Vietnam in 2.5 Weeks: South to North

Two and a half weeks just wasn’t enough. With it’s charming people, rich culture and history, absolutely outstanding cuisine, and breathtaking scenery, Vietnam is a dream. We had high expectations, and even so, Vietnam truly did not disappoint. The people we met were warm, genuine, and welcoming, often curious about us and excited to practice their English. The dense, forested mountains were just as impressive as we’d hoped they would be, as were the striking limestone islands and bright green rice fields. And wow – the food. Spicy noodles and rich soups balanced with fresh lime and heaps of cilantro, basil, and mint. French inspired pastries and baguettes that are somehow both crusty on the outside and soft/airy on the inside. Little old ladies with push carts serve up Vietnamese street food dishes for about $1 that rival some of the best food we’ve eaten in the US, dishes like: pho tai/ga, banh mi, banh bao, banh xeo, bun cha, lau, cha gio and goi cuon.

Pho Machine Saigon

Pho in Vietnam is typically served with a mountain of fresh green herbs – delicious! Connor isn’t happy about having to wait for the photo op before diving into this delicious bowl in Saigon.

We chose a meandering south to north route through the country, starting in Ho Chi Minh City (still referred to by most everyone in the south as Saigon). We had planned to take a boat down the Mekong River to see the Delta and famed floating markets, but the water level is low this time of year and wasn’t recommended. Instead we took a bus from Phnom Penh which was a long, but cheap and tolerable way to travel. As we looked out the window, we couldn’t help but notice that most of Cambodia was dry, dusty, and barren, and upon crossing the border to Vietnam, the farms were larger, the livestock fatter, and the grass greener. A stark reminder of the challenges Cambodians still face today.

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Much of life in Vietnam is shaped by the rivers, as seen here in Phong Nha

When we made it to Saigon, we immediately dropped our bags and headed for the Lam Cafe to meet our good friend and American expat, Nathan (affectionately known as Brodel). How fun it was to see a familiar face on the other side of the globe!

Coffee pastries & Brodel

Vietnamese coffee and fresh pastries with the infamous Brodel in Saigon

We were served up a round of ice cold beers and a glorious pile of fried noodles as we chowed down and caught up with Nathan. He has been working for a teaching program in Vietnam for the last two years, so we could not have found a better or more gracious host to show us around Saigon. He also happens to be one of those magnetic souls who radiates warmth and attracts wonderful people, which was evident later that night when he took us to a party with a fun mob of his expat friends. We let loose chatting, drinking, playing music and snacking late in to the night.

Glamping

Long time campers, first time glampers! A shot of our sweet tent set up at Giang Dien.

After nursing ourselves back to life the next morning with Vietnamese coffee and bahn mi, we joined a group of Nathan’s friends for some camping (or more accurately, “glamping”) at the Giang Dien Waterfalls. Giang Dien is a nice park with a few waterfalls and swimming areas about an hour outside of Saigon – a great place to escape the heat and busy city streets. We felt right back at home camping with a fun crew in the woods.

Camping waterfalls

Giang Dien waterfalls

We returned for one more night in Saigon, where we were fortunate to meet Nathan’s girlfriend and a group of her friends for an authentic Vietnamese dinner at Xe Lam Bistro. We let the locals do all the ordering and had an amazing spread including fresh prawns, squid salad, a whole boiled chicken (beak, feat, and all), seafood hot pot, and more. The food was delicious, the company unbeatable, and the ambiance delightful – upscale, open-air pub style restaurant full of locals (we’re fairly certain we were the only tourists in there).

Hot Pot

Hot pot and a delicious array of sauces – dinner at Xe Lam Bistro

After three nights in Saigon, we said farewell (and thank you!) to Nathan and headed north for the mountain town of Da Lat. About 6 hours northeast of Saigon – up into the hills of Vietnam – Da Lat was developed by the French as a place to escape the heat of Saigon. What a novel idea! We’d been growing increasingly weary of the heat in southeast Asia, so we happily boarded the bus to the mountains.

Elephant waterfalls Dalat

Elephant Falls, just outside of Da Lat

The bus ride to Da Lat offered excellent views of the foggy, lush Vietnamese country side and mountains. It was far more mountainous, rainy, and scenic than we expected, and alas, when we got off the bus, it wasn’t scorching hot! Such a relief – we could wear jeans and sweatshirts! We stayed at Hai Long Vuong Hotel, a true gem of an establishment. The family who owned/operated the hotel were beyond warm and welcoming, and we found this to be true of most of the people that we met here.

Beverages

Vietnamese coffee, jasmine tea, and a fresh mango smoothie – perfect afternoon snack

Da Lat’s French colonial roots are evident in the architecture and in the cuisine. The streets are lined with cafes and bakeries serving Vietnamese coffee in small cups, with sides of tea and pastries (we paid several visits to Lien Hoa Bakery during our short stay – highly recommended).

Dalat Pastries

Breakfast of champions at Lien Hoa Bakery. $1.50 goes a long way here.

During the day, we rented a motorbike and explored the surrounding hills. At night, we wandered the streets, chatting with locals, dining, and poking our heads into the shops and bars. Our mountain souls were revitalized by the cool weather, the beautiful scenery, and vibrant people of this little town! Da Lat was absolutely worth a visit.

Dalat soy milk w friends

A friendly couple invited us to join them for soy milk desserts – a Da Lat local favorite

Next, we took an overnight bus north to Da Nang (~13 hours) and a second bus to Hoi An (~30 minutes). It was our first overnight bus ride and overall, it was a success.

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A riverside street in Hoi An

Hoi An proved to be an absolutely charming town. Cycling is a popular way to get around, and most hostels and hotels offer free bicycles to their guests. We explored via bike, riding through the old ancient town, amongst the rice paddies and gardens, and out to An Bang Beach.

The town really came alive at night, although not in a tired, too-loud, touristy way. There are many small bars and restaurants, and the streets of Hoi An light up with brightly colored hanging lanterns.

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Colorful lanterns are hung in the streets and sent down the Thu Bon River in Hoi An each night

Local vendors and tourists row boats down the Thu Bon River. There’s a bustling night market with good street food (Cao Lau is the local noodle dish). Street performers entertain passers by… It was all extremely enjoyable. Even in less than ideal weather (aka rain, which we found to be rather refreshing), Hoi An was a great place to explore Vietnamese culture for a few days.

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A young couple, just married, lights lanterns and sends them down the river in front of the Japanese Covered Bridge in Hoi An

After two nights in Hoi An, we took a bus up to Hue for one night. Hue is a larger city known for it’s many historic sites. It was previously the nation’s capital and the surrounding hills contain many temples and ancient tombs. Although not as charming as Hoi An, we enjoyed our brief stay here nonetheless. We stayed at Than Thien Hotel (probably our favorite lodging in Vietnam, especially considering the cost), took a motorbike out for the day to explore, and had fun trying more of the local fare before moving farther north to Phong Nha.

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One of the many ancient tombs that surround Hue, an area known for it’s rich history

Although our stay in Phong Nha was also short, it was definitely a highlight of our time in Vietnam.

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Phong Nha and the surrounding farmland sit quietly beneath the lush hills

Phong Nha is a quiet town, still relatively undeveloped, with genuine and friendly local people, situated amongst a beautiful backdrop of mountains.

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Cows grazing near the entrance to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Most tourists come here to tour the amazing Phong Nha caves, but we were just as enthralled by the surrounding landscape.

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Exploring the misty mountains by motorbike

Tall ridges and rock faces covered in thick, lush jungle strike up dramatically from the river basin and rice fields in a way that is incredibly unique. Cows wander the streets and fields. School children on bicycles ride by and wave to foreigners with excitement. It felt like the authentic, rural Vietnamese experience we had been searching for.

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Reflections deep inside Paradise Cave made it hard to tell what was up and what was down…

We explored Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park on a motorbike via the Ho Chi Minh Road, and there was plenty to see. We also toured Paradise Cave, which was only discovered in 2005 and is the longest dry cave in Asia (it extends into the mountain for 31km).

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Connor taking in the massive caverns and formations of Paradise Cave

There are many other caves in this area that we wish we could have seen, but as our time in Vietnam was nearing its end, we felt pressure to move North.

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Enjoying the sights of the dense jungle and steep hills from the motorbike

We said goodbye to central Vietnam and took a bus through Hanoi to Ha Long. This was by far the least scenic part of our journey through Vietnam, but the views upon our arrival assured us that the trip was worthwhile. This region is known for the seemingly infinite limestone islands scattered throughout Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Islands

Entering the labyrinth of islands in Ha Long Bay via ferry

Ha Long city is making a strong grab for greater tourist activity (read – Chinese money) with its many hotels and amusement park attractions (including a giant tram and ferris wheel). Although it is an effective launching point for tours of Ha Long Bay, most of Ha Long city is empty, dilapidated, or under construction. Having heard wildly mixed reviews about the various boat tour operations in the bay (mostly horror stories), we were hesitant to join a “guided boat tour of the area.” Instead of shelling out $200 – $300 we opted to take the local ferry ($8 total) over to Cat Ba Island via motorbike rented from our hostel ($4).

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A hazy view of Cat Ba Town

The ferry itself provided an excellent 45 min “boat tour” of Ha Long Bay and having our motorbike with us, we were able to explore the beautiful, forested island of Cat Ba. We stayed in Cat Ba Town, which has a fun waterfront strip of restaurants and bars full of fisherman and tourists. It was a great base for exploring the island.

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Dinh Kim Gial viewpoint hike in Cat Ba National Park

Cat Ba has a big national park ($2 entrance fee) with several hiking options. We opted for Dinh Kim Gial, a 4km hike to a viewpoint, instead of the “through hike” (no viewpoint) to the other side of the island.

Ha Long Islands 2

Islands of Ha Long Bay

Had we not sold our climbing gear back in Thailand, we also would have enjoyed the local climbing scene, which is said to be incredible, but we’ll have to save that for next time. Even in the hazy weather, Cat Ba and the many islands of Ha Long Bay were absolutely stunning to see. We could only imagine what it would be like to explore this area on a clear sunny day.

Ha Long floating town

One of several floating towns and markets scattered about the islands of Ha Long Bay

Our final two nights in Vietnam were spent in the bustling capital city, Hanoi. Hanoi is a busy, crowded city with excellent food, an active nightlife, many parks and lakes, and plenty of museums, historical sites, and government buildings.

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St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi was right next door to our hostel – beautiful to see but less awesome when the church bells ring all night long…

As most do, we stayed in the Old Quarter district, and we were able to walk to many of the city’s popular attractions from here. It was incredibly hot and hazy during our stay – all the more reason to take in the city at night.

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Ever get the feeling you are being watched?

The Korea Days festival happened to take place during part of our stay, which made the city come alive even more. Many of the streets were closed to motor vehicles and were instead filled with musicians, artists, food vendors, and people of all ages playing games.

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A blurry Connor (in the bright green) playing a rowdy game of street tug of war during the Korea Days festival near the Old Quarter (his team won)

We wandered the city, taking in the sites and chatting with locals and tourists, soaking in as much of Vietnam as possible before our departure.

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

We savored a few last bahn mi sandwiches, Vietnamese coffees, and bowls of pho. We really enjoyed the Hanoi local specialty, Bun Cha (highly recommend Bun Cha Dac Kim – it’s worth it).

Hanoi Bun Cha

Bun cha!

It was hard to say goodbye to Vietnam. We certainly would have enjoyed having another week or two to explore each nook and cranny of this amazing place – all the more reason to return some day. For now, it’s on to Hong Kong!

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Vietnam in 2.5 Weeks: South to North

  1. Connor, loving these photos and reading about your adventures! Thank you for sharing! I am so happy that you guys did this trip at this point in your lives. Something I wish Joe & I could’ve done. It’s the perfect time to do it! Please enjoy! We are living vicariously through you!

    1. Thanks J Frai! Seeing new places has been fun and each day we learn more about ourselves and what we want when we get home – we’re REALLY going to appreciate our old comforts. We wish you and Joe the best and thanks for reaching out!

  2. We just received our Vietnam postcard this week. It was perfect timing. We had just read a book about Vietnam and they were talking about the street restaurants and had talked about the little plastic stools. The boys were very excited to see that you had eaten on them! We read a book about kindergarten in China and America today. It’s so nice to be able to say ‘Remember Sara and Conor were there. Which led to them wondering if you will be visiting a desert after we read a book about the Sahara tonight. So that is our burning question at the moment…will there be any desert travels in your future?

    1. Haha that’s so great to hear, Carrie! Can’t believe the postcard took that long to get there though – wow. We LOVED the restaurants in Vietnam, plastic stools and all. And funny you ask about the desert… We’re still in Nepal and our last day of hiking was in an area that felt VERY desert like. Hot, barren, although high in the mountains – very similar to Tibetan terrain (near Muktinath and Jomsom). I’ll send a picture for them once I upload our most recent batch. Next up is a quick stop in India, where it is monsoon season, so likely to be very hot, muggy, and wet. Yikes! Hope you guys are doing great 🙂 xoxo

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