I firmly believe the best way into a culture is through its food. That, however, doesn’t always mean simply eating as much as you can (although I do that as much as possible). Cooking classes can often give you a deeper look into the people somewhere—especially those that include market visits. You’ll often learn about techniques and ingredients you otherwise would not have learned about, and get deeper insight into the food you’d otherwise only have eaten: where it comes from, who makes it, and how its made. One of the best examples of this I’ve ever experienced was the Green Bamboo Cooking School in Hoi An, Vietnam.
The class, lead by Van for an extremely reasonable $45,
begins at 8:00am with a pickup at your hotel. While in the car picking up the
other participants, you’ll be given a list of 50 or so dishes, and everyone in
the class gets to pick one. By the time
you arrive at the market, Van has a list of dishes that will be made that day
and knows which ingredients to pick up.
You’ll start with fresh herbs and vegetables, before going into the fish
market to get any ingredients you may need there, through the meat section, and
ending with the most important ingredient: the noodles (including the legendary
local cao lao noodles).
Markets traversed, ingredients amassed, and knowledge
imparted, you’ll next stop for a quick Vietnamese coffee to get your energy up
before your marathon cooking experience.
Van, with two helpers, will take you back to her house and gather you
around, setting up the menu and who will cook when to make a reasonable
facsimile of a meal (ie, if you picked an appetizer, you’ll be cooking near the
beginning). Some of the dishes, like summer rolls, everyone gets to try their
hands at. Otherwise, everyone is given
their prep instructions, a selection of beer, and work gets underway.
When a dish is ready to be cooked, that person is called up
to the stove and the cooking begins. After each dish is complete, it is divvied
up so everyone in the class can taste it.
This makes for a day tasting a lot of food, but never quite too
much—though, by the time class is over, you may not need dinner that night (and
you may need a nap). After class,
everyone is given a cookbook of all the dishes along with a multi-use vegetable
peeler perfect for papaya salad and a pair of long cooking chopsticks. I was probably more excited about getting
these than I should have been.
This was easily one of the standout days of our time in
Vietnam, which is impressive because looking back it seems like they were all
standout days. The class, the food, and
just being in a relaxed and beautiful town like Hoi An all contributed to the
fun. Van is an excellent teacher, and
makes sure any questions are answered and everyone leaves satisfied. It should be a must on any trip to Hoi An.
Since the trip from Huế to Hội An wasn’t as long as our previous trips, we wanted a little more than the train rides we’d been having (especially since they were all overnight trains). We briefly considered riding on the back of motorbikes, but it seemed like having our packs on a 2.5-hour motorbike trip might be a little excessive. We opted to hire a car for the drive, which the receptionist at the Jade Hotel in Huế worked out for us. The cost came to about $65 USD.
There were two immediate benefits to the private transport: one, there was no shortage of air conditioning. Two, we were allowed to drink in the car. While the driver stopped and picked us up some water, we also took along some Huda beers for the ride. The first part, leaving Huế and hopping on the highway, was pretty unremarkable. Well, as unremarkable as it can be driving around in Vietnam.
After about an hour, we pulled into a small hotel/resort kind of spot and the driver, whose grasp on English was loose at best, told us we could use the restroom there and walk around. We were at Lang Co Beach, which was very nice (but using the restroom was nicer). Not being much in the way of beach people, we took a gander and walked around to stretch our legs, but would have rather been back in the car.
Soon after our beach stop, we made it to the Hải Vân Pass with its winding road along the mountainside. We stopped at a popular look-off to get pictures, and then pulled in to a small rest area to check out a bunker on the pass. Originally a French fort, the bunker was then used by the Americans in the Vietnam War as a lookout, as it offered views all up and down the coast. After perusing the site, we stopped at one of the stands for some ice cream bars. I picked up one that I thought was pineapple, but realized too late (in the car, driving) that it was actually durian. I had no place to put it, so I had to eat it.
Soon after, near Da Nang, we were able to stop at Marble Mountain. I didn’t think much of it at first, and was hoping we could actually skip it in order to get to Hội An more quickly, but as it was paid for as part of our ride and our driver apparently wanted a break, we hopped on the large elevator to the top and were immediately glad we’d gone.
In addition to the many marble statues and figures on the mountain, there are many Buddhist sanctuaries and grottoes, many within the mountain itself. Going down into the cave and being in this hushed sanctuary while sunlight streamed in from various holes in the mountain was awe-inspiring and turned out to be one of the best parts of the trip. Inside the mountain was cool and calm with everyone being reverent and speaking in hushed tones. The most impressive part may have been the statue of a woman carved directly out of the side of one of the cave walls.
After exploring some more and then walking down the many steps from the top of the mountain (we only got a ticket up the elevator), we found our driver. No, we didn’t want to purchase any massive statues of Buddha or dragons—no matter how cheap they were, they would have cost a fortune to get home. Plus, I’m not a souvenir-buying kind of guy; I want the least amount possible in my pack.
The rest of the trip into Hội An was unremarkable, past the beaches and the resorts popping up in Da Nang. We arrived at our homestay with enough time to track down the best banh mi we’ve ever had—but that’s another story.
This trip, if possible, is highly recommended—either way you do it. Whether you go from Hội An to Huế or the reverse, make sure to get private transport and at the very least stop at Marble Mountain. If you enjoy a relaxed trip that gives you plenty of incredible scenery, the $65 is an absolute bargain. Just make sure you don’t accidentally get the durian ice cream.
After the cool, pleasant temperatures of Hanoi, Sapa, and Ha Long, the heat of Huế when we got off our 11-hour overnight train felt downright oppressive. Knowing that it would only get worse (108 F that afternoon), we made our way to our hotel, checked in, and immediately put the air conditioning as high as it would go. We’d have to build up some coolness, since we had one of those rooms where the room key had to be present to run any electricity. After a short cooldown, our second priority, of course, was food.
On our junkboat tour through the Ha Long Bay, we’d made friends with a Vietnamese-American traveler who had given us a restaurant recommendation for a place called Quán Hạnh, where we would be able to get a sampler of all the famous Hue regional delicacies. Some we had seen in the powerful No Reservations episode in the city, some we had never heard of. Luckily, the restaurant was just around the corner from our hotel and no more than a five-minute walk.
Being a terrible baby when it comes to heat, I was disappointed to see the restaurant was open in the front and only had a few fans circulating the air in the dining room, but I quickly forgot about the heat after we ordered the local food sampler and a few cold Huda beers.
Shortly, the food began to come out: first, a tray of bánh bèo—small steamed cakes made of rice and tapioca flour, topped with shrimp and fried shallots, and with a fish sauce to top them. I probably could’ve eaten a dozen platters of these little snacks. While the cakes weren’t much more than a vehicle to eat other things, the toppings were bursting with flavor and the fish sauce added a much-needed zing.
Next out was the nem lui, which is ground pork wrapped around lemongrass and grilled. You pull the pork off the lemongrass and wrap it in rice paper with lettuce and herbs, pickled vegetables and cucumber and dip it in an accompanying pork and peanut sauce. I had to abandon our Western ideals of cleanliness, as I had watched a worker sitting in the open-air dining room with a bowl of ground pork wrapping the stalks of lemongrass, and guess what? I didn’t get sick. As a matter of fact, it all combined to make a delicious little summer roll.
Stalks of nem lui with dipping sauce
Wrapped nem lui ready to be eaten
As part of the meal, we were also brought bánh khoai, a crispy fried pancake made of rice flour, water, and eggs and stuffed with shrimp, hunks of pork, and various herbs and vegetables. This is very similar to bánh xèo found in the south of Vietnam, but is just different enough (and slightly smaller) to make it a Huế original.
If that wasn’t enough, there were also fried pork spring rolls (nem rán) and bánhcuốnthịt nướng —barbecued pork and herbs in boiled rice paper with a garlic ginger fish sauce. They were kind of like floppy spring rolls, and incredibly tasty. Of all the dishes we had, the bánhcuốn is the only one I’ve been able to find back home in Philadelphia, though it seems I was pretty lucky as the restaurant doesn’t often have them (but they do have solid Bún bò Huế—check out Café Diem if you’re ever in the city).
As the one-time imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue has a long and storied culinary history, and is absolutely worth visiting to explore it—especially if you can get all the hits in one place. There is also the eponymous Bún bò Huế and plenty more treats to be found at the Dong Ba Market—and if you’re not a meat eater, the heavy Buddhist population of the city guarantees there will be plenty of vegetarian and vegan food. The city should not be skipped.
Before our trip to Vietnam, we’d had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Chef Chad Kubanoff, who was at the time the owner of Same Same (sadly closed now), Philadelphia’s best banh mi restaurant. He had spent a fair amount of time in Ho Chi Minh City as a chef, and had established Back of the Bike tours, a tour company that takes people around on the back of the ubiquitous motorbikes in Saigon. In addition to the other recommendations his wife Thuy gave us, the Back of the Bike food tour was one of the highlights of our trip.
Probably one of the best dishes on Earth
LeeAnne and I with our food guides
We were picked up at our hotel, were given helmets and quick instructions for the best way to ride on the back of the bikes, and took off. Like trying to cross the street in HCMC, riding on the back of a motorbike in the crowded streets and haphazard traffic was both terrifying and exhilarating. It was quickly apparent that our drivers knew exactly what they were doing, which made it much easier to relax and enjoy the ride (which decidedly did not happen when crossing the street as a pedestrian).
Learning about the food we were going to eat
Eating the food we learned about
Our first stop was next to a small park, where we sat under a tree and were given a papaya salad with dried beef liver (goi du du bo) that ranks up there with one of the best dishes we’ve ever had. We couldn’t stop raving about it, and still remember it fondly. From what we were told, the woman who makes it put two of her children through American college with the papaya salad sales alone, which I absolutely believe. It was that good.
A variety of meat on a stick
Banh canh ghe keeping an eye on us
After a few touristy pictures of us on the bikes, we rode off to a small street vendor serving a variety of meat on sticks, cooked over coals. We sat on the typical tiny plastic stools while we ate, were given beer by our guides, and had a chance to chat. While I was a bit worried the tiny plastic stool wouldn’t be able to withstand my 250-pound American frame, it held up admirably as we ate and chatted with our guides, all while Back of the Bike’s photographer took photos so we wouldn’t have to worry about it.
LeeAnne on the back of the bike
Our group, sweaty but happy
After this stop, we moved on to a small seafood restaurant deeper in the city. The ride took us through alleyways and small spaces, so we felt like we were chasing down some James Bond villain through the alleys of Ho Chi Minh—a wonderful added bonus to the trip. Our third stop got us banh canh ghe, a wonderful crab soup with plenty of crab and noodles. The presentation was perfect, with the crab looking directly at us as we ate around him. The soup gave us a welcomed sense of warmth on the inside while the small open-front restaurant gave us a not-so-welcome sense of warmth on the outside.
LeeAnne making the banh xeo
Banh xeo, ready to serve
A completed banh xeo
Our penultimate stop was the most interesting by a long shot. We were taken to a street vendor making grilled beef wraps, as well as banh xeo, a crispy rice-batter pancake filled with vegetables and shrimp, which you can combine with more vegetables and wrap in rice paper. We were all given the opportunity to man the cart ourselves, cooking up banh xeo over the incredibly hot skillets—an opportunity I still regret turning down. Afterwards, we all sat around an outside table to enjoy the DIY pancakes, along with some homemade rice wine (served in plastic water bottles) and the opportunity to try balut.
Wrapped grilled beef
The infamous balut egg
For those who aren’t familiar, balut is the egg that has been given the change to grow a small chicken fetus before being eaten. The egg was cracked open and we could see the shadow of the chicken inside, along with some veins throughout the egg, and even a tiny feather. At this stop, the tummy struggled I’d had that started in Hoi An were catching up to me with all the eating, so I declined. LeeAnne tasted the liquid that came out of the egg and said it tasted like chicken stock, and had a nibble of the egg “white.”
Also, lest you think I’m just trying to make an excuse for not eating the egg, let me be perfectly clear and admit that I wanted no part in eating it, stomach problems or not. As much as I will eat, balut has never interested me. And I wasn’t alone: I think LeeAnne was the only person to even try the egg liquid, let alone any part of it; everyone else declined.
After this excitement, we were taken to a small restaurant for five dishes of dessert, which heavily featured fresh fruit and ice cream—a cold treat that was incredibly welcomed in the southern Vietnam heat. Though, as welcome as it was, no many of us could continue eating after the filling two hours we’d just had.
Even if we had been given a list of all the places to go, getting there and knowing what to order would have taken us multiple nights rather than the two hours it did take. The guides were incredibly knowledgeable and personable, and were a treat to spend time with. The Back of the Bike food tour was easily the highlight of our time in Ho Chi Minh City, and we would highly recommend it to anyone stopping there.
It should be said right up front: if you are planning on taking a train anywhere in the world, first go see The Man In Seat 61. This is as comprehensive a website as you’ll find. You find the segment you want to travel and it will give you a rundown on the types of trains available, the ticket cost, what everything looks like, where to buy the tickets, and step-by-step instructions for every single part of the process. This website is an invaluable resource for anyone who is traveling by train anywhere in the world.
Our train travel in Vietnam involved only overnight trains, which are always a great idea. You save on accommodation, you don’t cut into your vacation time with travel, and you wake up at (or close to) your destination refreshed and ready (most of the time).
We did the overnight trains three times in Vietnam: Hanoi to Lao Cai for our trek in Sapa, Lao Cai back to Hanoi afterwards, and then Hanoi to Hue. The two Sapa trips were about eight hours each, which was perfect. The trip to Hue was around 11 hours, which gave us time to eat and hang out a little bit on the train, and then actually see the countryside when we woke up and still had a few hours to go.
The first train – and my first experience with an overnight train – went as well as you could hope. There were four beds, and the people sharing the room with us were nice and as interested in sleep as we were. The beds must have been exactly six feet long, because the top of my head rested against one wall while the bottoms of my feet rested against the other. I didn’t mind, as it made me feel more secure in the top bunk.
We all went to sleep pretty quickly after figuring out how to work the air conditioning unit in our berth, and slept well to the gentle rocking of the train car. I did, anyway – unfortunately, my snoring is pretty prodigious so I’m not sure about the others. But I don’t remember any dirty looks in the morning.
If you’re concerned about something like that that, you can rent out all four beds in a berth if you want some privacy since they’re so cheap, but we didn’t feel it was worth the cost. And if the porters try to stuff someone in there with you anyway, good luck arguing with them in Vietnamese.
For the ride back from Lao Cai, I was ready to be gently rocked to sleep for the eight or so hours back to Hanoi. I don’t know if we were on different tracks or in the wrong car, though, because the ride back was anything but gentle. We spent the night bouncing all over the place; I’m almost positive our car came off the tracks multiple times. Needless to say, we arrived back in Hanoi tired and a bit frazzled. Luckily, Vietnamese coffee was there to save us.
Our final leg, from Hanoi to Hue, was a little more like the first. I was bracing for another bumpy ride, but it turned out to be smooth sailing. Other than a woman with a few small children who shared our berth and didn’t seem eager to turn the lights off, it was fine. And at that point, we fell asleep with the lights on anyway. They left halfway through the trip and another couple go on who seemed more in tune with the sleeping idea.
All in all, I’d say the trains exceeded expectation. The beds and pillows aren’t much, but they’re comfortable enough to fall asleep on, even if you’re a little taller. There are plugs to charge electronics, and some food service. The bathrooms are pretty rough, but do have everything you need to get ready in the morning. My one suggestion would be to bring a lock and a small wire to keep your bags secure under your bottom bunk, since the doors don’t lock and anyone could potentially grab your stuff while you sleep.
As I said, though, the cost of the train ticket is great for anyone trying to travel on a budget; you save on accommodation and don’t waste your waking hours on an eight hour train ride you’d end up falling asleep on anyway. That, and it just seems like taking an overnight train is part of the whole Vietnam experience. Try it at least once. You’ll be glad you did.
At the end of our Vietnam trip, we’d worked in two days in Siem Reap in order to check Angkor Wat off the bucket list. We were to fly there from Ho Chi Minh City, through Phnom Penh, but immediately ran into a snag upon entering the airport and seeing our flight – the last one to Phnom Penh that night – had been cancelled.
We immediately went to the airline counter to see what options we had. There was a flight for Phnom Penh scheduled to leave in about 20 minutes. It would be a miracle, but there were going to try to get us on it.
First, we had to sign some forms, and I noticed they said “$50 USD x2” – clearly, a charge to switch to the earlier flight for each of us. Whatever; we didn’t want to lose a day in Siem Reap. But, after we signed the forms, we were each handed a brand new, crisp $50 bill. WE were being compensated for the flight mix-up.
Our main concern with the flight was getting through security, which also turned out to be no problem. The airline worker helping us escorted us to an empty desk, called over a security agent, and he get us through in probably two minutes. We were then escorted to our gate and taken to the flight, which had probably 10 people on it.
We happened to be in an exit row, and the flight attendant came up to give us the rundown.
Flight Attendant: “This is the door in case of emergency.”
Flight Attendant: “Don’t touch it.”
Full stop. And she walked away. I’m curious as to how often this is a problem for them, but needless to say we move away from the exit door as soon as we could.
A selection from the complimentary cocktail hour
We were staying on the Privilege Floor at the Borei Angkor. It was no more expensive than your standard hotel room in NYC, and we figured the place looked nice and we would treat ourselves after staying in homestays, small hotels, and overnight trains throughout most of our trip. We didn’t realize just how much we would be treating ourselves. We had read about the place to book it, of course, but I don’t think we really registered what the extras would entail.
One of those extras was a private ride from the airport, which we now had to somehow work out, since we had arrived on a different flight and at a different time than we had provided to the hotel – all without a phone or internet connection. We eventually figure it out, and our van arrived with our personal concierge, who would be taking care of us for the length of our stay. He arrived with fresh garlands of jasmine for us to have a pleasant smell on the ride to the airport.
We arrived to cold, wet face towels to help with the stifling heat, even at night. We were checked in to the Privilege Floor, which was clearly the luxury area of the hotel; they must have been surprised to see two dirty backpackers roll in.
After being shown to our room, where there was fresh fruit and a bottle of champagne waiting, we took advantage of a few of the amenities: we got a certain amount of free laundry each day, and a complimentary refillable mini fridge. We took the beer out and hid it so they would refill it when they came back in the morning. We checked out the pillow menu (yes, the pillow menu) and decided to just go eat dinner at the restaurant on our floor.
It was here that I first experienced lok lak, a stir fried beef dish borrowed from Vietnam. And while it was only hotel food, this hotel was pretty legit, and the lok lak was absolutely delicious. The other two things I remember about the dinner was our server, who was jovial, hilarious, and had one of the best laughs I’ve ever heard, and the fact that the hotel seemed to have only a Phil Collins’ greatest hits CD and played it repeatedly.
Our first full day included a massive breakfast buffet included with the room, which I couldn’t take full advantage of due to some tummy struggles left over from Vietnam, and which I still regret to this day. We also went to tour the Angkor ruins with a guide and driver provided by the hotel. We also took advantage of the spa, which was also included in the price of our room.
The spa experience was…something else. LeeAnne got a regular massage while I opted for the traditional Khmer massage – might as well experience the local stuff, right? Well, after the massage therapist came in and mimed that I needed to strip down and change into a pair of underwear reminiscent of the disposable socks that give you at shoe stores, she proceeded to use knuckles and elbows to work over basically every point on my body except my dick. It was simultaneously the most relaxed and most beat up I’ve ever been.
Our stay was wonderful. It was a great splurge after spending nights on bumpy trains and in small hotels, and the service was second to none. Our personal concierge made sure we were always looked after, the rest of the staff was incredibly helpful, and the air conditioning was wonderful (which it had to be, as it was 116 degrees outside at one point – the staff couldn’t fathom that where we came from, it hit 0 Celsius).
The price, which as I mentioned you would pay for basically any mid-level hotel in New York City, was an absolute steal for everything that was included. And while I did feel a bit out of place at times in my t-shirt and hiking boots, I would go back again in a heartbeat. If you want to see the Angkor Temples and you want to have every bit of your stay taken care of, The Privilege Floor at the Borei is the place to do it.
Being an avid fan of jigsaw puzzles, I had been familiar with Ha Long Bay and its incredible scenery for a long time. And while I am not a fan of boats or deep water, putting this on our list of things to do in Vietnam was a no-brainer. I would suck up my fears in order to see what I imagine to be one of the most beautiful areas in the world.
Based on friends’ recommendations, we signed on with Indochina Junk (don’t worry, it’s because they use junk boats, which is a kind of ancient Chinese style of ship) on their two day, one night Dragon Legend cruise. This would take us to the less-traveled Bai Tu Long Bay which would be less crowded, but just as beautiful as Ha Long or Cat Ba Bays.
The company had us picked up in a van to get from Hanoi to Ha Long, which we shared with another family and took turns imploring the driver to keep the air conditioning on. They made us stop at a souvenir rest area for a bit, so the ride took about four hours altogether. Once at Indochina Junk’s HQ, we checked in, gave them our bags, and grabbed a beer while we waited. When it was finally our turn, we were all put on a small boat to get us to the larger junk boat. We went through a small presentation, were given our room keys, and found our bags already in our room.
Having spent the previous few days trekking in Sapa with limited facilities, and taking two overnight trains, the absolute first thing we did on the ship was take a shower. As we began our journey into the bay, just sitting in the room (which was much larger and nicer than you would expect, even on a “luxury” ship) and watching the karsts go by out the window was incredible.
We had lunch – a nine-course affair of small plates – sitting on the front deck of the ship and watching the scenery. Thus far, it was the most calming, beautiful thing we had seen—and we had just been in Sapa. With only the murmur of our shipmates and the quiet noise of the boat’s engine, we could not have been more relaxed. Especially with a surprisingly delicious meal and a few beers (note: meals are provided, alcohol must be paid for separately).
After lunch, we were presented with some optional excursions: we could either go on a small boat tour of the area, or take a group kayak tour. We opted for the boat (I’m no fan of kayaks), which included checking out the local floating village of people who actually lived in the bay. We were told due to the dangers of living there, the government had offered money to the people to get them to move to the mainland and learn new jobs, but they were not interested in leaving their way of life.
After the tour, we had some downtime. However, with the previous overnight train being bumpy, and not being able to sleep much in the van, even the scenery couldn’t keep us awake long and we took a quick nap. We were awoken with a phone call when they had noticed we were absent from dinner.
The next day we awoke to grab breakfast (pho and Vietnamese coffee, you can’t go wrong), after which there was another excursion to explore the well-hidden Thien Canh Son Cave. It wasn’t super adventurous—there were lights all throughout the cave and about three boats’ worth of people, but it was still nice to see.
After the excursion, we checked out of our rooms and met in the dining room for a buffet lunch as we made our way back to the harbor at Ha Long, where we disembarked, grabbed our bags, and once again spent time in a van on the way back to Hanoi trying to get the driver to leave the air conditioner on.
Our time on the boat still ranks as one of the most relaxing parts of any vacation we’ve ever taken, mostly due to the fact that we had no choice but to go with the flow of the ship (no pun intended). There wasn’t a restaurant to run off to or a hike to take in—we just sat around and watched the world go by, which turned out to be a pretty excellent way to spend two days, especially after navigating the streets of Hanoi, trekking in Sapa, and hustling around to catch overnight trains.
The cool breeze on the ship would also be the last we got for a while, as afterwards we began our trip south and into the incredible heat of Hue and Ho Chi Minh City. But for now, we would enjoy the ride.
We departed the overnight train from Hanoi in Lao Cai and hopped in a van for an additional 20-30 minutes before arriving at the Graceful Hotel, the headquarters of Sapa Sisters. We were allowed to offload and lock up our large packs and grab some breakfast at the hotel before we were underway. Once everything was ready, we met up with Zao, our guide, and began to walk out of town.
Sapa Sisters is a trekking company in the Sapa valley owned and operated by female Hmong guides. The company was started by two visiting artists and four Hmong women to empower native females in a culture that traditionally sees them as belonging to their husbands. The company gives the women an opportunity to make a fair salary by using their knowledge of an area they’ve spent their entire lives in. They offer multiple treks and tours, homestays, and other activities. We chose a two day/one night tour with a local homestay.
We were offered the option of sticking to roads or taking a more difficult path through the valley. We initially chose the more difficult path, but after sliding repeatedly down a hill and starting to get a little too muddy right off the bat, we went back with the roads. Usually, I’m pretty steady on my feet, and I just couldn’t stay upright. We felt this was a bad sign for LeeAnne, who is as clumsy as they come. It had just rained and everything was wet and overcast, so we decided to play it safe.
As it was only the two of us with our guide Zao, we got a very personalized experience. We could have a chat if we wanted, ask questions, and hear her story. We made our way down winding mountain roads, mostly dirt, through rice paddies and past oxen. Even when drab and overcast, the beauty of the valley was apparent. It was unfortunate that some people didn’t see the value of not throwing trash everywhere, whether it was in the streams or on the side of the road. I wasn’t sure if it was the tourists or the locals, but it was sad to see nonetheless.
Around lunchtime we came upon a small village and had lunch at a local restaurant. The noodles were delicious and the beer was cold, which was pretty much all we were asking for at that point. It was nice to have a few minutes to sit around.
As we walked the second part of the day, we moved into a more populated area known as Ban Ta Van. We passed a schoolhouse and learned more about the area from Zao before eventually arriving in the early afternoon at our homestay. The place seemed large by local standards, and had two floors with probably eight beds in total – it was clear this woman ran a homestay as her job.
Left on our own, LeeAnne and I decided to walk around the area for a bit and see what there was to see. We talked to some people who were staying and working for free room and board, and stopped at a bar across the street for some local beer. When we got back, we found out two German girls were sharing the homestay with us after originally being put in another home that they had misgivings about. We hung out, drank beer, and then the homestay mom cooked us dinner.
As someone who loves food–especially Vietnamese food–it was a treat to watch her cook. All she had was a wok and an open fire, and she made us a feast. We were taught how to roll spring rolls, and she made those in addition to tofu with tomato, chicken with veggies and fruit, garlic fried cabbage, pork with onions, and rice. After stuffing ourselves, she offered us a round of “happy water” – a local type of moonshine.
We slept well. The heavy blankets at our homestay kept out the cold, and after a day of trekking and a night of drinking with our new friends, we were ready to pass out. Our sleep lasted uninterrupted until about four in the morning, when the rooster next door started to crow. And apparently, roosters aren’t like they show in cartoons – they don’t only crow once when the sun comes up. They start crowing when it starts to get light, and then continue crowing forever.
After a breakfast of banana pancakes (which seems to be the accepted idea of a Western breakfast) and instant coffee (G7 brand, which I still buy), we decided to team up with the German girls and their guide for the last part of our trek. We walked through some more scenic areas (which was pretty much all that Sapa has to offer), snacked on raw sugarcane, and generally enjoyed being where we were, as David Ford sings, “Far from the traffic and the smoke and the noise.”
After stopping at a small hut for lunch, we were able to choose either taking a van back to the Sapa Sisters HQ or hopping on the back of motorcycles and riding back that way – LeeAnne and I, of course, chose the motorbikes. Winding back down through the hills, watching the scenery go by, and enjoying all of it; once I figured out how to balance, the ride was amazing.
Once back, we hung out in Lao Cai for a few hours with our new friends, having a few drinks and some food until it was time to take our van ride back to the train station. Once in that area, we waited once again for an overnight train back to Hanoi, of course accompanied by more drinks with our travel friends.
If you’re going to be in Vietnam, especially in the north, Sapa is absolutely worth taking the two or so days our of your trip for a visit. The area is quiet, friendly, and above all else, beautiful. Sapa Sisters would also be highly recommended – you will get a very knowledgeable guide, a great time, and you’ll be helping local Hmong women who really need it. Make this a part of your experience.
You can learn more about Sapa Sisters on their website, which has all the information you need about their history, their mission statement, what they offer, and even transportation. Do check them out.
Visiting Vietnam in the spring of 2016 was a dream come true. We began in the north, going from Hanoi to Sa Pa on an overnight train for a two-day trek, then back to Hanoi on another (much bumpier) overnight train, then a van to Ha Long Bay for an overnight junkboat tour through the Cat Ba Bay, and finally back to Hanoi for a final meal before yet another overnight train to Hue. Despite having limited time there, I fell in love with Hanoi and have ached to go back since.
Bún Chả Đắc Kim*: I’d had plenty of pho in Philly, but our first stop in Vietnam would be a dish we were unfamiliar with outside of other peoples’ descriptions—bun cha—and it was the perfect primer. Pork patties grilled streetside, combined with fresh noodles, a tangy fish sauce-based dipping sauce, and a plate piled high with lettuces and herbs I hadn’t seen before welcomed us to the country, as did a few bottles of local cheap-ass lager.
Phở Kiều Chuyên Bò: For dinner, Hanoi offered us our first bowl of beef pho and a wonderful plate of spicy beef stir fry at a small, standard cubbyhole of a restaurant. In a place packed to the gills with tiny family-run restaurants, we followed the first rule of eating on the road when you don’t have a place already picked out: eat where the locals eat. And the tiny plastic stools outside were filled with locals. They didn’t steer us wrong.
Homestay in Sa Pa: The homestay mom cooked us a full meal in a kitchen that was little more than an open fire with a few pots and pans, teaching us to roll spring rolls before serving them along with tofu with tomatoes, chicken with vegetables and fruit, garlic fried cabbage, pork with onions, and rice. It was way too much food for the five of us staying there (including the homestay mom), but I tried my damnedest to make sure there were no leftovers. We were all rewarded with “happy water” shots for our troubles.
Quán Phở Thìn: After Ha Long, we were dropped off at the Hanoi Hilton (sorry) in the French Quarter and walked to Pho Thin. I’d just read Graham Holliday’s Eating Vietnam, and amidst all the names and food descriptions he threw out, this was one that stuck in my head, and damn I’m glad it did. We took a seat at one of the communal tables, bright orange chili sauce waiting next to us, and were each brought a bowl of beef pho absolutely loaded with green onions and other vegetal goodies. The beef, rather than simply cooking in the hot broth, was grilled and added a smoky flavor to the soup. It was—and still is—the absolute best bowl of pho I’ve ever had. As a fellow traveler told us as he was leaving, “After this, everything else is just water.”
After coming back to Philly and trying to search out as perfect a bowl of pho as we had at Pho Thin, I believe him.
*Be careful with this one – there are two bun cha places right next to each other, and as we learned too late, we ate at the wrong one. Next to the famous bun cha place, an imposter popped up to target unknowing tourists, which we were. Don’t eat at the one directly on the corner—though it was delicious—eat at the one next to it with the yellow sign.
All pictures other than the Pho Thin picture were taken by LeeAnne Mullins.