Vietnam - 2 / 3

Hoi An

After our non-stop yet incredible days in busy, busy Ho Chi Minh, we booked some flights (obviously last minute, again. We WILL learn) and flew half way up the country to beautiful Hoi An.

Tip #1: In-land flights are affordable and are operated predominantly by Vietnam Airlines and Jetstar (expected delays on most Jetstar flights aren't just rumours). You really want to book ahead as early as possible and you can score flights for as little as AU$30-50.

We managed to get a great deal through Agoda and stayed at the beautiful Hoi An Beach Resort. We were super lucky with this place as our resort actually owned part of the shoreline at Cua Dai beach. What this meant is that we could meander across the road after breakfast, drop down onto a lounge chair in the shade of a palm tree, and order all the fries (guilty. Every day.) and coconuts we desired.

Hoi An is very different to Ho Chi Minh, obviously in size and city type, but it had a much more relaxed and slower pace and feel to it. Boasting a stunning coast line, from which you can spot tiny islands (during the 30 min drive from Da Nang airport you won't see much aside from ginormous, 5 star resorts after another, and for good reason), beautiful countryside with tall, crooked houses speckled across it, a serene little old town, a big market that is a must-visit, and a town primarily intended for louring in tourists for handmade gifts, fake bags and tailored clothing. All situated on a river that is well worth visiting at night, with locals selling you paper lanterns so you can light a candle and watch your lantern float to somewhere where I'm hoping/pretending they are collected and recycled appropriately...

The 10 days we spent in Hoi An was truly relaxing and inspiring. We were constantly pinching ourselves that we got so lucky and swore to each other to say yes to more adventures. Most days consisted of reading/napping/sun baking by some sort of body of water, 3pm cocktails, exploring a new part of the area on bike, and at least one trip into Hoi An city. And a lot of food. I still cannot get over the fresh produce that was bursting with flavour or chilies hot enough to turn your whole body into flames.
We ended up adding extra days about 4 times because we couldn't bear the thought of leaving this little piece of paradise just yet.

Personally, I really love exploring new places by bike. Whether it is new cities or on the country side, it's so easy to explore and stop whenever you find something interesting. I just feel like you notice and take in so much more of a new place. Hoi An is great like that, especially if you can work out the hectic road system. 

Since this place in particular really depends on its tourist economy, 90% of the town's shops are filled with souvenirs and tailors. When walking through the streets, you're often invited in, but shop attendants were never too pushy.

There were some incredible places to eat in Hoi An, and we were equally blown away by restaurants recommended to us and ones we just walked into. 
Rachel was really amazing throughout the trip and did the majority of the food research.TripAdvisor was pretty spot on and well used by travellers in Vietnam, so if all else fails, check that out. Scroll to the end for our recommendations.

One morning we hired some bikes and set off before the heat set in to ride to Tra Que, an organic herb village just out of town. After getting lost twice and stopping at least 3 times to watch the water buffalo (!!!) hanging in the rice fields, we arrived when it was well hot and all plans of touring the place and maybe learning the traditional way of planting were lost and we ordered cold drinks and the usual papaya salad. This place was really serene, away from the busy street. So much quieter than the small, yet loud and bustling town, and as you ride along different rivers and fields you feel really consumed by your surroundings. This was definitely a highlight of our trip. The place also offers cooking classes, which looked delicious and fun, but I would book ahead for those. 

RECOMMENDATIONS: 

Ba Le Well (9:30am-dinner)
I just cannot recommend this place enough. We both wandered into this place not knowing what to expect and after being seated and ordering drinks we were blown away by the plates upon plates that were piled onto our small table. Dishes included Ban Xiao and traditional rice paper rolls that you make yourself with skewers, salads and nuoc cham (vietnamese dipping sauce). Also know that you won't be able to leave unless you finish your meal. The owners will be kind enough to roll the rolls and force feed you. After all of that and 2 servings of dessert the bill came to around AU$4.

Morning Glory (9am-11pm)
You'll be told to go here at least 3 times on your first day upon arriving in Hoi An, but I still felt I needed to mention it. Named after traditional Vietnamese dish, Morning Glory has a really great atmosphere and offers all of the traditional dishes you need to eat in Vietnam. Be sure to book ahead before you go here and also order the roasted eggplant. You will not regret it. They also offer cooking classes that you can book online.
*Rumour has it the owner is opening up shop here in Melbourne (Windsor) this month!*

Mia Coffee
Tucked away in a more residential area out of Hoi An city, it is a great place to unwind in the afternoon with a coffee and home made cake by swedish co-owner, Mia. I can whole heartedly recommend their chocolate cake. Beans are sourced locally and grown in house and the owners are really friendly.

Hoi An is also well known for their local dish Cao Lao, a thick noodle dish with minimal sauce. Traditionally the water used to make this soup came from a little well outside of town. Another one to try are the White rose dumplings.

After putting together the posts on our trip to Vietnam I decided to turn the 2segments into 3. Stay tuned for the post on our day trip to Cham Island. 

Vietnam - 1 / 3

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam 

Early October last year I found myself in between jobs with some savings in the bank and just over 2 weeks until my new role started.
So, I did what anyone in their right mind would do and grabbed a crazy enough girlfriend and booked flights to Vietnam 4 days before flying out. We scrambled like crazy to get visa's sorted*, contacted people we knew over there, bought some new swimsuits (because, beach holiday) and were off. At the time, a spontaneous trip like this was exactly what I needed.

All photos on this are just taken on the trusty iPhone. We wanted to keep bags and valuables to a minimum.

Vietnam is an unbelievable place. I've lived in Japan and have traveled in Singapore, but I should have listened when people warned me about being prepared for south-east Asia.
From the moment we stepped out of the airport the buzz hit us: thick humid air, smells of unidentifiable foods, loud foreign noises, and of course people. So many people.
We were prepared and knew to negotiate the taxi fare into town before getting into the cab.

Tip #1 If you're flying into Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon) and traveling into town, expect to pay no more than 150, 000 Dong. Yes, the currency took me about 2 weeks to get used to.

Tip #2 Not just for airport fares but any time you're taking a cab, take a Mai Linh or Vinasun. Not all other companies are metered, and unless you find yourself travelling with a local, you're already paying a premium.

In terms of accommodation, we generally booked through Agoda for everything. Because we were less than prepared and booked internal flights and hotels generally the night before flying out, this was ideal to get good last-minute deals.

Because we were both a little burned out, this was he perfect time for us for a relaxing holiday. If you've ever been to a city like Ho Chi Minh, you'll know that relaxing situations are hard to come by. We were lucky to have had a good friend with a SWEET pool and gym at his apartment, which we made sure to spend an hour or so at before starting out most days.
Our days in Ho Chi Minh were predominantly filled with scheduling our activities around eating and drinking Vietnamese iced coffee, Cà phê sữa đá. We visited different markets, the heart wrenching war museum and other touristy sites, and obvi ate about 8 times a day.

We spent another few days in Ho Chi Minh after visiting Hoi An (post up next!) and before flying out again and I'm already wanting to go back. Here are some great places we enjoyed eating, drinking or soaking up the culture at, to get to know this city a bit better:

Vietnamese fine dining: Hoa Tuc
Absolutely impeccable service, interesting and delicious composition of flavours and great atmosphere. Mostly foreigners dining here, but definitely authentic for high class Vietnamese dining.

Price: think spending AU$50 per head, including great wine

Street food: 197 Vo Van Kiet
In all honesty, and I've had a lot of great food in my life, this is in my top 3 food experiences ever. Here, I would probably advise to ask the waiters for suggestions as the menu is unreadable to non-Vietnamese and we were lucky to have some locals with us to order.
It's exactly what you imagine it to be: low tables and sitting on tiny plastic chairs that look like they were made for children. And of course, plates and plates and plates of delicious, sometimes suspicious looking food that will BLOW YOUR MIND. I can't reiterate this enough. Scraps are discarded between your legs, under the table as you eat, and hands wiped now and then by the separately packaged wet wipes (which you will pay for. Note, this is a common custom all around Vietnam, and more often than not, they will show up on your bill). The waitress dressed in a Sapporo branded dress will frequent the table throughout the evening, making sure you always have a cold bottle at arms reach and your bill will come to about AU$10. We paid AU$12 because apparently we'd over-ordered, but no one was disappointed.

Tip #4: At the start of meals at most places you will get some sort of snack. Check with wait staff whether that is included or you have to pay extra. It's not usually a lot, but definitely helps to ask.

Sneaky Western Food:  L'usine
If, when we found this place, we hadn't been eating purely Vietnamese food for the last 2 weeks, we probably would have passed on this, but despite our appetites heavily embracing the local cuisine 8 times daily, bread and poached eggs were very welcomed. That said, the menu was still very Vietnamese, just not as traditional as most other places.
The space in this half shop, half restaurant, is beautifully laid out, filled with hand-made furniture, and definitely gave us a very Melbourne-cafe feel. I know how that sounds. Picture white, exposed brick walls with lot's of wooden balustrade with an open plan layout. The downstairs shop part contained beautiful stationary, candles and clothing. Stuff there would be considered pretty expensive, if you've become used to local prices. I also wouldn't try to haggle. All up, really lovely feel and you temporarily feel like you've left hectic Saigon behind.
Food prices were not at all like Melbourne's though, and instead of paying AU$18 for poached eggs with mushrooms and avo, you still only pay AU$6. And no extra for avo (hooray!)!!!
This place had a super chill vibe, and was packed with young people, some travelers and students studying, drinking coffee. I could easily have settled in for a while, but we we keen to get back to the bustling streets.

Dining & Bar experience:  Chill Bar
If you only visit one place on this list and even just have 15 minutes to spare, go here. This is by far the best location to see the city lit up at night. Considering we went on a Monday night and left in the early hours of the next morning, this place says alot about Ho Chi Minh'snight life: the people here love to party.
There are indoor and outdoor spaces, and when it's not raining the outside bar, situated on a rooftop of one of the city's highest buildings, tends to be the most occupied.
Prices are pretty high for local standards but the place has an amazing atmosphere, great DJ and super friendly service.

This trip, for us, wasn't to tick things off a list, but there are plenty of other cultural things that are a must see, (the Cu Chi tunnels, Mekong Delta)  Will definitely be going back to do the aforementioned and plenty more. 

I mentioned before that this trip, and the spontaneity of it, was just what we both needed at this time. That being said, I would definitely recommend being even a little bit more prepared than we were. We were so lucky to have a friend there to inform us of local customs and teach us how to cross a road in peak hour. 

*remember this if you go, to enter Vietnam you must have a visa, and you're best off organising it in your home country before flying out, to avoid any trouble upon arriving. As we learnt it is possible to get one in 24 hours, but will cost a lot more. Like, at least 120 $1 Bahn Mi's worth more. 

I would love to know: Have you been to Vietnam? Did you go to any of the above places? What are your must-see's and do's (and most importantly) eat's?