Jun 17, 2024

Paris: For lasting memories, settle in, and find your own special spots


Street art in the Butte-aux-Cailles

I had mixed feelings when a friend suggested meeting up in Paris just two months before the start of the 2024 Summer Olympics in late July.

Not only would preparations be underway for an expected 15 million visitors - think rising hotel rates, construction of viewing platforms in front of the Eiffel Tower, Metro stations closed and bus routes rerouted due to construction - the city itself would likely be overrun with tourists hoping to get an early start.

But off I went for nine days in late May. Away from the usual tourist sites, the city was not as crowded as I expected. The weather was beautiful.  I loved that it stayed light until early evening. But I felt a bit sad for first-timers who might be disappointed to find many iconic monuments off limits or obstructed by Olympics reviewing stands and ugly orange barriers.

Notre Dame under reconstruction after a fire in 2019

It's times like these that call for seeking out the hidden gems, or better yet, finding your own special spots that can reward you with a memory more lasting than a picture of Notre Dame with a crane next to a reconstructed spire or a partially-blocked Eiffel Tower.

One way to start is by staying in a neighborhood outside the main tourist areas, but with easy public transport to whatever is on you must-see list.

For me, it was an Airbnb in a family home in the Butte-aux-Cailles, once a fenced-in, hill-top village outside of Paris, now a charming residential neighborhood in the 13th arrondissement near the Place d'Italie where several metro lines and buses converge. 

My Airbnb on Rue Villa Daviel

My compact room with private bath and breakfast ($130 per night) was one of three in a house on the Villa Daviel, a quiet lane with street lamps and flower boxes.  From here, I could zip down on the Metro to see the latest exhibit at the Musee d'Orsay, then bask in that relaxed feeling of "coming home" to a neighborhood filled with friendly restaurants, bars and bakeries catering to a local clientele of French apartment dwellers.

Rue Villa Daviel

Helping me get to know the neighborhood was Isabelle O'Leary, a volunteer with Paris Greeters, a group of local ambassadors who donate their time to show visitors around their favorite parts of Paris.

 Isabelle at a neighborhood fountain that dispenses water from an artesian well

We walked for two hours on a sunny morning as she explained how the Bièvre river runs under the streets after being covered up in the 18th century to make room for the expansion of the city of Paris into outlying villages.

Isabelle pointed out an Art Deco neighborhood swimming pool, a secret set of stairs leading to a hilltop viewpoint and street murals by a well-known female artist named Miss. Tic. At the Place Verlaine, the site of the first successful hot air balloon landing in 1783, she pulled a plastic cup from her purse so I could have a drink from an artesian well that dispenses fresh drinking water.

Across from my Airbnb was La Petite Alsace - a working-class housing estate of half-timbered houses built in 1913 linked to industrial sites such as the Gobelins Tapestry Factory which supplied the court of the French monarchs. We continued strolling through the Sunday outdoor farmers market, and over a stop for coffee in the Parc Montsouris, we talked about our mutual interest in travel and her upcoming plans for a trip to Japan. 

La Petite Alsace

After a few days in the Butte-aux-Cailles, I moved to the Hotel Du Levant, a long-time favorite hotel near Place St. Michele in the heart of the Left Bank.

Tourists outside Shakespeare & Company bookstore on the Left Bank 

The two areas couldn't be more different. While there were virtually no tourists in the Butte, St. Michele swarmed with visitors, attracted by its location on the Seine River, across from Notre Dame, and dozens of cheap restaurants advertising onion soup, crepes and pizza. This is a fun and convenient area for exploring, but not one to seek out for an authentic Paris dining experience. I was surprised, then, to find two made-for-the-memory book gems just a few blocks out of the fray.

Searching Trip Advisor and various blogs for a casual wine bar, I found 5e Cru, a few steps away from the backside of Notre Dame, and a block away Le Tour D”argent, one of the most expensive restaurants in Paris. 

5e Cru on Rue Cardinal Lemoine

5e Cru is tiny cave manger (wine bar that serves food) in the 5th arrondissement. There were only a few tables scattered among shelves and boxes of bottles. But no reservations seemed necessary, at least when I showed up at 7 p.m.

I chatted a while with Beatrice, the friendly wine steward/waitress. We decided on a beautiful veggie quiche with roasted vegetables, and two excellent wines by the glass. Business had been slow in May, she said. While the restaurants around St. Michele were packed, there were just two other customers here, leaving her time for a stranger to feel appreciated and remembered. 

“Merci, Carol,” she said when I left. Dinner and two glasses of wine came  to $30. I vowed to come back.

More memorable than a five-star restaurant was the intimate dinner a friend and I and another German guest had with Catherine, a Frenchwoman in her 60s, who hosts guests in her home via the website Eatwith.com.

Eatwith works a little like Airbnb, only for dining rather than spending the night. Hosts post a menu for a proposed meal, tell a little bit about themselves, and post the price and available dates. Guests then send a request, pay in advance by credit card and show up at the agreed-upon time and day.

Dinner with Catherine

Catherine, a retired fashion industry exec whose father was a chef, hosted the three of us in her Right Bank apartment just across the bridge from the Île Saint-Louis near the Sully Morland metro stop and a short walk from the Bastille.

Jazz and candles set the mood for a five-course feast, and of course good wine and conversation. 

We chatted over appetizers of homemade sardine pate and cucumbers with pesto and olives, then moved to the table for white asparagus soup and a fish dish with tomatoes, peas and garlic. Next came five different cheeses and a homemade strawberry tart.

The meal - prepared with all organic, in-season ingredients - was the best I had the whole trip. And at $57 each it was a good value. 

Walking back to my hotel after dinner, my thoughts drifted back to the evening spent listening to the soothing voice of beloved French singer Françoise Hardy. Catherine introduced us to her music as we chatted about politics, travel and food.

Hardy died at 80 shorty after I arrived back in Seattle. I read the tributes in the New York Times and Washington Post. Then I put her 1962 hit, Tous le Garçons e les Filles (All the Boys and Girls), on my playlist, and wrote Catherine a note thanking her for the memory.

Jun 10, 2024

Slow down and discover what there is to do and see on the road to Mt. Hood


Mt. Hood as seen from the Draper Girls farm in Parkdale, Oregon

Bike high above the Columbia River through tunnels blasted through basalt by road builders in the 1920s.

Sip cider made from locally-grown apples and pears while salsa dancing on outdoor patio.

Spend the night in a doll-sized tiny house in the woods, followed by sushi and saki in a vintage school bus.

Seattleites traveling to Mt. Hood - Oregon's tallest mountain and a year-round outdoors destination - might be tempted to make a beeline to the ski areas, hiking trails and iconic 85-year-old Timberline Lodge. The drive, after all, takes a minimum of 3.5 hours, and that's if you take the shortest route directly through Portland. 

With some extra time to spare, my husband and I decided on a slower pace for our first post-Pandemic trip south. By bookending our trip with stops between Hood River on one end and the small-town villages of Welches and Sandy on the other, the journey to and from the snow-covered mountain became part of the adventure. 

Views from Mosier biking/hiking trail above the Columbia River

Heading south on Interstate 5 towards Portland, we  first detoured east for a bike ride above the Columbia River near the town of Mosier, then used the car to explore orchards, cideries and farm stands in the lush fruit-growing area in the Hood River Valley.

From there, it was a 40-mile drive to Timberline Lodge, a destination worth several days, but also easily enjoyed in just a couple of hours. Snow fell as we warmed up with bowls of roasted cauliflower soup before heading down along Highway 26, a byway that for decades has connected travelers to campgrounds, roadhouses and old-school resorts.

Here were a few of our favorite stops.

The Mosier Twin Tunnels 

Hikers catch the view from a window inside one of the Mosier twin tunnels

Walk or bike through the Mosier Twin Tunnels, built for the original Columbia River Highway (replaced by I-84), now part of a car-free section of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail.

The views of the Columbia are spectacular along a wide, paved trail which runs 4.5 miles between the towns of Mosier and Hood River. Give yourself plenty of time. Although short in distance, elevation gains and high winds make it a longer ride than expected.

Builders dynamited through solid basalt to create the tunnels when this section of the Columbia River Highway was built in 1921. With the completion of the new highway in 1954, the tunnels became obsolete, and were filled with rock rubble. They were reopened in 2000 with help from local benefactors who wanted to ensure the highway would remain car free.  

Start your hike or ride at the Mark O. Hatfield West Trailhead, and finish with a stop at Randonnee CQ Coffee https://www.mainstreetmosier.com/randonnee  CQ in Mosier, or a tasting at several wineries nearby.

Cider stops

Since a change in the state law in 2017, small orchards have been allowed to operate tasting rooms with alcoholic ciders made from fermented apples, pears and other fruit.

In summer, drive the Fruit Loop, a 35-mile scenic drive through Hood River Valley farmlands, wineries, you-pick orchards, cideries  and lavender farms.

Salsa dancing at Cider Crush Cafe

Off-season, the family-run Cider Crush Cafe  is a one-stop venue for sampling a variety of locally-produced European-style alcoholic ciders.

Choose from 17 ciders on tap while dining on flatbread pizzas, chili and cornbread in an outdoor cider garden. My favorites were the Nellie 2022, made with winter Nellis pears from Hood River, and the Kingston Black made with local British cider apples. 

A local salsa dancing club offers free lessons at 6:30 p.m. with open dancing at 7 p.m.

Heading away from town to Mt. Hood along Highway 35, the Draper Girls Country Farm  is a must-stop for canned cherries, peaches, jams and ciders, all produced on the farm Theresa Draper inherited from her parents, and now runs with her partner and three daughters.

Theresa Draper

Country music welcomes visitors into an old-time general store leading to a flower garden and goat pasture with a view of Mount Hood from the patio.

"Why let anyone walk out the door without buying anything," was Draper's thinking when her daughters encouraged her to start selling hard ciders a few years ago from her farm-grown fruit.

Flavors include quince, made their own quince, and cherry pie, made with seven varieties of cherries.

Mt. Hood Tiny House Village

With summer rates ranging from $255 to $455 per night, the Timberline Lodge isn't in everyone's budget. Fourteen miles east along Highway 26 in the town of Welches is Mt. Hood Village, an eclectic collection of forested cabins, cottages, yurts, and for anyone who wants to try out what downsizing might feel like, tiny homes.

Glamping under cover at Mt. Hood Tiny House Village

Built by a company called Tumbleweed, the miniature houses, all on wheels and with names such as Zoe, Scarlet and Lincoln, surround a well-kept courtyard with chairs and a fire fit. 

Small enough to fit in a driveway, the colorfully-painted houses  range in size from 175 to 260 square feet. All come fully furnished and have a full bath, kitchen, heat and AC. Rates start at $139 per night. With sleeping space in a loft, the largest can accommodate up to five. 

Koya Kitchen

Red paper lanterns and strings of colored lights flashing from the highway draw curious travelers to the Koya Kitchen, an Asian-inspired restaurant, saki bar and gift shop.

Koya Kitchen's outdoor living room 

Describing herself as a "white lady making Asian food," owner Jolynne Milone lived in Japan and India before remodeling a "haunted shed" into a restaurant, taking inspiration from historic log-cabin roadhouses that offered travelers with food, music and fun.

Koya means shanty or shack in Japanese, a place to rest and relax. 

"Seven years ago, I didn't think the mountain was ready for sushi, but it became my No. 1 seller," she says.

Milone and her staff prepare the sushi, poke bowls and Indian curries in a food truck out back, Customers eat inside the cabin under a ceiling filled with hanging plants; outside in outdoor living room decorated with heaters and curtains; or inside a vintage church bus with a psychedelic ceiling.

School bus dining

"It rolled it up, and I said myself, 'is anyone gong to want to sit in a bus? Turns out they do, especially kids who like to open and close the door.' "

Splurge option

If you're up for a splurge on the way to or from Mount Hood, consider an overnight stay at Sakura Ridge Farm & Lodge in Hood River.

Reminiscent of an Italian agriturismo - a farm that also provides accommodations to visitors - the five-room inn provides a luxury stay on a 22-acre working farm, surrounded by 4,000 pear and apple trees, gardens and berry patches. Sheep roam the hillsides, and resident chickens lay fresh eggs.

Log-cabin style balconies overlook Mount Hood

Operated for years as a modest log cabin-style B&B, the property took on new life when the owners of Vashon Island-based Nashi Orchards began looking for property in Oregon to expand their apple and perry (pear) cider business.

In 2005, Jim Gerlach and Cheryl Lubbert bought a home on the island designed in the tradition of a 17th century Japanese country estate. It happened to come with a declining 300-tree Asian pear orchard. Neither had an agricultural background, but they set about renovating the orchards. Jim started fermenting the fruit. People loved his Asian perry, and Nashi Orchards was born.  

This time around, while looking for property in Oregon, they acquired an orchard that just happened to come with a lodge. 

Carrying out their love for Japanese design, they embarked on renovations, incorporating stone soaking tubs, fire places, cork floors, private balconies and long log-style porches with views of Mount Hood.

Breakfast is served

A private chef takes orders in advance from guests to produce breakfast from organic ingredients grown or raised on the farm or from a local co-op. Appearing on the dining table might be buttermilk biscuits with homemade blackberry jam, chia seed pudding or Persian-inspired herbed frittatas.

Biscuits and homemade jam

Overnight guests can arrange for private dinners at $150 per person. The inn is open April through October. Rates range from $425 to $650 per night. 

If you go:

Tourism information at Travel Oregon 

Click here for Old Columbia River Highway State Trail info.There are parking lots and pay stations at both ends of the Mosier Twin Tunnels trail.

Click here for maps and listings for the 35-mile Hood River Fruit Loop scenic drive. 

May 8, 2024

Explore beyond Seattle on a fast, walk-on ferry from the city's waterfront


A fast, walk-on ferry travels between Seattle and the waterside suburb of Kingston

Visitors aboard the fast ferry between the Seattle waterfront and the Puget Sound suburb Kingston often ask deck hand Coco Murphy for tips on what to do or see on a day trip from the Emerald City.

Once the boat begins its 40-minute scoot across the Puget Sound, she usually has time for questions. Chances are there will be only a dozen or so on board, compared to 150-200 riding in the opposite direction.

Kitsap Transit launched the walk-on fast ferry in late 2018 as a commuter service for Kingston-area residents, but nearly six years later, few still take advantage of the “reverse commute” — sailing from Seattle to Kingston in the morning and back to Seattle in the late afternoon or evening.

"It's a nice opportunity for people in Seattle to check out Kingston," says Murphy. The fast ferry eliminates the hassle of driving 17 miles north to the suburb of Edmonds and a  30-minute ride on a Washington State car ferry.

Sailings through April were weekdays only. Now with Saturday service running through September, more Seattleites will no doubt discover the delights of a day trip on a sunny day.  

With views of Mount Rainier and Mount Baker, the cruise is a budget-friendly way (fares are $10 westbound, departing from Seattle, and $2 eastbound, departing from Kingston) to explore a walkable waterside town where small business owners are trying out new ideas post-pandemic. 

Best advice: Go Thursday-Saturday when most businesses are open. Catch an early ferry, and be mindful of return times if you want to stay for happy hour or dinner.

Bakeries and books

It's hard to resist not stopping for a bag of miniature donuts made fresh in the morning, and sold through a window at Aviator Coffee next to the ferry terminal. 

Hot donuts to go at Aviator Coffee

Everything to do and see in Kingston is within a short walk of the dock, so grab a few donuts and a coffee to go while walking north on State Highway 104 towards a cluster of sit-down cafes and restaurants.

If breakfast or lunch is on the agenda, find a small strip mall housing two bookstores, a hardware store and the Borrowed Kitchen Bakery Owners Lacey and Kory Anders first started selling baked goods in the Poulsbo Farmers Market in 2010. Now they work out of a full kitchen where diners can smell the bread baking. Settle in at a window table with a savory croissant or lemon blueberry scone.

Next door is Saltwater Bookshop, one of a few new businesses that opened post-pandemic.

Saltwater Bookshop

Owner Madison Duckworth partnered with baker Lacey Anders to open the shop last year after selling cookbooks in the Borrowed Kitchen. 

Nestled among shelves stocked with titles by Northwest authors, cookbooks and a large selection of children's books are stuffed chairs for browsing or book club gatherings. 

All the titles are new, part of an agreement with the landlord to leave used books to the Kingston Bookery a few doors down where shelves bend under the weight of hundreds of titles the owner takes in trade for credit.  

Shop houses

Colorfully painted, restored historic homes house shops dedicated to gourmet chocolates, pottery, jewelry, houseplants and vintage treasurers.


Horticulturist and jewelry artist Anja McElvaney works with her partner Matthew Schaffer,  a woodworker, inside a century-old craftsman-style house where they opened Havencraft last October. House plants spill out onto the front porch while inside rooms are filled with handmade soaps, local pottery and earrings made from poppy pods painted and grown by McElvaney. 

A few doors down, in an aqua blue cottage built in the 1930s,  Methia Gordon runs Sweet Life Cakery.

Sweet Life Bakery

Inspired by “Chocolat,” a romantic comedy-drama about a woman who opens an unusual chocolate shop in a small French town, Gordon invites visitors to sit on her sunny enclosed porch to sip tea and sample a confection called "Sweet Bliss," two layers of chocolate cake filled with whipped cream enrobed in a chocolate glaze.

Hikes and a beachside stroll

Take a beach walk along Saltair Park near the ferry dock when the tide is out, or hike up the hill on Ohio Avenue to A Quiet Place Park, nine acres of walking trails through second-growth forests, named and donated to Kitsap County by Naomi M. Libby Elvins in 1993.

Keep an eye out around town for Kingston’s “Big Chairs,” giant Adirondack-style seats painted in bright colors. A local businessman came up with the concept to promote Kingston as a place to relax.

Kiwanis Park

The Port of Kingston's Mike Wallace Park at the marina and the port's Kiwanis Park near the ferry dock offer walking paths, benches and a shaded gazebo for picnicking.

Put together a sunset meal from a clutch of pandemic survivor walk-ups offering take-out from around the world.  

Saucy Sailor

Daphne White greets customers from a sidewalk window at the Saucy Sailor, opened last May. She arrives in the early morning to prepare British comfort food, such as bangers and mash and cottage pie, in a 230-square-foot kitchen. 

Next door is J’aime les Crepes www.jaimelescrepes.com with sidewalk tables for enjoying sweet or savory French-style crepes. Around the corner, Argensol Kitchen  bakes traditional Argentine empanadas filled with creamed corn, butternut squash and spinach and cheese.

The last weekday departure to Seattle is at 5:55 p.m. Saturday departures are at 7:05 p.m., 8:45 p.m. and 10:25 p.m., making it easier for visitors to stick around for happy hour at friendly Downpour Brewing or wine, cheese and live jazz at the cozy Cellar Cat 

If you go

Ferries leave from Seattle’s Pier 50. Crossing time is 40 minutes. 

Mar 27, 2024

Wrong birth date voids visa an hour before a flight from Cambodia to Vietnam: WhatsApp to the rescue

Check visa details carefully

Private visa services used to be helpful for some types of international travel (China, for instance) when applications involved complicated paperwork and mailing away your passport. They charged a fee, of course, but it was worth it.

These services became less useful over the years as many countries began offering e-Visas online.  All many require is  an online application submitted along with a copy of your passport and a credit card payment.

Emergencies do come up, however. This is when a third-party visa service can come to your rescue, and for that, I am grateful.

My husband and I arrived at the airport in Phnom Penh for a flight to Hanoi recently with our Vietnamese e-Visas in hand. The  airline agent looked carefully at Tom's paperwork, then shook her head. "No, you can't fly," she told us. The birthdate on his visa was incorrect. During the processing, someone had typed 2023 instead of 1949. 

Obviously he wasn't born last year, so we pleaded our case to the agent who called Vietnamese immigration. They refused to budge. 

Our flight was leaving in 1.5 hours. "Is there anything we can do?

 "You could go the Vietnamese embassy but it's an hour away, and they close at 5 p.m.," was the response. 

We appealed to a manager who told use there are services that can issue new visas online in an hour through WhatsApp. While we were waiting, I Googled "emergency Vietnamese visa services," and found several that offered the service for a $350 fee. Our original visas cost $30 each.

The manager made a few calls, then connected us with a company called Vietnam Evisa Service which charged $130.

We gladly agreed to pay. Though WhatsApp, I sent a copy of my Tom's visa and passport. The agent on the other end took a look, and assured us they could arrange a corrected visa in time for us to make our flight A link was sent for a credit card payment - all in all a risky venture, but what choice did we have?

A few minutes alter, a pdf of the new visa with the correct birth date came into my e-mail inbox.  The agent on WhatsApp told me to check in for our flight, and let him know once we were on our way.

"We will arrange to take your name in front of the immigration counter at the Vietnam airport, and support your visa procedures," he promised.

We made it through Cambodian immigration and to our gate with 15 minutes to spare. When we arrived in Hanoi, a man holding a sign with my husband's name on it greeted us, and whisked us to the head of the immigration line. 

There an agent waived us through without even looking at Tom's new visa. 

 Lessons learned:

 *Always check every detail of your visa before leaving. I had checked our entry and departure dates, our passport numbers and our names, but didn't look at the birth dates.

*Get WhatsApp and register your details, so if you get in a jam, the person on the other end will have quick access to your QR code.

 *Know how to contact your credit card company quickly from overseas in case any service like this turns out to be a scam.

Mar 1, 2024

Communism, capitalism blend easily in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi


Making a delivery in Hanoi's Old Quarter

Anyone planning a trip to Vietnam faces a dilemma when it comes to bookending a visit to both Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the South and Hanoi in the North.

At war with each other in the mid- 1970s, the Communist North and American-influenced South reunited into one country since 1976. They are as different climate-wise as they are culturally.

While the South enjoys 95 degree beach weather this time of year, it's winter in the North, with  temps often no higher than mid-50s.

Coming off a trip to Cambodia where the weather matches that of South Vietnam, it would have made more sense from a packing standpoint to spend a few days at the end of our trip in Ho Chi Minh City.

But I’ve always favored less sophisticated Hanoi with its peaceful lakes and lively Old Quarter known for its warren of 36 streets, each belonging to a different trade guild in the 15th century. The 21st century version has vendors selling funeral supplies and frying fish on the street corners; cafes dispensing egg coffee; travel agencies selling tours; and motor bikes whizzing by, piled high with everything from palm trees to mattresses. 

Planning ahead for a 40-degree temperature drop, we packed light jackets, fleece vests and a few long-sleeve shirts in the bottom of our carry-ons, Bundled up, we set out exploring to see how the city has changed since we were here 17 years ago.

Motor scooters still rule, but there are more cars now and only a few bicycles. A few streets have lights and crosswalks, but for the most part pedestrians have to look for breaks in on-coming traffic, then rely on scooters and cars to steer around them. The No. 1 rule: Once you start to cross, do not hesitate, stop or turn back.

Lyna near the Pomelo tree in Hanoi's White Horse Temple

Reminding us of this on our first day out was delightful, Lyna, 20, a student guide for Hanoi Free Walking Tours. Her technique for crossing into on-coming traffic was simply to stick out her hand as if she were a crossing guard. 

There are organizations that run free walking tours in cities worldwide, but the tours are usually with a group.  Hanoi Free Walking Tours operates a little differently in that you get a personal guide who shows up at your hotel at an appointed time for a three-hour walk. Tipping is expected, of course, but the amount is up to you. What I like most about these tours is the opportunity to connect one-on-one with a local. 

As we walked through one of the temples decorated for the Lunar New Year, Lyna pointed out the pomelo trees bearing yellow fruit that resemble giant grapefruits. Pomelos are believed to bring families good luck. She showed us a photo of the stairs in her parents' home stacked floor to ceiling with pomelos, all of which have to be eaten before she returned to the city after the holiday.

Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism mix with other beliefs in Vietnamese culture. People call on the good graces of gods and spirits at Chinese-style temples built before Vietnam became independent of China in the 11th century. Offerings on the alters  include specially prepared foods, fruit,  tins of cookies, even cans of beer.

A shrine in our hotel lobby decorated with Lunar New Year offerings

Communism and capitalism blend easily. A post-Vietnam War baby boom and a fast-paced, free-market economy have combined to make Hanoi one of Asia’s best values.

Family enjoying a sidewalk dinner

Vietnamese like to dine on the sidewalk while sitting on little plastic stools. A meal for two there might cost a dollar or two compared to around $12-$15 at a small restaurant, or around $30 at a high-end rooftop hotel dining room. Hotels, priced at anywhere between $60 and $100 for nice rooms, come with buffet breakfasts, and in the case of the San Grand Hotel where we stayed, a complimentary afternoon tea on the top floor overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, a fresh water lake in the middle of the city.

Breakfast buffet at the San Grand Hotel 

Hoan Kiem Lake and the Red (Huc) Bridge connecting to the Jade Mountain Temple. 

Taking the chill off of winter days are coffee shops on every corner. Some are small, with a few plastic stools out front; others are more elaborate. Several chains, such as All Day, rival Starbucks with cozy interiors and an array of hot and cold coffee drinks and smoothies. Our favorite was Hanoi Coffee Culture where we tried our first egg coffee.

Culture Cafe

Egg coffee

Egg coffee is a mixture of whipped egg yoke, sweetened condensed milk and strong coffee - like crème brûlée in a cup. It was invented by the French in the 1940s when milk was scarce. We became addicted and had one every day.

Most visitors to Hanoi leave the city at some point for a cruise in Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Gulf of Tonkin. We skipped this the last time we where due to lack of time. Going to Ha Long Bay this time was one of our main reasons for returning. 

The bay is known for its limestone pillars, islands and a network of caves, some occupied by fishermen and their families until the 1990s. But overtourism has had its effects. Complaints about crowds and loud partying spoiling the serenity of the experience prompted us to look into overnight trips offered by Indochina Junk. It was the first company licensed to travel further away into Bai Tu Long Bay, an area with similar scenery but fewer boats.

The Dragon Legend

It’s important to pick a Ha Long Bay cruise carefully to avoid feeling ripped off or disappointed. Indochina Junk delivered as promised. Dinner our first night on the top deck was in total silence and darkness with only four other boats anchored around us. Our boat was the 25-cabin Dragon Legend with spacious rooms, indoor and outdoor dining areas and a small pool. 

Cruising Bai Tu Long Bay

The $235 per person price was a little steeper than some other options, but it included transportation to and from Hanoi (three hours); all meals; a cave tour; kayaking; and a visit to a floating fishing village by rowboat. 

Exploring in a rowboat 

Especially cool was an hour‘s ride around the island and under the rocks in a rowboat rowed by a villager from a floating fishing village. After lunch the first day, the ship‘s tender pulled into shore near the entrance of Thien Canh Cave, one of a network of caves and grottoes created when wind, waves and rain eroded the rocks. 

Inside Thien Canh Cave 

Reaching the inside of the cave required a climb up a steep set of stairs carved into a hillside, something that would probably be off-limits in the U.S. due to safety hazards. Once inside, we were treated to a stunning display of stalactites and stalagmites. 

Making Banh Xeo onboard

Indochina Junk didn't fill our onboard time with hokey activities as some of companies apparently do. Much appreciated was a short cooking class on how to make Banh Xeo, a sizzling crepe stuffed with veggies or shrimp and served with piles of fresh herbs.