Vietnam Vacation: The Best of the Best

22 04 2012

Since we skimped on the details from our trip in the earlier posts (who wants to be blogging while on vacation?), Tim and I are going to post several new entries about our trip now that we’re back at site. Today’s topic: the five most memorable experiences from our journey through Vietnam.

 1. The Crazy House

Officially known as the Hang Nga Guesthouse, this structure, located in the highlands of Dalat, has been termed the “Crazy House” because of its unique design. Conceptualized by Dang Viet Nga, the daughter of Vietnam’s second president, much of the house is built to look like a giant banyan tree. When you enter the front door of the property, it feels almost like walking into a Dalí painting, with spiraling staircases leading you through the massive tree trunk, past rooms filled with statues of bears, eagles and kangaroos. At the top, you’re rewarded with a lovely view of the city of Dalat, but don’t look too long or you’ll surely miss another one of the house’s quirky details. There isn’t one predominant style throughout the house so in a matter of moments you can walk by a stark, cave-like room with an oversized built-in counter, only to be greeted steps later by a gigantic, glitter-bombed wall that’s the color of the sunset. The part of the structure that actually resembles a house would still be considered strange on its own. It, too, is covered with glitter, and adorned with a large yin yang symbol and a giant buffalo head. The Crazy House was a wonderful stop for us, transporting us to a place full of imagination and creativity—and perfect for photo ops. It’s most certainly worth a stop, particularly if traveling with children.

 2. “The Original Taste of Hoi An” Food Tour

Before leaving for Vietnam, Tim and I knew our one splurge item would be a tasting tour. When we arrived in Hoi An, we realized that it was the epicenter of these kinds of activities so we took to the internet to research our options. Almost immediately, I came across a page of reviews for “The Original Taste of Hoi An” tour, based out of Family Restaurant, and it received some of the highest praise of any tourist activity that I’ve ever seen so we signed up right away.

The food tour had two parts. The first consisted mainly of a walking tour through the main markets in town, paired with some samplings of dishes sold in the streets. Having come from Cambodia, this part was a little underwhelming. Much of the first hour was used to describe produce and ingredients that, although might have seemed foreign to us nine months ago, had since been incorporated into our daily lives. Luckily, the rest of the tour made up for the slow start. In fact, this might be the one experience that will most stick with me from our trip.

All in all, we tried over 40 dishes, ranging from cassava and peanut cakes (one of my favorites!) to a sesame seed elixir to Hoi An’s version of nachos. We sampled spring rolls, several noodle dishes, a silky smooth tofu porridge, dumplings, rice wine and, of course, the ubiquitous pho. We tried unblended smoothies, sticky rice treats and Hoi An’s chili sauce. I loved almost every one of those forty dishes, proving that Vietnamese cuisine truly is superior to Cambodia’s uncreative and rather bland food (sorry!).

Taking the tour gave us the tools to find cheap and delicious meal options on the street for the rest of our trip. From that point on, we ate very little Western food, sticking instead to the dishes we had sampled on the tour and, at times, venturing out to try new ones based on our new knowledge. I would highly recommend this tour to anyone, with the small caveat that the tour guide, Neville, has such an immense amount of passion for Vietnamese cuisine that it can be difficult to ask questions or muse on the flavors of your last dish. Overall though, a resounding success!

 

 3. Paradise Cave

Based on a recommendation from a friend, we decided to spend a couple of days around Phong Nha National Park. So for two nights, we stayed in the town of Doing Hoi, located on the long stretch between Danang and Hanoi. From there we went exploring, ending up at Paradise Cave, the longest dry cave in the world. Compared with the other cave we visited on our trip, this one was much more exciting. It was beautiful and, thank goodness, relatively untouched in the world of Vietnam’s tourist trail. There was virtually no one else there when we visited and, believe it or not, the neon lights had yet to reach it. The cave itself was impressive but the scenery en route was just as stunning, with narrow roads winding through the hills, almost eerily blue river water, and shining green rice fields. The entire day was a wonderful reminder of how beautiful this planet is.

 4. Halong Bay Cruise

While I’m writing about beautiful landscapes, I have to mention our two day/ one night cruise on the gorgeous waters of Halong Bay. A UNESCO Heritage Site, Halong Bay features more than 1600 limestone islands jutting out of the green-blue waters. The small, beautiful islands are simultaneously home to jagged cliffs and bright green vegetation. As we left the dock, I was a little disappointed by the scenery but at some point later in the evening, as we were surrounded by these islands in every direction, the magnitude and the majesty of the site really hit me.

Included in the cruise was a trip to Dau Go cave. Unlike Paradise Cave, this was not a very enjoyable experience. Dozens of tour guides led drunk tourists through the cave, lit up with weird neon lights, as they used their laser pointers to show the crowds how different formations looked like footprints, dragons or faces. The cave itself was actually pretty awesome, if only the tourism industry hadn’t taken away from its natural beauty.

After the cave visit, we were able to take kayaks out on the bay, weaving in and out of the limestone islands, under archways and through small caves. Then the last activity was an evening dip in the chilly waters, swimming alongside the jellyfish. (I passed.) We spent the rest of the evening on the deck, enjoying the cool air and brushing up on some cribbage.

The cruise included transportation to and from Hanoi (around 8-9 hours roundtrip), four sizable meals and all fees so we didn’t have to worry about anything from the moment we got on the bus. Tim and I had a nice cabin, complete with a hot water shower and a small balcony where I did some early morning yoga. The trip was an incredibly relaxing, the cave visit notwithstanding, and was a great chance to recharge before hitting the busy streets of Hanoi for our last week.

5. Water Puppet Performance

The very last tourist activity we did on our trip was to see a water puppet performance in Hanoi. The art of water puppetry is unique to Vietnam and has been around since the 11th century. Instead of a traditional stage, the wooden puppets perform on top of water, controlled by long sticks underneath the surface, while the puppeteers themselves are hidden behind a rice screen.

The performance we saw featured around a dozen short skits, many centered around fishing and agriculture. Most did not contain dialogue, rather they were accompanied by a live band, playing and singing traditional songs. One of the highlights of the performance, in fact, was a really moving performance on the Don Bau, an instrument with only one chord. The two primary female vocalists were also very impressive, adding moments of beauty to an otherwise slapstick-based performance.

Seeing the water puppets was a chance to see an art form that doesn’t exist in any other part of the world. It was mostly funny and lighthearted, but it gave a lot of insight into Vietnamese traditions and culture as well. Again, this is something I would recommend to anyone.

Katie

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2 responses

22 04 2012
kbergen

Ah it’s like revisiting the whole trip! Marvelous!

31 12 2012
Celebrating the Highlights of 2012 « TimKat's Travels

[…] Khmer New Year in April, Tim and I headed off to Vietnam for three weeks of vacation. We made our way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, stopping along the way […]

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