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If I had been apprehensive about Vietnam before, all my fear and scepticism evaporated once we visited these three cities:
We first came to Hoi An in search of the World’s Best Banh Mi sandwich, as featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”
And sure, I also vaguely remember someone mentioning Hoi An as being famous for custom tailored clothing (as soon as the words “clothing” and “shopping” were uttered, my eyes glazed over and I stopped listening), but I don’t remember much about those details. Anyway, back to the sandwich.
Now, if you’ve never had a Banh Mi sandwich before, you’re missing out. It’s the Cadillac of sandwiches. Banh Mi takes traditional Asia ingredients like Vietnamese sausage, marinated white radish and carrots, coriander, and packs it into a crusty French baguette slathered with pate and pork fat. If that’s not a perfect symphony of western and eastern flavours, I don’t know what is.
And just like their delectable drip coffee, this magical hybrid is one of the only positive things that resulted from the French colonization of Vietnam.
So you can imagine my desperation to find such a creation. Problem was, there are no addresses. In fact, in Asia, there are rarely proper addresses for ANYTHING. Usually when someone gives me directions in Asia, they usually go something like this:
“Walk up the street with the green sign until you see a the sleeping dog. Then look for a vendor cart with a guy wearing glasses.
After you pass the glasses guy, continue along the road until you find a tree with round leaves; follow that tree until you come across a pothole on the road.
If the pothole isn’t full of rain and the celestial Gods aren’t in a bad mood, the food cart should be right there.”
Google maps was equally useless, so after wandering the streets of Hoi An for an hour and with my hopes of finding the World’s Best Banh Mi dwindling, I was ready to shuffle my way home and settle for some Pho when a tiny lady in a nearby tailor shop called out to me:
“What you looking for?”
“Banh Mi Phuong?” I replied.
“Ahh” she said, nodding. “I know where. I show you.”
Breathing a sigh of relief, I followed her to “Banh Mi Phuong”, which was actually NOT a food cart, but a tiny restaurant tucked into an equally tiny street.
Guess they’ve upgraded since the Anthony Bourdain feature.
“You eat, and later take a look at my tailor shop?” My Banh Mi guide asked. “I give you a good price!’
Now, normally I hate clothes shopping with the heat of thousand suns, but considering how there was no way on Earth I could’ve found this place without her, how could I refuse?
So I nodded and sprinted into the Banh Mi shop, my mouth already watering from watching the cook prepare the sandwiches right at the front of the store.
Once I got my hands on my Banh Mi, I quickly realized that I probably would’ve bought every dress in her store and still thought it was worth it.
From the moistness of the egg, the melt-in-your-mouth meat, the perfect crunch of the freshly baked bread, to the explosion-of-flavour magic-sauce (I honestly have no idea what was in this sauce, but let’s just say I needed a towel to wipe off my chair after eating it).
Truly it was a masterpiece and definitely the best sandwich I’d ever had in my life.
(Update: the address of Banh Mi Phuong on Tripadvisor has since been updated, so you can now find it without buying a damned thing! YAY!)
And that’s the story of how I ended up spending only $1.50CAD ($1.15USD) for the World’s Best Sandwich, but an extra $45CAD ($35 USD) for a custom-made dress I wasn’t planning on buying:
God I love South East Asia. You can make all sorts of budgeting mistakes (like whipping your Dongs out all over the place. Tee hee, their money is called “Dongs”.), and none of it really matters.
Now that I’d checked off my bucket list item of eating the best Banh Mi in the World, we were free to explore the old town of Hoi An.
It did not disappoint:
With all the pretty glowing lanterns and the unique historical architecture, I completely understood why they call Hoi An the most romantic city in Vietnam.
Especially since you have the luxury of changing the scenery from historical old city to a tropical beach with just a short bike ride (free bike rental included with hotel accommodations!):
And I guess if you like shopping and looking sharp at a fraction of the price that tailors charge for custom-made clothing in North America, their tailors aren’t half bad either.
But really the only thing I cared about was the Banh Mi.
I loved the Old Quarter and the delicious food that came with it, but the things that stuck in my head the most were the “Hỏa Lò Prison” (jokingly nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by US Prisoner’s of War during the Vietnam War) and “Vietnamese Women’s Museum”. Because it is here that I truly understood the badassity of Vietnamese women.
The Hỏa Lò Prison, originally built by the French to imprison the Vietnamese revolutionaries during the colonization of Vietnam, was ironically later used to house US POWs during the Vietnam War (or rather the “American War”).
One of the most famous inmates was John McCain, who fractured both arms and a leg when he was ejected from his plane and somehow still managed to kick himself to the surface of a lake while wearing 50 pounds of gear.
The picture below shows souvenirs being gifted to US POWs from Vietnamese prison guards to commemorate their time at the Hỏa Lò Prison:
At the Vietnamese women’s prison, I learned that out of sheer necessity (because Vietnam kept getting invaded by foreign powers), girls would learn to how to shoot at a very young age. They didn’t have the luxury of hiding behind their Mom and Dads. They had no choice but to learn how to fight.
I can’t even begin to imagine what that was like, and these badass women and their rifles really proved that being called “the weaker sex” really was as laughable as giving souvenirs to POWs.
14 year old Vietnamese girl capturing a US POW twice her size.
Moral of the story? Do not fuck with Vietnamese women. They are serious badasses.
Cat Ba, a place we’d never heard of and were using only as a jump off point to Ha Long Bay, turned out to be our favourite place in Vietnam.
But instead of explaining why, I’ll just let these pictures do the talking for me:
This is why I like to call Cat Ba the Island of Dreams. Because not only did it fulfill our wildest dreams of what an island should look like, it was also not crowded and a fantastic deal.
Here’s how much we ended up spending:
|Accommodations||$23 CAD (or $17 USD)||$27 for Hoi An (including breakfast, pool, rainfall shower, and free bike rentals), $31 for Hanoi (including buffet breakfast and shower with super jets), $19 for Cat Ba (balcony room). Good God, just when I thought the accommodations in Vietnam couldn't possibly get any cheaper, somehow they do.|
|Food||$20 CAD ($15 USD)||I have no idea why the Banh Mi lady still only charges $1.50/sandwich despite her fame on Anthony Bourdain's show, but I hope it stays that way. Prices for food in Hanoi were about 24-30% more expensive than Nha Trang and Hoi An, but still cheap and worth it. We even went to the famous Bun Cha restaurant visited by Obama and Anthony Bourdain and it was still only $6 despite its fame.|
|Attractions||$6.70 ($5 USD)||$36.50CAD ($28 USD)/person for Kayak tour in Cat Bat, $7.20 CAD each for historical old town entrance fee, $3.60 CAD each for the prison museum, and $2.40 CAD each for the women's museum. Averaged over 3 weeks, it's only $6.70/day.|
|Transportation||$9.50 ($7.18 USD)||Trains were reasonable ($45 CAD each from Hoi An to Cat Bat, $15 each for the ferry) to get around with in Vietnam so we didn't need to take a single bus.|
|Misc:||$2 ($1.50 USD)||$45CAD ($35 USD) for my 'fashion whoring for a sandwich' custom-made dress. Not part of the original budget, but totally worth it because I got my Banh Mi. Also, averaged out over 3 weeks, it's still only $2/day.|
|Total:||61.20$ CAD ($45 USD)|
So there you have it. Visiting Vietnam taught us that if you’re not sure about a place, don’t listen to other people’s opinions. Go see it for yourself.
Are there any places you’ve been to that surprised you (positively or negatively)?