It’s now been nearly seven months since we left the UK. After our time on the Thai Islands (click here for my travelguide) we headed to Vietnam. Here’s a brief summary (check out our couple of seconds a day video on youtube!) of the time we’ve had there and hopefully some hints and tips for those of you that fancy visiting in the future.
Did you know?
- Legend has it that the Vietnamese people originated from a union between an immortal Chinese princess and “The Dragon Lord of the Seas”.
- Their flag consists of a golden star with five points to represent farmers, workers, intellectuals, youth and soldiers. The red background pays tribute to the bloodshed during the wars.
- It has a communist government.
- Vietnam owns about 20% of the coffee market share and is the second largest producer in the world.
- Food is made to include a combination of five key elements: spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (earth).
- Dogs and cats are popular to eat.
- It has 37 million registered motorbikes, compared to just two million registered cars.
Where did we go and what were the highlights?
STOP 1 – Sapa
- After landing in Hanoi we spent one day in the city before taking a night bus to Sapa where we completed a 3 night – 4 day trek. Check out my post here to find out more.
STOP 2 – Hanoi
- Stayed 2 nights in Prince II Hotel (£15 per person per night) and 4 nights at Antique Angel Hotel (£15 per person per night). Both hotels were based in Old Quarter and were brilliant, very helpful staff, super clean and seriously comfy.
- We were so excited to get back to Hanoi after the Sapa trek, not just for a proper bed and warm shower, but to catch up with Rob’s good friend John. Xin Chao John!!!!
- We were extremely lucky that whilst we were in Hanoi it was Tet, Vietnam’s Lunar New Year. ‘Chuc Mung Nam Moi‘ was celebrated everywhere and streets were busier than usual as people returned home to visit their families. People burned money, decorated cherry blossom and kumquat trees, bought new clothes and got new year haircuts. Tet technically lasts three days, however celebrations seem to go on for weeks and weeks. We were warned that during Tet many places would be closed, but it didn’t really affect us too much being in Hanoi. We celebrated the turning of the new year with John and some of his friends in his local bar and at midnight we watched the fireworks from Hoan Kiem Lake. The hangover the next day was chronic, but it was well worth it!
- Whilst in Hanoi we booked onto an overnight Halong Bay boat tour. On the tour we kayaked around the bay, explored caves and watched the sunset on Ti Top Island. It was decent, however it’s such a tourist attraction that the water is pretty filthy and instead of being touched by the amazing karst landscape many of the views are hindered by other tour boats. It’s kind of a ‘must-do’ when in Hanoi, however personally I’d recommend visiting Tam Coc further down the coast if you want to do a boat tour with a beautiful landscape (details to follow below).
- Hanoi is the epitome of hustle and bustle. You have to dodge scooters, taxis and rickshaws when walking down the street. But in our time there I grew fond of the atmosphere and found some favourite spots. Beer corner is one of them. Whether you like beer or not, for 5,000 dong (15p!) you can get a fresh beer, sit on small plastic chairs and watch the Hanoi world go by. Hoan Kiem Lake is another favourite spot of mine, it provides a bit of tranquility among the old town’s craziness. Grab a Bahn Mi (Vietnamese sandwich), coffee or ice cream and sit by the lake watching people dance, doing exercise and playing Da Cau.
- Old town is a great place to just mooch and explore, however there are a couple of attractions that are definite must-sees. We set one rare hangover free day aside to hit up the super instagramable train street and then learn something at Hoa Lo Prison. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum or the Women’s Museum. But I’m 100% certain we’ll be back to Hanoi to tick these off the list and pay John another visit.
STOP 3 – Tam Coc
- Travelled by train from Hanoi to Ninh Binh and got a taxi to Westlake Homestay in Tam Coc where we stayed for 5 nights (£7.50 per person per night).
- Little did we know but Tam Coc is one of the places the Vietnamese visit during their Tet holidays… it was crazy busy with locals wearing traditional clothes and hats. We even succumbed to wearing face masks whilst on our moped due to the amount of traffic. Even though it was busy and it made getting anywhere a bit of a chore we managed to explore some of the beautiful landscapes, lakes and boats cleverly rowed by feet in the Ninh Binh area.
- On our first evening in Tam Coc we headed to Mua Caves where we climbed lots of stairs to enjoy the sunset. The next day we hopped on our moped along with what seemed to be the rest of the Vietnamese population to Bai Dinh. It was extremely busy, everyone was queuing to say prayers at the many buddhist places of worship at Bai Dinh for new year luck. Rob was also something of a celebrity, people wanted their photo with him for some strange reason… rather them than me!
- Whilst in Tam Coc we reunited with some friends that we’d met in Thailand and ventured to Trang An to share a boat tour around caves, temples and Skull Island where King Kong was filmed. When you arrive at Trang An don’t make the mistake we did, make sure to buy your tickets (200,000 dong, approx £6.60) first from a ticket booth on the opposite side of the road to the water, beware though, very few signs are in English! Many people compare Trang An to the in-land Halong Bay. Personally I preferred Trang An (and it was a mere fraction of the cost). Despite the many rowing boats gliding through caves and mountains there was a sense of calm that was missing in Halong.
STOP 4 – Dong Hoi
- After a long, sweaty and busy 8 hour train journey from Ninh Binh we made it to Dong Hoi where we stayed 2 nights at Nam Long Plus Hotel (£8 per person per night).
- Most people head to Dong Hoi to explore Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park but we were kind of ‘caved out’ and the logistics to get there and costs didn’t seem justifiable. We decided to skip the park and just enjoy what Dong Hoi had to offer. To do this we took a moped and drove along the coast, stopping off at beaches and sand dunes where we found a family hiring out sledges to go down the sand slopes. It was great fun but the sand got everywhere! Once we finished sledging we went to return the sledges back to the family and they insisted we stayed to eat lunch with them (free of charge). None of them spoke a word of English but we somehow managed to communicate and get them laughing using the odd Vietnamese phrases we’d picked up along the way.
STOP 5 – Hue
- From Dong Hoi we took a shortish train to Hue where we stayed at Everhome Hostel for 5 nights (£4.50 per person per night).
- Hue’s a busy city with so many good places to eat. Theres street food down by the river and a great selection of restaurants dotted about town. Our favourites were Nook where you have to try their Vietnamese yellow curry and Nina’s where the banana flower salad is so good!
- On our first day in Hue we explored it’s Imperial City. In the 1800’s Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam, here the Emperor Gia Long built a walled citadel filled with beautiful palaces, temples and gardens. Unfortunately a lot of the city was damaged and destroyed during the war, out of 160 buildings only 10 major sites remain. Today the city is open to visitors (entrance fee is 150,000 dong approx £4.90) where you can explore the ruins, gardens and be shown how lanterns, incense and kites are made. We were told it only takes a couple of hours to go round, but we spent half a day there. Be warned, most people go round by foot however many Chinese opt to use electric vehicles to get around and they scare the life out of you as you can’t hear them coming!
- Hue as mentioned earlier was hit really badly during the Vietnam War. One day we booked onto a DMZ tour ($15) through our hostel which took us from Hue through the demilitarised zone (DMZ) and to the Vinh Moc Tunnels where Vietnamese had built an underground system to transport weapons for the North Vietnamese Army and to protect themselves from American bombs. The tunnels were very narrow, clearly built for Vietnamese and not bulky Westerners, they even had a maternity ward down there as many civilians gave birth whilst waiting for the American planes to fly over.
- On our final full day in Hue we hired mopeds and ventured out of town to an abandoned waterpark. To get to the park simply search for ‘free entrance to abandoned waterpark’ on maps.me (again if you haven’t got maps.me, what on earth is wrong with you?!). As suggested on maps.me the park is free to get in, but when we arrived a local family suggested we park on their drive, it was the only place to shelter it from the sun (burnt bums) so we gave them 30,000 dong (approx £1) to say thanks. Cheap day out really. I’m not sure what the park was like when it was open or why or when it closed down, but it’s really fun to explore and discover some of the old attractions. It’s completely overgrown now, you hear some strange noises coming from the bushes and there are cows roaming free. Very zombie-film-esque.
STOP 6 – Da Nang
- Most travellers hire motorbikes and ride from Hue to Da Nang along the Hai Van Pass but we didn’t, and thinking back as I write this… I really don’t know why! The train journey is very scenic, however riding along the coast on a bike would of been so much better.
- Originally we were only supposed to be in Da Nang one night, we were then going to head to Da Lat, Quy Nhon and Ho Chi Minh before meeting my parents in Hoi An. But after some research we discovered we’d be doing 54 hours worth of buses and trains and aeroplanes with just a couple of days rest in between and it just didn’t seem worth it.
- So… we spent a ‘delightful’ 7 nights in Da Nang at Chill Box Premier (£6 per person per night). In all fairness the beaches in Da Nang were pretty nice and we met lots of lovely people as we spent a lot of time drinking beer outside the convenience store. But for me the highlight was definitely a sweaty, long walk from where we were staying on the beach all the way over the dragon bridge and a bit more to find a post office to send my Granda Dennis his 90th birthday card (congrats Granda!!!! the blood sweat and tears was worth it for you). You can see below how exhausted we were when we got there. Da Nang is a massive city, yet it only had one post office which was located 6km away. Another thing to note is, massive city, yet you have to walk 3km to find a blumin’ ATM and when you’re desperate for food, it’s not a good combo.
STOP 7 – Hoi An
- To say we were over the moon to leave Da Nang is an understatement. Arriving in Hoi An by taxi and being greeted by Emily at Herbal Tea Homestay (£7.50 per person per night) was just what we needed. Hoi An rejuvenated our love of travel when we most needed that pick-me-up.
- We spent 9 nights in Herbal Tea and then spent a further 7 nights in Hoi An at River Town Hotel with my parents. Hoi An is probably one of my favourite places we’ve visited so far, it just had a really nice feel to the place. Check out my last blog post on some of the things we got up to here.
How to get around?
- Don’t be fooled, Vietnam is a very long country. Getting from one place to another takes time. Internal flights are expensive and buses and trains are slow and uncomfortable. We travelled mainly by train and booked them in advance especially over Tet through baolau.com.
- The best way to hit sights is to hire a bicycle or moped, that way it gives you the freedom to stop off when you want and it’s very cheap.
- If you are going to get a taxi, use Grab which is the Asian version of Uber. It’s one of the best ways to ensure you don’t get ripped off.
- Like most Asian countries, be ready to barter. We found we were charged one day one price for a Bahn Mi and then another price another day. Speak up and make sure you pay what you should be paying, don’t get ripped off.
- If you drive a moped or bicycle your horn and bell are your best friend. Don’t be shy, use them. I think I got too into using mine, it just feels so good beeping your horn to let people know you’re there.
Accommodation, food and transport is very reasonable in Vietnam for the quality you get. We stayed in some of the best places for not much money, we even had really good wifi a lot of the time (such a luxury). Most days we budgeted £10 which would include food and activities for both of us. Beer is also very cheap and really good quality. Oops!
What will I remember Vietnam for most?
“Hello beer” man on beer corner and shoe shiners in Hanoi, pronouncing pho how they do (fuh) and still not being understood, the bizarre things that are transported on mopeds (orange trees, dead buffalos, a family of 5), ginger tea, karaoke blaring out by sober people at all times of the day (great wake up call), rich tasty coffee, the Bony M song “By the Rivers of Babylon” (it was played everywhere randomly!), beautiful lanterns and delicious cao lao.
We’re kind of coming to the end of our Asian travels now and we made the decision to cut it short and book flights out of the continent whilst in Vietnam. But that does not reflect how I feel about the country. It isn’t necessarily a pretty country, however the people, food and general feel really won me over. We’ve left the South untouched which means that one day we will definitely be back.
It was also great to see John in Hanoi for lots of beers and to spend a week with my parents. Seeing my Dad daintily make fresh summer rolls and my Mam ride a bicycle over a rickety metal bridge was very special (and a little bit funny). Goodbyes don’t get any easier but being able to have spent some quality time together and create memories helps!
We’re now in Cambodia and my alarm is set for a 4:45am start to explore Angkor Wat. If anyone has any tips for Siem Reap and Phnom Penh please get in touch.