Months 9 and 10 took us to only two countries and one autonomous territory: Vietnam, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Most of this list is dominated by Vietnam considering we spent by far the most time there, but also because we had the opportunity to explore the entire country, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between. Still, I think the winners of this list stack up well against past Best Of’s, and many of these places, foods and drinks will be burned into my memory for the rest of my life. And if somehow I forget, I’ll always have this post as a refresher!
Cafe: Bicycle Up Cafe, Dalat, Vietnam
Much like previous editions of my Best Of posts, the Bicycle Up Cafe has already been featured in our Roasts Around the World where I go into detail on what makes this place so great. It is rare to find a coffee shop that not only nails the atmosphere, but also has fantastic coffee and a slew of other drink options for non-coffee lovers. Vietnam was a cafe lover's paradise, with Saigon in particular having more cafes per square mile than I have ever seen in my life. I was initially concerned we'd only be able to find Vietnamese style coffee, but thanks to cafes like Bicycle Up that is most certainly not the case.
Restaurant: DimDimSum Hong Kong, Hong Kong
We spent the first 3 weeks of this trip leg eating dumplings nearly every day. The vast majority were mouth-wateringly delicious, but I contend that DimDimSum had the very best of the bunch. Known for their sweet Piggy Buns, this restaurant had a huge selection, short wait time, and was easy on the wallet. It is only about a 10 minute walk from world famous Din Tai Fung, yet has (in my opinion) higher quality offerings for a fraction of the price. If you are absolutely set on the Michelin star dumpling experience, you also can't go wrong with Tim Ho Wan. Their BBQ pork buns are the perfect combination of sweet and savory and is a strong runner-up. Note: We also tried the DimDimSum in Taipei and can report that while great, it is not quite on the same level as the Hong Kong location.
Bar: Heart of Darkness Craft Brewery, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Okay, so I am cheating a bit by putting a brewery in the best bar category, but justifiably so. Heart of Darkness made me feel like I was back in Chicago having flights at a local microbrewery. For under $10, you can get a selection of any four beers in very generous six ounce pours. They have everything from New England style IPA's to Irish stouts. While I generally enjoy the crisp, easy to drink beers of Southeast Asia, it felt so right to be back in a brewery tickling my taste buds with hoppy delights. The brewery also has a sweet "Heart of Darkness" theme, inspired by Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of the novella for the film Apocalypse Now. My favorite beer on the menu was Kurtz's Insane IPA - I even bought a T-shirt of the label!
Hostel: Mooka's Home, Dalat, Vietnam
I knew as soon as I started researching Dalat that I was going to love the city. Nestled in the mountains, away from the hot, muggy climate of Saigon, Dalat is known for their agriculture, with some of the best coffee, tea, grapes and other fruit in Vietnam grown nearby. Wine and coffee, two of my favorite things: what could possibly be better? The fact that our accommodation was our favorite in Vietnam and perhaps even all of Asia was just icing on the cake. Mooka's Home offers huge, spacious privates for only about $12 a night, some with floor to ceiling windows and a great view of the mountain town. The breakfast includes millennial favorites like avocado toast and they serve fantastic, locally roasted coffee. The real highlight was the BBQ, served every other night on the rooftop. For $5, you can indulge in all you can eat BBQ on huge grills in the center of the table, Korean style. Putting marinated Korean BBQ into fresh Vietnamese bread was not something I knew I needed in my life and may have ruined all future BBQs for me. I recommend Mooka's Home and Dalat to anyone interested in traveling to Vietnam, you will not be disappointed.
Night Market: Shilin Night Market, Taipei, Taiwan
There are night markets in pretty much every major city we've been to in Asia, but none gave us the rush that Shilin did in Taipei. Vendors can be seen grilling meat with blow torches. Hot dogs are topped with tofu and squid. Dumplings and buns are served up to hungry passers-by for mere cents. The whole market is jam packed from 6 pm to closing, prime for people watching and a good assurance that your street food will be freshly cooked. If you're not into the food aspect, there are hundreds of shops selling clothing and assorted merch, a high percentage coming straight from Japan. My only complaint is that there only seemed to be two trash cans in the entire place - not conducive to eating street food!
Beer: Jasmine IPA, Pasteur Street Brewing, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
While I loved all the different offerings I tried at Heart of Darkness brewery, they didn't claim ownership of my favorite beer in Vietnam. Pasteur Street Brewing, located just 5 blocks or so away from Heart of Darkness, took that award with their outstanding Jasmine IPA. Most IPAs we have had since we've been abroad taste very similar to any you might have had in the US, hoppy and occasionally quite malty. The Jasmine IPA introduces some lovely floral notes to the trademark IPA taste, along with some lemon and grapefruit flavors which really surprised me. It reminded me a bit of a more flowery Grapefruit Sculpin IPA by Ballast Point. I found it at bars and restaurants all across the country, so don't miss the opportunity to taste it while you're in Vietnam.
Beverage: Ca Phe Sua, Vietnam
Ca Phe Sua, or Vietnamese Coffee with Condensed Milk, is the standard beverage of choice of nearly everyone in Vietnam. Every shop, restaurant or stall will serve it, albeit with wildly different degrees of quality. We had somewhat of a tradition of pounding one when we woke up and then stopping for one on the road to give our butts a break from the motorbike, and to give my mind the caffeine jolt it needed to stay alert while driving. If you didn’t know, the Vietnamese use a special method of brewing using a small drip filter they plop down right on top of your cup. After about 5 minutes it’ll usually be all done dripping and then you can go to town. There is never a lot of coffee, but it is so strong you probably wouldn’t want much more anyway. The best part about ordering Ca Phe Sua at roadside stops was they often served you complimentary tea as well, perfect to rehydrate and recaffeinate after cruising in the sun for several hours. I know I will forever cherish the memories of sitting with strangers in the middle of nowhere Vietnam, trying to converse via Google Translate over our iced Vietnamese coffees. Thanks Ca Phe Sua!
Hangout: Fairy Coffee, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Speaking of Vietnamese coffee, Fairy Coffee in Saigon may have had our absolute favorite. We tried MANY cafes in HCMC - there are at least two on every street with virtually no exceptions. But Fairy Coffee had the best Ca Phe Sua we’ve had, along with an awesome second and third floor space, complete with huge windows overlooking the hectic streets below. At the beginning of our stay in Saigon we tried out quite a few different spots to get our coffee fix and some work done. Fairy was definitely the best of the bunch, and we went every day towards the end of the week. They have much more than Vietnamese coffee if that’s not your thing, including several types of iced filter coffee and your more standard Italian-style espresso. All excellent and all very affordable, especially compared to some of the higher end cafes nearby.
Activity: Motorbiking from Hanoi to Saigon
It should come as a surprise to no one that our 25 day motorbike adventure was the highlight of months 9 and 10. After spending so many months traveling by plane, train and bus, it was so freeing to be able to go wherever we pleased, taking stops whenever we wanted, and taking in the beauty of the country one day at a time. While northern Vietnam was quite cold and wet, it was by far my favorite place to motorbike. The route from Phong Nha to Khe Sanh took us 8 hours and through two gorgeous national parks, probably the highlight of the whole journey. Down south, Nha Trang to Dalat was also exquisite, the most impressive mountain climb I’ve ever done on a bike. And while the major cities were hectic and sometimes terrifying, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
Photography: Phong Nha, Vietnam
I wish we could have spent 3 or 4 more days in Phong Nha just to take more photographs of the incredible beauty there. Giant limestone cliffs, massive caves, waterfalls and jungle as far as the eye can see - it truly felt like we were in Jurassic Park. I half expected to see pterodactyls flying overhead. I think many tourists skip Phong Nha in exchange for more time at the major cities or more popular tour destinations like Ha Long Bay or the Mekong Delta. Trust me when I say that Phong Nha is way more worthy of your time than either of those places. When you’re not out exploring the nature around you, the main village is also the perfect chill out spot for the weary backpacker. Great restaurants and kickass hostels line the main street, with everything costing a fraction of what you would spend at a similar place in another country. If there is one place we could go back to and spend more time at in Asia, it would be Phong Nha.
Dessert: Egg Waffles, Hong Kong
Egg waffles have been popular in Hong Kong for the past 50 years, a sweet egg batter cooked on a hot griddle and eaten with your hands as you walk through the concrete jungle. Nowadays, they come in a million different flavors, from matcha green tea to purple sweet potato. I couldn’t get enough of them while we were there, but my absolute favorite came from a tiny stall called Mammy Pancake near the Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station. There you will find people lined up all throughout the day, itching to get their hands on a bag full of steaming hot egg waffle. My personal favorite was the coffee flavor for obvious reasons, but every kind I tried there was outstanding - Jenny even swears by the plain!
City: Taipei, Taiwan
I know I have hardly mentioned Taipei at all throughout this entire post, so the fact that we find ourselves here is surprising. The facts behind why Taipei is my favorite city of this leg probably lies more with the timing of our visit more than anything else. We had just spent a whirlwind of a three weeks in Bali, Boracay, Siquijor and Hong Kong. We were mentally and physically exhausted and just wanted a place to call home for awhile. Taipei was that home away from home, and I feel like even though we didn’t do that many tourist things there, we really got to know the city on a different level from other places we have visited. When everything was closed for Chinese New Year, we really had to go out and explore to find good food and things to do. Outside of our hostel it was rare to encounter any English speakers or western tourists, so we were really able to get immersed in our surroundings and the local way of life. Going to a public thermal hot spring in Beitou was probably peak Taipei experience for me, but my taste buds will also never forget the incredible dumplings and hot pot we had an inordinate amount of. I really hope I am able to return to Taipei someday to experience it all over again, and hopefully get a chance to explore the rest of the island that we didn’t manage to see on this first visit.
We just left Vietnam yesterday and I feel like a small part of my soul has been ripped out. Other than perhaps our month in Nepal, it was by far the most powerful experience I’ve had so far on the trip. To see and meet people from all walks of life, to stay in everything from farm stays to home stays to hostels or even executive suites, to eat in huts on the side of the road or fine dining restaurants in the middle of Saigon - at the risk of sounding cliché, it gave me a new perspective as a traveler. To cruise from place A to place B, with no idea how long it will really take, where you’re stopping, where you will be able to stay, who you will meet and what new adventure you could experience. We never lived more up to our namesake than in Vietnam, often it was impossible to even make an itinerary to screw. It made me kind of wish we had had the opportunity to travel before the internet, before Google Maps and TripAdvisor. But at the same time, without many of those resources at our fingertips I’m sure I wouldn’t have loved Vietnam near as much as I did. We might not have even stopped at some of our favorite places without hearing about them online first.
Throughout our journey we also watched Ken Burn’s The Vietnam War, to give us a little bit better of an understanding of what this country went through only some 40 years ago. To see footage of cities like Hue reduced to rubble and then drive there and see it with our own eyes as it is now was intense, but also gave me so much hope. For all of the destruction and tragedy that has occurred there, the land has healed, the cities have been rebuilt, and most importantly the spirit of the Vietnamese people has stayed intact. This country had the friendliest locals of any place we have been to despite the fact that we were responsible for a horrible war here that wasn’t even THAT long ago. It gave me hope that in a world where our institutions seem to be failing us, our leaders don’t represent us, and people are more divided than ever, things can always get better or be rebuilt once again.