December 28, 2016- January 3, 2017
We’re ready to send out 2016 and welcome 2017 from Hanoi! Chris planned an awesome few days in Hanoi and a cruise through Ha Long Bay in the north. Did I mention it’s my birthday? You won’t believe what the birthday dinner enTAILed…
First stop upon arrival? Duty free store for some whiskey. Check.
Next? A tree house! Yes, I’m turning 33 and psyched to be staying in a tree house. Located just on the outskirts of Hanoi, the tree top bungalows don’t really have a name, but you can find them on AirBnB. You’ve found the right place if you come across the Dao Anh Khanh Studio– the owner is also an artist and his works are on display there.
This was a neat little spot, but one or two nights is enough time to spend here. It is not close enough to walk to town and a little difficult to get back from the main areas as most taxi drivers (and locals) aren’t aware it exists. We also had some service issues, but management was swift to take action. For something really different, this place is like a magic garden, especially at night time.
If you’re pressed for time during your stay you may want to consider other options in the heart of Hanoi. We spent a couple nights at the Helios Legend Hotel. It’s an easy walk to all the hot spots in the Old Quarter from here.
Insider tip: Chris and I were locked out of both the tree houses and the Helios Legend. It makes for funny stories now of scaling fences and finding ways to get in, but make sure you ask at check-in what time the main entrance closes. Most hotels seem to close their lobby at a certain hour– find out what time that is and how to get in after hours!
Day one in Hanoi. It’s my birthday! Which means cake and/or beer at every stop. But first, coffee. It’s not a proper birthday breakfast without coffee, cake, and beer, right? The perfect place to start your day is Cafe Pho Co. You MUST try the egg coffee. It’s sublime. The entrance is a little tricky to find, and the staircase a bit intimidating, but the view and caffeine jolt is well worth the undertaking. Say hello to the resident chicken for me.
The streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter are a colorful shock to the senses. It’s easy to meander the busy streets and alleyways, all a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. Cheap street eats and beers are abundant, so take full advantage while watching endless scooters whiz by.
Finding the cheap beer is easy. Getting comfortable may be another story. As with a lot of local eateries, the plastic stools are child-size. But when you’re only paying about 25 cents for a beer, it’s manageable, even for a giant like Chris. Vietnamese food is some of the best– not just because locals are brilliant when it comes to creating lively dishes–but you can’t discount the quality super fresh ingredients add to any meal.
While we’re cruising through cold beers Chris decides now is the time to tell me where he plans to take me for my birthday dinner. He tells me it’s called The Hung Snake. Guess what? Their specialty is not steak. It’s snake. I’m going to need a few more beers to work up the courage for this.
First, they let you play with the food while you’re deciding what kind of snake you want. You choose the type of snake and the family who runs The Hung Snake prepares 11 different snake dishes. This experience would be really intimidating, but the staff is so welcoming and friendly that you can’t help but dive in and have some fun.
Once you’ve chosen your snake (it’s my birthday, we’re doing King Cobra or bust!), the family entertains you by letting you see your dinner first. The snake dances, loses the battle, and its head.
The snake’s head will still be spitting venom while the staff removes the heart and drains the blood and bile. They swear eating the heart makes a man strong. So, here goes nothing. Chris is up first.
You’d think I would have watched Chris do this and make a better decision. But, I did not. So, here’s my attempt at the snake blood and bile…
OK so it wasn’t that bad. A bit of advice: don’t wash it down with the snake wine. It’s really harsh! Order yourself a beer or something in advance so you can cleanse your palate. Immediately. After that, sit back and try your 11 snake dishes. From soup to porridge to fried snake bones, every dish was really good! One more insider tip: when eating the soup you’ll get the tail. If it’s a male, the staff will find a way to uncover the parts of the snake used to make more snakes. Again, the staff swears this is a good hearty piece for a man to eat. “Makes men strong and hard”, they say. This is turning out to be the best birthday dinner of all time.
The staff here, and particularly Dragon, are more than impressive. Dragon gets to know all of the customers. When he found out it was my birthday, he scrambled to have a cake arrive. What a surprise! It was more than the two of us could eat so we shared it with some drunk Italians who were the only ones left this late at night. We also conned them into finishing that snake wine. Cheers!
We’ll come back to Hanoi in a couple days. We’re taking an overnight cruise excursion through Ha Long Bay. It’s absolutely stunning! Imposing limestone towers are scattered throughout the turquoise waters. Hidden caves and tunnels are hidden among the karst topography. The bay and islands are peaceful and serene. And the caves open to visitors are like being transported to another galaxy.
You can explore the caves below ground or you can hike to the peak of one of the massive limestone islands. You can get the best views of the bay and the sunset at the peaks. Up or down, on the ground or on the water, Ha Long Bay is simply amazing! Chris and I were on one of the junk boats from the Bhaya fleet. The food was delicious and the service topnotch. We enjoyed a cooking class and watching the crew fish for squid off the back of the boat – Chris caught the big one!
We could have stayed here for another day, doing nothing but staring at the emerald waters. But, it was the last day of 2016 and Chris and I were ready to ring in the new year back in Hanoi.
The city center was too packed for me once we made our way down to the festivities. I couldn’t breathe! And you couldn’t get near to a place to buy drinks. So we made our push out of the crowd and found our way to a quieter street. People were just as eager to say goodbye to 2016 on the less congested roads. And everyone is more festive when you’re able to order a beverage for the New Year’s toast!
The first meal of 2017 has surely set a positive tone for the rest of the year. Chris and I went to Quan An Ngon, a favorite of locals and tourists, to fuel up for the day. The restaurant is massive, with multiple rooms, a couple stories, and always a large crowd waiting for a table. Once you taste the food, it’s not hard to see why. I still crave the Bun Oc (snail soup) from Quan An Ngon. I’ve never had a better bowl of soup!
Now that we’ve over indulged during a late breakfast, it’s time to walk off some of the fullness. Or take a rickshaw, your choice! We did a little of both on our way to see the Hanoi Hilton museum, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, the central part of Hanoi.
We ate a lot of street food while snacking our way around town. No trip to Vietnam is complete without Banh Mi, and one of the best stalls is Banh Mi 25. I could eat this super sandwich the whole trip, but it’s almost criminal to not eat so many of the other Vietnamese dishes. Chris and I enjoyed bowls of Bun Cha, melt-in-your-mouth pork spring rolls, and a flat rice noodle dish whose name is still unknown. There was a bit of a language barrier– when I asked what the noodle dish was called, I was told “BREAKFAST”!
Now, I have to come clean about something. Chris and I broke one of our most sacred rules when traveling: never go to the same restaurant twice. Explore! But we found a spot that was so irresistible, it was worth bending the rules.
Please, please, do not leave Hanoi without making at least one stop at Highway 4. There are a couple different locations. We went to the one located at 25 Bat Su in the Hoan Kiem district.
Ok, so if we’re going to break our rule about not visiting the same restaurant twice, we can at least order different dishes the second time around. With the exception of the catfish spring rolls. I’ve never had anything so uniquely delicious, I stubbornly insisted we order them again. But honestly, every dish was divine. I recommend the buffalo strips and the spicy dried tuna. If you really want to splurge on gluttony, the mountain pork is the way to go. We weren’t sure what it was and found out at first bite it’s fried pork fat. Delicious? Yes. Healthy? Ha. But you can chase all your cares away with a flight of Vietnamese whiskeys.
As they say in Vietnam, “Mot, hai, ba, yo”! Bottom’s up!