Quick author’s note: Maintaining this blog takes a tremendous amount of time and effort! I’ve heard from so many people lately that their friends, family, and coworkers are all following along, which is incredibly cool and encouraging to hear. That said, it makes me wonder who my readers are! If you’re reading this – even if you don’t know me personally – I’d love if you took a quick second to leave a comment below and let me know who you are, how you learned about this blog, and where you’re reading from. Thanks for following along! 🙂
You may not know this if you haven’t done a lot of hostel hopping, but the global backpacking community is a bit of a ‘small world’. What I mean is, there’s a pretty well-established backpacker trail – particularly in Southeast Asia – that budget travelers tend to flock to in droves, which means you often run into familiar faces or share itinerary stops (past and future) with others you meet along the way.
One resultant phenomenon is that many places tend to earn reputations amongst backpackers. For example, while I haven’t been to Phi Phi in Thailand, I know through backpacker word-of-mouth that it’s a naturally gorgeous but overtouristed place to hang out, having exploded in popularity in the 2000s. Likewise, I’m aware of India’s incredible food and bargain prices at the expense of notoriously unreliable infrastructure and rampant poverty. I haven’t been to either of these places – this is just ‘common knowledge’ amongst those in the community, permeated through hazy conversations shared amongst new friends upon rooftops, trains, and dorm rooms.
James was far too good to me – we did some initial planning together online, but ultimately he took the reins and handled a lot of the legwork for us around booking and organizing: a welcome reprieve from my regular 100% self-guided efforts. I mention this especially because it allowed me the luxury of further removing myself from any specific expectations: I was going in pretty blind on this one, and loving the opportunity to play second fiddle for a bit. Boy, was I in for a treat.
Hospitality in the Hills
Our host Mao personally toured us around her village and the surrounding trails, opened her beautiful home to us, and charmed us half to death with her impossibly cheerful (and absolutely ceaseless) giggling. Beyond that, she cooked us massive traditional meals – which she force-fed us until we nearly burst – and maintained a neverending flow of rice wine: a potent and acrid spirit that locals enjoy by the gallon and tastes as if it would burn a hole through a bank vault.
There Be Dragons
Our ultimate conclusion was that our time on Ha Long Bay was well-spent – and while we’d probably elect to tackle it a different way or on a different boat if we could do things over again, we’d never forgive ourselves if we missed the opportunity to take in views like this one.
Hungry in Hanoi
Undoubtedly, though, one meal stands out as the culinary highlight of Hanoi, of Vietnam, and of my entire year so far. If there’s any one person on Earth whose opinion all nomadic and adventurous foodies respect and revere the most, it’s Anthony Bourdain. When Tony says something’s good, you listen. When he takes then-President Barack Obama to dinner somewhere, and you have an opportunity to make that pilgrimage yourself? Well, you don’t walk – you run.
In following their footsteps, James and I were headed to Bún Chả Hương Liên to enjoy their namesake dish: bún chả – a Hanoi specialty.
The dish itself is conceptually simple enough: vermicelli noodles (bun) arrive on a dish of their own, alongside a bowl of grilled fatty pork afloat in a broth made of pure magic. Or, you know, a combination of fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar. As simple as that sounds… it’s an absolute explosion of flavor that sends your tastebuds into a fit of euphoric hysteria.
We’re not done, though – as is typical in Vietnamese cuisine, a heaping plate of bright, fresh herbs are present to round out the complex symphony of flavors: lettuce, Thai basil, cilantro, fish mint, banana flower and coriander. And of course, for masochists like me, a big bowl of fresh red chiles. The idea is to simply combine everything in the bowl, dipping fresh noodles in the magical elixir as you go.
We’d ordered the ‘combo Obama’ – go ahead and hazard a guess why it’s named as such. That meant that alongside our heavenly soup, we got delicious fried seafood rolls and a pair of ice cold Hanoi Beers.
James and I were genuinely moved by the experience to the degree that we couldn’t shut up about it for days. In fact, I immediately penned a love letter to the dish and shared it to my social media profiles, which I’ll replicate here:
[James] and I are hardcore food nerds. We’ve enjoyed our share of world-renowned Michelin starred meals, and devote considerable time, energy, and money in our lives to enjoying food from all around the world. So when I say this $4.50 meal (w/ beers!) was possibly the very best thing either of us has EVER eaten, I am NOT taking that statement lightly. It’s no wonder @barackobama and @anthonybourdain chose to share a meal together in this very spot a couple of years back. Food is an incredibly potent vehicle for memories, and this is a meal neither of us will soon forget. If you ever find yourself in Hanoi, don’t leave without eating bún chả at least eleven times.
Needless to say – we liked it.
Of course, there’s more to Hanoi than eating… there’s also drinking! And drink we did. A wildly popular spot in the old city is Bia Hoi corner, where patrons crowd the street in tiny stools and a large beer can be purchased for well under a quarter. It’s a constant hive of activity, both for locals and backpackers, and it’s a great spot to begin a night out. We’d head here to meet new people and begin adventurous nights on the town which occasionally skewed a bit… blurry.
When not filling our stomachs, activity didn’t get any better than just watching the city pass us by. Hanoi is a lush bouquet of old and new – a gorgeous old-town atmosphere that wakes up early, eats on the streets, and always wears a smile. I could spend a lifetime just observing its bustling markets, young families, street vendors, fresh fruits and veggies, sidewalk barbers, and streets that truly feel alive. Given the sights and sounds, our incredibly full bellies, and the never-ending stream of incredible people we kept meeting, we really fell in love with the place hard – and were sorely sorry not to have another day or two to soak in the ambiance. But we had another fairytale adventure ahead.
Swallowed by the Earth
We really were genuinely sad to leave Hanoi, given it had stolen our hearts. But the burden was eased by the anticipation of approaching the portion of our itinerary that I’d been most eagerly anticipating. After a less-than-sublime-but-entirely-functional night bus, we were headed Vietnam’s Quang Binh province to visit Phong Nha and the glorious Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park: nicknamed ‘Cave Kingdom’ by its local inhabitants. It’s a well-deserved designation: this incredible park is home to the largest caves in the world.
Set against stunning 400-Million-year-old karst mountains and dense, sticky jungles, the park is riddled with hundreds of impossibly massive cave systems and subterranean rivers. Amongst these is Son Doong Cave – the largest cave ever discovered, anywhere on the planet. Fortunately, the Vietnamese are closely guarding the sanctity of this heavenly underground discovery by carefully limiting tourism and leaving control in the hands of a sustainable operator. Unfortunately, however, the end result is a serious expedition with a price tag in the thousands and a waitlist measured in years – meaning we wouldn’t have a chance to see its splendor.
No matter, though – the same operator with exclusive rights to the record-breaking monster has the same rights to Phong Nha’s other star: Hang Én Cave, the world’s third largest cave (if you’re curious, Malaysia is proud owner of #2). Just a stone’s throw away, and far less brutal on the wallet, Hang Én is absolutely spectacular, so we couldn’t be bothered feeling like we’d missed out in any way at all. Before we dove into the belly of the beast, though, we wanted explore the gorgeous surrounding area a bit.
We stayed at the excellent Phong Nha Farmstay, nestled predictably on a gorgeous farm, where we’d watch the sunrise and the local villagers working in the fields throughout the day. The accommodation itself was absolutely beautiful, with attentive staff, tasty food, and a bar with nightly activities.
In our few pre-cave days, we’d explore the local surrounds by way of motorbike, enjoying the sun (and one popup thunderstorm) on beautiful twisty roads that led us to some awesome vistas and one of the region’s more touristed spots: Paradise Cave. Unlike our upcoming expedition, this one came complete with stairs, walkways, and enough lighting to make the whole thing accessible to anyone who cared to see it.
But hey, let’s get to the good stuff. When the day arrived, we were incredibly excited to meet the folks from Oxalis Adventures, the exclusive government-approved operator who helps lead intrepid travelers into both Hang Én and Son Doong. In our briefing, we were warned about strenuous trekking, potential snakes (which we did not encounter), leeches (which we definitely did encounter), and potential dehydration (which we managed to avoid) – and then we were off, along a group of travelers from the UK, Russia, and Holland.
The trek to the mouth of the cave was a little over 4 hours through the swelteringly hot Vietnamese jungle, and the scenery was remarkable. We’d cross over 30 rivers and a few waterfalls, occasionally joined by seemingly endless swarms of white butterflies who’d flutter alongside us.
We were lead by locals Long and Tha, who were helpful, hilarious, and experienced. Along with the porters and all of the other locals who make their living trekking throughout this area, they all choose to wear these flimsy little sandals in lieu of boots – pretty crazy, eh?
Eventually we made our way to the cave, where we’d be setting up camp for the night, and found ourselves absolutely awestruck with the magnificence of the place. Stepping inside its cavernous mouth and looking down to camp below – which was situated across the river we’d be traversing by raft – was a feeling I’ll never forget.
If the views themselves weren’t magical enough, the sounds only added to the mystique. You see, the cave is named (in Vietnamese, mind you) after the the thousands of resident swallows who call it home, and whose cries reverberate throughout the massive structure as they fly above and dart amongst the crevices in its enormous walls.
After a quick dip to cool off from our hike in, we were eventually treated to dinner – which you’d think would be humble camp food, practically chosen for its portability. But your assumption would be wrong. Oxalis employs not just guides and porters, but cooks – so we sat down to an incredibly delicious feast (a small fraction of which I managed to capture on camera) in what had to have been the coolest dinner atmosphere I’ve ever experienced. Eat your heart out, trendy Bali restaurants. We’d have a similarly hearty and delicious breakfast the next day.
After rising early the next morning, our guides pointed out 300-million-year old limestone coral fossils, evidence of the very rock around us having risen from the depths of the sea millions of years ago – an astounding and irrefutable geological fact before our very eyes. The morning also took us to an absolutely arresting high vantage point in the cave from which to admire its magnificence. I hope you’ll not blame me for taking essentially the same photo so many times.
Further into the cave still, our guides shared with us yet another mouth opening. This one experienced a bit of recent Hollywood fame, having been featured in 2015’s Peter Pan prequel ‘Pan’. It’s not hard to understand why it was chosen for a prominent part on the big screen.
Before long, we packed up and started the long walk back – very much an uphill ordeal this time around, and a much more challenging one at that. But after emerging hot and sweaty on the other side, we couldn’t shake the grins off of our faces. This experience was something really special, and it was clear that our Vietnamese hosts were incredibly proud to share this amazing part of their country with us. The scenery was seemingly torn right out of a fairytale, and I count it amongst the coolest things I’ve done all year.
Tackling the Hai-Van Pass: Bliss on Two Wheels
After leaving Phong Nha behind, we had a quick overnight stop in the Imperial city of Hue. We didn’t do a terrible lot aside from walking around and snacking a bit, but enjoy this photo of the old city wall all the same.
The next morning saw us well-rested and eager for the other most anticipated part of our trip: our motorbike journey from Hue to Hoi An by way of the notorious Hai Van Pass.
The overall journey from Hue took us about 4.5 hours, the scenery slowly shifting from bustling city to rural countryside to oceanic views, finally arriving at the culminating Hai Van Pass, an absolutely majestic stretch of twisty mountain road overlooking the South China Sea. This pass is globally renown for its amazing motorcycling, providing absolutely unforgettable moments of bliss in which you twist the throttle, lean into a turn, crest over a hillside, and are absolutely enveloped with a glistening view of the sea and the imposing metropolitan skyline of Da Nang – Vietnam’s third largest city – growing ever larger in the distance.
This riding adventure was absolutely superb, and the road itself was second in my experience only to California’s world-famous Pacific Coast Highway – a MUCH longer route, in all fairness. There were moments in which James and I were literally screaming with delight as we soaked in this remarkable stretch of pavement, dipping and diving amongst mental motorcycle traffic that observed the typical lawlessness of Vietnamese roads. That said, motorcycling is a pretty hands-on activity, and we were so absorbed with enjoying the experience that we didn’t stop for too many photos.
Luckily, a few far more entertaining souls have tackled the same ride: Top Gear is one of my favorite shows of all time, and the rest of the world agrees – it’s the most widely watched factual television program on the planet, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Watch as hosts Jeremy, Richard, and James tackle the very same stretch of road (albeit in reverse) and I’m sure you’ll see why this part of our journey was such a special one. Watch the whole thing, or skip to 03:11 to cut right to the chase.
The pass feeds into Da Nang, an incredible and often underlooked seaside city that we spent woefully little time in, primarily as a result of our ignorance moreso than anything else. It’s a clean, modern city renown for its seven bridges – including one shaped like a dragon that spits fire. We didn’t catch that spectacle, but I’ve stolen a Google photo to display amongst my own to get that point across.
If I could do Vietnam over again – or indeed when I do visit it again – I’ll be spending a whole lot more time in Da Nang. But as it stood, we passed right on through in favor of it’s much smaller southern neighbor: Hoi An.
Hoi An: A Town Aglow
Hoi An is primarily famous for three things: cheap and ubiquitous tailors on every corner, regional street food specialties you won’t find elsewhere, and an unbelievably charming nocturnal glow, cast by the light of thousands of handmade paper lamps that line its riverside streets.
For food, we enjoyed dishes like Cao Lau and Mi Quang, below, as well as another incredible bánh mi sandwich that Tony Bourdain declared his favorite in all of Vietnam. The local market was positively abuzz with fresh produce, seafood, and proteins aplenty.
Intrigued by the allure of hundreds of tailors, we popped in to take a peek, and ultimately James and I were both sized up to purchase a few shirts. We picked our preferred fabrics from the hundreds lining the walls, and the local artisans produced custom, handmade-to-order tailored shirts for us overnight. Three completely custom shirts cost me less than $50 US – without having bothered to haggle. I sent two of them home with James and kept one for the road – here I am at my fitting (and another photo with the shirt I’m traveling with – taken in Seoul, South Korea, which I’ll be telling you about soon!)
But the real draw in Hoi An is the fairytale landscape of the city by night: it’s as if Walt Disney designed Vietnam. The streets were full of visiting families, mostly Asian tourists, enjoying the city’s charms. It really is something to see – the town plays hypnotic classical music throughout the streets, boats offer cruises along the river, and people are out and about enjoying the ambiance and the hundreds of street food stalls that dot every corner. It almost doesn’t even feel real!
Epilogue: A Love Letter to Vietnam
And just like that – as quickly as we’d begun, it was time for James and I to part ways. He was heading back home to the States, and I’d be hopping over to Korea for a few days in Seoul before starting a stint in Europe. Traveling with James was an absolute joy: he and I are alike in a many ways, and sharing our passion for food and adventure in such an incredible locale was such a rewarding experience. I was bummed to part ways with him – but alas, his lovely wife Natalie and affable French bulldog Walter were eagerly awaiting his return.
He and I agreed, though, that we’d experienced something really special together. Remember the beginning of this post, when I used that word? Well, the shoe fits. Vietnam is my favorite place I’ve travelled this year – and that’s a bold claim. But the combination of incredibly kind people, rich cultural depth, unmatched fresh and flavorful food, too-good-to-be-true affordability (this is where New Zealand is handily surpassed), and the insane diversity afforded by mountains, caves, oceans, rivers, and placid seas just culminates in ‘the total package’ – there’s no way around it.
Each leg of our trip – one experience after another – proved time and time again to be radically different but unbelievably great. Traveling around is easy, cheap, and rewarding. And bizarrely, we had all of these experiences without even seeing the entire southern half of the country – home of Ho Chi Minh City, its powerhouse metropolis that so many people adore. There simply wasn’t time to see it all.
Still, of all the places I’ve seen all year, Vietnam is one I simply will not be content not to return to – so I’ll have another shot. It’s become a part of me in a way that other places haven’t: a collection of experiences and sights and smells and tastes that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Remember, It’s special. And if you don’t believe it from me, listen to Tony – he gets it.
Tạm biệt for now – it just keeps on getting better.