People want recommendations. Below are things I paid for and enjoyed:
Saigon Street Eats
Ho Chi Minh City
An iron coated stomach is helpful but not necessary for this 3-4 hour escapade. Vu, the guide, can tone up or down the adventure factor as requested (a British member requested sampling a fermented tofu dish gelled in a ramekin and Vu obliged.)
Beers are both copious and included. The first one is opened a minute after parking the motorbikes far (far) from Saigon’s typical tourist scene.
We paid $45USD a person, and this would be my first activity upon a Saigon return. I wrote more about this here.
War Remnants Museum
28 Vo Van Tan Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
A mantel piece for most itineraries, and a must stop for Americans. I wrote more about this here.
Huynh Hoa Bakery
26 Le Thi Rieng P. Ben Thanh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
There will be a line as long as the pork slices in your sandwich if they were laid end to end instead of stacked. Expect a quadruple layering of meats and a slather of pate that’s the pillow for all else. Baguettes are delivered in heaping bags tied to the back of motorbikes. The salad stuff is the same here as it is everywhere—julienned carrots, cucumbers mandolined to be as thin as lace, and coriander that’s a sprucey pop—yet there’s a more substantive quality to the stuff here. Mayonnaise, like all else at this shop, is room temperature.
As with nearly all roadside operations, this one is cash only. What they pull in is Escobarian. Extra employees look to be on payroll just to count it all.
Banh Mi Hong Hoa
62 Nguyen Van Trang, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Stellar banh mi? Yes.
A TripAdvisor or food blog recommendation? Likely. So no accident that I ended up counting Nikon cameras and fanny packs while I munched curbside.
Bahn mi is bang on and better than the place above IMO. This was my first banh mi and I ordered it incorrectly. Expecting to say “banh mi” and get the classic cold cut meats, I ordered “banh mi” and got meatballs overlaid with the ubiquitous veggies. To remedy I sat down, scarfed it up, and made sure round two was for pork slices. Verdict? I prefer the meatball (xiu mai) banh mi.
Ecotour Can Tho
Another one that I wrote extensively about here. A cheaper price for a more memorable day you will not spend. I went in the off season and a last-minute booking was possible. I’ve heard trying the same in high-season is just pushing luck.
La Siesta of Hoi An
132 Hung Vuong Street, Hoi An
Franco-colonial style decadence. Wood is dark. Pools are dual. Snicker bars are complimentary but unfairly rationed to two per day. Rooms come with a pillow menu, so, if traveling off season, it’s tomfoolery to not spend the $80/night for this place.
It’s out of Hoi An’s foot trampled center but still quiet. This is a good thing, because Hoi An, as described to me by multiple backpackers, “Is like what Thailand apparently used to be: A great place to party and get drunk all night without anyone telling you to calm down.”
By 2am Hoi An was mostly shut down, though. A rare transom light might allure you to a bar, and, if not the light, then the raucousness inside. Either way, you’d still get safely back to the Siesta on foot, grab a Snickers, and rest your head onto the myriad of pillow types you called up throughout the day to guarantee a different delivery person each time. Judgement free indulgence.
Reaching Out Tea House
131 Tran Phu, Hoi An
There’s no need for a full spouting of this teahouse since I wrote about it here. It’s worth a visit for a calming respite.
The Hill Station
Locations in Sapa, Hanoi, and Hoi An
Gentrifiers and yuppies will be pleased with this discovery (count me among them).
The Hill Station Sapa is the signature location for this restaurant group that has locations in Hanoi, Hoi An, and one more in Sapa. Excluding Hoi An, I visited each. The menus vary, although there is an across-brand adherence to splendid coffee, craft beer, and bottles of house-made infused rice wine.
Epicurean French is a backdrop for Vietnamese cuisine in general, but the Hill Station has accented this influence, both in technique and decoration. At the flagship is a confit of pork, pumpkin sliced and sautéed with garlic and ginger, and a try at rainbow trout smoked and laid atop slices of baguette. At the Sapa and Hanoi spots are wheels of soft cheeses and wood boards laminated with glossy rounds of tallowy charcuterie. Walls have pencil drawings of De Gaulle or Western style icons or rice farmers. Chairs are available, as are reed cushions for floor sitting.
The Hanoi Social Club
6 Hoi Vu, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
Alley loving Melburnians will find home here. The menu and interior could have been lifted from Flinders Lane and air dropped into this patterned stone alley. Avo toast is on the menu for a price that’s notably down from the Toorak average. There is at least one Aussie flag on display. At night it’s a drinks bar and music venue with western style cocktails, and is an unofficial embassy for the expats desirous of Western vibes. It’s three stories of chill—as in shoes off for the roof guitar circle chill, a place where your body disappears into a couch’s upholstery, your eyes gloss from the A/C, and you listen to a Chilean and American talk about their first time while stirring the rum in their glasses and looking forward to another first.
Ba Trang Pottery Village
Bat Trang Commune, Hanoi
A thirty minute cab drive from Hanoi’s old town. What you can buy here is mind-bottling. Boggling. Starting with the every-days: things like toothbrush holders, soap dishes, saucers for condiments, plates and bowls and teapots. And ending with the ornamental: massive decorative vases and ceramic models of dragons. Whatever type of pottery you need (or don’t), can be purchased here. And, as the name suggests, it is a village. A town square with pottery. Homes with pottery. Businesses with pottery. Pottery dominoed on shelves inside so a bump against one piece would destroy the entire stock.
Be sure to keep extra space in your suitcase, and perhaps have bubble wrap so you can get purchases home. While a plate may be less than a dollar, international shipping might be 500% of an item’s cost with less peace of mind that it will get to your table in one piece.
Two tips: If at a restaurant or hotel you see a ceramic pattern you like, take a picture. High chance it’ll be at Ba Trang. And, if you do take a cab, pay extra for the cab to wait. If not, wander out of town and eventually you’ll see a cafe where cabbies pull in to nap. Tap a few windows and hope the guy gets out of his drowsy phase fast enough to get you back.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
57B Dinh Tien Hoang, Hanoi
It would be too easy to dismiss this experience as tourist kitsch. The faces on some employees reminded me of the ferris wheel operators at traveling carnivals. Performances are all day, and the auditorium witnesses a carousel: audience for one show leaves as the audience for the next crowds inside. Flash photography (and video recording) is allowed, so the small and rudimentary theatre at times feels host to a high school production. Every pyrotechnic display will be accompanied by a woman—whose name I can only guess is Cindy—standing up and filming with her iPad. The stage is a small kiddie pool, the actors are wood puppets, the music is an intense drum line that my untrained ear likened to a kindergarten talent show. And yet…it’s pretty fun. The stories come out of Vietnam’s mythos, and are universal in their application and delightful in their medium. The entire production is corny in its earnestness and earnest about its corniness. I’m glad I didn’t miss it.
TripAdvisor pro-tip for Vietnam and elsewhere: Call this a vigilance discovery. If you check ratings on TripAdvisor prior to choosing a restaurant or activity, and TripAdvisor has ranked the place highly amongst its peers, and there are a smashing amount of 4 and 5 star reviews yet a curiously high number of 1 and 2 star reviews as well, then do this: Sort the reviews by rating. Select first “excellent” and “very good” ratings. Scroll through the reviews, hover your mouse over the reviewer, and see how many reviews they’ve left. If most reviewers have left less than two reviews, chances are the business paid for those reviews. In that case, the one and star reviews should be your insight into truth (you’ll find those reviewers have left more than a handful).