We thought we’d stay a while in Vietnam - we blocked off four whole weeks, but ended up staying six. I’d never been out in this corner of the world before, but the rural beauty and bustling city surpassed anything I’d seen in pictures. Here’s a list of just a few of the highlights.
Places to Go
A couple of our favorite places to go in Vietnam, that we recommend you check out too!
• Poem Mountain hike. Everyone goes to Ha Long Bay, and everyone goes on a junk boat cruise, and you should definitely do those. But if you’ve got the extra time in Ha Long, try to get out to Poem (Bai Tho) Mountain for a sunset hike. The way is a little shady - the entrance is hard to find (you’ll have to ask the locals), you have to pay an entrance fee to a lady (who definitely just decided to throw a padlock on the gate and charge foreigners) and you’ll have to jump a fence (while ignoring a large sign that reads Dangerous Area, Do Not Enter). The climb is slippery and a little scary, and a pretty strenuous thirty minutes uphill. But do it anyway! Not too many people know of it, and it gives you an absolutely stunning view of Ha Long Bay stretched out on all sides.
• Northern Vietnam, specifically Ha Giang and Mu Cang Chai. Many tourists don’t get much further north than Hanoi, but we were lucky enough to spend a week exploring the regions of the north. My favorites were Ha Giang and Mu Cang Chai - it was green, rolling hills, terraced yellow rice fields, and endless blue skies as far as the eye can see. There are also myriad ethnic minorities in Northern Vietnam - we had the privilege of staying with families from both the Hmong and Tay minorities, which was a fascinating insight to that culture.
• Da Nang beaches. In Hanoi, a little girl stopped me on the street to chat so she could practice her English. I asked her where her favorite place in Vietnam was, and she replied without skipping a beat, “Da Nang beach”. So I had high hopes for the city, which didn’t disappoint. The downtown was bustling and the nightlife was great, but the highlight was the stunning, elegant beaches, where the water licked the white sands and the heavy air smelled like the sea.
• Hoi An. I think I had a love/hate relationship with Hoi An, but I’d be remiss if I left it off the list. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rightly so, as it’s an absolutely beautiful preserved little town. But it’s one of the most touristy places in Vietnam, and the local vendors know it. I have never been hassled more to buy things than I have in Hoi An, or received such negative feedback when I declined to make a purchase, and after a while it got a little wearying to be treated as a walking wallet. That being said, the town is beautiful, the walls are yellow, and the lanterns that light the river at night are dreamlike.
• Other tourist attractions we enjoyed: Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, Cu Chi Tunnels, Imperial City of Hue, Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, Sapa, Hanoi Old Quarter.
Things to Do
Here a few of our favorite experiences you can have almost anywhere in Vietnam.
• Rent mopeds. You might get some conflicting opinions on this one. Vietnam has some of the worst roads in the world, and some of the highest fatality rates for motorcyclists. You might have heard it’s too dangerous to rent mopeds in Vietnam, and that’s probably true, but it was also one of the best travel experiences we’ve had so far, and definitely our number one highlight of the country. We spent eight days motorcycling around the northern provinces, and it is hard to describe the total wild abandon you feel while flying through the rolling green country on a bike. While we chose arguably one of the most difficult and dangerous circuits, there are so many safer towns and regions to rent motorbikes and get a taste of the way the locals travel.
• Go caving. Vietnam is home to the largest cave in the world (Hang Son Doong), but unless you’ve got three thousand dollars to spare, you probably can’t tour that one. Luckily, there are tons of other ones scattered throughout the country that you can explore for free! We went to Dark Cave and Paradise Cave in Phong Nha National Park, and another one in Ha Long Bay. It is truly fascinating to be enveloped in the darkness of the caverns and walk amongst the stalactites and stalagmites, stretching up and down all around you.
• See a water puppet show. We’d been seeing signs for Water Puppet Shows all throughout Vietnam, and finally in Saigon our curiosity got the best of us and we booked tickets, and we’re so glad we did. Water puppetry in Vietnam dates back as far as the eleventh century, when rice fields would flood and villagers would entertain each other by making the puppets look as though they are moving in the water. The show also had eight live performers in plain sight, playing traditional instruments, singing and providing the dialogue. The puppets reenacted traditional folk tales, stories of harvest, fishing, and festivals - it was all in Vietnamese, but it wasn’t hard to follow and laugh along with the crowd.
Food to Eat
For me, Vietnam is rivaling Japan in terms of favorite food country so far. The fresh herbs and raw fruits and vegetables incorporated into so much of the cuisine was a refreshing change to some of the food we’ve had in Asia thus far. Here are a few of the dishes we got time and time again. (Tip: do as the locals do and always wipe off your chopsticks with a napkin before eating!)
• Bánh mì. A small baguette stuffed with any combination of meats, pâté, egg, a handful of herbs (cilantro, Thai basil, mint), radish, papaya, and more. We found our favorite stall in Hanoi and I think we had them every single day for lunch during the week we were there.
• Bún chả, Phở, Bún bò Huế, noodle soups in general. It was at times difficult to force ourselves to eat a bowl of steaming soup on a deathly hot day in Vietnam, but we never regretted it. Phở has become super popular around the world as of late, and it’s good, but I preferred bún chả - a much sweeter broth, served next to vermicelli noodles for dipping and a pile of mint, basil, cilantro, and lettuce. You might recognize bún chả as the dish that Anthony Bourdain and Obama ate together in a little shop in Hanoi, and once I discovered my love for bún chả I knew we had to get ourselves out to that restaurant and try it for ourselves. (The shop is called Bun Cha Huong Lien, and we ordered exactly what Bourdain and Obama did - right down to the spring rolls and Hanoi beer on the side.)
• Vietnamese coffee and egg coffee. I’m fairly certain half the calories I’d consume on any given day came from the cloyingly sweet, thick layer of condensed milk at the bottom of every cup of Vietnamese coffee, and I had no problems with that. It was unlike any coffee I’d had before - it was usually served to us in a small cup with a single-serve filter on top, they say the longer the coffee drips the better it will be, and trust me, it’s worth the wait. It’s thick and dark and tastes like chocolate, and as someone who drinks at least a cup of coffee a day, I’ve been missing it every morning since we left. Egg coffee was good too, basically a tiny amount of thick bitter coffee, with a huge layer of custard-tasting foam on top.
• Chả Cá Thăng Long in Hanoi. This restaurant has one thing, and one thing only on their menu - chả cá, a Hanoi specialty made from fried monkfish cooked with turmeric and dill. We went at an off-hour, 2pm for lunch, and the place was absolutely packed, which speaks to how good this place is. The fish is incredibly fragrant and served alongside vermicelli noodles, fish sauce, and of course, a handful of fresh herbs.
• Street food. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with food in Vietnam, and some of the best meals we had were from little old ladies stationed at tiny carts in the street, toddler-sized plastic chairs clustered around her. For 30k dong (~$1.29) you’ll get a substantial meal and some of the most authentic Vietnamese cuisine you can find.
We spent longer than we thought we would in Vietnam, we found it hard to leave the stunning beaches, amazing food, fascinating history, and the absolutely indescribable beauty of the countryside. I asked Peter if he had any final impressions, and he said “the number one thing that’s going to stick with me is the coffee. I just don’t know if we’ll ever find it as good anywhere else… that’s the main thing about Vietnam that sticks with me.” So I’m guessing we’ll return one day, if only for that.