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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although our stay in Phong Nha was also short, it was definitely a highlight of our time in Vietnam.
Phong Nha is a quiet town, still relatively undeveloped, with genuine and friendly local people, situated amongst a beautiful backdrop of mountains.
Most tourists come here to tour the amazing Phong Nha caves, but we were just as enthralled by the surrounding landscape.
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.
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).
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!