My first Vietnam recap! Two days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) included banh mi, Vietnamese coffee, sightseeing and a tour of the Mekong Delta.
I’ve been hoarding the details about my trip to Southeast Asia for what feels like an eternity. I’ve been desperate to get it all down on paper…errr…on blog but upon returning home, I was whisked away on another three week whirlwind of travel (both work and pleasure) to Turks & Caicos, NYC, NOLA and Buffalo. Needless to say, it’s been a month. Well, actually two months. And I wish I could say I’ll be staying put for the rest of the summer but if you know me well enough, you know I can’t sit still for too long. I’ll be in Quebec in a few weeks, followed by weekend trips to Vermont, Napa, Newport RI and the Hudson Valley and then a work/pleasure stint in Europe in August – Copenhagen, Munich, Berlin and Prague! I love love love travel and am so grateful to have it be a part of my life. But I’m also human and thus feel the aftermath effects of travel – exhaustion, burn out, etc. It’s important for me to schedule quality “at home” time between trips to recharge the batteries.
These next few weeks will be just that and I hope to finally get some of these Vietnam and Laos recaps up to share with you! First up is the first stop of our Vietnam trip: Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)/Saigon. But first let me breakdown the entire trip itinerary for you in case you have three weeks of travel time to play with and want to replicate:
Ho Chi Minh City: 2 nights
Nha Trang: 3 nights (if we had to do over, we would skip Nha Trang and spend more time in Laos)
Luang Prabang (Laos): 4 nights
Hanoi: 4 nights
Halong Bay: 1 night
Hoi An: 4 nights
Ho Chi Minh City: 1 night
Our time in HCMC (formerly known as Saigon) was kind of a jet-lagged shit show. I learned on this trip that I’m really sensitive to jet lag (which isn’t super surprising given that I’m a highly sensitive individual). By late afternoon on day one in HCMC, I was sweating, lightheaded, super sensitive to smell, retaining a ton of water and had no appetite whatsoever. But we did manage to do a little sightseeing on that first day (before the jet lag ensued and I became a walking zombie).
- Got our first Vietnamese coffee at Trung Nguyen Coffee. There are a few locations around the city but make sure to hit up the one where you can kick off your shoes (literally) and sit in an air-conditioned room filled with cool, white sand. It’s a nice reprieve from the heat! This one is located at 7 Nguyen Van Chiem Street, District 1. If you’ve never had Vietnamese coffee before, you’re in for a serious treat. I’m not a big coffee drinker – typically I have tea every morning but in Vietnam, I had coffee every morning because it was so freaking good. DYK that Vietnam is the second largest coffee exporter in the world next to Brazil? Coffee is a huge part of their culture and I’ve never seen so many coffee shops in my life than in Vietnam. And so many varieties of coffee! The traditional way to drink coffee in Vietnam is iced, black. But some (and many tourists, including myself) order an iced, white. White means they add sweetened condensed milk. The coffee in Vietnam is super strong so they sweetened condensed milk helps to balance it out. There’s also egg coffee and yogurt coffee but I’ll tell you about those when I write my Hanoi recap!
sand in a coffee shop, totes normal.
Layer of condensed milk at the bottom and pour over coffee on top. See that little layer of milk on the bottom?serve over ice!
- Made our way to My Banh Mi for banh mi sandwiches! This place was on my radar because they are the only place in HCMC that offers vegetarian banh mi made with delicious fried tofu and a savory mushroom pate. And you have your choice of sauces to accompany your sandwich from umami laden fish saucy-sauces for the non-strict veg eaters to strictly vegetarian sauces like teriyaki or creamy basil. The vegetarian banh mi did not disappoint – a worthy spot for a first lunch in Vietnam.
- Did some sightseeing – went to the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, Ben Thanh Market and the War Remnants Museum. The church is beautiful. The market gives you a good taste of local street food, produce and various crafts. The museum was more up Steve’s ally. He’s the history buff in our relationship. Plus, I don’t do well with graphic photographs of war casualties (hello, highly sensitive, remember? :)). If you enjoy immersing yourself in history, do the museum. If not, skip it.
- Got our first massage. Well actually, got my first massage. Steve and I both walked in and they said no, no, no to Steve. No men allowed, apparently. Sorry, Steve-o. He camped out at the cute coffee shop across the street and I got beat up. Excuse me, “massaged.” Seriously though, I’ve had Thai massages before in Thailand but this Vietnamese massage was SO INTENSE. I felt like she was basically beating me up. I tried to explain to her I needed gentle massage because of my back condition but #languagebarrier. The message got lost in translation. If you want a massage recommended by locals in a cute tucked away alley and you’re okay with a lot of pressure, check out Hoa Bang Lang Spa.
Our entire day was spent getting out of HCMC to explore the Mekong Delta and I’m SO glad we booked this tour. It was definitely a highlight of our trip! We got on the bus around 6:30-7am and it was a 2.5 hour bus ride to the Mekong. We had a hilarious tour guide (English name Frank but Vietnamese name Phuc – he said it often gets mispronounced so he introduces himself as Frank). Frank kept us entertained on the bus ride, teaching us some basic Vietnamese and educating us on the history of Vietnam and the Delta. He actually grew up on the Delta so he had a special perspective about the local life there.
This is what a local rest stop looks like. Say WHAT.
We got to the Mekong around 9:30am and hopped on a boat to explore the Delta. The Mekong is one of the top ten longest rivers in the world and was formed from melted ice in Tibet. We visited Cai Be Floating Market, which is exactly what it sounds like. Markets on boats stationed in the river. Frank told us how the market has decreased dramatically in size over the years and that in another couple years it probably will be gone all together. The young Vietnamese generations are going to school and won’t be taking on their family trades/businesses and so the country will likely see a dramatic shift in their culture and economy over the next five, ten, twenty years. In fact, he said they are currently one of the fastest growing economies in the world. While visiting Cai Be, we hopped onto one of the market boats where a woman was cracking open coconuts for us to drink. The electrolytes and hydration was much needed for the heat and my lack of sleep/jet lag.We then learned about some of the local trades near Cai Be like how to make honey, coconut candy, popped rice and rice paper.
We then rode small boats through the winding canals of the Mekong to Tan Phong Island where we made lunch with a local family.This lunch was the highlight. It was a cooking class without the “class” element. Sure, we learned how to make dishes and learned about different ingredients but we were cooking side by side with the locals in their HOME. It was pretty incredible. On the menu, we had:
Vietnamese pancakes made with egg, shrimp, green onion and turmeric
Grilled snakehead fish served with fresh herbs and pineapple and a dipping sauce of salt, red chilis and lime.
Spring rolls (some with pork, some with mushrooms)
Pork wrapped in local leaves, grilled
Hot pot with local greens and fish
Chicken with lemongrass
Fresh watermelon and milk fruitpork wrapped in local leaves, grilled
grillmaster hard at work
grilled snakehead fish
battered pumpkin blossoms ready for the fry panmilk fruit (local to the Mekong)ingredients ready for the hot pothot pot in actionour feast
It was all so flavorful and so fresh and everything we ate was harvested from the Delta.
After lunch, we hopped on bikes and rode through Tan Phong Island. I looked around me and felt like I was on the set of Forrest Gump during the Vietnam War scenes. The flora, the backdrop, looked exactly how I remembered it from the movie. It was wild. We visited a few more local businesses/trades along the way. One woman who uses water hyacinth (a weed) to make woven baskets. Another man who uses dried banana leaf to weave hammocks. It takes him a week to make one hammock and he charges $20 per hammock…you do the math. The beautiful thing about this village is that nothing goes unused. I mean they’re finding uses for their weeds for pete’s sake! I think we could all use a lesson in sustainability from the folks living on the Mekong.Around 3pm, we headed back to the bus and arrived back in HCMC around 6pm. It was pouring rain when we got back so we literally ran to the nearest pho restaurant for dinner. It was just meh so I won’t name drop. But if you’re looking for another good spot to eat at in HCMC, try The Secret Garden for great home-style cooking in a very cool setting on the rooftop of an old apartment building. Be sure to make reservations in advance though – we didn’t and they were fully booked the night we tried to go. Our street food tour guide in Hanoi raved about this spot though so you can’t go wrong.
All in all, Saigon itself was just okay. I definitely preferred Hanoi and Hoi An over HCMC but if you’re going to fly into Saigon, you might as well stay a couple days and definitely put a Mekong Delta tour on your itinerary!
Stay tuned for recaps on Luang Prabang, Hanoi and Hoi An!