There are few images more romantic than lanterns floating down the river in Hoi An. The Full Moon Festival each month draws hundreds of tourists to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old town for what seems to be a quintessential experience in Vietnam. In fact, it’s so popular that the “festival” is no longer limited to the date of the full moon. You can find vendors selling lanterns to float on the river every single night in Hoi An. As I was preparing for my RTW trip, a blog post on Getting Stamped seeded my mind with questions. Is the Full Moon Festival an authentic cultural experience, or just a gimmick for tourists? More importantly, what happens to the hundreds of candles and paper lanterns that float down the river daily?
When I arrived in Vietnam, halfway through my RTW trip, I had very little knowledge of the country and few plans. I knew which cities I’d be stopping in for the next few weeks and that was about it. There are perks to traveling this way. The fewer expectations you have, the less likely you are to be disappointed. There’s a greater sense of discovery to not knowing exactly what you’ll find. But on the other hand, you risk missing out on some big stuff by not knowing enough about your options. Case in point: I didn’t know about Halong Bay until I was already on my way to Hanoi. As one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Vietnam, this natural attraction seemed like a must-do while in the country, but most itineraries recommended setting aside at least two or three days for an overnight junk boat cruise. Is it even possible to see Halong Bay in one day? While I definitely see why so many recommend a longer stay, the answer is yes – you can fit this bucket list attraction into a single day trip.
Hanoi was one of my favorite cities I visited on my RTW trip. I admittedly hadn’t entered Vietnam with high expectations – I was simply traveling overland through Southeast Asia and it made sense to go while I was in the area. Not knowing much about what I would find, I wound up completely entranced by Hanoi. It was one of the first places I felt I was experiencing a place totally unique and different to anywhere I had been before. Below are some of the things to do in Hanoi that made me fall head over heels for the city.
Take a walk
One of the most interesting things I found in Hanoi, and throughout Vietnam in general, is the street culture. Everything takes place right out on the sidewalks from shopping to dining to pedicures. While it can feel strange and overwhelming at first, I loved this openness – the sense that what you see is what you get. Simply taking a brief walk anywhere in Hanoi will show you so much of what daily life is like. Every corner you turn will reveal something new, whether it’s a shop packed to the gills with ornaments or a railway squeezed into an alley. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on crossing the street. Traffic, mainly composed of motorbikes, doesn’t stop for pedestrians. You have to take it inch by inch, letting the vehicles weave around you. It’s part threading a needle, part high stakes Frogger. There’s something of an art to walking around Hanoi, and it’s definitely a thrill. I think I now understand why people enjoy roller coasters.
Eat street food
The cornerstone of Vietnam street culture is the food. Every path you take is sure to be sprinkled with stalls dishing out pho, banh mi, or any number of tasty treats. This gentleman serves up fried bananas and sweet potatoes near the corner of Hang Ga and Bat Dan. If you’re worried about health and safety, you don’t need to be. Street food is actually great in that it affords you the opportunity to see the cooking spaces. When in doubt, look for locals. If you come across a busy stall, that means it’s safe and good quality. Dao Duy Tu has a particularly good concentration of popular street food stops. If you’re not keen to go it alone, you can join a street food tour and have a local show you the best places to eat in the Old Quarter.
Central to the Old Quarter of Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s useful for getting your bearings around town, the setting for a few attractions like Ngoc Son Temple and the water puppet theatre mentioned below, and most of all, a popular local hangout. Day or night, you’ll see tons of people taking a walk or simply sitting by the lake, and you’d be remiss not to slow down for an afternoon or evening to join them. Grab a milk tea and people watch.
Watch Water Puppet Theatre
Right next to Hoan Kiem Lake is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppets are a really unique style of performing art in Vietnam, and you’ll see many similar shows throughout the country, but Thang Long is one of the best, having been in operation since 1969. Traditional Cheo music accompanies puppetry telling various folkloric tales of old Vietnam with the occasional firecracker spark. With the puppeteers firmly out of sight and the puppets gliding and splashing throughout the water, the result is pretty impressive. The show is just an hour long, and there are several performances every day. Still, it’s best to swing by the box office in the morning as performances do sell out.
Take a rickshaw to the Temple of Literature
Contrary to its name, the Temple of Literature is not actually a temple but rather a university, founded in the 11th century and dedicated to the teachings of Confucius. Surprised to see a Chinese scholar in Vietnam? You shouldn’t be. Vietnam has a long colonial history having spent 1000 years under China’s rule, and has also been controlled by Japan and France. The Temple of Literature is far enough from the Old Quarter that it’s worth hiring a rickshaw, which is a bit of an experience in and of itself. While I enjoyed walking around Hanoi too much to do it frequently, being in a rickshaw once was a new way to see the city and it was the first time I felt comfortable haggling a bit. Once I was inside, I realized the trip was 100% worth it. Walking into the Temple of Literature is like crossing the threshold of another world. Hanoi can be so busy and loud and despite being smack in the middle of the city, the Temple of Literature is completely silent and peaceful. Everyone seems to sense this presence worthy of reverence and in the East, that clearly still counts for something. I have been to so many attractions in the Western world where visitors are asked not to speak out of respect for a sacred location or artifact – the Sistine Chapel comes to mind in particular – and the air is still full of whispers and camera shutters snapping. Here, nobody had to ask. There were so signs posted. And yet, everyone there was compelled to let that hush fall and simply take everything in.
Day trip to Ha Long Bay
Hanoi is a great base for exploring other areas of north Vietnam. The rice paddy-lined hills of Sapa are a popular destination for trekking and homestays, and I hope to visit there on a future trip, but with time for just one major excursion, I opted to go to Ha Long Bay instead. I had actually never heard of Halong Bay prior to visiting Vietnam, but it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the country’s greatest natural attractions. Limestone karst islands tower over emerald green waters, grand caverns sprinkled throughout. The name Ha Long refers to a Vietnamese myth in which a dragon spat jewels onto the water to protect the country from invasion. There is no end to the tour operators in Hanoi who can arrange a junk boat cruise on the bay for you. Most people recommend taking an overnight trip, and if you have the time, I can see how that would be a fantastic choice. If you’re able to go independently to Cat Ba island, that’s also a great way to see the area. But if you have limited time and want to squeeze it into a single day trip, that is absolutely possible and I plan on outlining how to visit Ha Long Bay in one day in a future post.
Staying in the Old Quarter was the best way to fit in these main things to do in Hanoi, and I’m sure there’s a lot more to the city I haven’t seen. Have you been to Vietnam? What were your favorite things to do in Hanoi? Tell me in the comments!
One of the most common questions I’m asked about my RTW trip is which countries had the best food. Greece and Thailand are both pretty high on my list, and those answers usually get met with understanding nods and only occasionally the glazed eyes of someone who’s sorry they asked me about food. But most people are very surprised to hear me throw Vietnam into the conversation. Western concepts of Southeast Asian cuisine are pretty heavily dominated by Thai food, and I’ll be honest – there is some overlap. But Vietnam’s cuisine stood out to me because the food in each city I visited truly had its own character. Each city seems to have a signature dish, each better than the last. Below are a few of my favorite meals and recommendations for what to eat in Vietnam.
Working while traveling is both challenging and enriching. Having freelance projects and this blog gave me more focus and purpose on my RTW trip, while also helping support the costs of that travel. I frequently booked accommodations that would allow me to work from my home away from home. I also stayed in a fair number of hostel dorms, and sometimes you get tired of catching side eye for being that chick who always seems to be on her laptop. What’s a digital nomad to do? Enter the WiFi cafe. As the number of remote workers in the world grows, so too does the number of places willing to let you buy a latte and settle in for the morning. In my Creative Professional’s Guides, I often highlight the best cafes to work from in destinations from London to Ljubljana. But there’s more to finding quality work cafes than a single online recommendation. Think about these criteria when assessing the work-friendliness of cafes in your destination.
If food is the best window into another culture, I’d maintain that the arts are the second best. Many of my most valuable travel experiences have come from engaging with local art, and I’m not talking about your average museum. I’ve learned how to paint mountains in the Blue Ridge, formed calligraphy characters in Japan, and, the most out of my comfort zone, spent a day weaving in Laos.
One of the best ways to travel on a budget is to steer clear of destinations in high tourist demand and instead go off the beaten path. Few places in my travel history have been as off the beaten path as Laos. The Southeast Asian country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam has just enough of a tourism industry to ensure I’d be able to find places to stay, things to do, and restaurants to eat, while keeping the price of all those things under $30 per day. See the full breakdown of what I spent below.
In preparing for the Southeast Asian leg of my RTW trip, I read a lot of horror stories about the slow boat to Laos. The three-day journey from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos seemed to have been a trying experience for many. At the same time, it seemed the most reasonable way to get into a landlocked, less developed country. A bus between the two cities would have been unbearably long, and a direct flight wasn’t quite in my budget. Plus, deep down, I felt the need to see just how bad it really was.
Either things have changed or the blogs I read about the slow boat were way overblown accounts of people who didn’t manage their expectations well. The couple of days I spent cruising down the Mekong River were an absolute highlight of my time in Southeast Asia! But if you don’t know what you’re getting into, I can see how it would be a shock to the system. Read up on the details of taking the slow boat to Laos and decide whether it’s for you.
I’m not sure I can count all the ways taking a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai was the best idea. I love Thai food and enjoy cooking at home, which is a bit of a luxury on the road, especially in Southeast Asia. (Most of the hostels I stayed in there didn’t have much in the way of kitchen facilities, unlike similar properties in Europe.) Perhaps more importantly, food is one of the best windows into other cultures, and recipes make incredible souvenirs.
The blog grapevine pointed me to Mama Noi Cookery School, and so I devoted one of my last days in Chiang Mai to their full day Thai cooking class. Like most cooking classes, we started with a visit to the local market, where an instructor pointed out ingredients particular to Thai cuisine like galangal and kaffir lime leaf. After a few minutes to wander on our own, we drove out to the classroom, set in an organic garden.
I had about a half dozen classmates, mostly Americans, which is always surprising to me. We seem to come few and far between on the budget backpacker trail. We each had a menu to select which dishes we’d make in each of several categories. For the rest of the day, we’d cook and eat plates two at a time.
Soup: Chicken in Coconut Milk
Although we all made our dish selections individually, we still cooked as a group. Our instructor was really skilled at balancing the needs of the group, and the structure of each lesson was well thought out with many steps being similar for different dishes. She also had a pretty sharp sense of humor and as she was dividing our group into teams (people who had chosen the same dish), she dubbed my group making the mild chicken in coconut milk soup the “Baby Team.” A mother and daughter preparing a sour and spicy soup were “Mama Team,” while the lone gentleman making the ultra spicy hot and sour prawn soup became “Sexy Man” for the rest of the day. Lesson one about Thai cooking: spice is sexy.
Stir Fry: Pad Thai
The quintessential Thai dish, practically everyone in my group chose to make Pad Thai as our stir fry. Other options were cashew chicken or a stir fried chicken with basil. But seriously, who could resist the call of spicy rice noodles doused in peanuts? I don’t think I ever realized just how many ingredients go into a proper Pad Thai, several of which I’d never worked with before. Palm sugar, dried baby shrimps, and pungent shrimp paste were all on the menu. Once everything was prepped, we headed to the stovetop, where you had to be ready to put in some work. You want a good Pad Thai? You have to put your whole body into stirring the wok.
Curry: Massaman Curry
If you had told me a year ago, I’d make my own curry paste from scratch, I wouldn’t have believed it. But one mortar and pestle, and 10 minutes of some serious elbow grease turned that particular culinary achievement from “I’d never” to “I did.” Most Thai curries are red, made with dried chiles, and green, made with fresh chiles, which makes green curry the spiciest style of curry. I opted for something I wasn’t already familiar with: Massaman curry. Cinnamon and star anise are added to a basic array of curry ingredients for a mild to moderately spiced, Indian influenced dish. Other options included Penang curry – a thick and sweet red peanut curry – and Khao Soy curry, another novelty to me. Khao Soy is totally unique among Thai curries because it is served with crispy egg noodles rather than rice.
Thai Iced Tea
To tame the heat from our curries, we also made Thai iced tea. The leaves for Thai tea really do produce that bright orange-red color, and sweetening with condensed milk rather than sugar is a must. I’ve tried to make Thai iced tea at home before and it’s always been close but no cigar. Lots of sweetened condensed milk is the key.
Fried Spring Rolls
I’ve always been a little terrified of deep frying. I’m still not sure I can bring myself to stick a vat of boiling oil in my kitchen, but I was really happy with how my fried spring roll turned out in cooking class. Rather than everyone making a full serving of spring rolls, we worked as a group. One guy volunteered to work the wok to cook the filling we would all share. We each took a wrapper, learned the right way to fold, and then fried our rolls in batches of two to three before topping it with a sweet chile sauce.
Appetizer: Green Papaya Salad
This was another category that nearly every member of the class agreed on. Green papaya salad is one of northern Thailand’s most famous dishes. Green papaya itself doesn’t have much flavor, but it’s just the right texture for creating long, thin, almost noodle-like strips to be doused in a sour and spicy dressing. I was a little surprised to learn this salad is prepared in a large wooden mortar and pestle. Other appetizers on the menu were a spicy ground chicken salad and a glass noodle salad.
Dessert: Mango Sticky Rice
Ever seen sticky rice that looks like it’s been dyed a completely unnatural color? It’s not unnatural! Our final lesson of the day, dessert, kicked off with making natural food dyes for bright blue and green sticky rice. The green coloring comes from pandan leaves, which are mildly fragrant and sweet but unlike any ingredient you’d find in the west and thus somewhat indescribable. The blue comes from butterfly pea flowers, which have a host of homeopathic applications and are often found in Southeast Asian beauty products as well as treats like sticky rice. For both colorings, you chop and crush them in a little water and squeeze out all the pigment you can. If you add a little lime juice to the butterfly pea flower dye, it will change from bright blue to a gorgeous purple. Our dyes went right into a sweetened coconut milk mixture on the stove which we stirred glutinous rice into, to be served alongside a fresh mango. Sesame seeds and mung beans went on top for a little extra crunch. Most of our group made mango sticky rice, but there were a couple less popular desserts also on the menu like fried bananas and a dish called “red rubies” – a uniquely textured dessert made from water chestnuts and coconut milk.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the day was getting sent home with a cookbook, so we each got all the recipes regardless of what we chose to make that day. Like I said – recipes make the best souvenirs.
This is still simply scratching the surface of Thai food. Read up on more awesome dishes in this quick foodie guide to Bangkok.
Thailand may have been the first travel destination I ever became aware of. My dad grew up as an army brat and spent three years of his childhood in Bangkok. So I grew up hearing endless stories of the former kingdom of Siam. Naturally, no matter what the country’s reputation in the larger travel community was, I would have carried a big soft spot for Thailand. But I’ve been lucky enough to not only get to know my dad’s childhood home, but to also discover a country famed for its convenient and budget friendly travel. How much does it cost to explore Bangkok and Chiang Mai? I break down every dime I spent from airfare and accommodations to every last Thai iced tea I sipped on.