Thursday, January 11, 2018

Sources of Inspiration // Vietnam // Blue waters, magnificent caves and delicious cuisine // Top 10 travel tips

Like every year, December is a time to take a break and make some new memories. Travel, explore new places and soak up all the inspiration I need to start the new year all fresh and full of renewed energy. This year I traveled to Vietnam. A country with a horrific and complicated past. A country with glorious beaches and beautiful mountains, caves and rivers.

After a month of traveling from the North to the South experiencing unexpected cold weather, crazy bus trips and lazy taxi drivers, a typhoon coming our way, animals in our room and being constantly lost in translating we did also manage to enjoy ourselves too. So here is a little piece about the things that were actually pretty enjoyable. And it was a lot! So instead of a top 5 I turned it into a top 10 for you guys. If you ever visit any of these places I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

1 // Hanoi - Pearl of the North
The capital city of Hanoi is located in the North of Vietnam where we started our month of traveling. This city has an old center which is buzzing and filled with local bars, street food and boutiques. And very important: Proper coffee! Hanoi is a little hipster. Wandering around the streets you get a good impression of what once was. The city still has a lot of French influences, you can see it in the old quarter, the well preserved architecture and buildings take you back to colonial times. But Hanoi is a modern metropole. It is a fast developing city, a great hub from which you can visit the Northern part of Vietnam: Sa Pa and Ha Long are just a few hours away. I loved the easy atmosphere and starting our trip from this city was great: the people were friendly and welcoming. It was easy to navigate the streets and get a glimpse of the Vietnamese culture. Art Galleries, street art and small fashion boutiques. It was making my creative heart all warm and fuzzy! Asian cities can be overwhelming but Hanoi was fun.

2 // Sa Pa - Green Oasis
The North of Vietnam is simply breathtaking. We traveled from Hanoi to visit Sa Pa with a sleeper bus. It takes only a few hours to get there so if you are traveling North I can recommend taking a bus in which you can actually sit. The sleeper bus is way too tiny for our western sizes. Safe yourself the backache! It was a pretty funny experience though. So many people packed in a tiny bus is always very amusing.

A home cooked meal
The village of Sa Pa is one you can skip. There is not a whole lot to do. If you visit Sa Pa make sure you book a place in the green ease Sa Pa is. We stayed in a small eco lodge, which wasn't very eco but the food was delicious and we had a tiny cabin overlooking the rice field. A beautiful view to wake up with. From the lodge we took a short hike to the small town of Lao Chai. Together with our Sa Pa guide we walked through the rice fields up to her family home where she and her sister-in-law made us a delicious lunch. Sa Pa is definitely a place to visit. Unfortunately we visit Sa Pa in the winter when it was all foggy and crazy cold. If you plan on going North, keep in mind that it can be extremely cold and rainy during winter time it is probably not the best time to visit. So happy we had an electric blanket to warm up during those cold evenings!

3 // Rice fields and mountains
Ninh Binh Provence is a great place to recharge. With it's karst mountains, caves and rice fields it is a great destination to take a little break and recharge. We had a tiny home stay lodge in a valley surrounded by rice fields. This area is a beautiful place for a hike or you can get around by bike to explore the wonderful landscapes. From here we cycled through the rice fields. And we also visit the Caves of Trang An by rowing boat. A three hour trip will take you through canals and caves leading to beautiful temples and pagoda’s.

4 // Magnificent caves in Phong Na National Park
I love being surrounded by nature. For me it is the ultimate way to recharge so I was a little sad when we only got to see some caves while visiting Phong Na National Park. We were, well, let’s call it ‘unlucky.’ The weather was too shitty to actually do all the things we wanted to do. This UNESCO world heritage park is lush and green and you can do all sorts of activities, take a dive within the caves, go climb the mountains or hike through the jungle. When I visit this National park, me and my friend could only do a day tour which meant we had to pick only two caves to explore. We did not have any more time and the weather limited our options. But nevertheless, what we saw was magnificent!

Phong Nha
All trips within this park were organized so we took a small boat with 4 other tourists to visit the Phong Nha cave. With our small boat we entered the magical underground cave river from where we could enjoy the cave in all it’s glory. The colors and shapes. The spectacular textures created by nature over time. Within the cave we got off the boat for a small hike climbing the grottoes and following the passage we walked until we saw daylight. Such a wonderful experience. But we still had another cave to see.

Paradise Cave
The Thiên Đường Cave, better known as the Paradise Cave. This cave has a length of 31 kilometers! Only 1 kilometer is open for tourists, but it gives you more than enough to see. The entrance is located high up the mountain and on a hot day the climb will definitely be a challenge. So bring some water and protect yourself from mosquitos while going up hill. When you enter this cave and have a first glimpse of the magnitude of this gem you will forget the struggle going up right away. The boardwalk will take you up to a kilometer in, and every few meters the cave changes in color & texture. Small pools of water reflect the pastel colors and the soft acoustics turn this cave in a magical unearthly landscape. Hopefully one day I have the chance to see more of this National Park. But the two caves were crazy mind blowing already. So if you want to see nature at it’s best, this is a must see place when you travel through the Northern parts of Vietnam.

5 // Street Food
Vietnam has a strong street food culture. Breakfast and lunch are mostly eaten on the street where little carts and stalls offer simple one dish meals that are cooked right in front of you. Every new day the little stools and tables are carefully installed near parks, crossings and along the busy roads. Small street corners turn into little outside restaurants and locals are sharing a meal and conversation before heading home around 9PM when everything get’s cleaned up again.

One of the reasons to visit Vietnam for me personally definitely is the food. I love the mix of herbs and spices they use and during our trip we couldn't get enough of it! The Pho noodle soup, the fresh spring rolls, shrimp dumplings. And of course the Bahn Mi. Every place you visit has it's own local specialty and we tried a whole bunch of them. What I didn't expect was the amount of meat Vietnamese eat.

For veggies Vietnam can be pretty difficult since all dishes are either based in meat or fish. When you order a veggie version they use a lot of tofu. Most dishes have a base of fish sauce, so if you order a dish and leave out the meat or fish to go veggie they also miss the base ingredient. I would recommend ordering lot's of vegetable side dishes so you can mix and match so your meal won't be too dull.

Vietnamese faves
The most famous meal of the Vietnamese must be the Pho Bo. Noodle soup with raw chunks of beef. This is considered to be a proper breakfast and we never skipped a day without a Pho Bo. There are super tasty ones with fresh herbs and veggies and more dull versions that only have noodles and beef. They are never the same. 

One of my other faves is the papaya salad. With lots of greens we simply don't have in Holland. Mustard leaves, lettuce, shrimp, sprouts, sesame seeds and peanuts form the base of this fresh salad. So delicious!

In Nimh Binh we stayed in a tiny town where goat meat was considered to be their specialty. I did not try it though, those burned full body animals presented on food carts on the side of the roads did not look very appealing to me. I am not a big meat eater so this was an easy one to skip. But Vietnamese food is very meat & fish based. It was hard to avoid both meat and fish. In Huè we first tasted shrimp pancakes. Definitely another high light food wise! With a fresh salad and cilantro and mint this dish was definitely one of my faves up until I tasted the Hoi An pancakes with similar ingredients but with a thin and crispy crust. Super yummy!

6 // Hoi An
We visit Hoi An after our second week in Vietnam after visiting the Northern part. During the first two weeks we managed to avoid the messy tourist places and actually thought we wouldn't be seeing many tourists for the weeks ahead. So when we entered the ancient city of Hoi An we were stunned. It felt like all tourists were centered in the small streets of this city. Mass tourism at it’s best. But it wasn’t all bad, the old town has quit a charm with it’s colorful lanterns and small alleys. And with tourists comes proper coffee. That’s a plus! Hoi An has a great street food culture and you can snack on every corner. It has a buzzing night market where you can find the local food: Vietnamese Pizza and ice rolls. Yum!

Made in Vietnam
And the city is famous for it’s tailored fashion. Shoes, wedding dresses, bikini's..., what is in your closet you wish you had another piece from? Let the Hoi An tailors recreate your fave pieces. I fell into the trap and found a girl who could make me the leather backpack I was looking for. I love handmade leather goods and carry my brown leather backpack everywhere. I was looking for a replacement but couldn't find one back home. With some small tweaks she created the perfect black backpack. There are some places that are just worth the trip even though it is packed with tourists and Hoi An is one of those places. it is easy, fun and there is lot's to see.

7 // Boat trippin’ - Cat Ba & Ha Long Bay
You have probably heard of Halong Bay, one of the most gorgeous bay's in the world. But it is also packed with tourists and we decided to go off the beaten track and visit the bay from Cat Ba Island. A small island south of Ha Long from which you can take a boat trip through the bay. The village of Cat Ba has lost it's glory, it is not the most inspirational place but a good alternative destination from which you can also visit the Cat Ba national park. A small hike leads you to one of the mountain tops from where you have a 360 degree view over the lush Cat Ba mountains. 

8 // Cooking class
Of course a great way to learn a thing or two about local cuisine is to take a cooking class. My friend and I took a class while staying in Hoi An. With a local cook we visit the food market in the heart of the city. We walked through the aisles and I was amazed by the amount of fruits, veggies and fish I had never seen before. We collected our ingredients for the day and took a bike ride to a small village outside of Hoi An to start cooking. It was fun to make some typical Vietnamese dishes, we prepared squid, spring rolls and pan cakes. Unfortunately I already forgot the recipes. Hopefully my friend still has them written down somewhere. I am such a sloppy student! Always have been.

9 // Mekong river and coconut islands
South of Ho Chi Minh City you can find the beautiful Mekong Delta. Most tourists visit the crowded My Tho area but after two days of Ho Chi Minh madness I needed a break from the chaos so we decided to go a little more South to avoid more masses of people.

Ben Tre
We stayed a little South from the Ben Tre village and from there we made a wonderful bike trip to a small island. We took the local ferry to visit an island filled with palm trees, mangroves and coconuts. The lush palm leaves protected us from the burning sun. And every few minutes we stopped to capture the beautiful plants, butterflies and flowers. Exactly what I needed!

Explore the Mangroves
You can also take a boat trip through the mangroves. Oh I am such a sucker for mangroves. What is not to love about trees and water? We visit the bee farm and visit a coconut farm and got to try some fresh honey tea and coconut candy. The Mekong huge and some area’s are packed with tourists. Vietnam tourist is very ‘stubborn.’ And it can be difficult to get off the beaten track but try to make your own path anyway. It is lovely to see the more remote area’s and dive into the real Vietnamese experience.

10 // Vietnam for hipsters
It took us a while to figure it out but Vietnam is pretty hipster. By 2020 Vietnam wants to be a developed country and you can see the country is working hard to meet those expectations. Everywhere you go new buildings are rising and modern concept stores, small fashion labels, art galleries, coffee shops and cocktail bars are popping up in dodgy area’s and old, crumbling buildings.

Preparing for the future

The young generation knows what’s going on and influences Vietnams progressive out look. In the cities you can find a proper latte and craft beer is on the menu. We visit the Pasteur Street brewery in Saigon and had a little beer tasting. It doesn’t get any more hipster than that! Times are changing and so is Vietnam. It is a wonderful mix of it’s complex past and inescapable future.

Whether you choose to visit Vietnam during winter or summer, the country is divers and there is so much to see and do. We were a bit surprised about the crazy cold Sa Pa nights and were not at all prepared for two weeks of cold weather. The climate change is also effecting Vietnam so pack warm clothes! I loved the green and easy North and traveling South we noticed the difference in culture and customs. Making the Southern part very different from the North. I am curious which part you like most. Drop a line of two if you have any comments and if you’d like to share your experiences with this surprising country.