Exploring Vietnam: Beautiful Views of Ha Long Bay & Gross Cruise Food

"Exploring Vietnam" is part of my vacation series recap. If you're just tuning in, you can catch up here: Vietnam Trip Recap.

After spending a week in big cities and having to mentally prepare myself to cross roads full of crazy motorcyclists, I was excited to escape to Ha Long Bay, a popular tourist destination and UNESCO World Heritage Site that is approximately a 4-hour drive away from Hanoi. Ha Long Bay translates to "descending dragon bay" and is comprised of over 1,600 islets, mostly made of limestone that went through 500 years of formations.

I did a lot of research on Ha Long Bay before booking our tour and everything I read recommended spending at least two days on an overnight ship. I am glad I strayed away from that recommendation and opted in for only a day trip.

Yes, Ha Long Bay was filled with magical views, but if I had to look at these limestone pillars for one more day I would go bonkers. No way would I ever recommend spending more than a day trip, unless you're looking to see the different parts of Ha Long Bay, spend your time examining rocks or participate in water sports. 

I checked out every single company offering day trip tours and decided to go with Alova Cruises based on itinerary and user reviews. If you ever decide to explore Ha Long Bay, I have three important tips:

  1. Figure out the best season to visit. We went during a time when it was slightly foggy, which was still full of stunning views but in a different kind of way. 
  2. Before booking direct with the tour company, check your hotel to see if they offer the same tour you're looking for. Your hotel can be a good way to get deals. Luckily, the exact same tour I wanted from Alova was also offered at our hotel, Calypso Suites Hotel / La Beaute De Hanoi, for a small discount. 
  3. If the tour company offers to pick you up in a shuttle, you may want to meet them directly at their office/departure point so you can get first choice of seating. If you don't, you are possibly looking at sitting on a tire hump with no leg room for an excruciating long time. They try to cram as many people possible in the shuttles. 

The Food on Alova Cruises

Our boat was nice and spacious for our small group of 30 people. We were all entertained by our personable guide. Overall, the staff was very friendly and knowledgeable. 

The moment we stepped into the boat, we sat down to be served a family style lunch. I've heard many great things about the food served on Ha Long Bay cruises, but the food we ate turned out to be gross, mediocre and disappointing. Is it sad to say that my favorite dish was the cucumber salad? 

You can't go wrong with peel-and-eat shrimps, but it was whatever.

The vermicelli imperial rolls were okay, but the fried vermicelli itself was too tough. 

The stir-fried chicken and stir-fried squid were both bland. 

The steamed fish looked better than it tasted. It was very bland and you can still taste the muddiness of the fish. 

Hello, Ha Long Bay!

The views - stunning! The thin layer of fog gives Ha Long Bay an eerie kind of vibe, almost like a dragon was going to descend from a mountaintop. I remember Patrick saying to me, "I've never seen anything like this in my life." I definitely haven't experienced anything like this either. 

 The life of a fisherman.

A cargo ship. 

I am super thankful and happy to be able to experience this moment with my amazing and loving other-half. 

It gets a little tiring to see, what looks to be, the same limestone pillars over and over again. 

Hang Sung Sot Cave

As a part of the day trip, we also got to explore Hang Sung Sot Cave. It was awesome to check out the cave's unique system of stalactites and stalagmites in different shapes and forms due to over millions of years of water erosion. For a place so unique and beautiful, it's a complete shame to see multi-colored bright lights take away from the natural beauty of the cave. 

VIETNAM TRIP RECAP: UP NEXT

It's almost coming to an end. You will not want to miss the next post.  I'm walking you through 28 things I ate in Hanoi, along with photos of each. It's going to take me a while to write it, but hang on - I promise that you'll be glad you did. 

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Exploring Vietnam: Why Da Nang Stinks - Life-changing Banh Beo (Steamed Rice Cakes) + The Con Market (Chợ Cồn)

"Exploring Vietnam" is part of my vacation series recap. If you're just tuning in, you can catch up here: Vietnam Trip Recap.

Most tourists visit Da Nang to lay out on the beach along the coast. I wanted to explore the food, so we stayed in the city center where no tourists were in sight. Da Nang is a big city to explore (it's Vietnam's third largest city) and our visit was very short, so there were many parts we were not exposed to.

I explored most of Da Nang solo because Patrick was still suffering from food poisoning from Hoi An. For having no sense of direction, I think I did quite well by not getting lost. 

Initially, I noticed a lot of locals hanging out at coffee shops and shopping at modern boutiques, mostly catered to the younger generation. There are tons of mobile phone and motorcycle shops at almost every corner. With the exception of a couple of Buddhist temples, I was bored out of my mind and found the city culture to be quite sterile and bland. It wasn't until I stumbled upon a heavily populated outdoor market that my experience turned into an exciting one. 

The Con Market (Chợ Cồn)

A friend recently told me a very dirty joke that is too inappropriate to share here (message me if you really want to know), but the hidden meaning behind the joke is when you smell something unpleasantly fishy, you know you're in Da Nang. Once I entered the market, my sense of smell was punched by the aroma of fermented fish called mam, a specialty in this area of Vietnam. Bun mam, anyone? There was no escaping it, but I didn't mind because it's a smell that I am familiar with being surrounded by Vietnamese food all my life. 

This market had no tourists in sight and not a word of English spoken. Even with a camera around my neck, I blended in with the locals, which is a good thing because I get charged "local" prices. It was so busy and crowded that no one noticed me taking photos of everything in sight - including them.  

You'll find almost anything here from vegetables to housewares to wholesale clothing. I was really impressed by the vast range of specialty food options and the plethora of fresh seafood and meats available at the Con Market. You can get every form of offal butchered in front of you. 

Con Market - Da Nang Vietnam Experience - Bites & Bourbon
Con Market - Da Nang Vietnam Experience - Bites & Bourbon

The Con Market's Food Hall

I was in paradise the moment I discovered the food hall.  There's a lot of options to choose from and each spot was filled with happy eaters. I struggled a bit on where to start, but luckily I was able to get by with my limited reading capabilities.  

You can see that the seats are counter-style, surrounding the stalls. If a place is full, it's likely that a seat will open up quickly because Vietnamese people eat efficiently with little to no room for chit-chat. I know this from first-hand experience and through observation. 

The food hall is not an attractive place to eat, but I didn't mind and thought it was quite charming. When the food is in front of my face, I could care less about what my surroundings look like. 

The Life-changing BANH BEO

Banh beo is one of my favorite Central Vietnamese dishes. I grew up making and eating banh beo a lot with my mom, so when I found this place I immediately took a seat and told the sweet owner to give me the special plate. 

For only 20,000 VND ($1), I was able to get not only banh beo, but a whole lot of other things that were on my Da Nang's "have to eat" list. Let me break this incredible dish down for you:

  1. Banh beo - small steamed rice cakes with a dimple inside, filled with savory ingredients including dried shrimp, scallions, crispy fried shallots, fish sauce, and oil.
  2. Banh bot loc - transparent dumplings filled with shrimp and pork belly - my absolute favorite Vietnamese dumpling. 
  3. Banh uot - thin pancake wrapper consisting of rice noodle sheets. 
  4. Cha heo - pork patty (similar to what you'd get in a banh mi).
  5. Nem chua - a sweet, sour, salty and spicy fermented pork sausage

[Click Photos to Enlarge]

Seriously. All of this for only $1?! This dish alone made the entire Da Nang visit worth it. If you ever find yourself at the Con Market, be sure to visit Thu Ha at Lô 23/Đình 15A - Chợ Cồn. It is truly life changing. 

VIETNAM TRIP RECAP: UP NEXT

In the next post about Vietnam, I'm going to share our day trip experience to Ha Long Bay. 

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Exploring Vietnam: My Favorite Moments & Photos of Hoi An - Full Moon Lantern Festival Experience

"Exploring Vietnam" is part of my vacation series recap. If you're just tuning in, you can catch up here: Vietnam Trip Recap.

The moment we stepped into Hoi An, it almost felt like a book of ancient fairy tales came to life. I've never been to a city with such a great level of preserved history (over 2,000 years), beauty and grace. Hoi An isn't just a food destination, there's plenty of things to see, explore and learn. As you stroll through the magical cobblestone streets, you'll be greeted with illuminating beautiful silk lanterns everywhere, ancient buildings and temples, and friendly faces (some locals will smile for a photo and demand $1 from you afterwards). 

In my third and final Hoi An post, I'm sharing my favorite non-food related moments and photos from our trip, including my memorable experience from the Full Moon Lantern Festival. 

If you missed my last two Vietnam posts, you can catch up here: [#1] 13 of my favorite specialty dishes of Hoi An and [#2] fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables at Hoi An's street market

Hey, it's us! It took a while for us to take this selfie and this was one of the few photos we have of ourselves where we're not stuffing our faces with food. Hoi An was definitely my favorite place on our trip, but I can't say the same for Patrick. Unfortunately, he was sick for 2.5 days likely due to eating vegetables and herbs that were washed with contaminated water. I was completely fine and ended up exploring most of Hoi An solo. Go figure!

The River

Hoi An's river system used to be the ancient transport network of Cham Kingdom for importing and exporting goods. The river stretches hundreds of kilometers inland. You'll see a variety of boats used by locals mostly for fishing and transport, but most of the boats you'll come across are touristy like the ones below. There are tons of ship owners waiting to get your business. 

The Buildings

The buildings are full of history and damage-free from war activity. You'll find that the town is made up of timber frame buildings, with brick or wooden walls. According to UNESCO, "The surviving wooden structures and street plan are original and intact and together present a traditional townscape of the 17th and 18th centuries, the survival of which is unique in the region. The town continues to this day to be occupied and function as a trading port and centre of commerce." 

Phuoc Lam Pagoda

This enchanting Buddhist temple was built towards the end of the 17th century. The architecture and wood carvings of the temple are extremely detailed. I loved strolling through the garden and checking out the large marble hand-carved statues of the different Buddhas. The temple was a nice place to find peace away from the main attractions.

This temple is the home to many Buddhist monks (if you look closely above you'll see them in the photo - click to enlarge). I arrived while they were sitting on the floor chanting their midday prayers and paying their respects to Buddha. 

Shopping & Fashion

If you're into fashion, you're in luck because Hoi An is a mecca for silk threads and tailoring. You can get customized quality clothing created at very reasonable prices. There are many people who come here to get a custom suit or dress made. A lot of the locals have the skills to make their own clothing, so the tailor shops really cater to those who can afford it. 

You can clearly differentiate between the locals and tourists based on the outfits worn. The locals enjoy wearing daytime-like pajamas with unique patterns. 

One of my biggest pet peeves walking into a store in Vietnam (not only in Hoi An) was getting followed and monitored closely, like we were crooks. I don't think they have an understanding of what personal space means. 

We picked up some of these beautiful coconut bowls, all hand designed with acrylic. 

How the Locals Live

Here's one of the neighborhood streets we stumbled upon. In this photo is a lady selling banh cuon, a rolled rice sheet with filling) from her food cart. We walked through these homes and learned about how the locals lived through observation. The locals live minimally in small one or two-story homes and trust the neighborhood enough to leave their doors wide open for all eyes to see. We were told that Hoi An is such a small place that almost everyone knows one another. 

There wasn't much inside these homes other than a television and maybe a few chairs. Inside of these homes are families laying on the floor to watch television. Outside we spotted the elderly sitting outside to watch the day go by, while the small neighborhood dogs run around playing tag with each other.

Even when the city gets rained on, it's picturesque. As you would expect, there are plenty of bikes everywhere, unlocked and parked on random streets and alleys. The cobblestone roads were really charming. 

HOI AN'S FULL MOON LANTERN FESTIVAL EXPERIENCE

It was truly incredible to experience Hoi An's Full Moon Lantern Festival. The old town is beautifully transformed by flickering candlelight and multi-colored lanterns. The locals sell floating cardboard lotus flower-shaped lanterns with tiny candles to release on to the river to symbolize happiness, luck and love.

I purchased a floating candle lantern from a sweet little girl (pictured above) and she left her station to gently hold onto my shoulder to ensure that I don't fall into the river while releasing it into the water. I will never forget this night because it restored my faith in human kindness. These are the magical moments that I yearn for. 

When I was doing research for our trip, I stumbled upon a photo of these twin brothers. They have become internet sensations and I can see why - they were dressed cute enough to sweet talk anyone into buying a candle. They weren't so happy in this photo though because their mom came back and scolded them for having too much fun. 

In this photo, the younger sister lights up lanterns to sell while the older sister looks out towards the waterfront, holding a stick used to release the candles. If you look closely, you'll notice that they are standing on a section surrounded by water, a prime spot to quickly release the candles into the river. 

I have great memories of Hoi An and do hope to make it back for a quick visit if we decide to go back to Vietnam again in the future. 


VIETNAM TRIP RECAP: UP NEXT

In the next post about Vietnam, I'll quickly walk you through my one day in Da Nang. 

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