I was never super interested in visiting Vietnam until this past year. I had heard mixed reviews of backpackers loving the contrast between city life and nature, while others complained about the pushiness of the local touts and the constant hard selling tactics they used on travelers. Sarah and I decided to see for ourselves. A couple of my study abroad friends had taken trips to Vietnam and loved it…it was time for us find out first hand.
Vietnam is actually a very large country. There’s so much to see and discover between the southern city of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), and the northern capitol of Hanoi. We started our trip in the largest and most populous city of Ho Chi Minh City. I remember walking out of the airport after waiting for hours to get through the visa line, to an incredibly humid day and a SEA of Vietnamese people. As I’ve said before, Sarah and I love to stay in AirBnB’s for multiple reasons, but one reason in particular, is the inside scoop of how to get to the accommodation. It’s hard to explain the feelings of arriving in a foreign country and having to walk out the airport doors to an unknown world. It’s very overwhelming especially when you have a million Vietnamese taxi drivers grabbing your arms and bags trying to get you to take their “cheap” taxi. Luckily for us, our AirBnB host gave us excellent instructions on how to get to the apartment while not getting horribly ripped off…like most first timers do.
Other than the extra dollar the taxi driver made us pay for having two bags or something, we made it to the apartment in one piece, not broke, and very sweaty. One note on the weather, Vietnam is ridiculously humid. We thought Taiwan was bad, Vietnam was insane. Plus our apartment was on the fifth floor with no elevator J
Ho Chi Minh City was fantastic. It had a large city look and feel, but was walkable if you had time. Sarah and I stayed right on the edge of where the uppity financial district meets the “everyday life” part of the city. We spent our days sampling the local coffee and the delicious Vietnamese Pho soup, while literally dodging the hordes of scooters on our way to shop for handicrafts at the Ben Thanh Market.
Another reason we loved Ho Chi Minh was the great backpacker vibe and nightlife. We enjoyed our nights scoping out tiny eateries and rooftop bars. The night that stands out the most was our first night in Vietnam. We were roaming the city streets searching for a restaurant in the pouring rain and quickly decided to run under an awning to get some cover. A group of 3 people from the Netherlands asked us to join them. Eight hours later we had exchanged hundreds of stories and made new friends…just from getting out of the rain. It’s one of the greatest joys of traveling. It’s meeting people from every corner of the world, not being afraid to look dumb or act a certain way, casting all judgements aside and swapping stories about life.
We spent roughly four days in Ho Chi Minh and decided it was time to move on. We took a 1 hour flight north into Da Nang city. This was the closest airport to our next stop and one of Sarah’s favorite places of the entire summer…Hoi An. Hoi An is considered the most atmospheric and romantic town in Vietnam. This little town sits on a river with old women offering people the chance to light a lantern and float their wishes down the river. The cobblestone streets are lined with lanterns and buildings built centuries ago. Hoi An had an old town feel that was so calming and enjoyable. We rented a motorbike during the day and cruised through the miles of rice paddies to the pristine coastline of central Vietnam. We’d haul out the hammock and hang or lay out at the beach and read. Hoi An was paradise not only during the day, but at night as well. We’d rent bikes in the evening and pedal to the old town and eat local Vietnamese cuisine over a 25₵ beer. It felt like a candlelit, date night dinner with Sarah every night!
From Hoi An in central Vietnam to Hanoi in northern Vietnam, we decided to take the local train. The ride was a measly overnight, 18-hour trip. I was actually looking forward to this ride because we booked sleeper berths to relax the ride away. We shared the 4 bed berth a nice couple from Switzerland and made it to Hanoi.
We arrived in Hanoi early in the morning and walked to our hotel in the popular French Old Quarter. Hanoi had a much different atmosphere than Ho Chi Minh. It was more cramped, with little alleys and streets darting around like a spider web. It seemed like we ran into an older Vietnamese woman, balancing baskets with a pole over her shoulder, with her triangular rice hat, on almost every corner. Others were crowding around little stove tops with beef noodle soup brewing, while sitting on little plastic stools for breakfast. Hanoi felt…local.
We spent our two days in Hanoi strolling around Hoan Kiem Lake, walking through the shops in the Old Quarter filled with knock-off goods and trinkets, and almost getting runover by a million motorbikes screaming through the city streets. Meal time was our favorite time in Hanoi. Sarah and I both concluded that Hanoi had the greatest food in all of Vietnam. There wasn’t much of a nightlife scene in Hanoi, so we found a little corner shop that we ate at every night. It was a tiny little place that looked to be family run, and the food was unbelievable. The soups and meat were to die for.
From Hanoi, we took an exhausting but very worthwhile day trip to one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam and all of S.E. Asia…Halong Bay. What made this Bay so breathtaking were the hundreds of limestone islands that rose up outstandingly from the ocean, covered in jungle vegetation. For the day tour, we boarded a junk boat which was essentially an old Chinese sailing ship that was used for sailing around the Bay. It was an overcast day, but we thoroughly enjoyed taking the kayaks around the cliffs and exploring the islands up close.
Our last stop on our Vietnam tour was Tam Coc, Ninh Binh. This part of the trip was completely last minute and not planned….and turned out to be our favorite part of the trip. Tam Coc is loosely referred to the Halong Bay on land. For us, we thought it was even more impressive than Halong Bay. The area was stunningly beautiful. The limestone cliffs and flowing rice paddies were never-ending and the colors that erupted over the cliffs at twilight were spectacular. It was such a peaceful setting. We stayed at a little B&B and enjoyed looking at the scenery from the porch in mornings and taking hikes through the cliffs during the days. The main attraction in Tam Coc was to get in a row boat and have a heavy Vietnamese lady row you, with her feet, between the cliffs and through tunnels along the river. It was probably the best $5 we spent the whole holiday.
Other than the sweltering heat, you were awesome Vietnam!