An Binh There, Done That

 

Before leaving Vietnam for Cambodia, Rabi and I wanted to spend a few days exploring the Mekong Delta. Many day trips to the Delta are offered out of Bangkok, but we hoped to get a slightly more authentic experience by doing a DIY trip. Our first chosen destination was An Binh Island which is known for its known for its homestays. Definitely a tourist experience, but slightly more authentic than the posed photos with snakes and just-for-foreigners markets you’d get on a day tour. Homestays apparently used to be actual home stays where tourists could stay with families in their homes (duh) but now they are a little more formalized and hotel-like. We heard it was possible to still do a “real” homestay, but that was a matter of luck. Either way, it seemed like it could be a nice experience.

To get to An Binh we needed to take a bus to the city of Vinh Long and take a ferry over to the island. We called the hotline for Futa Bus, reserved two seats and showed up at the Futa Bus office the next morning an hour before our bus departure time. We had been instructed to get on a shuttle van that would take us to the big bus that would take us the rest of the way to Vinh Long (in classic “no less than 2 vehicles per journey” Vietnam fashion).

The Futa office was chaos. It was packed with people and each time a van pulled in it was Times Square at rush hour levels of pushing – but the people doing the pushing were all tiny grandmas so you felt a little weird as you pushed and shoved right back. Luckily, the man loading the buses took kindly to us and managed to blockade the ladies long enough for us to get on a van after a few had come and gone.

When we arrived in Vinh Long, Futa provided a free shuttle van (3rd vehicle, 4th if you count the taxi we took to the Futa office) that took us to the An Binh ferry. As we had been promised by other bloggers, as soon as we got out of the van we were approached by a woman asking if we needed a homestay. She texted my name to her brother on the island, told us to board the ferry without paying and he would find us on the other end.

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Sure enough, there he was on the other side. He gave us a ride to the homestay which turned out to be Ngoc Phuong Homestay. For 250,000 dong per person a night ($11) we had a shared bathroom bungalow room, free use of bicycles and would be served a multi-course dinner that night. An Binh, like much of the Mekong, is covered in fruit orchards. The homestay property had fruit growing everywhere including pineapples, which I realized  I had never seen growing before. There’s something amazing and hilarious about seeing a whole pineapple nestled into a big, leafy bush (not a euphemism).

We went out for a brief bike ride to explore the island and find food, but it was quite hot, so I ended up falling asleep for hours in a hammock when we got back. Tough life.

At dinner we were seated with a nice French couple and the courses just kept coming: Spring rolls, a whole fried fish, chicken… Each one was accompanied by garnishes of various fruits and vegetables carved into elaborate shapes and even scenes. Needless to say, I think we got our money’s worth.

The next morning we took out bikes again and explored the tiny roads crisscrossing the island taking in Mekong life. It was incredibly hot and incredibly beautiful. Alas, our day of relaxation was over and it was time to take the ferry back to catch a bus to our next destination in the Mekong Delta: Can Tho.

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The Heat was on in Saigon

Rabi and I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) early in the morning on Sunday, March 27. About 3 days before we were supposed to leave Hoi An, a barge crashed into a train bridge just outside of Saigon completely destroying it. Therefore we had another classic Vietnam journey involving no less than 3 modes of transportation- an overnight train to a bus to another train from 3pm Saturday until somewhere around 7am on Sunday.

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Our bunkmate. I’m a creeper.

Needless to say, we were tired and hungry when we checked in at Miss Loi Guesthouse. On the plus side, it was located on an alley just off the Co Giang market street and we had a wide variety of street food to choose from right outside our door. We quickly found an amazing banh cuon place and ended up going there at least three times during the course of our visit. It was a good indication of the way things would go for us in Saigon. We really felt at home on our little street and, had we not been on some sort of schedule, we could have stayed there for a long time.

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Our favorite banh cuon breakfast.

Perhaps one reason we felt at home in Saigon is that it’s a large modern city and probably reminded us of New York. There are recognizable chains all over and the city is clearly making an effort for better or for worse to push itself into the future – we saw signs all over about promoting “civilized” behavior. We even found a craft brewery for Rabi.

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Pasteur Street Brewing Company

Over the course of 6 days we saw some sights and ate plenty of delicious food, though Saigon was another tough place for lunch. It’s so hot midday that everyone takes a long siesta inside from 11 or 12 until at least 3pm.

As far as sights go, there was:

The pretty colonial post office,

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The emotion-stirring War Remnants Museum,

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Drinking and people watching in the backpacker district,

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and the Reunification Palace, a mid-century modern dream.

As far as food, of course we went to the famous Lunch Lady, which was delicious and lived up to expectations.

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Here’s a gallery of some other things we consumed:

Our final goodbye leaving Saigon was to our coffee ladies. Every morning after breakfast Rabi and I would walk over to the same corner coffee shop run by very nice women who would bring us our iced coffees with milk and without even asking our order. Rabi and I would sit and watch the world go by with the same local characters each day finishing our iced coffee and then moving on to the big pitcher of complimentary iced tea that accompanied it. Not a bad way to live.

Embracing Our Inner Tourists in Hoi An

As a town completely designed around tourism, Hoi An was a relaxing break from the stresses of trying to get around in a place where nothing is designed for you. It’s been described as Vietnam Disney because of it’s overly manicured appearance and old streets filled with souvenir shops, but nevertheless it’s a charming town. Sure, there’s muzak piped in around the ancient streets and vendors selling the same things at every stall, but at night the streets are lit by strings of colored lanterns and it really is pretty and pleasant to walk around – especially since motor traffic is banned for the evening hours.

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Hoi An is also known for their tailors who will custom make clothes with extremely fast turnaround. We never thought of anything we really wanted to get made, though Rabi came *this close* to buying a snazzy pair of floral print skinny leg pants.

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Adding to our enjoyment of Hoi An was our nice lodging. We spent a whopping $20 a night to stay in a hotel that felt like a resort compared to our usual digs. It had a teeny tiny pool, a back patio overlooking a pretty rice patty and, most exciting, a rain shower that was closed off from the rest of the bathroom. What luxury! We were able to rent bicycles for a couple bucks a day and really enjoyed exploring the town beyond the tourist-washed ancient city.

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I wasn’t feeling well for a lot of our time in Hoi An, but still managed to eat some great food. Some highlights:

Cau Lau – Hoi An’s specialty dish. The noodles are supposed to only be made using water from one of the town’s ancient wells. We got our bowl at the town market.

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Sua Bop – Sweet corn milk that Rabi & I like to call “corn-chata.” Sorry, I didn’t manage to take a picture.

The Banh Mi Queen – Anthony Bourdain’s lady (Banh Mi Phuong) was good, but this was better. The chili sauce on it was top notch.

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Hen Tron (the clammy part of com hen with rice crackers to dip in it) and Banh Dap (rice crackers layered with rice flour dough that you break off and dip into a sauce) – We found these at a roadside snack shop populated by locals on our bike ride exploring Com Nam Island.

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Bun Dau Mam Tom – Also known as the “Vietnamese Tasting Plate,” this dish found at Quan Dau Boc is a tasty sampler platter of various proteins and noodles that you dip in a fermented shrimp dipping sauce.

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Xi Ma – Sweet black sesame soup/pudding. I’m a fan of anything black sesame and this tiny warm bowl of the stuff was a great treat.

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Ba Le Well –  Named after one of the ancient wells, this restaurant is famous for their huge feast of things-on-sticks and spring rolls that you wrap in a fried egg pancake and rice paper to to eat. It is a LOT of food and even comes with dessert. You’ll notice in the photo below that our beers are very full because our bellies had no room for them. Sitting next to us were two 18-year-olds on a backpacker date. I’m assuming they met at a hostel and it was pretty cute to listen to.

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Ha My TT: Almost Paradise

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Our first 2 days in Hoi An were spent on the beach at a guesthouse called Ha My TT that had a vibe Ernest Hemingway might have enjoyed. When we arrived we were greeted by a deeply tanned middle aged man named Tipp. He had thick bleached-blond locks and had moved to Vietnam from Southern California a year ago to teach English. You’re probably picturing him correctly. Tipp seemed shocked that we had found the place and helped us check in with the proprietor who only spoke a small amount of English. The room was a little rough around the edges, but we thought “Who cares? We’re right on the beach!” When we started getting hungry for our first meal, we realized the downside to our spot in paradise. While the guesthouse advertised a restaurant, we never saw a single soul preparing food in the kitchen and the fresh seafood stalls we had read would be right next door were nowhere to be found. This stretch of beach has developed so quickly, apparently sometime in the past 6 months the seafood vendors were forced out for some sort of housing development. It’s amazing that Ha My TT is still standing. On either side of the guesthouse were huge 5 star resorts – one that cost upwards of $500 a night! We were lucky to have a cheap spot at the beach, but we were also hungry as hell. The first night we managed to find a lady selling some truly mediocre seafood and rice up by the main road, but for two people who really love food, it made us pretty depressed.

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The next morning we decided to walk to the next beach over, the more populated An Bang, to try and find the local market. After a 30 minute walk in the blazing sun, we never found the market, started having a meltdown and had to settle for an overpriced banh mi at a tourist restaurant. We sucked it up and got an expensive cab back to Ha My TT, knowing we’d be in the same boat come lunchtime. Come dinnertime that night we were starving and so grateful when we saw a woman with a table set up by the side of the main road. “I’d eat anything right now,” I thought. I thought wrong. The woman presented us each with what looked like a hard boiled egg and a tiny dish of papaya salad. The papaya salad was fine, but when she cracked open the egg she revealed that it was one of Southeast Asia’s infamous fertilized duck eggs. I almost cried. I ate a tiny bite of the part of the egg that seemed to contain the least amount of baby bird, but I just couldn’t bring myself to finish the rest. Rabi didn’t even crack his open. We heard the woman laughing at us as we walked to the tiny “bodega” next door to buy ourselves a dinner of potato chips.

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The next morning we fared better, found a nice bowl of soup and were able to enjoy our last morning on the beach with 9am beers. Not the worst. Next time we seek out isolation, we’ll make sure to rent a motorbike first.

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The “Top Gear” Tour

Instead of taking a boring bus ride, Rabi and I rode on motorcycles from Hue to Hoi An over the Hai Van pass on what has apparently become known as the “Top Gear” tour. I work in TV but have shamefully never seen an episode of the show. I gather that it involves cool dudes riding cool vehicles in cool places (I’m sure that’s the topline it was pitched with). I also gather that on some episode they rode motorcycles over the Hai Van Pass and British bros (blokes?) that arrive in Vietnam will recognize it. Regardless, it was a really fun thing to do.

You may have noticed that I said we rode on motorcycles, we did not drive them. Two very nice guides from a tour company drove the motorcycles while we sat on back and enjoyed the view. The journey could have probably been done in just a few hours, but they stretched out the trip into a nice day of sightseeing for us. The first stop outside of Hue was at a small fishing community where we saw fishermen (and women) drying their nets in the sun and chopping up small fish for making fish sauce.

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After a roadside coffee we continued on to Elephant Falls, a local swimming hole that is supposedly busy on Sundays when Vietnamese have their one day off, but was quiet except for other tourists making the same motorbike journey on the day of our visit.

After our swim we rode until it was time to stop for lunch on a beautiful lagoon. We splurged on a seafood feast ordered for us by one of the guides. He really enjoyed helping us take pictures of all the dishes.

From there it was on to the famed Hai Van pass – up and over a mountaintop to the beaches of Danang.

Once in Danang we stopped briefly at “China Beach” (as nicknamed by US soldiers) and Marble Mountain, a hilltop collection of pagodas and marble statuary. It was blazing hot and the climbs just about killed us, but the pagoda caves were very beautiful.

The final leg was a 30 minute jaunt to our destination of Ha My Beach just outside of the city of Hoi An where we had miraculously found an inexpensive guesthouse (Ha My TT Guesthouse) along a stretch of beach dominated by luxury resorts. It took a while for our guides to find it, but we finally arrived to a quiet oceanside retreat and were excited about the outlook for our next few days.

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DIY BBQ: Dine at Your Own Risk

One night out in Hue’s cool kid territory we decided to grab a table at an open-air restaurant with tableside grills. These “grills” were concrete buckets filled to the brim with hot coals balanced precariously on the ever popular little plastic stools. A small grate like you might find in your toaster oven was placed on top and we were given a plastic fan to make air flow through the coals – you know, in case you wanted the large exposed flame 6 inches from your legs  to be even larger. We got two beers, a bucket of ice to pour them over (as you do in Vietnam) and ordered some shrimp and pork ribs for the grill. There were many options of proteins to cook on the flame, but the waiter was standing over my shoulder impatiently, so we went with the first two decent-sounding things I was able to translate quickly on my phone. We were the only white people there and were probably among only a handful of white people to ever dine there.

Soon, a couple plates arrived with fresh shrimp, riblets and okra – all doused in a spicy sauce. We placed a couple shrimp skewers on the grill and enjoyed the fruits of our labor just a couple minutes later. We were shown by a local guy at the next table how to squeeze lime into some chili salt and pepper for dipping and wrap the meat in lettuce leaves for consumption. So far, so good.

Our trouble began when we tried to grill the ribs. As the fat from the ribs dripped into the grill, the flames flared up to terrifying heights. In my panic, I accidentally hit the grate handle with the plastic fan and sent the grate full of half-cooked ribs flying. Any attempts by us to fit in with the local crowd were out the window. We were anything but inconspicuous.  After we set the grate up again, the flare ups continued and we were terrified that our entire table was about to go up in flames… Until a woman from another table casually reached over, took the handle of the grate and removed it from the grill all the while giving us a look like, “Jesus Christ, you American dummies.” The flames died down immediately and Rabi was able to finish cooking the ribs using this technique (which should have been obvious to us as two former honor students). I have no pictures of this portion of the evening because I was too busy panic-drinking Huda on ice. Not wanting to worry about any more fat fires, we chose squid as our final protein for grilling. A man came around with a bucket of hot coals and dumped more into our grill to keep the party going. Totally safe! Overall, a really fun local experience minus the part where we almost set ourselves on fire.

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Yes, Hue

Our experience in Hue was a little hit or miss. Coming from the cool north, the first thing that hit us was the heat. While I was glad to lose some layers of clothing, historically I don’t do well in heat. I wilt. If I was a houseplant my tag would say “partial sun.” It shouldn’t have been a surprise that this was the part of the trip when I started having some meltdowns (literally). Besides, after two weeks on the road, we were also hitting our first bout of travel fatigue. All of this is to say: We spent a lot of time in Hue lounging around Mimosa Guesthouse ($8/night!).

That being said, we also ate some great food and saw some sights. Here are some highlights:

All the Banh

Hue is known for it’s food. As the ancient capital, many of the traditional dishes of Hue began as courses for royal feasts. They say the king preferred tasty many small dishes brought to him from far and wide, so many of the foods found in Hue are snack sized. Some of the most abundant are an assortment of adorable sticky treats made from rice and/or tapioca flour, collectively known as Banh Hue.

Com Hen

This was also the beginning of an ongoing struggle to find lunch. In places where walking a block down the street is unbearable from 11:30am until 3, people smartly stay inside and take a nap during those hours and very little food is to be found. The one place we could depend on served Com Hen and, luckily, it was a meal we loved. “Com” is rice and “Hen” are teeny little freshwater clams, so Com Hen is rice with clams – but it’s so much more. It also has peanuts, chilis, bean sprouts, fried scallions, crispy rice, pork rinds and probably a few other ingredients. Combined they make a flavorful dish packed with satisfying crunch. It comes with a little bowl of clam broth to add as you wish, but I never wished to add much.

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The Cool Kids Club

Hue has a few universities, so there’s quite a large population of young people. Our guesthouse was in the backpacker district, which was only a few blocks but terrible. Way too tourist oriented and you couldn’t walk two feet without getting solicited by a hawker or cyclo driver. However, once Rabi and I ventured out of the area to explore, we discovered a bustling nightlife scene. After only ten minutes of walking we found ourselves to be the only white people in sight. After dark, all sorts of open air eateries pop up and we also found the only night market so far that was oriented towards locals, not tourists. This part of Hue was really cool and a lot more interesting than the cheesy bars found on hostel row.

Dong Ba Market

We spent a nice early morning walking through the major market. The food and flowers were beautiful to look at, but there was a constant risk of getting run over by one of the many scooters zipping through.

The Citadel

Surrounded by a moat is the ancient citadel. Many of the old buildings have been rebuilt and restored while others are still rubble. Though it was very hot outside, it was a nice place to wander and explore.

 

Bun Bo Hue

When in Hue one must eat Bun Bo Hue, the official soup of the city. You’ll find it in other Vietnamese towns, but why not go straight to the source? Bun Bo Hue usually features round rice noodles, pork or beef shank, a spicy broth and typically big chunks of congealed pigs blood. They never want to give Rabi and I the blood cubes as they think our Western palates won’t like it, so we have to point at it and insist it gets added to the bowl.

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Coffee Culture

Being full of university students, Hue is also full of adorable coffee shops and therefore had the cheapest prices yet. I believe a large portion of Vietnamese coffee is grown in the Central Highlands, so location probably plays into it as well. Anyway, I really enjoyed coffee breaks in Hue.

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When you order coffee in Vietnam, they also typically bring you a nice glass of tea.

Ballin’ on a Budget

One particularly steamy afternoon, we paid a hotel $3.50 to use their pool and it was the best decision we have ever made. We had the place to ourselves and it was heaven.

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Editor’s Note: We were in Hue March 17-20, 2016 (days 16-19 of our trip). I’m very behind in blogging.