December 27, 2015 - January 7, 2016
If you had asked me ten years ago if I'd be interested in going to Vietnam, I guarantee my response would have been something like "Nah, no. I mean, I'd rather go to Italy or something." Nothing against Italy OR something, but Vietnam is *extraordinary*. I don't want to say it runs rings around other travel destinations (though I bet Vietnam trumps driving six hours to Aunt Betty's for Thanksgiving and having to sleep on a cot in the spare bedroom where she stores her doll collection from HSN) but I WILL say that Vietnam deserves to be on the top of your destination list.
Jack and I decided to go to Vietnam after we went to Iceland. Before we went to Iceland, we considered ourselves to be mostly "city" travelers. We felt like (probably because it is all we knew) we preferred cobblestone streets to dirt roads and little cafes to roadside food stands. But, in Iceland we traded our city shoes for hiking boots and took photos of nature, never standing in line to see something man made. So when we sat down to plan our big yearly trip (sat down = we go to dinner and have a little too much to drink and then say things like, "On the count of three we both say where we want to go at the same time, ready?" "Wait, is that 'one, two, three, say' or 'one, two, say?!'") we both agreed: more of the great outdoors; more adventure.
Adventure is a broad term. For us, Vietnam was "adventure-y": we rode motorcycles, we biked, we kayaked, we ate huge prawns with their eyeballs staring at us. Vietnam is great for BOTH adventurers and those who like to take it easy. If you parasail on the reg or if you are more of a "I'd like to sit on the beach with a drink in my hand," Vietnam has got you covered.
We arrived in Hanoi around noon, and we had arranged a car through our hotel (see below). Jack and I can barely remember the details, but I vaguely remember they did have our name on a sign and scooped us up right after we got through customs. Regarding customs, we got our visas prior to entry, which I highly recommend. You CAN get a visa when you arrive, but I don't advise it. There was a long line of miserable, jet lagged people waiting for theirs in the airport. You can get your visa for Vietnam here.
GO THERE, DO THAT
1. Spend more time than you think you need in Hanoi.
We did the country from North to South, and Hanoi was an incredible place to start because (especially in hindsight) it felt so authentic, and because the city lives in this weird space between the old and the new. From ladies wearing nón lá, transporting their goods with carrying poles, to young Vietnamese students hopping on scooters after school, the city IS energy (I always thought it was kind of pretentious when tourists spoke of a city's "energy" but I understand it now). We stayed at the Cinnamon Hotel, which we recommend: affordable, adorable (towel swans and rose petals on the bed).
- Coffee at Cafe Phố Cổ. This coffee shop is behind a clothing store, so it is really easy to miss. Walk through the store and keep going until you reach the back patio. Place your order at the counter and then go ALL the way the spiral staircases, up to the top patio for an unmatched view of the Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Get the coffee with the whipped egg and prepare for your life to be changed.
- Lunch/dinner at Bún chả hàng mành - Đắc Kim. I don't think we even really "ordered", we just walked up, indicated there were two of us, and the delicious food came. This place is bare bones and you'll sit on a very small little stool (as is the norm in Vietnam). It's some of the best food we ate in the country.
- Take a load off/get loaded at Bia Hoi aka Beer Corner Hanoi. This is the spot where you'll see the most Western tourists, but we actually loved getting comfy on our stools, drinking 25 cent beer (seriously) and people watching while we listened to the diverse accents and languages around us. The beer is very LIGHT and made fresh daily so (imagine the lightest light beer you've ever drank and then lighten it further). I think it would take like 20+ beers to actually get wasted because it hasn't been fermented/isn't boozy, but that's a fun challenge.
- Explore Hanoi's Old Quarter Market. This was my favorite part, as Hanoi is truly a city you can walk around in (watch out for all the scooters MY GOD!). The Old Quarter is so cool - each street is a different type of vendor: shoes, clothes, glassware, meats, candy, etc. Let yourself wander (AGAIN WATCH OUT FOR SCOOTERS) and don't forget to look UP - most of the vendors live above their stores, and their windows and balconies tell part of their story: laundry drying, a kid looking down at you and smiling, gorgeous flowers in bloom. But seriously, watch out for those scooters.
- See the Water Puppet Show. It is absolutely tourist central, but it felt like an important part of the trip. Know that you probably can't get tickets for the next show - it is very popular, but you can get tickets for a future show. We recorded some of the music of the show with our phones and listen to it when we are feeling nostalgic.
2. Take the time to detour to Ha Long Bay.
Ha Long Bay is about four hours east of Hanoi, so we chose to do a two night stay on what is called a Junk boat. We booked the excursion through Handspan, which was a clutch move because our Ha Long Bay journey was essentially perfection. We left our hotel in Hanoi and walked to the Handspan offices, where you depart from. Handspan is great because they book small group tours, so we didn't feel like we were in a herd of 50+ people - there were only about 16 of us in the group.
We loaded into a van and headed out. I really enjoyed the drive because I turned up my music and watched the scenery. We made a few pee stops along the way at big tourist-shop stops, but there was no pressure to purchase (we did load up on snacks there). Once we arrived at Ha Long City where we boarded the boat. Prepare yourself: there were a million tourists there, all waiting to get on their boat. Again, we were VERY happy to be in a smaller group.
Our guide Khuong...how do I explain how much I loved him? By day, he took us kayaking to explore a private beach on one of the thousand of limestone islands, by night he played board games with us in the boat's little lounge in the dining area. He was a spectacular guide and so kind to all of us. On our bus ride back to Hanoi, it was New Years Eve day, and he sang to us, audio below (song starts at about :30 in). I'm not hyperbolizing when I say we listen to it regularly. Bonus: we fished for squid in the moonlight, caught on and then watched as the kitchen fried it up and served it to us piping hot.
3. Traverse the country on motorcycle with Easy Riders.
We flew from Hanoi to Hue for the day, and my only note regarding Hue is, politely, skip it. Though we had a lovely meal there at Les Jardins de La Carambole, the city left us kind of underwhelmed. There is the monumental Imperial City, which was home to some serious history (and war crimes) and a cool market, but otherwise it was unremarkable.
Hue is notable, primarily because it was our launching point for our a-mazing three day motor tour with Easy Riders, which truly - truly, if you pay for any excursion or guided portion of your Vietnam trip, book with Easy Riders (also note their are a number of "Easy Riders" companies in Vienam, but is rumored to be the best). Our guides Peter and Huang picked us up at our hotel and it was just them and two big, awesome scooters. They strapped our bags to the back of each bikes (another reason to pack light AND pack in a backpack, not a hard case bag) and we were off. Over the next two days, we stopped at a number of Vietnam war memorials and amazing views, stopped for delicious and authentic lunches and bonded with Peter and Huang over meals and breaks.
I would recommend the trip we did, which was a two night, 2.5 day ride, from Hue to Hoi An. Prepare yourself for what Huang called "numb bum" after hours of driving, but lean into it (figuratively) and lean back (literally, sit on your butt bones and sit up straight to save yourself from back pain). On the second day, I put my headphones in and listened to music, which I really recommend, it made the long stretches of road more cinematic and now those songs remind me of Vietnam.
On the final day, we hit some incredible fog - it was like nothing I had ever seen. We drove through winding roads through the jungle, spotting occasional cows along the way but, for miles, no other motorists. At one point, Huang yelled back at me "where is this?" and I yelled back "I don't know, where?" and he said "no where! A dream!" and it was one of those moments you can only capture when you are happily lost in the world.
Be prepared for VERY simple lodging, essentially hotels for weary motorists. At the end of the day, you won't want anything but a bed and a shower, but for those who are used to 3+ stars, prepare yourselves, these are simple accommodations in small villages. That being said, the best breakfast we had was our second morning, when we ate piping hot Pho and tea while chickens wandered at our feet. As Huang asked that morning, "How does it feel to be the only non-Vietnamese person for 100 miles in any direction?" Verdict: pretty unique.
4. Get some clothes made in Hoi An, but most importantly, get Bahn Mi at Bánh Mỳ Phượng.
We arrived in Hoi An tired and happy after two days of motoring south and immediately went to a tailor to get clothes made because EVERYONE told us we had to experience the custom clothing of Hoi An. I was beyond sweaty and tired, so getting measured and trying on clothes didn't thrill me, thus experience is a little colored. Jack got fitted for some dress pants and jackets, and I went for a simple shift dress.
We stayed at the Thanh Binh Riverside Hoi An, which was lovely - especially after two days of "roughing it" and spent some time at the hotel pool (THEY HAVE COCKTAILS).
While you are there, without a doubt, get Bahn Mi at Bánh Mỳ Phượng. Everyone will tell you to go here because GO HERE. I won't say much more. Be prepared to wait for around 15 minutes, and be prepared to then just sit on the ground and eat. You won't care because this is probably the best Bahn Mi in the entire world? Yes, probably.
Hoi An is also a great place to pick up some tourist knick-knacks to bring home as gifts, and it was lovely to stroll leisurely through Old Town and along the river, which was peppered with beautiful lights at night. Swing by the night market and pick up a sugary donut thing (who knows what it is, but there were tons of them and it was amazing). Ultimately, especially after days of essentially a private tour and a lot of nature, we found Hoi An to be pretty touristy and a little over-hyped. It is truly gorgeous, the lights at night were unforgettable, but we heard more English (and American voices) in Hoi An than we did the rest of the trip combined.
5. Get some history in Ho Chi Minh City at the War Remnants Museum.
First, Ho Chi Minh was HOT. The temperature had risen as we headed south and it had been warm in Hoi An, but Ho Chi Minh was steam-y.
Ho Chi Minh is bursting with new energy. Whereas Hanoi felt old and like a city that was still working on balancing the past with the future, Ho Chi Minh felt firmly in the now. It was a nice place to end up, and we spent our first full day there wandering the streets and meandering towards Bến Thành Market, which was sweltering and chock full of eye candy: butchers sleeping after their morning rush while buckets of live fish swam at their feet, stalls filled from top to bottom with candy and teas, tourists jammed next to Vietnamese grandpas.
We also went to the War Remnants Museum which I recommend with a disclaimer - there is a lot of tough imagery here. It is probably the best museum dedicated the Vietnam War, and that means everything is on display, including intense photos of the injured and dead. Jack and I cried a number of times as we somberly walked through the space. I think it is an important stop on a trip to Vietnam, and it made me further respect that - only decades after our conflict there, it is now a vacation destination that kindly and generously welcomes American tourists.
6. Bike through the Mekong Delta with Vietnam Bike Tours,
if you dare.
Our last full day we did a private bike tour in the Mekong Delta with Vietnam Bike Tours. Jack, who booked the excursion, told them we were "experienced cyclists" which meant by 10AM I was a sweaty, exhausted (but happy) mess.
We were met in our hotel lobby at 7AM (I know) by our guide and then drove out of the city. As our guide explained, we had to start our day so early because it gets INSANELY hot in the Delta and we had to make good time. Cut to us FLYING through narrow roads in the delta and me basically closing my eyes in fear every time we crossed a narrow bridge. That being said, it was amazing and a blast. Right when I thought I was going to have a heart attack, we stopped for a cup of honey tea and then loaded our bikes onto a boat to get lunch at Con Phung (Phoenix Island).
- Maybe more important than what you bring is what you don't. We were constantly on the move, changing lodging every few days, so I was very happy to - as usual - have packed light, especially on our motorcycle ride and when we were going from bus to motorboat to junk boat in Ha Long Bay.
- Depending on where you are headed, the weather will change wildly - it will be cool and potentially pretty rainy in the north and warm to sweltering in the south, so again: layers.
- Insect repellant and sunscreen. There were mosquitos to be sure - we each got nailed a few nights in our sleep, and though it was overcast for the first half of our trip, by the time we hit Hoi An, the sun was unrelenting. Pack both of these because in country they will be hard to find and/or expensive. REI has great small bottles of Deet and Thinksport sunscreen that can be put in your carryon.
- Comfortable shoes. I was really happy with my pair of vintage Nike Air Pegasus (they were a special edition for J.Crew and sadly died in New Zealand). I'd also recommend an easy pair of sandals like this pair of Kork-Ease.
- A rain jacket. It was great to have a light, easily packed rain jacket, as we got nailed in Ha Long Bay and on the motorcycles (they gave us some additional slickers, but I was happy to have my own when the wind was whipping past us.