Upon disembarking the plane in Guangzhou’s Baiyun Airport, I waved goodbye to the group heading back to California and headed upstairs to the departure level to locate the check in counter for Vietnam Airlines. Following on the heels of our Yangtze River tour, I was extending my stay in Asia to check another country off my list. Unfortunately several tour groups of Chinese tourists had the same idea; fortunately a thoughtful lady allowed this stranger to move ahead of many of them in line. Thank you, but please tell me that I wouldn’t have to follow any other tour groups as I hopped around Vietnam.
My plan of six whirlwind nights in Vietnam worked out to 36 hours to explore in each city: Hoi An, an UNESCO World Heritage Site; Hue, the former royal capital and another UNESCO Site; and finally Hanoi, the current capital of Vietnam. I always look for a walking tour at new destinations and for this journey, I lined up a street food tour in each city. History, culture and food in one go!
Hoi An – Tourist Magnet
Hoi An was a major international shipping port in the 15th thru 18th centuries, frequented by Chinese and Japanese traders. In the shop house architecture of historical Old Town, one sees the influence of the merchants who settled along the Thu Bon River. The ancient center is filled with color, buildings painted a bright golden hue and lanterns hung in front of shops and strung across the streets. Within the compact area you find cafes, bespoke tailors, souvenir shops, knock-off vendors, restaurants and boutique stores competing for the attention of the wandering tourist. For a peek at local life, I took a walk early on my second morning, through the Cloth Market and Central Market, at the eastern edge of Old Town, with vendors opening their stalls with an offering at their personal shrines before selling their morning catch or harvest or wares. Of course, shoppers still have to dodge the motorbike rider who insists on riding through the narrow and crowded lanes of the market.
An evening’s Hoi An street food tour took me to less touristy part of the town, away from the river. I kept to close to Nick has he took us across a wildly busy five way intersection during rush hour. Scooters rule the road in Vietnam, announcing their presence with incessant beeping, flowing around anything that might impede their forward moment be it a vehicle, a hand truck or a pedestrian. I learned that if you keep walking, steadily and confidently, they will drive a path around you. A few blocks later, we were in a residential area, with shops providing local services with a few tourist knick-knacks thrown in. Nick explained that many families own their homes but live on the upper floors, leaving the ground floor available for parking or for opening their own business. We snacked at several simple family run “restaurants” before heading back to the Old Town as the lights and lanterns came on. I wasn’t as impressed with the noodle dish, cao lau, a Hoi An specialty, as much as those snacks cooked street-side.
My favorite eats, actually beverages, were found back in the tourist area. Che is a dessert where one can select from any number of chilled ingredients that are piled into a cup with ice and syrup for a cooling soup/drink. No longer will I be cautious of the multi-layered drinks waiting in the refrigerators of my local Vietnamese restaurants. Mot Hoi An served another chilled beverage, an herbal tea, out of a delightful little shop in the middle of Old Town. Of course their cooling concoction is a secret recipe, but I was able make out cinnamon, lemongrass, lime and ginger. During my early morning stroll the next day, I waited for Mot to open to grab a cup to bring back to the hotel enjoy with breakfast.
As for those tourist groups I was afraid of overwhelming Hoi An, I counted a few small clusters on the streets of Old Town and two larger groups from a cruise ship along the wharf. While Nick’s tour took me to the edge of the Night Market, I did not venture into that chaotic scene. I left Hoi An charmed by the mostly genteel spirit and the beauty of the preserved Old Town. Next time, I’ll have to stay longer to have some bespoke garments made to go with my custom-made shoes.
Hue – Historical Capital
The four hour drive northbound with a hired driver took me around the coastal city of Da Nang, over the Hai Van Pass, and into the riverside city of Hue. Hue served as the capital of Vietnam for nearly 150 years. Sitting on the north bank of the Perfume River, the Citadel contains the former Imperial City, which surrounds the ruins of the Purple Forbidden City, the home of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors.
If Hoi An is seen as the dressed up country mouse, then Hue is the not-quite polished city mouse. The glamour of the old empire has faded but a modern city has grown and attracts tourists to the monuments of its past. A higher volume of vehicles and traffic – good thing I learned how to cross a busy street on my tour with Nick – that mostly obeyed the traffic signals found on major intersections. Street signs allow for easier navigation. The quieter areas still support street-side vendors selling fruit, juices, quick-cook snacks. In the tourist zone on the south bank of the river, small guesthouses crowd in with boutique hotels while the large resort-style hotels line the river. Dust and dirt are still present, along with the heat and humidity. Unfortunately for me and a several busloads of Korean tourists, the day we toured the royal tombs in the countryside outside of the city was the hottest day of the week – even my driver complained of the heat and cranked up the air conditioning for the drive back to my hotel.
My husband was able to join me the next morning for very short visit. Following Google maps, we found a local restaurant known for a set lunch of Hue specialties, some adapted from favorites of the royal court. My favorite was banh cuon, meat and veggies wrapped in a soft rice sheet.
For my food tour in Hue, I booked two drivers from the I ♥ Vietnam Tour company. We were going to explore the evening street food scene riding on the back of scooters driven by a pair of young ladies. This tour was the only way we would ride scooters since I didn’t allow my husband to rent a scooter himself. Both V and P are college students with V in her 2nd year of medical school, and they drive for the company between their studies. At our first dining spot, we were joined by four others - two ladies from the company and their drivers - to make a party of eight for evening. Good company and good food. Hue quickly became my happy food place!
And to remember that I did some sightseeing in Hue, snaps from the city and an afternoon at the Imperial Citadel…..
… and from an extremely humid morning outside of Hue visiting two royal mausoleums. The Tomb of Minh Manh, with its forest setting, lakes and gardens, is calm and elegant. The hillside Tomb of Khai Dinh is a mix of European and Vietnamese aesthetics, dark concrete exteriors leading the way to riotous ceramic mosaics.
After one last lunch back in Hue of banh cuon and ginger-lemonade, my travels continued north that night to Hanoi.
All photos in this blog are taken by Florence Wan