We’re seeing some sights while in Hanoi, but our focus is on food. Thanks to the Gastronomer, we’re finding good restaurants. My favorite so far has been Cha Ca Thang Long where there’s only one thing on the menu: Cha Ca. The marinated fish is added along with scallions and dill to a grill pan on the table. You eat it with bun (rice vermicelli), nuoc mam (fish sauce), fresh veggies and peanuts.
We also went to Wild Rice as a last meal with Spice Roads. The food and service are impeccable. Standouts in my mind are the Nem Tom Chuoi (shimp and banana fried eggrolls) and the braised eggplant. Any fried banana dish usually stands out in my mind, and the braised eggplant was perfectly sweet and succulent.
Xoi Xeo at Xoi Yen was another great suggestion from the Gastronomer. You have your choice of one of three xoi (sticky rice) and even more choices of meat to go on top. Perfect (and cheap) lunch if you’re in the Old Quarter.
Fifteen days, 4 UNESCO World Heritage sites, ten hotels, 281 miles on the bike and 15,815 feet of climbing. We have a few more days in Hanoi for eating, sightseeing and shopping, but I feel like the trip is winding down. Looking back, each day of the trip added something new to our perspective of Vietnam. No day was “more of the same,” so we’ve gotten a good first taste of the country’s variations in personality and landscapes.
On the other hand, the constant change in hotels was difficult for us. I think our next trip here will focus on the Mekong Delta (we haven’t gone there yet), Dalat and Hoi An. (Note that the last two were places where we had fantastic chocolate croissants.) We didn’t have that much time in Saigon, so we’ll probably spend more time there too.
On another note, the cruise to Cat Ba Island and back through Ha Long Bay was excellent. The scenery was lovely, and the incredibly fresh seafood (shrimp, clams, squid and fish) along with fried taro were just amazing. On the way to a cave in a limestone karst, the boat stopped at a floating fish farm to buy the ingredients for lunch.
Today’s ride was the last ride, and it was broken up into two parts: ride from Hai Phong to the boat, and after a 3 hour boat trip, ride from the port to the hotel in Cat Ba. Of course, the boat ride on a traditional boat offered stunning views and a delicious lunch with fresh shrimp, fish and squid. The ride through the middle of the island was challenging with long, winding climbs. These are definitely some of the most brutal climbs Pete and I have ever done.
After all the riding, I think that people with reasonable fitness can make the journey. There were days when I didn’t want to get on the bike anymore, but I was always well rewarded when I did. Sometimes the bus couldn’t follow us on the same road due to road conditions, and those were often the days when I was so glad to be on a bike.
We took a tourist boat down the Perfume River (Suong Huong) to a really nice pagoda. Surprisingly, I liked the boat ride. While it was noisy, it gave us an nice slow view of the river banks and the weather was perfect. Afterwards, we headed out to the Citadel. That evening, we took an overnight train to Nam Dinh. I was grossed out by the dirty sheets and had a hard time sleeping. Even though we had a few hours to sleep in a hotel nearby, the night was a total disaster. I was ready to high-tail it to Hanoi.
We started the ride in Ninh Binh, and the pain of the previous night was forgotten. In the morning, we saw limestone karsts rising out of the land (and some water due to the recent floods). We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant where a woman and her children cooked for 18 in a single wok in a matter of half an hour. It was one of our favorite meals so far. In the afternoon, we rode next to (and possibly through) a small mountain range on our way to the National Park and the Endangered Primate Rescue Center in Cuc Phuong.
The sun came out for our ride from Da Nang to Hue, and it was one of my favorite rides of the trip. We rode up High Van Pass, which rises 500 m above sea level over 9 km and descends back to sea level over 11 km. The views going up and down the pass were just stunning. We continued down the coast to a lovely beach resort (Lan Co) for lunch.
We turned off the main highway and went through the country roads to see the ornate tombs of Central Vietnam. The citizens of Hue bury their dead in the countryside outside of town, and we often saw massive tombs with simple houses next to them. Over 40 km, we saw more tombs than people.
Another highlight was the gaggles of preschoolers walking home from school on their own. They didn’t have anyone guiding them, but they seemed to know where to go. They’re also the most enthusiastic and genuine when they’re waving their hellos. Western cyclists are still a different enough sight that they’ll run out of their houses to wave hello to us.
Pete also did an awesome job of riding today. He rode nearly 50 miles! It definitely took me more than a few weeks of riding to build up to a half century.
Go to Cargo Club Restaurant at 8 AM and get the chocolate croissants. They come out of the oven at that time, and they’re best right then. Later on in the evening, drop by for a really rich dessert.
Go to Thung Bac for Cao Lao (found only in Hoi An). The Banh Xeo is also tasty.
Get tailored clothing. While there are store fronts on every few steps, they all go back to 2-3 big tailor shops. Choose the one with the best stitching on their samples, the best cloth selection and the best prices.
The countryside of central Vietnam is just gorgeous with lush greenery and mountains as the backdrop. We’re just having problems capturing the beauty in our photos. The wide-angle on the SLR would probably help, but I’m not very comfortable riding with an SLR slung on my back.
The beaches are also quite nice. We’re also quite bad about forgetting the camera on the bus.
So, I think cycling is one of the best ways to visit Vietnam. The experience is very different from cycling and sitting on the bus. There is quite a bit of interaction with the locals – a lot of the kids (and some adults) excited wave/shout “Hello” as we ride by, and they burst into giggles when we respond. In one town where we waited for others to catch up, we literally stopped the traffic. I guess people there get so few visitors, we were something to gawk at.
I can’t say enough about the views – they’re simply breathtaking.
We finally had our local meal that beats anything we’ve had in the US. We had amazing Ban Xeo Hue, Nem Nuong Mia and Nem Chua Nuong at Quan 52 (Banh Xeo by Cho Dam). This place was recommended by both the hotel receptionist and the cabbie as the best Banh Xeo in Nha Trang. The kitchen was a cart with an extra table for the fryer, and the inside of the restaurant had haphazard tables and plastic chairs. The dough of the Ban Xeo was just crispy enough of the outside with the right combination of shrimp, squid, pork, boiled egg and bean sprouts on the inside. My lesson learned is that we need to eat at more simple stalls with a small menu than the formal restaurants. My favorite meals have all been in places with plastic chairs.
My rudimentary Vietnamese came in handy – I was able to figure out the short menu and order for us. The longer I’m here, the more I understand and the more I’m able to sound out words. I think I’m going to try to watch the news in Vietnamese when I get home so I can beef up my vocabulary.