Ah Vietnam. I spent the last 2 weeks of my 6 month adventure in this beautiful country, and as many people warned me, it wasn’t really enough time to see the whole country. Not the way I like to travel, anyway. Instead of trying to see everything, which would have meant rushing from place to place, I decided to pick a few places to really enjoy. And while I’ve heard amazing things about some of the places I skipped, I wouldn’t go back and change my itinerary at all.
ho chi minh city (fka saigon)
I began my trip on an overnight bus from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I spent just a couple days in HCMC. I really enjoyed just wandering around – there were a lot of beautiful colonial buildings (like the Opera House and Notre Dame Cathedral), mixed with modern skyscrapers (like the interestingly architected Bitexco Financial Tower with a protruding helipad which may or may not be in use*).
I spent one afternoon at the War Remnants Museum, which was pretty intense. The photography at the museum is particularly moving – they have one gallery filled entirely with photographs of agent orange victims. Another was devoted to American media coverage from the war, which is particularly interesting as it was really the first time citizens back home were offered a glimpse into the day to day realities of war, and many argue was instrumental in the US based movement opposing the war.
After HCMC, I decided to skip the beaches in the south (mainly Na Trang and Mui Ne), instead flying all the way to Hoi An (Da Nang airport). And I loved it. I was so glad I had budgeted myself the extra time in Hoi An, because it was just my kind of place. I stayed at an amazing homestay (Little Leo), right in the middle of town, and a bike ride distance to the beach as well as the Old Quarter. I basically spent 5 days between lounging at the beach and swimming in the perfectly warm, calm ocean, and going for fittings at the tailor. Hoi An is most famous for tailoring in Vietnam, and so naturally there are about a thousand options to choose from. The ladies at Maya Tailor were super friendly, knowledgable about current trends as well as classic cuts, and best of all were not pushy at all when it came to making sales. I went in with the intent of getting one dress made and ended up with two and a blazer 🙂 But as I justified it to myself and others, if you’re going to spend $20 on a dress, you ought to give the whole $20 to the seamstress, rather than buying it at Forever 21 or equivalent (and the seamstress eventually seeing a fraction of your money).
There were also two great vegetarian friendly restaurants that I ate most of my meals at in Hoi An – Minh Hien which is all vegetarian, and Ho Lo Quan, which is family owned and run by the super friendly daughter of a Vegan (so she totally gets the sometimes “confusing” vegetarian requests, for example that fish sauce is not vegetarian).
In keeping with the theme of “after 6 months I am completely over 12+ hour night buses,” I flew from Da Nang to Hanoi to spend the last of my time in the north of Vietnam. When I arrived in Hanoi, I met three people in the lobby of my hostel – two who had just come from back from an overnight trek in Sapa, and one who I ended up going with to Sapa, to the same host family and guide, the next day! Trekking in Sapa, with our local guide “Mama Shu Shu,” and staying with her family, and their chickens and pigs and kitty and most importantly puppies (!) was one of the highlights (actually probably the highlight) of my time in Vietnam. The scenery, terraced rice fields on rolling hills, spotted with villages, was gorgeous. Staying in a quiet village, with a family, eating home cooked meals and drinking homemade rice wine every night, was an unforgettable experience, and one that was vastly different from my experiences in the rest of Vietnam. And it’s worth noting that there were people who complained of Sapa feeling overly touristy and inauthentic, but my experience was completely the opposite.
cat ba island & halong bay
After Sapa, and with just a few days left, I headed to Cat Ba island. I heard from several people that the way to see Halong Bay on a budget is to book your tour from Cat Ba, rather than a package tour from Hanoi (which is what the majority of travelers seem to do). The beaches were walking distance from town and very picturesque (cat co #2 was my favorite). The National Park in Cat Ba also has a short and not too difficult hike that leads up to a beautiful view point. I booked a day tour of Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay, and Monkey island, which included kayaking, snorkeling, and repeatedly jumping off the side of the boat into the beautiful blue-green water. While the overnight cruises are pretty popular, I felt like one day was plenty.
My time in Hanoi was actually spread over 3 visits – when I first arrived, after Sapa, and again before flying out. Hanoi was just as busy as HCMC in terms of impossible-to-cross-the-street traffic, and in a lot of other ways pretty similar. On the weekends they close down the main streets to motor traffic, which makes for really fun night markets complete with live music, street performers, and of course cheap/delicious food and beer. While in Hanoi I ate at New Day restaurant several times (delicious!), tried egg coffee (really delicious), and visited the Citadel, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, St. Joseph Cathedral, the Temple of Literature, and the Women’s Museum. I also spent a lot of my free time journaling, people watching, and practicing English with the locals beside the small lake in Old Quarter. The lake seems to be the hang out spot for all ages, locals and tourists, whether you’re in the mood to exercise, meditate, or gossip. It was a pretty cool spot, and a reminder that even in the midst of noise and chaos and crowds, it’s always possible (and a universally good idea), to make time and space for yourself.
*One interesting tidbit I heard in passing is that the helipad on the Bitexco tower can’t be used because the force of the wind created by a helicopter would shatter the windows. I didn’t fact check this, but it’s a pretty funny possibility.