Layovers and Customs – FUN!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – travel days suck. They just do. They’re my least favorite part about gallivanting around the world. Getting from the Philippines to Vietnam was one of those sucky travel days. We flew from Tagbilaran to Manila (7 hour layover in Manila) then flew from Manila to Ho Chi Minh City (6 hour layover in HCMC) then a last flight to Danang.
Our layover in Manila wasn’t terrible because we bucked up and paid to get into an airport lounge with free food, free wine and comfy seats. The layover in Ho Chi Minh? A totally different story. We arrived at around 12:30am and our flight to Danang didn’t leave until 6:30am. These are probably the absolute worst hours ever to be at an airport. But first – we had to get through customs.
The visa process for U.S. citizens to enter Vietnam isn’t awesome. They recently changed it so we’re no longer able to get 30 or 60 day visas – only one year multiple entry visas (meaning you have to leave every 3 months even though you have the 1 year visa.) We had to get a visa approval letter prior to arriving and then pay a stamping fee once we got to customs. All of this costing about $180/per person. They only accept cash for the stamping fee and we had read online that there was an ATM available at the airport before customs – except there wasn’t. Surprisingly – they let Kile go right on past customs and immigration to use the ATM in the arrivals area without any escort. We thought that was a bit strange but…whatever works. He actually had gotten locked out and had to flag someone down to let him back IN to the to customs area. So weird.
After obtaining our visas we had about 5 more hours to kill. It was the middle of the night and we were exhausted. We walked over to the domestic terminal and due to the early hours – the ticketing area wasn’t open yet. So we had to post up on the gross floor in the airport “lobby” area to try and get some sleep. We were joined by others – one woman making awful sucking and clicking sounds with her mouth and another man who decided to sleep right next to us while farting quite loudly without any shame whatsoever. Ugh. Airports.
Our Airbnb and Adorable Neighborhood
We booked a month long stay here in Hoi An and once again – used Airbnb. This time we were staying in a home that had a communal kitchen and hangout area but the rooms each had private en suite bathrooms and a private balcony. The hosts names are Hanh and Mike – Hanh is from Hoi An and Mike is from the U.K. They have two adorable dogs named Noodles and Teddy – I LOVE when our Airbnbs have dogs!
Hanh warmly greeted us at their gorgeous home. We were still exhausted from the long travel day and lack of sleep but she made us some delicious Vietnamese coffee and some breakfast. We knew we’d feel at home here. Their home is brand new – they built it as their dream home about 3 years ago. It’s 3 stories with all modern amenities with 5 bedrooms. The house is situated in the middle of beautiful green rice fields – a 10 minute bike ride to An Bang beach, a 15 minute bike ride to the center of Hoi An and a 5 minute bike ride to the local market. Such a perfect location. The houses in this area sort of shocked us at how nice they were. Definitely a change from the poverty we’re so used to seeing around SE Asia.
The beach nearby was surprisingly nice. It’s just a quick 10 minute bike ride through the rice paddies – passing water buffalo along the way. We had read that the beaches near Hoi An were extremely eroded due to some storms in the past but An Bang remained unscathed. The water isn’t your stereotypical light blue tropical waters but it was still incredible. The color is more of a green but still very clear. You could walk out to your waist and look down seeing your feet clearly.
An Bang is lined with restaurants and bars – plenty of beach chairs to rent and just relax. From the beach – you have a panoramic view of downtown Danang to the left and some beautiful islands to the right. You really can’t ask for anything more than that.
Generosity and Friendliness Galore!
The first night at our Airbnb – we were the only guests staying at the house (Mike and Hanh also live at the house as well.) We were invited to join our hosts for dinner along with Hanh’s sister Nu and her husband Vu. Of course we were all over that. Our jaws dropped when we saw what we were getting into for dinner. Fresh fish, calamari, grilled pork, tofu, a bunch of greens we’d never heard of or tasted in our lives – it was beautiful! Everything was so fresh and very local – all grown or caught within 10km from the house. Much much more on the local food below.
Even though Nu speaks very little English and Vu none at all – we all had such a great time. Food is definitely something that always brings people together. It was the perfect way to get to know our hosts as well – some of the nicest people we’ve come across on our travels. They couldn’t have been more welcoming.
As guests arrived – we just met more and more great people – an American couple from San Diego (Brittany and Rami), a Vietnamese born Canadian who lives in Vancouver (Jerry), another Canadian couple from Victoria (K.D. and Ranon) The friendliness and warmth from everyone we’ve met staying here has just been astounding. I feel like there’s an automatic bond and camaraderie between people who are traveling in this part of the world – or traveling in general. Friendships just come so easily – even though, sadly, most are fleeting. The memories are something we will certainly never forget.
A cool part about staying at an Airbnb that doubles as someone’s home is that you get to see and be a part of their local traditions. Hanh is Buddhist and twice monthly she puts together elaborate offerings to give to her ancestors and spirits. She sets up a colorful and gorgeous table full of flowers, incense, food, fake money – things that her ancestors would “want” or cherished in their past life on earth. It was really wonderful to witness.
We’ve been treated to dinner after dinner (more on this below) and outrageously fun karaoke outings. The hospitality we’ve experienced here in Vietnam has been through the roof. We’re just in awe that we get to call this our life. So very grateful.
The City of Hoi An
We still have a lot more to explore when it comes to the city of Hoi An but the few times we’ve ridden our bicycles into town – we’ve just loved it. You can feel the history and culture surrounding this little city. Lots of restaurants, tailor shops for custom clothes and coffee shops line the streets.
The main attraction of Hoi An is Old Town. The buildings are a mixture of many cultures and painted in a yellow that’s been muted and weathered over time. The area is adorned with colorful lanterns which just add to the beauty. There’s a river running through town where you can watch the locals fish from their boats or transport fruits and vegetables.
The river has many bridges – each of which has it’s own bit of character. One bridge in particular is the most famous – the Japanese Covered Bridge. Since Old Town Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – you can just feel the history all around. This bridge dates back to the 16th-17th century. Crazy!
OH MY GOD – THE FOOD!
Hands down, by far – one of our most favorite things about Vietnam has been the food. Holy. Crap. The freshness, the flavors, the brand new tastes – everything we’ve eaten here has been absolutely incredible. We have yet to have even a “mediocre” meal.
As mentioned earlier – our introduction to authentic Vietnamese cuisine was our first night’s dinner. But the amazement just continued. Down the way at the local market there are food stalls lining the street – each stall specializing in one thing in particular; ranging from noodle soup, banh mi, pho, banh xeo, cao lau, the list goes on.
We decided to try a local noodle soup stall (which is different than pho) and our minds were blown. For about $1 a piece – we each got a hot bowl of flavorful broth with rice noodles, fresh greens, pork, a quail egg, perfectly spicy peppers and a squeeze of lime. Heavenly. For just a dollar! What?!
Another dish that was a must-try is Cao Lau – it’s the local Hoi An specialty. Very specific to this area only. The dish has noodles that are made with water from a specific well in town. The rest of the dish consists of more leafy greens (lettuce, mint, sprouts usually), pork, crispy pork skin and a light broth. Once again – heavenly. We’ve eaten cao lau about 6 times now and each time it varies slightly but each time it’s wonderfully delicious.
Hanh has treated us to a few home cooked meals that included spring rolls, mi quang (another Hoi An noodle dish), more cao lau – our taste buds have just been completely spoiled.
And of course – banh mi and pho. They are Vietnamese staples that many people in the U.S. are familiar with but of course – nothing beats the real deal. Pho can be found everywhere in restaurants or food stalls and banh mi stalls are littered every few hundred feet along the streets. None of which have been disappointing.
One particular banh mi restaurant here in Hoi An (called Phuong) was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” and he raved about it. So of course – we had to go. It was GLORIOUS. The bread was just perfectly crunchy on the outside but soft and fresh on the inside. The pork and pate inside was superb and the veggies and spicy sauce just pulled it all together. We ended up grabbing two more to-go before we left so we could have them again for dinner.
Savoring our time
Our month in Vietnam is flying by way too fast. We’re trying to get as much sightseeing into our schedule as possible and cram as much food into our mouths as possible.
We look forward to exploring more of Hoi An, soaking in sun at the beach and a couple day trips out of the city. We’ll be keeping you posted!