Off the beaten track...
The build up for this next stop on the (imaginary) itinerary had been predominantly centred around our excitement towards the food. We are food-obsessed, not in a gorging obese kind of way but from a ‘can’t get enough of new flavours, cuisines, and cultural influence’approach. So Vietnam had been high on our impatience-to-eat-there list for many a month. Arriving in Ho Chi Minh without a local clue was tough, you want to avoid suggestions from the big name online advisors however a sprawling city is a tricky place to navigate when you wish to unearth the best of local delicacies. Fortunately street carts provide you with a guideline as to what the people eat, from here you can scour and search for restaurants and eateries offering similar fare.
We weren't particularly successful food wise in old Saigon and actually ended up having Dim Sum at one point in desperation for something authentic and underpriced! The biggest impression I took with me from Ho Chi Minh was after visiting the War Remnants Museum; you will probably struggle to leave there without feeling disturbed, horrified and shedding some tears. An absolute must experience in my opinion. There was so much we were not told or taught about the atrocities that became standard during that horrific war and this place personifies and brings it all home like you wouldn’t believe.Onwards we went to Mui Ne. Our next destination was a five hour sleeper bus ride away, here we spent a lengthy ten days resting at the beach. Renowned for its epic kite surfing conditions there were plenty of gusty days and, having chosen a resort away from the main town, our restaurant options were limited and a little underwhelming. So far, so not what we were picturing from the food-angle but sliding down the enormous moonscape-like red dunes was great fun. The beaches were sadly very littered and not much seemed to be being done about the pollution. The children and I spent a few hours pulling plastic from the shore in the hope it wouldn't end up back in the South China Sea.
After heading back to Ho Chi Minh City our next port of call was a 17 hour train ride away in Hoi An, we had heard amazing things from many a traveller as to the wealth of spectacles and range of restaurants in the area and the bustling market town on a river did not disappoint. The little boats all lit up at night, couriering devoted tourists up and down made for a pleasant, if not slightly overcrowded, place to stop and everything-watch. Many overpriced restaurants met our path which we avoided as non-tourists (we are travelling, not on holiday and have to learn the art of avoiding getting lured into a false reality) and headed for the backstreets where you could hear locals wailing alongside their portable karaoke machines. This was a little more of the Vietnamese cuisine we were expecting, but still not quite the authentic version that you would receive in a home kitchen. Still, we spent a week here exploring on bicycles, finding gorgeous little places to stop on the river to cool off and have a cold drink, sometimes served from a person’s own kitchen - it was difficult to tell whether some places were actually establishments or if you were sitting on someone’s patio furniture; either way they never seemed to mind. Hoi An has some fantastic high end resorts and hotels as well as cute little home-stays, which we opted for and immersed ourselves in a bit of local community. The kids were playing football with the locals right away and cycling around laughing with them in the dusty streets and municipal ground which backed onto our homestay, we could sit and watch them becoming part of the lifestyle from the balcony.
On we went to Hanoi with its interestingly persistent French influence; baguettes, patisseries and small groomed dogs aplenty. Here we really felt submerged in a combination of sightseeing with other foreigners and track-crossing to local neighbourhoods; where some welcomed you, and others saw a dollar sign and disappointingly charged twice the cost for a Banh Mi (filled baguette) than they did in the tourist areas. A stunning city nonetheless with vast diversity and a plethora of monumental landmarks, as well as lakes which come to life throughout the day and night; a far cry from the confusion and mental smog of Ho Chi Minh.
The eventuality of our culinary expectations to this point was unfortunate in that we needed to have had a guide to be able to find what we were searching for. Lucky for us in Hanoi an old friend, having lived there for a few years, kindly handed us his sacred ‘black book bible’of places to eat around the city. Some of which were just incredible. We love a backstreet, old lady making one dish only type place where you have to crawl into what seems like her living room and sit on tiny stools; and we found some sights and tastes to knock the senses into tomorrow. Finally we felt as though we had tasted real Vietnamese food. In particular the Bun Cha we experienced in an exclusively local people place (it’s kind of fun being a novelty in a place people would least expect to see you) which is basically noodles in broth but not like anything else you’ve ever tasted. And you’ve got to try Cha ca at Cha Ca La Vong in the Old Quarter, if for no other reason than that is the only dish they serve - Cha ca is pieces of local red river fish (carp or catfish) marinated with turmeric then fried at the table with heaps of dill and spring onion,and served over rice noodles with peanuts and a dipping sauce (mam tom tong); there is nothing that good, full stop.
Even the incredible sights and culinary offerings of Hanoi couldn’t suffocate the inability to cross a road without fearing for the kids’extremities; it was getting overwhelming. And having no pavement for walking - mainly they’re used as land extensions for shops and restaurants, or places to park your motorbike - we had had our fill of traffic dodging and the sounds of horns and feeling like there are just too many people in the world; it was time for some landscape and peace (and hopefully more good food).
A suggestion from a friend met our fancy, Ninh Binh, it looked stunning, there were barely any cars and local food was on the cards. We eventually opted for the even quieter and smaller location very nearby named Tam Coc. We found a bungalow hotel on the river which was everything and more that we needed and hoped for. Tranquil, and a banquet for the eyes, the natural beauty and unrivalled greenery of this place will never leave me. We rode bicycles everywhere, every day along rivers, through rice fields, and through some of the most stunning rocky valleys I have ever seen. We took river tours and marvelled at all the rowers’ability to paddle with their feet - they do it to be able to have hands free to manoeuvre any walls or caves. If you got a guide rowing by hand, you’ve got a novice!
One day we rode out to a spot called Thung Nham, which I can only describe as a purposely groomed Utopia; it was as though someone had the foresight to convert this unbelievably stunning land into a potential site for another world if the rest of it went to pieces. There is a bird sanctuary, natural underground caves to walk or paddle through, walks and hills with incredible natural beauty that remains untouched. There are then some seriously thought out areas where literally every fruit and vegetable you can think of is growing, flower gardens, beehives, and all being tended to night and day. There is more land being shifted to make way for further agriculture, beautiful pagodas dot certain sections and there is also an event centre on site which was the worst part about it as it brought a commercial invader to the otherwise trade-free zone. I am inclined to investigate further as to who this utopian love child belongs to and what their plans for it are!
We extended our stay three times in Tam Coc because it was a literal breath of fresh air; the next leg of the journey was another train trek back from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh before leaving the country, so we took in as much clean living as we could. Looking back on the photographs I can already reminisce and safely say that Vietnam was an amazing experience, and we definitely eventually got our foodie fill. Next stop - the Philippines…
The War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City.
Red Sand Dunes, Mui Ne.
Cycling along the river and the twinkling lights in Hoi An.
Cycling through Tam Coc.
Thung Nam Bird Park, the ecological utopia in Ninh Hai, Ninh Binh.
Hanoi Social Club - hipster caféin a 1920’s colonial villa, Hanoi.
Cycling around Ho Tay Lake, Hanoi.
Wandering around the Old Quarter, Hanoi.
Bun rieu cau - because it will change your culinary life.
Cha ca la Vongon - a traditional dish of fried fish with herbs and rice noodles.
‘No daa’ - Vietnamese drip coffee; just say ‘no daa’.
Pho bo - because it is a classic dish.
Bun bo nam bo -beef or pork noodle dish with herbs and chilli.
The rest is up to you, it’s all about personal taste…