After Hong Kong, I left for Vietnam. Out of all the Asian countries I ventured to on this trip, I was most excited for Vietnam. I was looking forward to the amazing food and speaking Vietnamese the most. Vietnam is actually the first foreign country outside of North America that I've visited. I was a teenager with my family visiting relatives in Ho Chi Minh City. This time, I explored northern Vietnam (where I have no relatives) and spent a week in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. I also made a 2 night excursion to Halong Bay. Northern Vietnam is more low key and less "city" than Ho Chi Minh City, which I loved. My friend and I stayed in Old Quarter, the heart of Hanoi, which is made up of narrow streets filled with street vendors (oh the food!!!), souvenir shops, coffee shops, and french influenced architecture. There is definitely a chaos to the city. Crossing the street alone is adventure as motorbikes are plentiful and traffic lights are not. Knowing the language also gave me a huge advantage - it helped me get better deals when bargaining and got me into museums for free!
The important highlight I want to discuss is food. Street food is essentially EVERYWHERE and unavoidable. However, there are restaurants you can dine in. They just tend to be more expensive and not as delicious. For those who want the restaurant experience, there is a chain called Net Hue that is popular but it was probably my least favorite food experience. Every other meal I had, other than the ones in the hotels, was street food and was phenomenal and extremely inexpensive. Each meal was a few US dollars. And each vendor is typically known for a specific Vietnamese dish - Banh Xeo, Mi Xao, Banh Cuon, Goi Cuon, Bun Bo Hue, etc. etc. etc. My mouth is just watering listing out these dishes...
Vietnamese coffee (ca phe) is also a MUST. Ca phe is made using medium to coarse grown dark roast Vietnamese-grown coffee with a small metal Vietnamese drip filter (phin) and sweetened condensed milk, which is basically sugar and milk. It can be served hot or iced. Egg coffee is also widely served across Hanoi cafes with the most famous cafe being Giang Cafe. It's ca phe with the addition of egg yolks which gives it a creamier texture. It is quite delicious! If you want to buy a phin and Vietnamese ground coffee, the most popular brand is Trung Nguyen. Trung Nguyen has cafes throughout the city and they sell both their own brand of coffee (packs you can take home) and phins.
Dong Xuan Market is a large, well-known market in Hanoi in the Hoan Kiem district. You can find tons of vendors and stalls with all kinds of souvenirs and snacks like dried fruits, nuts, candies. My favorite part about the market is the food court! It's actually not even inside the market. You have to walk out the back of the market across the street and straight onto a very narrow walkway. It is lined on both sides with vendors and tiny restaurants selling the most amazing Vietnamese dishes. Some of them specialized in just one kind of noodle dish or only desserts. We picked a very tasty noodle place but every single one of them looked amazing.
Halong Bay is a beach town about a 4-5 hour drive from Hanoi, depending on how fast your driver is. There are no trains in the area so the only way to get there is to have someone drive you by taxi, coach bus, or a hired tourist van. Most tourists will book tours from Hanoi that will include van transportation and activities to and in Halong. This is what I recommend for everyone who visits. I was adventurous and went with a very local and budgeted experience since I know the language. My friend and I took a bus from the Hanoi Bus Station, which only cost us $5 USD each. But we took a taxi from our hotel in Old Quarter to the station and as soon as we got there, the chaos was in full force. With everyone pouncing at us to attract our business, I accidentally dropped my cell phone in the cab as we were leaving and didn't realize it until we got onto our bus. For the rest of the trip, I didn't have a phone and this was only day 3 in Vietnam. I didn't let it get to me because at least I still had my cameras!
Halong was very beautiful but expensive compared to Hanoi because it's kinda in the middle of nowhere. And not everyone speaks English in town. Seafood was amazing there but you have to haggle with restaurants on prices which I thought was strange. Beaches are pretty and the scenery is gorgeous but I didn't get to go to the famous Cat Ba Island. Had I planned the trip better, I would have booked a tour to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi. Something I'll do the next time I'm back!