2 weeks in Vietnam is fasted paced, and you can only see the necessities. There was not much time for wandering since we were on a tight schedule. We used flights to make the longer distances between our must-see airports.
Vietnam is a large “S” shaped country on the south east side of the Asian continent. It is bordered by Cambodia, Laos, and China which is part of the “Banana Pancake Trail” coined by backpackers. While this “trail” has no specific route, it includes all the popular places to visit in SE Asia. Most travelers you will meet are trekking this trail in their own way. These places often include: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Siem Reap, Phnon Penh, Vientiane, Saigon, Pham Ngu, Hoi An, Hanoi, Sapa, Penang, Perhentian Kecil, Kuala Lumpur, Bali, Borocay, Palawan, and more…
Vietnam is also known as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Split in half near the city of Hue at the Demilitarized Zone, by opposing ideals since the mid-19th century. They were often colonized by other countries, and as a result in unrest. They are currently in the longest period of peace since the end of the Vietnam/American war that ended in 1975.
The Vietnam/American war is far removed from my generation’s memory. We were taught to honor our veterans, and that the Vietnam War was hotly protested, worldwide. That’s about all I knew, and admittedly didn’t question. Upon purchasing my ticket, and having the official “I am going to Vietnam” conversation with my friends and co-workers; I realized that not everyone meet me with the same enthusiasm, particularly the generation older than I. Once person even said “But why? What is there to see there?” My talks of beaches, culture, and food were not enough to convince my older co-workers that it would be a great trip.
Ðộc lập, Tự do, Hạnh phúc
Independence, Freedom, and Happiness.
Watch out for scams
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) at 12:20 am. Our first stop was to the ATM to pull out Dong, and make our way to the airport. We pulled out $200 USD each, which was 4,676,720. 00 VND. We were to stay in Saigon until 12/23 (3 days in Saigon). After we pulled out enough Dong, we left the terminal to tons of men approaching us for a ride. We were pretty set on using the cab system at first, then a gentleman asked us if we want to Uber. That was a name we were familiar with, so my BF said yes, and off we went. He helped us get into the car, and left the stall. He then began to ask us if we had Dong on us, what each looked like, and how much we needed to make it to our Hostel.
My boyfriend was in the front seat with the driver. He pulls out his money and begins to go through it. The driver starts to tell him again what Dong we needed. It looked as though my boyfriend and the driver were collaborating with each other. Then the driver points at the money, pulls some out of his had to tell us “This is what we needed”. We agree, then about that time, his colleague comes up to the window, they say something to each other in Vietnamese. Our driver then turns to us and says that his colleague is going to take us to the hotel, and he needs to take another call. We unload and reload into the new car, and off we go.
We arrive safely at The Hideout Hostel. Upon taking inventory the next morning when we awoke, my BF discovered that he was missing money. We looked in all his pockets, all the backpacks…everywhere. We realized that we were swindled last night by the “Uber” driver (Mai Linh or Vinnasun are legit taxis with meters). Even being seasoned travelers, we made the most rookie mistake one could make. Don’t trust anyone who is not vetted through the city to take you anywhere. Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City!
Hồ Chí Minh City
We walked a total of 10.2 miles / 16.4 Km. We enjoyed the walking because we got lost a few times, found some nooks and crannies that we enjoyed, and meet people along the way. If you are not up for walking that much, there is a hop on hop off bus you can pay to use. We were able to cover all the sites that were on the map provided from our hostel. Don’t forget to make a stop at the food court! The best varieties of foods HCMC has to offer in one place!
Hồ Chí Minh
Day 2–Mê Kông Delta
Me Kong Delta is one of the world’s greatest and longest rivers. It begins in Tibet, and terminates in Vietnam. Each region it passes calls it a different name. The Upper and Lower parts of the river provides different tour experiences. The Me Kong was also used during the Vietnam/ American war for Search and Destroy missions. It is a brown color due to sediment that is picked up and settles over and over.
We purchased day tickets to the Me Kong Delta through our hostel. I felt most comfortable buying it through them since we were already scammed with the taxi. The Me Kong is HUGE, and there are various areas to explore. Look at the hotel/hostels book of available tours and pick one most interesting to you. They will get you on a tour, so no need to worry about running out of room, or making reservations. When the company running the tour arrived, our group was walked across the park to a large Grey Hound bus. We were in for a few hours trip. It was nice to see more of HCMC and drive through several districts.
Vinh Trang Pagoda
The half way mark was Vinh Trang Pagoda, one of the best known temples in the region. Home to a larger than life Buddha and many fruit trees. We had about 30 minutes to stretch and take pictures before we continued our journey to the Me Kong. We shuffled back onto the bus for the rest of the trip to the Lower Me Kong.
Once we arrived, we entered into a gift shop, then on to our boat. If I could give one piece of advice, it would be to bring a mask. The burning of the fuel and oil on these boats is so bad it made me sick. Some people seemed to do just fine, especially in the front of the boat. I have a sensitive stomach, and am slightly sensitive to strong scents. This tour made several stops on the Me Kong. We stopped at Ben Tre – Coconut Candy Factory –Do not buy more candy than you can consume in a few days. It does not taste the same! Lastly lunch at a crocodile farm. Then returned to the bus, for another 3 hour drive home. Tip: Bring lots of gratuity money!
To get to Hoi An, we took a quick plane from HCMC to Da Nang. Once we landed, we looked for another traveling couple to split a taxi with. This is the best way to get to Hoi An. Make sure you negotiate as a group, and be ready decline and walk away the first time. The taxi ride is about 30 minutes. Once we arrived in Hoi An, we let the taxi drop us off in the city, and decided we would find out hotel on our own. Since we were unable to pull it up on our phone, we had to ask a hotel to let us use their WiFi. Unfortunately, half the town had no power.
Left to navigate the old fashioned way…asking around and trial and error, We finally made it to Sunflower Hotel. We shared a 8 person hostel room. When we arrived, it wasn’t quite check-in time, so we utilized the space they provided to stow bags until check in. When we checked in, We were told that there was no assigned bed. If it didn’t look occupied, it was free. So, we dropped our bag and took off to explore. Fast forward– it was not first come first serve. We came back to our bags being put on the floor. The other roommates we had were told that it was assigned bunks. So we took what was left, and went to bed.
Things to do in Hoi An
The SunFlower Hotel is located across the street from a scooter rental company. I highly recommend doing it. Since it was my first time renting a scooter, the owner took me to a side road and taught me how it operated. Once I felt I knew what I was doing, he asked me to ride it while he reviewed my skills. Once I was deemed okay to ride, I paid for the scooter. I recommend being really cautious. The scooter driving is pretty intense in Vietnam.
I was going too fast, and the person in front of me needed to break. Unfortunately, it was too soon for me and I crashed my bike. I was able to hop off, and steer toward the sidewalk. If I went back, I would do it again. Only this time be more focused on those around me, other than myself. Things to do: Shop for a custom made suit/shoes/dress, Visit the Japanese Bridge, go to the Lantern Market at sunset.
Getting to Hue
Day 4 Hue (2 nights) We asked for a ride to Hue from Hoi An. The hotel set it up for us, and seemed legit. Needless to say I am alive to tell you about it, so it all went great! If you were to ask me in that moment, I would tell you that it had the potential for disaster. My BF is a very trusting, fly by the seat of his pants type person. I am the exact opposite. So when the unmarked suburban pulled up with 2 guys, and a lady, my anxiety went through the roof. They put our luggage in, and one guy stayed behind. This seemed all bad.
As we left, and I eventually calmed down, I decided to engage in conversation with the driver and passenger. Turns out, she is a tour guide in both Hoi An and Hue. She was going back home for Christmas to be with her family. Essentially, we were hitching a ride with someone who was already going that way. She gave us some great pointers, showed us pictures of what we needed to see in Hue, and were very friendly people. Once we arrived in Hue, we paid the driver, he helped us get out belongings, and we parted ways…alive 🙂
We walked to Hue Home-stay Boutique, dropped our things, and went to explore. We had a drink at the Demilitarized Zone, a great bar. Christmas Eve is more celebrated than Christmas day. The street was blocked off and there was lots of music and dancing in the streets. We started playing pool with some locals and meet a new friend, Su (sp?). We told her that we were going to take the free walking tour in the morning. She told us that it was great, and gave us some pointers on what else to see. We told her that my BFs birthday was tomorrow, Christmas Day! It was going to be a memorable day!
We meandered across the street to another backpackers bar on the way to our hostel. They had free shots, and nightly pub crawls. So we joined the pub crawl, which actually took us to a club. It was supposed to be negotiated that the guests were to get free entry, but there was a private party. They still allowed us in despite it. Be prepared for some very expensive drinks. Once we decided the scene wasn’t really for us, we left the pub crawl to return home.
Free Walking Tour
The next day, we did the Free Walking Tour in the morning with Hang 🙂 We loved her so much. So thoughtful, and insightful. She is a chemist for the local beer company, Huda. We meet at a cafe, talked about who we are, and where were from. Then we set off. We stopped by a few monuments on the street, went through a market, and then went on the outskirts of the citadel city. We walked with her to have lunch together at a local restaurant.
An Unforgettable Birthday
As we sat down for lunch with Hang, we looked across the table and pointed out a familiar face. It was the gal that we played pool with the night before. Hang smiled and nodded, then coming from behind Hang appeared Su, armed with a birthday hat and flowers. The most memorable birthday he has ever had. Thank you Hang, Sue, and our forever friends at Lac Thien. The most unique, delicious food and friends you will ever have.
If you ever make your way into Hue, please do the free walking tour with BeeBee travels! Again: don’t forget to tip!We headed back to the Demilitarized Zone for some drinking and pool. We found some more new friends, who were also celebrating a birthday. When they saw each other’s party hats, they instantly asked us to sit with them and celebrate both birthdays. We shared cake, beers, and laughs. Out of the whole table, only 2 spoke English. But celebrating together did not require similar language to be spoken. We laughed, gestured, and drank. To top it off, when we arrive to our home-stay, they also had a cake waiting for us. J What an incredible birthday!
Must see in Hue
Our last day in Hue we took an official paid tour of the Citadel City with our friend, Sue. She was so knowledgeable, and friendly. It was a great and unforgettable experience. She was so insightful, and descriptive you could almost imagine walking through the city as it once was. After our tour, we called a taxi to pick us up and personally take us to each temple we wanted to see. We were on a time crunch, and wanted to see the temples in a short amount of time.
Khai Dinh Tomb
Minh Mang Tomb
Thien Mu Pagota
Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng
Exploring Phong Nha
Home to the world largest dry cave in Asia, and the largest cave in the world, Phong Nha—KeBang is hands down my favorite destination that we visited in Vietnam. It was like stepping back 100 years. Not many places to stay, livestock roaming freely. Also, an important place to rent a motorbike. Not because there is so much to see, but the exact opposite. There is freedom here. You can go down to the cemetery, the church, and wander into the villages.
We booked a Mud Cave tour through our hostel, Gecko Hostel. This place was probably the nicest place we slept the whole trip. Keep in mind we slept on buses, trains, and very cheap hostels. It was a nice relaxing experience. We did find ourselves at Easy Tiger Hostel when we wanted to enjoy ourselves. This place was more of a party/ socializing environment with music and pool tables.
This is where we found out about MAGs work in Vietnam. The backpacker’s hostel has advertisements up for MAG all around. Their goal is to work to discover and destroy undetonated bombs left behind from the Vietnam/American War. I found it interesting that while the rest of the world moved on, particularly America. Vietnam is still picking up the pieces from the war, 43 years later. Children are often the victims of these undetonated bombs, usually by innocently thinking it is a ball or a toy.
A UNESCO world heritage site, Paradise Cave is voted one of the worlds most wonderful caves. It boasts an underground river, lake and several grotto. There are enormous stalactites and stalagmites. The beginning of the cave has a lot of stairs, and some are pretty slippery. This does not seem like a good plan for anyone who needs assistive walking devices. So after being shuttled through the cave quickly, and stepping around hundreds of others, we made out way back to the van.
The Dark Cave was great, and my favorite part! To get to the cave, you have to zip line. If you cannot, you have to use a kayak. This was my first time on a zip line, so I was a bit intimidated. But with a push from our guide, I made my way across the lake and had a hard slam at the end to stop me. Once you un buckle, you can make your way tto the clear, milk colored water. You must do some swimming in order to get to the dock which leads you to the cave.
After about 10 minutes of walking you enter the dark cave where mud is chest deep. It is really fun to just platter mud on yourself, and others. You do have to rise off in the cave before exiting. You can leave the cave by swimming or kayaking. Once you arrive back to the main area, you can swim, play on the zip lines, and swings into the water. After exploring the Mud Cave, we were treated to an amazing lunch!
Heading back to Phong Nha
After the tour, and showers we decided to see what night life was to be had. We saw a sign for karaoke, naturally we were all in. When we went to look, it was very ambiguous as to where it was located. We ended up going into a store and asking the person working there, it was a grocery store. He told us they did to karaoke next door and he would help us out.
When we found the karaoke man, he discussed price, and let us in the back. When we walked through, it was a persons house in the back. People were sleeping, and eating. There were a few small rooms with a large TV and a great sound system to sing karaoke. Lots of drinks and snacks to purchase. It was very difficult to operate though, and most the songs were in Vietnamese.
We would have stayed another night. Although there isn’t much to do, but it was so unique.
When we left Phong Nha we took a local bus that stopped outside of Easy Tiger Hostel. The bus ride was a bus that the locals take. We rode 1.5 hours to the Dong Hoi. It does not drop you off right in front of the airport. We had to walk across the street, and down the road to the airport. It was a very small airport, none of the service desks were open when we arrived. We took a place to Hanoi.We meet a group of great people. One told us his grueling story about him catching Dengue Fever and almost dying. It was fascinating to hear his account (get your travel vaccines)
Ha Long Bay
Exploring Ha Long Bay
It is colder up north so we had to unpack the rain coats, and stow the shorts. We arrived in Hanoi for only the night. We were to take the bus in the morning to Halong city to explore Ha Long Bay. Once we arrived in Ha Long city, we stayed the night and got up early the next morning to tour UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay. We stayed in Ha Long Party Hostel. Be careful when booking here. One is Ha Long Party Hostel, the other “Hotel”. Make sure you know which one you want to book at. The “Party Hostel” was anything but.
We ended up spending our time at Ha Long Bay View Hostel and Pub. We were walking around town and the owner shouted to us from across the street. So we decided to take a look. It was such a good idea. He was so friendly, and helpful. They also got us our tour for Ha Long Bay at the tour agency downstairs from the pub. It turned out to be a great tour, unlike some of the nightmares we have heard about other tour companies. We took a taxi since we stayed in Halong City to Ha Long Bay. There is an additional fee to cross into Ha Long Bay that you have to pay. Have some cash ready for that.
Things to do in Ha Long
Ha Long Bay is beautiful, but caters to tourism. The waters are polluted, and the boats have a strong odor of burning fuel. Our boat had 2 bathrooms, and enclosed. You can go out on the deck and the top of the boat if you wanted, but it was pretty cold and windy. There was also another gal on-board that had a table with items for sale. Snacks, jewelry etc. The tours offer different things. Ours offered an incredible lunch, a stop at the pearl farm (my favorite part of this trip), a couple minutes of Kayaking, and a small cave tour. It was a nice experience. The lesson I learned here: Do not waste your time staying in Ha Long City. Take the long bus ride / day trip from Hanoi.
After we docked the boat, we got on a bus straight back to Hanoi.
Hanoi New Years—my first thoughts are WOW. I have never seen so many people in my life. There were people everywhere. Walking, on motorbikes, in cars. There was no organization to the driving. There was a large New Year’s event sponsored by Heineken with some very popular Vietnamese singers. So needless to say, it was packed. When I say packed, I really mean it.
At one point I was so scared, I thought I would lose my footing and get trampled. People were shoving past so forcibly, it was knocking people off their feet. They would do it in groups and force their way around. Dads braced in front of their families so their children do not get trampled. It was truly unlike anything I have ever seen. So, once we heroically made our way out of the crowds, we found a nice bar and had a drink. We were able to watch from afar, and count down the 2018.
Things to do in Hanoi
Must see: Ho Chi Minh Mosuleum, Temple of Literature, Trấn Quốc Pagoda, Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long, One Pillar Pagoda, Hỏa Lò Prison. Had the BEST ice cream/Gelato I have had in a long time. LaMore Ice Crème in the Old Quarter.
We brought our trip to an end in Hanoi….up next Dubai!
Things I would do different if I went to Vietnam again:
My largest regret is not seeing Sapa. Now, I must make a second trip 🙂
I would skip Hanoi.
Spend more time in central and inland Vietnam, where it is slower.
I am lactose Intolerant and brought Lactaid with me, but not enough. So I couldn’t indulge in more and more ice crème.
We did not go to the Củ Chi Tunnels while we were in HCMC. Out roommates told us it was pretty lame. So we decided not to go.
We went in December over Christmas. While we still had a great time, we didn’t do any beach lounging as it was usually overcast and rainy.
If you would like more information about the Vietnam/American war see the following link. It is incredibly hard to find an unbiased info source on this topic. So, while this blog has some bias, it is very minimal. This is the best, most succinct information I was able to find about the war.