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Nam Dinh a top destination for a weekend getaway



Leaving the hustle and bustle of city life behind, I spent my weekend travelling to the northern province of Nam Dinh where I found serenity.

Nam Dinh a top destination for a weekend getaway
I was impressed with the peacefulness of Nam Dinh Province when I arrived. — Photo Phuong Thao /

The trip offered me a chance to explore the local culture and new tourism destinations.

After more than an hour driving from Hanoi, I reached my first stop of the trip – Hong Quang Village in Nam Truc District, one of three ancient villages that still practise the traditional water puppet in Vietnam.

Nam Dinh a top destination for a weekend getaway
Nam Dinh Province is known as the home to many beautiful churches. — VNS Photo Duong Hong Tuan

According to Phan Van Khoe, the head of the water puppetry troupe in the district from 2002 to 2019, the ancient temple in the village worships Linh Ung Dai Vuong, the ancestor of water puppetry. Every five years, a festival is celebrated on the first 16th day of the lunar month to commemorate the ancestor of the art.

The master artist then explained to me the tricky process of making a puppet. 

“The puppets are made from fig wood, painted with the resin of the lacquer tree and controlled in the water. To make a puppet, the puppeteer has to go through eight stages. The final product will be trimmed, polished and decorated with many paint colours to enhance its shape and the character that it features.

“Previously, on the big stage, the puppet controller used to soak in the water in hours, which seriously affected their health. Nowadays, with the modernisation in the stage set-up and puppet design, the performers can sit on the floor and control up to five puppets at the same time,” he said. 

Experience local homestay

The next stop in my itinerary was a homestay in Hai Hau District.

My first impression of the district was clean streets without any garbage. I couldn’t even see any trash cans on the side of the road. Instead, the two sides of the road were planted with colourful flowers.

Ecohost, the name of the homestay, is located in Dong Bien ancient town. The buildings in the town have typical old French-style architecture with 40cm-thick walls, low roofs and wooden floors.

The town is home to 19 such old houses whose structures are still intact since their construction in 1928.

After I stepped through the small gate of an old house, stretching in front of my eyes was a garden with many species of rare trees that are nearly 100 years old shading the large yard.

Both inside and outside of the house were many bamboo items, which are both nature-friendly and familiar to Vietnamese people.

Covering the whole space was stillness, which was sometimes enlivened with the sound of the birds chirping. I felt as if I was immersed in total serenity and my mind was refreshed after busy working days in the city.

Nam Dinh a top destination for a weekend getaway
In the middle of the garden is an octagonal pavilion where the visitors can enjoy tea while contemplate the moon at night. — VNS Photo Duong Hong Tuan

According to Bui Thi Nhan, the founder of the homestay, the accommodation combines traditional culture with modern services, allowing tourists to experience authentic local life.

While I was walking around the old house, another small garden appeared in front of my eyes. In the middle of the garden is an octagonal pavilion where the visitors can enjoy tea while contemplating the moon at night – an elegant hobby that a urbanite like me rarely get to experience.

Ancient bridge

Nam Dinh a top destination for a weekend getaway
The Chua Luong Bridge, built in the 15th century, is one of the three most beautiful ancient tile-roofed bridges in Vietnam. — VNS Photo Duong Hong Tuan

After a lunch of rustic country dishes, I took a break to prepare for a bicycle trip to Chua Luong Bridge in the afternoon.

Departing at 2pm, I cycled on winding roads dotted with flowers, through the fields and along the poetic river, to reach the unique bridge.

Chua Luong Bridge, built in the 15th century, is one of the three most beautiful ancient tile-roofed bridges in Vietnam, besides Thanh Toan Bridge in the central province of Thua Thien Hue and Chua Bridge in the ancient town of Hoi An in Quang Nam Province.

The bridge looks like a house roofed over with tiles, lying across the river. It has a tiled roof complex with a full system of rafters like the design of a traditional Vietnamese house.

The local artisans utilised their creativity and talent to create a graceful bridge shaped like an ascending dragon.

Inside the bridge are two rows of corridors that are also curved along the bridge wall. It is where the pedestrians can stop and watch the flowing river below or the beautiful sunset on the whole village every evening. 

Food exploration

My weekend escape ended with a food tour in Thanh Nam ancient town in Nam Dinh City.

The must-try dish is phở bò (beef noodle soup) served at Tặng Restaurant on Hang Tien Street. The dish had an aromatic, savoury broth with secret recipes of the family. Thinly sliced ​​beef is pounded, dipped then picked out immediately to keep the freshness of the meat.

I also tried other local snacks like bánh nhãn (longan-shaped cake), peanut candy and bánh xíu páo (Char siu cake).

The latter dish entices with the aroma of char siu, the greasy taste of fatty pork, and the spice of pepper. I didn’t forget to buy some char siu cakes for my relatives on the way back home.

Beautiful landscape, serene peacefulness and excellent food — all of these made my two-day trip to Nam Dinh so fulfilling. VNS

Duong Hong Tuan  



Phu Quoc among world’s 15 best islands to retire in 2021



Phu Quoc among world's 15 best islands to retire in 2021

An aerial view of Phu Quoc Island in southern Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Irish publisher International Living named Phu Quoc Island among the world’s 15 best islands to retire this year thanks to its beaches, low cost of living and rich culture.

Phu Quoc off the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang was one of four Asian islands to break into the global list released by the publishing company that focuses on overseas retirement.

The three other Asian islands were Malaysia’s Penang, Indonesia’s Bali and Thailand’s Koh Samui.

Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s largest island, is much loved by retirees thanks to its “low cost of living, rich culture and history, and variety of urban to rural areas to live.”

“It’s appealing to retirees for its many beaches and opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in tropical weather,” the company said.

People walk at Phu Quoc night market, Janauary 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Phu Quoc night market, January 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Phu Quoc, dubbed ‘pearl island’, has become a top tourist destination after it built an international airport in 2012 and the government rolled out a 30-day visa-free policy for foreigners in 2014. The island received over five million visitors in 2019, up 30 percent from 2018, including 541,600 foreigners.

The government has suspended international flights since March 25 and banned entry of foreign nationals except special categories since March 22 but it is considering “Covid-19 vaccine passports” to allow vaccinated foreign tourists back to the country.


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Cloud Nine – High above the hubbub



PERFECTION ON A PLATE: Grilled Australian beef tenderloin served with mashed potatoes, pumpkin puree, asparagus, carrots, and black pepper sauce. VNS Photo Ngô Minh

Sitting on the ninth floor of the La Siesta Hotel in the heart of Hà Nội, Cloud Nine Restaurant boasts sensational views over the centre of the capital. The main colour palette is black and white, but unlike the rest of the hotel, large windows let light stream in. The food and service are both excellent, and while it’s not cheap it’s definitely worth your while.

I have walked along Hàng Bè Street many times but never seen any sign of Cloud Nine. La Siesta is a boutique hotel for foreign tourists, and the restaurant was especially popular among in-house guests. The damage inflicted on the tourism industry by COVID-19 saw both the hotel and restaurant become deserted. Undeterred, the owners designed a new menu with set lunch options suitable for local people and expats.

The decor is undoubtedly chic, with a hint of French and a wonderful Asian style and finesse. It serves a fusion of Vietnamese and Western food, and the set I ordered featured both local and European dishes prepared and presented in a fine-dining style.

The cream of sweet potato and prawn soup was a lovely way to start. It had a graceful appearance, with a custard-yellow hue. While the thick soup clung to the spoon, the sweetness of the sweet potato lingered on the lips. It was less sweet than cream of pumpkin soup.

TOP-NOTCH: Coconut core salad, a refreshing mix of coconut core, prawns, peanuts, and aromatic herbs. VNS Photo Ngô Minh

Then came the củ hũ dừa (coconut core) salad, a popular delicacy in Việt Nam’s south. Coconut core is the ‘heart’, the flesh of the coconut tree, and is found at the very top, hidden among branches. When you remove the layers of a coconut tree’s skin, you will find the coconut core. It’s white, sweet, fresh, cool, crunchy, and highly nutritious. Strips of coconut core, carrots, and red cabbage mixed with peanuts gave the salad a sense of refreshment. The dressing was a mixture of sweet and sour. Everything in the salad was well marinated, so was spicy and crunchy. The harmonious combination of different vegetables also gave it a burst of colour.

INTRIGUING: Matcha cream brulee with vanilla ice cream. VNS Photo Ngô Minh

The main was Grilled Australian beef tenderloin, served with mashed potatoes, pumpkin puree, asparagus, carrots, and black pepper sauce. It was a lean cut with comparatively little fat, or marbling, which makes a cut of beef moist and flavourful. The portion was 180 grams. The presentation was eye-catching, with yellow from the potato, green from the asparagus and cucumber, orange from the pumpkin, and the black from the sauce. The “medium rare” was perfectly cooked on the outside while preserving the juices and softness inside. It was extremely tender, with an almost buttery texture.

I felt full and wasn’t sure about dessert, but when it came I was fascinated by the matcha cream covered by cream brulee. A caramelised sugar layer covered the matcha cream, and the vanilla ice cream was cool in more ways than one.

The atmosphere was elegant, the food exquisite, and the service impeccable. Everything chimed, and I highly recommend you find the time to pay a visit, given how great the food is and how spectacular the view is. VNS

FOOD & FLAIR: Cloud Nine offers fine dining in a chic space. Photo courtesy of the restaurant

Cloud Nine Restaurant

Add: 27 Hàng Bè St., Hoàn Kiếm Dist., Hà Nội

Tel: 0914 680 406; (024) 3929 0011

Comments: Located on the 9th floor and encased in floor-to-ceiling windows offering 360-degree views across Hoàn Kiếm Lake and the Red River, Cloud Nine offers fine dining with a fusion of local and European cuisine.


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Chilling by the lake with drink in hand



by Hoàng Vân Anh

Ma Xó prides itself on its priceless sunset lake view, which is certainly one of its main selling points. Best known as a brunch spot, it’s nonetheless packed most of the time and its unique, cosy ambience reminds me of hanging out at a friend’s house.

Scrolling down its posts, I saw that they show guests snuggled up in warm blankets on cold winter days. Best yet, the food is always fresh, healthy and delicious, and they offer a host of different sessions that create a community of food, wine and art lovers, all soaking in its unique vibe and space.

BLUE VIEWS: Tiny seats on the footpath and good company at Ma Xó. Photo courtesy of Ma Xó

I first went to Ma Xó a few years ago after reading reviews raving about its brunch. It was packed, and we eventually sat down in tiny chairs and shared a few dishes that didn’t really stand out. The tiny chairs reminded me of iced tea places on the footpath, which wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned, so I then proceeded to forget all about Ma Xó for a while.

After leaving Hà Nội and returning last year, I saw a post about an intimate DJ Mixup and invited some friends over to see and hear what it was all about. It was a surprising sight: there was no raised DJ booth, just a regular table that you could sit at across from the DJs, and maybe even get to know them when they weren’t busy DJing.

Since my friends and I wanted to chat, we decided to head upstairs instead, and were pleasantly surprised with the space: a balcony with cosy sofas and dim yellow lights, creating the perfect setting for a casual get-together. While a friend ordered a teapot, I went with one of their incredibly affordable cocktails, and we all sipped on drinks and took in the surroundings. It was a little on the empty side, so we plugged in our phones, listened to our music and created our own vibe, as if it was one of our living rooms. We didn’t need to worry about fitting in, or sharing the space with others.

From 5.30pm to 7.30pm every Wednesday and Thursday, Ma Xó offers an affordable wine session where people can watch the sunset and enjoy the breeze while sipping on some tasty selections.

Since my second encounter with Ma Xó was so pleasant, one beautiful sunny day I invited some friends to come along and soak up the beautiful sunshine over brunch.

The menu at Ma Xó is as diverse as Tây Hồ district itself: Shakshuka with house-made creme fraiche and Roti Canai, fig toasty, slow-roasted duck phở cuốn (phở rolls), cao lầu (delicious Quảng Nam mixed noodles), and Swiss-style pumpkin rostito, as well as seasonal offerings like rich and creamy winter-warmer roasted cauliflower and coconut soup, with Moroccan spice blends ras el hanout.

The menu works perfectly for groups of picky friends who want to try some international cuisine. All dishes can be made into vegan or vegetarian versions, and Ma Xó really does try to please everyone and put a smile on their face.

I had to go with the fig toasty (VNĐ150,000), as the photo and description sounded too good to be true. Their toasted sourdough bread with fennel seeds was packed with pecorino and goat cheese, crispy bacon and figs, caramelised onions, and a side salad of mint, avocado and feta cheese. It was so fresh and tasty.

My friends, who had never tried figs before, were shocked at the texture and the flavour of the toasty. One of them ordered the omelette, bacon and roti bread with a side of chunky tomato salsa (VNĐ130,000), and really enjoyed it. It had been such a long time since I last had roti, so it was nice to discover I can have it for brunch with beautiful views of Hà Nội. All of the food and their flavour combos leave you feeling full but happy and healthy.

AMAZING TEXTURE: The fig toasty was incredibly fresh and tasty. VNS Photo Vân Anh

They also offer fresh smoothies and juices, and the best part is, it’s not over-priced like other healthy food spots around Tây Hồ.

The seating at Ma Xó is unique. Spread across their two floors, each corner offers different vibes. There’s a tiny, hidden corner right next to the kitchen for those preferring privacy. The main seating on the first floor involves large groups squeezing in, which literally brings everyone together. There are also tiny wooden tables and chairs facing the lake, under the breezy shade of tall trees — perfect for a lazy afternoon. Most first-timers will be able to see these corners since they’re on the first floor. But my favourite spot is the fourth floor, where there’s a sofa as well as short and tall tables, with incredible views of Truc Bach Lake at all times of the day.

I love every Instagram post Ma Xó creates. They promote and brag about what they have to offer, but it feels genuine, like receiving a text from a close friend.

It really does offer the best of all worlds: excellent food and drinks, affordable prices, incredible spaces, and great views all day long. VNS

COOL SPOT: Ma Xó is shrouded in greenery. Photo courtesy of Ma Xó


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