Why HaLong Bay?

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When it comes to HaLong Bay, it’s really not about if you go, but how you go. This stunning bay filled with approximately 1,600 jutting limestone mountains is a UNESCO World Heritage and one of the top tourist destinations in Southeast Asia. Any guidebook and any travel blog will recommend experiencing this incredible piece of nature when traveling through Vietnam.

But why? What makes HaLong Bay unique, special, unforgettable and all those other words travelers use when describing this place?

As with any booming tourist attraction, there are many options and opinions on how to experience HaLong Bay. From a day trip to an overnight on one of the islands to party cruises to luxury liners, there are seemingly endless options at all price points. I did A LOT of research when choosing how we were going to experience HaLong Bay, and eventually chose the company Paradise Cruises. We splurged a bit, but we wanted a reputable & safe company that would be a comfortable experience. We stay in tons of budget hotels and eat cheap street food all throughout Southeast Asia, but we wanted to see how the other half travel, so we ended up on a 3 day, 2 night Paradise Luxury Cruise of HaLong Bay, Vietnam. This blog will be light on the details of the ship & company, so if you wanting to know more about who we cruised with and how we liked it, with lots of photos, read this longer post!

We had heard from a few people that just one night aboard the boat was not enough time to truly experience HaLong Bay, and I could definitely agree with that statement. I was so glad we did the 2 nights! We not only had hours and hours of cruising time through the bay and between the beautiful peaks, but also 3 cave tours, a kayak excursion, a boat trip through a floating village, a sandy beach swim break, an oyster & pearl farm tour, and a mountain hike with panoramic views. But even with all those elements, the trip didn’t feel too rushed or too packed.

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My favorite part of the trip were sunsets. We were able to sit on the lounge deck, as the weather got cooler and the sky turned golden colors and just watch the magnificence of these mountains glow in the fading sun. I’ve been blessed to see so many amazing parts of this world, from the beaches of Bali that I call home to the Great Wall of China to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, to the canals of Amsterdam, and lions on safari in South Africa. But HaLong Bay was something special that I’ve never seen anywhere else. I was transfixed by perspective. I could see the peaks nearby and closeup, but when I looked past them, I saw others smaller and faded, but just as real. It seemed infinite.

Why is HaLong Bay a must-see? Because it’s something you cannot experience anywhere else. Because no matter where you come from or what language you speak, it’s beautiful. We met travelers from New Zealand, England, Malaysia, Israel and Australia while traveling through HaLong Bay. Even with radical differences between us, we were able to share this experience together. HaLong Bay is so large and so vast, yet it somehow brings perspective. Maybe the mountains in my own life aren’t as big as I thought they were. If the world is truly this infinite, am I making an issue of something larger than it should be? All these thoughts went through my mind as we sailed. And I can honestly say that there aren’t too many tourist attractions that cause me to ponder philosophy of life. But there’s just something special about HaLong Bay.

I don’t believe that HaLong Bay can truly be captured in a still photograph, which is why I put together this video to help immerse you in the unparalleled beauty of this place. Take 5 minutes, put on your headphones, and gaze at the wonder of our world.

HaLong Bay: The Detailed Experience

img_7770-copyWhen it comes to HaLong Bay, it’s really not about if you go, but how you go. This stunning bay filled with jutting limestone mountains is a UNESCO World Heritage and one of the top tourist destinations in Southeast Asia. Any guidebook and any travel blog will recommend experiencing this incredible piece of nature when traveling through Vietnam. As with any booming tourist attraction, there are many options and opinions on how to experience HaLong Bay. From a day trip to an overnight on one of the islands to party cruises to luxury liners, there are seemingly endless options at all price points. I did A LOT of research when choosing how we were going to experience HaLong Bay, and eventually chose the company Paradise Cruises. We splurged a bit, but we wanted a reputable & safe company that would be a comfortable experience. We stay in tons of budget hotels and eat cheap street food all throughout Southeast Asia, but we wanted to see how the other half travel, so we ended up on a 3 day, 2 night Paradise Luxury Cruise of HaLong Bay, Vietnam. Warning, this blog post is a bit long and detailed, so if you are looking for a highlight blog post of HaLong Bay, click here. 

Getting There
HaLong Bay is not really near anything else. Including Hanoi. It’s about a FOUR HOUR drive from the city. There’s no “easy” way to get there. OK, there’s a seaplane option, but for most of us, that’s not realistic because of the price. Almost all companies offer transportation, but not always included in the price of the cruise. Because Paradise Cruise does not include transportation to and from Hanoi in their price, we looked around after arriving in Hanoi to see if we could find a cheaper option. And we ended up going with Paradise Cruise’s provided shuttle. They offer 3 options, the shuttle, the VIP shuttle and the private car. We took the shuttle, but got upgraded to the VIP shuttle on the way back! Having done both of those, and meeting people who did the private car, I would say the VIP shuttle is the most comfortable way to travel. There’s less people, more room, included USB chargers for your phone and an overall better travel experience. Many of our fellow ship-mates complained about the travel, the roads, and the traffic. But I think we’ve lived in Southeast Asia way too long to have noticed! What I did notice was comfortable seats, good AC, and phone chargers. Also, about half way through the trip, there’s a 30 minute stop at a souvenir store & cafe. Perfect for a bathroom break and a cup of coffee. I was grateful for the stop!

Once we arrived at the HaLong Bay harbor, we checked in for our cruise at the Paradise Suites Hotel on Tuan Chau Island. We were served complimentary snacks and drinks while we waited to board. It was an efficient and smooth process checking in and being directed to our ship, the Paradise Luxury 4.

The Ship
The ship, the Paradise Luxury, was simply beautiful. I had moderately high expectations based on the price, website photos and other user reviews. And it exceeded them. We booked a suite, which was larger than many hotel rooms we’ve stayed in while traveling through Asia! We had many windows, a really comfortable bed, table and chairs seating area, and a large bathtub/shower. We were on the bottom floor, but it wasn’t too loud with ship noise or engine noise. The dining room was also beautiful. The top deck was full of loungers and couches, and was incredibly comfortable, especially around sunset.

We also spent about 7 hours on the Paradise Explorer, a day boat, for our 2nd day on the water. It’s a much smaller boat, and not as nice as the Luxury, but completely enjoyable for the day. We were often getting on and off the boat, that there wasn’t too much time to miss the comforts of the Luxury.

The Meals
We really ate a lot of good food while cruising. We had a mix of buffet meals and plated meals. Both were excellent, with a variety of dishes. One night, there was a seafood barbecue with even more food! Each night at sunset, the crew would offer a cooking class, followed by eating that dish. We learned to make Vietnamese spring rolls, papaya salad and a chicken dish. It was delightful. Many blogs and reviews that I had read complained about the high cost of drinks aboard the boats. It was true, however, water was given freely, which I did not expect. Also, our boat offered happy hour each night on selected drinks, alcoholic and non, which brought the cost down considerably. It’s not a booze cruise. Our first night on board we were supposed to wear traditional Vietnamese clothing to dinner, but as soon as we arrived in the dining room, we realized that no one had it on, and it was incredibly awkward. Apparently, people just took a photo in it and then took it off to eat. It was just weird.

 

The Schedule
By choosing the 3 day/2 night cruise experience we were hoping for longer time in the bay, and exploring the islands. Our friends did just the one night, and said it wasn’t enough time. I was really glad that we chose 2 nights, because I felt like we saw so much more. We boarded the ship around lunch time, and after setting sail, had our first meal on the ship. As we sailed further from the coast, the haze and fog lifted and we were treated to beautiful skies and beautiful views of HaLong Bay. Our first “off boat” excursion was Cua Van Floating Village. We could either travel by bamboo boat or by kayak, but the kayak cost extra. We opted for the bamboo boat, and I was happy to get a seat in the front so I could photo easily. It was a leisurely slow boat trip through the fishing village. I would liked if there was actually someone explaining the village, the lives of the fisherman and families and whatnot. We heard a little before we left on the bamboo boat, but I would have probably asked questions along the way. But it was a lovely experience. After returning to the boat, Happy Hour began and not long afterwards the cooking class. I enjoyed the nightly cooking class experience, and was happy to take part, though not all of the cruisers did. Following sunset, dinner was served in the elegant dining. We had another buffet, and it was filling and enjoyable. Apparently evening activities of squid fishing and a movie were offered, but we didn’t bother. It was wonderful to fall asleep being gently rocked to sleep by the waves.

The next morning after breakfast, we were shuttled to the day boat, the Paradise Explorer, which I already mentioned. While on the day boat, we first visited Titop Island, which provided some of the best views of the bay. Of course, we had to climb a million [ok like 600] steps! But there were actually steps, which made the climb relatively easy. And the view was worth it. After the climb, we enjoyed a swim at the island beach which was nice and refreshing. Following Titop Island, we cruised over to Luon Cave, where we boarded another bamboo boat for another slow boat ride through the cave. There were more beautiful views, but it was pretty slow and quiet. After the cave, we enjoyed a simple lunch on the Paradise Explorer while continuing to cruise. After lunch, we had a seemingly random [it wasn’t on the provided schedule] stop at an oyster farm. We were shuttled yet again off the boat to learn about oysters and pearls, and then buy pearls. It seemed like a sales pitch and tourist trap. This was my least favorite excursion of the entire trip. After getting back on the Paradise Explorer, we then cruised over to Tieng Ong Cave, which we were able to walk through. The cave itself was large, but somewhat unimpressive. But here we did get to kayak for about an hour, which I’m glad was offered! After kayaking, we were taken back to the Paradise Luxury main boat just in time for Happy Hour and another cooking class. Dinner was a beautifully plated set meal and was quite enjoyable. Again, we missed the night activities offered. Apparently, there was also 6:30am Tai Chi both mornings, but we definitely slept through that! Our last morning on the boat we were taken to Sung Sot Cave, or Surprise Cave. I was skeptical at first, but this cave was quite impressive and incredibly large. My eye rolling at the thought of another cave quickly turned to open mouth awe at the size and formations of this space. The exit of the cave provided a beautiful panorama of the bay as well. We went back to the ship and enjoyed a late breakfast, and began to prepare to dock and leave the boat. It was bittersweet! I could have kept going, but I was also ready to continue our Vietnam holiday.

We then were taken back to the Paradise Suites Hotel for a free buffet lunch while we waited for the shuttles to take us back to the city. Here’s the only advantage of the private car transportation option. They pick you up at the boat and you head back to the city right then. We waited almost 2 hours at the hotel for our shuttle, while eating a mediocre lunch. We then boarded our VIP shuttle and headed back to the city, stopping at the same souvenir shop & cafe along the way.

Many people have complained about too busy of a schedule, but I did not at all feel like that. There were good activities planned and things I genuinely wanted to see [minus the oyster farm]. Paradise Cruises did a good job planning.

Overall, I give the experience in HaLong Bay with Paradise Cruises 4 stars out of 5. It was elegant, professional, luxurious, and comfortable. HaLong Bay is amazing. So no matter how you go, just go.

We did this trip in September 2016 at the end of the rainy season. We were afraid it would rain during our trip, but we were blessed with blue skies most of the time! We also rarely noticed a congestion of other boats and lots of trash. Often, it seemed we were the only boat on the beautifully clean water. It was simply magical. For a video of our time in HaLong Bay, click here.

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City Guide: Hanoi, Vietnam

The capital city of Vietnam does not disappoint. Full of color, culture, cuisine and character, Hanoi has it’s own vibe. The Old Quarter dominates the tourist attractions, but it’s more than a tourist trap. The architecture and street life is unlike anything I’ve seen in Asia. Hanoi is a blend of colonial and modern, similar to Saigon in the south. But the vibes of the two most popular cities in Vietnam are different. A trip to Vietnam would not be complete without a visit to Hanoi. Here’s a handy guide to what to eat, drink, see and do while enjoying Hanoi!

EAT

  • Bánh Mì: A baguette sandwich stuffed with meats and veggies makes for a great meal at any time of day. Often, the bánh mì is eaten for breakfast, but you can find them all day long! We had bánh mì several times while in Hanoi, with all varieties of fillings. Our favorite bánh mì shop was a cart in the Old Quarter called Bánh mì 25.
  • Bun Cha: This dish of grilled pork and rice noodles is served separately and combined at your table for a delicious soup that you won’t forget. It’s a traditional Vietnamese dish thought to have originated in Hanoi. It’s so famous, that even President Obama had bun cha when he visited Hanoi earlier this year! We ate bun cha at few times, but our favorites were at Ngon Villa, with it’s street food chic version of this popular dish. Another great spot in the Old Quarter was at Bun Cha Ta, which we visited on our street food tour!
  • Chả Cá Thăng Long: Another Hanoi classic is a pan-fried fish served tumeric & dill with thin rice noodles. Many people suggested we try this dish while in Hanoi, and I’m so glad we did. Check out Cha Ca Lang for a great interactive meal of Chả Cá Thăng Long.

DRINK:

  • Egg Coffee [cà phê trứng]: It’s good! I’m serious! Yes, it’s a dark Vietnamese coffee prepared with condensed milk and an egg yolk. It’s creamy and delicious. Apparently, the drink originated back during the French colonial days, when there wasn’t enough milk to enjoy a cup of coffee. The egg yolk is an unconventional addition, but a creative solution. We also tried this drink on our street food tour, and it was a hit with the whole group!

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SEE:

  • Hoàn Kiếm Lake and West Lake: Hanoi surprised me. There’s really beautiful nature in the middle of a bustling city. These two lakes, located pretty centrally in the city, are a breath of fresh air among the crowded streets and loud traffic. More than once, we would grab a Banh Mi and a drink, and sit and enjoy the view of the lake and the city scape. It reminded me of a mini version of Central Park in a way.
  • Government Building District: I don’t actually know the name of this part of town, but there’s a beautiful long road with the Presidential Palace, Parliament, and the Tomb of Ho Chi Minh. We didn’t set out to find this area, but stumbled into it. It’s simply beautiful, with so much history on one road.
  • The Flag Tower: This building is an iconic site of Hanoi, and a must see & must photo. It’s nearby a cute park and the government buildings, which makes for a good walking loop.

DO:

  • Shopping in Old Quarter: This part of town is always alive and thriving. There’s so much to see and do in Old Quarter. But specifically, shopping, is the thing to do in Old Town. Whether you are looking for a unique Vietnamese souvenir or some cheap clothes, you can find it in Old Quarter. Originally, the area was made up of 36 streets where you can find different 36 necessities in life…like shoes, silver, or silk! Friday & Saturday nights, parts of the Old Quarter are closed to traffic, and turned into a walking street market.
  • Street Food Tour: I can’t rave about street food tours in Vietnam enough! It’s a fantastic way to experience the food and culture with a guide, who can share cultural insights as well as what to eat! Full review on our Hanoi Street Food Tour here!
  • HaLong Bay: A trip to Vietnam is not complete without a HaLong Bay trip. There’s so many options and approaches to experience this natural wonder, but no matter how you go…just go. It’s beautiful. It’s unforgettable. It’s magical.

GETTING AROUND HANOI:

  • Walking. It’s a pedestrian friendly city with plenty of sidewalks. However, traffic can be INSANE. Crossing the street is an art form. Use wisdom, and be safe.
  • Grab Taxi & Uber. These app based taxi services are a game changer. Get yourself a SIM card at the airport [around 200,000 dong] and the whole city is at your fingertips. You can not only call a Grab Taxi or Uber quite easily using their applications, but also access Google Maps which allows you to feel confident in always knowing your location. And that of your driver!

WHERE TO STAY IN HANOI:

  • Old Quarter. Sure, it’s touristy and packed, but with good reason. It’s centrally located and there’s lots to see and do. We stayed in two different Old Quarter hotels, one that we recommend, and one that we do not!
    • Real Hanoi Hotel – We stayed here first, and it was not worth the money we saved. For about $18 a night, we were down a dark alley where no taxi could reach, with a moderately helpful staff, a breakfast worth skipping, and six flights of stairs up to our room every day. But, we had a window. Apparently, lower levels have no windows, which would have made this place even worse. It’s no frills at all, and for just a few dollars more, we upgraded to something way better in quality.
    • Hanoi Royal View Hotel – We relocated to another hotel during our stay, but remained in the Old Quarter. What a breath of fresh air, for only $25 a night. The Hanoi Royal View was well-styled, but simple. It was clean and bright. There were windows and an elevator. We still didn’t enjoy the breakfast, but this hotel was a wonderful stay. I will say that because we weren’t down a dark alley, the road noise was much louder than at Real Hanoi. But I was still happy we switched.

If you don’t believe my rave about Hanoi, just let another travel expert share his love for the city. Anthony Bourdain, with guest appearance by President Barack Obama, share food and culture of Hanoi together in an episode that wonderfully captures the city I now love.

Street Food Hanoi Edition

Why is it that food and community make the best memories? We joined a walking group street tour in Hanoi with Hanoi Street Food Tours with fantastic group of fellow travelers and together we were able to experience the authentic street food of Hanoi. I was already a big fan of street food tours after our great experience in Saigon, and Hanoi Street Food Tours did not disappoint. Our group was about 10 people, mostly couples and we had 2 tour guides. We followed our guides quickly and closely through the small streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Whenever we were about to cross a street, the lead guide would call out “sticky rice!”, meaning we were to stick close together to avoid being hit. Appropriate and effective.

Our first stop on the tour may have been my favorite, bun cha! Delicious barbecue pork and rice noodles. So flavorful and yummy. But I learned my lesson from our last food tour and I DID NOT fill up at stop number one. We have seven places to hit on this tour! But I could have eaten so very much more. Our second stop was an interactive stop. We learned how to take thinly steamed rice flour wraps off the top of the steaming pot. It was incredibly tricky and required coordination and timing. I was quite terrible. But thankfully the end result was tasty regardless when the soup was all mixed together!

Our third stop our tour guide called “married women food”. I was confused. Was there really a dish in Vietnam that only married women ate? Then, we arrived. It was assorted fried foods. Meaning who cares how much fried & fatty & greasy food you eat, you are already married! This somehow feels anti-feminist. Either way, the fried treats were great. My favorite, not surprisingly, was the spring rolls. I could live off spring rolls, I think. And I’m already married, so who cares if I get really fat, right?? No, that’s not OK.

We continued our walk through Old Town, and I was thankful for the breaks between meals. We definitely ate a lot of food, but there was a good amount of walking as well. So it balances out, right? At our fourth stop, we got crab noodle soup. It was light, but filling. Everyone in our group devoured it immediately. Stop number 5 was a sweet spot, combining black rice with yogurt and fruit with yogurt and mixed together with ice. It was cool and fresh and perfect for a hot humid night in Hanoi. We actually found this place again a few nights later and ate even more. This was a great treat.

For stop number 6, we switched it up and stopped for a beer on tap! Vietnam has ridiculously cheap beer, and our frothy mugs were only 5,000 Vietnamese dong each. That’s 25 cents. For an entire cup of beer. It’s literally cheaper to drink beer than water in Vietnam. I feel like this could be a contributing factor to the rates of drunk driving in the country as well.

For our final stop, we finally sampled two Hanoi classics, banh mi and an egg latte. Banh mi is a baguette sandwich, usually served with pâté and vegetables, which we ate many times in Hanoi. And the egg latte is a Vietnamese coffee served with egg white to make it creamy and frothy. It sounds bizarre but it was delicious! I’d seen it on other food blogs, and was hoping we could find this treat. It was a perfect stop to end the night.

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We left completely full and with new friends. I love how travel is a universal experience, and when you meet someone else on the road, no matter where you started from, you can have shared experiences. As we all ate and drank together, we shared tips from our time on the road, laughed at our cultural mistakes and talked about home. While I am a planner and a scheduler by nature, so many of the beautiful experiences one has while traveling, cannot be planned or scheduled. I’m so glad we experienced the street food of Hanoi with this group of people who will forever be part of our travel stories.

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This post was sponsored in part by Hanoi Street Food Tours , but as always, the opinions are entirely my own.

Purple Cherry: Restaurant Review

p1050099-copyOur last night in Hanoi, we picked a top rated Trip Advisor restaurant, Purple Cherry. While the evening had a rough start, as the location of the restaurant is actually wrong on Google Maps, we eventually found the correct spot. We met another international couple searching for the same place and we shared a cab. The bonds of traveling. We arrived at Purple Cherry, located on the top floor of the Dragon Pearl Hotel with a great evening view of the city skyline. We were hoping a beautiful sunset, but weather did not cooperate. The ambience of Purple Cherry is simple and effortless. The menu is full of Vietnamese classics. We tried the spring rolls and the bamboo roasted beef. The presentation of each dish was magnificent. While I felt that the flavors of the food wasn’t anything spectacular, the presentation and views of the restaurant were not to be missed. And the price was great! It was a good amount of food for a good price.

This post was sponsored in part by Purple Cherry Restaurant but as always, the opinions are entirely my own.

Cha Ca Lang: Restaurant Review

One dish we were told we had to try in Hanoi was chả cá lăng, a Vietnamese fish with turmeric & dill specifically made famous in Hanoi. We found ourselves trying this famous dish at a brand new restaurant located in the E Central Hotel called appropriately Cha Ca Lang in the Old Quarter. The restaurant had only been open for a few days when we were invited to try it for dinner one night. And I’m so glad we did.

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At Cha Ca Lang, we not only experienced dinner, but a show. Our server, Rosa, prepared the entire meal at our table. It was fantastic. She explained the the different herbs, seasonings and spices she used along the way. She also recommended pairing the chả cá lăng fish with a chagrilled herbal fish stomach. I was skeptical, but took her suggestion and watched as these tiny fish stomachs were tossed into the frying pan. The aroma was intoxicating. I couldn’t wait to try the dish.

We were served the chả cá lăng fish & fish stomach with rice vermicelli [noodles], broth and herbs. It was a fantastic combination. I was surprised to even enjoy the fish stomach! It went together so well. By having Rosa explain the different broths and herbs used, it really made for a more complete dining experience. She knew exactly when to step in and serve more, and when to step back and give us room to eat. It could be an oppressive dining experience if your server is always right there hovering, but Rosa had a great balance.

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The restaurant itself is stunning as well. It’s not large, but it makes the most of every inch. Situated at the bottom floor of the beautiful E Central Hotel, hotel guests will immediately be able to find the restaurant. But if you have the time in Hanoi, search out this gem for an authentic and interactive chả cá lăng Hanoi experience.

This post was sponsored in part by Cha Ca Lang Restaurant, but as always, the opinions are entirely my own.

HOME Vietnamese Restaurant: Restaurant Review

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Home Restaurant in Hanoi is a great spot to grab meal in the city, especially if you are looking for a romantic or upscale night out. Located inside of an authentic French colonial home near the West Lake Hồ Tây, the restaurant feels like you are walking into someone’s house. It’s cozy & inviting, it’s well decorated & stylish. You sit down at your table, and are handed a newspaper, which just happens to be the menu.

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There’s traditional menu options, or a fixed menu available in case you are feeling indecisive. We went with the fixed menu so we were able to try a variety of dishes. And a variety it was! A surprise favorite was marinated lotus bud with pork & shrimp. I’d never tried lotus bud before, and it was so flavorful and tasty. We had delicious seafood with steamed prawns, stir-fried scallops, steamed squid & oyster and some great pork spare rib and sautéed beef shank. The only down side of the fixed menu is that there were a few items that I probably wouldn’t have chosen. But I think the fixed menu is a great value for the quantity. We ate so much food with the fixed menu. We could have just rolled out of the restaurant.

It’s the little touches that really set this restaurant apart. It is exquisitely styled, from the room with dishes on the wall to the copper fixtures in the restroom. I wanted to see every inch of the building, because it’s stunning. This restaurant also handles large groups well, as we several larger groups dining together, the staff handled the tables with ease. We found out that the managers of Home Restaurant also manage Ngon Villa, which we had also visited and love. I could definitely see the similarities in the two. Home Vietnamese Restaurant is a breath of fresh air compared to the Old Quarter and backpacker bars. The place is classy and well put together. You won’t be disappointed.

This post was sponsored in part by Home Vietnamese Restaurant, but as always, the opinions are entirely my own.

Ngon Villa: Restaurant Review

Just outside of the Old Quarter, past the bustling streets crammed with tiny hotels and pubs, past the looming cathedral, you might just stumble past a restaurant in bright yellow French colonial style villa begging you to step inside. And you won’t be disappointed.

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Ngon Villa is a treat for the eyes and the tastebuds. Styled beautifully right down to the place settings, you might forget you are about to stuff yourself with all the street food style dishes you can put away. Ngon Villa has a unique menu structure, which is appealing for those who like to sample lots of different kinds of foods. More similar to a tapas restaurant, at Ngon Villa the portions are small, but you can order as much as you want. There’s three price tiers, and depending on the price you choose, you can select more and more items on the menu. No matter which tier you pick, you can go back for seconds, thirds, and even fourths of whatever dish you loved most.

Ngon Villa managed to capture the taste of Vietnamese street food and put a fine dining spin on it. If you are wanting to try the best of Vietnamese street food, without having to search all over the streets of Hanoi to do it, this is the place for you. Enjoy the fine flavors of street food prepared at international standards of dining with an ambience that can’t be beat.


Almost everything we tried was incredible, but our absolute favorites were the bun cha chargrilled pork, the fried spring rolls, the green papaya salad, and the chargrilled herbal beef. I loved everything about dining experience at Ngon Villa and can’t wait to go back on our next trip to Hanoi!

This post was sponsored in part by Ngon Villa, but as always, the opinions are entirely my own.

City Guide: Saigon, Vietnam

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Saigon, or it’s current name, Ho Chi Minh City, is a city worth visiting in Vietnam. This sprawling city is much larger than I anticipated, with over 10 million residents. This explains some of the ridiculous traffic we encountered! This ancient city is historically known as Saigon, but after the reunification of the city in 1976, the central city of South Vietnam took on the name of it’s first leader, Ho Chi Minh.  The city has an interesting layout, using numbers to indicate neighborhood, similar to the arrondissements of Paris. However, in Saigon, these neighborhoods are referred to as “Districts”, and all I could literally think of was Hunger Games. Most of the tourist highlights & accommodations are located in District 1. Saigon is a city brimming with life.

We didn’t have nearly enough time to spend in this great city, but here’s some of my highlights/recommendations for 24 hours in Saigon.

EAT:

  • Phở. It’s a Vietnamese classic, a must-try while in Vietnam. Phở is a basic noodle soup dish, sometimes served with meat and/or herbs. We not only tried phở, but also pho rolls, which is a fresh take on the traditional dish.
  • Spring rolls. Another classic from southeast Asia, and Vietnam does spring rolls right. Usually filled with fresh vegetables & herbs, sometimes with meat, they are just a delight.
  • Bánh Tráng Nướng & Bánh Dẻo at  Coo2. These two dishes were two of my favorite foods I ate in Saigon. The first, Bánh Tráng Nướng, is a crispy flat rice paper topped with veggies, meats or sauces, much like a crepe or pizza. The rice paper has been grilled over an open flame for a smoky crispy flavor. The Bánh Dẻo reminded me of a burrito, a nice soft rice paper wrap which has been filled with meats, cheese, and vegetables, and then just covered in a sweet & spicy sauce. It literally melts in your mouth. Both of these can be found at C002 restaurant in District 3.

DRINK:

  • Saigon Special. Vietnam has cheap [yet tasty] beer, and the standard for the south is the Saigon Special.
  • Iced Vietnamese coffee. Of course, the country is famous for it’s coffee but in Saigon it’s important to try the coffee iced. One of the strangest comments I heard while in Saigon was that northern Vietnam doesn’t use as much ice, but it’s so true! We regularly  found iced Vietnamese coffee in the south and hot coffee in the north. So be sure to try it iced before heading north.

SEE:

  • Bitexco Tower. It’s the tallest tower in Saigon’s skyline at 68 stories, and not to be missed. There is a pricy observatory deck, or you can just visit the EON Cafe at Floor 51 for a great cup of Vietnamese coffee, dessert or a meal, and take in the magnificent views of the city below.
  • Central Post Office & Notre Dame Cathedral. Beautiful architecture on display at these buildings in central Saigon. They are right across the street from each other and a must see!

DO:

  • Take a tour of the city! There’s lots of great tour companies, including the two we toured with, Tiger Tours & Saigon on Bikes. Doing these tours really enhanced our visit to Saigon, especially in such a short visit!

GETTING AROUND SAIGON:

  • Walking. It’s a pedestrian friendly city with plenty of sidewalks. However, traffic can be INSANE. Crossing the street is an art form. Use wisdom, and be safe. But, hey, we survived! See video below.
  • Grab Taxi & Uber. These app based taxi services are a game changer. Get yourself a SIM card at the airport [around 200,000 dong] and the whole city is at your fingertips. You can not only call a Grab Taxi or Uber quite easily using their applications, but also access Google Maps which allows you to feel confident in always knowing your location. And that of your driver!

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WHERE TO STAY IN SAIGON:

  • I recommend District 1, just because it’s going to be centrally located to the majority of the things you will want to see! That being said, here’s two sites I regularly use to book accommodations:
    • AirBnB: Imagine you are visiting a friend in a new city, and you get to stay in their guest room and they leave you all kinds of tips for navigating their hometown. That’s exactly what an AirBnB feels like. It’s locals renting out rooms or even their whole place to travelers. If you are looking for something unique, and not a chain hotel experience, you’ll definitely want to check out AirBnB. Our room in Saigon was located on top of a bookstore. How cool is that??!
    • Agoda: If you are looking a hotel, whether it’s budget or luxury, check out Agoda.com. It’s especially helpful when traveling through Asia. You can find hotels, hostels, and more. Compare prices, locations and ratings of other users. I use Agoda so often when planning a trip, they should pay me!

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A city like this one can hardly be captured in still photographs, but in live motion. Check out this video to see Saigon in Motion.

Saigon Walking

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

Waking up in a new city or a new country rarely fails to thrill me. Streets undiscovered, sights unseen, and experiences untried. After seeing glimpses of Ho Chi Minh City [also known as Saigon] at night, I couldn’t wait to see it during the day. It’s a vast city, very modern and historic at the same time. Skyscrapers sit next to French colonial homes. Motorbikes fly by and bicycles leisurely ride past. In a city that could be a contradiction, I saw fusion. And it was through a free walking tour of the city that I was really able to immerse myself in the heart of this bustling city.

Tiger Tours offers regular free walking tours [and many other tours!] of District 1, the central district of Saigon. We met our tour guides early to avoid the impending rain, and I was glad we did. We beat most other tour groups to popular locations, and more importantly, we beat the heat. Even though I grew up in Florida, and have lived in Indonesia for a year and a half, the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia surprises me. But this morning, it was still crisp and cool as we began walking the streets of Saigon.

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We started at the historic Saigon Opera House, and began walking towards some of the most iconic sites of Ho Chi Minh City, like the beautiful City Hall building. As we walked, our tour guides shared history of the city and insights into culture. We passed by the War Remnants Museum, and my heart struggled with my own country’s history with the nation in which I stood. We saw the incredible French architecture influence on the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office. Each of these buildings is a work of art. Usually a post office does not warrant a stop on a city tour, but Saigon’s Central Post Office certainly does! Dramatic arches, ornate tiles, and a still functioning post office! My favorite part of this stop was meeting a man who has been working as a letter writer [in English, French & Vietnamese!] since before the War. I could only imagine how his life has changed. He showed us pictures of riding his bike to work everyday and commented he doesn’t stay as busy anymore because of Google Translate. To me, he is a treasure just like the building in which he works.

We continued our leisurely paced stroll through the Notre Dame Cathedral, which is modeled after it’s French namesake. Not surprisingly, it’s a popular spot for photographing couples! Nearby the post office & cathedral, we found bookshop road. Be still my heart. If there’s anything I love more than traveling, it’s reading. I could have spent hours wandering through each shop, sipping Vietnamese coffee and smelling the scent of new books. But, we had a tour to finish.

We walked over to Turtle Lake, a spot of green and nature in the midst of the concrete city. Apparently, turtles at one time lived in this lake, but they certainly do not now. But there is a unique bridge structure we could climb, and see the city swirling around us. It was a calm moment to take a breath and breathe in this new place.

We finished our tour, appropriately, at the Reunification Palace, which celebrates North & South Vietnam reunifying in 1976 as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This country has such a tragic history, but a bright future. My own country played a significant role in it’s past, and if President Obama’s visit might infer, hopefully a positive role in it’s future. It was only day two, and I already loved this country.

I was so glad we did the free walking tour with Tiger Tours. The guides brought more insight and understanding than if we were to wander to each of these places ourselves. I had a few things on my list I wanted to see in our limited time in Saigon, and this tour hit them all and more! And a great feature of the tour was that one of the guides was photographing us and the sites along the way! We received all 60+ of the photos just a few days after the tour. Genius. What a fantastic experience we’ve had in Vietnam so far.