The only way to tell the adventurous tale of Vietnam is through food. In Vietnam, every region has it's own dish and every dish has a story. For the Vietnamese, eating is more than curbing hunger; it’s a way of life. Instead of “Hi, how are you?" locals greet each other with, "Ăn cơm chưa”, or “Hey, have you eaten?”
My travel companion and SEAsia Sista, Vickie’s Mom grew up in Saigon and she gave us an epic list of must-try regional dishes. We started our travels in the city of Hanoi where we were transfixed by “Bún chả”, grilled pork (chả) over white rice noodle (bún) with herbs, fresh greens, and dipping sauce.
In Hanoi, we also enjoyed miến lươn (eel noodle soup) with miến (cellophane noodles), fried lươn (eels), fried shallots, bean sprouts and Vietnamese cilantro with tasty donuts.
From there we toured Cat Ba Island. Largely untouched and wild as ever, Cat Ba Island is a true jungle gem. Right alongside one of UNESCO's New 7 Wonders of the World, Halong Bay, Vickie and I found ourselves kayaking, exploring, and discovering Cat Ba in nearly complete solitude.
SEAsia Sista's top three dishes in Cat Ba Island:
1.) Seaside feast with the most gracious Vietnamese family.
The Captain caught a fish while we were kayaking and his wife cooked it up aboard the ship. She made fresh papaya salad, rice, and pork with hoisin sauce. Later, their five year old son, Kai also fed us fresh clams as a snack.
2.) Banh xeo (bahn SAY-oh)
A popular street crepe throughout Southern Vietnam made of shrimp, pork and served with greens. You roll the banh xeo up in a leaf of lettuce with nuoc cham dipping sauce then pop it in your mouth.
3.) Garlic, lemongrass crab and fresh papaya, peanut, and squid salad served at the Full Moon Restaurant (Vickie so happy!).
Next, we visited an Ancient riverside town in Vietnam called Hoi An, which was an absolute treasure! We stayed at Leaf Homestay, hands down our favorite spot. It's a beautiful four bedroom guest house run by an amazing family.
For $14/night you can have your own private room and bathroom with A/C. It also includes your choice of breakfast. Our go-to was homemade pho, banana rice pancake, and mangos with ginger tea. They also have bikes for you to ride around town and a lovely orchid garden. We had planned to stay two days but upon the first we changed it to five.
While there, we discovered the famous Cao Lau Noodles only made in Hoi An.
The first ingredient that had us salivating was their char siu pork — Cantonese-style barbecued or roasted pork, seasoned in a five spice marinade. The Char siu was accompanied by an array of fresh locally grown mixed greens including fragrant mint, basil, Vietnamese fish leaf, rice paddy herb, crisp lettuce, and shrimp chips. All this atop the turmeric-marinated Cao Lau noodles with crispy bean sprouts.
The other dish we died happy eating was "banh bao vac" or White Rose Dumplings. Another Hoi An specialty, the little white roses are made from translucent white dough, filled with spiced minced shrimp or pork and bunched up to look like little white roses. These darling little dumplings, come topped with crispy shallots and served with a unique dipping sauce made of shrimp broth, hot chilies, lemon and sugar. We could’ve had five plates each!
We also loved wandering the ancient streets of Hoi An's Historic Oldtown District. There we saw festive lanterns of every size, shape and color. On the night of the full moon, we took a boat ride across the canal and lit floating lanterns with our intentions for the year ahead.
In Oldtown, we were delighted to discover Reaching Out Teahouse. Reaching Out Vietnam was founded in 2000 with a vision of providing opportunities for people with disabilities to learn skills and gain meaningful employment. In 2008, they created a teahouse with the intention of enjoying the beauty in silence. Guests are encouraged to whisper.
Another experience Vietnam is known for is it's tailor-made attire. Vickie and I had traditional Ao Dai dresses and silk pants made at Duna Tailor where the staff really went out of their way to ensure we were happy with our fitting.
Finally, our last stop was Ho Chi Minh City - Saigon. Damn that city moves! Everyone from teenagers to grandmas strap in, mask on, riding through those crazy streets. I witnessed a family of five fit on ONE motorbike and another with an 8 foot sheet of glass wedged between two people. Safety first!
The Vietnamese leg of our journey ended in style with Vickie’s cousin's wedding. I had no idea what I was in for. With three days of ceremony, it was the most elaborate affair I have ever been to. Truthfully, I didn't understand most of it but the food I understood. We ate our weight in banquet-style dinners (typically 8 courses each) and even though I probably gained 10 lbs, I would do it all over again.
This was truly a once in a lifetime experience and at first, we jokingly called it "General Disregard." In Vietnam, it is encouraged to throw your trash on the floor after enjoying your meal. It is normal to see someone pee on the side of the street ("General Pissregard"). Families of five get from point A to point B without helmets on a single motorbike.
But by the end of our trip, the "General Disregard" transformed to "General Blissregard." The Vietnamese could care less about social status. They are focused on everyday survival and the simple things in life. As Westerners, we are conditioned to think we've got it all figured out and yes, we have historically had more freedoms and material goods, but the Vietnamese place value on what's real.
Riding through jungle islands on motorbikes, floating in a peaceful paradise, enjoying a steaming dish of hot rice noodles and dumplings. These were the moments of bliss that reminded us not to sweat the small stuff and to enjoy what we have here and now.
Special thanks to Infinite Mirror Mirror Sister Sister, Vickie Lau for planning this extraordinary, unforgettable adventure. Traveling together and getting back to our roots is something I will treasure forever. THANK YOU.
Check out the full Vietnam photo album on Facebook and next time you're heading that way hit me up!
In bliss, your Southeast Asia Sista,
Kelsey Lotus Wong