As expected, staying at the 200-year-old Vinh Hung Heritage Hotel in the middle of the Ancient Town is a strange experience and completely different than our sweet little Halo Homestay.
It is literally the difference between light and dark. Halo is all white marble, concrete, tile, walls and lots of sunlight. Vinh Hung is all dark wood floors,paneling, walls, carved armoire and other heavy furniture. There are only six rooms here and it is the only place you can stay overnight right in the Ancient Town. This is an old spice merchants house, with a small two-story central courtyard, very creaky floors, doors that stick and old Asian pottery. There is AC though but a drip. So we have turned it off and hope the street noise won’t be bothersome. The cost is different too $77 a night rather than $18 but we also don’t have to ride bikes into town. We are here.
Tonight we also splurged on a fancy dinner at Co Mai but we are talking $47 for a five course tasting menu and two drinks, vs. about $8-$10 that we have been spending for street food. For lunch, we shared a crowded table at Beo Bahn, a tiny place recommended by Hanoi foodie Mark for com gai, a simple rice and shredded chicken dish.
We decided to go to Co Mai because I was curious about how a French chef would reinterpret Vietnamese food. The restaurant is also in one of the 200-year-old structures here and we sat on the second floor with the dark wood window open so we could see all the action below at a street market.
The food went from simple (“ocean soup” that looked, tasted and smelled like the ocean – light, salty, watery, a little murky, with small pieces of seafood, veg, and maybe seaweed) to complex (a little bowl of passion fruit cake with a small scoop of curry sorbet, one of three such concoctions on our dessert plate. The server brought over what looked like a cinnamon stick the size of my forearm and grated flecks of it onto on little bowls).
In the morning we road our rickety Homestay bikes to the countryside and beach, this time choosing narrow concrete paths between the rice paddies and fish farms, encountering the occasional water buffalo or farmer. The scenes are an old/new world mashup – a farmer in a traditional pointed hat, squatting in the shade beside a water buffalo and talking on his cell phone; small villages with high rises in the distance near cui dai beach.
My parents went to Thailand back in the day, which we’ve heard has now become almost too tourist friendly. Now younger generations go to Vietnam, which has me wondering how Vietnam will change/has changed. We are searching for authenticity and in the process, destroying it…maybe. Truth be told, there are way too many tourists here. Trying to cross one of the main pedestrian bridges here brought up unpleasant memories of a similar experience in Prague. The crowd was so thick it was very uncomfortable.But I see why the tourists are here. Like Venice, it is exotic and otherworldly and so vibrant. Our Homestay family opened their business about 3-4 years ago and is seeing fewer customers because there is more competition- new homestays and hotels everywhere. But then people here seem to be competing everywhere – the street vendors, restaurants, shop keepers, spas, coffee shops, tour operators. This is the first communist country I have visited and that’s easy to forget with raw capitalism everywhere.
The weather has been very hot and humid. My clothes were drenched with sweat after our bike ride. But It suddenly got slightly cooler last night. Around 3 pm, we cooled off in the pool of a nearby resort on the river that is a sister hotel to ours and chugged along the river for a free sunlight cruise – two perks of this strange old place. Today I plan to take advantage of another perk – a free 30 minute foot massage. Dirck will pass.