Our Favourite Places in: South East Asia

Favourite Places

Since the end of our South East Asia trip and relocating to England the question we’re asked the most is what were our favourite places from the trip. To us it’s a nearly impossible question to answer as every place we’ve been to has had its own charm and things we’ve liked. But we did some thinking and were able to put together a list of all the places we visited over the three months we travelled South East Asia, that now have a special place in our hearts.

 

Hoi An, Vietnam

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Vietnam would not be at the top of the list for places we’d go back to, solely because it was just too loud and too busy, but Hoi An is where we found a little slice of Vietnamese paradise.

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Nestled amongst the hustle and bustle of Hoi An is the Hoi An Old Town. This area would have been the original parts of the city before it grew into what it is today and it’s like stepping back in time. There are no cars allowed down the narrow streets, only pedal bikes and motor bikes (between 10AM and 6pm), and even then there aren’t many motorbikes. It gets quite busy and crowed during the day so we found the best time to walk around peacefully was early morning when the motorbikes aren’t allowed on the walking streets and people haven’t made it out of their hotels yet.

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We liked the Old Town so much we didn’t really venture out to anywhere else. The food was SO good, the locals were friendly, and at night the whole area gleamed with the glow of lanterns. It was the first time I really felt like we were actually in Vietnam.

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Hoi An is where you’ll find the lanterns Vietnam is known for. At night the stalls and store entrances are lined with lit up lanterns that give the streets a romantic feel. By the night market is where the lantern stalls are, with walls on walls of lit up Vietnamese Lanterns, and couples taking their wedding photos. It’s absolutely stunning and photos do not do it justice.

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And we can’t forget about the food! In case you didn’t already know, we’re huge foodies, and Hoi An did not disappoint. The city is most famous for its Banh Bao Vac (White Roses), and Cao Lau.

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Banh Bao Vac are special dumplings made with rice flour dough and stuffed with minced pork and spices, then pinched together in a way that make them look like roses. They are served warm with crispy fried onions and a sweet/tangy sauce. They are such a Hoi An specialty you literally cannot get them anywhere else in Vietnam. They are made by only one shop who distribute them all over Hoi An, and they’ve been doing so for generations. So whether you have them in the Old Town or somewhere else, they’ve all come from the same place.

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Cao Lau is a noodle dish that comes with a delicious, thick flavourful pork broth, fresh greens and herbs, refreshing bean sprouts, spiced sliced pork, and to make it that much better, it’s topped with crispy pork skin. Excuse me while drool a little.

You can get it anywhere, the pricier restaurants, the cheap restaurants, even from the street food vendors. But the best we had (in our opinion) was at Thuan Y, a little river front restaurant that also had the best banana shakes.

 

Gili Trawangan, Bali

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Oh Gili T, how you stole our hearts from the first day we ever saw you.

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Our first visit to Gili T was back in October of 2014, when we did a short trip during our working holiday year in Australia. We fell hopelessly and endlessly in love with the island, from its quiet nature to its drop dead gorgeous waters. It’s a diver’s paradise, a seafood lovers heaven and a beach bum’s eden. There are no cars, no motorbikes, only horse-drawn carts and pedal bikes. Every evening the night market springs to life with the smell of satay and flame grilled corn, and the restaurants display fresh seafood caught that day.

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{ Our favourite BBQ spot }

The island has everything you could possibly want. Want to go shopping? They’ve got designer clothing stores to souvenir stalls. Want good food? There’s fresh oven fired pizza, seafood BBQ, vegan cafes, italian restaurants, authentic Balinese, and even gourmet burgers. Want to go to the beach? Parts of the beach are busy but if you walk far enough around (you can walk around the whole island in about 4 hours) you’ll find quite, secluded beaches. You want it, they’ve got it.

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And we can’t forget about the diving! World class dive sites are right out your front door. We dove with Trawangan Dive both times because, A) It is a Dive resort, meaning you can you can get dive and stay packages, making it slightly cheaper and hassle free; and B) we like the all around vibe of the place. The guides, instructors and helping hands are amazing. They’re all cheerful and outgoing and really make you excited for you’re dives. It’s just a super chill environment and we absolutely loved it.

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No questions about it, Gili T is our favourite place on Earth and it will forever have a special place in our hearts.

 

Koh Tao, Thailand

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Koh Tao is similar to Gili T in the sense that it’s definitely a divers niche. It is, after all, the cheapest place to get certified. In the high season the diving is pristine, with visibility up to or more than 30 meters and you may even be lucky enough to spot a whale shark or two. On top of that the water is SO warm, we never had to wear wetsuit! On average it’s about 30 degrees or more and thats at anywhere from 30 to 18 meters down. It’s the most free a diver can feel, diving with nothing but a bikini or shorts and your BCD. Heaven I tell you, Heaven!

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The night life is great (in high season), with fire shows every night, a pub crawl every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday and decent bars with live music.

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Koh Tao has that low key, relaxed, island vibe that we love and as long as you’re just around Sairee Beach it’s relatively quite in terms of traffic because there are no cars in that particular area. We’re small town people, we like to be away from the noise and busyness of big cities. What makes it great is it has a little something for everyone, great diving, good nightlife, nature walks, island tours, 5 star resorts, you name it. It’s the perfect place to recover from it’s rowdier sister island, Koh Pha Ngan.

Similan Islands, Thailand

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Another diver’s paradise (apologies for repetition but our happy place truly is in the water). The Similan Islands are rated one of the top 10 places to dive in the world. You have a great chance of seeing Whale Sharks and Manta Rays here as well as plenty of other sea life you might not see anywhere else and the water is so warm you can get away with only wearing a 3mm shortie.

What’s unique about the Similans is the best way to dive around them is to do a Live Aboard Dive Boat. You can go for anywhere between 2 – 7 days and on a number of quality boats costing from 17 000-32 000 TBH.

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Our live abroad is what made the Similans so memorable for us. We chose Khao Lak Scuba Adventures because of the quality and the price of their particular tours. We were on the boat for 4 nights and it was incredible. We saw so much sea life that we’ve never seen before, Will did his Advanced Open Water certification, and we saw a Manta Ray!

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{ The highlight of our Live Aboard }

We got to dive 4 times a day which helped us become more confident as divers and taught us a lot about our own strengths and weaknesses in the water. We learned a lot and to me this is important when travelling, because not only did we come away with great stories but we came away self-improved. Those five days were definitely a big highlight of our trip.

Read all about our dive trip in the Similan Islands on our 50 Shades of Blue post, here.

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Khao Lak itself doesn’t really have much going on. You can take day trips into the National Park and it is a good place to get into Khao Sok National Park. It is also one of the places that got hit the hardest by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the damage of which you can still see today.

 

Vang Vieng, Laos

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Vang Viang is known among backpackers (and probably all other travellers) as a place to party, but there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.

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The scenery alone won us over the day we got there. The mountains, the trees, and the river, all make for a stunning back drop. Everything is so green and colourful with nature. There are caves to explore, the Blue Lagoon to swim in, motorbikes to rent for exploring. It’s a great little town trying to rid itself of its dark and partying past.

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{ The Blue Lagoon }

There’s a cafe/restaurant that plays Friends on repeat all day, every day. Restaurants with special menus if thats what you’re looking for. Bars with free drinks (Nope, I’m not joking. They literally line the bar with shots of whisky just waiting for you to choose your mix, ALL free between 8 and 9). And the baguettes, oh those baguettes! We still crave them!

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{ Will started being called Mr.Chicken because we had so many baguettes }

There are still remnants of the French influence in Laos and baguettes are one of them. They’re just a little smaller than a foot long subway sandwich and you get just as many filling options as subway, although you only get lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes as salad and mayo, chilli, and ketchup as sauce options. I don’t know how or why they are so good, and I probably don’t want to know but they are delicious!

 

Siem Reap, Cambodia

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Angkor Wat has been at the top of our Bucket Lists for years, so actually stepping foot into the grounds was an experience of a life time. We’ll never forget walking up to the gates at 5am in the morning and getting that surreal feeling like we couldn’t believe we were actually there.

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I’m a huge archaeology buff, after all, it is what I studied in my first year of University, so I was having a field day (HA! pardon the pun) walking around all the sites and exploring all the nooks and crannies we could.

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There is way more too it than most people expect because Angkor Wat is just one structure our of hundreds in the Angkor area. We only got two full days to explore the area, which was plenty of time but I think one more day would have been just perfect.

Check out more of our photos from Angkor here.

 


 

So those are our Favourite Places from our past South East Asia trip. It was an amazing adventure, one we had been planning for years and we will never forget the experiences we had, the people we met and all the incredible things we got to see. Stay tuned for a possible series of Favourite Places posts, from our previous trips to our current travels. If you have any questions about other places we visited or companies we went through don’t hesitate to ask, we’d be happy to help.

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Three People, Two Bikes, One Road

Hue to Hoi An via the Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorbike.

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We decided to do this leg of the journey a little differently to our normal modes of transport. Although I get the feeling that everyone else decides to do this also, due to the large amount of people in the street offering it. Of course, I’m talking about riding a motorbike through Vietnam.

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At first we thought we’d go with the ‘Easy Riders’; but after struggling to find out whether it was an actual company, or just a term used to describe the idea of doing a guided motorbike tour, and having consulted a few different places, we decided to just book it through our hotel where we were staying: Ngoc Hung Backpacker Hotel, (Book here). A nice enough place, with cheap rooms, a free breakfast and helpful staff. They were more than happy to help, as you can no doubt imagine. Amongst all the heckling in the street for “Easy rider?” or “You want motorbike?”, it was nice to not be coerced into doing it.

I wanted to ride the motorbike and Bry just wanted to be a passenger, as the one and only time she tried to ride one was before we met. And well, I’ll let you ask her about that one.

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Naturally, the guy at the hotel had a friend who did the motorbike tours and he set us up with a 2 day, 1 night guided tour from Hué to Hoi An via the Ho Chi Minh Trail; through the mountains, stopping overnight in Prao, than continuing on to see the Marble Mountains, Hai Van pass and finally arriving in Hoi An, taking us right to our hotel. He even arranged for our big bags to be delivered there, so we only needed to take a small day pack.

We left the next day.

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I was a bit sceptical about riding a motorbike, which I’ve not done since my early teens, in a place where the roads are utter chaos. However to both Bry’s and my surprise I managed to traverse the pandemonium and we made it out of Hué unscathed. Bry was riding on the back of our guide, Rin’s bike, (pronounced Reen), as we both thought it best while I re-established myself with the constant battle of trying not to crash. Beep beep.

We were provided with helmets and while we didn’t even think about it, we could have got more protection had we asked.

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Having left relatively early (8am), and having ridden for a couple of hours already, we took a break around 10:30/11 for a drink and hopefully a chance to go swimming in a waterfall. While we weren’t expecting anything on the scale of the Kuang Si waterfall in Luang Prabang, Laos, I think we at least were expecting something of significance. It’s safe to say, we didn’t go swimming in a ‘waterfall’, we didn’t go swimming at all. It was more like Rapids, full of rocks. And the water was disgusting. After riding for a while longer, we stopped for dinner in a quiet village, It was super cheap, not normally the kind of place we’d eat, but we were a bit stuck for choice.

We continued our quest onto the Ho Chi Minh Trail and up into the mountains, which left for some stunning views, an amazing ride and some pretty great pictures. The road was actually in really good condition which is surprising, as you probably know, good roads are hard to come by in SE Asia. It felt so good just rolling through the bends, swaying left and right with the twists and turns.

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Not too long after this photo was taken, the inevitable happened. The rain came. It was like a train, you could hear it rumbling through the mountains, then all of a sudden it was upon us; big, heavy droplets, soaking us instantly. We quickly pulled over and adorned the waterproofs that Rin was carrying for us, to no avail. It was too heavy.

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No sooner than the rain began, it was drawing to a close, the road drying up, and we were able to resume normal riding.

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That afternoon we stopped in a small village where the whole population is that of one family; there must have been 20 houses and countless people of all ages. Earlier in the day, Rin had bought us some fruit, but also some rice crackers that weren’t for us. So we were giving these to the family members as a gift. Although feeling slightly intrusive; we walked around and took a few pictures. It was certainly interesting to see such a huge family in one place.

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Just a few hundred metres down the road is the Ho Chi Minh Trail sign where we took more photos before heading on towards our final stop for the day. Oh yeah and Rin let me ride his bike to.

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We overnighted in Prao, a mountain town that we didn’t see much of. The accommodation that was included in our total cost of the trip was pretty good, nice size room, good air con/wifi/en suite. All we had to pay for were the meals. For our tea, Rin had asked them to do us some ‘mountain chicken’ or at least that’s what I think he was saying. The food tasted really good and there was plenty of it. Although I didn’t quite fancy a deep-fried chicken head.

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We left around 7:30 the next morning to begin our ride towards Hoi An, once again taking the beautifully quiet Ho Chi Minh Trail. And not 10 minutes down the road, we came slowly to a stop as we ran out of petrol. Not to worry though, our hero rode off into the distance, returning mere moments later with a plastic water bottle full of petrol which took us to the nearest station. Here, Rin also showed us a tea farm, just vast expanses of Vietnam style tea trees. It was kind of mesmerizing.

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Back on the road. Beep Beep.

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Once again we begrudgingly rejoined civilization and headed up the Hai Van Pass, took some nice pictures at the top and stood in two different places at the same time (Danang and Hué). The view from the top was spectacular and it was a beautiful day to. A little further down the road we visited the Marble Mountains, which is amazing. Both are well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

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MarbleMountains

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A quick-lunch stop and then on towards our hotel.

We managed to find it amongst the bustling streets of the Hoi An old town and began unloading our things, meanwhile, Rin had rung somebody and our bags were there within minutes.

Overall, we were extremely happy with our decision to do our trip this way; we’re super happy with Rin and would definitely recommend him to anyone wanting to do something similar. He caters to your requests/time restraints, and is just generally a nice guy. He’s always happy and laughing, and if you’d like to book anything with him don’t hesitate to ask us for his contact information.

Number of accidents: 0
Amount of other travellers we saw along the way: 2
Total number of bugs to the face: 8

 

 

 

Hanoi: The City of Constant Noise

Hanoi was our first stop in Vietnam, it was where we flew into and where we based ourselves to explore the surrounding areas. I’ve never really been culture shocked by the places I’ve visited, except Egypt when I was thirteen, but Hanoi was definitely an over load on the senses. It was loud, over crowded, and I was in constant fear for my toes every time a motorbike whizzed past or a car tried to squeeze by. It was a bit much and took us a few days to become accustom to the chaos.

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Chaos aside it’s a great place to base yourself for your first tastes of Vietnam. From here you can explore Sapa, cruise Halong Bay, do day trips to Tam Coc and the Ninh Binh area, get lost in the Old Quarter, and eat delicious street food.

We were there about a week and that was too long if you ask me, but we were slow to get things going in terms of plans and tours. Our plans for Hanoi were this:

  • Halong Bay Cruise
  • Tam Coc
  • Wonder the Old Quarter
  • Street Food Tour
  • Water Puppet Show

We never did get around to seeing the Water Puppet Show but I’m hoping we’ll be able to get the chance somewhere else along the way. Instead we went to the Army Museum, I wasn’t a huge fan so unless you’re an Army buff, I’d give it a miss.


Halong Bay

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Unfortunately I found Halong Bay to be slightly disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is beautiful but sadly all the garbage takes away from the view. There are plastic bottles and Cake cans floating around, and fishing nets, pieces of plastic, and tarp washed up everywhere along the islands. The water is gross and oily unless you’re in a sheltered bay, far from the more crowed places. And talk about crowds, there are boats everywhere. Yes, it makes for those great classic photos you see everywhere with the limestone cliffs and boats with Chinese sails, but at night there is so much light and noise pollution you can’t even enjoy the nature of the place.

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We chose our particular boat because the guy at the booking agency (and the company’s brochure) advertised that the boat went further out into the park/bay which would mean less traffic, cleaner water, and we’d anchor for the night where there would be no other boats, this however was not the case.

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NOTE: The company was Rosa Cruise and we booked with a tour agency right by Vietnam Backpackers in the Old Quarter. It advertises with a big TripAdvisor sign above the door, and the man who runs it is an English speaking British man. DO NOT BOOK ANYTHING HERE. There is a great little booking agency a door or two down called Dao’s Travel Agency (1A Ma May St), we consulted a quiet english and vietnamese speaking American (or Canadian, I couldn’t tell), he’s great and doesn’t push anything you don’t want to buy. He will suggest the companies he works with but will book another company if that is what you want.

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Other than the false advertising, the cruise and boat were really nice. We got to see a pearl farm and learn about how it’s run. They offered squid fishing at night and Tai Chi in the morning, as well as a cooking class in the afternoon of the last day. We got enough free time to sit and relax, enjoy the scenery and lay in the sun. We also got to do some kayaking, swimming and jumping off the boat, and got to see Sung Sot Cave which had a great view point by the bay that made for great photos.

Halong Bay Collage


Tam Coc

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Tam Coc was absolutely gorgeous. They call it Halong bay on land and they couldn’t be more right. The scenery is pretty similar to Halong Bay if not more stunning, the difference being instead of water there are rice paddies.

Tam Coc 2

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We did a full day tour of the Ninh Binh area where we walked around the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hoa Lu. Now the only things that remains of the 10th century capital are temples that were built in the 1700’s, on top of the foundation and ruins of the anicent palace.

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We took a row boat through Tam Coc, floating along rice paddies and under caves and cycled through rice fields and learned how rural people live and how Vietnamese families function.

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Tam Coc Collage

Rice Paddies

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{ They row with their legs! }

One thing to beware of is your row boat guides will ask for a tip before you even return back to land. It is customary to tip, and we never mind doing it, but we found our guide very rude when asking for it. There will also be locals on their own boats offering to take your picture and when you get back to land be prepared to be harrassed to buy one of the photos. They come already laminated and we did end up buying one (it cost less than $1), but only because we didn’t get a good photo of the two of us on our own. At one point I even had a woman hitting my arm repeatedly trying to get me to buy a photo after I had already said no several times. Just be prepared, a simple ‘No Thank You’ will not deter them.

Tam Coc boats


Street Food Walking Tour – Old Quarter

We were recommended this tour by a Canadian couple we met on our Gibbon Experience and we immediately jumped on it. It’s a pretty decent price at just $20 a head, you can book the same one here if you’d like to give it a go.

If you didn’t know this already, we like to eat. I’m not talking like, we’re constantly eating, I mean we enjoy going out for meals, trying new things and new restaurants. One of our favourite things about travelling is eating the local food. If we have to choose between a decent hotel or spending a little extra on a good meal, we’re chosing the meal.

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This is one thing we’ve learnt while travelling: Compromise. If we want to go have a good night out, we sacrifice a good meal and/or activities that day, if we want a good meal (and I don’t mean at some high end restaurant, I mean if we want to go sit on tiny plastic stools on the sidewalk and order a bunch of new things to try) then we don’t go out and spend money on drinks, or if we want to do an activity that is a bit more expensive we don’t go out and we eat really cheaply (like 24 THB ham and cheese toasties cheap). It’s all about balance and compromise. We can’t have everything all the time, otherwise we’d never have lasted as long as we have.

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Street Dining

Anyway, we like to eat. But here in Vietnam we had no idea what to order or what was good and being on a tight budget we can’t afford to order something and then not like it. So the food tour sounded like a great place to start.

We got to try:

  • Bun Cha, Bun meaning rice noodle and Cha meaning the fried pork. This was by far our favourite.
  • Spring rolls, Pillow cakes, and deep fried fermented pork (don’t dis it till you try it, it was surprisingly delicious).
  • Vietnamese Green Papaya Salad, it’s not spicy like Thai papaya salad.
  • Green sticky rice ice cream
  • Black rice desert with caramel
  • Vietnamese sandwich, we’d already been living off of these by the time of the tour.
  • Sugar cane juice
  • Egg Coffee, this was a weird one, the foam was made out of foamed egg yolks.
  • Steamed hot rice cakes, we even got a chance to try making them.
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{ Left to right, Top then bottom: Papaya Salad, Spring Rolls, Pillow cake, and Fermented pork, Egg coffee, steamed hot rice cakes, Bun Cha, Green stick rice ice cream }

We went to places we normally wouldn’t go to and tried things we wouldn’t normally try. It was a great experience and we would highly recommend it to any other foodies going to Hanoi.

 


The Old Quarter

The Old Quarter is HUGE, you could come here a dozen times and probably still not see everything. Most times when we get somewhere new we like to walk around and check out our new surroundings, but in here in Hanoi I didn’t even want to leave the hotel. It was so loud and busy, everyone always honking, it was madness, so we didn’t end up walking around as much as we would have liked. But what we did see what pretty cool. You can see the most random of things in this city. Once I saw a women selling gold fish off of her bicycle, like they were all individually bagged like they would be had you bought them at a pet store, but they were all bunched up and tied to her bike. Unfortunately we were in a minibus and couldn’t get the camera out in time. It was the most bizzare thing. You’d be amazed at the things they can fit on a bicycle around here, and just the things you can come across in general.

Old quater Collage

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{ Snake Wine or Happy Water, according to our Street Food Walking Tour guide, this is why there are over 90 million people in Vietnam }

Hanoi functions much like it did in the old days, and by this I mean way back when there was a street for everything. If you wanted to eat, you went to the street with food, if you wanted beer, you went to the street with beer. If you want shoes you go to shoe street, you want clothes you go to clothes street, need your hair cut… well, you get the point. We found a street that just sold fans, one that just sold lighting, one that just sold homewares. We even saw one that just sold bamboo! It’s all something you’ve got to see for yourself, although if we were to do it again i’d probably do some sort of city walking tour.

Of course we forget the camera the day we went out explore and finding all these streets. Sigh.

Hanoi was way too busy and loud for our liking but it’s a place that shouldn’t be skipped. We’re now out of the chaos and heading south, stopping at Dong Hoi, Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Dalat and finishing in Ho Chi Minh City.