I am so happy that we finally made it to Southeast Asia! As I am sure some of you know I wasn’t sure this trip was ever going to happen, but I am thrilled it did. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos did not disappoint. I can say without a doubt that this trip exceeded my expectations. I long to experience something new each time I travel and this trip fulfilled all of those desires. Everything about Asia, the countryside, the people, the smells, the food, the culture made this trip unique and truly memorable.
My dear friend Molly moved to Ho Chi Minh City last summer for her husband’s work and I knew I must visit her during her brief time in Vietnam. What a lovely place to arrive on our first stop in Vietnam! Josh and I were able to visit with Molly and her family, get over our jet lag and explore HCMC with an insider’s guide. Molly and her family live inside of the French Consulate which is wonderful and in the center of HCMC where we could explore the city on foot.
Ho Chi Minh – Chaotic, Hot, Melting Pot
Highlights – We had the best food on our trip during our street food tour with Saigon Street Eats. We rode through the night on scooters to District 3, a less touristy area of the city, where we dined an Banh Xeo, pork and broken rice, and an amazing seafood stall with my favorite dish Ngheu Hap Xa – steamed clams in lemongrass broth. All the while sitting on plastic stools and tiny tables. I never fully understood how important and diverse the herbs used in Vietnamese cooking are until this tour. Their cuisine revolves around the contrasting flavors of the herbs. We also learned that in Vietnam they do not cook with chilis like the Thai because their food is of the utmost freshness. Our guide told us that the Thai spice can be used to cover up the actual flavor and freshness of the food whereas the Vietnamese use spice on the side that you can add at your own choosing. (I love how it doesn’t matter where you travel in the world, each country has such strong opinions about their neighbors!)
Station 3A is a cool side street near the river that houses smaller boutique stores with graffiti lined walls and cafes. We wandered through the stores wishing we had more space in our carry-ons to buy gifts! Sadec District has gorgeous ceramics that I am still dreaming of.
Hoi An / An Bang Beach – Peaceful, Stormy, Authentic
Hoi An was one of our favorite stops. This is what you imagine Vietnam to be. The old quarter is full of beautiful old colorful houses on streets that are pedestrian only (well except for the scooters!). You can wander through the city which sits on a canal popping in and out of stores and markets and get the feel of what life could have been like in Vietnam 100 years ago. The homes are narrow and long with a shop in the front leading into an actual home where families have lived for hundreds of years.
The best Banh Mi of the trip was at Phuong 2… apparently recommended by Anthony Bourdain which we did not know until later.
We stayed in An Bang, a tiny beach town 4km from Hoi An. Luckily we had 2 days without rain during our stay, but the weather was not warm enough for beach time. This adorable beach village is worthy of a trip during their warmer months for sure! But Josh and I enjoyed the stormy weather and the gray skies. It was a bit magical.
I fell in love at Ava’ Na – a clothing shop in Hoi An. They make beautiful clothes with locally sourced silk and designed on site. I spent a long time in this shop deciding what to buy! I ended up with a long grey sheer silk dress.
Hanoi – Ancient, Delicious, Complex
In Hanoi, we stayed in the Westlake neighborhood which is slightly off the beaten path and was quite nice. Apparently this is the upcoming neighborhood and full of expats. We found a wonderful coffee shop called Maison de Tet Decor. Where the owner roasts his own beans locally in Vietnam and makes delicious baked goods… the space is gorgeous as well and overlooks the lake Ho Tay.
Hanoi provided the same chaos as Ho Chi Minh City, but also gave us a chance to look at the city’s historic architecture influenced by the French. You can sense the old and the new blending together in this crazy city. The old quarter “36 old streets“ are named after the goods that were sold on them. Now it is a mish mash of stores, but occasionally you could have your option of where to buy the best pipes for plumbing or socks or chickens.
We ate the most insanely good Bun Cha on the street and then followed it with the famous egg coffee – Caphe Trung at Cafe Pho Co. It sounds like this could be pretty gross, but it is delicious! Of course, the egg is whipped with cream and sugar so really how bad can it be?
The next day on our food tour in Hanoi (Hanoi Cooking Center) we were taken to “Lunch Lane”, an alley connected to the market lined with street food stalls where old women and their families have been cooking the same specialties for decades. Here we sat down to try the snail soup – Bun Oc – which has a broth of sour, sweet and spicy flavors. The way the Vietnamese blend and build the flavors is quite complex. The snails themselves were a bit chewy and this was not my favorite dish, but when in Rome ;).
Siem Reap / Angkor Wat – Mythical, Distinct, Sacred
After a harrowing day of food poisoning we arrived into Cambodia and to the Rose Apple B&B by tuk tuk at night. I was unable to make the sunrise at Angkor Wat due to my stomach, but I rallied for the rest of the day. There was no way I was going to miss the temples of Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Bayon. There is an amazing mix of Hindu and Buddhist designs decorating every wall and temple. We hired a private guide to help us navigate the temples which was necessary to understand the history of these epic structures. These gorgeous temples were built by kings and the carvings tell stories of the gods which were intended to guide the people with symbolic significance.
Luang Prabang – Magical, Colorful, Charming
Luang Prabang is a charming city and another Unesco Heritage Site and we are so happy we made the trek here. Laos was one of the highlights of our trip!
The first morning we woke up at 5:45am to watch the monks walk the streets of Luang Prabang to take alms from the people. This religious ceremony dates back to the 14th century. There are 34 Buddhist temples in the city which is extraordinary. After waking up that early, I decided I needed to move and took a yoga class at Utopia overlooking the Nam Khan river. What a location! The yoga class was nothing special, but who cares when you get to look at that scenery and move your body.
We spent the rest of the day wandering the streets, exploring the temples, climbing Mount Phousi, drinking Lao coffee and watching the sunset over the Mekong River. Not a bad a day in my book.
The next day we spent at the Elephant Village Sanctuary & Resort which was awesome! This lovely refuge is just outside of Luang Prabang. Our wonderful guide Sack was adorable and really made the experience special. The day was spent riding the elephants bareback and bathing them in the Nam Kham river and visiting the Tad Sae Waterfalls. These elephants have been rescued from their logging work and now train with mahouts who do not use the hooks or spears on them. First, we learned our Lao elephant commands – Pi Pi , Sai Sai, Kwa Kwa etc (forward, left, right) – which you must give in a strong voice in order for the elephants to listen. I am going to be honest, if elephants could roll their eyes at the white people yelling these commands they would. We tried our best, but the elephants just did their own thing and took us for a ride which was totally exhilarating.
Overall, I feel like I could go on and on about this trip, but instead I have comprised a list below of the best shops, restaurants and activities we experienced. Please feel free to reach out with any thoughts or questions or stories of your own!
Until the next adventure!
HO CHI MINH CITY
Rooftop Drinks – Hotel des Arts (beautiful rooftop bar and lounge with views of HCMC)
Food Tour – Saigon Street Eats (Awesome! Ask for Binh)
Food – Morning Glory, Phuong 2 – Phan Chau Trinh (Best Bahn Mi of the trip)
Shop – Ava’Na (gorgeous clothes and accessories with fabrics sourced from local Vietnamese tribes)
Cooking Class – Red Bridge Cooking School (wonderful market tour and then boat ride to the cooking school)
Stay – An Bang Beach Bungalows
Food – Cafe Pho Co – 11 Hàng Gai, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội – Caphe Trung (delicious egg coffee), Madame Hein – Chef Didier Corlou (a chic and delicious restaurant – the Cha Ca – grilled fish was amazing and cooked right at the table), Cafe Duy Tri – Cafe Sua Chua (homemade frozen yogurt & delicious vietnamese coffee…local spot where the yogurt is made fresh daily), Maison de Tet Decor (incredible cafe with delicious coffee, organic juice and food)
Drinks – Metropole Hanoi (the legendary 5 star hotel has a wonderful bar to have a drink)
Visit – Angkor Wat and surrounding temples
Food – Pages Cafe (cute little cafe with Cambodian and western food)
Coffee – The Little Red Fox Espresso (delicious espresso)
Explore – Kandal Village (a cute street in Siem Reap lined with boutiques and cafes)
Shop – Ok Pok Tok (amazing shop selling textiles from Lao tribes as well as supporting the women who create the art)