Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi – Our First Week in Vietnam
A delicate history, extreme landscapes, crazy drivers, and delicious food, we finally made it to Vietnam! We spent a few days in the two biggest cities and ate our weight in Vietnamese cuisine. If we had to choose, Vietnam would be the country with the BEST food on our travels.
Honestly, this post should be titled “A Love Letter to Vietnamese Food” because it was that good and almost all we talk about.
We bussed into Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, without many plans besides our first accommodation. We had thought we’d have more time during our workaway to catch up on planning, school, and the blog but we didn’t get too much done and even this post is going out weeks (or months…) late!
Saigon AKA Ho Chi Minh City
We spent our first two days walking around Ho Chi Minh. It is a very big modern city and VERY busy. Just from the bus station to our accommodation, we were already almost run over by 13824 motorbikes. Okay, maybe not THAT many, but remember when we said Phnom Penh was a busy city? We were wrong. We didn’t actually know the definition of busy yet and take it back. Vietnam drivers are wild.
On the road, in HCM there was a mix of cars and motorbikes and on the sidewalk mostly motorbikes. In case you’re wondering, sidewalks are not really for pedestrians, but they are actually for motorbikes to have shortcuts around the traffic and they DO NOT CARE if you’re walking there. (yes that’s sarcastic, but yes it is also true).
After safely arriving at our accommodation, we took a breath and mapped out our plans for the city. What we did know was that we didn’t want to spend a ton of time at sites related to the American War (as the Vietnam War is called in Vietnam). We were here to get to know the country of Vietnam, the culture, and the people, not just how it relates to the US and the past.
Exploring Ho Chi Minh
We spent a couple of days exploring HCM by foot, visiting places like Book Street, the walking street, and the bustling market in Chinatown. We also visited the War Remnants Museum.
Growing up in the states, we learn about the Vietnam War mostly through the understanding of how rough life was for our military over there and the evils of the communist north. We both have grandparents who served over here in some way during the Vietnam War, had heard stories, seen the clips in Hollywood movies, and read a chapter in our history books. But we learned so much more about it during our stay in Ho Chi Minh.
After visiting the museum and taking in all that we learned, we didn’t really have the motivation to visit war-related sites in Vietnam. It was an awful war, for both sides, and Vietnam is still facing many of the effects at home. We believe that educating ourselves on the history of the countries we visit is extremely important but Vietnam is a beautiful country, and there’s so much else to see and experience besides sites where so many lost their lives!
We spent the rest of our time wandering around the city and trying as much food as we could. We’d only been in Vietnam two days, and the food already beat out every other country we’d been to. We’ll describe more of the food later because it was our main focus in Hanoi, but here are some of our tasty eats in Ho Chi Minh City.
Eating Our Way Around Hanoi
Since most of the top things to do on our list were in the north, we bought a plane ticket and headed to Hanoi after a few days in Ho Chi Minh City. Yes, that means we missed out on a lot in the south and central regions, but we can’t always explore a country from head to toe and this just gives us a reason to come back one day!
While in Hanoi we did some more exploration on foot, mainly in the beautiful Old Quarter. This area is full of history, French colonial architecture, and you guessed it…an amazing food and coffee culture. Each street is so interesting and you could easily wander around the streets and alleys for days.
We really enjoyed the beautiful architecture, peering down narrow alleys, petting stray cats, and being greeted by the pleasant smells of coffee, pho, and …. maybe some unpleasant smells as well. The bustling motorbikes, wandering vendors, and the occasional “for you, nice price!’ with big grins. The Old Quarter of Hanoi is something special.
Hanoi Street Food Tour
After wandering the Old Quarter for a few hours on our first day, we joined a group street food tour and ate our way around the streets of Hanoi. In our tour group was a couple from the Netherlands, a girl from the US, and us. Our guide was born and raised in Hanoi and claimed that it’s his favorite place in all of Vietnam. We walked around the city with him stopping at local eateries, the places where the Vietnamese people go to eat, where menus aren’t in English, and places foreigners rarely find. We learned a ton about Vietnam and the food in Hanoi, leaving us with happy but sore bellies from all the food and laughter!
Our guide’s name was Long and in between eateries, he spent the walk sharing about his country and life in Vietnam, as well as, teaching Ty some Vietnamese phrases! They really seemed to bond and we are so grateful for all Long taught us in just a few hours.
Here is some of the food we tried:
Papaya salad is a popular dish in SE Asia made from shredded green papaya (unripe), a dressing made from rice vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and a few other ingredients, then topped with peanuts. The kind we tried was vegan-friendly though so no fish sauce was added. It was really good, much better than the spicier versions we had tried in Thailand and Cambodia!
“Mixed Phở” – Did you know phở is not always eaten as a soup? Phở is actually the name of the type of noodle used in various dishes. The Phở we tried on the tour was a stir-fry version that’s very popular in Hanoi. It was so delicious and we were all given huge servings (how were we going to eat the rest of the 6 dishes on the tour?).
Instead of being served in noodle form, in this dish the phở is cooked flat and then stuffed and rolled. Traditionally, this dish is stuffed with pork and mushroom. Our version didn’t have a filling but was topped with crunchy onions and our tour guide made us up a special dipping sauce for them. It reminded us of a street food dish we tried in Malaysia!
A must-eat in Vietnam is Bahn Mi. A sandwich/sub made with sweet french styled bread, that’s lighter/less dense, traditionally served with pate and meat, cabbage, veggies, and sauce. We went to Bubble Bahn Mi on the tour and had actually eaten there for lunch after stumbling upon it when searching for a meal earlier that day. We LOVED the Bahn Mi here and even after the rest of our time in Vietnam, Bubble is #1 to us!
For a vegetarian version, different shops serve egg, mushroom, or faux meat versions of traditional Bahn Mi. At Bubble, they have a shredded mushroom sandwich that is SO GOOD!
This was an interesting one! The phở noodles were puffed to create a crispy chip-like snack. We then dipped or soaked the puffed phở in a sauce and ate it with cooked greens. It was really good! We were surprised by all the ways phở could be served.
For dessert, we had our choice from a large list of very interesting dishes. Silken tofu in sugar water, shaved ice desserts (remember that unique dish we tried in Malaysia?), and variations of coconut milk ice cream. We ordered the coconut milk ice cream with mango and sticky rice and a pudding made with mashed bananas and coconut milk (pictured). It was all very interesting but we’ll stick with ice cream, cake, and cookies for dessert!
Our last stop on the tour was for Egg Coffee. Okay, we know what you’re thinking…Egg…Coffee? But yes and it’s actually good! A MUST try in Hanoi, Egg Coffee is considered a dessert, not something you’d enjoy in the morning with breakfast. Egg yolks are whipped into a foam and sweetened with sugar. The coffee is topped with this foam and drank. The foam was surprisingly good and we enjoyed it. We even got to learn how to make it ourselves in our cooking class the next day!
We also tried Vietnamese fried spring rolls because you can’t be in Vietnam and not eat them. Most contain veggies, noodles, and eggs, served in fried rice paper. Ty absolutely loves them and he definitely got his fix while in Vietnam. We had such a great time tasting the different food and learning more about Hanoi and life in Vietnam.
A Vietnamese Cooking Class
Since we had become obsessed with Vietnamese food in the first few days, we added a cooking class to our itinerary. For our cooking class, we joined a couple from Singapore and our teacher at a shop in the Old Quarter. With our teacher, Jane, we visited the market to buy some of the ingredients and then got to work.
During our class, we learned how to make a vegan/vegetarian phở, papaya salad, vegetarian Bún chả (also known in Hanoi as Obama Noodles because of President Obama’s visit to Hanoi), fried spring rolls, and egg coffee. We had sampled many of these dishes on our street food tour or while eating out in the city already and we’re pumped to learn how to make them.
However, we had not tried Bún chả yet. Bún chả is a noodle dish, traditionally served with grilled pork, herbs, vegetables, and a dipping sauce. To replace the pork in our cooking class we made a fried tofu meatball that was SO tasty! The host of the cooking class was so kind and we loved that we were able to make a vegetarian version of everything on the menu.
After a couple of hours in the kitchen, it was time to enjoy the meal. We sat down with everyone to share the feast (pictured below). Everything was so delicious and we were so excited to add these recipes to our cooking repertoire! This was our fifth cooking class in our travels and we can’t wait for more. Also, if anyone’s interested back home, we’re happy to try to whip some of these dishes up for you!
Getting Out of the City
We spent a few more days getting some work and studying done while in Hanoi. We also tried Coconut Coffee for the first time and Sam was quickly addicted. Coconut coffee is ice blended with coconut cream and topped with iced coffee (pictured on the left below). It’s SO GOOD and finishing this post now has us missing it terribly!
By the last few days of our stay in Hanoi, we were ready to go. At first, we fell for Hanoi’s charm. However, the city is just so busy with motorbikes and noise that after a few days, we lost our tolerance and were ready for some peace and quiet. So, we made plans to head to the countryside. You’ll learn all about them in our next post!
Until next time,
Sam and Ty