Let’s Go Exploring! Hoi An, Hanoi, and Cat Ba: Searching for the World’s Best Banh Mi

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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If I had been apprehensive about Vietnam before, all my fear and scepticism evaporated once we visited these three cities:

HOI AN

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.”

WHAT?!?

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.

I started licking the laptop screen as soon as I posted this picture. Don’t judge.

(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:

Fashion whoring for a sandwich. Totally worth it.

On the plus side, our hotel room cost a measly $27/night (INCLUDING breakfast!) even though it had a pool and rainfall shower, so the extra cost really didn’t do a damn thing to our budget.

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.

HANOI

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”).

Mural depicting atrocities committed by the French on prisoners during the colonization of Vietnam

 

Guillotines used to execute Vietnamese prisoners.

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.

Here’s a picture of a Vietnamese medic reluctantly treating him after the North Vietnamese discovered that his father was a high-ranking admiral.

The picture below shows souvenirs being gifted to US POWs from Vietnamese prison guards to commemorate their time at the Hỏa Lò Prison:

 

I love the universal “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME” look in every prisoner’s eyes.

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.

The caption says “Mr Vo Thi Thang smiles when she was sentenced to 20 years hard labour and her famous saying ‘I only fear Saigon government will not exist 20 years to my sentence”.

 

14 year old Vietnamese girl capturing a US POW twice her size.

As guerrilla war chief, Nuyen Thi Chien directed more than 40 battles and killed and captured many enemy soldiers. At the ripe age of 21, during 1951,  completely UNARMED, she captured 4 French soldiers and 1 officer, thus becoming known as “Woman who captures the enemy unarmed”.

 

Kan Lich directed the guerrilla force at the age of only 18. In 1968 she was honoured for having participated in 19 battles, killing 150 soldiers and bringing down a American Dakota plane.

Moral of the story? Do not fuck with Vietnamese women. They are serious badasses.

CAT BA

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:

View from the balcony of our $19/day hotel room.

 

Our $36.50/person kayak tour (including food)

 

walkway to one of the best beaches on the island

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:

Category Cost/couple/day (CAD) Thoughts
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)?

28 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Hoi An, Hanoi, and Cat Ba: Searching for the World’s Best Banh Mi”

  1. Nice!
    Wanderer said you guys were in South America lately. Can’t wait to hear your “let’s go exploring” posts from SA.

    1. I know right? You’d think they’d jack up the price after being on Anthony Bourdain’s show, but nope. Another reason why I love SE Asia. Inflation barely exists here.

  2. Your traveling posts somehow manage to both get me super excited about being FI myself while at the same time enraging me that I’m not there yet. It’s really a weird feeling to have. Keep being hardcore ballers. Can’t wait to see the South America posts!

    1. It’s a weird feeling I know all too well from reading all the FI blogs while working towards FIRE. Trust me, it’s SO worth it in the end.

  3. Love this post – went to all these places, but unfortunately I seem to have missed all the amazing food places you went to! I didn’t really do any research when I went, but I shall be sure to go back next time.

    And I love Cat Ba, so I’m glad you did too! I went during “low season” (December!) but paid only US$6 or $7 a night for a room – no balcony though, but a perfectly fine room. I still think it is one of the (if not the) most beautiful places I’ve been to in this world – and I’m from NZ!

    1. Wow! That IS high praise coming from a NZlander! For such an amazing place, I don’t get why the rooms on the island is so cheap. I guess because everyone’s running off to Ha Long Bay so it’s still under-rated. Hopefully it stays that way (on second thought, I probably shouldn’t have posted about it and kept the secret to myself. Oops)

  4. Firecracker you look stunning in that dress, it was meant to be and you can wear it for years, barring too many sandwiches 😉 How was the sandwich shop and eating in general for a vegetarian? Would love for my husband and I to go and enjoy with miracle baby someday soon!

    1. Thanks! I suspect I’ll only be able to fit into it if I eat food in SE Asia. I end up gaining weight whenever I go back to North America. Oh well.

      I do remember them having a couple of veggie options (like garlic, omelette, or cheese and onion). Highly recommend trying it with your family!

    2. In general it is easy to find vegetarian food in Vietnam, including simili-meat with fake bones and everything. Some Buddhists are vegetarian including monks. (“Chay” is the word, if I can spell..)

      1. Thank you, my sister and family were in China, and the vegetarian food was all fried in pork fat so I had worried that this may be a general practice.

        1. My family’s vegetarian and we’ve found good luck eating at vegetarian restaurants or telling the server that regular restaurants that we want Buddhist food (just be aware then they will refuse to serve you anything containing garlic/onions/chives…and everything ends tasting kind of bland).

  5. OMG that Bahn Mi looks soo friggen awesome. Now I’m inspired to make me some badass Bahn mi and I’m *going to blame you*.

    Lovely pictures btw… why is it that pictures next to the ocean are always so beautiful?

    I also agree with your estimation of Vietnamese women. Yep, true badasses.

    1. I accept full responsibility 🙂 You need to post those Bahn Mi pictures and send them the recipe.

      Correction, pictures next to the ocean where the beach ISN’t mobbed with tourists are beautiful. I’m so glad the tourists are staying away from Cat Ba.

    1. Oh you went to Cat Ba as well? Awesome! How did you find out about it? We didn’t even know it existed until we tried to use it as a stopping point to get to Ha Long Bay. All the travel blogs talk about Ha Long, none of them even mentioned Cat Ba.

      1. Hmmm….can’t quite remember, but generally we purposely look for lesser known tourist locations. We too had a room with a balcony for 7$ a night!! This was 8 years ago. We also rented a dirt bike for 5$ a day. Did you hike to the highest peak on cat ba. I’ll never forget those views. Vietnam still stands out as one of our favourite places. Beautiful and cheap. I loved never having to care how much things cost.

        1. No, we didn’t get a chance to hike to the peak (too busy kayaking, beach hopping and stuffing our faces). I remember seeing some type of Buddhist temple up there? Will have to do that next time.

          Not having to care how much things costs is my favourite thing about Southeast Asia. I’m also glad that Vietnam hasn’t been overrun by tourists like many of the islands in Thailand. Hopefully it stays that way.

  6. Buying a custom made dress for a sandwich sounds EXACTLY like the kind of situation I would get myself into. It was a struggle not to laugh too loudly at work and disturb the other tax accountants (who are probably also secretly reading blogs instead of working).

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