You Know You’re In Vietnam When…

Bikes of Burden Vietnam
Oh Vietnam. Exotic, picturesque, delicious…you have so much to offer–but boy are you a tough cookie! Our non-stop series of shystery encounters really left a bad taste in our mouth, but in the process of putting these Vietnam blogs together, we found a soft spot in our heart for this complex country. The mystical islands of Ha Long Bay, an unforgettable New Year’s in Ta Phin, a magical full moon in Hoi An, the floating markets of the Mekong, delicious shrimp summer rolls…Vietnam’s got a lot going for it. Once you get past the commonly gruff exterior and learn to count your change thrice, you can see the beauty and the comedy in this crazy place. Here are some of the moment’s that made us laugh and say, “You know you’re in Vietnam when…”


tangled telephone wires
- Electricians are really magicians with a day job.


Vietnam Ladies in Hats
- Everything looks cooler in a pointy hat.


Chicken cooked in a can, Vietnam
- Canned chicken looks like something from a zombie buffet.


Vietnamese quirks
- Motors are dressed to impress.


penguin shaped public trash cans
- Penguins are the unanimous choice in trash receptacle design. (Watch out for the man-eating variety!)


Vietnam fashion helmet
- Motorbike helmets often resemble Yankees baseball hat or a Harris Tweed cap, and they offer about as much protection.


red dzao cooking
- Wooden beams and a stone bowl are the official KitchenAid mixer of Ta Phin.


gargage made of reeds
- A garage is in the eye of the beholder.


menu with dog meat
- Foo is Foo-food and Fido is Fried-o! Eeek!


Sidewalk parking lot in Vietnam
- Sidewalks are more commonly referred to by their proper name…parking lots.


plastic chair wheelchair
- Bike tires + patio furniture + a heavy dose of resourcefulness and Grandma’s got herself a new wheelchair!


hanoi bia hoi corner
-”Fresh beer” goes for 20 cents a glass, the only catch is you have to fit in a plastic child’s chair to drink it


So which was the silliest, scariest, or most poignant You Know You’re In Vietnam? Leave a comment below!

Tet New Year in Tribal Ta Phin

Red Dao lady walking in Vietnam
While Vietnam may have dished up some the lowest moments of the trip, our final stop in Ta Phin Village was quiet possibly the most rewarding experience of the entire HoneyTrek. We lived and taught English in a Red Dao tribal village for the week leading up to Tet New Year and were brought into the community in a way that touched us forever. We initially came here to scout a prospective program for Muskoka Foundation’s volunteer network…as it turned out, the program was not a good fit, but our experience in Ta Phin Village was something we will never forget.


Sapa Vietnam from mountain top
Ta Phin is located in Lao Cai, a place carved out of massive mountains with plunging valleys layered with rice terraces. Sa Pa is the nearest town, which is not much to speak of except that it’s a cultural crossroads where six ethnic minorities come to market. The diversity of dress and customs in Sa Pa is an absolute feast for the senses—enough so that it has become a bit of a tourist buffet. We had a short walk around but were excited to leave for the Red Dao village of Ta Phin, 15km away and a genuine world apart.


Red Dao ladies sewing Red Dzao Vietnam
The Red Dao are actually a Chinese ethnicity (Yao) that began migrating to Vietnam in the 13th-century. They have kept some Chinese elements like their character-written language, but they feel independent from China and even Vietnam on most levels. Red Dao communities like Ta Phin are still agricultural societies where there are still dowries of livestock and rice wine, matchmaking by horoscopes and chicken legs, and patriarchy as a governing force. Textiles (how gorgeous are these?) are the main source of income and ladies are constantly at work embroidering and selling their goods.


Mike Howard teaching english in Vietnam
Our base for the week was the house and school of Ly May Chan. This local lady has taken it upon herself to start an English class to give more opportunities to the young women of Ta Phin. Anywhere from 10-20 students would show up each day, fitting class in between their normal schoolwork, tending to the family farm, collecting firewood, and making/selling handicrafts. Despite all their obligations, the girls came to class so eager to learn and so grateful to have teachers—even though we let it be known that we weren’t really teachers, just people lucky enough to be born into the world’s dominant language. We tried our best to solidify the basics and come up with some fun lessons like singalongs and vocabulary scavenger hunts around the village. If anyone is going to northern Vietnam, you MUST reach out to May Chan (…we are sure she would love your help!


We always love homestays in foreign countries but two things made this family experience like no other. 1.) We were teaching their kids so they respected us as people invested in the community. 2.) It was Tet New Year, the happiest and most familial time of year. When we weren’t teaching their was a lot of quality downtime in the house, helping cook, learning to embroider, playing with the kids, taking walks, and just living like a local. Watch this video (above) for a little glimpse at life in the house.


Red Dao ladies eating TET meal
The week of Tet New Year (based on the lunar calendar like the Chinese) is a time for family reunions, ancestral worshiping, spring cleaning, and celebrating with copious amounts of food and rice wine. Every day we were invited to someone’s house to share in a feast of freshly slaughtered pig. We felt so honored to be included that we always tried to eat everything offered to us (intestines, heart, snout, fried skin, and who knows what else). The pork is also served with rice and veggies but it’s considered rude to fill up on these everyday foods before eating all your meat (the former vegetarian in me died this week). May Chan also threw a party which was fantastic—minus the shrieking of the pig getting slaughtered in our kitchen while we were teaching and eating the pig leftovers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that whole week.


Hiking in Ta Phin Village Vietnam
On lots of levels we were in over our head this week but thankfully we had Marta. This lovely Spanish girl had been volunteering at May Chan’s “school” for a month and she helped us navigate much of cultural and linguistic confusion in our homestay and teaching experience. It was a great trade since she was excited to have a pair of Westerners to confide in and explore the area. She always wanted to hike the massive mountain on the edge of town but didn’t want to do it on her own, so together we scaled this unmarked beast (see slideshow to see the bushwhacking we had to do and the incredible views that made it worth it).


Emily Polar in Vietnam
The next day May Chan’s son “Smiley” (so nicknamed for his perma-smile and spontaneous fits of laughter) let us borrow his motorbike to explore the area and buy our bus ticket before everything shut for Tet. We pulled into Sa Pa and we hear someone shout “Mike! Anne!” and amazing enough it was our trekking companion and friend Emily from Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal five months prior! Apparently she was also in Rai Lay Beach Thailand at the same time as us but neither of us knew–apparently, we were bound to meet again!


Traditional herbal bath in Sapa Vietnam
We headed home and were delighted to find out that May Chan had prepared a traditional herbal bath for us. Bathing in medicinal herbs is a Dao New Year’s Eve tradition and god knows we needed a scrub (the house didn’t have running water and the only option was splashing ourselves with the cold river water). Soaking in the wooden tubs, taking in the aromatic vapors, and cutting the winter chill in a heat-less house couldn’t have felt better.


Drinking rice wine with local villagers
The next day the New Year’s festivities began around 10am with copious amounts of rice wine. These were our homestay brothers, always down to lead the drinking charge and toast you with a “Sức khỏe dồi and Chúc mừng năm mới.” Too sozzled to drive, they asked Mike to bring them (three to a motorbike) up the muddy mountain paths to the Dao diviner’s house for the New Year’s dance, ancestral worship, and exorcism.


As we approached the diviner’s house, we could hear the drumming, chanting, laughing of people and squawking of chickens. What were we walking into? This little wooden house was overflowing with 100+ people, all gathered to watch the New Year’s procession—which involved mosh-style dancing, flailing on the floor to exorcise the year’s demons, throwing hot coals, slaughtering chickens and drinking the blood. You have to see it to believe it: Watch this incredibly privileged look into the Dao New Year’s ceremony.


volunteer teaching vietnam
As time has gone in the HoneyTrek, we’ve realized the greatest experiences in travel always seem to come back to the people you meet and the cultures that open your mind. Ta Phin is not a place you’d think to visit (and if you did, you’d walk it in an hour) but stay a while and it will touch your soul.





Classic Cruising Ha Long Bay

Limestone karst towers of Ha Long Bay Vietnam
Photos cannot contain the 1,969 islands of Ha Long Bay and words can’t quite describe the fantastical limestone karst towers, the mist that enshroud them, and the floating villages that call them home. Ha Long translates to the “Descending Dragon” and when you imagine these islands as spikes from the serpent’s spine peeking out from the water, the mystical nature of this place takes hold. To experience this place properly, you simply have to take an overnight cruise…and if at all possible, with Emeraude Classic Cruises, a ship rebuilt in the spirit of its century-old paddle boat predecessor and an Indochine dream.


Indochina, Eric Merlin, Ha Long Bay dated 1919, Emeraude
The wonderful history of Emeraude is worth reading in full but we’ll do our best to summarize. In 1999 a French entrepreneur obsessed with all things Indochina, Eric Merlin, found a postcard of a luxurious paddle boat in Ha Long Bay dated 1919 and when he looked with a magnifying glass, the bow read “Emeraude.” Eric felt compelled to find the ship, learn more about it, and bring this glamorous era of exploration back to life. This idea stayed with him for years and eventually he moved to Vietnam to recreate his dream boat. Since he couldn’t quite construct a boat from a photo alone–he needed to know its story. With much digging, he found the name of the ship’s former owner “Paul Roque” and mailed a letter to all 1,220 Roques in the French telephone directory explaining his mission. Many replied with great support and admiration but no information…until he got a call saying, “Look no further, I’m the grandson of Paul Roque.” Eric flew to Paris to meet him and he had loads of mementos from the boat, including the original china, silverware, photographs, even this model of the original Emeraude ship.


Emeraude  Cruise Halong Bay Vietnam
Eric took everything he learned of Emeraude and incorporated its finest details into ship that would make a granddaddy proud. Keeping true to its classic design and style this 37-cabin ship continues the tradition of Ha Long exploration with incredible overnight tours.


Emeraude cabin Halong Bay
Since Emeraude invited us to review the boat, they pulled out the stops and upgraded us to the fabulous “Paul Roque” bow cabin. The wood floors, oriental rugs, Tiffany lamps, brass fittings all spoke to the ship’s heyday and the five windows provided nonstop scenery.


Floating Villages of Halong Bay, Vietnam
Adding to the fascination of Ha Long Bay is the people that live there. Several hundred people live in floating villages between the limestone karsts. Rarely touching land, they earn their living fishing, harvesting pearls, and selling souvenirs. Watching real life play out against this fairy tale backdrop made the place even more fascinating.


Kayaking Halong Bay, Vietnam
To get closer to the isles, we took out Emeraude’s kayaks. We paddled around the rocky outcroppings, peeking into caves and ducking under drip castle formations, and landed at a sandy beach.


Hike in Halong Bay, Vietnam
The beach had a narrow winding path leading to the top of the karst and knockout views. The higher vantage point put hundreds of islands into sight and gave us a sense of the sheer magnitude of this place.


Sung Sot Grotto Cave Halong Bay
An unexpected treat on the cruise through the islands was the Sung Sot Grotto. This 10,000 square-meter cavern filled with thousands of stalactites and stalagmites was dubbed by the French as Grotto des Surprises. As the surreal space twists and turns, it never ceases to amaze.


Halong Cruise cooking, fishing, movies
We came back to the boat and the evening unfolded nicely with a spring roll cooking class, cocktails at sunset, a fabulous dinner, and screening of the ever-appropriate and nostalgic film Indochine, followed by late night squid fishing off the back of the boat.


Tai chi on Emeraude Cruise Halong Bay
I have always been a distant admirer of those who practice tai chi in the park. Making smooth ninja moves in public spaces without giving a darn what others think is something I always wanted to try and my day had finally come. Learning the ancient Asian art at sunrise with the misty islands moving past us trumped even the greatest session in Central Park.


Meals on Emeraude Cruise Halong Bay
Breakfast was served in the dining room but we brought it to our balcony, to not waste a moment of the views.


Mike & Anne Howard Cruising Halong Bay Vietnam
Going some place as iconic and exquisite as Ha Long Bay inevitably comes with crowds but staying aboard Emeraude made it feel like it was ours for the night. With only two dozen passengers on board, an incredible staff, and plenty of character, Emeraude made a tourist mecca into a one-of-a-kind experience.


ha long bay photos




Hypnotic Hanoi

Tet New Year in Vietnam
Hanoi is an Asia metropolis at its most romantic. With strong Chinese and French colonial influences and plenty of Vietnamese pride, this 1000-year old city is a glorious blend of east and west, old and new. Hanoi would have probably wooed us on any given day with its pagodas, palaces, lakes, and markets but the week’s Tet New Year festivities left us completely smitten.


Chua Tran Quac pagoda
We based our three days in Hanoi along Ho Tay lake at the Sofitel Plaza Hanoi. It’s a peaceful part of town with the Chua Tran Quac pagoda as its crowning feature. The 1,400-year-old Buddhist temple was relocated to this little island on the lake and was our view each morning.


Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex
Just across the lake’s causeway is the all-important Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex. The tomb to the founder of Vietnamese communism is said to be one of the country’s holiest sites. We didn’t want to wait in the long line to see his embalmed body or the museum but opted to see the stilted home where he spent much of his life. The area is worth a stroll but at a brisk pace.


Bikes of Burden Vietnam
One of our favorite pastimes in Hanoi was watching the motorbikes and their audacious hauling endeavors. To get the house decorated for Tet New Year, everyone seemed to be coming home with five-foot tangerine or cherry blossom trees strapped to their mopeds. Bobbing and weaving between lanes, the drivers seemed totally at ease but the fruit seemed to be clinging for dear life as their branches rustled in the fast lane.


Han Chinese/Vietnamese Calligraphy
The 11th-century Temple of Literature and site of the country’s first national university is said to be a must-see stop…so we stopped. It’s well-preserved architecture, gardens, and shrines to Confucius were all lovely but the real attraction was the calligraphy stalls at the front gates. Old men practicing the art of blending Han Chinese with Vietnamese ideographic characters sell their scrolls for good luck in the New Year and offer unparalleled people watching. See the slideshow for this guy’s awesome calligraphy colleagues.


Sofitel Hanoi Buffet
You can’t tempt a backpacker (I mean, honeymooner) with an all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet and expect restraint. Staying in a Sofitel Plaza Hanoi suite grants access into the Club Sofitel’s executive lounge with complimentary coffee, tea and snacks all day and cocktails and canapes by night. Let’s just say we enjoyed all facets of this service to the fullest.


Old Quarter Hanoi Vietnam
The next day we set out to explore the Old Quarter with the help of Lonely Planet’s self-guided walking tour. In a huge city like Hanoi, this was a handy tool to navigate the charming little side streets where the French colonial architecture still shines and the neighborhood markets thrive. Tip: In the heart of the quarter, it’s good to know that the streets are organized by the good: toys, spices, mirrors, shoes, etc. and as soon as the item changes so does the street name.


House 102 Hanoi Vietnam
The gem of hidden gems on the LP tour was House 102. We arrived to this address and opened the door to what was indeed a family’s home. We almost turned around but an old lady peered her head out of the kitchen and motioned us to go upstairs. The narrow stairwell led to the most magnificently gaudy little temple with offerings of pomelos, cherry blossom branches, candies, and gilded décor soaring to the rafters. There were no tourists to be found, just a magical scene of wild devotion.


What is ga tan in Vietnam
We were starving after a day of exploring….but not hungry enough to eat Ga Tan: a baby chicken stewed in medicinal herbs and boiled feet-up in coke can. It is said to have restorative benefits, including easing of ailments such as constipation, asthma, backache and menstrual cramps…but even if we had all of those ailments simultaneously, we’d probably still pass. Fortunately it was easy to find yummy dinner alternatives in Hanoi like some yummy Bun Cha soup…a local specialty of vermicelli noodles, grilled pork, and a rich broth.


Hoan Kiem Lake with Thap Rua
The Old Quarter seems to ruminate from the Hoan Kiem Lake and by night its twinkling island beckons couples and families to its shores. The name translates to the Lake of the Restored Sword and refers to the end of Chinese rule in the 15th-century and the legend of a turtle that emerged to retire the emperor’s weapons. The building in the distance is Thap Rua, the Tortoise Tower where the lake’s turtles are still honored.


Puppet Show at the Museum of Ethnology
On our last day we ventured five miles out of town to the fabulous Museum of Ethnology, celebrating Vietnam’s diverse cultures and traditions. This was actually one of the coolest museum’s of the trip (similar in style the Museum of Welsh life in Cardiff, if anyone’s ever been). It was partially built as a village displaying the various types of architecture throughout Vietnam and had cultural displays from how to make conical hats to shamanic rituals to water puppetry. (Check the slideshow for the super pointy houses and more adorable puppets!)


No visit to Hanoi would be complete without a side trip to Ha Long Bay. Check our next blog for our historic cruise through the 2,000 limestone karsts and islands of the “Descending Dragon” and let us know in the comments below what you thought of Hypnotic Hanoi!

hanoi sightseeing photos


Hue: A Colorful Town

Citadel flag in Hue Vietnam
Said to be the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual heart of Vietnam, Hue is full of palaces, pagodas, tombs, temples, and a dash of French colonial flair. It was the country’s political capital from 1802-1945 under 13 emperors of Nguyen dynasty and their decadence is largely what makes the area so beautiful. Just 80 miles from Hoi An, the city is set along the Perfume river and anchored by a massive moated citadel (above). We explored Hue and its surrounding countryside by bike (pedicab then a single-speed) over the course of three days and found the place as colorful as its name.


19th-century Citadel doorways
In a visit to Hue (pronounced huweigh), the natural place to start is the early 19th-century Citadel. Though it was bombed heavily during The “American War,” this royal complex still has plenty to see. It is a UNESCO site with many facets, including the Forbidden Purple City. This is where the emperor would live his private life, being waited on by concubines and servants (eunuchs only as to not tamper with his ladies or lineage).


Vietnamese man making an offering
In our exploration of the citadel we stumbled upon a ceremony where this man was adorning the altar with offerings of roast pig, beer, flowers, and sweets. We can’t say much else about this photo except…how amazing is this guy??!!!


Geocaching in Hue Vietnam
Sometimes to add another layer of adventure into our days, we’ll go Geocaching. If you’ve never heard of Geocaching, it’s this amazing global treasure hunt using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates (usually via a smart phone) and then attempt to find the geocache hidden somewhere at that location. There are over 2.2 million caches in the world so we figured there was likely to be one in the Hue Citadel, and low and behold there was! We followed our iPhone GPS through the courtyards and wound up at an old pagoda platform. Looking in every crevice, we found a container with a log of all the geocachers that had been there. Looking at the list of names, orgins, and comments was a trip and worth the hunt.


Pedicab in Vietnam
We left at rush hour which would have normally been a bummer but when you are in an open pedicab it’s a great way to see a whirling city at a slower pace.


La Residence Hue Vietnam
For our stay in Hue, we were lucky enough to base camp at La Résidence, the former Art Deco home of a French colonial governor and now a fabulous boutique hotel. The grounds, the suites, and the French-Vietnamese-fusion cuisine were all fabulous but our favorite part was our traditional Vietnamese massage. This technique is called Cupping and it involves setting a series of alcohol-swabbed glasses on fire, then placing them on your back. The change in pressure sucks in the skin and supposedly takes the toxins out in the process. Mike and I had a couples cupping massage and when I looked over mid-session, I couldn’t even believe what was happening to him and in turn me (have a look …ours wasn’t quiet this brutal and actually quite pleasant but still left some crazy circular marks).


Tomb of Tu Duc Hue Vietnam
The next day we took the hotel bikes out for a major ride to the Nyguen tombs along the Perfume River. The most impressive was the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, built from 1864-1867. Set on a lake with frangipani and pine trees, the series of ornate temples and tombs were surreal against the blue sky.


Rice paddies and temples
Half the fun of seeing the tombs was the bike ride to get there. Once you get a bit out of the city, the landscape turns to jade-green rice fields and traditional villages with the occasional overgrown ruin.


Drying and raking Incense
We biked down this street and saw a man meticulously raking dirt…or as it turns out, ground sandalwood for incense production. We stopped to observe and noticed there was also a group of ladies in the yard molding the sandalwood goop into sticks and dipping them in dye. The motioned us over and showed us the ropes…so cool!


Colored incense
Later that day when we passed the stalls of incense by the tombs, we had a new appreciation of where they comes from and the hands that made them.


Tomb of Khai Dinh
With so many tombs and so little time, Mike and I decided to cover more ground by splitting up (a rare occasion but it had to be done!). He saw the forested Tomb of Minh Mang and I went to the over-the-top tomb of emperor Khai Dinh. This guy was a puppet to the French and an ego maniac who tricked out his tomb with intensely opulent detail. Mosaics, frescoes, carvings…every square-inch was bedazzled with something.


Thien Mu Pagoda
We biked 16 kilometers back to town and toward the all-important Thien Mu Pagoda. Built at the turn of the 15th-century, this slender beauty towers over the river and is the symbol of Hue. Adding to the scenery, a group from the Vietnamese tourism board was there posing in gorgeous traditional dress. Smiling and giggling, they left us with a happy memory of Hue.