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You thought our Hoi An food crawl was over, didn’t you? Well clearly you’ve underestimated the power of our appetites.
Actually, Scott said he was full from the gigantic bahn mi and bowl of Cao Lau but I convinced him to soldier on (in the name of research, of course). I was so happy with my powers of persuasion that I neglected to realize one thing: making food decisions when you’re already in a food coma is generally not a good idea.
But two stops does not a food crawl make, so we headed toward the Hoi An food market, wandering under a mosaic of overlapping green and blue tarps while looking for something enticing. Word on the street was that the food there was good, and we eventually saddled up to a stand and ordered two specials:
A crispy stuffed pancake called bahn xeo was the Vietnamese equivalent of the taquito: greasy with a little bit of a crunch, and not as flavorful as you’d think.
Next up is the noodle dish bahn cuo, for which I had high hopes. Thinly shredded herbs and carrots make the long, flat noodles look like they’re filled with confetti, and they fall prettily as they’re hand-cut with a pair of shiny scissors.
But they’re served cool—and I’m never been one for anything that tastes like leftovers the first time around. I forced a few slimy noodles down before giving in. Luckily, at $1.50 for the whole shebang, I don’t feel so bad about leaving food on the plate.
Plus, I didn’t have time to feel bad. I had a $1 manicure to attend to. Oh Hoi An, you make life so hard.
It was less than two days into our Hoi An stay when Scott and I started getting soft. I’m not sure if it was the tropical air or the king-like service at the Ha An Hotel, but we were spending far too much of our time lying in hammocks drinking tequila-laced mango juices. If we were ever going to make it to Saigon, we had to earn our traveler street cred back, and there was only one way to do it: the Hoi An Food Crawl.
We devised a plan, readied our stomachs, and set out on a pair of rusted beach cruisers. The first stop? A cluttered sandwich stand that we had spied locals crowded around the evening before.
$3.25 for two bahn mi with the works, plus a coke and a water to wash it all down. It set the bar high.
Layers of pork, cilantro, peppers, cucumber and tomato are stuffed inside crusty French bread doused with just enough earthy au jus to make your jaw happy But the hearty portions came at a heavy price: it was our first stop and our stomachs were starting to feel full. More seasoned travelers would’ve known to save their stomachs by splitting just one sandwich amongst themselves.
Next up: Cao Lao.
Interrupting my unplanned summer blogging break (welp, sorry!) to share with you a fantastic blog by two lovely Brits. Scott and I met Jamie and Joe while hiking in Sapa. They were 4 months into a 9-month trip, and between their travel stories and their happily shared knowledge of photography, they made for interesting companions on long hikes through rocky terrain. Our photos got drastically better after spending time with them, but our shots still don’t hold a candle to the ones they just posted over at OddJam. They truly captured the essence of those teeny hill villages.
Hoi An is bikes and lanterns and lizards and magic. It’s a mix of French Colonial sophistication and Southeast Asian vibrancy with a happy, laid-back spirit that envelopes you like a cool cocktail. I wanted to fly all my family and friends over and have us live there forever, sipping mango juice in hammocks by the beach and getting $1 manicures for fun. Scott just wanted to buy a panama hat and play soccer with the locals.
If we ever need to run from the law, you’ll know where to find us.
You don’t order off a menu; you just wait to see the ripples from her paddle and hear the sound of her heavily-accented voice.
“Skew-meee!! Buy some-teeen?”
Don’t try to duck under the window. She already saw you. And you know you want those Oreos anyway.
Vietnamese room service: it’s like a drive-thru, except they come to you, and you get to negotiate the price. So basically, it’s the best thing ever.
I’m a sunshine girl. I grew up by the beach and nothing makes me happier than a bright and sunny, 85-degree day. Show me a rainy morning and I’ll duck back under the covers and tell you to wake me up tomorrow.
But in Halong Bay, even I can’t deny the beauty of the fog. Because while the bright green karsts and the deep turquoise sea sparkle in the sun, it’s when they’re clouded in the fog that they truly shine. There’s something about the eery iridescence that makes every view feel like a scene; every vision a painting. And then when the fog goes away, the karsts and the sea seem lonely.
You go to Halong Bay for the islands the sea; but it’s the fog that captures you.
This is our Sapa guide Chi and her son Jahn. She is five feet tall and made of muscle. She eats bamboo and dandelion greens from the side of the road, gave birth in her thatched-roof home, and has never heard of mail. She is a proud guide when there’s tourists and a happy rice farmer when there’s not. She never went to a day of school in her life.
In two days, Chi taught me more about Vietnamese culture and life in general than I learned on the rest of the trip combined, and I developed a deep affinity for her unassuming nature and no-nonsense style. Ten thousand miles from home she made me feel welcome and safe, and her easy manner made me smile for hours of hard trekking.
This is Chi, the only woman who ever has, and who ever will, get me to ride on a motorbike.
This lady was not our guide in Sapa, but she followed us through 5 hours of strenuous hiking anyway. She followed us for miles of ascents and descents. She held my hand as I struggled to balance on steep, rocky slopes in my expensive sneakers, while she climbed easily in flimsy plastic sandals with a baby on her back. She followed us for 5 hours; all with the hope of selling us $5 worth of embroidery at the end. And then she went home to stitch more embroidery for the next day.
She smiled the whole time.
Read Hanoi, part I here.
We take a cab to the train station in Hanoi and it’s like we’ve entered a different world. A third world. Shanghai was bright lights, pristine streets, street signs with English translations underneath. Here it is nighttime, and the roads—when paved—are padded with a thick layer of dust. The swarms of motorbike riders wear bandannas and masks to keep from swallowing it. Whole families pile onto a bike, Dad driving, mom behind him, baby in between them, and any older children standing up front in between Dad and the handlebars. Helmets are a rarity.
Through this dark, dusty mist, we see signs in another language. It’s desolate. It’s dirty. I feel we could be anywhere—Haiti, Iran, a border town in Mexico. We pass lots of roadside stands and open air shanty restaurants where the only seating is plastic children’s stools. We see open fires on the side of the road.
We get to the train station and no one’s there. Yet somehow, I refuse to believe we’ve gotten had. Through the grace of God Scott learns we’re at the wrong train station—apparently there are A and B stations with the same name. Our train leaves in 15 minutes but the taxi driver we find says we’re close. It doesn’t seem close enough. The traffic here is as maddening as it is confusing.
We make it to the proper train station and see a person out front holding a sign with our name. Sweet relief! He rushes us through the station, across the tracks (no platform here) and into our sleeper cabin. Seconds later the train takes off.