Before heading back to reality, we wanted to get some beach and sun time in Southern Thailand. We chose a place where both of us had never went and that seemed a bit less touristy than other parts of Thailand - we chose Ko Lanta.
After a rather confusing wait for the airport pickup in Krabi, we drove about an hour to our cozy little beach resort, just outside of the small fishing village on the North West side of Ko Lanta island.
Since Ko Lanta is a small fishing village, we spent most of our time relaxing at the resort and strolling along the endless pristine beaches.
You could tell there aren't many tourists in this area because you can still find so many perfect seashells. The girls went crazy and spent hours harvesting all kinds of cute seashells.
We also had a lot of fun playing in the beautiful sunsets.
There weren't many restaurants open while we were there, but we did find one delicious place to eat Khao Soi, called Bun Noodle.
We also took Charlotte on her first TukTuk ride, to visit the nearby village and night market.
In the fishing village, one of the street stalls that we ate at was called Best Phad Thai in Koh Lanta. While eating, we were visited by 2 giant lizards walking toward us in the nearby ditch. The tourists were the only ones who seemed interested/concerned with this, so we're guessing this must be a rather normal occurrence for the locals 😂.
Even though Chiang Rai is about 2.5 hours from Chiang Mai, we decided to take a day tour to see a few of the Chiang Rai highlights.
Mae Khachan Hot Spring
Our first stop was at a natural hot springs. Jen was super car-sick when we arrived here, so we didn't do much exploring. In the parking lot, there are several ladies selling touristy items and eggs that you can cook in the hot-springs for breakfast. We didn't buy any eggs, but one of those ladies saw Jen laying sick on the ground - she took pity and kindly offered Jen some medicine from her personal stash. Jen didn't take it, but thought it was a really sweet gesture :)
White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
The next stop was our main reason for taking this tour. Wat Rong Khan, also known as the White Temple, is one of Chiang Rai’s most visited attractions. Previously an older temple that had fallen into disrepair, it has now been transformed into a modern temple that was designed and constructed by a national Buddhist artist. Although new work on this temple continues to be ongoing, it was opened to the public in 1997.
The temple is really unique and stunning to look at, yet had an unexplained, odd, touristy/Disney vibe that left us with mixed feelings. The huge walls are covered with images of Buddha and.. a lot of Hollywood icons such as Neo, Bumblebee, Spider-Man, Harry Potter, and Superman.
We didn't take any photos from inside the main temple since it was not allowed, but we did check google and found a couple of example images from Duke Language School. Their site also explains that "These unusual murals are placed opposite the Buddhas. They are meant to show that people should free their minds from bad intentions, and that violence, greed, and hedonism is the wrong way of life."
After visiting the main temple, we also started noticing Hollywood references in other areas of the temple grounds as well (where we were allowed to take photos).
Blue Temple (Wat Rong Seur Ten)
Our next stop was the Blue Temple. Apparently the temple was named Wat Rong Seur Ten, meaning "temple of the dancing tiger", because it was built on a site where tigers were said to have jumped over the river.
Black House Museum (Baan Dam Museum)
The Black House is a private art museum with a mixture of unconventional and contemporary art and architecture. According to the tour websites, it has been called a “dark, mysterious, and almost sadistic representation of hell, complete with preserved animals and a collection of bones". It sounded ominous, so we were curious to check it out. It was.. different!
The tour ended with a long 3-hour ride home with our driver who thought he was driving an F1 😬.
For the cooking portion of the class, we each prepped and cooked 7 dishes that we had chosen from a list.
The Lunch Menu 😂
Fried chicken with cashew nut
Hot and sour prawn soup
Deep fried banana
Fried thick noodle with soy sauce
Stir fried prawn in tamarind sauce
Chicken in coconut milk soup
Savoury minced chicken salad
Black sticky rice pudding
Stir fried minced pork with holy basil
Chicken in coconut milk soup
Fried spring roll
Mango sticky rice
Then it was time to eat! As always, we had WAY too much food.. fortunately we had a fridge and microwave at our hotel so they wrapped up some of the leftovers for us to enjoy for dinner later that evening.
Chiang Mai boasts over 300 temples and you can easily believe it when walking the streets of the old town. Some are more impressive than others, but they are all well-maintained and very peaceful to wander through.
Since we were in Chiang Mai on Saturday and Sunday, we were able to visit the 2 big weekend night markets. As night falls, over a kilometre of streets and side streets are blocked from traffic and are filled with hundreds of vendors selling, food, art, electronics, souvenirs, etc. The Sunday night market crosses the old town all the way from the east to the west gate. It was huge and had a nice selection of wares to admire, so we liked it the best.
During the week, we also visited one of the art markets that happens every night outside of the old town - there were a handful of amazing artists that we could watch in action but the majority of the stalls were sadly closed down, likely due to the impacts of covid 😢.
You cannot experience Chiang Mai and its night markets fully unless you try the food!
Some of our favourites were the Chiang Mai sausages (super flavourful with curry with lemon grass), Roti with bananas and sweet milk, and the delicious fresh fruit smoothies.
During this trip, we also discovered an excellent Thai dish that was new to us, called Khao Soi. It’s sort of similar to a curry Laksa, but less spicy, super flavourful, and has crunchy noodles on top. Our favourite place was at a place called Mr. Kai Restaurant.
The steps (as we understood them) were as follows:
Roughly carve the handle
Cut the blade to a rough shape/size
Strengthen the blade by heating and hammering
Bash the blade with the bashing machine
Straighten the blade
Shape the blade with the grinder
Temper the blade
To make sure the blade keeps its edge, the blacksmith put salt on the blade, heated it up, and then she dipped it in oil and sand.
Sharpen the blade using 3 different grinding wheels and manual honing
Put the handle on and sand it
We didn't get to do all the steps solo (since some steps require proper training and can be quite dangerous if you don't know what your are doing!), but we were impressed at how many of the actual knife-making steps we got to participate in. We had so much fun!!
We previously visited Halong Bay 10 years ago and thought it would be a wonderful experience to repeat again with Dom’s mom.
During our first trip here, we booked with Indochina Junk and sailed on a 10-cabin boat called the Dragon Pearl Junk. Even though we really enjoyed the small and personal feel of the Dragon Pearl boat, we decided to try out the 3-day/2-night trip on their newest 24-cabin boat, called the Dragon Legend. It has bigger cabins and a bigger sun deck, as well as a spa, a tiny pool, and a tiny gym 🤷♂️.
We were picked up from our Hanoi hotel and drove 2.5 hours to the pier, where we checked in and waited in the lounge area for about 1 hour before heading out to the boat.
We again visited Bai Tu Long Bay instead of Halong Bay because it is significantly less busy. Our guide told us that on a busy day, Halong Bay will have up to 400 tourist boats whereas Bai Tu Long Day would only have up to 100. Of the 100 boats that visit this area, only around 35 of them will anchor overnight and sail further out into the bay.
In our case, because post-covid tourism had not fully recovered yet, we spotted a max of 10 boats anchored overnight and saw even fewer boats while sailing during the day, so it really felt like we had the whole bay to ourselves!
Our Dragon Legend boat would typically have about 50 passengers when full, but again, due to low season and post-covid, we only had 19 passengers the first night.
It turned out that 12 of the passengers had only booked a 1 night trip, which we didn't even know was possible. After breakfast on the 2nd day, they all took a ferry back, leaving only 7 of us on the giant boat for the second and third day.. we actually had more crew than passengers on our boat!
Besides the amazing views, we really enjoyed all of the activities offered by the cruise.
Floating Village Boat Ride
We really enjoyed the 2 kayaking trips that allowed us to peacefully paddle through the local landscape and explore the karsts from close-up.
Lunch on the beach
On our second day, the ship's crew brought us to a secluded beach where they set up tables and chairs and served us a lovely BBQ seafood lunch.
At around 9PM, you could go to the back of the boat and try to fish for squid. Dom decided to give it a try on the second night. He heard that the group only caught one squid on the first night, so he didn't have high hopes.
While demonstrating the fishing technique, the guide actually caught a squid right away. Then Dom put his fishing line into the water, mimicked the same up and down motion, and caught another one within a couple of minutes. He was satisfied with catching something, so he called it a night. He learned that the squid are attracted to the boat's light, so all you need to do is get a special hook, shine some light in the water and move your fishing rod up and down… that’s it! 😂
Between activities and food, we spent time lounging on the sun deck to enjoy the sunny weather and amazing views. Since there were so few passengers on the boat, we had the entire sun deck to ourselves!
Water puppet show
Lastly, on our drive back to Hanoi, we stopped at a small village to see a traditional water puppet show.
We only had a couple of days to spend in Hanoi, so we quickly saw a couple of sites and ate some of our favourite dishes that we had discovered before.
When we came here back in 2013, it was the first time that we were ever scammed by a taxi driver who had rigged the taximeter to run significantly faster than it was supposed to. Hanoi was also cold, cloudy, rainy, and uninviting during our last trip, so we didn't leave with the best impression.
This time, we were able to use Grab for transportation (similar to Uber). Having transportation at a fixed cost without worrying about scams made getting around a lot easier and stress-free. We also discovered that Hanoi now has a metro! Our days here were sunny and warm, so the streets were inviting and bustling with people. Hanoi was starting to grow on us.
We mainly wandered around the lake and old quarter areas. On weekends, they block off the roads surrounding the lake, so it made our strolls very pleasant.
West of the lake, we stumbled upon this quaint spot along a train track called Ms Huong Ly Vietnamese Restaurant. Apparently, trains pass through here several times a day and you can enjoy a meal and/or coffee at one of the many cafes along the track. If you are lucky, you will see the train pass, just a couple of meters from your table. We were not lucky enough to see a train, but still enjoyed a meal along the tracks.
When you travel in Asia, you are bound to see some motorbikes transporting interesting things. Usually they are either unbelievably over-filled or carrying large items in precarious ways. We thought that we had seen it all, but this time around we saw something new and quite unique: a motorbike parked on the side of the road selling live fish for aquariums/ponds 🐟🐠🐡! We saw a few other interesting things, but that was our favourite 😂.
Jen had great memories of a small restaurant here called Bun Bo Nam Bo. They serve a dish, called Bun Bo, which she and Guy (Dom's cousin) absolutely loved, and we couldn't find that dish anywhere else in Vietnam. When we went to the restaurant, we barely recognised it because it has grown to 3 floors and become a proper-looking restaurant (instead of a small local kiosk with seats)! As with everywhere, the price of the dish has risen quite a lot (70k VND, ~$4cad), but fortunately, the food did not disappoint and tasted as good as she remembered. For Dom, it was also the same as last time.. "I don't understand the hype.. the dish is just ok" 😝.
We wanted Dom’s mom to try Pizza 4Ps, a restaurant that Jen's coworker introduced her to when she was working in Saigon. Pizza 4Ps (pizza-for-peace) is a restaurant chain that was launched in Vietnam, by a Japanese couple in 2011. It's normally difficult to find good pizza in Asia, but Pizza 4Ps has excellent pizzas that leave us craving for more!
Our favourite is the Burrata Parma Ham pizza - a sauce-free pizza topped with arugla, parma ham, cherry tomatoes, and home-made burrata cheese which they slice open at your table. Compared to eating local food, this 10-inch pizza is relatively pricey at 298k vnd (~$17.50cad) plus VAT), but we couldn't resist and ate it 4 times this trip (twice in Saigon and twice in Hanoi😆).
For dessert, Jen wanted to try a fruit dessert from Hoa Quả Dầm Hoa Béo that is also famous here. We were super full from dinner, but since it was our last night, we walked the extra mile to try it out and she really liked it.
From all of our travels, one of the most memorable tours that we did was the Original Taste of Hoi An Food Tour. Having enjoyed and done that tour several times already, we decided to try a different one this time. Since Hoi An is known for having great food, there are a lot of new foodie tours that have sprung up here over the years. We found a free walking food tour (tip-based) with good ratings and decided to give it a try.
We met Vinh near the post office and had a great feeling from the start. He was friendly, energetic, passionate, and his English was really good. He did a particularly great job of giving an upfront explanation about what a "free tour" entails and what to expect on our journey.
Che (10,000vnd, ~$0.55cad) Our first stop was at a small stall by the main market, where we tasted a common desert in Vietnam, called Che. It’s a mix of beans and jellies made from agar (seaweed gelatin), topped with coconut milk and condensed milk.
Banh Mi (30,000vnd, ~$1.70cad) Next, we stopped at the Banh Mi stall that was made famous by Anthony Bourdain because it appeared on his TV series, No Reservations. Hoi An has so many Banh Mi stalls, and each offers different variations of great tastes. At this stall, we tasted the traditional Banh Mi sandwich, filled with pate, savoury meats, vegetables, herbs and sauces.
Banh Dap (5,000vnd, ~$0.30cad) Banh Dap is a layer of a wide fresh rice noodle sandwiched between layers of a crispy baked rice pancake. The fun thing about this dish is that you have to karate-chop it before you eat it. This action creates bite sized pieces that you dip into some fish sauce and enjoy. At this particular stall, the owner makes a very potent homemade fish sauce that is well known amongst the locals. The fish sauce was really tasty, but too strong/fishy for most of the people in the group, so most of them switched to soy sauce instead.
Banh Kep (15,000vnd, ~$0.85cad) andChen Trung (10,000vnd, ~$0.55cad) For the next location, we walked a ways before turning down a small random alley. Vinh stopped at a local lady's house where she cooks and serves Banh Kep (Vietnamese Pizza) and Chen Trung (cooked quail eggs) in the front veranda of her home. This particular "stall" closes early, so we were their last customers of the day!
Che Xi Ma (15,000vnd, ~$0.85cad) Nothing like a bit of desert to cut your meal! Our next dish was Xi Ma, a sweet black sesame soup. We stopped at the oldest shop in Hoi An where the family has been serving a generation-old recipe for decades. Their recipe includes medicinal Chinese herbs to maintain health, so in addition to enjoying the delicious taste and warm texture of the dish, locals come to eat the soup for good health. Vinh told us that the owner doesn't allow customers to have more than 2 servings a day!
Bale Well Before going to the next spot, we stopped at a well that was hidden behind a building. We were told that this is the special well that everyone in the city uses to make the yellow "Cau Lau" noodles. We're not sure what exactly is so special about the water here, but apparently every morning, people gather around this 1000 year old well to gather the precious water to make the noodles.
Cau Lau (30,000vnd, ~$1.70cad) and Ban Xeo (20,000vnd, ~$1.10cad) We proceeded to a restaurant near the Bale Well to try the typical and famous dish from Hoi An called Cau Lau. This restaurant is owned by one of the original Cau-Lau-making families. They used to only make and serve Cau Lau, but because they have become popular and customers request other food options, they now they serve other dishes as well. Since this was our last main food-stop of the evening, we also decided to try their Ban Xeo (Vietnamese pancakes) and it was great as well!
Sinh Tố Thập Cẩm (25,000vnd, ~$1.45cad) To finish the evening, Vinh took us to a small stall at the side of a main road to try Sin To Thap Cam, a fruit salad served in a cop with ice and sweet milk. If you want, they will blend it to make a smoothie for you, but Vinh recommended that we try the traditional version where the fruits are left in slices and you get to use your spoon to smash all of the ingredients together until you have the consistency that you want. It was delicious and a great way to finish our meal!
We've done quite a few food tours during our travels and always end up overly full by the end. The thing that we really liked about this tour is that the food was not "included" so we just paid for each of the dishes as we went along. This gave us more control over the quantities of food that we got, so that we didn't have to over-eat or "waste" food. This, and the fact that Vinh was such a passionate and awesome tour guide, made this experience super fun and memorable. We all really enjoyed the tour, so it was a perfect way to end our last evening in Hoi An!
10 years ago, we did a cooking class with Van at Green Bamboo Hoi An and really enjoyed our experience. Although there are many cooking-class other options available in Hoi An, we wanted Dom’s mom to have the same experience that we had before, so we booked with Green Bamboo again. To our delight, we had even more fun this time because we lucked out and had a very small group of only 5 people.
Van picked us up at our hotel and gave us a tour of the market while purchasing all of the fresh ingredients for the dishes that we would be cooking. She introduced us to various foods that you can buy at the vendors, explained how to identify which meats are fresh, and described the different ingredients that she was purchasing for our dishes. We stopped for a quick snack and coffee break before driving to her house to start cooking.
The dishes we chose to learn this time were:
Vegetarian Curry with Coconut Milk - Charlotte
Vietnamese Pancakes (Bàn Xéo) - Dom
Grilled Pork with Noodles (Bún chả) - Jen
The 2 other students chose to make:
Fish in Clay Pot (cá kho tộ), and
Egg plant in clay pot with Stir fry tofu, pineapple and tomato.
We started by prepping the ingredients for all of our dishes, together.
One thing that differed from our first experience was that we cooked and ate one dish at a time, instead of everyone cooking their dishes and eating everything at the end. We really liked this because it allowed us to enjoy each dish while it was hot and also gave us time to digest a bit before stuffing ourselves even more!
Since we only had 5 students, Van added some extra dishes to the list including: Vietnamese Sweet Potato Leaf Soup, Green Papaya Salad with Tofu Skin, and Egg Coffee for dessert.
We were super full and a little tired by the end, but we all really enjoyed the wonderful day spending time with Van and eating so much delicious food.
For the last part of our trip, we went to Hoi An to meet up with Dom’s mom so that we could share some of our favourite foods, places, and experiences with her, in Vietnam and Thailand.
Charlotte's flight from Montreal was originally supposed to take 26 hours with layovers in Toronto and Taipei. Unfortunately, when she arrived to check-in at the Montreal airport, she found out that her first flight (to Toronto) had been cancelled due to bad weather. They rerouted her through Vancouver->Seoul leaving 12 hours later, so she had to overnight in a Montreal hotel and return to the airport early the next morning. She managed to board the Vancouver flight, but the plane got stuck on the tarmac and arrived in Vancouver 5 hours late, so they had to reroute her again. She was stuck waiting 12 hours in the Vancouver Airport, then took a 16 hour flight to Bangkok, and had a 13 hour layover in Bangkok until her final flight to Da Nang (near Hoi An).
She finally arrived ~36 hours later than her original itinerary, buuut... her checked luggage didn't make it 🙃. Fortunately, they located her luggage in Seoul 2 days later, so she finally received her luggage 3 days after she had arrived. Despite her crazy long 60 hour voyage to get here, Charlotte arrived with a positive attitude and a smile on her face. She was tired, but surprisingly not as exhausted as we thought she would be!
Given her long journey, we tried to take it a bit easy in Hoi An. We spent lots of time: wandering the cute streets of the ancient town,
people-watching while drinking different types of Vietnamese coffees (iced, salted, coconut, egg),
tasting a variety of Vietnamese dishes (a first, for Charlotte),
and doing a bit of shopping. We were amazed at how busy Hoi An was and how much it has grown and changed since when we were last here in 2019!
Dom's favourite Vietnamese food is called "banh mi". It's a Vietnamese sandwich with meat, pate, pickles, egg, herbs, and sauce. We were super excited to return to our favourite banh mi restaurant in Hoi An, called Madam Khanh, and figured we would eat there almost every day. Sadly, we only ended up going there once because the sandwiches were so disappointingly cold and tasteless - it seems they have now become overly popular so the quality of their food has gone down significantly 😢.
We decided to try a different place called Phi Banh Mi. Fortunately, the sandwiches there were better and we really enjoyed meeting their colourful pet Iguana, Danny. When it was sunny outside, he liked to crawl through the restaurant to lay in the sun next to the kiosk where they make the sandwiches 😂.
One morning, we did a half-day course to learn how to make traditional Vietnamese lanterns.
Jen was happy that her favourite tailor shop, Kim Only, was still here - we each had a couple of pieces of custom clothing made.