I recently celebrated my golden birthday, the one where you turn the age of the day that you were born (sorry to those born in the first half of their months). And what better way to celebrate than to travel around Vietnam for a couple weeks because… unemployment, and fiscal responsibility and life choices are for tomorrow.
So in an effort to live life to the fullest, I flew halfway across the world for the first time to South East Asia with no other agenda than to eat amazing food, see beautiful sights, and hang out with a great friend.
So if Vietnam has ever been on your travel wish list, here’s what I did from top to bottom, or bottom to top as the South to North route took us.
Ho Chi Minh City
Our first few days had us recovering from jet lag and adjusting to the heat in Ho Chi Minh city, the biggest city in Vietnam-formerly known as Saigon. Forty years ago this past April, Viet Cong troops lead by the city’s namesake poured in as American troops withdrew from Vietnam. Since then, Vietnam has been a communist nation putting itself back together, with some amazing history, and some seriously beautiful views. In celebration of the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war, communist flags and billboards were up all over the city.
In an effort to better understand this country that I had only read about in textbooks, we went to the War Remnants Museum. Right near the Reunification palace, the seat of the government where Viet Cong troops took control of the city, the War Remnants Museum was an interesting view of the war through the eyes of the victors, the communist government. There was a very thorough section about the journalists who lost their lives covering the war, which was personally and professionally interesting to me. There was also a lot about the effects of the chemical warfare (such as Agent Orange), a sobering reminder of human atrocities. Other examples of communist nation solidarity propaganda posters, like ones from Cuba, were a fascinating look into the public affairs side from the other side of the war.
The next morning we visited the Cu Chi Tunnel district where Viet Cong guerrilla fighters dug miles of tunnels underneath nearby villages from which to launch attacks and live while Americans patrolled the area. They refurbished some of the tunnels and we could duck walk/crawl through them. I could only get about 40 meters before I felt overwhelmed and claustrophobic considering the historical context. I’m still glad I got to learn more about the war, however, and put a geographical context to what I’d learned in history class.
Vietnam war history aside, our trip continued in the vein of amazing places and delicious food. In HCMC, as the locals say, we certainly couldn’t leave without a giant helping of fresh seafood. Based on the recommendation of a local friend we got lost through the back streets of Saigon and found a popular seafood… tent. This was just the start of some of the best meals I’ve had in a long time.
Hue and Phong Nha National Park
From there we flew north to the central coast region and spent a few nights in the old imperial city of Hue. Right on the Perfume River, an old citadel was the seat of power through the 1800s. The architecture was beatiful, and really my first introduction to the older Asian style. I probably was too excited by the lanterns and dragon carvings.
That afternoon we rented a motorbike for a couple bucks and rode out of the city along the coast through small villages filled with ancestor’s shrines. We rode by shrimp farms and street food stands (the duck was delicious!). They say motorbike is really the way to see Vietnam, and being able to see what we wanted and explore where we wanted was great.
The next day we headed up north on a day trip to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which has the largest cave in world (Han Son Doong). We, however, went to Paradise cave and still were able to walk through about 1K of high vaulted caverns. The landscape and drive were spectacular, limestone karsts which had eroded to provide stunning drops and peaks.
Hoi An and DaNang
Travelling further down the central coast, we hired a car to take us the four hours from Hue to Hoi An, and were able to stop at landmarks along the way. A small oyster pearl farm sat across an old fort with beautiful views of the coast. We took our necessary selfies on China Beach (cue M.A.S.H., but more recently called DaNang Beach). Marble Mountain proved to be the biggest surprise of the drive down, with a huge complex of pagodas and temples. We explored the caves and hiked to the top for spectacular views of DaNang.
We got to Hoi An by late afternoon, known for its Chinese old town and Japanese covered bridge. We decided to stay a bit outside the old town, closer to the northern An Bang beach. Our homestay had free bicycles for us to use so we could bike downtown for some delicious dinners. Hoi An was how I would draw a Chinese old town if I were drawing one for a fairy tale: Chinese lanterns everywhere, gorgeous flowers lining the streets, and old wooden architecture giving the buildings a sense of true history. The city’s old town was one of the only cities untouched by the war, and its preservation has made it a UNESCO world heritage site and tourist boon. One of our days in this area we also booked a snorkeling (for me) SCUBA diving (for Leslie) trip to the Cham Islands. While not the most exciting sea life, it was still a beautiful way to spend a day in the ocean.
Hanoi and Halong Bay
From the central coast we flew up north to the capital Hanoi. We stayed outisde of the old town in a beautiful AirBNB in the expat Westlake district. A very cute and walkable neighborhood, we were close to a local Bia Hoi tap house (local beer) and took taxis downtown for massages and to see the Women’s Museum. Since it was halfway through our trip and my self declared birthday, we spent more time enjoying Hanoi on our own terms rather than trying to cram in the touristy sites. We forwent the temples and mausoleums to hunt down the city’s famous coffee with yogurt, which was basically a coffee milkshake (and therefore delicious).
The next morning we were picked up by a tour company for an overnight cruise on Halong Bay. Probably the best way to see the bay, we spent the night floating on an old Chinese junk, making fresh spring rolls, squid fishing, and kayaking between the giant karsts. Some of the islands also had spectacular caves and views. Halong Bay is one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the world- with almost 2,000 islands in a small space it deserved the title.
Sapa and Surrounding Villages
After coming back from Halong bay, we took a 6 hour bus north to Sapa (close to the Chinese border), getting us in around 2am in the middle of a thunderstorm. Thank goodness we booked a hotel! But, with the rain cleared up by the next day, the town was much cooler than anywhere we had been. It definitely helped that we were close to the highest peak in Vietnam – Fansipan. The mountain town is built up on cliffs, providing stunning views of the villages and terraced rice fields. We again rented a motorbike and scooted about to some of the surrounding villages. First, a Hmong village called Cat Cat with a beautiful waterfall then the next morning we went a bit further afield to a Red Dzao village called Ta Phin where we hiked in isolation among the rice paddies and along the mountain trails. The night in between we ventured out and happened upon a cultural festival, or potentially a “love market” where young people from the small villages come in to sell their wares and meet one another. Sapa itself was a beautiful town with some great markets (yes, there was dog meat), and a great last stop for our trip. From Sapa we headed back to Hanoi in order to catch a flight down to Ho Chi Minh where we relaxed our last day until our respective flights out.
For anyone planning a trip, feel free to mention any questions in the comments and I will be happy to provide the names of the places we stayed and the tour companies/day trips we used – all highly recommended for those with a mid-range budget. In total for the two weeks, excluding international airfare, I spent around $800 (including domestic airfare).