While in Vietnam we visited Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Phu Quoc and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Our visit in Hanoi was a short visit we only stayed 2 nights. It was mainly to visit a friend/mentor of my husband Gary. It was awesome to see the two of them together to reminisce and talk all things culinary as they are both chefs! Our accomodation was at the Golden Silk Hotel. The hotel is in a great central location with easy walking distance to local attractions and markets. We arrived on a Saturday night which meant that the roads are closed off around the lake for the night markets area. This was a bonus as the traffic in Hanoi is crazy!
After getting settled at the hotel we went for a walk to the night markets and to see the lake. It was so busy, people everywhere. Population of Hanoi 7-8 million and most of them own a motor bike LOL!
The next day we got up early to go for a walk around the lake before meeting up with my husband’s mate Kim. The Lake is definitely the meeting place for the locals and somewhere for them to relax in the lush gardens that surround it. On our walk through the gardens we came across a morning exercise dance class which was contagious LOL! I got a bit of a dance step in with them and also there was a laughing exercise class. It was extremely uplifting to see everyone enjoying the start of their day.
We met Kim for breakfast and he took us to a local restaurant to have Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup). I had heard many talk about Pho here in Australia and had never tried it! It is so delicious. From that day we continued to have Pho for breakfast where ever we could get it and that was pretty much everywhere throughout Vietnam.
We took off on foot after breakfast to explore the city and Kim’s new home. He moved to Hanoi to manage 52 Al Fresco Group restaurants. . It was a great adventure checking out the amazing buildings and architecture of the city that was French inspired, the local markets, restaurants and to visit the Alfresco Cafes (mostly western cuisine) that Kim manages and this is where we tried Vietnamese Coffee. Have you ever tried it? It is made by starting with condensed milk in the bottom of the glass then add in a long black iced coffee and mix together and sip! Super sweet! We were also given a lesson in how to cross the road LOL! not for the faint hearted I can assure you. I was simply amazed at how the traffic navigates around you not stopping at all! Quite astounding when you consider that there are hundreds of motorbikes and cars on the road that you are trying to cross.
We then jumped in a taxi to see the Army Museum, Ho Chi Minh Memorial Complex, this is where Ho Chi Minh is buried and people line up for hours to get a glimpse of him. We stopped for lunch at another restaurant Papa Joes and then went for a walk to see the Hanoi Citadel and to immerse ourselves in the daily activity of the streets. Another restaurant stop for a refreshment and then a taxi back to the hotel. We were so grateful to Kim for showing us around his new home.
Up early the next day to head off for our Ha Long Bay Cruise. We arranged a private driver to take us to Ha Long Bay, it is a 4 hour trip from Hanoi. After 2 hrs we got a 15 min stop. The complex is very tourist orientated with a cafe and different products for sale. We enjoyed the drive seeing the local landscapes and villages along the way.
Ha Long Bay Cruise
We arrive at Tuan Chau terminal to check in and board The Paradise Elegance cruise ship. The ship is aptly named as it is beautiful and elegant.
Ha Long Bay is UNESCO World Heritage Listed. Ha Long Bay has some 1967 islands. The water is only 10-12 metres deep and the limestone has been forming in Ha Long Bay for over 500 million years. Some of the limestone pillars reach almost 200 metres in height. According to geologists there is no volcano in Ha Long Bay, no tsunamis and no waves. The water is always calm, thats good right!
It really is a beautiful place to visit. After we got settled on board and had lunch our first excursion is to Sung Sot Cave (Cave of Surprises) with some 700 steps to climb up & back.
The cave is huge inside with many stalactites and stalagmites forming. The view from reaching the top is fabulous.
That night we had a cooking demonstration to make Fried Spring Rolls, they are very popular in S.E.Asia.
Day two of the cruise and we were up early for sunrise and Thai Chi and then we transferred onto the Paradise Explorer ship for a day of touring around Ha Long Bay. We visited Ti Top Island, named after the Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov on the occasion of his first visit to Halong Bay in 1962. The island has a look out where you can view the beauty of the beach below and the bay, you have to walk 420 steps up and back! We opted to relax on the beach for a swim and sunbake.
Our next stop was to Tung Sau Pearl Farm. This was a very interesting introduction to how natural and cultured pearls are created. They use the Mikimoto pearl culture to create their pearls in conjunction with the Japanese. The natural pearl is formed from an irritant, some type of parasite in the oyster. The cultured pearl has a little round polished sphere inserted into the reproductive organ along with a piece of mantel tissue from another one.
A special Vietnamese set lunch was waiting for us after our visit to the Pearl Farm. All traditional Vietnamese dishes. The menu is pictured below along with some of the dishes. The seasonal vegetable is called Morning Glory also known as water spinach once considered protein for the poor and is served with most Vietnamese dishes. There are so many health benefits, it is high in iron, (Haider, 2014) has the ability to lower blood glucose, and it inhibits the absorption of glucose, contains lots of protein which is great for building muscle, high in Vitamins A and C which are powerful antioxidants, B vitamins for energy and good mood, magnesium for enzyme production, and calcium for strong bones. Plus lots of great chlorophyll… one of the best healing agents around. It really is delicious!
After lunch we visited Cua Van Floating Village in a bamboo boat. The fishing village is not as big as it once was as the government moved many of the families into town so that the elderly would have access to medical facilities and the young ones access to schools. Some families remain to fish and also to navigate and row the bamboo boats for the tourists. They are equipped with solar power and also have mobile coverage.
The next day was our last day on Ha Long Bay and we got up early for sunrise Thai Chi and then time to head back to the mainland and back to Hanoi for the day/night.
Another day in Hanoi city to wonder around before heading to our next destination the island of Phu Quoc. We found the locals fresh food market and also discovered a Vegan restaurant called MinhChay to have dinner at. We had mango & mushroom salad, battered vegetables and braised mushrooms. The meals were delicious, so glad we found it.
An early flight from Hanoi to Phu Quoc an island at the southern end of Vietnam. I picked this island as it looked beautiful in the photos. It is an island off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand. We stayed for 4 nights at the Novotel Phu Quoc Resort which is only 2 yrs old. The resort itself is really nice as you can see by the view from our room in the photo below.
It was raining, windy, steamy and hot, it is their monsoon season after all. We were a bit surprised to see so much development on the island with many new five-star hotels and resorts being built. We were also about 30 minutes drive to Duong Dong town, the largest on the island so we were quite isolated, not such a bad thing! We spent the day getting to know our surroundings and of course have a swim in the pool.
We were advised that the Resort had a specialised seafood restaurant so we made a booking for dinner. We ordered the Seafood Platter for 2. It was so good. We were served calamari, oysters mornay, scallops, sea bass, crab and salad. The seafood was cooked to perfection (no crumbs or batter in sight) and the dipping sauces that accompanied the meal were so tasty, a lime and tamarind sauce. It was the perfect amount to fit in some Vietnamese Layer Cake, this cake is a traditional cake for special occasions and not what you would expect. It was like a coconut jelly cake. The green is from the pandan leaves. Gluten Free, Dairy Free and not really that sweet surprisingly. I really enjoyed it. Sorry no photos as the restaurant was very dimly lit and the power went off intermittently after 8pm. After dinner we took a leisurely stroll around the resort before settling down for the night.
The next morning we actually had a sleep in. We were looking forward to getting some Pho Ga for breakfast and when we approached the restaurant it was packed full with not many seats available. This resort is where the Asians like to holiday so not many westerners at all. We were quite overwhelmed. I had said hello earlier to a staff member that spoke excellent English so I went and asked him if the restaurant gets any quieter around 9 am. Jackpot!! I was talking to the Manager of Customer Relations and he took us over to the Novotel Villas restaurant Tropicana which was across the road and still apart of the Hotel. There was about 10 people in there. So that is where we ate during our stay. Not many of the villas were occupied due to them only opening 9 months ago. We booked the shuttle bus to visit Duong Dong town for the next day. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and enjoying the pool.
Another relaxing day by the pool and some time on the Stand Up Paddle (SUP). We walked around the area to check out the development and construction going ahead. It was actually nice to take time out to relax and that we didn’t have to rush off here and there. We also walked along the beach front and a little disappointed as the ocean was not that clean and the beach either side of the resort was littered with rubbish. It could be such a beautiful coast line if they cleaned it up. That night we took the shuttle bus into Duong Dong town to see the night markets and to have dinner at a local restaurant. We got to choose our fish (Sea Bass) and then they cooked it on the BBQ with chilli and ginger and served with green vegetables. We wandered around the town and came across a cafe that sold New Zealand Natural Ice Cream. I had some vanilla ice cream – YUM!!
The next day we took a tour to the southeast of the island to see what it has to offer. We visited a Pearl Farm, a little disappointing as the one at Ha Long Bay was much more informative. We visited the Pepper Farm, one of the main industries in Phu Quoc along with the Fish Sauce factory. Fermented (for 12 months) anchovies and salt is what makes their fish sauce famous. It tastes very salty too! We visited a wine factory and that was a bit disappointing as we didn’t get to see how it is made and were taken in to taste test and buy the products (of course) as it relies on tourism.
We ventured to Tranh Stream, it is a 15km long stream which originates from Ham Ninh Mountain and flows through the diverse terrain in the forests to create beautiful waterfalls. We walked as far as time permitted beside the stream along narrow rocky steps to see the waterfall. It was amazing to see so many of the local people setting up little picnic spots along the way, ready to spend the day with their families enjoying the beautiful forest setting to escape the heat of the day. The water was cold and refreshing. Our journey continued to visit a Rambutan, Durian and Bee Farm before we stopped at Sao Beach for lunch and time to enjoy a swim.
Sao Beach is famous for its white sand and turquoise waters. The sand is white and soft, the water a turquoise colour although not crystal clear. The water has a lot of debris and rubbish which washes up onto the beautiful beach. With its popularity means more visitors and more rubbish, it is a tragedy as it really does have the most beautiful surroundings. We found an awesome restaurant on the beach called Paradiso and the food was so fresh and delicious. I had a green salad with pomelo (Vietnamese grapefruit) which was very refreshing. Gary had a burger and fries and to be honest they were the best fries I had ever tried. So I pinched a few to go with my salad! We hired a couple of beach lounges to soak up the rays and relax before heading to the Coconut Tree Prison a P.O.W camp. It was quite distressing to visit as there were statues of the prisoners depicting their treatment while imprisoned and one particular bunker where they tortured the prisoners. You can learn more about it here.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
It felt like I was getting the flu as I was a bit heady and had a sore throat! The flight was only an hour but it seemed to take forever! It was an early night for both of us once we got settled into our Hotel. We stayed at the Saigon Prince Hotel for five nights. Once again this hotel was central and within walking distance to many of the main tourist attractions. Below is the night view from our room over looking Ho Chi Minh Square.
The next day I woke up with a red and swollen eye. Off to find a pharmacist to get something for my eye and flu symptoms. I was pleased that I got some natural tablets with Vitamin C, throat lozenges and an eye ointment. I wanted to get on top of the flu before heading back home. (I was kinda getting homesick about now). Today we explored the city visiting the Opera House, a famous landmark that was built in 1897 by a French architect. The 800 seats of the Saigon Opera House served the Lower House assembly of South Vietnam after 1956. In 1975 the building served it’s true purpose as a theatre again and was restored one more time in 1995. Then onto The Post Office which is one of the oldest buildings in Ho Chi Minh City and was built around 1886 – 1891 resembling a European railway station with extraordinary architecture. Opposite the post office is The Notre Dam Cathedral Basilica Saigon constructed between 1863 and 1880 by the French colonists, following their conquest of the city, the building reaches a height of up to 60m. In front of the cathedral stands a Virgin Mary statue, which is said to have shed tears in 2005, causing thousands of people to stop around the Basilica. We didn’t see any tears! We then ventured to see the Reunification Palace this is where the VietCong recaptured Saigon in 1975. More than 2 million Vietnamese lost their lives in the Vietnam War (some estimates run far higher), 58,000 Americans and more than 500 Australians also died in the war. There is so much history in this country.
We meandered through the streets and found where the locals buy their produce and I also bought some lemongrass and ginger to make some fresh tea and some of their tiny bananas – snack size! I get so excited when I see a juice and smoothie shop and they actually have green smoothies. The green smoothie we chose had bok choy, pineapple & apple plus we tried a dessert called a snowflake made from crushed ice, it was really good. We also found a Vietnamese Mexican Restaurant called Salsa. The atmosphere was great. Not too overcrowded and the staff were excellent, very attentive. The food was great, we shared a nachos and we both had a chicken fajita, it was very tasty. Tomorrows adventure is a cruise on the Mekong River.
Mekong River Delta Tour
We cruised on the Mekong River Delta in particular the Ben Tre province which is also known as the “rice bowl” as it is the most fertile region in the country and the main producer of rice and tropical fruits. While exploring the mighty river we watched barges move sand, dirt and bricks and navigated through narrow canals getting an insight into the lives of the local people. We visited a brick factory to see the old fashioned kiln techniques that are still used today. It was fascinating and very laborious work and the maximum they get paid is $5 a day. That’s a day! We stopped at a coconut processing factory where they make coconut candy and other coconut products, plus supply local manufacturers with coconuts.
We visited a local family home and experienced their hospitality, although this would have been better if it was not so designed for the tourist. We visited a local community to see how grass mats are made and where they grow local fruits. Our guide Ashley was a delight and so knowledgeable about her country. Plus we got to try jackfruit for the first time and it is so good!!! The fruit here is delicious and so many varieties and the bananas are tiny. Another fun day exploring Vietnam.
We got to spend our 26th Wedding Anniversary in Ho Chi Minh City so we spent the day relaxing by the pool and taking some much needed time out to rest. After eating mainly fish & chicken throughout our holiday we were feeling like we needed some red meat in the form of a steak! We found a place called Cowboy Jacks. Not somewhere we would normally eat but hey they had Australian rib eye steak. It was delicious! Plus we had a treat with a delicious dessert.
Vietnam was a fantastic experience and there is many more amazing places to explore. The highlights were seeing Gary and Kim catch up, Ha Long Bay and the Mekong River. The lowlight was witnessing the rubbish that is left around the country and especially along the coastline.
Our South East Asian Adventure has been a very humbling experience and certainly has made us more aware of how grateful we are for where we live. There is more to life than stuff, the less stuff the better. It is the experiences and people that you meet in your life that benefit you the most not the stuff that we accumulate along the way.
Safe Travels, let me know if you have been to Vietnam and where you visited. Leave me a comment, I love to hear from you.
Heider, Dr. P, Relax Into Success, “13 Benefits of Water Morning Glory Greens”, viewed 13 October 2017, https://paulhaider.wordpress.com/2014/06/27/13-benefits-of-water-morning-glory-greens/