Photograph by Aaron Joel Santos, New York Times/Redux
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Tourists cross a busy street in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Photograph by Aaron Joel Santos, New York Times/Redux

Nat Geo Travels: Vietnam

A National Geographic staff member gives advice on food, fashion, and fun in this culturally rich country.

National Geographic Expeditions staff member Alena Hadley recently traveled to Vietnam with National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures, where she wandered through the bustling streets of the big cities and the quiet rows of rice paddies in the countryside. She braved traffic on the back of a motorbike in Hûe’, got the celebrity treatment at a tailoring shop in Hội An, and chatted with charming rice farmers in the villages of Mai Châu.

We talked to Alena about where to shop, what to eat, and how to ride around the city in style.

Where was your first stop in Vietnam?

Our trip started in Hanoi, which turned out to be a great introduction to many of the things we would see throughout the country. A lot of people describe the city as leafy or lush, but that’s really an understatement. The jungle vies for every square inch of real estate—ferns spring from the concrete, and enormous banyan tree roots creep across the facades of French colonial row homes. Streets are crammed with motorbikes and bicycle vendors in conical hats, and the sidewalks are scattered with red plastic stools and steaming cauldrons of noodle concoctions. You can even get a glimpse of some rice paddies on the ride in from the airport.

What was the most adventurous activity you tried during your trip?

In Hûe’, we linked up with a crew of motorbike drivers, each sporting a decidedly unofficial neon green vest with the words “Unique Experiences” printed across the chest. We could hop on, or instead explore the former seat of the Nguyen dynasty by bus. I was hooked by the time we barreled into our first wave of oncoming traffic. We zipped across rice paddy paths, went off-roading to visit an abandoned United States military bunker, took some sharp shortcuts through the tightest of alleyways, and arrived at the gates of the Imperial City with giddy grins on our faces.

All that excitement must have worked up an appetite. What was your favorite Vietnamese dish?

Rumor has it that authentic cao lau—a noodle dish of barbecued pork, crisp greens, and cracklings—can be found only in the coastal city of Hội An. Cooks here claim that the noodles’ unique, coarse texture and smoky flavor can be attributed to two special ingredients: water from a centuries-old well in the Ancient Town and ash from trees on the nearby Cham Islands. We devoured a bowl during breakfast on a family patio outfitted only with a metal table and a small food cart—a place with neither a sign nor a name, somewhere along Nguyen Truong To Street.

Sounds delicious! Hội An is also well known for its tailoring shops. Did you go shopping?

Stepping into Blue Eye Tailor—one of hundreds of bespoke clothing stores in Hội An—was like walking into a world of wardrobe possibilities. The store’s walls were stacked from floor to ceiling with colorful bolts of fabric, and lookbooks were loaded with pictures of decked-out Hollywood starlets. There was an entire binder devoted to jumpsuits, which meant I could finally realize my dream of wearing a one-piece without looking like an overgrown toddler.

I paired a flowing black material with a snapshot of Kourtney Kardashian, and Li Li, one of five tailors at the family-owned shop, went to work on me with her measuring tape. Twenty-four hours later I slipped into a high-necked palazzo piece that I never wanted to take off. I ordered one more—this time in a steely blue—and made sure they had my measurements on file for future online purchases.

You got to ride a motorbike, eat like a local, and dress like a Kardashian—that’s an impressive itinerary. What was your most memorable moment?

Trekking between the Thai villages of Mai Châu, we met several rice farmers—many of an older generation who had recommitted to maintaining the family plots when their kids left to find work in the cities. We chatted with a tenacious 82-year-old woman hauling her crop, were offered countless sips of homemade rice wine, and enjoyed a feast in a family home. Our exchanges were joyous, but there was an underlying anxiety over a delay in the rainy season, inconsistent in recent years. The morning of our departure, we were awoken by thunderclaps at 4 a.m. We spent our final moments in Mai Châu on the porch of our bungalow, watching the storm soak the valley.

Follow Alena on Twitter @TripArchitect and on Instagram @thetriparchitect.