What We Ate in Vietnam

Oh man. How to organize this one? There’s so much, it’s going to have to be done alphabetically this time. But we’ll save dessert and coffee for last.

Hoi An market stall

Hoi An street vendor

This is by no means a comprehensive survey of Vietnamese food. It’s going to be our biggest travel food post, but we didn’t come close to sampling all the possibilities. As we were looking up the Vietnamese names for things (please feel free to submit corrections), we kept coming across lists of “must try” foods that we either skipped or flat out never saw. We spent a month in cities in Vietnam, from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, and our number one objective was to eat. But there is still so much we missed.

Sidewalk restaurant

How do you find good food in Vietnam? Wander down any sidewalk or through any market hall. Look for tiny plastic stools. Are there only one or two stools free? Is everyone throwing their napkins and bones and lime peels on the ground? Good. Sit down immediately. Wait. The proprietor may ask what you want. They’re probably only serving one or two things. Point to your neighbor’s table or just hold up one finger and smile. You will be brought something delicious.


Xoi Yen restaurant, Hanoi

Here goes. What We Ate in Vietnam:

Bánh Bao – Large steamed stuffed dumplings.
Bánh Bao

This bánh bao is filled with minced pork, onions and a quail egg.
Banh Bao

Bánh Bèo – Tiny shallow dishes filled with gelatinous steamed rice cakes, topped with pork, fish sauce and peanuts.
bánh bèo

Bánh Bột Chiên – Rice pancake topped with herbs, bean sprouts, soy sauce and hot ginger sauce.
bánh bột chiên

Bánh Mì – Fresh baguette sandwich with pork pâté, bacon, shredded pork, crispy bbq eel, herbs, chili sauce.
Bánh mì

Bánh Tôm – Shrimp and yam fritters.  (Plus some mini pork wontons.)
Bánh Tôm

Bánh Xèo, Nem Lụi – Savory griddle cakes made with turmeric, pork, shrimp, green onion, and bean sprouts. Skewers of grilled minced pork. Wrap it all up in rice paper sheets, along with spicy peanut sauce, herbs, shredded green papaya and unripe banana.
Nem Lụi, Bánh Xèo

Bắp Cải Nhồi Thịt Cua – Cabbage stuffed with crab.
Stuffed cabbage

Bò Nướng Cuốn Cải – Thin slices of grilled marinated beef served with coarse chili lime salt. We rolled it all up in these big leaves that had a tangy taste almost like horseradish.
Bò nướng cuốn cải

Bún Bò Nam Bộ – A thin rice noodle salad with marinated beef, pickled green papaya and carrot, bean sprouts, fried onions.
Bún bò Nam Bộ

Bún Chả – Sweet broth with fish sauce and slices of green papaya. Grilled pork. Rice noodles. A mountain of cilantro, mint, local herbs, lettuce, and green beans. Chopped fresh garlic and chiles. Some assembly required.
Bún chả

Garlic and chiles


Bún Thịt Nướng – Grilled pork on noodles, topped with peanuts, cilantro, pickled carrot and nước chấm (a sweet and sour sauce that’s also salty and spicy).
Bún Thịt Nướng

Cao Lầu – Noodles, broth, meat, herbs.  A combination we’ve come to know and love, but this one is a little different.  The cao lầu noodles are made with water from certain wells in Hoi An, so supposedly the true version of this dish is only available in one place in the entire world. We were skeptical, but the noodles do have a unique mineral flavor that we never encountered again.
Cao Lầu

Cha Ca – fish cakes with dill.
Cha Ca

Chả Giò – Deep fried spring rolls stuffed with minced pork. Often served with our beloved bún chả.
Spring rolls - Chả_giò

Chuối Chiên – Deep fried mashed banana. Sometimes with a slice of coconut (dừa) The newspaper wrapping can’t contain the sweet deliciousness (or the grease).
Deep fried banana ladies

Chuối Chiên

Cơm Cháy Kèm Sốt Cà Chua Thịt Lợn – Pork in a sweet tomato sauce with deep fried rice cakes.
sốt cà chua

Cơm Tấm – “Broken rice” topped with whatever pre-prepared additions you care to you point at. In this case, it’s a dumpling slice, fried spring rolls, roast pork and greens.

Giấp Cá – This is the only non-yummy thing in this blog post. The first time I (Alicia) ate this herb, it was mixed in with a whole bunch of others that I was rolling into rice paper along with other delicious things. I took one bite and literally gagged. Something tasted like old fish tank water. I thought maybe something spoiled had found its way to my plate and my appetite was killed for the rest of the day. (If you know me, this is a shocking event.) The second time, it was lurking in a dish of Cao Lầu. I recognized the nasty flavor and tasted each leaf in my bowl until I found the culprit. I pulled out all of the dark green glossy leaves. Later that day, I Googled “gross Vietnamese herb” and found it. Apparently the Chinese call it “fishy smell herb.” Yep. That’s the one.
Devil weed

Gỏi Đu Đủ – Shredded green papaya, dried beef, basil, peanuts, sweet chili sauce, side of rice crackers.
Gỏi Đu Đủ

Gỏi Hoa Chuối – Shredded banana blossom salad. (Banana blossom is mild and nutty, with a crunchy texture similar to shredded carrots or ginger.)
Gỏi Hoa Chuối

Hến Trộn – A finely chopped salad with tiny clams, onion, herbs, ground fish, topped with peanuts, served hot and comes with a giant rice cracker for dipping and scooping.
Hến trộn

Mì Quảng Lươn – Eel noodle soup for breakfast. Top with shredded banana blossom and big crispy rice crackers.
Mì Quảng Lươn

Mì quảng refers to the type of noodles, and the name of this dish should have additional descriptive words following it, but I’m not sure what those are. This mì quảng had herbs, just enough broth to moisten the noodles, a chicken leg, roast pork, corned beef, and dumpling.
mystery Mì Quảng

Another mystery mì quảng. This time with two hard boiled quail eggs.
Mì Quảng with egg

Mystery Skewer – These tiny rice paper envelopes are stuffed with thin noodles and make a great vehicle for sweet, fiery chili sauce.  We found them in the tiny fishing village of Bai Xep. A skewer costs mere pennies.
Mystery Skewer

Sweet chili sauce

Nem Chua – Fermented pork roll steamed in a banana leaf. Sounds terrible, looks worse, but pairs nicely with a cheap brew. We had these on one of our afternoon bike rides through Hoi An.
Sausage in a banana leaf

Phở Bò – Beef noodle soup doesn’t begin to explain the magic. The thinly sliced meat is put into the bowl still raw, and the rich steamy broth is ladled over top, cooking it just past rare in a flash. You can doctor it up with lime, chiles and herbs.
Pho Bo

Phở Thịt Lợn – Another excellent noodle soup. This one has pork and is topped with pickled shallots, hot sauce, peanuts and cilantro. A squeeze of lime and a side of green papaya slices takes you to the moon.
Phở Gà
Phở Gà – This one’s with chicken. You can even add…

Doughnut sticks.
…Giò Cháo Quãy – Donut sticks. Ok, we’re going out of alphabetical order here, but DEAR FRIENDS, YOU CAN PUT DONUTS IN YOUR SOUP. What a magical world we live in. Crispy on the outside and nearly hollow inside, these things soak up your phở broth and you’ll forget things like oyster crackers ever existed.

Roll-your-owns. – That’s obviously not the Vietnamese name, but we ate it on a sidewalk in Saigon and there wasn’t a sign posted. Grilled pork with peanuts and green onion. Top with pickled carrots and green papaya, slices of starfruit, unripe banana and cucumber. Add lettuce, mint, basil and chives, dip in sweet and sour fish sauce with chilis. Roll it all up in rice paper triangles. This was so good and so cheap that we ordered a second round and tipped 50 percent.

Train Lunch. – What you might get from the hot food cart on a train at lunch time. Steamed rice, greens, deep fried egg, mystery meat (probably beef) stir fried with pineapple and pickled bamboo shoots.
Train lunch

Trứng Cút – Quail eggs. Hard boiled or cooked in the shell over hot coals.
Trứng cút

Village Mystery Soup – Another culinary mystery from the village of Bai Xep.  The broth tasted of sea food and the rice noodles were thick, transparent and gelatinous.  The chunks floating in it didn’t have much flavor and we thought it could have been squid or octopus, but the woman shook her head and laughed when we pointed to the soup and then pointed to Tony’s squid tattoo.  In hindsight, it was likely pig stomach or some other sort of organ. We may never know.
Village mystery soup

Xôi Xéo – Yellow sticky rice with shavings of mung bean paste and your choice of meat and toppings. This one has roast pork, mushrooms, peanuts and crispy fried onions.
xôi xéo

Xôi Xéo variation with Chinese sausage.
xôi xéo

Xôi Xéo variation with beef and pork dumpling.
Xôi Xéo

Xôi Xéo variation with a small omelet and finely shredded dry pork.

WHEW. Hopefully you have a little room for coffee and dessert.

Cà Phê Sữa Nóng – Strong black coffee brewed by the cup. The velvety richness of Vietnamese-style coffee can be explained by the fact that it is often roasted in clarified butter. Add to that a generous pour of sweetened condensed milk (sữa) ready to be stirred up. If the cafe serves coffee in mugs instead of glasses, it might come in a bowl of hot water to maintain optimal temperature.
cà phê sữa nóng

HCMH coffee

Cà Phê Trứng – Impossibly rich coffee made with frothed egg yolk and sugar.  Think egg nog, plus coffee, minus booze.
Egg coffee foam

Cà Phê Trứng

Chè Bắp – Sweet corn pudding dessert topped with coconut sauce, served cold. Sweet corn is a very common dessert component throughout Asia and its naturally sugary profile makes us wonder why it doesn’t have the same designation back home.
Chè Bắp

Chè Mè Đen – Black sesame pudding dessert, served cold.  Mild, nutty and velvety. Wish we had more.
Chè mè đen

Mystery cookies – We never found the name for these, but our guesthouse owner in Hoi An said these sweet little tea biscuits are made with beans, onions and beef. Definitely a departure from the Western concept of dessert, but surprisingly sweet and pleasant.
Mystery cookies

Rau Câu – A gelatinous dessert made from a seaweed product called agar agar. This particular one has two flavor layers: dừa and cà phê (coconut and coffee).
Rau Câu

Bia Hơi – Fresh beer on tap for 33 cents a glass. This particular block of establishments in District 1 in Saigon had two dogs that were trained to bark when the police were approaching the neighborhood. When the canine alarm sounded, the proprietors collected all the plastic chairs out from under the customers who were sitting on them in the street. The evicted stood around bewildered until the police slowly cruised past, then the chairs were re-issued and the party started all over again.
Bia Hơi

And that’s what we ate in Vietnam.

Feb 2013



Last Stop: Ho Chi Minh City

We spent our last few days in Vietnam in the city formerly (and still informally) known as Saigon. What did we do in the largest city in Vietnam?

We refined the art of crossing the street. There’s a certain sense of satisfaction, zen even, that comes from becoming one with the traffic.

HCMC traffic sign

Intersection in District 1

HCMC traffic circle

We drank lots and lots of cà phê sữa nóng.

cà phê sữa nóng

We people watched.

Some girls proselytising

Sleepy cyclo driver

Dog at a cafe

We learned about a war (one specific perspective of it, anyway).

Flower on a US fighter plane

US fighter plane cockpit

Vietnam war protests

We got Alicia’s beloved and trusty Chacos repaired. (Bought second-hand nine years ago!)

Almost broken


Cobbler using his sewing machine

And we generally just wandered around. Like you do.

HCMC street

Motorbike parking lot

Ho Chi Minh statue in front of People's Committee Building/City Hall

Notre Dame

Tao Dan Park

Safety first

Bantam on a sidewalk

Neon Jesus

Our guesthouse's Golden Retriever, Snowy

Oh yeah. We ate so much food. Our “What We Ate in Vietnam” post is coming up next. And it’s a long, delicious list.

Tony talking to street food vendors

Feb 2013



A Haven in Vietnam

We hadn’t decided where we wanted to go next after Quy Nhon, but our guesthouse had a binder of local information and in it was an advertisement for another small guesthouse that was only a few miles away. In a tiny fishing village. On beach that’s empty for most of the day. With a hammock and a dog. The room price included breakfast. After a quick internet reality check to make sure this wasn’t too good to be true, we booked a room and called a taxi.

Bai Xep sign

After turning off the main road, Bai Xep’s street narrowed so that we had to leave the taxi and walk the rest of the way. We went past the school.

Bai Xep school

Past the “central market” which had only four food stands and a few ladies selling small stacks of vegetables.

food stall lady

soup lady

Down an even narrower alley, past piles of lobster traps.

Lobster traps

We ignored the entrance sign and walked a few more steps to get our first look at the beach.

fishing gear and boats on the beach

round boats

Yes, this will do just fine.

We spent the next several days reading books in the hammock, visiting a waterfall, getting knocked down by the it’s-still-typhoon-season waves, checking out the working beach on the other side of the village, watching the lobster fishermen launch their basket boats, submitting to tattoo inspections and picking up seashells.

Haven’s name was apt.

Tony in the hammock

Boat launch

Paddling out

Village boy


village girls

Tony with girls

Village boys

Tattoo inspection

Tattoo inspection

Tattoo inspection

Alicia reading

Playing spoons



Tony standing above a waterfall

hiking through the jungle

Eating lunch

Haven the dog

Yellow basket boat

Working beach

dog in the hammock

When we only had five days remaining on our Vietnamese visa, we sadly had to tear ourselves away from Haven (and proprietors Rosie and Huw and Haven The Dog) and head for Saigon. If we ever make it back to Vietnam, we know of a place that will be at the top of our list.

Holding hands

(If you ever find yourself in central Vietnam, check out Haven Vietnam Guesthouse. Full disclosure: we’re blogging about and linking to Haven simply because it’s great; we haven’t received any form of compensation or freebies.)

Feb 2013



Deserted Beaches and Cham Towers in Quy Nhon

After biking around Hoi An for a few days, we realized that it was nearly mid-January and we still hadn’t seen much of the sun since the day after Christmas. It was getting warmer as we traveled down the coast of Vietnam, but the skies were continually dark and the waves were rough. Probably to be expected since it was typhoon season in that part of the country. Nothing to do about it but keep on moving south.

Since we enjoyed being one of only a few Westerners that we saw back in Da Nang (one day we counted only five) and since we liked the atmosphere that those types of cities bring, we looked for a city on the coast that had good beaches but was smaller than Da Nang.  Quy Nhon looked about right, so we bought our bus tickets.

Here’s what Quy Nhon’s beach looked like on the Saturday afternoon that we arrived.

Deserted beach

Sunbathing isn’t exactly a national pastime here.

Rough waves

Just like the rest of the beaches we had seen in the past week, the water was too rough to swim. But that was just fine because we now had blue skies and THE SUN.

One evening while walking along the beach, we had a very nice (if lengthy) conversation with a local man who wanted to practice his English with us. Every question had the same formal preface.

“Excuse me, can you please tell me about education in your country?”

“Excuse me, can you please tell me about the economy in your country?”

“Excuse me, can you please tell me about guns in your country? Many people have been shot?”

Whoa. Those were some pretty broad and deep questions, but we worked our way through them to the best of our abilities.

Besides enjoying what was essentially our own private beach, we entertained ourselves in the evenings by walking through a night market. Western Christmas carols blared on the sound system and there were some mini carnival rides for little kids. Tony looked for a new pair of flip flops, but if you’re over size 42 (U.S. size 8.5), you are out of luck.

Reindeer spaceman ride

Paddleboats for babies

Carousel swing ride

One day, we rented a moped from our guesthouse and drove it out to see some partially restored 11th and 12th century Cham towers. Two towers were in town and the others were about 10 miles away.

Alicia on the moped

Thap Doy towers

Carving detail



Interior altar

Cham towers sunflare

Bahn It tower

Two towers on a hill

Bahn It

The groundskeeper called out to us and asked for 20,000 dong. Despite the official-looking ID hanging from his neck, we were skeptical, but he produced a booklet of tickets. We noticed that the price printed on them was only 7,000 dong and he reluctantly accepted that amount instead. Although he was being dishonest, we later felt badly that we had not simply paid what was the equivalent of an extra $1.20. He probably needed it much more than we did. Sometimes the right thing to do isn’t clear.


Bahn It facade

Bahn It facade

Lower carvings

side detail

Tower further down the hill


View from the top

From our vantage point on top of the hill, we spotted what looked like an interesting pagoda nearby and decided to check it out. We never figured out its name, but it looked like it was either under renovation or its construction had begun and stopped a few decades ago and is only now starting up again.

Stairway to Buddha



Pagoda tower

Top of pagoda tower

We started to wonder where we should go next. South, obviously, but how far? Our guesthouse had a binder full of local information and something interesting caught our eye…

Feb 2013



Biking Around Hoi An

Hoi An is a famous port town in Vietnam. All of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which has helped preserve its classic Vietnamese and French Colonial architecture against the encroachment of modern buildings and development. It’s cheerful and picturesque and wildly popular with tourists and travelers of all sorts.

Because of its heavy tourist load, it’s also full of people who really, really, really want to tailor a whole wardrobe for you or make a pair of shoes or sell you a boat ride or a hat or a little floating candle to launch on the river at night. Some ladies will even interrupt you while you’re trying to slurp down some noodles and offer their facial hair removal services (whilst cheerfully demonstrating their threading technique on their own face).

We coped with this by renting bicycles, which maximized the amount of the beautiful parts of Hoi An we could see, and minimized the ability of touts to grab our arms and drag us into their stores.

Hoi An residential alley

Boats being repaired

Downtown Hoi An, Central Market Hall parking

Carved bamboo root

Tony with carver

Cafe at the foot of the Japanese bridge

Japanese bridge

Abandoned home on the point

Boats tied up

Riding past fishing boats

Hoi An waterfront 1

Hoi An waterfront 2

The beach

Beard blowing in the wind

Walking to the water's edge

We biked to the beach, where the surf was just as heavy as it was back in Da Nang. Having grown up one thousand miles away from the nearest ocean, having not even laid eyes on one until the ripe old age of 28, and having swum in one for the first time just this past summer, Alicia now loooves her some ocean.

Alicia pointing at something

So excited

Getting a little damp

Huge smile

Running from a wave


Sometimes things get a little out of hand.

I've made a huge mistake

Feb 2013



Finding Nirvana in the Marble Mountains

Hoping to escape the chill and drizzle of Ninh Binh, we took a slow 14 hour train ride south to Da Nang.  The overnight sleeper was booked, but we could have a whole private compartment to ourselves on the 8 a.m. train. Since we had plenty of time, it was no problem to spend an entire day reading, playing solitaire and watching the world go by.  That is one of the benefits of long-term travel.  What would be totally unacceptable on a one or two week vacation is no problem when you have months and months to work with.

Tony relaxing in the train

Scenery north of Le Son

Karst mountains north of Le Son

River north of Le Son

Old homes along the tracks north of Le Son

Alicia playing solitaire

Da Nang was definitely warmer than Ninh Binh, but had even more clouds, wind and drizzle.  Red flags were posted on China Beach, but we saw one lone surfer hanging out past the breaks.

View of Da Nang from our hotel room

Blustery day at the beach

Red flag warning - no swimming today

White statue in the distance

Da Nang was really spread out and divided by a big river. Our hotel wasn’t particularly close to many food options, and we were curious about the big white statue across the bay. Time to rent another motorbike!

On the motorbike

Da Nang residential alley

Coast road

Boats being repaired

Bridge construction

View of Da Nang

We drove the coast road towards the big white statue until we came to Linh Ung Pagoda and the 17 story Bodhisattva of Mercy Statue that overlooks the South China Sea. The pagoda and grounds looked recently restored and  were full of and impressive bonsai trees and marble statuary.

Linh Ung pagoda stairs

Linh Ung pagoda

Linh Ung pagoda grounds

Dog friend at Linh Ung pagoda

Marble statue

Marble statue - with deer

Statue carvers

Wood carving tools

Buddha and Bodhisattva Statue of Mercy

Dragon carving

Carvings at base of Bodhisattva Statue of Mercy

The next day we drove south of town to the Marble Mountains. They are named well, because they are indeed full of marble and the base of the mountains are ringed by family businesses that create and sell huge marble sculptures.  Each mountain is zig-zagged with footpaths that take you to pagodas, caves and shrines. The air is saturated with the smell of spicy, burning joss sticks.

Lion of concrete and glass bottles at Linh Ung Pagoda

Dinnerware lion

Tang Chon Cave

Tang Chon Cave

Pagoda tower

Van Thong Cave

Steep stairs up Thuy Son Mountain

View from the top of Thuy Son Mountain

Moc Son Mountain center, Kim Son Mountain right, as seen from Thuy Son Mountain

Us at the top

Entrance to Hoa Nghiem and Huyen Khong caves

Inscription in Hoa Nghiem Cave

Descending into Huyen Khong Cave

Descending into Huyen Khong Cave

Huge buddha statue in Huyen Khong Cave

Natural skylights in Huyen Khong Cave

Carved lotus

Mini pagoda

Tho Son Mountain

Kim Son Mountain

One of the largest caves is Âm Phủ. Google Translate helpfully gives four different translations: Abaddon, infernal, hades and hell. Enter past the guardians and over a bridge with stone hands emerging from the stagnant water. Pass in front of the Dharmacakra, or Buddhist Wheel of Life, weigh your life on the scales and be judged in front of an all-seeing eye. Then descend to hell or take the stairway to heaven. (We’re sure there is much more to the symbolism and imagery than just that, so we apologize for the oversimplification.)

Guardian at entrance to Am Phu Cave

Creepy hands at entrance to Am Phu Cave

Carving at Am Phu Cave

Guardian of the

the Dharmacakra

Carving in front of the Dharmacakra

Judgement hall

Let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way, shall we? First, to hell with us!

A demon on the way to hell

Hungry creature

More demons

A lost soul

Ksitigarbha ministers to lost souls

At the bottom of hell

Once you’ve reached the bottom, there’s no where to go but retrace your steps and go up.  It’s steep and there are no handrails.

Stairway to heaven

Sculpture collection on the ascent to heaven

Marble relief carving

Carved dog

Sleeping elephant

Small seated Buddhas

Cat angel relief sculpture

Looking back down

Looking back down

Pagoda tower

Carvings at the top of

Nirvana, at last.

Feb 2013



A River, a Pagoda and Karst Mountains in Ninh Binh

So we skipped Ha Long Bay.  Skipping Ha Long Bay when you have a month to see Vietnam is probably the equivalent of going to Paris for a week without ever setting eyes on the Eiffel Tower or something, but we gave it a pass anyway.  It was cold and drizzly and a long boat trip just didn’t sound like fun.  Instead, we took the train few hours south of Hanoi to Ninh Binh, which is supposed to be the inland equivalent of the Ha Long landscape.

When we woke up in Ninh Binh, we fortified ourselves with a massive jolt of caffeine and sugar via Vietnamese coffee at the cafe next door, while enjoying a very strange TV program.

Vietnamese coffee

Many (if not most) cafes in Vietnam also serve as the owners’ homes, which is why it looks like we’re hanging out in someone’s living room.

TV program

Remembering our great times in northern Thailand on a motorbike, we decided to rent one from our hotel instead of getting a taxi.  It was actually just a spare bike owned by the woman next door, who sloshed a Pepsi bottle full of gasoline into the tank and pointed us in the direction of the nearest petrol station.

It was cold and the road was full of deep potholes. Parts of it were under construction and there were lots of heavy trucks on the road which added a challenging element to the usual traffic patterns (marked lanes merely a suggestion, two way traffic in both lanes and shoulders, turn signals and mirrors irrelevant, right of way belongs to the biggest vehicle and/or whoever begins honking first and loudest, etc.). We quickly learned the difference between the normal “hey guys, coming through” courtesy honks and the urgent blasts that screamed “you are about to die, fool!”

Railroad safety gate

When we finally found Tam Cốc (which means “three caves”) after some backtracking, our nerves were a little on edge and our fingers were stiff with cold.  We bought a boat ticket down the Ngô Đồng river, and it wound through some amazing karst scenery and caves. Our rower used her feet the whole time and sometimes talked on her cellphone.  Most of the other rowers we passed used their feet, too.

Our boat rower

Woman rowing with her feet

First cave


Boat approaching the first cave

Cave interior


Cultivated river bank

A dog and a house

Through the second cave

Other tourists being rowed by foot

Vietnamese women fishing

Through the cave

Large white bird

Vertical face

At the turnaround point, we managed to resist the concession stand flotilla ladies who tried to sell us drinks and snacks.

High-pressure concession flotilla

Back on shore and tip delivered, we headed for the nearest cafe to thaw out.

After we recovered, we got back on the bike and motored just up the road a bit to Bích Động pagoda, which is a temple complex of three different pagodas set up the side of a mountain.

Tony at the entrance to Bích Động pagoda

This place is not for impolite visitors

Corner of a roof

Mossy roof tiles

Glowing altar

Dragon painting


Alicia taking a group photo

Small shrine

Bare frangipani trees

After reaching the final pagoda, a path continued up the mountain and we followed it through jagged karst and over boulders and were rewarded with a spectacular view.

Jagged rocks on top of the mountain

Our feet in sharp rocks

Us at the top

Flooded fields below

But we quickly realized that we wouldn’t have much daylight left to get back to town, so we hurried down.

Hurrying down

A huge flock of large white birds were restlessly settling in the marsh as we walked back to our motorbike.

Flock landing

We pulled off the road to take a few last photos before the cold ride home.

Tony on the bike


The area around Ninh Binh was beautiful, but we craved warmth.  We also missed the sun, which we hadn’t seen since we left Laos two weeks prior.  Although we usually stay for several days in each area we visit, we bought train tickets south that night and left first thing in the morning.

Train ticket

Ninh Binh train station

Feb 2013



Beginning the New Year in Hanoi

One nice thing that came of our disorienting 29 hour hell bus ride to Hanoi, besides having new stories to tell and a certain sense of pride in having lived through it, was that we met Jay (“Boston” from the bus blog).

3 on a bike

Jay lives in Hanoi, and showed us around for a day. The three of us crammed onto his moped and he drove us past Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, around West Lake, and and through various neighborhoods that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

Bun cha restaurant

He took us to his favorite bún chả (say “boon-cha”) place, which ended up being our favorite dish, and looking back, this particular one was our favorite single meal in all of Vietnam. We’ll put it into our What We Ate in Vietnam compilation post later, but it’s good enough to be mentioned twice, so here is some bún chả.

Bún chả.

Fixing a bowl of bun cha

It’s fun to say, isn’t it? Bún chả. Bún chả. Bún chả! Ok, more on that later.

Went back to Jay’s apartment to check out the view from his roof and to play Scrabble.

View of West Lake

View of Hanoi

Apartment roof


Then back out to the Old Quarter for dinner, this time only two to a moped because Jay’s roommate, Lucca, joined us.

Jay and Lucca

And that was how we kicked off our month in Vietnam. (Thanks Jay!) Hanoi was pretty chilly and drizzly, but we really enjoyed being there. Here are some more things we saw in Hanoi (hover for a caption).

Extra special alcohol, New Day Restaurant, Old Quarter

Silk flower vendor, Old Quarter

Flower vendors' bikes, Old Quarter

Sidewalk market, Old Quarter

Street near Dong Xuan market

Toads for sale, Dong Xuan market

Rooster perching on a covered motorbike, Old Quarter

Bantam chickens, Old Quarter

Leafy green street, Old Quarter


Porcelain vendor, Old Quarter

Shoe shop, Old Quarter

Vintage propaganda posters

Hanoi map at a sidewalk restaurant, Old Quarter

Hand carved wooden stamps, Old Quarter

Noodle makers

Ladies selling deep-fried bananas on the sidewalk, Old Quarter

Wall art, Pho Co (Hidden Cafe)

Busy street corner, northwest edge of Old Quarter

Colorful flags strung across Nguyen Huu Huan Street, Old Quarter

Peace sculpture at Hoàn Kiếm lake

Young couple posing for wedding photos at Hoàn Kiếm lake

Tony posing for photos at Hoàn Kiếm lake

Police officer taking photos of friends at Hoàn Kiếm lake

Upper wall at Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton)

Sculptures depicting Vietnamese imprisoned by the French at Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton)

Sculptures depicting Vietnamese imprisoned by the French at Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton)

Painted cell number at Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton)

Personal effects of American POWs at Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton)

John McCain's flight suit on display at Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton)

Sculptures at Bach Ma temple

Bach Ma temple courtyard

Packed sidewalk restaurant

Birds for sale, Old Quarter

Multilevel housing, Hàng Da street

Money offering, Temple of Literature

Two men smoking, Temple of Literature

Joss sticks burning on a dragon altar, Temple of Literature

Drum head detail, Temple of Literature

Roof tiles, Temple of Literature

Dragon head topiary, Temple of Literature

Rooster in a cage, next to Temple of Literature

Man resting in a green hammock, Nguyễn Thái Học street

Skateboarders at Lenin Park

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum

Guards at Ho Chi Minh's mansion

Train tracks through a neighborhood

Exploring Hanoi was a great way to start 2013! Tết, the start of the Vietnamese new year, is a much bigger deal than the calendar new year, and it doesn’t happen until February this year. As for actual New Year’s Eve… we had drinks at a rooftop cafe overlooking Hoàn Kiếm lake and waited for fireworks that were rumored, but never happened. We shared a table with a couple from Alaska, traded travel stories and went to bed happy.

New Year's Eve in Hanoi

2013 floral arrangement, Temple of Literature

Feb 2013



Purgatory on Wheels in Two Acts

We knew that it was going to take longer than one full day. We knew no one ever said anything good or reassuring about this particular bus ride. We also knew that the one hour flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi was more than we wanted to pay. And we knew if we took the easy way out, we’d never tell a single story about that flight.

In the Laotian public transportation system, the participants are comprised of two separate yet equally important groups: the bus drivers and their lackeys who can do whatever they want, and the passengers who are completely at their mercy. These are their stories.

Strangely nice bus station furniture

We tried to leave on Christmas night, but when we arrived at the station, they said we were the only ones who bought tickets, and they weren’t going to do a run with an empty bus. Fair enough. We came back the next day.

It begins

Hell Bus Day 1

18:00 – The appointed hour. Tickets are checked. Shoes are removed and placed in a plastic bag. We attempted to claim the seats numbered 3 and 4, as those were the ones written on our tickets, but one of the several bus guys in charge insists on herding us to the back. Seats 3 and 4 are piled with stale-but-not-exactly-dirty smelling blankets, so we claim 7 and 8 and pretend we don’t understand what the guy wants. He gives up. A small victory for us.

Loading up

18:10 – The guy across from us is from Boston. He completed this same journey, in reverse, from Hanoi just three days prior. Boston confirms that yes, it is as bad as everyone says. He picked up some Valium from a pharmacy in preparation.

18:15 – The engine fires up. Blankets are distributed. Just one for each pair of seats, which recline almost fully flat. Glad we’re not sitting next to any strangers.

18:43 – The driver has been going slowly and I’m sure we still haven’t left the outskirts of Luang Prabang. We stop for some sort of checkpoint. Military? Bureaucratic? There is much discussion. One of the bus guys hands over some cash. Were all those bags of rice in the hold next to our bags a really… special type of rice?

19:04 – We’ve stopped again and have been sitting here for ten minutes for no apparent reason. A man with a large pink bandage wrapped around his head boards. He brought his own comforter, a yellow one with pink flowers, and sits down in the front seat. Bus Boss, a thin, balding Vietnamese man wearing a black lounge shirt, begins shouting at him. Pinky shouts back, adjusts his bandage and claims the seat next to him too. Boss throws up his hands and drops it. Lights out and we continue.

19:41 – Driver stops to pee on the side of the road, not bothering to move out of the view of the windows. A few others join him.

21:18 – Twenty-five minute stop at some small village in the middle of nowhere. Pierre, a French guy suffering in the very back row, buys 12 bootleg movies for the equivalent of $2.50. Small talk with Boston, New York and Michigan while a roving dog sniffs around and a little boy pops wheelies on his bike. We put our shoes back into our plastic backs and re-board.


21:38 – High up in the mountains now. Giant misty valleys far… far below, just barely hinted at in the weak moonlight. We stop and they turn all the lights on. Boss pulls some papers from one of the overhead storage areas. It appeared to be identical to one of the route signs posted above the driver’s head. Some discussion, then lights out and we start moving slowly again.


21:51 – We stop for the second time in five minutes. One of the bus guys grabs a tool and a flashlight. Every time we stop, they flip on all the interior lights. Boston decides now is the time to seek pharmaceutical assistance. We do the same, and I withdraw into my personal cocoon. Eye shade, scarf over my mouth and neck, hoodie hood up.

22:03 – Still stopped. One of the bus guys starts playing warbling love ballads on their phone. I add earplugs and the cocoon is complete.

Hell Bus Day 2

02:37 – Artificial sleep has worn off. We’re stopped. Where? Why? We’ve stopped wondering. Boston must have left, because he’s climbing back into his seat now. I hear a shout. Boston removes his shoes, pulls up his blanket and pretends to sleep. Boss boards, shouting angrily, and brushes dirt from the bus aisle. Boston doesn’t flinch. I notice that a local woman is now sitting next to Pinky, observing everything with amusement.

02:54 – Bus has been stopped for five minutes. Pinky is angry again and yelling at Boss. His bandage is shifted, exposing a large white gauze pad over his left eye and big scabby wounds on his cheekbone and forehead. More glaring and yelling. We think that Boss wants him to change seats. Pinky wins this round.

Comrades in suffering

03:04 – We’re still not moving. People must have boarded while we slept because we now notice that they are laying end-to-end in the storage area underneath the seats and in the aisle. An awkward dichotomy. Rich Westerners in the “first class” seats, with Laotians stacked below us like cord wood. New York got off to smoke or pee or something and had to walk on top of the seats to return to her spot. Everyone is coughing and sneezing. Boston declares that this is “definitely worse” than his previous trip.


03:17 – Pinky is finally convinced to move and two men take the front seat. Two young backpackers from Yorkshire board and pale at the sight that greets them. They bought two seats and have been waiting for the bus since 1 a.m. They tell us we’re in Phonsavan. Which means we’ve been on the road for nine hours and have gone 160 miles. Which means our average speed is… we probably shouldn’t dwell it. The Yorkshires carve out a seat on the padded floor next to us in the aisle.

06:03 – We must have fallen asleep. We wake up and talk with Boston and Yorkshire. It’s getting light and you can see the soggy jungle and huts and chickens and buffalo. Everything outside looks gray and drippy and muddy.

06:36 – Boss hangs out the door while the bus is still moving and waves to someone. We pass a cattleyard with trucks loaded full of doomed bovines.

06:50 – Line of trucks ahead. We’ve reached the border. The driver pulls head of the line and drives down the wrong side of the road. The bus lurches heavily and there is a loud bang. There’s a commotion in the back of the bus, but it’s hard to tell what’s happening.

07:07 – We’ve arrived at the passport control building and the engine is off. Now we wait. It looks like there is a building marked WC a little ways down the hill which looks promising. Someone is standing on the roof of the bus. We go check it out. The back window is shattered, which is probably the source of the noise we heard earlier. Not to worry; they’re fixing it with packing tape.

Broken window

09:24 – We’ve all made it through border control and the bus is idling on the Vietnamese side. The border opened about an 90 minutes ago. We stood in line to get our Laos exit stamp next to locals smoking under the No Smoking signs. Walked down a muddy road to the Vietnam side. A uniformed man collected our passports. We waited. And waited and waited. The station was large and dusty, with a big mold stain that spread high across one corner. Boss told Boston (who knows a little Vietnamese and had become the de-facto, reluctant representative of the all of the “first class” passengers) that we all needed to pull our bags off the bus and go through customs. Passports were redistributed. We prepared to have our bags searched, “customs” (a guy at a desk) only made the first person in line unpack and waved the rest of us through once he glanced at our passport photos and our faces. We loaded our bags back into the hold of the bus and are ready for the Vietnam leg of the journey.

09:33 – Bus is still idling. Snickers bars and anti-malaria pills for breakfast.

Vietnamese side of the border

09:40 – Here we go.

Boss looks confused

10:27 – Gasoline stop.

Foggy morn

12:05 – Michigan has to pee. The youngest bus guy says, “10 minutes.”

12:25 – Bus guy says, “5 minutes.”

12:31 – Bus guy says, “3 minutes.”

12:36 – Michigan forces her way to the door and insists with no small amount of desperation in her voice. Finally, the driver pulls over and she heads for a corn field.

12:56 – Stop at a filthy noodle joint. (Not a term we use lightly… we have seen some things since we arrived in Bangkok seven weeks ago.) The dining room is typical and totally fine, but walking through the dank kitchen to get to the fly-filled bathrooms tells another story. There are no other restaurants or stores in sight. Our last food stop was nearly 16 hours ago. They let us pay in Laotian kip and we have just enough to split a hot bowl of phở. Hopefully hot enough to kill whatever horrors it picked up during its preparation.

Lunch stop

13:32 – We reboard. Boss is in a great mood. He grabs Tony’s beard and announces to the rest of the bus, “Osama bin Laden!” Tony smiles and attempts to grab Boss’s hairless chin, but is quickly batted away. Apparently there is a double standard when it comes to personal space.

13:57 – For the first time on the journey, the flatscreen tv mounted to the ceiling is flipped on. It’s a Vietnamese music video. Joy.

Music video time

14:01 – Boss changes the channel to a movie. The Gods Must Be Crazy II. …Indeed.

15:35 – The movie is finished. The land is flat and we’re going past endless rice paddies. The harvest is long over and it looks like the farmers and their buffalos are cultivating muck.

15:38 – A few people get off. A baby starts crying. A new movie begins. Something to do with a golden retriever.

15:42 – Make that multiple golden retrievers.

15:54 – Four people leave the bus. The golden retrievers accidentally got themselves shipped to Alaska. Hijinks sure to follow.

Muddy roads

16:16 – Stopped. Not sure why.

16:38 – Saw a road marker for Hanoi. Forgot what it said. 200 something.

20:40 – Stopped on a dark street in a residential area. Loud banging. A group of men are unloading wood. Of course they’re unloading wood. Totally unsurprising. We all pile out. Boston has determined that we are still 60 miles from Hanoi. I turn the corner and wander halfway down the darkened street. The nice thing about no streetlights is you can pee just about anywhere. I return to the bus just as Boss is urging people to put out their cigarettes and hurry up.

“Oh, I’m sorry, are we on a schedule?” I tap my watch and smile. Big laughs all around.

A basket of roosters and two cases of Black Lion (a Johnny Walker knock-off) sit on the ground next to the door. I point at the boxes, then at all of the passengers, and then make a drinking motion. “For us?!” I exclaim happily. I have grown bold in my delirium.

“NO.” Boss looks agitated. The poultry and booze disappear into the darkness as we pull off our shoes and climb aboard.

Last noodle stop

20:55 – We pull into a large garage/noodle shop/convenience store. I walk out to the street and note that this is the only option in sight. There are also no ATMs. We don’t have any Vietnamese dong and we’re all out of kip. Boston suggests mutiny or hijack but none of us know how to drive a bus. He buys us a bowl of phở. An Australian passenger sees some local guys smoking tobacco from a large bamboo bong. He takes a huge hit, turns red and falls over, smacking his head on a chest freezer on his way down. It seems like he is convulsing but after everyone clears away, it turns out that he is only laughing. All the bus guys start doing shots of bau da. They’ve been rotating shifts behind the wheel. Not sure who is up to bat.

21:47 – We finally get on the bus again. Tony must not be moving fast enough because Boss slaps him on the ass. Tony turns and glares at him. Glassy-eyed Boss tries to kiss his cheek. Blame the bau da. We’re allegedly one hour from Hanoi.

22:00 – Bus has hit its top speed for this trip so far. Maybe 45 miles per hour. We hit a massive, bone-jarring dip in the road, and the driver pulls over. We think the bus must have sustained some damage, but he is just letting a few of the other bus guys off. We continue down the road and the driver proceeds to straddle the center line as much as possible. It’s drizzling outside. Michigan says that one of the bus guys crawled underneath the seat across from her to solicit favors from a woman stashed there. Super.

23:02 – We pull into the bus station in Hanoi, a full 29 hours after leaving Luang Prabang. We have all suffered indignities, discomfort and dispair. But haven’t starved, puked or peed ourselves. All our belongings are intact. We’ve made new friends. We are victorious.

Feb 2013

Laos, Vietnam