Bike Rides & Home Cooking in Northern Vietnam

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Day 1 in Mai Chau

Vietnam: June 15th – 19th 2018

My sole regret from my travels in Asia, is not having enough time in Vietnam. Of course more time in Vietnam would have meant extending the trip significantly, since we barely had enough time in each place as it was. But the energetic (see: chaotic) vibe of Vietnam and the smiling, friendly faces of its many people made our short stay feel somehow much longer. The unique sense of community that persists in both cities and countryside alike, creates an inviting and invigorating atmosphere felt by any visitor. Its probably because of this that so many of the travellers Jordan and I met in Vietnam, had been exploring the country anywhere from two weeks up to two months. We tried our best to pack in as much Vietnam in our mere 5 days there, but visiting the capital city of Hanoi in the North, and the farming district of Mai Chau, though each charming and awakening for different reasons, was not enough to satisfy my cravings (and I don’t just mean my cravings for Pho).

After four days of partying with friends beach-side in Bali,  Jordan and I arrived solo in Hanoi for a few days of good eating, sight seeing and potentially some sleep, though our choice of hostel made the last item near impossible. Our hostel had come recommended by several friends who had stayed there for its fun, full-time party feel, and it certainly held true to that reputation. And we were all for that (highly recommended for meeting awesome people and a generally fun time in Vietnam). But we were also ready for a change of pace, to catch up on some amazing cultural eats and new explorations.

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The Old Quarter district in downtown Hanoi where our hostel was situated, is essentially the heart of the city. We didn’t have to stray far to find crowds of people drinking, eating, buying, selling and general madness. Although sleep was what we both wanted once we arrived in Hanoi, we couldn’t hit the sack in our 12 person dorm room without some local fare first. A restaurant a few business over from our hostel exceeded my long-awaited expectations and excitement for traditional Vietnamese Bún chà.  Similar to Pho –  rice noodles resting in a delicious broth with greens and pieces of meat like brisket –  bún chà is more of a ‘build your own bowl’ situation. Instead of everything being served together, the broth for bún chà is served on its own in a smaller bowl, and has a more acidic nature than pho. Our generous server at dinner showed us that in Hanoi, where the dish is said to have originated, you place some of your rice noodles and the ground pork patty directly in to the bowl of sauce with greens like coriander, letting all of the ingredients soak in for a brief moment. The broth’s mixture of vinegar, sugar and fish sauce softens and brines the noodles and pork, giving them a more flavourful and juicy texture than they would have on their own. I’ve always said that a bowl of Pho is like a warm hug for the soul, and our bún chà delivered that as well, exactly when we needed it. Filling, comforting and delicious, we fell asleep scary early after dinner – even in our loud hostel – but maybe that was just the Bali hangover kicking in.

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Hanoi is famous for their massive street market, and the amazing eats found there

One of the most well known things about Vietnam, is the insanity and chaos of their city streets.  People are always moving, in every which direction. Just watching a two way street will have your head spinning. There are no rules on their roads, anything goes. And its the overwhelming presence of bikes – both motor and bicycles – that allows for such chaos and lack of lane use. Theres no need to wait for other people, you just keep moving, squeezing in and by whenever needed.

Sights Around the City

Our first full day in Vietnam we braved these very streets, dodging motorists coming from every direction to make our way to ‘Bún Chà Huong Lien’, better known as the place Bourdain and Obama ate. This was, of course, one of my highlights from the entire trip. The Bourdain super-fan that I am, I was ecstatic about this lunch, and rightfully so. The food was amazing, somehow topping the bún chà from the night before, but even better than that was sitting in the restaurant.

The place was packed, as it usually is now since the famous pair visited. But Jordan being the crafty guy that he is, followed a tour group up the stairs of the restaurant, basically sneaking us up to get a table. The waitress looked displeased but ended up seating us, RIGHT BESIDE BOURDAIN’S TABLE, which had recently been enshrined due to his passing. We ordered two big bowls of bún chà and a few Bia Há Nôi (the local brew) and took many pictures. Without a doubt, best lunch of my life. I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire day.

Vietnam day 3 had an early start. After packing as much as we could of the city in to the previous day,  we chose to go on a 2 night, 3 day excursion to the farming district of Mai Chau to get the rural experience of Vietnam. About a 2 hour drive West of Hanoi, we landed around lunch time at Miss Tan’s homestay, located smack in the middle of a Mai Chau rice fields and surrounded by green mountains. A surreal view.

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Miss Tan’s homestay was welcoming and homey from the minute we arrived, and over our three days there Jordan and I created memories that won’t ever be forgotten. A traditional style Vietnamese farm house, it had just a few rooms on the ground level, an outside dining and living area and thin bamboo flooring making up the upper level for guest quarters. Surrounded by three identical homes, their tiny community/compound of neighbours and family, several dogs, and young kids running around and playing, was almost as crazy as the streets of Hanoi. After dropping our bags, Miss Tan and her sister brought us out a scoff of homemade dishes for lunch. Sticky rice, stir fried sprouts, barbecue chicken legs, fried tofu in tomato sauce, sautéed greens and ground pork balls rounded out our first taste of a home cooked Vietnamese meal.

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Jord digging in!

Soon after lunch we met our energetic tour guide Ben – a born and bred local with a love of rice wine and laughs – for an afternoon bike ride through the local community.  The immediate area from Miss Tan’s was mainly vast rice fields, open ranges of livestock like cows, goats and chickens, homes on stilts dotted here and there (which we learned was a traditional practice to keep wild mountain animals from entering farmer’s houses at night) and believe it or not, a karaoke bar that could be heard from like a mile away – even at 3 pm on a weekday. We learnt a lot from Ben in that afternoon about the traditions and practices of the community working together, especially during harvests throughout the year. And I like to think that he really liked us, since he invited us to stop in at his house on our way back to the homestay. We sat on pillows on the bamboo floor of his family’s 80 year old home that had been passed down through generations. He told us about his education at a University in Hanoi, how he met his wife there and now had a baby daughter. We ended the day with another incredible home cooked meal prepared by Miss Tan and her family, and round after round of rice wine shots with our generous hosts.

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Our second day in Mai Chau was the main event. Jordan and I had picked this excursion for the trekking day through Vietnam jungle and remote rice villages. We left in the morning for a 45 minute drive up and then back down a mountain to our trek starting point. On our way there the van pulled over suddenly and Ben got out excitedly. Jordan and I thought something was wrong until Ben explained that because it had down-poured the night before there were bound to be slugs squirming around on the mountain side to be cooked up for lunch. Ben said they were one of his favourite things to eat and told us we would get to try them come lunch time.

The trek was about two hours and was by no means an easy walk. We pushed through raw jungle, climbed up steep mountain sides and tip-toed along massive cliff side drops. Some parts weren’t quite as terrifying as we got to catch our breath and take in the natural beauty of the remote rice fields, mountains in the clouds and tiny 6 home villages nestled in among the landscape. I definitely can’t put these views in to words, so here’s some of the best photos from the trek that ended in our hearts pounding from hard work, risky pathways, and unforgettable glimpses at rural Vietnam. Oh and two very sweaty bodies.

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At the end of the trek we had lunch at a quaint homestay in the middle of a spectacular rice field. A home cooked meal from a different family had many similarities in terms of local flavour and ingredients, and of course more rice wine shots. (My stomach still turns at the thought of them, even after all this time). Jordan tried the fresh mountain slugs freshly picked by Ben, I unfortunately wasn’t feeling too great at the time so I had to pass – but I definitely would have, I’m a big escargot fan!

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The View During Lunch

Our final day in Mai Chau and Vietnam sadly arrived sooner than expected. We weren’t heading back to the city until late afternoon, so we had time for one last trip with Ben to a nearby lake. The real exciting part would be getting to drive there on motor bikes, for the first time of the trip! Jordan was ecstatic while Ben taught him how to drive the semi-automatic bike on Miss Tan’s driveway. After about a three minute lesson, we were ready to go. I definitely would have liked to learn how to drive my own motorbike, but to be honest I didn’t trust myself enough and the last thing I needed was to scrape up my body in rural Vietnam – so I opted to ride on the back –  which was thrilling enough for me.

Big Smiles on Day Three

If I ever make it back to Asia, and I really hope that I do, Vietnam is at the top of my list of places to visit. In our short 5 days there we were only able to see just a portion of Vietnam, theres just too much more to see and experience. The Hãi Vân pass, Ha Long bay, Ho Chi Minh city, Hôi An, Sa pà … With so many incredible places and some of the friendliest locals, its no wonder that Vietnam draws so many world travellers and keeps them coming back for more – and I would definitely like to be one of them again soon.

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