I can’t believe it’s been three weeks since my last post, but my, oh my, have we been busy. I’d apologize, but recently I’ve been partial to living life away from the computer. It’s a bit more fun that way, most of the time. At least it is when you’ve been traveling to Singapore, Malaysia and China! I’m amassing photos and videos much more quickly than I can manage to edit and blog!
Alas, I’m finally back to blog about the trip of a lifetime. Given the adventures we’ve been on with friends and family so far this year, I really hate to play favorites, because we had a blast with everyone while discovering new things in each of our destinations to date. Still, I have to hand it to Vietnam for being a serious contender to win favorite destination in Asia. I keep telling people that we had almost no expectations for Vietnam, which may be what made it so unbelievable; but between the food, the scenery, the activities and the people, it really doesn’t get much better than this.
And to think, we only explored half the country! Our journey in Vietnam began in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly known as Saigon. For those of you who only vaguely remember learning the American story of the “Vietnam War” in history class, let me give you some background information. I’ll get into some war-related information in another post, so let’s start with geography.
Saigon/HCMC is in the southern delta region of this skinny country on the Southeast Asian coast. Another phrase I keep repeating is, “with more than 2,000 miles of coastline, can you really go wrong?” For this particular trip, we ventured up the coast, stopping in Nha Trang on our way to Da Nang and Hoi An in central Vietnam. Our 10-day adventure could only quickly cover these three areas, so we’re already planning to head back and check out northern Vietnam in the Spring. Sapa, Ha Noi, Halong Bay – anyone care to join? Some quick Google-imaging should pique your interest.
In any case, let’s start at the beginning of our journey. We arrived in HCMC from Busan, an inexpensive, direct 4-1/2 hour flight. (More reasons you should book your trip now!) We first made our way to an incredible little backpackers “hostel” I found on TripAdvisor, the Beautiful Saigon 3 Hotel. Don’t let the $30 price tag fool you: this place is clean, quiet, and modern. Plus, the service was just about the best we had on the whole trip! They pre-purchased some train tickets for us and had them ready when we arrived. We also took their private airport transfer service, which at $20 didn’t seem like much of a deal, but we were relieved at our decision once we got outside the terminal and saw the chaos of the taxi line.
After checking in, our evening adventure began. We had some time to explore the backpacker’s area of HCMC and shop around a bit before two guides from XO Tours came to pick us up. They arrived donning the traditional Vietnamese dress, something we would see regularly throughout our trip. Now, before we get going here, I was sufficiently warned by several people that I’d be “taking my life into my own hands” by signing up for a scooter tour in Vietnam. Needless to say, I’m still alive after 3 of them, but I was a bit nervous getting on the bike the first time. Thankfully, the tour company we booked uses only female drivers, as (quote) “they are generally safer”. Right, guys? 😉
We scooted off to our first destination for the night. Though I was a little unsteady for the first kilometer or so, riding pillion quickly became second nature as we weaved in and out of the traffic. Drivers in Vietnam (only one woman’s opinion) are much less terrifying than Korean scooters at rush hour. Yes, many of them tote loads that I wouldn’t consider putting in my own Kia morning, but in general, people don’t drive incredibly fast or recklessly. However, we did pretend to be crazy drivers for a few moments. (Sidebar: The video of our awesome experience is at the bottom of this post.)
We landed at a local cafe serving Bun Bo Hue, spicy pork and beef noodle soup (no, not pho!) that originates from central Vietnam. Here, we hooked up with 8 others who would be enjoying the tour with us that evening. We didn’t know it yet, but we’d end up seeing three of them later in other cities! The noodle soup was a delicious start to the evening. The only downfall being I wasn’t sure how much to eat. I didn’t want to get full too early!
After zooming through a night street market and stopping for a few photos with our guides, we made it to our second and probably most unique stop on the evening’s culinary journey. We sat down at a local outdoor restaurant known for its goat meat. Say what? Yes, barbecued goat meat that was strangely reminiscent of what we have here in Korea. We also got a good taste of local Saigon beer while our tour guides sipped on something my brother would probably like: a horribly sweet strawberry energy drink. The color is just as striking as the taste. Something’s gotta keep them going I guess!
Shrimp was next on the barbecue (heads and eyes still in tact), and I had fun playing with my food.
Then, the frog. Yes Mom and Dad, I ate frog. There, I said it. And yes, it’s true what they say – frog tastes like chicken. The skin is slightly different, but there’s a reason that saying exists. J-Mar tried it too, although you can see our different approaches to a first bite below:
The last item on the to-do list at this popular restaurant (did I mention how many locals were there?) was to face off in the “Chopstick Challenge”! J-Mar and I were pitted against each other to test our chopstick skills at dropping a small nut into a water bottle. With the help of our guides, we had to see who would be the quickest at transferring 7 nuts into the bottle. I took a quick lead but after fumbling one, J-Mar came out on top with a shiny new button! I’ll take it – I’m just happy to see how much my chopstick skills have improved since leaving the U.S.
Back on the scooters we went to find our next good eat! The places got a bit more dodgy as the night progressed, though I’ll say I really wasn’t concerned about food poisoning. Surprisingly, with over 1,000 TripAdvisor reviews, this tour company claims to only have had two complaints about patrons getting ill. The establishments served well-cooked food on clean dishware and always provided a disposable hand towel before you ate. Our final stop of the evening (after non-food stops in different areas of the city to learn about local culture) was for some delicious seafood among other things.
The crab here was really tasty. Perhaps the best part was having a personal assistant to crack it all for you! Vietnamese food uses lots of cilantro (coriander for you Europeans) and basil, which made it all that much more tasty for me. The best dish of the night went to these scallops (middle right) that were deliciously seasoned and covered in crushed peanuts. I could have eaten a whole plate myself! We tried another local beer brand called 333. By now we have learned that most Asian beer tastes the same… if you’re looking for a beer tour, go to Europe.
To cap off the night, J-Mar ate something just a bit distasteful for animal rights activists. I was shocked that he actually agreed to do it, and I’m not sure I should even dare to post this, but he tried a duck embryo! I shook my head in shame and he admitted it wasn’t anything to write home about. Lesson learned. I’d much rather enjoy the coconut gelatin and custard provided for dessert. Though, I should note, I didn’t much care for either of these dishes. Usually I’ve got a soft spot for desserts, but who needs sweets when you can eat what we had all night?
Just the beginning of some wonderful sights and eats throughout Vietnam! I am hoping it won’t be another three weeks before I can post more of our journey. Thanks for sticking with me. Enjoy my video recap of our XO tour below: