As we were leaving the region to move back home, I did a consultancy that took me to several capital cities to review national health programs. It was a great opportunity for all of us to say goodbye to friends, colleagues and places we’ve frequented over the past decade. So we packed up the house and shipped, sold or gave away our belongings, and took the kids on a two month journey through Southeast Asia. [Read more…] about Travel: Hauling a 2- and 4-year old through 6 countries in 8 weeks
I swear everyone is an entrepreneur in Vietnam. There’s a palpable sizzle of business-orientation in the air. If you want to get a vibe of the Asian economy in real-time and see what the emerging markets buzz is all about, come spend some weeks in Vietnam!
That said on the individuals level, overall Hanoi wasn’t as interesting as I expected (granted, I was there for a workshop, and spent just a few days exploring the city). It’s most definitely progressing at a rapid clip, but it remains unapologetically provincial. Old temples and historic sites seem either non-existent or not yet identified, restored and put on the map. It gave the impression of an architecturally simple, culturally uncomplicated and unpretentious city– despite the high energy– almost as if it’s settling for claim as a Halong Bay stopover, totally disinterested in tourists. The North is completely different from the rest of the country, and is completely ok with that.
Give the food trail a shot, it’s worth the effort.
We’re big foodies, and we try as much local fare as is possible whenever we visit a new locale. In Hanoi, the cuisine is more simple and isn’t as spicy (chili hot or tasty good) as the royal cuisine of Central Vietnam or the fusion-ed fares of South Vietnam, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good in its own right! We found a huge variety of offerings, that we just couldn’t fit enough meals in a day. Actually we had to settle for sampling numerous meals without finishing any one, both of us sharing just one dish! (thank goodness food was cheap!) In the evenings it was a feast: all sorts of food shops open in the tightest of quarters, squeezing as many customers into every crack of open space on the sidewalk.
This is a very popular seafood grill corner. Stacked to the ceiling in one corner are many small plastic seats (like for children) and tables as is possibly needed. The a la carte dining choices are spread out over a large bed of ice. Customers point at the raw seafood preparations and they’re brought to your small plastic table grilled.
This is one of the seafood food shops in the Old Quarter. The food sits on beds of ice all day waiting for customers. One particularly amazing preparation is the oyster. These oysters were at average 8inX6in HUGE. They’re brushed with a special hot vinegar sauce, put on the grill, an egg broken over it, and served with hot sauce and dried garlic and onions. It’s mouthwateringly, amazingly good. In May 2007 one of these was $1.50. We cleaned her out every time we walked by!
Bun-cha is a must-have for any visitor to Hanoi. This very large spread of a meal has such varied textures (soft noodles, crunchy fried spring rolls, tender meats, chopped vegetables..) and flavors (sweet, hot, herbal, vinegary, bitter) tossed together in a curious combination. One of the major bun-cha food shops is listed in the Lonely Plant. It is a Hanoi staple and only available at lunchtimes due to the labor-intensive preparations.
The Vietnamese like their meats– anything that moves is game. Civets, field rats, snakes, bats, they all make it onto the famous grills. No one eats alone. If you’re sitting by yourself, a group will invariably join you. These guys offered a taste of their meals to Keith, who looked on in curiosity as their orders were brought. They were happy to share, and by the time the various attempts at communications arrived at a semblance of understanding, he found out he’d just eaten dog meat.
It is a healthy eating culture. Everyone eats a lot of raw foods– fruits and vegetables. There are fresh vendors everywhere you turn. Sellers who rent a space at markets sell at a higher price than sellers who plant themselves on the sidewalk and spread out their items on the ground. And sellers such as this one, who walk around with a pole and baskets of fruits hanging from each end, often sell for even less.
Markets are one of the first places I love to check out when I’m new to an area. The environment and wares and goods are so telling of a people. Here are some grains sold at the market near Old Quarter, and prepared foods just outside a pagoda near the hotel.
See more photos at Keith Kelly‘s flickr page.
Halong Bay on the Gulf of Tonkin, as with other popular destinations, isn’t without the attendant scams and traps awaiting travelers. Getting the most out of any trip is a matter of arriving with an open mind. Expect to haggle and stay flexible; you’d be surprised how far patience and good humour goes. I normally avoid package tours but it’s unavoidable here, unless you have the luxury of time and nettle to dicker your way onto a private boat with the locals (it’s legally not allowed).
As of May 2007: 2day-1night boat trips ranged the gamut of $30 for a small junk to $180+ for an Emeraude cruise. Know your traveling style and philosophy, as there are benefits to all options. For example, the bare-bones trips offer a glimpse into local life that luxury cruises do a very good job of sheltering patrons from. Being no-frills, guests are allowed to haggle with vendors who float by, towing anything from Oreos to locally-caught seafood from boat to boat. They even have the equipment necessary to make a very tasty local meal for you. Guests can ask for an informal cooking lesson in the galley, request a special itinerary or stops not advertised by the booking agent. This interaction with locals and flexibility is limited with the higher-end cruises. Because they have more offerings, guests are charged for bringing purchases on-board, and the advertised schedule is strictly adhered to. But they also offer more comfort, have better amenities and an array of entertainment options. It’s really quite up to the traveler’s comfort needs.
It was the start of the rainy season in May, but the downpours were predictable and short.
That said, words can’t capture the beauty of Halong Bay.
Interesting activities at dawn…. dynamite fishing. It’s illegal, as it doesn’t just kill fish. The sudden underwater shock indiscriminately pulverises the underlying habitat and destroys the surrounding ecosystem.
Typical of a longer itinerary is a stay overnight at Cat Ba Island. No white sand and surf here, and no entertainment– there’s a floating village, some swimming and short hikes. Getting invited to a meal is great and isn’t hard to do, as locals are all very friendly and eager to meet visitors–as well as earn some extra cash! Otherwise hit up one of the floating restaurants for a seafood treat that isn’t so hard on the wallet.
Birders might find this is a good stop as the fish farms and constant churning of the water from the junks offer easy meals. There were a dozen black kites and red-whiskered bulbuls, some of them in aerial combat over territory. It’s always interesting to watch fierce smaller birds chase off birds of prey ten or more times larger than they are.
These amazing boats look like they’re barely skimming the top of the water, they’re so buoyant. This woman is cutting some bamboo to strips to repair another boat. Doesn’t it look like the boats are floating just right on the surface of the water?
To see more Halong Bay photos see Keith Kelly‘s Flickr page.