekong. Initially we were one of the several tributaries in this region, but shortly we made our way out into the main artery. It’s huge! Really amazing sight.

Another great part of this trip was that the boat ride was a reasonable length – about half an hour, I’d say. It was enough time to see the river and enjoy the breeze but didn’t even approach the “OMG, when are we ever getting off this boat?” territory.

Piled into the van and headed back to HCMC. What an amazing day! It was such a great ride and Dat was a really excellent guide – plus Albert and George were great touring companions and we were all keeping up the pace with each other. I really lucked out with this

Had dinner at a relatively unmemorable place down the road from my hotel. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. Another early evening and slept like a baby, thanks to today’s ride.

Saturday, I was tempted to try to head back to District 4 for my favorite pho – but Pho Minh is right next door to my hotel and serves very tasty pho plus pate chaud! Convenience won out and I am OK with that.

The rest of the day was dedicated to treating myself and a little shopping. I checked out Mayhem, a vintage shop that’s apparently all the rage. Looked like the women’s section was fairly well-stocked – but the men’s was a little ho-hum for my tastes.

Next stop: Maison Marou, the chocolate shop that sells the bars of chocolates made from the cocoa beans of the farmer I met during my tour of the Mekong Delta. Wow! The shop and cafe is delightful. Besides the single-source bars, they also have fancy boxed chocolates with fillings like Vietnamese coffee and coconut. The prices were also amazingly reasonable, so I stocked up on treats to bring back home with me.

Wrapped up my time in HCMC with a Sunday morning visit to Unification Palace. I’d explored the entire place last year, but I still think this is one of the most gorgeous examples of modern architecture, so I had another wander about, taking photos inside and out. And before I knew it, it was time to get back to the hotel and head to the airport. Next stop: Phnom Penh!

SFO to HCMC via HKG

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 4-10 November 2018

Far be it from me to complain about flying across the Pacific in business class – but I will say this: Cathay Pacific positions itself as a “premium” airline, but my experience – while obviously better than service delivered by U.S. carriers – was a mixed bag. Check in took way longer than it should have and the agent was not especially friendly nor did she seem particularly well-versed in her job.

The flight crew was competent, but also not especially friendly – plus no slippers for business class passengers and too-small pillows. The food was decent – but the hamburger available as a midflight snack, while still quite tasty, used to come with fries but now comes with chips.

And then there were my efforts to rearrange my flights in HKG to get to Saigon instead of Hanoi, as I was ticketed to do. One agent was very helpful but the early flight to Saigon was full. Later, when I spoke with another agent and indicated that I’d be flying on to Saigon on a different airline and wouldn’t be using my onward business class ticket to Hanoi, accused me of “cheating” (yes, that’s the word she used) when I asked if I could still use the biz class lounge (and which she insisted I could not and therefore did not).

So, yes, flying up in the pointy part of the plane is always better than the alternative – but Cathay is sure no Singapore Airlines. I think they are outperformed by EVA, ANA and JAL, as well.

Anyway, enough of my kvetching about my first world problems. I had a nine-hour layover in HKG, so that was plenty of time to get into the city for a walkabout and – far more importantly – a breakfast of char siu at Joy HIng Roasted Meats in Wan Chai. And it was absolutely worth the trip in, I’m happy to say! Afterwards, I took the Ding Ding Trolley over toward Sheung Wan, then climbed up the hill and walked along Hollywood Road before heading down to check out the harbor and use the free wifi at the mall.

Back to the airport, where my flight on Vietnam Airlines to Saigon departed from one of the dreaded 500 series gates – the gates in the basement underneath the “real” gates. Instead of a jetway, passengers are schlepped out to their plane on a crowded bus. Business class this wasn’t! But once on board, the seat next to me was unoccupied which is a pretty great way to fly coach – plus there were a hot meal served on the two-hour flight!

Finally arrived at airport in Ho Chi Minh after about 26 hours in transit – and of course I chose the slowest line for Immigration staffed by an officer who was apparently VERY PARTICULAR about each traveler’s documents. Sigh… But once through, I stopped to get a local SIM card, which was easy enough – except I didn’t have exact change in my wallet, so had to dig through my backpack and suitcase for the rest of my cash and at which time I also discovered that the See’s chocolate turkey I’d brought for my friend Ak to celebrate Thanksgiving when I’m in Thailand had been smushed. Exhaustion made my reaction to this discovery rather more pointed than was absolutely necessary.

But at least once I left the terminal, I was greeted by my favorite sight after a long day of travel: a sign with my name on it, meaning a car service was here to collect me.

We were on our way to the hotel in short order – but I’d forgotten how absolutely intense traffic in HCMC is. We moved at a snail’s pace for most of the ride and all I wanted was to be in my hotel room. It was at this point I was thinking to myself, “Why do I ever even leave home? The trip takes too long, I’ve made bad decisions about my travel arrangements and my turkey is broken. Everything is ruined!” OK, perhaps I was a bit overwrought…

Made it to my home for the week, the Liberty Central Citypoint in the heart of District 1. Check in went smoothly – though they do love try and upsell which was hard to be patient with given how eager I was to have a shower…

But once in my room, shower I did, then unpacked and had a bit of lie down. I was feeling much better already – and even more so after a bowl of soup next door at the Old Compass Cafe. I’d visited for lunch last time I was here with Ak and we’d really enjoyed it – plus it’s run by the purveyors of the Rusty Compass website, an invaluable resource for places to eat and things to do in Vietnam and other parts of SE Asia.

In fact, I had a walking tour scheduled with Nhi from Old Compass for the next day – and was lucky enough to meet her that evening. In our earlier email about where to meet for the tour, I’d told her I’m easy to recognize, thanks to my big gray beard. Well, she saw me at my table and figured out pretty quickly, “Oh, that looks like the crazy foreigner I’ll be showing around tomorrow…”

Had a nice bowl of soup and more than one glass of Chardonnay – you know, just to take the edge off of a very long day. And it worked! Back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Up early and headed down the alley next to the hotel to visit a favorite from last time, Phở Minh. This little place is amazing! Just a few dozen meters off one of Saigon’s busiest streets, this alley is a quiet oasis – and the phở is very tasty. Plus it comes with a couple of bánh patê sô – flaky little meat pastries that are just delicious.

After breakfast, made my way to the Saigon Zoo, the meeting point for today’s tour. I was there a bit early and had the great good fortune to witness a dance troupe of local children in full costume, coming either from dress rehearsal or a performance. Sadly, I didn’t whip my camera out in time, but did manage to capture a photo of two of the boys in their sequined shorts, vests and tank tops. Get on down, little dudes!

Besides Nhi, there was one other tourist, a nice woman from Australia. I did have a bit of a rude awakening self-awareness-wise when she showed up, thinking to myself, “Oh, she’s old.” – only to realize she was likely a few years younger than I… It’s still weird to remember that I am in fact an old coot!

The tour was great, focusing primarily on the history of Saigon and Vietnam along with an emphasis on local styles of architecture. Nhi was very knowledgeable and engaging and had quite a bit of background details on the local tensions between preserving historically important and generally quite lovely old buildings and developing the city’s infrastructure and economy. She also explained that the scooter population in Saigon is the same as the human population – in other words, for every person there is a scooter. That certainly sheds some light on the insane traffic here!

We finished up with a tasty lunch at the Old Compass Cafe. I got to meet Mark, the founder of rustycompass.com, along with the cafe and tour company. He and the other woman on my tour had a good chat about the current state of Australian politics – before the subject turned to the US. Let me just say this: most people who enjoy traveling abroad, wherever they’re from, seem more likely to be “my kind of people” and I’m happy to report these folks were no exception. And let me also add that I was pretty happy to be out of the country for Election Day back home… Being away from the everyday stress of the Trump regime is doing me a world of good.

After lunch, had a nap and did a bit of catching up on social media while deciding where to have dinner. Wandered over to Secret House, sister establishment to Secret Garden where I’d eaten with Ak when I was here last year. Menu at new place much the same: had some just OK clams, some good fried rolls and some excellent seafood fried rice.

Headed back to hotel, but it was still early. I decided to walk by a local gay bar in the backpacker district. It was early, so the place was populated by a couple of pasty-but-now-sunburnt white dudes out front and some louche money boy types inside. Hard pass! And the backpacker district was kind of a hellscape – how surprising…

But once close to my hotel, I Googled “cocktails near me” and found The Alley – located literally right next door to my hotel and down the same alley as Pho Minh and The Old Compass Cafe! That is one magical alley.

Anyway, the place was exactly what I was looking for: not empty but not crowded with a mellow feel and a highly-competent bartender who prepared me a Fusion Gimlet with lemongrass and sweet basil. Excellent! And the perfect way to wrap up my first full day here in HCMC.

While it’s true that adjusting to local time here is pretty easy coming from SF, I’m still waking up quite early – which is mostly fine, save for being ready for bed by 9PM. But there’s also tons to do in the morning here, especially when it comes to eating.

I set off in search of Amen, a noodle stand serving hu tieu nam vang that I’d read about here. It seemed simple enough – right on the corner of Hiem 178 Doan Van Bd and Doan Van Bo, which I found easily enough on Google Maps. And I’d visited District 4 last time I was here with Ak and our guide Vũ. What could go wrong?

Well, to start off it was raining. Not pouring, but def more than sprinkling – though I was able to pick up an umbrella at a Circle K as I made my way on foot from my hotel to District 4. So far, so good!

Once I was over there, I recognized the street I’d started off on last time and took this to be a good sign. Sadly, it was not. I found myself on the exact location described in the article about the soup place and besides the fact that there were dozens of shops, stands and eateries, none of them bore even the remotest resemblance to anything in the photos with the article. I was zooming into the backgrounds, trying to spot matching window styles or shop signs, all to no avail.

While I wouldn’t describe the locals as unfriendly, they were all pretty busy with their own lives and the only fellow interested in my apparent confusion was someone trying to proffer his scooter taxi services. As is often the case, I was really too shy/intimidated to try to ask one of the neighborhood folks for some help. Not knowing the language makes me feel extra awkward… And as I was to find out later from two different locals, District 4 is apparently gangster territory – not that I had any problems, but I guess I’m glad I found this out after the fact..?

And to digress for just a moment: it’s been a while since I’ve traveled solo. I absolutely enjoy it! But it does have a way of preying on my own insecurities. Whenever I’m on the road, all my social media – whether it’s this blog, FB or IG – is putting forward a narrative of how amazing a time I’m having. And that’s true! Even when I’m being self-deprecating, I’m posting the best parts of travel. But I’d forgotten that I tend to be very hard on myself when I travel. Despite the fact that traveling on my own means I can do whatever the eff I want, there’s often the voice in my head saying things like, “Ugh, why are you going to same place for breakfast again? You should try someplace new!” or “Why are you eating in this restaurant? It’s mostly tourists! Why aren’t you going somewhere authentic and local!”

I suppose to some extent it’s an outgrowth of travel shows like Bourdain’s, which prize “authenticity” above all else – which is kind of silly, since he had a whole team of researchers and producers mapping out his shows. When I travel, I can be just as judgmental of others, wondering who’d come all the way to Vietnam to eat in a mediocre Italian restaurant? I’m trying to check these thoughts when I have them – because the fact of the matter is, for any Westerner (Americans in particular) to come to Vietnam is a pretty amazing travel itinerary, no matter if you eat banh mi on the street or duck into McDonald’s for a burger. I mean, it’s obviously a fascinating country – but it’s very different from home for most people and managing to roll with those differences however works for you is pretty great.

Anyway, I’m trying my hardest to be nicer to myself about my choices – but it’s not always easy when I’m on my own and responsible for all my decisions.

Back to District 4. My plan to eat breakfast at Amen was stymied. BUT! Luckily, I still had the name and address of the best pho I’d ever had from my food tour last year – and it was only about an eight minute walk from my current location, so off I went.

Found the place with no problem (thanks again, Vũ, for sending me the address last year!) and had a delicious bowl of soup. Sure, I never did find my OG destination, but who could complain about a great meal at Pho Mui?

Next stop: ANZ Bank ATM. I’d read online that they had a higher limit on withdrawals. The ATM I’d used the other day gave me a mere 3 million dong (heh) – about US$125. It was about a 20 minute walk there – which was both nice, insofar as I saw some different parts of the city, but also an occasionally harrowing reminder that HCMC is not exactly a walker’s paradise (I’ll call out again the stat that the number of scooters is 8 million – the same as the number of residents).

Arrived at the location on Google Maps and discovered a construction site. Super! Eh, it’s fine – and as it turned out, the additional 3 million dong (heh) I withdrew from some other ATM was more than enough to get me through the rest of my visit to Saigon.

Wandered around for a bit. Grabbed a banh mi from a place with good reviews online – it was fine, though nothing to write home about, IMO. I also stopped by Cộng Cà Phê, a place I’d been introduced to in Hanoi: a Vietnamese chain (though they’ve just opened their first shop outside the country in Seoul) of coffee places with a communist military theme – and which serves frozen coconut coffee, essentially the world’s greatest coffee milkshake prepared with coconut milk slush. If they manage to open a branch in SF someday, I’d be both delighted and frightened of how much weight I’d gain… But for now, I’m on holiday and they are delicious, especially after walking around in the hot weather.

Tonight I was meeting up with Vũ. He’d been our guide for a street food tour when I visited Saigon for the first time last year with my friend Ak. We’d kept in touch a bit and he’d told me if I ever returned, he’d take me around to new places to eat – and on his own time at no charge! I’d’ve been happy to simply sign up for another tour, but he’d graciously insisted that he’d take me out on his own time.

He’d also told me that it would be best if I traveled on the back of his scooter – which, while I was still home in SF, sounded a bit daunting – but once I was here, I said, “Eh, when in Rome… And that’s why you paid a little extra for that trip insurance with medical evacuation coverage.” So, we met up in District 5 at 5PM, I perched the tiny helmet he brought me on my giant noggin and off we went!

And honestly? It was fine. Sure the traffic was crazy, but for the most part the pace is not Indy-like – and Vũ was a very steady pilot. I mean, yes, I may have clutched him once or twice when we hit a bump, but at no point did my life flash before my eyes.

He took me all over town. We ate soup with dumplings, quail egg salad, banh mi, banh xeo, rolls and – to wrap up the evening on an especially festive note – a whole bunch of meat and seafood that we (and by “we,” I mean Vũ) grilled up ourselves on a little table top charcoal grill at an outdoor place that also served plenty of cold beer. Oh! And had coterie of lovely cats – who were also surprisingly finicky about what they’d eat! I guess they are so used to being fed by the patrons, they can afford to pick and choose what they like.

It was a great time, especially seeing parts of Saigon I’d’ve never seen on my own, plus eating like a local. Plus Vũ laughed at all of my corny jokes. He really hit this one out of the park.

Thursday was looking to be pretty chill. Wandered around District 1 after a breakfast of pho at Pho Minh again. Compared to other parts of the city, it’s relatively walkable – once you get used to the fact that sidewalks are also used as shortcuts by in-a-hurry scooters who just can’t with the traffic – and there are lots of trees and lovely old buildings.

Eventually made my way to Moc Huong Spa, where I’d had an excellent Thai massage last year when I was here with Ak. He’d complained that his massage was too strong – though I pointed out that he’d been snoring quite loudly during his treatment, so it couldn’t have been that bad!

Anyway, things were not quite the same, sadly. Reception was hectic and disorganized. Several different folks talked to me about the treatment I’d reserved and no one seemed to be communicating with each other. There was another large party there waiting for services, so the whole process was super unrelaxing.

My therapist eventually collected me and took me upstairs for my massage – and it was pretty clear from the get-go that she didn’t know WTF she was doing. I mean, I assume she’d had some training in massage, but not in Thai massage it seemed. Some parts were OK – other parts felt like she was just making stuff up. She had me hanging off the side of the mat, my limbs ensnared in the curtains surrounding the treatment area;  she was twisting my body around into some weird positions; and at several points elbowed me in the face while manhandling me. Honestly, I should have stopped the massage and either left or asked for a different therapist – particularly since later that day, the crick I’d had in my neck from sleeping funny had been made substantially worse by this therapist’s terrible massage. Boo! A real disappointment.

But I did stop for another frozen coconut coffee, so the day wasn’t a total loss. And I was looking forward to my Mekong Delta bike tour the next morning!

 

 

 

Hoi An, Then Back to Bangkok

Hoi An, Vietnam – 14 April 2018
Bangkok, Thailand – 15 April 2018

Made our way into town to Hai Cafe, the meeting point for our cooking class with Red Bridge. Our morning guide met us promptly and we had something to drink while we waited for our fellow tourists, who turned out to be a couple of not-particularly-friendly Aussie women. They weren’t unfriendly, exactly, but were not especially interested in engaging with anyone but one another. NBD, though it was a little exhausting for me trying to do the heavy lifting to keep a conversation going until I just threw in the towel.

The first part of the tour involved a stop at a local organic garden, which was pretty interesting – though went on perhaps a bit longer than was necessary. Same could be said for our trip to the market, especially since we’d already been through it during one of our food tours.

Once we arrived at the Red Bridge School and Villa, things took a turn for the better. The setting was lovely and the outdoor cooking facility was great in terms of both the working space and all the fresh ingredients. Our instructor Mimi was great – gregarious and knowledgeable and enjoyed sharing her techniques and showing us what to do.

We started off prepping the ingredients for a banana leaf salad with grilled chicken. All the different fruits and vegetables in the salad were just gorgeous and the bbq’d chicken turned out to be as wonderful as it looked and smelled.

We also worked on broth for pho, grilling up beef leg bones over the fire before starting the soup. This was followed by prepping chiles and aromatics to make a marinade for shrimp that we wrapped in banana leaves before grilling. Then we ended with hotpot with fish and dill. Really tasty!

It was a fun afternoon – though it also seemed as if our two other students were pretty unfamiliar with cooking. Which is fine, I guess, but it seemed an odd choice of activities for them.

We’d done four different tourist activities while in Hoi An: two food tours, a cooking class and a bike tour. The cooking class and the second of the food tours were run/owned by non-Vietnamese apparently – and while I wouldn’t say they were terrible, they seemed to lack the local take that we enjoyed so much on our first food tour and the bike tour. The locally-run tours just felt more like we were interacting with Vietnamese folks on their terms and in a way that felt more personal. The other experiences felt more highly scripted and almost veered into performance. I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with that – but it’s a type of tour that I find less interesting.

Took a boat back to Old Town and wandered for a bit. Back to hotel for a nap, then dinner again at Morning Glory. We probably should’ve tried somewhere new, but we’d really enjoyed the previous meal there, so why not go with a sure thing for our last evening?

Walked around after dinner. Hoi An is really quite magical in the evening, with hundreds of different colored lanterns strung across every street and building. It’s brimming with tourists, yet it still feels just delightful to be out and about.

We bought a couple of candles to float down the river, mainly because I was thinking of a good friend back home who will soon be saying farewell to her kitty companion. It was nice to be able to do a little something to keep them in my thoughts, but it got me a lot more choked up than I’d anticipated. Nevertheless, a very nice way to wrap up our evening.

Up and on our way to the airport by 9AM, despite a bit of a kerfuffle at check-out as to whether or not I’d pre-paid for our stay (I had), but it was resolved quickly. Hung out at the lounge in Da Nang, thanks to my Priority Pass and soon enough we were BKK-bound. Well, technically, DMK-bound – the LaGuardia to Suvarnabhumi’s JFK. But it was an easy flight and we were quickly in a Grab, headed toward Le Meridien, my home-away-from-home here in Bangkok.

Or is it? Check in was a bit of a bother when they charged me extra to “upgrade” to a room with a Toto Washlet (because who doesn’t love a Washlet?) – something they’d never done in the past when I’d requested it and this being my fifth or sixth stay here (and I’m a Starwood member), I was not pleased –  but I paid it and then sent an email along to the GM, sharing my disappointment. Happy to report, he got back to me the next morning to advise the charges had been reversed. Squeaky wheel, grease, etc., yes – but still left me with a rather less enthusiastic feeling for this hotel at check in, a hotel that I’ve been singing the praises of since my first visit a couple of years ago. Well, we see how the week goes.

Oh, and it’s Songkran weekend, the Thai new year and unofficial gay pride celebration. The streets in Silom are mobbed with folks armed with huge water guns and buckets as they participate in the nationwide water fight that rings in the Thai new year. And apparently, Le Meridien is also queen central, if the parade of toned male couples in tank tops and expensive sneakers were any indication – including two shirtless and soaking wet muscle queens and their water bazookas just chillin’ in the lobby. Fancy!

Dinner at the mall: great Thai food that we’d both been craving. Sure, we’d had plenty of great food in Singapore and Hoi An, but let’s face it: Thai food is best.

Also at the mall: a big Songkran circuit party – I shit you not. It was pretty hilarious seeing gaggles of queens in harnesses and booty shorts sashaying past Uniqlo and through the food court on their way up to rave the night away. Westfield Center take note!

Tomorrow: a visit to Old Town!

 

Visiting Hoi An

Hoi An, Vietnam – 11, 12 & 13 April 2018
Our flight to Da Nang was perfectly pleasant and passed quickly. Arrived on time with all of our luggage, bought local SIM cards right next to baggage carousel and were soon off to our home for the next five nights, the Lantana Riverside Boutique Hotel.

There’d been a bit of a mix-up with our room, insofar as it was not available the first night of our stay due to overbooking. It was a bit irksome, given that I’d bought and paid for the Lantana Suite months ago – but it’d been a long day and the alternative room we were provided was more than adequate. Ak and I both slept soundly that night. We were moved into our originally booked room the next afternoon and it was a nice upgrade, thanks to a better layout and a nice view of the river.

Ak and I both felt a little unsure about Hoi An at this juncture – not unhappy with it per se, but it was also not as we’d pictured it. What little we’d seen on the ride in made it seem more touristy and less charming than I’d thought – but we’ll see if that holds true. And as nice as our hotel is, I’d probably prefer something a bit closer to old town were I to visit again.

Wednesday morning we were up early for a trip to visit the temple ruins at My Son. It was a nice small group: our guide, the two of us and three people from France. The drive out was about an hour and we spent maybe 90 minutes or so taking in the sights. Frankly, it was just about the perfect amount of temple ruins for this philistine – and compared to someplace like Angkor Wat, it was wonderfully uncrowded. The ruins themselves are interesting and learning about their construction and conservation was great. A really nice morning!

On the way back into the city, we stopped at a place for local handicrafts – which in actuality was mostly a shop trying to hard-sell us clothes, lanterns and silk ware. Not the end of the world, but certainly not my favorite type of tourist experience.

After wrapping things up and having a bit of a lie-down, we headed into the center of Hoi An to meet up with our food tour for the afternoon. Our guide was Emma and we were joined by one other traveler, a German woman closer to my age than Ak’s who was about halfway through her three month backpacking tour of SE Asia.

As we ambled about we stopped and had beef noodles, Madame Khan’s world famous (and deservedly so) banh mi, black sesame pudding and pork dumplings from White Rose – to name a few. We wrapped things up at a local home where we helped to prepare and cook spring rolls and savory egg pancakes before tucking into them along with a couple of cans of beer. It was a great way to spend an afternoon and a really fun way to get some local insight into Hoi An’s food. Emma was a wonderful guide – teaching us not just about the food we ate but about everyday life in Hoi An and Vietnam.

Walked around Old Town for a bit and had some really tasty cocktails at Q Bar. I was especially enamored of the gin/cucumber/lime concoction they offered.

Another early start on Thursday for ANOTHER food tour, this one run by an ex-pat Aussie. When he came to collect us at 7AM and had not presented ourselves in the lobby (we were literally in the elevator on our way down) he had hurried into the breakfast room to ensure we’d not disobeyed his very explicit instructions to not eat anything before the tour. And this was no joke – when we were presented with the menu later, there were over 40 different dishes for us to try!

Four other Aussies joined us on the tour and the first part of the day was spent with Ms Sen, a local woman who took us through the market and then to a variety of stands and shops for all sorts of tastings. Our favorite of the morning was mì gà – essentially chicken noodle soup – with a golden broth that was sublime. We also had some outstanding banh mi here. Oh, and barbecue pork. And after a short walk we had some super delicious ice cream – coconut for me, taro for Ak. Uh, and I also had a coffee ice cream. They’re very small!

The latter half of the morning was spent back at the tour company’s HQ, all of us seated around a table sampling a huge variety of local foods while Neville regaled us with his stories, opinions and history.

It was all good tour, though also quite A LOT of food. As much as I enjoyed this tour, it was perhaps just a bit much by the end. I have to say, the tour we took yesterday was more interesting and more fun – I suspect largely since it felt a lot more like a local perspective on things rather than that of an ex-pat Westerner.

Surprisingly enough though (OK, not all that surprising), we were hungry again by 5PM after wrapping up the tour at noon. After stopping for a quite lovely massage at La Luna Spa, we had dinner at The Seashell, an outpost of the well-reputed Nu eatery here in town. The food was Vietnamese fusion – and TBH, we’d both’ve preferred something a bit more authentic – though the orange chicken rice bowl was delicious and I had a quite tasty glass of wine with dinner. Wandered around Old Town after dinner a bit, but made a relatively early night of it.

The next morning, we taxied into Old Town to Heaven and Earth Bike Tours for a tour of the countryside, along with our guide Tram and a lovely Welsh couple called Caroline and John. We started off with a boat ride (along with our bikes) and I had a chance to do perhaps the straightest and male-est thing I’ve ever done: chatted up John about his photography equipment. Happily, he offered me some excellent insight – and I really do need to save up my pennies and replace my bulky DSLR. I was quite envious of John’s compact little Lumix which he told me provides excellent images and has interchangeable lenses.

We covered about 14 km before lunch at a local homestead – though we stopped several times along the way, including at the home of one of the guides who rode part of the way with us. Her mother makes rice noodles in her village and we got to see the process and sample her wares. Amazing!

We pedaled through rice fields and shrimp farms – and passed by a duck farm where a few hundred ducklings hustled out of our path and into their pond. We also saw water buffalo, plenty of cows and dogs and a nice variety of local birds. And all along the way friendly locals yelled “Hello!” as we rode by.

As lovely as all this was – and as delicious as our lunch was – the heat of the day proved a bit much, so Ak and I decided to call it a day and to pass on the 9 km remainder of the ride. And special thanks to our guide Tram and fellow tourists John and Caroline who were all patient and supportive when we found ourselves really needing to slow the pace of the trip toward the end, thanks to both the heat and general exhaustion.

Despite pooping out, we really loved this tour. Getting away from the center of Hoi An and out into the quieter countryside was a nice change – and again, like with our first food tour, getting perspectives from a local resident offers so much more insight into local life. It was a really fun ride.

Made it back to town and then to the hotel for a lie-down and some electrolyte-laden sports drinks and we seem to have made a full recovery from the day’s exertions. Heading into town for early dinner and cocktail. Tomorrow: cooking class!

Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh

Hong Kong, SAR China – 11 October 2017
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 11 & 12 October 2017

We had all morning and part of the afternoon to finish up our visit to Hong Kong before heading to the airport. We were up early and taxied to the Victoria Peak – a trick I’d learned before my last visit, i.e. taxi up early to avoid the crowds for the cable car up, then ride it back down with no waiting. Views were quite good and we had very nice weather.

Once back down, we made a beeline for Maxim’s Palace for dim sum. It’s quite well-known and the dining room is huge with a nice view of the harbor. As for the food? It was OK. Honestly, I still like the dim sum better back in SF at Yank Sing. Maybe because I grew up with it, maybe because it’s geared to Western palate – who knows? I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was disappointed, but I also wouldn’t rush back here if I were in  Hong Kong again.

As much as we enjoyed our time in Hong Kong and at Disneyland, the fact is neither Ak nor I had fallen in love with the city the same way we had with some of the other places we’ve visited. I think this had a lot to do with the fact that we had more misses than hits when it came to meals – and just about everything (with the exception of public transit) felt rather breathtakingly expensive.

We took the train to the airport. Wow! It’s amazingly easy. Taxi to the in-town air terminal where, if we’d not been flying cheapo VietJet, I could have checked my bag in before boarding the train and it would be transported and checked into my flight. Even without this added benefit, the train is great and leaves you off right inside the terminal.

We were very excited to make our first visit to Ho Chi Minh City, especially given how much we’d enjoyed Hanoi last year. The flight from Hong Kong was mostly uneventful, save for the weird charade that so many low-cost carriers put their passengers through – that is, weighing carry-on bags, telling you they are overweight and forcing you to offload some stuff into a separate bag which I just moved back to the other bag before boarding. Eh, you get what you pay for…

The ride from SGN airport to our hotel in District 1 was surprisingly fast and soon enough we were relaxing in a spacious (especially compared to our cozy accommodations in HKG!) room at the Liberty Central Citypoint, with a lovely view toward Nguyen Hue St. and Bitexco Tower – along with the somewhat less lovely view of the subway station being constructed just next to our hotel.

The evening started off inauspiciously when the first two ATMs I visited refused to dispense any money. I naturally assumed that I would be completely unable to acquire any cash and that our trip to HCMC was already ruined, but as it turned out, the third ATM I tried gave me the VND3,000,000 (US132) I’d requested. Sadly, this episode put a bit of a damper on our first evening, but we got through it.

Next morning, we were up early and had some phở up the street at Phở24 before returning to our hotel to meet our guides from Saigon Free Walking Tours, Kiara and Tien, for our Saigon City tour. We started of at Ben Thanh Market, just a short walk from our hotel, where we met up with a couple of Aussies who joined our tour. Spent the morning walking about District 1 while our guides talked about the history and pointed out different sights.

We stopped by the beautiful Saigon Central Post Office and had a look around before checking out the exteriors of Notre Dame Basilica across the street. No visiting the inside as it’s under renovation right now.

While we were walking around, Tien pointed out the building just next to where we’d had a coconut coffee at Cộng Cà phê. We were about a block away, so had a good view of the six-story apartment block which had a small square structure on top. It was the site of the now-iconic photo of a CIA Air America helicopter boarding evacuees during the fall of Saigon.

I don’t know why I found this so astonishing. I suppose it’s such recent history that it still feels very much a part of my own memories of watching the news as a child. There’s also something quite jarring about walking through a lovely tree-lined neighborhood (and across from a shiny mall) and being reminded that it wasn’t too long ago there was a war taking place right on this very spot – and all the human suffering that is the result of war. The location felt so ordinary, so the thought of helicopters evacuating people from the roof felt really extraordinary. It was fascinating, yes, but still difficult to wrap my head around.

Next stop was Independence Palace – it’s another spot where it feels difficult to reconcile the history of what went on in this building with the fact that the palace itself is an amazing example of mid-century design interpreted through the eyes of architect Ngô Viết Thụ. The building is marvelous – it’s airy facade and light-filled interiors give it a gracefulness one might not associate with a largely concrete structure.

Even more amazingly, virtually the entire building is open to visitors, from the public conference and meeting rooms on the main floor to the private residences and rooftop to the underground bunkers and sleeping quarters. Much of the original furniture remains – which is so wonderful to see! Until that is, one envisions Henry Kissinger sitting here plotting with the South Vietnamese government. It’s eerie. I enjoyed the building most when I was able to appreciate its design – but it’s not always easy to separate that from what went on here, especially from its opening in 1966 through the liberation of Saigon in 1975. For me, this was the highlight of today’s tour.

We headed back to the post office to say our farewells – but our guides really went above and beyond the call of duty as they not only shepherded us to the Mobifone store to get local SIM cards, they stayed around to ensure that the surprisingly lengthy process completed satisfactorily. Ak and I were very grateful!

Lunch at a place across the street called My Banh Mi. It’s def catering to the tourist crowd – but the food was delicious nevertheless. My banh mi was probably the weakest link, but our crispy rolls and Ak’s pork with noodles were excellent.

After such a vigorous morning, it was obviously time for a massage. We headed to Moc Huang Spa which had good reviews online. They were able to take us right away and I thought the experience was amazing. The massage was definitely of the “intense” variety, which I really like. It might be hard to endure at certain moments, but I know that I’ll feel like a million dong afterwards. I was a little worried that Ak wouldn’t enjoy his massage, since he prefers a more relaxing style of massage – but he was snoring away in the next room, so I assumed he’d survived (despite his subsequent statements that the massage was way too strong and his refusal to believe me when I told him I heard him snoring through most of it).

Dinner that night at Secret Garden. I’d’ve never found it on my own, but the internet gave good directions to the appropriate alley, as did a local scooter driver who helped the two lost looking foreigners trying to figure out which building to go into. There’s a fairly long climb up the stairs (no lift in the building!) to the roof – and then we were welcomed to a charming little oasis on the top of this apartment building. It was raining pretty hard this evening, but the space still had a nice indoor-outdoor feel to it.

Food was great! Ground pork grilled in lemongrass was excellent. I didn’t take notes of what else we ate – but we had soup and meat and noodles and salad. It was all lovely and in a great space with friendly service. And there was a cat there too! Sadly, we didn’t even notice her until the end of the evening as she was fast asleep on top of cabinet across from our table.

After dinner, we wandered toward the river in search of Snuffbox, a bar I’d read about somewhere online. We found the location easily enough – but it seemed to be a block of darkened buildings and warehouses, though with some street vendors and locals hanging out – and who once again came to our rescue and pointed us into the correct nondescript staircase. We climbed up one flight and found ourselves inside a lovely jewelbox of a bar. I think we were the only patrons (it was still early) and we were made to feel very at home. Fancy cocktails were very tasty and we had an extremely engaging server who guided us through the menu and chatted with us about our travels and some of the upcoming goings-on at the bar.

It was a great first day in HCMC, especially after last evening’s rather difficult start. Tomorrow morning: food tour!

 

Our Last Couple of Days in Hanoi

Up early to hit the road to Trang An! Our guide showed up in a super-deluxe luxury van, since we’d originally scheduled a tour for three people – but Mom was still battling her stomach ailment, so it was just Ak and me.

The ride out was fine – I think we both dozed – and a couple of hours later we arrived at Trang An. The pictures I’d seen were lovely and it was quite a pretty spot, with lush green hills surrounding the lakes and grottoes. Our guide led us down to the small paddle boats and I made a major error. He asked if we minded sharing our boat – and I responded “Sure, that’s fine!” But it really wasn’t – not least because we’d already shelled out a good chunk of change for this excursion, which to me means we shouldn’t have even been asked to share a boat frankly. Of course, I should’ve just said no, but it was too late for that.

So, Ak and I squeezed into the second row behind an older Vietnamese couple, who were there with their adult children, son-in-law and little toddler grandbaby who were all on the boat in front of us. There was a lot of shouting back and forth between the boats, presumably encouraging granddaughter to do something adorable – but it wore thin.

The other thing that wore thing was the boat ride itself. Sure, the scenery is lovely and paddling through the low-ceilinged caves was pretty cool – the first couple of times. But the boat ride goes on for a solid two hours. It was really hot out, the views all start to look the same, the bench we were sitting on was really uncomfortable, especially since we had to sit far forward so the lady paddling our boat wouldn’t yell at us again. I’d read some of the write-ups on Trang An and many of them mentioned that the boat ladies were a pretty surly bunch – and this proved to be pretty accurate. Granted, I’d be hard-pressed to object to their surliness – I’d be the same way if I were paddling a bunch of fat-assed tourists everyday – but I will say that it didn’t really enhance the experience.

After the ride was finally over, it was time for lunch nearby. It was a buffet-style deal catering to busloads of tourists. The food was mediocre at best. It was a real disappointment, especially given how delicious Vietnamese food is. Afterwards, though, while we were waiting to get going again, Ak and I happened upon a local fellow shepherding his herd of goats down the hill and across the road. They were noisy and hilarious.

Back into the van to visit Bái Đính Temple. It was fine. The grounds were pretty and there were some impressive statues and carvings. Overall though? This was not my favorite day trip. It was a long way to go to visit sights I didn’t find all that interesting. Ak and I agreed we’d’ve been happier spending the day exploring more of Hanoi. Oh, well, guess we’ll have to go back then!

At the hotel, Mom was much improved but decided to stay in while Ak and I had dinner at a place called Home. He’d been the one to find it before our trip and it looked nice – and it was! Located in a charming old house behind a large iron gate, it’s a lovely little oasis in the midst of the intensity of Hanoi.

We were seated in the cozy back room. It was an intimate setting and nice view of the patio outside. Refreshing cocktails started things off and our apps were really tasty – bún chả and fresh rolls – while our main course was OK. Honestly, I probably should’ve ordered something different.

The service was a bit unpolished, though it was so genuinely friendly and accommodating, it’s hard to really find fault with it. I’d say this if our meal had just wrapped up ordinarily – but it didn’t. When I’d reserved our table before my trip, I mentioned that the dinner was to celebrate Ak’s birthday (which was actually a couple of weeks prior), hoping they’d put a candle in his dessert or something.

Anyway, as we were waiting for dessert menus, several of the staff members came into the room with a birthday cake, singing “Happy Birthday.” I wasn’t actually sure what was happening and assumed one of the other patrons had ordered a cake. WELL. This was for Ak! I think he was a little embarrassed by the attention (though I think he liked it a bit too!), but it was such a wonderful and unexpected treat. The other diners all joined in singing and there was a great round of applause when Ak blew out the candle. It was really just delightful and an extraordinary surprise for both of us – not least because Ak had mentioned when we chatted on his birthday that he’d never had an actual cake on his birthday! A great big thank you to everyone at Home for making this night so special.

We adjourned to the terrace for a couple of after dinner drinks (and maybe a bit more cake) to enjoy the warm evening, then headed off in search of Unicorn Pub, recommended by Tu, our guide from Sunday’s food tour. Found the place with no problem. Didn’t seem particularly fancy or anything – but the cocktail menu was pretty interesting.

Ak got a pho cocktail – IKR? – while I ordered one that included chili and fish sauce – IKR? Honestly, this could’ve gone either way – I was a little worried that the drinks would be gimmicky and weird. Instead, they were amazing! Ak’s even got set on fire and poured through some kind of triple-decker contraption on the bar. And it tasted like boozy pho – in a totally yummy way, with hints of star anise, cinnamon, coriander and other spices. Mine was tart and citrusy with a kick from the chilis and a nice roundness, thanks to the umami from the fish sauce.

Someone (I think a staff member or their significant other) came in with a baby, who was adorable. Ak and I were waving and making faces – but I think being faced with two tipsy bearded tourists was a bit much, since his initial expression of concern slowly morphed into terror and tears. Sorry, kid! Just trying to be nice – but I know we’re kinda crazy looking.

Woke up Tuesday morning and Mom had recovered from her bout with some type of food-borne illness. It was good to see her back up and about. She was still taking things easy, so she stayed behind while Ak and I headed out in search of the chicken wings our food tour guide had told us about. We actually found the place, but it was closed. Curses!

We wandered the streets for a bit – Hanoi is an amazing place to do exactly that, with gorgeous old buildings, shops and stalls selling everything from banh mi to stuffed animals, some teeming and noisy while little alleys are quiet and shadowy. It’s an amazing city.

We eventually made our way to Phở10, an apparently rather famous place for (what else?) phở. Yes, there was a line, but it moved quickly. And the phở? It was pretty darn good.

Back to the hotel, gathered our belongings – and Mom! – and headed to the airport for the short flight to Bangkok. Happily, I’d had a few thousand old British Airways points lying about (as one does) and booked all three of us in business class on Qatar Airways – and it was pretty deluxe! The flight attendants were especially nice – a short flight like this doesn’t usually include the fancy amenity kit, but when I asked for one for Ak, they were happy to provide it. Honestly, the one disappointing thing about the flight was how short it was – but I still managed to quaff my share of champagne.

Soon enough, Mom and I were ensconced in Le Meridien Patpong. I’ve gotten to stay at a handful of really nice hotels in my visits to Bangkok. Le Meridien is not the fanciest – though it’s extraordinarily comfortable and well-located. What makes this my first choice for hotels in Bangkok is the service – not just top-notch, but delivered with with both authenticity and discretion, along with a genuine focus on making their guest feel at home.

And so, the next chapter begins! I was very excited to show my mom around this city that I fell in love with so quickly on my first visit just a year ago.

Back to Hanoi

As we got ready to disembark from our Ha Long Bay cruise, Mom reported she was starting to have some stomach issues – seemed she’d eaten something dicey at some point. She got worse rather quickly. We decided to hire a driver to get us back to Hanoi rather than taking the van. It wasn’t a very fun ride for either of us, though for Mom especially. We did make it back to Hanoi and our rooms at the MK Premier Boutique Hotel without incident, though there were some close calls on the three-and-a-half hour journey. Mom retired to her hotel room and unhappily had to miss out on the next couple of days in Hanoi – though she did make a full recovery by the time we were flying onto Bangkok that Tuesday.

My friend Ak was waiting for us in Hanoi. He’d flown in from Bangkok the night before so we could all spend some time together in Vietnam. We were both unhappy that Mom would be sitting out the plans we’d made for our time in Hanoi, but she insisted that we not make any changes while she was recuperating – and I did check in with her regularly to make sure she was OK!

Ak and I had dinner on Saturday evening at Chả Cá Thăng Long whose specialty is (wait for it…) chả cá thăng long, a dish prepared at the table made of fish with fresh dill and scallions, along with the usual Vietnamese accompaniments like vermicelli, fish sauce and peanuts. It was simple and delicious and went great with a couple of cold beers. Ak and I had no problem polishing off everything.

The next morning was our Hanoi street food tour with (wait for it…) Hanoi Street Food Tours. Our guide was Tu and he really knows his food! And he was kind of a riot. Hailing from the south of Vietnam (which I gather is a bit like being a New Yorker in terms of one’s demeanor), his decidedly straightforward approach took a moment or two to adjust to, but once I did, I found him to be both knowledgeable and pretty hilarious – for example, giving us the following advice about photographing: “Just take the pictures. Don’t ask first or they’ll just say no.” Tu himself is a pretty impressive photographer and is really good at the Instragrams. Check out his stream at vietnamesegod.

Tu was also very hands-on. Our very first meal was not at a food stand, but courtesy of a woman on the street with her carrying pole, a gas burner on one side and ingredients on the other. She made us a simple and tasty omelette – with Tu providing her with some very specific instructions on preparation, even grabbing her spatula at one point to help with the cooking and to make sure the omelet was cooked through.

While Ak and I were eating, our chef disappeared – leaving us with her plate and utensils. Tu explained that this was due to the police coming down the street. Apparently, this is a game that everyone plays here: the cops make the technically illegal vendors pack up and leave (or they just take off on their own); then everyone comes back in ten minutes and continues what they were doing.

We stopped at a cool cafe and juice place for a little pick-me-up – coffee for Ak and Tu, some really tasty fresh apple juice for me. A mom and dad were in there with their adorable little girl – and she couldn’t stop staring at Ak and me, likely due to our hairy (and monstrous, obv) visages. She kept looking back and forth, back and forth, with an expression on her face that bordered on terrified. When we tried to get a little closer and say hello, she immediately burst into tears. Eh, I’m used to that – it’s how most people respond when meeting me…

Other food on our tour included grilled pork skewers, crab noodles, a really cool cafe, stewed pork, coconut-coffee slushies (sublime!) and I’m sure I’m forgetting lots – but I took photos of most everything. Surprisingly, thanks to the portions not being crazy big and lots of walking, the amount of food didn’t feel overwhelming at all. It was a really fantastic morning! Our three hours with Tu were over in the blink of an eye and we were sad to see him go. A really excellent tour and I highly recommend it.

Ak and I spent the afternoon at the Ho Chi Minh complex. The mausoleum is currently closed for renovations, but we were able to check out the exterior of the building. We also visited the HCM Museum which was… odd. Given Uncle Ho’s importance to the founding of modern Vietnam, I was surprised at how unwelcoming the museum was. It was quite difficult to navigate, there were signs everywhere instructing “DON’T TOUCH” or “DON’T ENTER” or some other scolding message. The displays were a bit dated and definitely had something of a ‘70s Soviet feel to them – though with that being said, I certainly did leave the museum knowing more about Ho Chi Minh, his life and the history of colonialism and revolution in Vietnam.

After a lie-down and checking in on Mom’s vital signs, we went out for bún chả at (wait for it…) Bún Chả Ta. Ak had eaten here his first night and I hadn’t had bún chả yet, so it was a good choice and we both enjoyed our meals.

Afterwards, we headed off in search of the massage place Tu had pointed out earlier, advising they did a great foot massage. Well, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the picture I’d taken of the place contained its location in the metadata and pulled up the spot in Google Maps and we found it with no problem – even including a quick stop on the way at Bánh MR HEO, a little bakery specializing in pig-shaped waffle-y treats (IKR?).

Massages were fine. The place wasn’t exactly the most luxurious nor as clean as an operating room – but then the massages were US$5.00 – so the price-to-value ratio was just about unbeatable.

During my massage, three Western dudes came in and were carrying on a lively conversation in a language I couldn’t identify. At first, I thought it was Russian, but the sounds weren’t quite right. Was it Norwegian? Probably not. Turkish? I don’t think so. Anyway, I finally asked and it turns out they were Hungarian – they actually chatted me up a bit about the origins of the Hungarian language, which is to some extent shrouded in mystery. In an odd coincidence, the gal who was on the cruise in Ha Long Bay with us was also fluent in Hungarian! Maybe the fates are telling me to visit Hungary…

Back to the hotel then. Mom still alive and improving – but she did decide to skip tomorrow’s scheduled tour to Trang An. More to come on that!

Ha Long Bay

The ride out to Ha Long Bay was a bit more than three hours and was pretty much uneventful. Not a whole lot in the way of extraordinary scenery, but it was interesting to see a glimpse of life outside bustling Hanoi.

Got to the piers and were rather quickly on board our boat, our cruise manager Huy getting us all sorted. We were on a charming and comfortable barge with six cabins, run by Bhaya Cruises. Besides Mom and me, there was a family of American ex-pats currently living in Hong Kong – husband and wife and their 9-year-old daughters. And that was it! Almost like our own private boat.

Ha Long Bay is really just as beautiful as I’d been led to believe. Yes, there are a lot of tourist boats out on the water – but most of them are quite lovely to look at and there’s enough space around that it doesn’t feel like a full-on armada. There are also plenty of local fisherman out making their living on the bay, along with some occasional giant work liners off in the distance. I never tired of gazing at the fishing boats and the men and women working on them. Just fascinating to see a tiny slice of a life so different than anything I know.

Of course, the real draw are the hundreds of islands in the bay – from tiny rock outcroppings to pretty substantial limestone islands towering above the water. It’s pretty much impossible to tire of gazing at them – especially from a comfy chair on the top deck. We visited several islands over the course of our two nights aboard and also got to do some kayaking and swimming. It was relaxing and wonderful – plus we were looked after by a very friendly crew who made sure we were kept well-fed and happy.

There’s not really a whole lot more for me to say about this trip. I loved it and the timing was pretty great, giving us a break from the urban intensity of Hong Kong and Hanoi. I think the photos speak for themselves.