Update: Vietnam has waved the visa requirements for British, Italian, Spanish, German and French nationals until 30 June 2016.
The most daunting part of traveling for me is the planning bit because I never know where to start. How do you pack all that a country has to offer in just two weeks time? Even harder is deciding how many days to spend in each place before moving on to the next. A few weeks ago, the Brit and I ventured to Vietnam and spent 16 days exploring my mother’s birth country. I wanted to share the experience of Vietnam and some of the influences of my childhood with my husband. More importantly, I desperately wanted to embrace its food culture since I’ve found it difficult to locate truly great Vietnamese food in London.
Having just returned from our tour of Vietnam I thought I’d share my itinerary of our travels from north to south and thoughts on what I loved & what I’d do differently and what to beware of.
Day 1 – 2: HANOI
We’re not the first to be seduced by the charms of Hanoi. Tall trees reach out of some of the crumbly buildings and in the narrow streets of the Old Quarter resembling a city that is growing within a jungle. I loved seeing commerce happening all around us even in the smallest of gestures.
Three days in Hanoi gave us ample time to stroll through the Hoan Kiem District, Dong Da District, Old Quarter and French Quarter. The Hoa Lo Prison Museum, where some of the American GIs including John McCain were held as POWs, is particularly worth a visit despite the heavy handed propaganda (after a visit you’d think the prisoners were on vacation in there). At the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university where scholars attended to learn Confucian principles, I was surprised to learn that Vietnam was once ruled by China for 1,000 years – which explains why there was once such a large population of Chinese dwellers (my family included). More than anything I just loved roaming the streets of the Old Quarter, each named after the byproduct of what the majority sells (such as Silk Street for its silk), eyeing each of the steaming hot pho bo pots and cafes we passed by.
Stay: La Siesta Hotel, situated in the Old Quarter, is within a 10 minute walking distance to Hoan Kiem Lake & its photogenic red bridge. We found it to be really clean and affordable at £45/night including breakfast. The staff were all proficient in English, friendly and extremely helpful. They also offer airport pick up for a fee.
Eat: It’s hard to beat street food in Vietnam. Just pop a squat at one of the plastic kiddie chairs and within minutes a steaming bowl of noodles will appear before you. The portions are small but packed full of sublimely simple and honest flavors. We did also have a truly excellent meal at Gia Ngu Restaurant, a nice restaurant catered to tourists in the Old Quarter and offers menu suitable for western tastes.
Beware: We ran into a very random sandal scam in Hanoi. Beware of random men holding onto plastic carrier trays who insist on taking off your sandals to “fix” it with glue and refuse to return them until you pay. The Brit was approached three times in one day but was able to fend them off.
How we got here: We flew from London Heathrow (LHR) into Noi Bai (HAN) airport via Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific.
DAY 3 – 6: HALONG BAY
Halong Bay was high on my list for Vietnam ever since I saw a friend’s picture of the silhouetted landscape of limestone peaks at sunset. The hardest part of planning for me was to determine how long to spend there. The major options available are: day trips out of Halong City, a 2 days 1 night cruise (the most popular option) or the more leisurely alternative, a 3 days 2 nights cruise. We chose the 3 days and 2 nights cruise (with the luxury liner Paradise Cruises) because many of the reviews I read about the 1 night cruise thought that it was a waste of time and money since you don’t actually have time to see an awful lot and you’re actually on the cruise for less than 24 hours. I was also intrigued with the opportunity to see the floating fishing villages (a community of people who have never stepped foot onto the mainland before and rely on fishing as their main source of income) within the bay which was not an option offered by the other alternatives.
As with everything, what you should choose really depends on what you’re looking to get out of the experience. If it’s just to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site and take a few photos then the day trip is probably your best bet, freeing up time to see other parts of the country. The 3 day and 2 nights tour we went on was probably a tad on the long side (and really pricey) but I’m glad to have had time to visit the caves, kayak around the bay, hike up to the Ti Top peak and visit the fishing villages.
As for the cruise company, we had a perfectly nice time with Paradise Luxury Cruise. The staff were great and accommodations were comfortable but I found the quality of food to be lacking. It wasn’t bad by any means but for the hefty price tag of the cruise itself I expected better flavors all across the board.
DAY 7 – 10: HOI AN
During the trip planning phase I became intrigued by the ancient town of Hoi An and decided to stay for 4 nights. It turns out you do not need that much time in Hoi An! Three days should give you ample time to appreciate all that it has to offer. (If I were to do it over, I’d save some of the time in Hoi An to spend in the countryside of Dalat.) We went on a self guided walking tour to see the Japanese covered bridge, visited the ancient homes that reflect the architectural influences of the town’s old trading partners, China and Japan, and strolled by the riverbank at sunset. We also spent half a day on a guided food tour with Taste of Hoi An to sample a vast array of street food and the town’s specialties such as white rose dumplings, cao lao noodles and fresh beer. There are plenty of options for food tours with different price ranges so shop around. The tour we went on was the more expensive option ($65) but offered a lot in terms of the sampling of food, explanations of the area’s food culture and giving back to the community/food vendors.
For those looking to take advantage of Hoi An’s famed tailor made suits and silk lanterns you’ll be spoilt for choice. The downside is that ever since the old city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, tourism boomed and the town is basically an open air shopping mecca catering completely to tourists lacking much of its original charms.
Excursion: My Son Sanctuary
We spent an early morning at the My Son (pronounced mee sun) sanctuary, crumbling Hindu temples that were constructed by the old Champa kingdoms. I have to admit I’ve never heard of the Cham people so found this excursion from Hoi An a great surprise. The temples are on a much smaller scale than those in Cambodia but much more off the beaten path as a place to visit.
How we got here: The sanctuary is an hour drive from Hoi An. There are organized bus tours available but we hired a private driver for $40 for an early morning visit to have the sanctuary to ourselves to explore. The whole trip takes about 4 hours total including transportation.
Stay: Almanity Spa & Hotel
The allure of the Almanity hotel in Hoi An is its offering of a 90 minute daily massage during our stay. We only made time to enjoy the service once out of our 4 night stay but found it relaxing after a day of trekking around in the humidity. Other great amenities included the spacious outdoor pool, daily happy hour (2 for 1) specials, and free bicycle rentals. The hotel is extremely family friendly and can get very noisy early in the morning (7am) because kids are running amok in the pool. For those who are not early risers, ask for a room that faces the city instead of the pool.
How we got here: We flew with Vietnam Airlines from Hanoi (HAN) to Danang (DAD) airport. From Danang airport it’s a 40 minute drive into Hoi An by car/taxi. We considered taking an overnight train from Hanoi to Danang but opted to maximize time in the city rather than on the train.
Day 11 – 13: NHA TRANG/NINH VAN BAY
I’ve dedicated a separate post for our stay at Six Senses Ninh Van Bay because it deserves its own space, you can find the post here. I will say that I’ve never known such luxury and impeccable service until we spent two nights in this paradise.
Day 14 – 16: SAIGON/HO CHI MINH CITY
Saigon is Vietnam’s city of contrasts. The high rises of District 1 and the absence of plastic stools and street side vendors leaving room for pedestrians to walk on threw me off a little after spending two weeks in the other more rustic parts of the country. Unique to Saigon are the grand structures such as the Notre Dame Basilica, Central Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel, the maze of Turtle Lake and an elegant Opera House – all sights I’d highly recommend visiting for beautiful architecture.
The best part of our Saigon visit was to Cholon, the Chinatown of the city where my family is from. We joined a photo walk tour through District 5 meeting the street food vendors, old and young residents of the area and its famous Quan Am Temple. Cholon is still so rich in its traditions and culture I could have easily spent another day there to people watch.
A 90 minute boat ride outside of Saigon is Cu Chi where the infamous tunnel network built by the South Vietnamese Liberation Front. Spend half a day here and it’s evident just how tenacious the people are.
Eat: Chi Hoa is a cheap and cheerful restaurant in District 1 that served our last great meal in Vietnam. Go for the Canh chua tom, Vietnamese sour soup with shrimp and tac muoi, salted kumquat juice.