We couldn’t make it to Ho Chi Minh city during our Vietnam sojourn, but you can trace our ten-day itinerary below, one that took us through Hanoi-NinhBinh-Phu Quoc.
The city of Hanoi – hot, sticky and sweet – feels like the aftermath of an ice cream gone too soon. Sure, the city needs a lick of new paint, but the overlooked feel does well for French colonial bungalows that house restaurants and bars here. The same cannot be said for many other parts of the city. Still, embrace it all - especially the pho and cocktails.
Madame Hien: Set in a former Spanish embassy, a French cook sends out odes to his Vietnamese grandmother from the kitchen. This glowing villa is best experienced at night, when you can sit out on the terrace, order a bottle of wine and travel around the country through their many-course tasting menus. We loved the French-Vietnamese nod to street food. 15 Chan Cam, Hoan Kiem District.
Bun Cha, Banh Com, Thit Xien: This place blew up after Anthony Bourdain and Obama crouched on plastic stools, discussing this and that for The New Yorker, over Bun Cha (grilled pork served with noodles). Everyone will recommend it, and rightly so. For more local delicacies, try corn cakes at Banh Com; and smokey steak meat on skewers at Thit Xien. Bun Cha, Huong Lien; Banh Com, 1 Hang Manh Street; Thit Xien, 31 Quang Trung Street.
Pho Bo: Slurp Pho (beef noodle soup) at the city’s many street shops that serve cold beer and food while you sit on kindergarten sized plastic stools and people watch on the pavement. Look up street food tours here: hiddenhaoi.com, and for a more santised experience, get a spot at Pho Bo.
Pizza 4Ps: We would never recommend an Italian restaurant in Vietnam, unless it was amazing. And this one is. We promise. You will find subtle Japanese surprises in your pasta and pizza – seaweed swims into the best carbonara we’ve had and ginger pork sits on pizza pies. We actually visited twice. Multiple outlets, visit http://www.pizza4ps.com.
The Hanoi Social Club: Set in an old villa hidden under creepers, this is the token guidebook traveller café, so we didn’t expect much. But happy surprise for us: the eggs, dessert, cocktails and Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk, are great! Plus, Wi-fi and the chance to meet other fellow wanderers looking for the best Pho in town. Compare notes. 6 Ngõ Hội Vũ, Hàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm.
Ice Cream: Buy little packs of mochi ice cream at Kem Trang Tien (25, Trang Tien Street), a giant ice cream emporium and stop at the fragrant shop next door for small sacks of Vietnamese coffee beans. At Kem Dua (29, Hang Than Street), you can get local coconut ice cream rolls.
Polite & Co: Polite & Co is polite, despite its whisky and cigar collection, massive enough to make any collector arrogant. Make sure to visit on a Tuesday night, when you get to use the buy-one-get-one-free offer on any single malt (they have ten pages of malts!), 20% off on cigars and a free shoeshine.
Drinking Street: End your night on Drinking Street, a manic road in the Old Quarter that’s packed with little street bars where jager shots – you must! – cost Rs 200 each. It doesn’t really matter which bar you reverse into here; each one will serve you shots while vendors outside insist on selling you an overpriced Pikachu balloon. After four Jagers, you will concede. We had a great time at Xupito Bar where at some point the owner insisted we Face Time with his Indian friend. Pikachu agreed.
Note: Ask for sliced red chillies everywhere you go. Best dinner companion. Also, drinks are super cheap, so go wild.
The museums in Hanoi are musty and sometimes make-shift, but it’s a good idea to include one in your itinerary. We visited the Thang Long Citadel where underground war bunkers document North Vietnam’s strategy boards, maps and phone booths. For a more luxe feel of Hanoi, get a cup of coffee at the Sofitel Legend Metropole in Hoan Kiem District, where you can also flit in and out of Prada, Dior and Burberry stores; walk past the stately Opera House; and cycle along the Hoan Kiem Lake, a playground for lovers, loafers and lovely old folk. We skipped the Temple of Literature and Water Puppet Theatre, but look it up in case you’ve had enough of food and drink. We doubt you will.
Note: We stayed at a cute two bedroom Airbnb with a piano in the living room (just Rs 3,000 a night for two people) where Super Host Tu also doubles up as an excellent concierge, helping with car bookings for day trips and food recommendations, many of which you see above.
A 1.5 hour drive from Hanoi, Ninh Binh, a province in the Red River Delta, is where you want to wear out your walking shoes. Get a room at the beautiful Emeralda hotel – ask for one of the suites clustered around the private pool – and begin plotting (it’s useful and well priced to have a car and driver for the entire stay). First stop: Tam Coc, where you sit two to a boat, and glide through lush paddy fields, gazing up at mossy limestone formations. When you take a break, floating market boats steer towards you, selling bags of fresh pineapple and chilled beer cans. Next, head to the more crowded and touristy but seriously beautiful Trang An, where Kong: Skull Island was shot. Here, you boat around a temple complex, and wish you had worked hard in yoga class, considering all the glittering limestone caves you’re going to have to duck under. Meanwhile, the sexy wetlands of Van Long Nature Reserve (also accessible by boat) are alive with the sizzling whispers of scarlet birds, pangolins and snakes. Ninh Binh isn’t really the place to look for bars and cafes, but Chookie’s Beer Garden is a good stop to make on your way back to Hanoi.
By now, we’re exhausted and excited to be at the JW Marriott Emerald Bay, one of those hotels you don’t ever have to leave. Private beach with cold water bottles, paddle boards and beer on demand, check. Bar on the water with jazz band lit by the moon, check. Three different pools, one shaped like a shell and two that don’t allow kids, check. While Internet images make the property seem very resort-y, it’s really just a big boutique hotel with a surprising amount of attention paid to detail. They’ve taken over a former French university, naming different buildings after academic departments they once housed – we stayed in the department of ornithology.
When you do get around to crawling off the hotel’s Cream beach (one of the few private beaches in Vietnam), make sure to take the Hon Thom all-glass cable car for a bird’s eye view of the stunning island. Pack beer for the ride, and don’t stay back on the island; they’re building a depressing theme park here. Ride back and go instead to the Fingernail Island (book a boat for the day); and make sure you skip Sao beach that is now super crowded and quite dirty. Watch the sunset at Rory’s beach bar at Duong Dong (good vibe + better fries + Beatles on the playlist) and walk around the Night Market after, to buy ice cream rolls, seaweed-chilli-garlic peanuts and faux Phu Quoc pearls that you can discard if you get lucky during your next dive.
If you have more questions about our trip, write to us on firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll be happy to help.
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