Vietnam Take Two: Hoi An and HCMC

Boats on the river along Hoi An.

In Vietnam part one, we told you about Hanoi, which is vibrant, full of history and architecture, and generally worthy of a considerable amount of time
stay-wise. Sadly, we had only a couple of days before we took a $30 flight to Hoi An (yes, $30, and here is where I tell you I’m insanely jealous of our fellowship counterparts in southeast Asia, who can jet around the region for almost nothing).

Hoi An Street.

We decided to go to Hoi An almost exclusively based on the fact that our friend Sarah went there five years ago and loved it. We remembered almost nothing about why she loved it, but I’m happy to report that she did not lead us astray. Hoi An is in the center of the country (Hanoi is in the north), situated on a delta that abuts the East Vietnam/South China Sea. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means that its old town is protected goods, and a number of old buildings have been preserved. Hanoi has Indochinese architecture, but it’s unabashedly layered into a modern hive of activity, so that sometimes you have to squint to see the bones of a particular building. Hoi An, on the other hand, has had its look totally preserved. Old houses along winding alleys are now home to restaurants and shops, which sell everything from tourist kitsch to art to bespoke clothing to fair-trade handiwork. Probably goes without saying that it’s a tourist mecca. Imagine the well-preserved little villages of, say, Italy or France, and you have some idea what Hoi An is like. SUPES CHARMING, is what I’m trying to say, if a little overrun.

Bourdain declared this the best banh mi in Hoi An, so we went to judge his judgment.
Bourdain declared this the best banh mi in Hoi An, so we went to judge his judgment.

Hoi An was an excellent place to relax, so our activities included poolside coconuts, a bike ride to the beach, and eating at some fantastic restaurants (Hoi An is known, in particular, for its food). Best meals were at Phuong, a just-outside-of-Old-Town banh mi shop made famous by Anthony Bourdain (Tony got this one right — damn good banh mi — although I liked the bread at Banh Mi 25 in Hanoi a bit better) and Morning Glory, a stalwart of the dining scene here that turns out upmarket versions of Vietnamese street food. The cao lau, a Hoi An specialty of fat noodles and tender pork, was particularly good here — it was studded with crackling pork skin and sown with cinnamon.

Damn good dish at Morning Glory
Damn good dish at Morning Glory

I (Laura) also had a massage that bruised both my back and my ego: I went post-workout (but also post-bathing because I’m not an animal), and was still sweaty, so the nice lady at the front asked timidly if I’d like to have a shower before I got started. Somewhat baffling, given I’d paid extra to sweat in the sauna pre-massage (turned out that was money down the drain — almost passed out from the extra heat…delicate workout flower).

We had to buy a ticket to get into old town (I think? Possibly just to walk down one street? Unclear), which included entrance into some of the old temples, houses, and the assembly hall. Those were cool glimpses inside some of the buildings, but the thing that really stuck with me was at one old house, the guide told us every year the delta floods and the entire bottom floor of this building is under water. Nothing they can do about it; they just move the furniture upstairs when it’s been raining really hard for a couple of days. Then I noticed the dates of the annual floods pretty much aligned with the dates we were in Hoi An.

So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when the next night, we were caught in an unbelievable downpour — I swear the river rose like six feet in basically seconds, but I am a terrible judge of things like that, and Rob gently scoffed at that analysis. We were attempting to check out the night market when the sky opened up, and we suddenly found ourselves standing in inches of water. Sadly, the rain also meant we couldn’t bike to the surrounding villages, which are known for things like pottery. A future trip.

Onto Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) (on another $30 flight). What a contrast! You can still certainly see some remnants of French influence in HCMC, but this is really a city — vibrant, growing, modernizing quickly. We had a lot of people tell us HCMC is the least interesting place in Vietnam, so that’s what we’d axed, and while I don’t totally regret our choice given our insane time constraints, I certainly think that’s an unfair categorization. Hanoi and Hoi An definitely have more sites to see, but HCMC strikes me as a place you want to try on for a while.

Beer-filled oasis above the street chaos
Beer-filled oasis above the street chaos

So how did we deal with our unfortunate lack of time? We ate, of course. First order of business was a beer at Pasteur Street Brewing Company, whose brewers came from Colorado’s Upslope.  Really one of the only craft brewers in the country, I think — we looked for craft beer in Hanoi, but didn’t really find it. Solid suds, and a nice pairing menu that included a good crispy fried chicken.

Then we attempted to hit Cho Lon, Saigon’s Chinese market, for lunch, only to find, sadly, that the food stalls had pretty much shut down for the afternoon. Cue another downpour. We wandered through the massive labyrinth of the market, exploring spices and nuts, shoes and kitchenwares, for a little while before bailing into a cab and making good on our goal to eat Mexican food in every country we visit.

These nachos: totally right yet totally wrong. That margarita: on the money.
These nachos: totally right yet totally wrong. That margarita: on the money.

Scouring the internet for a promising spot led us to La Fiesta, a Tex-Mex joint that, it turns out, is owned by a native Texan and his Vietnamese wife. Dish authenticity, therefore, was both completely on point yet totally Vietnamified — for example, because it’s hard to get tortilla chips in Saigon, I imagine, La Fiesta made its own, I’m assuming right down to grinding the corn into masa, because the chips in the nachos were oddly thick. The queso, too, had clearly been made not by melting Velveeta, as I’m sure it is in much of Texas, but by making an approximately correct homemade molten cheese sauce. We found this oddly charming — somehow better than if the restaurant had been a by-the-book authentic Tex-Mex experience. Helped that its frozen strawberry margaritas were 100 percent money and on happy hour. I wanted a pitcher — Rob said no because marathon, not sprint.

Our gastro-tour concluded with dinner at Cuc Gach Quan, an appropriate finale. This restaurant is tucked into a colonial mansion, which has been romantically reimagined into a maze of low-lit rooms that look like they walked out of an Anthropologie catalog (and if that means nothing to you, imagine a space built with wall-to-wall lovingly collected artifacts, some creatively repurposed into chandeliers, table dividers, or wallhangings; also, the dishes do not match, and everyone dining there looks like they walked off a movie set — including the French people next to us, some of whom were actually in tuxes and ball gowns). The massive menu offered refined takes on Vietnamese home-cooking, so we dipped into clay pot pork, sautéed morning glory, and fish with lemongrass.

Then we rolled home to our windowless hotel room (last time Rob gets to book the hotel for us — we saved, like, $7 by not having a window) and out to Thailand the next day. More on Thailand in another post or two. I leave you with this photo of Rob in a sweet hat, which, regrettably, he did not buy.

"I don't know, gold seems a bit ostentatious." Silver, would have been fine, except that the painted-on image looked like an Ed Hardy knock-off. Sigh.
“I don’t know, gold seems a bit ostentatious.” Silver would have been fine, except that the painted-on image looked like an Ed Hardy knock-off. Fashion is hard.

One thought on “Vietnam Take Two: Hoi An and HCMC”

  1. Thanks for the fascinating update, Laura! I’m glad I already ate breakfast or I would be rushing to the kitchen after seeing so many mouthwatering meals! Wow! I’m shocked Rob did not buy the hat!

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