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Havana Good Time in Cuba

Monday, April 9, 2018
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE

Havana had been at the top of my bucket list since high school, back when my favorite movie was "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights". Though my taste in movies has (thankfully) evolved since my teenage years, Cuba had remained one of my dream destinations. Yet in today's tumultuous political climate, I feared that my window of opportunity to legally visit Cuba could unexpectedly close any day. It was now or never.

Upon arriving in Cuba, I quickly realized that my romanticized expectations were completely mistaken. Of course I never thought it'd be just like the movies, or Europe, or even Puerto Rico. But I still expected it to be a bit more developed... and spoiler alert, it's not. But was Cuba worth the frustrations, hassles, and stomach bugs? Most definitely.

Although it was unlike anything I anticipated, Havana is still one of the most intense yet incredible places I've ever visited. It's taken me a while to digest all of its charms and idiosyncrasies, and I may never fully grasp its complexities. Despite being rough around the edges, Havana still thoroughly enchanted me.

All in all, Cuba is undoubtedly worth being at the top of the bucket list. Read on for my recommendations on where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana!

Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTEWhere to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE

WHAT TO SEE

Habana Vieja

The crown jewel of Cuba's capital, Havana's old town is bursting with life. Crumbling, colorful and charismatic, the beauty of Habana Vieja lies in its picturesque imperfections. With its bustling markets, plazas, cathedrals, and cafes, the old town's energy is positively intoxicating.

Round any given corner, and you will stumble upon breathtaking architecture, live music, bright hues, and friendly locals. Meander down Calle Obispo, which connects the city's hub of Parque Central with old town's Plaza de Armas. Pop into the historic Farmacia Taquechel and peek into Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway used to call home. 

For the best views of Habana Vieja, head to the Cámera Oscura in Plaza Vieja. Inside you can find a camera obscura that boasts sublime panoramas of the city, projected and magnified in real time. Step outside for even more dazzling views from atop their rooftop terrace.


Fábrica de Arte Cubano

Believe it or not, some of Havana's best night life can be found in a former olive oil factory. Part art gallery, part nightclub, this interactive exhibition offers live music, film screenings, dancing, cocktails, and galleries celebrating local artists. Though decidedly hipster, the factory's diverse array of activities and modern art asserts it as one of the city's most vibrant hangouts.


El Malecón

No trip to Havana is complete without sauntering down its iconic malecón, a seawall stretching five miles along the sparkling coast. Popular among Cubans and tourists alike, expect to find resplendent views, fishermen taking siestas, and locals eager to practice their English with you. Swinging to life after dusk, this picturesque promenade is the perfect spot to go on a sunset stroll and watch the capital come to life.


Museo de la Revolución

Havana's battered Revolution Museum is housed in what was once the Presidential Palace, symbolizing one final "F you" to Batista's regime (and perhaps capitalism in general). What was once an opulent Hall of Mirrors designed to resemble that of Versailles, and originally decorated by Tiffany's, is now in shambles. Oh, the irony.

Though the anti-American propaganda was heavy and hard to digest, the museum presents a unique perspective on Cuban history. I don't trust what I learned about Cuba in textbooks, but I didn't completely trust 100% of the information in this museum either. That said, it was fascinating to hear another side of the story, and I think it's imperative to listen to views that challenge your opinions.

Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK


Café Laurent
Calle M 257, between 19 and 21

Generally speaking, the food in Cuba is nothing to write home about... unless it's Café Laurent. Perched atop a rooftop terrace with stunning views of Vedado, trendy yet unpretentious Café Laurent serves gourmet dishes with a decidedly Cuban twist. Trouncing all previous meals in Cuba, this paladar (a private restaurant that isn't owned by the state) was my most memorable gastronomic experience in Havana.


San Ignacio 214
Calle San Ignacio 214

Serving up classic Cuban cuisine with a gourmet touch, San Ignacio 214 is my favorite hidden gem in Habana Vieja. I don't usually hit up the same restaurant twice, but I made an exception for their ropa vieja with Moros y Cristianos and fried taro root chips! Embodying a juxtaposition of traditional and modern, the atmosphere of this paladar was just as delightful as the food.


La Moneda Cubana
Calle Empedrado 152, between Mercaderes and San Ignacio

As one of the oldest restaurants in Havana, La Moneda Cubana honors its history by serving traditional Cuban food. Although most Cuban food starts to taste the same after a while, this paladar still stood out to me. Perhaps it's because their rooftop terrace flaunts stunning views of Havana's harbor, and who doesn't love rice and beans with a view?


Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski
Calle San Rafael, between Monserrate and Zulueta

Though I strived to avoid state-run establishments in an effort to support the local people, I just couldn't turn down a good rooftop bar at sunset. Overlooking Parque Central and the iconic Capitolio building, the views alone made up for the overpriced cocktails. While the hotel's opulent rooftop pool made me wistful for a luxury vacation, apparently American's aren't even allowed to stay in hotels run by the Cuban government. (Let's be real, I could never afford it anyway.)


El Floridita
Calle Obispo 557

Famed for being an old haunt of Hemingway, walking into this lavish bar is like taking a step back in time. Opened over 200 years ago, El Floridita is also known as "the cradle of the daiquiri", where the drink was supposedly invented after World War I. Though its line of tourists stretching out the door deterred me from ordering a drink here, it's still worth trying to peek inside.

Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
View from the Cámera Oscura in Habana Vieja
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
I took home a backpack full of cigars, but this is the only souvenir I wanted to bring back from Cuba.
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE

WHERE TO STAY

Casas Particulares

Since most big hotels are state run, staying in casas particulares (privately owned bed & breakfasts in Cuban homes) is the easiest way to support the Cuban people and immerse yourself in local culture.

Most casas particulares will cook you breakfast every morning, providing everything from strong Cuban coffee to exotic tropical fruits. Some are also able to make you a home-cooked dinner, serving fresh fare that's likely to be better than what you'd get in a restaurant.

El Vedado

For a quaint escape from Habana Vieja, I highly recommend staying in a casa particular in the Vedado neighborhood. Marked by its mansions in ruins, Vedado enraptured me in all of its dilapidated glory. Despite being in complete disrepair, the architecture is absolutely breathtaking. Much like the rest of Havana, its derelict gems exude character and personality. The chipped paint, colorful graffiti, and boarded up windows contribute an unlikely charm to the surrounding urban jungle. It may not be pristine, but it is certainly full of life. 

Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Strolling along Havana's malecón
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTEWhere to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE

Havana is one of those places that gets under your skin. Every sense was heightened, every emotion exacerbated, every thought magnified. It was thrilling, confusing, awe-inspiring, and challenging. Despite having traveled extensively, Cuba was unlike anything I have ever experienced. I was more than ready to leave after two days, but then I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks afterwards. I'm still trying to make sense of it all.

While the city itself is bewitching, the best part about Havana is its people. Cubans are some of the friendliest, most joyous, and most interesting people I've met throughout my travels. Their vivacious spirit is infectious, to say the least.

I expected the locals to hate Americans, but I found the complete opposite to be true. People were so curious to ask me about being from the USA, what my life was like, and why I chose to visit Cuba. Their desire to connect struck me. I was captivated by their perspectives and moved by their stories, even if it meant that everything I thought I knew about Cuba was wrong.

Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Rooftop bar views from Gran Hotel Manzana
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE
Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE


Have you ever been to Havana?
Was it what you expected?


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Where to eat, stay, and explore in Havana, Cuba | ADELANTE

A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay

Monday, March 26, 2018
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE

Jagged silhouettes command the horizon, and only the sound of rippling waves pierces the tranquil silence. As we glide through Lan Ha Bay towards the enchanted emerald waters of Ha Long Bay, I feel as if I have ventured onto a different planet.

Fueled by strong Vietnamese coffee and breakfast pho, we bid adieu to lush Cat Ba Island at the crack of dawn. On this misty morning, my tired eyes soak up the sublime scenery with wonder. Despite the overcast skies, this natural paradise is anything but gloomy.

A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE

Having heard horror stories of overnight boat trips gone awry (rats? Seasickness? Food poisoning? Count me out...), we opted for the cheapest day trip we could find while still on Cat Ba Island. While I never wrote down the name of the company we chose, we saw that most day trips were essentially the same. 

Despite being a type-A planner with a tendency to book everything in advance, choosing a cruise at the last minute worked out in our favor. After scouring the different tours advertised along Cat Ba's main road and choosing the best price, we opted for a route that started from Cat Ba, took us through the less crowded Lan Ha Bay, cruised through Ha Long Bay, docked in Ha Long and brought us back to Hanoi by bus.

Though our trip was interrupted by a surprise boat change once we crossed into Ha Long Bay (and naturally, as soon as I had snagged the best viewing spot on the first boat), the journey still blew me away. While it was no luxury cruise, in Vietnam it's still possible to get a high-quality experience on a tight budget. 

A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE

With its colorful floating villages and otherworldly karst giants jutting out of the water, Ha Long Bay's ethereal seascapes look like they're straight out of a dream (or a Dalí painting). As we sailed past the surreal limestone sculptures, I couldn't stop smiling. For the rest of the day, I was positively buzzing with euphoria.

A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE
A Hazy Day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | ADELANTE


Have you ever been to Ha Long Bay?
What was your experience like?


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Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat

Tuesday, November 14, 2017
Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat

Somewhere in Hanoi at this very moment, small plastic stools are filling up on overflowing sidewalks. Chopsticks clatter against clearing plates, marinated meats sizzle on a grill, and kaleidoscopes of exotic fruit fly through noisy intersections. Hungry spectators swarm the narrow streets, sniffing out the next stop on their gastronomic pilgrimage. This is Hanoi, where the sidewalks come to life at mealtimes.

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat
Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat
Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat

Vietnamese cuisine seduces the senses. Each ingredient harmonizes with its counterparts, creating a sublime symphony of flavors. And when done right, street food is the most authentic way to sightsee through your tastebuds.

Hanoi's unpretentious hideaways humbly host the city's best dishes. Forget Michelin stars; inside these hole-in-the-wall kitchens is where the real magic happens. When embarking on a quest for Vietnamese street food, here's what you need to know about what and where to eat in Hanoi.


Bún Cha

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat

What is it?

A staple dish of Hanoi, bún cha is a flavorful noodle soup with grilled pork. Almost exclusively served during lunch, bún cha is comprised of rice vermicelli noodles, charcoal-grilled pork belly or grilled grounded pork, room temperature broth, and a basket of herbs to adorn your bowl. The broth itself is a magnificent feat, subtly enhanced by fish sauce, the cornerstone of Vietnamese cuisine.

Though undoubtedly deserving of fame in its own right, bún cha was made infamous by Anthony Bourdain and President Obama's dinner together in Hanoi. The hype is real - if you only get to try one dish in Hanoi, let it be this.

My favorite places to get it in Hanoi:

Huong Lien (aka "Bún Cha Obama")
24 Le Van Huu

Bún Cha 34 
34 Hang Than

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat
Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat


Pho

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat

What is it?

Vietnam's breakfast of champions. By far the country's most famous dish, the term pho actually refers to the type of noodles specific to this bowl of heaven. It's made of tender rice noodles, herbs, meat (typically chicken or beef), and a savory broth that packs a punch. In Vietnam, the best pho is judged by the flavors of its broth.

My favorite place to get it in Hanoi:

Pho Gia Truyen
49 Bat Dan

You can also find it on pretty much any given street corner. Pull up a plastic stool and dive in!

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat


Com Bình Dân 

 Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat

What is it?

Literally translated to "commoner's rice", com bình dân is a heaping plate of rice generously topped with a colorful array of side dishes. The expats I met in Hanoi lovingly dubbed it as "pointy rice", because you can point to all of the mouthwatering toppings your hungry heart desires. As it was traditionally a workman's lunch, a hearty plate of com bình dân will likely keep you full until dinner.

My favorite place to get it in Hanoi:

Bo De Quan (Vegetarian friendly) 
164 Au Co, Tay Ho

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat


Bún Bò Nam Bo

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat

What is it?

Known simply as "beef noodles" in the south, bún bò nam bo makes magic out of vermicelli noodles, roasted peanuts, bean sprouts, and fresh vegetables. To unlock the dish's true flavors, drench eat bite in the delectably tangy blend of fish sauce, sugar, lemon, and chili.

My favorite place to get it in Hanoi:

Nha Hang Bach Phuong
67 Hang Dieu


Chè

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat

What is it?

While every chè dessert beverage or pudding is slightly different, each boasts a savory amalgam of textures. My favorite blend featured kidney beans, mung bean paste, jelly, and tapioca, stirred together and topped with coconut milk. While not overwhelmingly saccharine, a refreshing glass of chè will still satisfy one's sweet tooth.

My favorite place to get it in Hanoi:

Street Vendor

C2, Ngo 34A Tran Phu, Ba Dinh


Egg Coffee

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat

What is it?

Savoring a fluffy cup of Vietnamese egg coffee is like drinking crème brûlée. Pioneered at Hanoi's Giang Cafe, this delicate and frothy concoction is comprised of bold Vietnamese coffee, condensed milk, and egg yolks whipped to perfection. Not only does it satisfy the need for a morning jolt of caffeine, but it also makes for a sweet afternoon treat.

My favorite place to get it in Hanoi:

Ca Phe Giang
39 Nguyen Huu Huan

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat


Coconut Coffee

What is it?

Akin to a caffeinated slushie, sipping on coconut coffee takes me back to sunbathing on a white sand beach. While its tropical vibes feel seemingly out of place in Hanoi's urban chaos, its tastes and textures are substantially more refreshing than your average Frappuccino.

My favorite places to get it in Hanoi:

Cong Caphe
54 Hang Dieu

Tranquil Books & Coffee
5 Nguyen Quang Bich

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat


Street Food 101 with Hanoi Street Food Tour

Not quite knowing where to start on my first day in Hanoi, I took a crash course in street fare with Hanoi Street Food Tour. Their beginner's guide to street food introduced me to some of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, while also providing me tips on how to find the best spots on my own.

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat
Bún cha - noodles with grilled pork

Our tour guide Mango had an infectious love for Vietnamese cuisine, and her passion brought the tour to life. As we devoured a myriad of traditional dishes, Mango peppered our tour with restaurant recommendations, useful phrases, and historical anecdotes. She also offered personalized substitutions for those of us with food intolerances, and went to great lengths to ensure that everything I tried was gluten-free.

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat
Nom bò khô - dried beef salad with green papaya and fresh herbs
Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to EatDevouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat

Not only did we get to taste Hanoi's best dishes, but we also got to watch how some of them were made. After warming our bellies with our very first bowls of bún cha, we wandered over to a street vendor making bánh cuon thit, a steamed rice flour pancake stuffed with pork. Hypnotized by the methodical process of making this delicate treat, we were able to experience the dish's flavors more profoundly.

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat
Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat
Bánh cuon thit

Street food is not only the backbone of Vietnamese cuisine, it's a defining element of their culture. Getting a comprehensive lesson in Hanoi's history and gastronomy helped build the foundation of a successful trip. Stuffed and satisfied, I walked away with a deeper understanding and appreciation of this vibrant community.

Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat
Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat

Never have I fell victim to such an overpowering culinary love affair. Despite my euphoric tastebuds, Hanoi still left me with an insatiable hunger for more. Until I get the chance to visit again, I'll surely be daydreaming about my next bowl of bún cha.


What are your favorite cuisines you've tried abroad?
Is there a country whose gastronomy stands out as the best?



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Devouring Street Food in Hanoi: What & Where to Eat


Disclaimer: Hanoi Street Food Tour graciously invited me on this tour, however, all opinions expressed are my own.

As a Celiac, I took this tour at my own risk. While Hanoi Street Food Tour can make substitutions to accommodate a gluten-free diet, they cannot completely guarantee avoiding cross contamination.