On their first international holiday together, a couple experiences the romance of Vietnam. By Japleen Kaur
Every first comes with its own charm—a curious mix of excitement, mystery, and nervousness. I experienced this first-hand on my first international trip with my partner. We fell for the country while falling for each other all over again. Hanoi welcomed us with its cool November breeze, purging the fatigue out of our bodies. I rolled down the windows taking in the nightlife of the capital city, when Abhinav pinched my arm, breaking my daydream. “Japleen, we’re here!” Our adventure had begun.
We were staying close to the Old Quarter, where colonial architecture whispers historic stories, where you stumble upon ancient temples, where you admire the daily hustle of locals. Streets lined up with hawkers selling barbecued meats, local breads, bamboo bags and hats—it was a party every single night. I sipped on cheap beer, served at many tiny joints in the Old Quarter, gulping down the sunflower seeds given with it. As Abhinav hogged on bun bo nam bo, a soupy noodle dish topped with tofu and beef, I ate banh mi, a cold baguette, which is filled with your choice of meat or vegetables. This was followed by endless cups of coffee.
Our agenda for Hanoi was to walk around the city and explore cafes. Circle Coffee-Bar, nestled in a bylane of Old Quarter, was the place that stayed open the longest, so we became nocturnal regulars. Vietnamese cold brew, egg coffee, and coconut coffee are menu items you’ll encounter wherever you go in Vietnam, but this particular cafe does yummy coffee cocktails. Tequila and vodka infusions? Yes, please! The Note Coffee, situated near Hoan Kiem Lake, was another favourite. With post-its covering every inch of the four-floor cafe space, it was infused with love, hope, humour, and dreams. Hoa10Gio – Floral & Book Cafe has a flower shop on the ground floor and ample books on the first floor. If you have deadlines to meet, like the two of us did, this might be the ideal spot to have a working date.
Hanoi overwhelmed us in a good way, but it was just the beginning. We would come back to the crowded city, but for now, it was time to board our bus to the colder higher terrain of Sapa Valley. Living in Himachal Pradesh, I didn’t want to wander in the hills on my vacation. But it was Abhinav’s choice, so I went along with it. The six-hour road trip was comfortably spent lying down in sleeper seats, passing green farmlands on the way. The bus dropped us at the main town square near a church. A central garden surrounded by adorable cafes, way more than we could count: this was our first glimpse of Sapa. Tourists kept pouring in as we had a delicious meal of steamed rice and lemongrass chicken at Le Gecko Cafe. Lemongrass is a hero herb in this area.
We stayed 45 minutes away from the bustling town, on the top of a hill, with a local family who belonged to the Hmong tribe. Lush paddy fields with farmers in colourful attire, wooden houses, and ample greenery defined the landscape. The dinner table was consistent on all our nights in the homestay—a big pot of rice served with caramelised pork, beans sautéed in garlic, boiled sweet potatoes, stir-fried chicken, vegetable soup, pan fried greens, and shots of local rice wine.
Our days in Sapa looked like a chapter out of a romance novel. We went on long moped rides (really the only way one should travel in Sapa), with a slight drizzle covering us with joy. We took wrong turns, went beyond our planned destinations, sang songs, and found ourselves on desolate roads. Of course, we also went to the Silver and Love waterfalls to take clichéd photos.
The Fansipan peak is the tallest in Vietnam, overlooking the tiny town. People either take the cable car or embark on a week-long trek, to reach the summit; we did neither. We rode till a certain vantage point to be able to sit in silence and admire the majesty of the mountain. The remaining time in Sapa was spent going to Cat Cat Village, which is looked after by the tourism department. A long downhill walk from the parking space ended in a vast landscape dotted with bamboo bridges. Surrounded by the hills it made for the perfect place for pre-wedding shoots. We chose to walk beyond the tourist hotspots and stumbled upon a path where only locals roamed. The clouds lingered above us, shuddering with thunder and turning the sky a deep violet. The natural beauty of Sapa stumped us, and in that moment, I was thankful that Abhinav had brought us here.
In the next leg of the journey, we left the mighty north to meet the calmer central province of Hoi An. This was my pick, and I couldn’t wait to spend days on the beach. Da Nang station is about an hour away from the sleepy town of Hoi An. The road to our stunning boutique hotel, Dechiu, was wide and developed, unlike the ones in Hanoi or Sapa, but our conversation kept drifting back to the jaw-dropping train journey we’d just experienced. We crossed the ocean, ridges, mountains, villages, beaches, forests, and waterfalls. At one point, we thought we were seeing the same dream together. I’ll go back to Vietnam just to do this journey again.
An Bang Beach is the quieter side of Hoi An. Our hotel was a minute’s stroll from the beach that had literally no humans in sight. Tastefully done, all of Dechiu’s 12 rooms looked appealing, but we went for the one on the rooftop that boasts an ocean view from the balcony. The week that we spent in Hoi An was dedicated to cuddles and catching up on sleep. Since Abhinav is not the kind to stay indoors for too long, we did venture out to the Ancient Town every night. The walking area was lit up with lanterns, bright cafes, and shops selling local items. We had to purchase two extra suitcases to take our shopping back home! Catch a play here, explore the night market, or simply take a boat ride through the centre of the town. However crowded it is, Ancient Town makes you feel alive.
But it’s the Coconut Forest that summed up Hoi An for me. Circular coconut boats take you on the backwaters, in the depths of the forest. We paid extra to our boatman to take us in the interiors, away from a rain dance party—yes, there’s an area reserved for parking your boats and showing your moves. Having drifted away from civilisation, we had just ducks for company, along with a jovial local and each other’s calming presence. None of us spoke much in the hour-long boat ride, for we knew we needed to be with our own thoughts then—alone, together.
One day, we hired a moped to ride to the little village of Tra Que, also called the Herb Village. Herbs and spices with sweet scents such as coriander, lemongrass, basil, etc. grow here, and locals organise market tours and cooking classes. The village is best explored on bike. Get a custom dress from one of the many boutiques in Hoi An, stay near the beach, eat a whole lot of shrimp and mushrooms, drink pots of coffee, catch the sunset and the sunrise, and take it slow. Hoi An is best enjoyed while putting your life on pause.
Every part of Vietnam holds a special romance in its heart. The only way to find your song is to go out there with your partner, and let the destination do its thing.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
Indigo has recently started direct flights to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City from Kolkata. Vietjet runs direct flights from Delhi as well as inter-city ones within Vietnam. The sleeper bus that we took was by Sapa Express (INR 700 per person); you can book a seat on a luxury minivan by Eco Sapa Limousine as well (INR 1,900). Our train seats were booked in the cabin of Violet Holidays (INR 5,000 per person).
HANOI: Hilton Hanoi Opera is a luxe hotel with quirky architecture and the best club rooms. From INR 10,000 per night. Khai Homestay is a simple yet beautiful option in Old Quarter with the kindest host. Doubles from INR 1,200.
SAPA: Topas Eco Loge is a premium property perched atop a hill with an infinity pool. Doubles from INR 17,000. Surelee Homestay is a comfortable Hmong homestay that serves traditional regional meals. Doubles from INR 1,200.
HOI AN: Dechiu Hotel is a luxury boutique stay of 12 rooms with tastefully done interiors. Our recommendation is the rooftop or garden room. Doubles from `7,000 to `25,000; dechiuhotel.com. An Bang Cashew Tree Standard Bungalow is a spacious villa with Greek vibes located by the beach. Doubles from INR 1,600.