A Mini Food Tour of Vietnam

Vietnamese food is blowing all the way up. It first came onto my “must try” radar a few years ago, but when I began scheduling Vietnam into my trip, the cuisine was an enormous contributing factor to my excitement.

In Ho Chi Minh City I created a long list of dishes I wanted to try, which expanded as I found new local dishes. Unless I converted the entire trip into a dedicated food tour, it would have been impossible to try everything. But with Alessio’s help, I crossed off a lot of things!

Bun Thit Nuong

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Bun Thit Nuong was my first meal in Vietnam. We ate in a snazzy cafe called Mc2 where the food was reasonably priced. Bun thit nuong is amazing. A leafy salad speckled with peanuts, and slices of pork sit on a bed of vermicelli noodles and crisp beansprouts. A great dish, and definite favourite.

Banh Mi

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So I knew I wouldn’t like banh mi – or banh my as it is spelt in North Vietnam. I’m not a huge sandwich eater, and when I do go for sandwiches I like very very simple ones. Banh mi has too much going on for my preferences, but Alessio tried it. He didn’t like it, in fact. There was a particular flavour he couldn’t get on with, and we both attributed it to the pate. Since everyone loves banh mi, I suggested he try another later.

He tried it again in Hanoi, where the doner kebab banh my are ubiquitous. He loves a doner kebab, so this was sure to be a winner, right? Almost. He liked it more than the last, but he still complained about a certain flavour.

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Later, when I was eating the claypot pork below, Alessio complained that it wasn’t very nice and had the flavour of the banh mi. I had been happily scooping out the herbs but gave him a taster of the dish with a lot of herbs. I realised the flavour he hated was one I reviled equally. Coriander.

I think he may have enjoyed another without the coriander (cilantro), but by this point his patience for giving banh mi the banhifit of the doubt had worn out.

Shrimp com tam

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“But it’s just normal rice!” Alessio wailed, when I rejoiced in finally finding a stall that sold the dish.

“No!” I snapped. “Can’t you see the grains are smaller!”

Finding com tam rice was a big deal for me, because the idea of “broken rice” sounded so cool. Com tam is rice made from normal grains that have broken. It’s popular and cheaper for locals to buy and eat. The texture was similar to cous cous, and I really enjoyed it. The only issue was that the stall I chose only had a small selection of accompanying meats, and since I could only safely identify the shrimps as not being beef, that’s what I ate. The shrimps were too tiny to deshell, so it did feel a bit like eating insects! I would love to try the dish again but with a different meat.

Pho Ga

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Pho is probably the most famous Vietnamese dish, so of course it made its way onto the list. The most well known type and widely available contains beef, which I don’t eat, but we found some pho ga which I tried. 

Although I expected not to like noodle soups a lot, this was pretty nice!

Caramel clay pot pork

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The favourite dish. 

Thit kho to dau was listed on my food bucket list as “Caramel pork soup in claypot” but the dish I tried wasn’t really a soup, more just caramel pork in a claypot.

We took the meal at Mamma’s Gourmet Cooking School in Hoi An. It was truly phenomenal and probably the best Asian dish of the entire trip. The dish took a while to come, as all good meals tend to do, but when it arrived it was beautifully laid out, with pretty utensils, salad, rice and rice paper.

It was great, with complex flavours and sweet, tender pork. I can’t recommend the dish or the restaurant enough!

Cao Lau

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Cao Lau is a Hoi An specialty. Thick noodles, thinly sliced pork almost like char siu, and salad leaves in a dark broth. I tried it in a restaurant I seemed to always be attracted to and wasn’t at all disappointed! Hoi An is the only place you can try it, and it’s directly linked with folk tales about the wells in the city so it really is special!

We had a few other dishes off the bucket list too, but also we didn’t get to try everything we wanted to. Xoi ga, hu tieu and bun bo hué have firmly been pinned on the “for next time” list. 

What I really liked about Vietnamese food was that it was really fun to explore and try. Different cities and regions had different speciality dishes and finding them was a treasure hunt.

The flavour profiles are mostly familiar if you’ve been travelling in South East Asia for a while – expect ginger, lemongrass, honey, and unfortunately coriander alongside many others. The combinations are complex and versatile across dishes and regions. Influences come from its neighbours such as China, as well as its colonial history with France.

Exploring Vietnamese food was one of my favourite parts of being in Vietnam!

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Hanoi in 8 Pictures

1. Traffic around the Long Bien

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2. A city railway

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3. A man grooms himself on the street

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4. The colourful market

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5. Piles and piles of fruit and vegetables

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6. Flower sellers on cycles

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7. Citrus

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8. Hanoi evening traffic

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Sa Pa in 13 Pictures

1. Morning in Sa Pa Town

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2. Sa Pa rice paddies in low season

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3. Misty Sa Pa landscapes

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4. An adventurous child from the local tribes climbs a wall

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5. Trekking with a baby in tow

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6. Sa Pa’s rolling hills

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7. A house of cards

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8. A hemp weaving lesson

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9. Making gifts for the trekkers

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10. A seventy five year old woman, still trekking and climbing

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11. Local women guiding a tour

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12. A bored girl

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13. Best friends

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Hoi An Yellow

In each city I visited, I noticed overwhelming colour schemes and design styles. I was drawn to photograph them and note the differences in each city.

No city had as significantly striking a colour as Hoi An. Yellow  was in the detail and the minutae of the city. It covered the walls and the flowers bloomed in yellow.

With a lighthearted gaze, Hoi An Yellow captures the colour of the ancient city.

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Hoi An in 10 Pictures

  1. By the waterside

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2. People buying colourful lanterns

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3. Hoi An Night Colour

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4. A woman sells hot lanterns to float on the river

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5. A burnt out building on the way to An Bang

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6. Waterside dining

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7. An old style petrol pump

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8. A break from the usual Hoi An colour

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9. Hoi An decay

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10. A motorcyclist transporting his chickens

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10. Hoi An dressed to the nines

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11. Religious offerings

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Defend Da Nang

Da Nang is more romantic than Hoi An.

There. I said it.

Sure, you can take your new cute girl or loveable boy to Hoi An. You can stroll around the streets bumping into three thousand other tourists and their selfie sticks. You can treat them to a meal at any restaurant in the Ancient Town. Pay the entrance fee and you can choose from many identical menus! As the light begins to fall, maybe you’ll give in to the persistent hawkers offering a boat ride.

Hoi An is beautiful, and interesting, don’t get me wrong. The architecture, colour and preservation is amazing.

But take your date to Da Nang.

Did you hear there’s absolutely nothing of interest in Da Nang? All there is are bridges and restaurants? The Hanoi architecture, bustle and charm is sapped away. The Ho Chi Minh nightlife, buzz and chaos is not there. To all intents and purposes, it’s just a city.

All the same, take your date to Da Nang.

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Da Nang serves its place happily as the city where Hoi An’s tourists go to take their onward travel. It doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It lets its tourists come and take their flights in silence, with a few attractions should they need them.

Da Nang is like the friend who never tidies their flat before you come over. It’s the friend that offers you snacks, then says “You know where the kitchen is”. Occasionally it’ll chuck the dirty laundry off the sofa so you can sit down, but mostly it’s as “take me as you find me” as it gets.

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What you should love about Da Nang is you can eat three cuisines in one day and not feel like you’re eating cheap imitations.  We went for sushi and ate at the Da Nang branch of the famous Luna D’Autonno group, Luna Pub. Japanese, Thai, French and Italian are the four biggest international cuisines here. 

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Luna Pub is well worth a visit. It’s tucked away unpretentiously just off the popular riverside street Bach Dang, but the attention to detail is remarkable.

Italian mains are good quality, but not the best Western food we ate, nor even the best Italian (that gong goes to Secret Pizza) but definitely an eat worth heading too.

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Desserts were definitely stand out. Knock out. Incomparable.

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And the drinks list is impressive.

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From Luna, take a walk down Bach Dang. This is where fifteen year old locals come to cuddle and whisper sweet forevers. There’s soft jazz playing from speakers on the lamp posts, so it feels a bit like Pokémon – especially if you see one of the life size Pikachus.

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Stroll along the river and decipher the abstract sculptures, and marvel at the bridges.

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The glorious lights of the Tran Thi Ly Bridge

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And the weekend displays of the Dragon Bridge.

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On the opposite side of the bridges, the beach is just a twenty five minute walk. Unlike the commercial, hawker-tainted beaches near Hoi An, Da Nang’s beaches are a nice for relaxing, swimming in the surf or taking a drink with a view.

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Da Nang has two markets worth a mooch, so if you wish to propose to your date, here’s the place to pick up a nice fake gold ring that will turn her fingers green before she even has a chance to accept.

And this is not to mention the fact it’s a hub for day trips to Lang Co beach, Marble Mountains and the Hai Van pass. Your planes and trains from Hoi An will depart from here – but once again I agree with Travelfish. It’s worth a visit on its own merits. Take your date to Da Nang!

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Fairytale Lanterns and Power Cuts in Hoi An

I admit that second only to Myanmar, Hoi An was my most anticipated stop on my itinerary. Alessio, searching for his “Grail” trainers, was hoping he could also get a pair made there. When we talked about our stops in Vietnam, it was clear the one that mattered most was certainly Hoi An. 

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We arrived in Hoi An from a sleeper train down from Hanoi. It was a blissful and enjoyable sleep – so the seventeen hour journey really only felt like four. It stops in Da Nang, but our homestay provided a transfer from the train station for about 300,000 dong.

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Our homestay was a bit of a poor pick, solely because it was such a walk from the ancient city. It was between the city and An Bang beach – 25 minutes to the city and an hour to the beach. Otherwise, they were very very friendly and eager. Almost too much so, as they always wanted to arrange something for us and didn’t speak a lot of English to understand things we didn’t want.

On the way to the old city is a great restaurant called Mamma’s Gourmet Cooking School. True to the name, you can cook a dish, but we just wanted to eat. Mostly because Alessio wanted to search for his grail sneakers. I ordered caramelised pork in a clay pot, and Alessio took a lemongrass and sesame pork. It came with a large bowl of salad, a plate of rice and some sheets of rice paper. The food was great, and the environment really lovely.

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Our next quest was Ale’s shoes. I’ll say it from now, we didn’t find them. He searched the whole day and every place told him the shoes were too complex to be hand sewn. In one place, they offered him something “similar” to the flashy gold sneakers he was searching for – blue leather shoes! Every time he thought he was getting close to finding them, the same old story would happen and he’d be told no. Let it be a lesson: they really can make a lot of things – but choose simple garments. Don’t provide a picture of Beyoncé’s Bow Down costume and expect the tailors to be able to produce anything like it. They are talented, but with three days they’re not magicians. I considered getting a pair of lace up ankle boots like the purple suede ones I saw but I changed my mind as nothing could really inspire me. That ended our quest for tailored clothes!

We continued to walk around the ancient city in no real direction, taking in the Japanese Bridge and crossing over to the other side where there’s a few restaurants and a little market. When we crossed back, we were forbidden from walking through a few streets we’d already walked down because we didn’t have a ticket. 

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This ticket is around 120,000 dong and it allows you free reign of the ancient city and access to a few museums, assembly halls, old maintained houses and other sites. I would have liked to have seen a few of the sites, but in the end we didn’t pay for the ticket and it didn’t cause a lot of problems when walking around.

By night the city lights up with lanterns and the river looks like something from tangled. It’s truly beautiful.

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For another side of things, there’s the nearby An Bang beach which we walked to the following day.


 Cui Dai beach is nearby and pretty horrible. It’s been massively eroded so there’s about two centimetres of beach and every last bit of it is taken up by sunloungers that you have to pay for – and the women will hassle you to buy one straight away, or coerce you into the restaurant when you walk away. The sunloungers overlook sandbags, not sea so it’s overall just a bit grotty. We spent less than five minutes there.

If you walk fifteen, twenty minutes more you can reach An Bang beach. By no stretch of the imagination is it anything like what you can find in the Thai and Cambodian islands – or even nearby in Da Nang but it’s a beach and it’s so much nicer than Cui Dai. I’d even go to Cui Dai first just so it feels like a really nice beach. The waves are great for surfing, but the sand is fairly littered. I was only hassled by a hawker once and she went away when I wouldn’t stop pretending to take selfies.

“Pretending”.


By the time we were walking home the weather turned, the clouds thickened and we were sure we wouldn’t make it home before the rain. We did, luckily, but the next day was a wash out. All we could do was brave the rain to walk to a nearby restaurant – and the food we ordered came on a delivery motorbike!


Earlier in the day our homestay had asked us if we wanted dinner. We said no, we were joining friends for dinner. Yet at 7pm…


It was very kind of them, but we guessed they hadn’t understood our refusal. It put us in a tricky position as we were still meeting our friends from Sapa and I don’t eat beef, so Alessio had to eat both meals because he (is greedy) didn’t want to offend them.

We still met our friends from Sapa, but a bit later. By this time, the restaurants had begun to close. We found one restaurant that met all our diverse dietary needs (kosher, no wheat, no beef) and it was really quite something.

The waiter, who possibly also owned the restaurant, communicated in grunts and shrugs. Our menus were thrown down and he appeared a minute or two later expecting us to already know what we want. This is usual throughout Asia, but when we told him we needed a lot more time to decide, he shrugged and only moved a few centimetres away. Our friend showed him a note written in Vietnamese that she cannot eat wheat, he almost refused to read it.

The meal was decent, not outstanding like the menu had suggested. Our plates were promptly cleared away, and immediately the bill was thrown down. A very clear message that we needed to clear off. Then, to our surprise and hilarity, we were given a guestbook to sign! The worst service in my life and he wanted feedback. We replied in our own languages about what we thought, along the lines of “it was certainly something…”


Our final day before leaving for Da Nang brought another eventuality. First the air con wouldn’t switch on. Then the television. There was no wifi, and nothing would charge. When we raised it with the homestay, they told us they also had no electricity. The whole town was down.

When we walked into the city and finally found the one restaurant with a vaguely unique menu, we couldn’t order anything we wanted because there was no electricity. We moved next door where we found some dishes that could be made without power. For a city whose main appeal is the lights at night, we were surprised how long they took to switch on the lights!

I wanted to buy some souvenirs – something I hadn’t wanted to do the whole trip. The cheapy mass produced handicrafts were really quite nice, but you can also get a few unique things and there’s a shop, Lifestart which sells gifts and the money goes to giving opportunities to disabled children. Hoi An is a nice place to get gifts, and we bought chopsticks and a bowl to decorate our flat.


In the evening, when the power returned, we walked to a restaurant we passed every night, and every time we passed it we said it looks cute but we never entered.  This was the place I chose to try Cao Lau – a dish of thick noodles, thinly sliced pork and salad leaves in a thick pork broth. It’s a dish only available in Hoi An, and intensely tied to the history and culture of the city. 


My time in Hoi An was very beautiful, but not a lot like what I expected. It’s very busy and crowded, with many Vietnamese tourists when I visited. The city is definitely magical, but maybe I overhyped it in my mind because I walked around thinking “yeah it’s nice” but not a lot else. I didn’t fall in love. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t wonderful. In fact, it was straight out of a fairy tale. I could spend days taking pictures and there’s a lot more to do that we didn’t do. It’s just that when you expect to love something, you usually do, but it doesn’t take your breath away like something you fall in love with by surprise. 

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Sapa’s Spectacular Landscapes

My friend, whose guidance I heeded like a bible, regarded Sapa as the highlight of her trip. She gave lots of advice, to which I replied

“But I still don’t get what Sapa is?”

All this talk about homestays and treks and guides, I wasn’t sure what I was signing up for by scheduling Sapa in the itinerary, but I trusted her word.

We decided to ignore her advice of just finding a tour guide there, as we were still a bit confused, and booked a fairly pricey one through the hotel. It was three nights and two days, with one night at a homestay and two on a sleeper bus. Both days involved trekking and a few activities involving local customs.

The sleeper bus left at around 9pm. One thing to bear in mind is that queuing is not really a Vietnamese thing, and if you attempt to queue you’re guaranteed to get the worst seats. We weren’t even the last ones on and still got horrible seats – right at the back in the toilet’s line of smell. And every time the toilet door opened, I woke up. 

The bus pulls in at 4am, but you can sleep until 6, 6:30. Any later and you’ll meet a very angry tour guide who has been waiting for you out in the cold. And believe me, it’s very cold. Sapa, in the morning chill, feels more like a Alpine ski town rather than a South East Asian valley. On the way to breakfast, Alessio was honestly hoping for a croissant, orange juice and hot chocolate. Presumably followed by a plate of pasta al pesto or freshly hunted deer for lunch, no doubt.

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The breakfast we had was good, and included. Coffee and Asian breakfast favourites like rice, eggs, fruit and porridge but also toasted baguettes and pancakes. Stock up on calories for the trek! That’s what I told myself anyway, but it was more about the words “free”, “breakfast” and “buffet” being in the same sentence.

The trek begins at 9AM, where you meet your guide and trekking group – around 10 others. She’ll be from the local Hmong tribe most likely. Ours was a young and lively girl whose name was said as “Shaw”. She explains the day, and takes you walking down the valley, teaching you various things like how they use Indigo as a clothing dye.

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I can’t understate how lovely and amazing she was. She was very curious about my hair braids, so I told her all about them. Quite magnificently, she had only been learning English for half a year. She learned from following her sister on treks but spoke extremely well – no matter how much she denies it!

The landscapes are phenomenal. We went in February when the rice wasn’t growing. It’s supposed to be even more beautiful in the summer when there’s rice, but we were impressed even then.

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It also heats up by about 11AM. Alessio refused to heed my advice to wear his jeans several times. In the morning he deeply regretted his choice in temperatures almost rivalling the London winter, but by early afternoon it had warmed up enough for him to begin bragging about his “good decision” to pack only shorts for the trek.

You are often joined by women from the local villages. They are very eager to help with holding your hand. It’s very kind, but actually sometimes easier to balance by outstretching your hand or letting yourself slide a bit. Holding someone’s hand makes it a bit trickier. The other thing is this. If they hold your hand, you’re then sort of expected to buy things from them when you stop to eat. They’re very persistent and remind you how kind to you they were. Some women who didn’t speak to you will also ask you to buy, but by the time the food comes they tend to leave.

The food is in a restaurant in the Hmong village and you get rice with options of chicken, pork and tofu.

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The next part of the day is a little easier. You walk from the Hmong tribe village to the homestay in the Dzay village. It’s a really simple trek of just over an hour.

Once there, you have the evening to chat with your fellow trekkers… or even befriend a very technologically advanced toddler. 

Seriously – this kid would not let go of the iPhone because she wanted to watch youtube videos, and ate all of Alessio’s M&Ms! She’s a sassy one!

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If you want, you can take the time to help prepare part of the meal but I chose to sit outside, chill and chat. By late afternoon, it does begin to get chilly again.

The meal is served at a long communal table. You all muck in to set the table and prepare the chairs. Several tours may be staying at once – we had twenty two people staying at our small homestay! The food is pretty similar to what was served for lunch, only you also get to experience “happy water”. I’ll let you try that one yourselves.

The evening was a great place to meet new people from around the world and chat over a communal meal. Mostly the chat revolved around cuisines of our countries, and since I was sat near a French, Spanish and an Italian I got very miffed with the “fish and chips” comments! I mean have these people never tried shepherd’s pie?!

You can, for an extra fee, pay for a private room but the bathroom is shared and never free so we weren’t too bothered. The beds in the shared room had those princess curtains around them so I didn’t mind! It’s less like a dorm, and more like an open mezzanine with lots of double mattresses. The beds are so soft with warm blankets and lots of plug sockets.

Breakfast was served around 8AM – a lot of fruit and piles and piles of crepes. I would have happily eaten about forty but I had to pretend to be a little civilised.

Shaw joined us for 9, and we began our trek to a third village where we’d eat lunch and end the trek.

This trek was almost instantly a lot tougher, but I enjoyed it so much more. There’s a lot more uphill trekking, and she took us through a stretch of bamboo forest. The stretch you have to walk on is so thin it would challenge a tightrope walker, but the bamboo is a slight protection against falling to your death.

What’s a bit disconcerting is that this seventy five year old woman from the local tribe is more agile and capable of completing the trek than I was! 

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We were rewarded by beautiful views, and the chance to rest by the waterfall.

A little further on, we crossed a bridge over the river and ate at a different homestay. Here you get to choose from a small menu of fried rice, fried noodles or noodle soup with pork, chicken or vegetables but if you ask they also provide steamed rice.

Here, we rested and got the chance to meet our amazing tour guide’s baby son Chang!

The tour ends here if you do just two days and three nights. For those staying longer, you spend the night in the homestay and trek the following day too.

We did the toughest part of the trek, which was a steep uphill walk to the place where the bus would meet us. We got separated from the four others on the trek coming back to Sapa town at that time because a Vietnamese group wanted to stay together. We stayed on our bus, and they got onto another. We arrived without issue, but they had problems and were even told to get out and take a taxi!

We got dropped back at the hotel, and just as I was booking the train from Hanoi to Hué, we were ushered outside to a motorbike taxi to catch our coach back to Hanoi.

The small issue is that we initially booked for the 9pm bus back to Hanoi as not to pay for a night. We were then told we were on a 3:30pm bus – which I figured worked out well, as we could leave Hanoi the following day and get more time in central Vietnam. We got to the hotel where the bus left, and he told us we were on the 9pm bus and couldn’t change as it was a weekend. It meant we had five long hours to kill.

A young Vietnamese guy who was working on the tour buses from Hanoi offered to take us for coffee. Knowing our scams and the fact I am just very skeptical in the first place, I was reluctant and unfriendly at first. This was bolstered by the fact he was really really eager to smoke weed with us. 

“Don’t give him too much information” I warned Alessio.

Actually, I was wrong. He was just a really cool, friendly young guy who wanted to chat with people his age. He told us about his life and his dreams to go and make money with his rich uncle in America. He loved hip hop music and Australian girls and we recommended he watch the film “Mac and Devin Go to High School” since it featured his favourites. Chilling with Tu really taught me not to always be so skeptical. Some people are just nice!


The night bus came, and he was on it, organising the travel and giving out water. We were also joined by two amazing Chilean Italian-loving friends we met on the trek who were the happiest, funniest pair I have ever met!


I had been reading about the awfulness of Vietnamese buses. One forum post said “I mean you’re likely to come back in one piece but don’t ever risk it”. That was playing on my mind as I drifted off to sleep – and in my half asleep state I kept thinking that every turn the bus made we’d skid off a sharp cliff and die. I remember thinking “this is how I will die, but at least I’m amongst nice people”. Then I would open my eyes and see that we’re on a straight city road!

The bus arrives back in Hanoi for about 2am. Be prepared for this. We hadn’t booked a room, but our hotel knew we were coming as we had booked through them so we could stay in the hotel. One Australian girl clearly had not forseen this eventuality and began ranting that she was told it would arrive in the morning and now it’s arrived too early and she has nowhere to stay.

With a pure “sorry ’bout it” attitude and immaculate comic timing, our Vietnamese friend Tu replied, slow enough for her to realise the obvious:

“Well… it’s six hours there, so it’s six hours back…”

She paused.

“Yes, I know! But but… on the way there we got to sleep on the bus until the morning!”

Slowly, the bus started to drive off.

“Maybe I can help you find somewhere to stay?” Tu replied, but she was already too huffy to accept the help and stormed off.

That wasn’t the last of our adventures for the night. We were let in to sleep in chairs in the lobby by a very exhausted hotel receptionist. He was clearly very tired, so we were as quiet as possible and tried to just snuggle down in our chairs. About an hour later, a European guy flung open the door with a loud “good morning!” and began waving his torch around. “I want my room!” 

He too had just arrived from a Sapa tour and hadn’t paid for them to keep his room either. For some reason, he expected them to just have a room waiting free of charge because he demanded it. He began shining a torch in the face of the other sleeping receptionist, trying to climb over him to get his bag and talking at the top of his voice. We began shaking our heads at this complete disregard of manners and disrespect to the receptionists, and I even mouthed “sorry” to one of them, who smiled and said it was fine. It really wasn’t. The rude guy demanded they prepare the first available room for him – even though we were waiting longer. The tired receptionist agreed, but once the rude guy went outside he vented his frustrations to us and we comforted him and pleaded with him to get some sleep!

The rude guy returned, grabbing his bags saying he was going to find a hotel with a room “because he needed a good night’s sleep.” – as if we and the receptionists didn’t. Guess who got the huge first available room at a discount, only a few hours later? Alessio and Letitia. Manners really do go a long way.

Those two stroppy individuals were nothing in comparison to the great people we met on the trek. Everyone was so kind, funny and brilliant company, and I really do hope to meet them again! At the very least, we met two amazing Israeli girls for dinner in Hoi An!

My friend was right – trekking in Sapa is truly a highlight. Everything was included for the two days except drinks, and a big bottle of water came cheap. You meet so many great people, and the trekking is a lot of fun. Although they say you trek for ten kilometres on the first day and six on the second, it was more like eight and four. Considering we walked for around ten kilometres on an average day, the most challenging part of the trek for us was the mountainous terrain. The first day is mostly downhill, too. 

It was truly unforgettable and the tour guide one of the best people I’ve ever met!


Photogenic Hanoi

“The streets in Hanoi are so annoying to navigate” 

Without missing a beat, Alessio replied.

“You could even say they’re ‘hanoi-ing!'”

There you go. There’s the cheesy joke. I am sure he’d been waiting to use that joke for a looong time.

We weren’t even going to go to Hanoi. We planned to travel as North as Hué since we were on a 15 day visa, and in February the North would be quite chilly. Then I googled Sapa and knew I couldn’t not go to the north. So one day before we were due to go to Dalat we booked flights to Hanoi instead.

The taxi from the airport was on a meter, but the meter moved at Busta Rhymes speed. I looked away for half a second and it had gone up by about 100,000 dong. By the end it was just under 400,000 dong which was pricey considering we were also short changed.

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The next morning we headed out with the intention of seeing as much as we could on foot. Theoretically this included the West Lake temple, but when we arrived at the lake we were too lazy to walk to the other side.

We instead begun the day by walking to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This area will show you what I mean about it being the “least most communist city I have ever seen”.

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There’s a lot around here – the mausoleum: 

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One pillar pagoda:

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and a restaurant selling the best barbecue pork I’ve tried:

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The walk there from near the Long Bien Bridge is nice too:

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And there’s also an astoundingly disappointing botanical garden.

We reached the lake, but visiting the temple was too far so we got baked food and walked to the old quarter:

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Our route meant we saw another lake, the Hoan Kiem lake. The whole area was very picturesque, with many people snapping photos, walking with a date and crossing the bridge.

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The old quarter is just to the East. Here’s the thing, the old colonial buildings are very beautiful but it doesn’t have a nice feel. Being now almost solidly geared to tourists, I felt it was a bit disappointing and there are some streets where you cannot take a step without someone saying “hello sir, eat here please! Happy hour, good price!” I felt there was equally lovely architecture just outside the quarter, without all the stress.

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After dinner at the amusingly named Obama’s Restaurant (no doubt owned by the former Commander in Chief himself) we headed back to the room for the bus to Sapa, where we’d be for the next two days. 

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Our final day in Hanoi – the day we returned from Sapa we honestly just slept and massaged our legs – we took a stroll back down to the beautiful lake and found an American restaurant (Western food, sacré bleu!) selling Chicago deep dish! Alessio, a staunch Italian food activist, actually approved!

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From there we strolled around near our hotel as we had a sleeper train for 8. By chance we found the most picturesque open market just as the sun began to set. It was beautiful.

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As we left Hanoi, I felt confused about my feelings for it, and I still do. I loved a lot of it, the Hoan Kiem lake, the walk to the mausoleum and the area around it and the market near the Long Bien bridge. But unlike Ho Chi Minh City, I didn’t feel at home. I didn’t feel like I’d slipped into the pace of life there, despite how beautiful it was. 

That said, it was more than worth the spontaneous itinerary change!

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Ho Chi Minh City in 12 Pictures

Fallen blossom trees block the street

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A selection of colourful bird cages

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Sugary pastel buildings

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A lady tidying her news stand

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A market florist preparing an arrangement

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Floral balconies on the side of an old apartment block

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A lady catches up on the news

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A tourist couple and a couple getting married

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Down-tools for a coconut water seller

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Bright and colourful hats

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A barber trims his customer’s locks with shears

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A vocal toddler plays in a cardboard box

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