Southeast Asia: Vietnam

After a great summer month of weddings and shooting, it’s finally time to enjoy my “summer”. It only seems like days ago, sitting at our friend Einer’s house planning for Southeast Asia and looking at images and researching destinations. Needless to say, after months of planning, I was finally excited to head to our first destination.

This 4 week journey will begin in (Japan 14 hour layover), Vietnam, Philippines, and ending in Japan. At different points of our trip, we’ll be expecting more friends from Vancouver, seeing old ones, meeting new ones, and seeing friends depart along the way. My last trip in Japan, peaked my interest in street photography. Visiting a foreign country always brings out the curiosity in me. I’m always excited to turn the next corner looking forward to the next person, object, building or subject. Much like a wedding, a moment can happen so quickly, your always on your toes.

For this trip, I’ll be shooting with my Sony A7 once again, Zeiss 55mm lens, capture pro camera clip for easy access to my camera, and my newest addition the Joby tripod for night shots.

With our flight on time flying with Air Nippon Airlines, I was settled in ready to go for my next adventure. Having seen Ryan, Steiner ( Stala and Einer), and Kristin snap chatting, their photos already in Vietnam, I couldn’t help but become restless. However, between us and Vietnam, I would have to watch 4.5 movies, eat two plane meals, and lastly a 14 hour layover in Japan. The 14 hour layover sounded grueling, but ended up being a nice start to our trip.

Forgive us on the shakiness! It was the first selfie of the trip!  Forgive us on the shakiness! It was the first selfie of the trip!

Myself, Helen (aka Jelen as started by Stala), and Drew landed in Haneda, at 6:30pm. With 14 hours to kill, we stepped foot to one of busiest streets in the world, the Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo. It was only last year myself and Drew were in Japan together. Although Helen has had a layover in Japan, she never made it to Tokyo. Forgetting it was Halloween weekend, we were overwhelmed with the amount of people in costumes! Inching our way towards the crowd we we’re impressed with all the costumes ranging from anime characters, zombies, sushi rolls… the list goes on.

Our intention was to head to a Tonkatsu place ( Japanese food which consists of a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet). With our hunger kicking in, we ended up going to an udon restaurant across the intended restaurant due to the 1.5 hour wait. Our $3.00 udon, was amazing! The noodles were perfectly cooked, accompanied by a delicious runny egg yolk, just like I remembered. I really wish Vancouver would have more of these stores. Of course with such a short time in Japan for our layover, we couldn’t help but look up a sushi restaurant nearby right after our udon meal. We had to squeeze through the crowds once again, to reach our conveyor belt sushi.

For those who don’t know, conveyor belt sushi, is where you sit down and order through a tablet. Within a few minutes, your sushi/food/drinks come whizzing down a conveyor belt, like the name implies! There’s really just something cool, seeing your sushi zip down the conveyor belt.

With two meals finished in an hour, we made out way back to the airport. Not knowing we caught the last train back to the airport, the three of us passed out on these comfy lounge chairs.

At 6am, two hours before our flight, we ended at the food court, looking for food. If you couldn’t already tell, we really like to eat. I couldn’t help but complete the sweep of Japanese foods and get a bowl of ramen. With full stomachs we were finally heading to our first destination, Hanoi!

Being awake for more then 24 hours, we finally arrived at 1pm. We took in Uber back to our hotel, where we were waiting for Steiner, Kirstin, Ryan and Nick who were coming from Nha Trang. With this being my first Uber experience, I really wish Vancouver would take start having it in place. We agreed to meet at 4:30, only having Stala knocking on our door at 7:30pm, having us completely slept through our “nap”. Apparently we were more tired than we thought. We finally met up with our friends and caught up over dinner.

The group decided to take it easy, and decided for some street pho. It truly is quite a culture shock sitting on the streets, not in the most sanitary conditions enjoying your meal. After a quick stroll through the backpack district, we headed home for a good nights sleep.

The hotel has a buffet each morning, with pho, and other varieties of hot food. The group gathered there in the morning, before starting on our food tour for the first day. With a map and points of interest we ventured out looking for some of the best Vietnamese food!

Our first few stops in Hanoi took us to Highland Coffee shop, for a traditional ice coffee followed by one oldest egg coffee shops! With many tourist group there, you could definitely tell it was a popular joint! With a thick creamy texture, the egg coffee here was delicious. The taste reminded me very much of a tiramisu!

Our next stop, took us to a classic Vietnamese sub known as Banh Minh. Banh Minh 25, had a variety of sandwiches. I opted for the pork and shared with Helen. Again this restaurant didn’t disappoint. The bread was perfectly baked, with great authentic flavours in the meat and veggies. We headed back to the hotel for a quick nap, with the heat picking up in the mid afternoon.

The Halloween evening had us walking around with our faces painted. Although not celebrated in Vietnam, we had a lot of locals taking photos of us. We had a lot of kids amused and even approaching us.  Around the backpack district, where our hotel was located, we explored the stalls and restaurants. We met up with one of Ryan’s co-workers from Vancouver, and hit up a stir fry place, which we raved about for days. One of the veggies we really enjoyed during our time in Vietnam, was their local greens, Morning Glory. A very simple dish cooked over garlic!

With a late night, most of our group slept in. Myself, Helen, Ryan and Drew, headed out for some morning pho before heading out to explore Hoan Kiem Lake, the largest and oldest pagoda ( a sacred building usually a tiered tower found in most Asian cultures), and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. It was unfortunately closed that day, but we were still able to see if across the waters. With these ” must see things” on Tripadvisor, we completed them within an hour.

Around the area was also the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, dedicated to the Vietnam leader who was the leader of the communist party. We didn’t go in, but did read his body is still being held there. Along the mausoleum, in front of the building, is 240 symmetrical green patch squares, with guards on duty.

With the top few tourist sites off our list, we headed to the French Quarter. As the name implies, the buildings, were very french inspired. Opposite of the the Old Quarter where we were staying, the French Quarter had a lot of the luxurious hotels and restaurants. We made a quick stop for a snack break and had sticky rice dessert with mango. Each couple had one to share, and then quickly decided to get one each. Hanoi never disappointed with the food! A lot of reviews mentioned Trang Tien Ice Cream, as place to check out. Myself and Helen opted for green tea mochi! Not the best mochi ice cream I’ve had, but definitely worth checking out. It was an odd layout, with the Trang Tien ice cream, having several stalls in the same store. We weren’t exactly sure about the difference, but decided to choose one at the front.

With semi full stomachs, we left the French Quarter and headed to the restaurant that President Obama and Anthony Bourdain checked out when they were in Hanoi. The restaurant we visited was known for the bun cha, which is served with rice noodle, dipping sauce and fatty grilled pork. We got the “Obama special” which came with a seafood spring roll and the noodles. The restaurant was good, but not as good as the one in the following day.

Random architecture along the way!  Random architecture along the way!

Our night finished with the group heading to go watch Dr. Strange. A slightly unique experience as I’m usually a huge popcorn eater. A common thing in Asia is the sweet popcorn, and not buttered. A little disappointed, I still enjoyed the experience!

The next few days were spent roaming the streets of revisiting a few places we really enjoyed along our food tour in the first few days. Nothing special worth mentioning, but a few pics along the way!

Evening BBQ Skewers on the street!  Evening BBQ Skewers on the street! Once again we had egg coffee, but had it prepare iced this time!  Once again we had egg coffee, but had it prepare iced this time!

Our early morning started, with a bus ride to Ha Long Bay. A 4 hour drive later, we finally arrived for our junk boat tour, aboard the Fantasea Cruise. We checked in and promptly were greeted with lunch and welcome beverages! Following lunch, we were on to our first excursion, visiting the famous Dau Go Caves, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ha Long Bay! I couldn’t exactly remember all the things our tour guide said, as I was too amazed at the landscape of everything. Here’s a quick excerpt I found online:

” Legends say that the name Đầu Gỗ (Wooden Head) originates from the victory of the Supreme Commander Tran Hung Dao (1228-1300) against Mongol invasion in the 13th Century on Bach Dang River by deploying booby traps of giant steel-tipped wooden stakes beneath the water. He found a away to hide all the stakes during high tides so that the Mongol could not see it. Later on, some of those wooden stakes flow to this cave and was discovered by the local people.” http://www.halongbay.info/attraction/dau-go-cave.html

Ladies, selling snacks and drinks along Ha Long Bay!  Ladies, selling snacks and drinks along Ha Long Bay!

Once in the caves, you walk around three sections, each with their own unique layout. At the top of the cave you get a stunning view of the waters and Ha Long Bay itself. The downside going with a tour is the fast pace you go at. It was a little hard to enjoy everything with all the tours trailing us.

It was on to the second activity within the hour. We were quickly escorted to another island where we were onto kayaking. A 45 minute kayak, took us around the small islands with the sunsetting as we were finishing! It was perfect way to the end the night, after long day.

Our group had an early morning start at 5:30 hoping for the glimpse of the sunrise. With the island blocking the view, we didn’t catch the sunrise we were hoping for. We all ended up back in bed, and go back up at 7 for our early morning hike. After breakfast, we ended at Ti Top Island named after a former Soviet Union astronaut. Even in the early morning, the heat was hard to deal with. Again the top of the short hike was worth it, with a view of Ha Long Bay!

Following the hike, we had a cooking class aboard the ship. We learned how to make vermicelli spring rolls. Although not our typical spring rolls accustomed to in Vancouver, the rice paper they used was crunchy as oppposed to the ones were use to. It wasn’t my favourite but it was definitely still good after the morning hike.

The evening and afternoon had us checking out and making our way back to Hanoi where we would enjoy one last evening there before making our way to Hoi An the next day. One of the more memorable pho noodles I enjoyed was this particular restaurant serving seafood broth. Known as mien cua dinh tien hoang this dish was particularly good after a long day of traveling.

Hanoi was definitely more eye opening in terms of the culture and the way of living. Compared to Japan, I found Vietnam more of a culture shock. The authentic food we got to try and eat on stools that we could barely sit on was an eye opening experience. Along with the food, the transportation infrastructure, and way of life there, made me really appreciate Vancouver that much more.

This next part in Hoi An, was probably my highlight thus far. A short plane ride from Hanoi to Hoi An took us into a quieter part of Vietnam. In Hanoi the hustle and bustle was overwhelming. From cars, and scooters honking every second, Hoi An was vastly different with more of a quiet vibe. We checked into to our hotel at Lasenta, and we were in for a huge surprise. Couple months ago when we booked the hotel we couldn’t even find it on Google Maps, and had barely any reviews on Tripadvisor. The only selling point was an infinity pool. On their Facebook page, it had rendered digital images of what the hotel looked like.

After working years in hotels, I can say this has been one of the best hotels I’ve stayed at. It was the best $50 I’ve spent per night. From the warm service, right when you step into the lobby, everyone greets you. The check in process was perfect with the front desk agents being super accommodating and suggesting places to go. When we walked into the rooms, the design was timeless with all the little details in place. The shower, bath, and beds were super comfortable. It was 5 star service all around. With all that said, the best part had yet to come. After stepping onto the 4th floor, the infinity pool caught our eye. It was something I had always wanted to do. The whole experience was enjoyable and would definitely come back to Hoi An just for the hotel. Anywhoo, check out the pics. It was Ahhhhmazing!!

Our welcome beverages once we checked into the hotel!  Our welcome beverages once we checked into the hotel!

Even without the hotel, Hoi An was still beautiful! Although we didn’t fully explore Hoi An, due to the amount of time we were there, the area we visited was a lot more quiet then Hanoi. Like Hanoi, we did a quick little food tour of Hoi An. We visited a few popular places, during our first day. The most stand out restaurant was Morning Glory during our evening meal. Our group splurged a little, but their pork belly was delicious! Other notables were Bahn Mi Queen, one of my favourites in Vietnam!

We visited this stand at the marketplace about 4 times. I never got the name of the lady but she was always super pleasant had even sat down to made sure we enjoyed everything. We visited this stand at the marketplace about 4 times. I never got the name of the lady but she was always super pleasant had even sat down to made sure we enjoyed everything. Dishes from stand 50! Dishes from stand 50!

Morning Glory dishes!  Morning Glory dishes!

After lunch we visited Peace Tailors, recommended by our friend. We were all looking for tailored suits and other outfits. Although I was quite skeptical at first, I couldn’t have been happier with the results. Along town, there’s many tailor shops. However, we didn’t both checking the others out.

Within 24 hours we were back at the tailor shop, trying out new suits, jackets and shirts! After a few modifications, the next day we received our items. Na, who was my personal tailor, did an amazing job!!! Couldn’t have recommended this place highly enough!

Na, was my tailor and did an amazing job!! Check out Peace Tailors if your ever in Hoi An!  Na, was my tailor and did an amazing job!! Check out Peace Tailors if your ever in Hoi An!

Our evenings there, had the group exploring, the night market! Along the night market, were lanterns floating along the river which made for a nice scene. The architecture here was a lot more structured compared to Hanoi. On our last night out in Hoi An, we enjoyed a few desserts overlooking the river, before our 18 hour trip to Boracay. For now, here’s the first part of my Southeast Asia trip. Philippines and Japan will follow soon, hopefully sooner rather than later! Let me know what your favourite part of our trip is so far!

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