In April 2015 I went to North and Central Vietnam with my husband Ole. It was an amazing adventure. The highlights were the buzzing chaos in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, cruising around in Halong Bay, visiting the minority groups around Sapa and being invited to join a funeral, visiting the glorious citadel in Hue and the tombs around the city, taking a cooking class in Hoi An, the wonderful food. I fell in love with the country from the start and can’t wait to go back there someday to again meditate over a cup of egg coffee while watching the traffic in Hanoi and again taste the savory crispy pancakes in Hoi An.
Below you can see the pages from my travel journal.
We arrived in Hanoi in the early hours in the morning. There were already a hectic activity in the Old Quarter, but there were no tourists around. Down by Huan Kiem Lake people were doing Tai Chi and there was a tranquility in the air. Later the town exploded in its chaotic and fascinating bustle with scooters and people everywhere. After visiting the island in the lake we went to the National Museum to learn more about the city’s history. We had our first egg coffee, Cà Phê Trứng, at the charming café Dinh and it instantly became our new favorite beverage.
We had lunch at the exquisite Madame Hien, very luxurious, but we felt we needed some pampering after 12 hours flight on a flight with crying babies. The food was excellent and we finished with a Vietnamese ice coffee, which also became an instant favorite. Then we visited St. Joseph Cathedral and the quarter around it. Then a refreshing cinnamon tea at Hanoi House, now my favorite spot in Hanoi. Dinner at La Place, walk by the lake and then enjoying a cold beer while trying to capture the busy streets of Hanoi in a drawing.
The next day we tried to visit Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, but the queue was insane. The guidebook had said nothing about buying a ticket in advance, but it definitely seems to be the way to go next time we try. We then went to the Temple of Literature. It was an amazing place, so beautiful and tranquil. A whole school class of boys watched while i was drawing, which was quite intense. Afterwards we had lunch at KOTO, where I had my first green mango salad, my oh my, that is yummy! And the place is really nice, a must visit. We then went to Hoa Lo Prison, which was quite interesting. We saw a water puppet show, which was really amazing and fun. We finished the day with dinner at Nola where we had the most amazing summer rolls.
On our last day in Hanoi we went on another exploration in the Old Quarter, it is such a fascinating place and we used hours trying to just grasp a bit of it. We had Bahn Cuon at a street food kitchen and found another place to have an egg coffee. Then we went back to Hoan Kiem Lake for a refreshing coconut and some relaxing on a bench. Nearby some elderly women were doing Tai Chi. I started to draw Thap Rua and then some students from the local university came over and asked if they could talk to me and Ole to practice their English.
We had our last meal in Hanoi at Highway 4 where we had crickets, ostrich, catfish and anchovies. Then back to Nola – which by the way also is a definite must visit – for a Mojito before boarding the nigh train to Sapa. And then fast forward a day and I present a drawing of the view from our hotel room in Sapa.
We had hired a local guide to take us out to some of the minority villages, where the tourists normally don’t come. It was amazing. We visited several villages and a local market. And we even had the great honor of being allowed to join a local funeral, where we had the change to experience their local customs and the local rice wine. An absolutely amazing and life-changing experience.
Our amazing trip to the Vietnamese mountains was followed by an equally amazing cruise in Halong Bay. It is an intriguing place that oozes of myths and seems like a land where enormous dragons would live. Apart from just enjoying the amazing view we had a lot of activities on our first day: a visit to The Surprising Cave, a hike to a viewpoint high up on a one of the rocks, a cool dip at the beach, cooking class in the evening, squid fishing in the dark and meal after meal after meal … we were so filled at the end that we could hardly breath.
On our second day in Halong Bay we started with Tai Chi before breakfast and then went kayaking, which was incredible. The tranquility, the bird songs and all the things to see was mesmerizing. Then relaxing for a while on the boat and enjoying another grand meal before visiting a floating village and a pearl far. In the evening we once again had a cooking class and enjoyed a huge dinner.
In the early morning on our last day in Halong Bay I woke before anyone else and used a couple of hours on our balcony watching the eagles fish and the areas morning activity. After returning to dry land again, we had a 4 hour drive back to Hanoi. On the trip to Halong Bay I had slept most of the drive, but this time I was wide awake. It was interesting to watch all the cities and villages we drove through, the rice fields that were everywhere and the crazy traffic. In Hanoi we had some hours to spend before our night train departed for Hue, so we went straight to Hanoi House for another refreshing tea. I really love that place.
The city of Hue is in itself not very charming, but we had a great hotel, Huenino, and there was a lot to see. We first went to the citadel Kien Thahn, which is incredible. It is very, so we walked around the place for many ours. It is incredible beautiful and there was so much to see, that it was impossible to fathom it all.
On our second day in Hue we rented a couple of bikes with drivers and drove out of the city to see the tombs. The first tomb was Khai Dinh tomb which is dark on the outside in a sort of gothic manner and colorful on the inside. Then we went to Minh Mang tomb which was very tranquil and had the most lovely park around.
On our way to the last tomb we drove by the Perfume River and my guide pointed out the white female Buddha statue on the mountain over Hue, who protects the city and the valley. We then came to the last tomb on our schedule, Tu Duc tomb. This tomb was spread over a very large area and the whole place had a feel like something out of Tomb Raider. Crumbling stone structures, endless staircases and mist or smoke floating among the buildings. Back at Hue we tried some of their local specialities: banh khoai, bahn beo and bahn loc. Served with the local beer Huda, which turned out was made with “Danish Technology” meaning it was own by Danish Carlsberg. Back at the hotel we relaxes and tried to get new energy before traveling to the next and last destination on our trip.
While resting in our hotel room at Huenino i Hue i drew these pages. The first of our visit to the Thien Mu Pagoda a couple of ours before, where we saw bunnies, butterflies, bike driving monks, the Austin that Thich Quang Duc was driven in, when he went to Saigon, where he died in an act of self-immolation, and of course also the beautiful pagoda itself. On the other page I collected some of the vietnamese phrases, we had tried to learn, and the different flags we had seen.
The last days of our journey was spent in Hoi An, which for me mostly is food, food and more food. We took a cooking class at The Market and enjoyed so many nice meals at different restaurants. My absolute favorite was crispy pancakes served at Bale Well.
In the evening we went for a stroll in the city center and watched the beautiful sight of lights in paper boats floating down the river. After breakfast one morning in Hoi An we crawled back into bed to enjoy the premier of Game of Thrones 5 and Sillicon Valley 2, which were broadcast at the same time as in the United States. It was also here we had our traditional visit to an Irish Pub to drink a Guinness. This particular place was however not the usual kind of Irish Pub, since it was located in a large and stately city house that oozed of french colonialism, and in the court yard, where we were sitting, they showed Charlie Chaplin movies. We also visited their beaches and spend some relaxing hours at An Bang beach followed by a coconut and mini burgers at Soul Kitchen.
On our last day in Hoi An we went shopping in the morning for rice paper and Vietnamese coffee filters. While packing all our stuff I started counting all the many wonderful things we had bought on our trip: A hat, Vietnamese coffee and filters, passion fruit jam, a hand sewn bag bought in a minority village, beautiful tea cups, five spices powder, a cookbook and a mango peeler.
On our long long trip home from Vietnam I had plenty of time to contemplate about our Vietnamese adventure. So here are some of my random thoughts about my experiences about the food, the buildings, the use of incense, their wedding traditions.
More random thoughts about the french influence on Vietnamese culture, the cost of a beer, how it was i Hoi An, the rebuilding of the monuments, the hotel service and the use of organic materials.
by North and Central Vietnam 2015 Maria Michelsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.