A rare moment when the sun came out

Our stay in Quy Nhon — and indeed this whole trip to Vietnam — was all triggered by an article I saw in a travel magazine just about a year ago. I read about this cool train called Vietage that makes a six-hour journey through central Vietnam, linking the Anantara hotels in Hoi An and Quy Nhon. In fact, Vietage is a single luxurious train car, organized by Anantara, that is added onto a standard Vietnam Railways train for this particular 200-mile segment of its route. Its passengers pass the time in great style, enjoying lounges, cocktails, and fine dining.

I shared the article with Jim, and we both got excited about doing another trip to Vietnam, with this train journey as one highlight. I soon set about planning, finding flights, booking hotels, etc. I get very engrossed in this type of planning and focus on it intensely for a couple weeks until an itinerary is in place.

But I found the process for booking the train very confusing. I inexplicably could not choose the dates I wanted on the website. I eventually wrote to someone at Anantara for help. They wrote back that the train was out of commission for some kind of maintenance for the entire month of February. What a disappointment! Here I am planning a whole trip around this fictitious train!

I lost my enthusiasm and just quit my planning for a couple weeks. Fortunately, I had not yet made any non-refundable commitments. We eventually decided we were excited enough about Vietnam, fancy train or not, and I should finish my arrangements.

Exploring the village of Bai Xep for a lunch spot. This turned out to be a bust.

At least I didn’t much worry about Jim getting hit by a car because of low visibility in the gloomy weather

We ended up hiring a driver for the journey from Hoi An to Quy Nhoh, and that did actually go quite smoothly. We expected a 5-1/2 hour drive and it actually went an hour faster than that. But no cocktails.

So that is how we ended up at the Anantara resort in Quy Nhon, a place that is otherwise a bit off from the standard tourist route. The resort was nice enough, though the weather and other surroundings were less than entirely hospitable.

Quy Nhon is a beachside community that is a very popular retirement destination for well-to-do Vietnamese. But, according to our travel guide, “for most travellers its attractions are perhaps less compelling.” In fact, the resort was about 15 minutes south of Quy Nhon, a short walk from a village called Bai Xep, which the guide book suggested was more charming.

Now we love nothing more than escaping from a resort for a somewhat more authentic dining experience. So on our second day we walked up the road into Bai Xep to find a lunch spot. But boy, was this town bedraggled! There were some really downscale tourist establishments, but nothing that looked remotely pleasant to us. We made the 15-minute walk back to the hotel eager for another nice resort meal! We could have easily taken a taxi into Quy Nhon for lunch or dinner, but I could not find a single option that looked appealing there either.

So we spent 5 days cloistered at the comfortable resort, where the food was actually quite good. Unfortunately, the weather was not. At the beginning the forecast showed a couple cloudy days, followed by a couple partly sunny days. But every day the forecast shifted, and the clouds hardly ever lifted — until the morning we were leaving, when the sky was clear and the forecast finally showed sun all day. Oh well, that’s the way it is sometimes. Time to head further south and find the damn sun!

Every time the sun peeped out for just a second, we’d jump up and take a pic

The view across the lovely (if usually cloudy) bay

The restaurant at the resort had a gimmick of cooking the food on big slabs of salt, but it did all taste great

I had a beautiful seafood assortment on my salt slab

The view from the very uncrowded pool

Boats on the bay

Our room deal came with a free massage for each of us. Doesn’t Jim look relaxed leaving the spa?

The sun — capture it fast!

Hoi An explodes with color and character

Based on two previous visits, I consider Hoi An my favorite place in Vietnam. So we made Hoi An both the second and third stops on this year’s Vietnam itinerary. What the heck does that mean? In short, it means we booked stays at two different hotels — one at the beach 15 minutes from town, followed by a second stay right in town.

Just outside the town, on a beach along the South China Sea, is a very attractive Four Seasons resort. It’s considered one of the finest hotels in the country. I wanted to stay there for a few days and have a nice beach experience, but I didn’t want to compromise our stay in the town itself. So I booked four nights there, followed by another three nights at a place in town. It seemed kind of weird to book two hotels that are a 15-minute taxi ride apart, but what the heck.

It was a good call. After the urban chaos and excitement of Hanoi, we were ready to chill out on a beach already. So we caught a 90-minute flight to Danang in central Vietnam, followed by an easy 30-minute taxi ride to the Four Seasons. There we chilled out, never even going into town. We’d save that for a proper visit a few days later.

Soaking up some sun in a pool overlooking the beach

Our room came with bikes. I loved moving around by bike — from the room to breakfast, to the gym, to the pool — under a lovely canopy of frangipani trees.

My breakfast view

We often tire of food at fancy resorts and want to find something more down to earth. We were glad to discover such a lunch spot just down the beach.

The food at the resort was actually quite exceptional. Here Jim does a pho comparison — Hanoi-style side-by-side against Hoi An style. It’s a bitter rivalry.

As we prepared to move into town, we wondered if it would still hold its charm. Our blog post from Hoi An nine years ago was really loaded up with pictures and raves about how much we loved the town. Spoiler alert: Once again, there is a big pile of pictures below — because the town is so lovely, colorful, and bustling. And more so than ever this year because we arrived here for the height of Tet, the Lunar New Year, which is Vietnam’s biggest holiday.

The greatest thing about Hoi An is that it’s such a lively town, but it’s small enough that you can hop on a bike and within minutes be riding along lush gardens and peaceful rice fields. Our fondest memory from nine years ago involved biking out to a rustic little restaurant called Baby Mustard, which we then called “one of the best meals we’ve ever had.” We were delighted to return this time to find that it hadn’t changed a bit. They still go out into the garden after you order to pick lettuces and herbs for your meal. And the food was still excellent and crazy inexpensive.

But wonderful Baby Mustard got one-upped this time. Jim was out on a long walk outside of town and happened upon another charming restaurant called Field. He booked us a table, and we headed out on our bikes for lunch the next day. Field was a bit fancier than Baby Mustard, the kind of place with nice napkins, a wine list, and even after dinner espressos. And the setting among rice fields was so spectacular that you want to enjoy all that and linger as long as possible. Heaven!

At Baby Mustard Jim ordered thee same mackerel wrapped in banana leaf that he had nine years ago. Still as delicious!

Jim snapped this rice field scene out on a walk outside town

The next day Jim led the way by bike to Field

Blissful dining at Field

It really doesn’t get better than this

Biking back after lunch

We had to stop a lot for pictures

And here’s a selfie while we’re at it

A little shrine along the road

Hoi An was loaded up with flowers and decorations for the New Year celebration

Seems like every storefront had Tet flower arrangements

A dinner in town

Beautiful Hoi An

People celebrating everywhere

Our last dinner in Hoi An at a wonderful place called Morning Glory Signature

My view from Morning Glory of the celebration along the Thu Bon River

More riverside celebration

And a bit of commerce everywhere

Happy New Year!

Here we are with our old classmate Lin Liu, living in Hanoi as an American diplomat. Right below us (we’re in her apartment) is the lake where John McCain was shot down and captured.

We’re spending February in Vietnam. We’ve been here twice before, first for three or four weeks in late 2001/early 2002 and then again almost exactly 10 years ago early in our big adventure. We’ve long described Vietnam as one of our favorite countries – great food, friendly people, interesting history, beautiful beaches, and some lovely cities – but we both wondered if we would like it as much this third time. Maybe we’ve kind of seen it all already and we would just be reliving some Greatest Hits experience. After a couple days in Hanoi, though, I’m inclined to think we will really enjoy it. Simply put (and something I would never have imagined saying growing up during the war) I love Hanoi.

If you have to take a flight half way around the world, might as well do it in Business Class with a bottomless glass of champagne, right?

First, though, we had to get there. It was supposed to be straightforward: Qatar Airways, one stop in Doha, a modest layover, then on to Hanoi. Everything was fine until we got near Hanoi when the pilot announced that due to weather conditions we would have to circle for a while. And another while. Until finally he announced that we would have to divert to Bangkok. OK we thought, we can sit it out for an hour or two until the plane is refueled and the weather clears up as the forecast certainly showed it was to do. (Even then, at one point the plane did a big loop, turned around and headed back to Hanoi. Yay!! Except the celebration was too soon: the weather fogged up again and we turned back to Bangkok.)

So we go on to Bangkok, land, and hang out on the plane for a couple hours while the airline tries to figure out what to do. Eventually the weather in Hanoi cleared, but too late: the crew had “timed out” and they couldn’t take the plane back to Hanoi. They tell us instead we will deplane while they figure out if they can get another crew or if we’ll have to spend the night.

Mark and I then tried to decide whether we should just buy a one-way flight to Hanoi so we could be sure to get there (and the pre-paid hotel room!) that afternoon. Seats were available and they were pretty inexpensive. One problem: Qatar Airways insisted – insisted! – on holding our passports when we went through immigration. They said it was the Thai officials and maybe it was, but it made no sense: Americans can go into Thailand without a visa so what’s the problem? Just have us go through immigration like anyone else. Absolutely no way: we had to give up our passports. It was only for a couple hours, though, they explained, as we’d be flying out between four and five that afternoon.

That was just a big old lie, though, to get us to quiet down and give them our passports. Instead they took us to a hotel maybe 30 minutes from the airport and nearly an hour away from the center of Bangkok. And there we stayed overnight with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

While the diversion to Bangkok was a fiasco, we tried to make the best of it. There was nothing very interesting around our airport hotel, but we did find one tiny local restaurant that got good reviews so we tried it. Colorful, local, and cheap, yes, but … not as great as we’d hoped.

The next morning when we got to the airport it was an unbelievable zoo. Somehow no one had figured out how to get our passports back to us so when someone went to the check-in counter – dedicated to our delayed flight – the staff would just start looking through the passports one-by-one, trying to match the name or picture with whoever was standing in front of them. Apparently no one had ever heard of “alphabetization.”

And speaking of stupid, the new boarding passes they issued still had yesterday’s date, since that was the scheduled departure. So when I got to the security line they didn’t want to let me through – my flight had been yesterday. Eventually a supervisor came over and showed the agent a little scribbled note that explained the discrepancy. Even then we weren’t free, though. Thai officials didn’t want us to go through the normal passport line since we’d come into the country without having our passports stamped. Instead they herded us, one-by-one as people gradually worked their way through all the hoops, into a holding area. When could we go through? Once all 174 people had made it through. That was insane and was going to take hours … and who knew if someone had gotten lost or went through a different line or whatever. So finally they realized the stupidity of that and when there were maybe 30 of us let us through.

OK, fine. Eventually they got that sorted out and we flew on to Hanoi. And within about an hour of checking into the Metropole Hotel – the grand dame of Hanoi’s luxury hotels – I was over all the frustration. Around the center, French Quarter, and old town, at least, Hanoi is just such a beautiful, exciting, vibrant city that you fall in love immediately or, in my case, fall in love again. The weather was pleasant, temperature in the 70s and overcast so not too hot. The street life is alive. And right in the middle of everything, just a block from our hotel, is Hoan Kiem Lake, where the people of Hanoi run, walk, take pictures, play badminton, exercise, and just enjoy life. I’ve gone out for early morning runs and walks every time I’ve been in Hanoi and this trip was no exception. It just makes me happy.

We took a break while walking through the old city and sat on a second-floor balcony of a coffee shop watching a random intersection. The noise, the chaos, the colors … it was exhilarating. Watching cars, buses, scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians pushing through with little or no traffic controls you wonder how people survive but somehow they do.

Sadly though, we’d only booked three nights in Hanoi, in part because we weren’t sure we would really want to stay longer. But since we lost a full 30 hours to the Bangkok fiasco, in fact we only had one full day to enjoy it. We made the most of our time there, spending much of the day with a former classmate who is part of the American embassy in Hanoi. She showed us around a bit, including a spectacular street-food lunch, a local coffee shop, and a great place for dinner.

Lunch with Lin was a special treat. She took us to a popular little “restaurant” that was mostly just stools on the sidewalk, where they specialize in Bun Cha, a Hanoi specialty of grilled pork patties, grilled pork belly, in a divine broth with rice noodles and tons of fresh, local greens. Oh man.

One of the things we noticed as soon as we got into the city that it just seemed cleaner, nicer, wealthier than we remembered it. And as we walked around you could see unmistakeable signs: nicer restaurants, five-star hotels, a Four Seasons under development. People were better dressed with maybe just a little more spring in their steps.

And sure enough when I looked it up, Vietnam’s economy has been on a tear. Inflation-adjusted per capital income is up nearly 75 percent over the last 10 years. And given the challenges of addressing rural poverty, and especially the historic interest autocratic governments have always had in keeping people in the capital happy and complacent, I suspect income growth in Hanoi is measurably larger than that. It seems as though things are going well here, at least so long as you don’t do anything to promote democracy or anything stupid like that.

It was all over too soon though and after just a day-and-a-half we were flying down to Danang for a few days at a resort near Hoi An. We have four weeks here so there’s still plenty of time to soak up Vietnam.

The people of Vietnam are always so friendly. These kids were doing some assignment with their teacher so a couple of them interviewed me. Very cute.

It’s the start of Tet here, and the Sunday we arrived there were hundreds of mostly young women and girls dressed up, posing, and having their pictures taken. Very colorful.

Here’s a classic Vietnamese picture. The local guy taking a break, napping on his scooter. We’ve taken this picture on each of our trips here.

The bridge to Ngoc Son Temple in Hoan Kiem Lake in early morning fog

I love walking or running around the lake early in the morning where you see every kind of exercise imaginable. Here we have a group of older women pounding each other on the back. Looks like fun!

More women exercising

Yet another group of women out early. I suspect they were practicing something for a Tet celebration.

Mark on one of the crazy colorful crowded Hanoi streets

While Vietnam is modernizing rapidly, untold millions of people still make their living the old fashioned way.

Me & Lin at a very pleasant little coffee shop/art studio. It’s the sort of thing that I just don’t remember from 10 years ago and certainly not from our first visit 23 years ago.

And finally, how happy do I look stranded here in Bangkok. Fortunately though as they say, all’s well that ends well. And this ended well. Eventually.