I flew to Hanoi direct from Bangkok, in business class, with Qatar Airways on a short 90 minute flight. The return ticket cost me 18,000 Avios (British Airways miles) + £98 GBP in fees. Sure, for the same as I paid in fees I could have bought a cash ticket on a budget airline like Air Asia, but for much better take-off times and the opportunity to fly business class with one of the best airlines in the world I was happy to flick in the extra 18K Avios.
The first thing I did when I arrived there was to buy cheap local SIM card with data from a kiosk at the airport and then book a ride to the city with the Uber app. I chose to use Uber Black and was driven to the city in a nice new SUV for 25% less than the flat fare of a standard Vietnamese taxi and also got a further large discount for using a first ride promotion code. Isn't technology brilliant?
I stayed in a nice hotel in the old quarter. Just as well that the hotel was quiet, clean and nice because it was in contrast to the noise, dirt and chaos on the streets outside - the like of which you could only find in a busy city in a developing country. It was brilliant.
I met my friend Kat and we went to eat at one of the best 'Pho' joints in Hanoi - Pho Gia Truyen. Pho is rice noodles, generally served in a broth with herbs and meat and is one of the most famous Vietnamese dishes.
The joint was packed with locals so I knew I was going to be eating some delicious and authentic local food.
Quite often when you eat cheap food in Asia it's very carb-heavy, but my 50,000 dong (£1.51 GBP / $2.22 USD) bowl of Beef Pho was filled with as much beef as noodles. Very delicious, nutritious and the perfect start to my trip to Vietnam. The fact that I was eating it with a beautiful Vietnamese girl made it only better.
Apparently I'd been pronouncing "pho" wrong all my life though. It's not pronounced like "foe", it's pronounced like "fuh". Anyway, it was pho-cking delicious.
From my experience of visiting Ho Chi Minh city in 2011 I held the opinion that Vietnam was one of the worst countries in the world for a tourist to visit as far as people harassing and trying to scam you goes. Of course I was staying in the middle of a tourist area and was much more naive back then but it seemed that everywhere I went I was being approached by shady characters and was constantly being overcharged or scammed in some way.
On this trip almost everywhere I went in Hanoi I was with my local friend. Nobody approached us when we were together and I paid the local price for everything. I enjoyed the experience much more since I didn't have to keep my guard up all the time. There were a couple of occasions where Kat, who's a successful model, had to go for a casting or shoot for a couple of hours and so I'd go out alone. The motorbike drivers on the corner of every street were asking me where I was going and offering me weed and prostitutes but I just point blank ignored them and it wasn't a problem.
After eating the pho we went exploring for more food and ended up at this classy joint:
I had a big tasty sweet potato fritter for only 8,000 dong (0.24 GBP / $0.35 USD). I'm guessing it was so cheap because his overheads are about as low as they could possibly be.
Next up on the food adventure was 'Banh Cuon' which is a sheet of fermented rice batter filled with seasoned ground pork and mushrooms.
To me it looked more like the lady was making a haggis, but thankfully it tasted a lot better than that.
People in the restaurant were looking at me and talking about me in quite an obvious manner so I asked Kat to translate what they were saying. Apparently they all thought I was crazy for wearing shorts and t-shirt. It was 18 degrees C with zero wind and every Vietnamese person was wearing a thick winter jacket like it was freezing. Incredible.
With full bellies we visited the weekend night market, which is full of tourist tat. Although I did manage to find some quality gear there:
Kat begged me to take off the hat and glasses because she was embarrassed to be seen with me, but I knew how brilliant I looked so I stubbornly kept them on. She threatened to leave me there if I didn't take them off, but I called her bluff.
We then took a lovely walk around Hoan Kiem Lake where every local that we passed was staring at me, saying stuff in Vietnamese and laughing. I even had several fans ask for photos.
"This is ridiculous." Kat said, "Everyone is looking at us. You're tall, you're foreign, you're wearing shorts and t-shirt in the winter, sunglasses at night and a really stupid Minions hat. PLEASE TAKE THEM OFF!"
I told her that it was fine because "I don't live here. I'll never see these people again."
"Well I do and I will!!! Please take them off!"
I eventually agreed to take off the hat and glasses if she'd finally put on the cute bear hat I bought for her. Seemed like a fair trade - me looking stupid for her looking cute. People didn't stop staring at us though.
Kat took me to a popular local ice cream shop called Kem Trang Tien which was like a big indoor car park, with about 100 people standing around eating ice cream next to their motorbikes.
The ice cream was 10,000 dong per cone (£0.30 GBP / $0.44 USD) and tasted very ordinary although the experience of doing what the locals do at one of their popular hang-out locations was worth a lot.
As we walked back to the hotel late at night I had the urge for just a little more food. Kat suggested I try a bowl of 'Bun Oc', which I didn't realise until it was served is snail noodle soup.
Vietnam was formally a French colony as part of French Indochina (with Cambodia and Laos) from 1887-1954. That's why there's a lot of snail, frog, rabbit and baguettes in Vietnamese cuisine still to this day.
The next morning we were back out food exploring. For breakfast I wanted to eat something that was uniquely local but that I'd actually enjoy eating - i.e. something without snails.
Kat took me through a local fresh food market to a stall where she said the lady was famous for making the best 'Bun Cha' in the city. Bun cha is grilled seasoned fatty pork meat on white rice noodles. At this stall the meat was clamped between bamboo sticks and barbecued before being served in a soup.
The bacon-y smell was incredible and I was salivating while waiting for my bowl to be served.
I'd say that this bun cha, along with the beef pho I had the day before, was the best thing I ate on the trip. Top notch.
We spent the rest of the day sightseeing, with Kat driving me around on the back of her motorbike. I'm so glad I didn't have to be the one driving in the crazy Hanoi traffic.
The most interesting place we visited was Hoa Lo Prison aka the Hanoi Hilton. It was built by the French to hold political prisoners and then by the communist Vietnamese to hold prisoners during the Vietnam war. Now it's a museum.
They proudly display the jumpsuit and gear of John McCain, that old American politician, who spent some time in the prison in the late 60's after getting captured during the war.
The next day I travelled to Ha Long for a 3 day cruise in Halong Bay. I invited Kat but she had work commitments so I went solo.
I had booked the cruise after doing a considerable amount of research using TripAdvisor and other resources. There are very many cruise operators and agents selling Halong Bay cruises but I decided to go direct with Indochina Junk.
Indochina Junk have an exclusive license with the government to operate in Bai Tu Long Bay, which makes up about 3/4 of the Halong Bay UNESCO world heritage site. The other part of Halong Bay has literally hundreds of boats operating there at any one time, and that was a common negative comment that I read through all the TripAdvisor reviews.
Please note that I was given a media discount when purchasing the cruise but that doesn't have any affect on my opinion.
The itinerary I chose was a 3 day - 2 night cruise on their Dragon's Pearl boat. It has 11 cabins so it's large enough to make some friends but small enough to be a peaceful and relaxing experience.
The rooms were basically like small hotel rooms, with air conditioning units and en-suite bathrooms with unlimited hot water. What made it better than a hotel room though was an ever-changing view from the window of one of the most beautiful places in the world.
I was a little worried that I'd be lonely staying on boat for 3 days by myself but thankfully there was a good mix of good people on board who I got on great with.
There was a newly married Aussie couple who both serve in the Australian army, a young Dutch couple who quit their jobs to travel the world for a year, another young couple from California who took a couple of weeks break from their tech jobs, an Aussie woman with her 14 year old son, a quiet girl from Texas, a guy from Hawaii with dreadlocks who runs a non-profit company that provides surfing lessons to underprivileged kids and a Singaporean family. Great mix of people.
We spent the first couple of hours of cruising though the bay, with most of us on the sun deck marvelling at the breathtaking scenery. There were no polluted waters, strewn with garbage, like many of the reviews from people visiting Halong Bay had mentioned. As I previously mentioned, this was because the 99% of other boats in the bay are not allowed to sail through Bai Tu Long Bay where were.
We were then given a cooking class by our onboard chef, who taught us how to make Vietnamese spring rolls.
We made plenty and ate them straight after.
We spent the last hour before sunset in kayaks, giving us some exercise and a lot of freedom to explore the bay independently.
In the evening our chef made us a big dinner. My appetite is much larger than 'big' though, and I was nowhere near full. I'd been on a 3,500 calorie per day diet for a few months so going from that to eating the same sized portions as regular people would have been painful. The chef was very thoughtful though. After the waiter told him that I was still hungry he went back into the kitchen and made me an omelette.
We spent the night time on the sun deck under the stars chatting. Most of the group brought their duvets out from their rooms which was hilarious to me as it was only about 16 degrees C and I was still in shorts.
Everyone went to bed super early, like 9:30 pm, except for me and the Aussies who did some squid fishing from the front of the boat. We stayed up for hours and only managed to catch one baby, which we threw back. Shame because a calamari breakfast would have been lovely.
On our second day we did more cruising and more kayaking.
This time we visited a hidden lagoon. There was a narrow path of water which led to a large enclosed area which was just stunning.
We spent at least two hours in the kayaks, exploring the rock formations and small caves.
When we finally made it back to the boat my arms were aching. I'd been paddling solo whereas everyone else had been in tandem kayaks. Good workout though!
In the late afternoon we spent a couple of hours on a beach on a tiny island.
Everyone was relaxing as they were so tired from the long kayaking session earlier. The only ones with energy left were me and Tom, the 14 year old Aussie kid. We were having sprinting races along the beach, and the dogs belonging to the few guys who live on and maintain the island joined in with us.
We then took a tandem kayak out into the sea and tried to hijack one of Indochina Junk's small private boats. "Yar - har - fiddle-dee-dee, being a pirate is all right with me! Do what you want 'cause a pirate is free, you are a pirate!" we sang as we paddled.
When we got to the small boat I screamed in my best pirate voice "Arrrrr, put your hands in the air. We are mighty pirates, we're here to rape and pillage!". The captain of the boat then ran and pulled up the ladders so that we couldn't board. We tried to board on the other side but they started the engine and took off, with everyone on board laughing. Pirating isn't as easy as you'd have thought. I guess I'll just stick to pirating episodes of Game of Thrones.
By the time we go back to the island it was getting dark and spitting with rain. It turns out that everyone on the island had been waiting a while for us to paddle back so that they could board the tender back to the boat. "Where have you guys been?" Tom's mother asked. "Arrrrrrrrrr" I responded.
In the evening we returned to the island. This time it was to enter the large cave where we would eat a special dinner.
It's incredible what they've done with the cave. They have it all lit up with small candles and there's rose petals scattered everywhere.
We were served a large BBQ dinner. I lost count of how many courses there were. They served me a double portion of everything, without me asking, which was really thoughtful of them.
With each course that was served they laid various ornaments that were freshly carved out of fruit on the table. Wonderful craftsmanship that took hours of work. They really put a lot of effort into making it a special occasion for us.
As it was the Aussie couple's honeymoon they were presented with a surprise cake after the meal. "You're going to share that, right?" I asked.
Waking up on the 3rd day I soaked in the fresh air and stunning view, sad that it was the last day on the boat.
After checking out of our rooms we visited a small fishing village where the residents live on floating houses. Apparently they used to live in the caves until the government gave them grants to build the houses in recent years.
It was fascinating to observe their way of life. This is a photo of their local supermarket:
Back in Hanoi I spent another couple of days with my good friend Kat. We did a little bit of sightseeing, visiting Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, which contains his embalmed body.
And the war museum which has some old Vietnamese and American planes from the war.
I would have enjoyed the war museum much more if I hadn't already been to the one in Saigon which is 10x bigger and better.
Of course most of my sightseeing time was spent doing more local food exploring.
Feeling adventurous I tried 'Balut' which is a fertilised duck egg.
I though this was going to be absolutely disgusting. I'd seen photos online where you could see the head of the embryo / fetus (type 'balut' into google images). The one I was served didn't look bad at all, with nothing that resembled a creature. I think the lady had chopped off the head when she de-shelled it for me.
As for the taste, well it tasted just like an egg, but with the crunchy texture of the unborn bird to go along with it. I wouldn't say it was delicious but I'd happily eat it again. A decent protein snack.
Something that I would say was delicious and I'd happily eat every day was 'Nem Cua Be', which is crab spring rolls, made by these two girls:
Crispy fried pastry surrounding a large portion of delicious crab meat and vegetables.
The final meal of the trip was also notable, as Kat took me to one of her favourite restaurants. They make five unusual variations of pho.
We tried two. The first was 'Pho Cuon'. which is beef and vegetables wrapped like a spring roll with flat pho.
And the second was 'Pho Xao', which is deep-fried pho.
Very nice and crispy, like onion rings.
This was my second visit to Vietnam but I still plan on returning in the near future. I'd like to do a mountain trek in Sapa when the weather is warmer as well as check out Nha Trang which is famous for it's beaches and clear waters, perfect for scuba diving.
There's a lot of Vietnamese food I've still to try also!