Vietnam happened almost two years ago. Between these two years, Kali and I have been to fairly numerous places yet whenever we start talking about our past travels, Vietnam is the place that keeps popping up in our conversations. Is it because Vietnam was the most anticipated trip of that year (being our honeymoon of sorts)? Or, is there something unique about the southeastern country that has indeed captivated both our senses once and for all?
This is 2020. I am writing at a time when the entire world is gripped by the COVID-19 virus. While there’s mayhem everywhere, I decided to take this quarantine positively and introspect on some ideas that demand action. However, instead of brainstorming on the pending assignments, the lazy bee in me simply plunged into the plethora of photographs in one of our HDs. Lo and behold, it was time for another Vietnam playback.
As many of you might know, Kali is a wonderful photographer, who never misses capturing any beautiful moment. While going again through the images, I found each of the photographs to be drenched in so many memories – of the late evening walks in cool Sapa, of the little “King Kong” joke that we and one of our friends we made along the way shared on that balmy evening in Ha Long Bay, of the little laughter we shared with a cafe attendant in Hanoi. Some pictures may seem absolutely simple to others but to us is simply priceless.
As I went ahead and revisited the memories, I wondered what is it about Vietnam that made us fall in love with the country? Instantly, I could pinpoint at so many things – in fact, the list is pretty inexhaustible. Hence, we thought why not share our top five things to experience in Vietnam you so that you can make the most of your time while on a vacation there and make loads of memories like we did.
1. We lost and found our way thanks to the sweetest people of Vietnam
Whenever we think of Vietnam, a mixed bag of emotions rush through our spines. When we booked the tickets and planned our stays, we hadn’t deliberately prepped for the inter-destination travels – so severely bitten we were by the adventure bug. However, what we didn’t know that language was going to be pretty much of a barrier! From then on adventure didn’t quite leave us – from being stranded on the highways waiting for the bus to roaming about in the city aimlessly to board the night train (yea, we did book the train tickets beforehand), the list is just aimless. But, do you know what kept our spirits high and didn’t let us feel insecure even for a bit – it was the sweetness and utmost generosity that we received from strangers.
The locals may not speak your language, but they are always eager to communicate with you and help you out amid a crisis. Little gestures, like communicating our destinations on behalf of us to the cabbie sans asking for it or making space for us in a crowded bus or opening a cafe hurriedly before time to accommodate us from torrential rain, sometimes strike such deep chords in your heart that you don’t know when the main highlight of your trip begins to revolve more around the people than anything else.
2. Can we just appreciate the unfathomable beauty of Ninh Binh?
We have always loved to plan all the trips by ourselves. We generally pinpoint the main destination and chalk out our plan around it. However, for Vietnam it was different. I had seen some photographs of the rice fields at Tam Coc earlier and was quite adamant of visiting Tam Coc no matter what. The plan was laid out accordingly, but what we weren’t prepared for was the unfathomable beauty we were awaiting. Ninh Binh, which loosely translates to the land of a sleeping dragon, is an ancient town famous for its majestic rivers cascading across lush paddies, intercepted by enchanting limestone hillocks.
Whenever I talk about Ninh Binh with my friends or family, I find myself at a loss of words (I’m pretty much articulate otherwise when it comes to describing travel destinations). So, I won’t bore you guys with the same adjectives over and over again. Hence, leaving you with these photographs from our trip.
If you’ve been wowed by Ninh Binh so far, let us tell you it’s just a prelude to the natural wonders that Vietnam boasts of. From being a land of impregnable caves and vibrant deltaic regions to boasting of awe-inspiring red sand dunes of Mui Ne, Vietnam is a magical paradise still waiting to be explored.
3. The unique Vietnamese train journeys that take you back in time.
If you’ve seen photographs from Vietnam, the quintessential image of a train rushing literally through the busy streets of Hanoi would probably have attracted your attention. I was guilty of admiring the image a little bit too much to the extent that I booked train tickets from Hanoi to Lao Cai the first thing after I had my flight tickets confirmed. Now, did I make a mistake? Absolutely, NOT!
The Hanoi to Lao Cai railway route remains exactly the same as laid down by the French in 1910. Hence, the trains (which are generally overnight luxury trains) also resemble the old wooden coaches we are used to seeing in classic and period films. We were traveling by the Orient Express – it had plush wooden interiors, comfy seats, and well-mannered attendants. We were also given fruit baskets and mineral water bottles on arrival. And talking about the journey – it’s unlike any that we’ve traveled in so far! It’s pretty much like a joyride – perhaps tad bit faster! Sadly, since we boarded a night train and was sharing the room with an elderly couple, we didn’t click any photograph of the train.
4. Coffee addict or no; Vietnamese Coffee deserves a special mention.
Before I elaborate on why Vietnamese Coffee deserves a special mention, let us have a look at what coffee means to the locals here. Is it just coffee that we’re to talk about?
Well, let’s go back to the First Indochina War (also known as the anti-French Resistance War in Vietnam held in 1946) that had wreaked havoc on the then French colony, Vietnam. Among the numerous episodes of mayhem and crisis faced by the locals, there came a critical juncture, which saw an immense shortage of milk in the country. So, what do people do in such a situation? Do they give up their share of the aromatic home-grown robusta coffee? Of course, NOT! So, a person named Nguyen Van Giang thought of a genial alternative. Instead of topping the local filtered espresso with the regular milk and sugar, Giang used condensed milk beaten with egg yolks. And thus, was born the famous Vietnamese Egg Coffee or the “Ca phe trung” – easily one of the most celebrated (and tastiest) coffee recipes we’ve ever tasted.
This little story gives a fairly nice idea about how the Vietnamese love their coffee. No matter whether you’re a coffee connoisseur or just like to have coffee occasionally, the Vietnamese robusta variety coffee is sure to make your days brighter and nights livelier. We might not even be self-proclaimed coffee connoisseurs but both Kali and I love our coffee – value its bitter-soft aroma and the silky texture.
And no; you don’t get only egg coffee in Vietnam. Their regular lattes, cold coffee, and even coffee smoothies taste absolutely out of the world even in the smallest of cafes. Some of our favorite cafes in Vietnam are the Cong Cafe (across the country), Cafe Giang, and the Note Coffee (one of the quirkiest cafes we’ve been to) in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, and Cafe Sapa in Sapa. If you’re looking for some souvenirs, you can get the Nguyen Trung coffee both from the stores dotted across the country and from the airport. But no matter what you do, make sure tasting the Vietnamese coffee feature in your ‘top things to experience in Vietnam’.
If you’re intrigued to know more about Vietnamese coffee, this article is pretty good.
5. Did you just say Beer? The local beer of Vietnam will sweep you off your feet.
If there’s one thing that makes both me and Kali go weak on our knees, it has to be beer. To say that we love beer is an understatement – it’s more of emotion to us. And so, when we arrived in Ninh Binh after nearly 30 hours of travel, all we need was some chilled beer. Interestingly, when the menu arrived, we saw not the names of famous beer brands much; rather the menu comprised of local beers, which are generally named after famous locations across the country. The first-ever beer we tried there was the Bia Hanoi, and we’re already looking forward to tasting more varieties. Although Bia Hanoi was not really out-of-the-box, it was still much better than many celebrated beer brands we have tasted so far.
Since that day, we tried the Bia Saigon, Bia Lao Cai, and Bia Ha Long among many others. We specifically loved the Bia Saigon (Green), its mild aroma and fine balance of flavors would be an instant pick-me-up after long days (take me back to Vietnam, please!).
If you happen to visit any city in Vietnam, you would find everyone – from college students to the elderlies – sitting on low stools on the pavements, enjoying a chilled beer. Some might be alone reading the newspaper, while others might be raising a toast together with friends or colleagues – the local Vietnamese beer giving company to them all in happiness and in the gloom.
So, here was our little ‘top things to experience in Vietnam’. Have you visited the country? Or, is there any place that has stayed on with you even after years? Do share your experiences with us and make this community a happy place. And if you’re interested to know more about our trip in detail – where to go and what to expect – you can find it here.