Up early to hit the road to Trang An! Our guide showed up in a super-deluxe luxury van, since we’d originally scheduled a tour for three people – but Mom was still battling her stomach ailment, so it was just Ak and me.
The ride out was fine – I think we both dozed – and a couple of hours later we arrived at Trang An. The pictures I’d seen were lovely and it was quite a pretty spot, with lush green hills surrounding the lakes and grottoes. Our guide led us down to the small paddle boats and I made a major error. He asked if we minded sharing our boat – and I responded “Sure, that’s fine!” But it really wasn’t – not least because we’d already shelled out a good chunk of change for this excursion, which to me means we shouldn’t have even been asked to share a boat frankly. Of course, I should’ve just said no, but it was too late for that.
So, Ak and I squeezed into the second row behind an older Vietnamese couple, who were there with their adult children, son-in-law and little toddler grandbaby who were all on the boat in front of us. There was a lot of shouting back and forth between the boats, presumably encouraging granddaughter to do something adorable – but it wore thin.
The other thing that wore thing was the boat ride itself. Sure, the scenery is lovely and paddling through the low-ceilinged caves was pretty cool – the first couple of times. But the boat ride goes on for a solid two hours. It was really hot out, the views all start to look the same, the bench we were sitting on was really uncomfortable, especially since we had to sit far forward so the lady paddling our boat wouldn’t yell at us again. I’d read some of the write-ups on Trang An and many of them mentioned that the boat ladies were a pretty surly bunch – and this proved to be pretty accurate. Granted, I’d be hard-pressed to object to their surliness – I’d be the same way if I were paddling a bunch of fat-assed tourists everyday – but I will say that it didn’t really enhance the experience.
After the ride was finally over, it was time for lunch nearby. It was a buffet-style deal catering to busloads of tourists. The food was mediocre at best. It was a real disappointment, especially given how delicious Vietnamese food is. Afterwards, though, while we were waiting to get going again, Ak and I happened upon a local fellow shepherding his herd of goats down the hill and across the road. They were noisy and hilarious.
Back into the van to visit Bái Đính Temple. It was fine. The grounds were pretty and there were some impressive statues and carvings. Overall though? This was not my favorite day trip. It was a long way to go to visit sights I didn’t find all that interesting. Ak and I agreed we’d’ve been happier spending the day exploring more of Hanoi. Oh, well, guess we’ll have to go back then!
At the hotel, Mom was much improved but decided to stay in while Ak and I had dinner at a place called Home. He’d been the one to find it before our trip and it looked nice – and it was! Located in a charming old house behind a large iron gate, it’s a lovely little oasis in the midst of the intensity of Hanoi.
We were seated in the cozy back room. It was an intimate setting and nice view of the patio outside. Refreshing cocktails started things off and our apps were really tasty – bún chả and fresh rolls – while our main course was OK. Honestly, I probably should’ve ordered something different.
The service was a bit unpolished, though it was so genuinely friendly and accommodating, it’s hard to really find fault with it. I’d say this if our meal had just wrapped up ordinarily – but it didn’t. When I’d reserved our table before my trip, I mentioned that the dinner was to celebrate Ak’s birthday (which was actually a couple of weeks prior), hoping they’d put a candle in his dessert or something.
Anyway, as we were waiting for dessert menus, several of the staff members came into the room with a birthday cake, singing “Happy Birthday.” I wasn’t actually sure what was happening and assumed one of the other patrons had ordered a cake. WELL. This was for Ak! I think he was a little embarrassed by the attention (though I think he liked it a bit too!), but it was such a wonderful and unexpected treat. The other diners all joined in singing and there was a great round of applause when Ak blew out the candle. It was really just delightful and an extraordinary surprise for both of us – not least because Ak had mentioned when we chatted on his birthday that he’d never had an actual cake on his birthday! A great big thank you to everyone at Home for making this night so special.
We adjourned to the terrace for a couple of after dinner drinks (and maybe a bit more cake) to enjoy the warm evening, then headed off in search of Unicorn Pub, recommended by Tu, our guide from Sunday’s food tour. Found the place with no problem. Didn’t seem particularly fancy or anything – but the cocktail menu was pretty interesting.
Ak got a pho cocktail – IKR? – while I ordered one that included chili and fish sauce – IKR? Honestly, this could’ve gone either way – I was a little worried that the drinks would be gimmicky and weird. Instead, they were amazing! Ak’s even got set on fire and poured through some kind of triple-decker contraption on the bar. And it tasted like boozy pho – in a totally yummy way, with hints of star anise, cinnamon, coriander and other spices. Mine was tart and citrusy with a kick from the chilis and a nice roundness, thanks to the umami from the fish sauce.
Someone (I think a staff member or their significant other) came in with a baby, who was adorable. Ak and I were waving and making faces – but I think being faced with two tipsy bearded tourists was a bit much, since his initial expression of concern slowly morphed into terror and tears. Sorry, kid! Just trying to be nice – but I know we’re kinda crazy looking.
Woke up Tuesday morning and Mom had recovered from her bout with some type of food-borne illness. It was good to see her back up and about. She was still taking things easy, so she stayed behind while Ak and I headed out in search of the chicken wings our food tour guide had told us about. We actually found the place, but it was closed. Curses!
We wandered the streets for a bit – Hanoi is an amazing place to do exactly that, with gorgeous old buildings, shops and stalls selling everything from banh mi to stuffed animals, some teeming and noisy while little alleys are quiet and shadowy. It’s an amazing city.
We eventually made our way to Phở10, an apparently rather famous place for (what else?) phở. Yes, there was a line, but it moved quickly. And the phở? It was pretty darn good.
Back to the hotel, gathered our belongings – and Mom! – and headed to the airport for the short flight to Bangkok. Happily, I’d had a few thousand old British Airways points lying about (as one does) and booked all three of us in business class on Qatar Airways – and it was pretty deluxe! The flight attendants were especially nice – a short flight like this doesn’t usually include the fancy amenity kit, but when I asked for one for Ak, they were happy to provide it. Honestly, the one disappointing thing about the flight was how short it was – but I still managed to quaff my share of champagne.
Soon enough, Mom and I were ensconced in Le Meridien Patpong. I’ve gotten to stay at a handful of really nice hotels in my visits to Bangkok. Le Meridien is not the fanciest – though it’s extraordinarily comfortable and well-located. What makes this my first choice for hotels in Bangkok is the service – not just top-notch, but delivered with with both authenticity and discretion, along with a genuine focus on making their guest feel at home.
And so, the next chapter begins! I was very excited to show my mom around this city that I fell in love with so quickly on my first visit just a year ago.