$25 + 2 ice creams

For our 3rd trip to Vietnam we had to make a stop here to fill up on our favourite Vietnamese foods and wander the now familiar Ancient town.  One of us seems to really like Hoi An…. and understandably so.  It’s a lovely place with really great food, where you can have fun designing your own clothes.   

We stayed at the same Tea Garden Homestay as last year and as soon as we got out of the car, the owner, Than, immediately recognized Jen.  "Jennnnyyyy!!", she squealed out, and ran to give Jen a big hug.  It was super cute.  Than's family treats us like family while we're there... they invite us to join them for family dinner and make special trips to bring us the best Pho in the city for breakfast.  They even gave us gifts when we departed (a tie for Dom and silk scarf for Jen), and refused to charge us for the last night even though we stayed in the room until 1AM waiting for our overnight train (we still insisted on paying, and managed to settle at half).  Things like this are what keep us coming back even though Hoi An isn't exactly an "easy stopover" on the way to Mui Ne.

We were planning to give our favourite foodie tour guide, Neville, a shout to see what great new foods/restaurants he'd discovered since last year, but he was on vacation in Australia at the time.  Instead, we frequented our usual stops... the Banh Mi Queen and the Laugh Cafe (because White Sail is now gone :(( ).

During our past visits, we discovered that when getting tailored clothes made, it’s really hard to get good results when trying to explain any new or custom designs that you want.  This trip, we went with the flow and made the best of the tailoring culture here.  They are awesome at making copies, so we brought clothes that we like (that we can't buy anymore) and had them successfully copied!  

Our experiment from last year also worked out well, so we continued with our line of designer, convertible dress-pants :)  Being our third year making clothes here, you'd think we'd be able to get some real bargains, but they are really tough bargainers!!  Fortunately, they're also super nice and a lot of fun...

After a gruelling negotiation, Dom finally managed to settle his dress-pants for $25.. plus 2 ice-creams! :)

Returning to Tasty Hoi An

We were sad to leave our friends behind in Mui Ne, but our tastebuds were comforted (and watering) at the fact that we were on our way to the culinary capital of Vietnam.  After a 15-hour overnight train ride, we finally reached our favourite city in Vietnam - Hoi An. 

Having already seen/done everything when we were here last year, our sole purpose of making this 15hour detour back was to (repeatedly) revisit all of our favourite restaurant, and to repeat the most memorable day-tour we had been on in SE Asia - "The Last Great Taste of Hoi An".  Since we had been on the tour before, we were already experts at all of the historic stories and cultural trivia, but repeating the tour was totally worth it.  The food was just soooo soooo good!!

Neville, the owner and guide of the Great Taste of Hoi An, was happy for us to return so he even invited us to go for dinner with them at one of his favourite restaurants: "The End Of The World Restaurant"… conveniently located just a boat ride away.

Hoi An is also a really great place to have tailored clothing made.  We decided to be a bit creative this year... 

One of our biggest complaints when shopping for travel clothes is that they all make you look like a tourist - pants are always cargo-style in same boring grey or light beige colour, convertible pants have big tourist pockets and zippers.  They're totally practical being made of breathable quick-dry materials and having zippers to make them into shorts.. but they always look so touristy!  Since our tailor-made wool dress pants from last year turned out really well, we decided to have more made.. but with a little tweak.. 

After a bit of explanation and a few adjustments, we managed to get what we wanted: Convertible (breathable wool) Dress Pants! that don't look too touristy!  Our next step is to see how well they hold up in the real world :) 

X-Mas in Vietnam

After such a great X-Mas in Mui Ne last year, we just couldn't resist going back and escaping the Canadian cold.  We were excited to see and hang out with all the great people we met last year in Vietnam. 

Thanks to Peter and Phong, we manage to go back to the same hotel as the previous year (which was 1 minute from the beach).  We quickly settled back into our simple routine: eat, drink, sleep, work, kitesurf, repeat.  

The wind this year was very unusual for the area.. weaker and with several no-wind days in a row, but we still managed to have many great kitesurfing days nonetheless.  After 2 months, we can definitely say that our kitesurfing skills have improved.

Here is a video update of Dom's mad new kitesurfing ninja skills:

It was another successful Xmas adventure abroad.  We're happy to have some more awesome new memories of the great times we had with everyone here.

Heroes vs Villains

After 2 weeks in Vietnam, our friend Steve (whom we met in Greece), organized a "Heroes vs Villains" theme party for his birthday.  Finding supplies in the small town of Mui Ne, Vietnam, to make a last minute costume is a bit of a challenge!!  ...but everyone managed to pull off some great costumes in the end - we were impressed.

Cruising Halong Bay

Halong Bay is situated 4 hours west of of Hanoi and is one of the most popular and appreciated destinations in Vietnam.  The main attraction is a leisurely cruise aboard a Junk (flat-bottomed sailing vessel with a prominent stem and lugsails), amidst the 1,969 islands/karsts that populate the bay.

The tough question is: "Which company/boat should you choose?".  There are hundreds of companies that offer Halong Bay cruises for all budgets.  As much as the reviews show the cruises are loved, they are also hated by a lot of people: crowds / too many boats in the bay, rats/cockroaches in the boats, sinking boats, bad food or crew, etc..  We were lucky enough to run into a family in Hoi An who highly highly recommended Indochina Junk.  Indochina Junk is currently the only company that is licensed to cruise and stay in Bai Tu Long Bay - a less frequented part of Halong.  Since the cruise also included activities such as kayaking, swimming, visiting caves & visiting a fishing village, we were sold and booked a 3 day 2 night cruise.  Unfortunately, since it's high season and Indochina Junk has such a good reputation, it meant waiting an extra 3 days in Hanoi before their next availability….but it was worth the wait.

Unlike other Halong Bay cruises where you will encounter hundreds of boats at each stop, we only saw a handful.  One sad thing that we found out is that since April 2012, the government decided that all tourist Junks in Halong Bay must be painted white instead of showing their natural teak colours.  It's too bad because it makes the boats look more like yachts, instead of traditional Junks (even if nowadays the sails are just for show).
During the cruise, we stopped a couple of times to paddle around the islands in sea kayaks and enjoy a quick swim in really cold water :)
 On our second day, we also visited one of the Halong bay fishing villages where we were welcomed and served tea by the village leader.  These village were built by the locals so that they could seek shelter during typhoon and live with their family. Surprisingly, the village we visited was only founded 20 years ago.  Prior to that, the families just lived in their small fishing boats and anchored their boats in that area at night.  Now that they've built a floating village, there are several houses, a fish farm, and even a school.  Most of the buildings are made on land and then dragged 30km to the floating village where they are then anchored to the island.  
For our last dinner, we were treated to a romantic, candle-lit, seafood BBQ, inside a cave on one of the islands.


The food was excellent and the crew spoiled us with their service.  For each meal, the chef made some amazing vegetable carvings and on the last day, did a quick demo of how they do the carvings… it was pretty cool (even if he occasionally cheated by using a bit of super glue ;)) 
Lastly, here are a few stats about our boat: The Dragon Pearl 2 is made of teak and took about 2 years to build.  It has 11 rooms (each with private bathroom and hot water), 2 dining rooms (one indoor, one outdoor), and a sun deck that we couldn't take full advantage of since it was pretty cold outside (fortunately we at least managed to get a half-day of sun).  Our cruise had 17 passengers and about 13 crew including a guide, captain, 3 cooks, 4 waiters, bartender, and boat manager.  

We thoroughly enjoyed our experience away from the crowds with Indochina Junk, and recommend it to anyone planning to do a Halong Bay cruise.  The only thing we might recommend doing differently is to come when it's a bit warmer so you can enjoy the sun deck and swimming a bit more :)


After a 12 hour night bus, we arrived in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.  We intended to just pass through since it's on the path to Halong Bay, but ended up spending a lot of time here because we had to wait on availability for our Halong Bay Cruise.

Most days were cold and rainy so we didn't do much… to kill time, we went to a coupe of movies ("The Hobbit" and "Jack Reacher")... but the thing we did most here was eat.  Hanoi is know for its street food and deservedly so.  There are a lot of restaurants that are one-dish-shops (they only make and serve one dish, and they do it well).  Here are some of our favourites:
  • Bun Bo (at Bun Bo Nam Bo - 67 Hang Dieu, Old Quarter):  A noodle dish that for some unknown reason, Jen and Guy could not stop eating, so we frequented this shop about 6 times.  It is really good and also really cheap at about $2.50/bowl. 
  • Cha Can Fish (at Cha Ca Thanh Long - 31 Duong Thanh, Old Quarter):  A classic Hanoi grilled fish dish served on a burner with fresh dill and green onions.
  • Bun Cha, Nem Cua (at Bun Cha - 1 Hang Manh Street, Old Quarter):  According to our hotel, this is the original Bun Cha place in Hanoi.  They serve grilled pork with noodles (Bun Cha) and crab spring rolls (Nem Cua).  The pork was a bit too fatty for us, but the crab spring rolls were really good.
  • Banh Mi:  As mentioned in a previous post, good Banh Mi seem to be really hard to find.  Our hotel recommended this place where the lady makes amazing pate - just have the pate and cucumber Banh Mi and you won't regret it.  There is no restaurant - she sets up a little table at the North West corner of Hang Giay and Hang Khoai in the Old Quarter.
  • Mochi: This is actually a Japanese dessert (not Vietnamese), but we happened by a Mochi shop and had to give it a try.  The Mango Mousse and Green Tea mochi were the best :).

Our hotel also recommended a place where you can eat dog meat (Thit Cho).  So we checked out the dog market and their recommended restaurant.  We shared a small dish.. it was better prepared and tasted better than the dish we tried a few years ago in China, but was still, by far, not good enough to have again…  we'll leave that dish for the locals ;)
Since we were in Hanoi, we felt a bit obligated to see some of the sites.  We visited Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where you can see the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh - a bit weird.. but the room is really pretty.  We also checked out the Army Museum and walked the streets of the Old and French Quarters.  We also spent a lot of time between the Canadian Embassy and the Vietnamese Immigration office: Dom got his new passport but struggled to get the visa transferred.  In the end, we just went to the airport anyways…. and what do you know, they did it there without fuss in about 10 minutes.

Hoi An to Hue

The last activity we did in Hoi An was rent motorbikes and visit the country side. This is a must do in vietnam - maybe not in major cities, but definitely in and between the smaller ones. It's so beautiful!!

The next day we hired an Easy Riders guide to take us from Hoi An to Hue on motorbike, a 130km journey over the Hai Van Pass with a few stops along the way. Unfortunately, the pass seems to be the place in Vietnam where the weather changes from the warm sunny South, to the cloudy cold drizzly North.

One of our stops along the way was the Marble Mountain. From the outside, we thought it was just another temple, but once on top, we discovered hat the area was laced with some really impressive pagodas and caves.

After 4 hours, we arrived in Hue. We visited the Forbidden City which is really nice, but other than that… there's nothing else really special to see.

Fishermen, Fish Sauce, Tailors

What do these things have in common?  Probably nothing really.. they're just 3 more highlights from our days in Hoi An (yes, we actually did something other than eat!)

Our last Hoi An tour was a travel photography tour with Etienne, a French expat who now pays his bills with photography.  We started out bright and early at 5AM with Etienne reviewing the basics of our camera settings.  As the sun began to rise, we took a boat to a nearby fishing village to experiment with his suggestions and techniques for settings and composition. 

After breakfast, we visited a Fish Sauce Factory to learn about the process of making fish sauce, and taking photos in low light conditions.  

We picked up some great tips from Etienne that we hope to continue practicing during our travels. Unfortunately one of his biggest tips is that you have to wake up super early (ie. sunrise) to get the best shots because that is when the light is best… since neither of us are morning people, it's unlikely that we'll be putting this tip to practice very often.. :)

In addition to being a culinary capital, Hoi An is largely know for its tailors.  Many tourists flock here to have suits, coats, dresses, and even shoes, jewellery, and accessories tailor-made and/or custom-designed.  We decided to join in the fun to see what the fuss was about.. and that turned into a few more pairs of fun than we were originally planning.. (hehe oops!).  Here is what we had made:
  • Jen: 2 wool coats, a vietnamese dress, and 2 pairs of dress pants
  • Dom: 5 pairs of dress pants and 1 costume
  • Guy: 2 pairs of dress pants, 1 shirt, and 1 army coat

If you are ever in Hoi An and want to have clothes made, bring a sample or pick one of the samples that they have on display.  They're really good at replicating it, even with minor modifications.  From our experience (and others that we spoke to), if you try to have them replicate something from an image, you'll need a bit of luck for it to turn out exactly as you had in mind.. 

Lastly, here a few more random shots from the streets of Hoi An and the surrounding area.

Hoi An Cooking Classes

There are several restaurants in Hoi An that offer cooking classes, but most of them were only demonstrations or only offered a fixed menu of dishes that didn't really appeal to us.  Since we enjoyed Neville's foodie tour so much, we asked for his recommendation for a good cooking class.  He recommended Ms. Van from Green Bamboo, and we were lucky enough to make a last minute booking despite it being high season here! 

At Green Bamboo, each student picks 1 dish that they would like to learn (from a list of about 40+ items).  Like any typical cooking class, we started our day at the market where we bought fresh ingredients for our dish.  Van took the time to explain what all the ingredients were and how they are used.  She also gave us samples of local fruits and sweets, including some amazing candied coconut strips (Mut Dua). 

After the market, we proceeded to Van's house where each student was responsible for preparing and cooking 2 appetizers (Bun Xeo - Vietnamese pancakes, and Salad Rolls), and then our chosen main dish.  Van walked around instructing and assisting each of us on what to do.  
Here's what we made:
  • Green Papaya Salad & Fried Breaded Eggplant (Guy)
  • Vegetable Coconut Curry (Dom)
  • Fish in Clay Pot (Jen)
Although we didn't cook all 8 of the main courses ourselves, we still got a pretty good idea of how to make the dishes that the other 5 students chose:
  • Pho Bo
  • Cau Lau
  • Pork in Claypot
  • BBQ Pork Skewers with Peanut Sauce
  • Tofu Vegetable Stirfry
 The class lasted almost 7 hours (and, for us, included a new experience of beheading and shelling live shrimp - ick!!).  

Unfortunately, since we all snacked on appetizers while preparing our dishes, everyone was so full that we could barely eat the main courses!!  But overall it was a great experience!  We thoroughly enjoyed the class, food, atmosphere, and amazing home-made peanut liquor that Van treated us to for dessert!!  

Here's the website for anyone interested: http://www.greenbamboo-hoian.com/


The Last Great Taste of Hoi An

If you are in Eastern Canada and go to a Vietnamese restaurant, the food is usually bland in taste and mediocre in presentation.  Western Canada is a bit better, but never really considered a five star meal.  We'd heard for a long time that vietnamese food is really healthy and some of the tastiest in the world... what better place to discover the truth than Hoi An, the culinary capital of Vietnam. 

To get a kickstart on our culinary adventure, we did a tour called "The Last Great Taste of Hoi An" where we met Neville - a retired 50+15 year old Australian who (with his wife) moved to Vietnam 18 month ago to share their contagious passion for the food in Hoi An.  The walking tour lasted about 5 hours, with stops at the market and several street food vendors along the way.  Neville introduced us to the local vendors, told us interesting stories / histories and explanations of the different types of foods / ingredients, and of course, allowed us to sample their faire.

We also made stops at 2 tasting rooms where we sampled dishes picked up from other vendors along the walk.  By the end of the tour, we had tasted over 40 of the local dishes.  We were full, but the food was so tasty we still wanted to eat more!!

Neville captivated us with his local insight and stories.  Here are a few notable things that stuck out: 

  • Locals believe that restaurants that have refrigerators are "not good" or "not clean".  It's funny because it's the opposite of what we westerners might think.. but their logic is that if the restaurant uses a fridge, it means that the foods are not fresh.  "Good" vietnamese restaurants go the market and buy their ingredients daily (or even twice daily) - they do not store and reuse old ingredients from the previous day.  
  • Meat, fish, fruits, and veggies are brought into the market fresh, daily.  That is why we, remarkably, never saw any flies around the market, anywhere!
  • Locals burn fake money that will be sent to their ancestor in heaven so that they can buy stuff there. They also burn paper suits (since the ancestors need to be clothed), and paper iPhone 5s and iPads… seriously - we're not making this up…
  • Vietnamese love SPAM….thats right, America's "SPecial hAM".  SPAM was, until recently, the number one item stolen from stores (now they keep it locked up).  Why do they love spam so much?  Apparently, during the American War (what we in the West call the "Vietnam War"), most of the crops were destroyed and many Vietnamese were starving.  To eat, they had to raid the American army supplies... and what was the main staple of these supplies?….SPAM!!.  The locals discovered a taste for it that lasted even after the war….. now you can also see local copies/versions of SPAM in the market (ham packaged in a banana leaf wrapping).

After sampling so many dishes, here are the ones that really stood out and kept us coming back for more:
  • Bahn Mi: Vietnamese sandwich: Dom liked it so much that we went there 5 more times.  Be warned, it's not good everywhere - he tried it at other locations and cities but none of them rivals the one made by this sweet old lady who sets up shop just down the street from the White Sail restaurant (115 Tran Cao Van Street , Hoi An).
  • Dau Hau - Warm silken tofu with ginger sauce
  • Cao Lau - Hoi An specialty noodle soup with pork and salad leaves
  • Sinh To Trai Cay - Mixed local Fruit in a cup with sauce and ice
  • Hoanh Thanh Chien - Fried wonton with pork, shrimp, and salsa
  • Xi Ma - A black sesame pudding, served hot
  • Banh Cuon - Thin rice rolls with pork and minced wood ear mushrooms
  • Banh Beo - Steamed rice flour discs with dried shrimp
  • Banh Xeo - Vietnamese pork, shrimp, bean sprout pancake.  In Hoi An they serve this delicious crispy treat wrapped in fresh rice paper with herbs and a dipping sauce that makes it extra amazing.  In other cities the pancake is just served with fish sauce so it's a little more ordinary.
  • Ca Phe Sua Da - Vietnamese drip coffee (Trung Nguyen #1) with condensed milk and ice.  Yummy in Canada.. but even yummier in Hoi An, Vietnam!!
  • Eggplant & Pumpkin Claypot at White Sail - so delicious we just had to go back for more!

After the tour, our days in Hoi An largely circled around what and where we wanted to eat next!!  If you are a food lover and plan to go to Vietnam, a stop in Hoi An is a must.  We highly recommend doing the Last Great Taste of Hoi An as early in your visit as you can so that you can discover all of the great places to eat, and have enough time to keep going back for more!!  Neville's tour was definitely one of our biggest highlights in Vietnam - Book early!!  The tour is high in demand and limited in space (http://www.tasteofhoian.com/).