Between the incredible food, cool weather, helpful locals and fantastic shopping, Vietnam has been our favorite leg of the trip so far!
Highs: Vietnamese food and coffee, driving through the Hai Van Pass, Hoi An (‘nuff said), our awesome eBuddies tour guides
Lows: getting hopelessly lost in Ho Chi Minh City, burning my leg on the motorbike, cold and cloudy weather in Hanoi/Halong Bay
Ho Chi Minh City
We arrived in HCMC (the city formerly known as Saigon) and, after getting completely ripped off by our taxi driver, checked in to Vy Khanh Guesthouse, where Vy herself welcomed us and helped us find everything we needed in the chaotic, bustling city. With an estimated 6 million motorbikes zipping around the streets, it’s hard to even walk down the sidewalk without them coming at you from every angle. Nevertheless, we were able to do some exploring, drink up and down Bui Vien Street and visit the Ben Tahn Market, as well as the War Remnants Museum and Independence Palace.
To say that the War Remnants Museum was powerful is a serious understatement. It was overwhelming. I have a feeling I’m not alone when I say that I didn’t learn much about the Vietnam War in school, and now I understand why. The photos were some of the most graphic I’ve ever seen, and obviously told the story from the Vietnamese perspective. After our visit, we began to wonder why the people here were so kind to us after everything the U.S. had done to them. “We forgive you,” we were told by one of the locals, and I couldn’t help but think, if the tables had been turned, would Americans do the same?
From HCMC, we took a two-day excursion through the Mekong Delta and stayed overnight at a homestay in Can Tho. Along the way, we visited Vinh Trang pagoda, saw how they make coconut candies and rice paper, and bicycled through a small fishing village.
My favorite part of the trip was the Cai Rang floating market, which is the largest market in the Delta. We traveled by boat and pulled up next to other boats on which vendors sold fruit, snacks, coffee and noodle soup. I have never seen so many houseboats in one place, especially ones fully equipped with satellite TV!
How do I even begin to describe beautiful little Hoi An? I’ll start by saying it has been our favorite place so far. The quaint alleys in the Old Quarter are lined with Chinese lanterns and there are a whole host of bars and restaurants along the riverfront. We spent most of our time riding bicycles around the city, lounging on rooftops, and indulging in Hoi An’s culinary specialties.
The food. Ohhhh the FOOD! Hoi An delivered some of the best meals I think I’ve ever had. From Bahn Mi to Cao Lau and White Rose dumplings, we loved everything we tried and constantly debated how long we had to wait until our next meal.
In a city with food sent from the Heavens, of course we had to take a cooking class. It began with a tour of the local market, where we picked up all the ingredients. Then we hopped in a little coconut boat and made our way down the river to the cooking school, where we whipped up fresh spring rolls, rice milk pancakes, banana flower salad with shrimp and BBQ pork over noodles with peanut sauce. Later, they showed us how they fish in the river and let us give it a shot. Everyone please take note that I caught a fish and Michael didn’t. (It’s the only sport I’ve ever beaten him at.)
From Hoi An, we rented motorbikes and drove them about 180 kilometers to Hue, another small city just north of Da Nang. The route took us past Da Nang’s Marble Mountains and through the Hai Van Pass, a windy road that zig zags through the mountains and offers some spectacular views of the beaches below.
The rest of the trip was mostly highway, and by the time we made it to Hue about six hours later, we were sunburnt and absolutely exhausted. We grabbed some food and well-deserved beers, but “no rest for the weary,” as they say. After a few hours, we hopped on the night train and settled in for the 14-hour journey to Hanoi.
When we finally arrived in Hanoi, after once again being ripped off by our taxi driver, we spent three days wandering the city and stuffing our faces with Vietnamese food and beer. One of the highlights of our trip was a free walking tour we took through a company called eBuddies, who sent two local university students to show us around while we helped them practice their English. Nghia and Lam spent all afternoon leading us through the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake district and the French Quarter, telling stories of important historical sites, answering questions about Vietnamese culture, and introducing us to local specialties like lemon mint popsicles and coffee with egg yolk.
The food in Hanoi also did not disappoint. Pho is a rice noodle soup with pork that Vietnamese people eat at all times of the day. We got some at a popular local restaurant near our hostel, where we stood in a line that trailed out the door and ate on tiny little stools at community tables on the sidewalk. Bun cha is another popular dish we enjoyed that includes a broth made with garlic and pepper. The beer in Vietnam is often cheaper than a bottle of water and every city makes its own local brew. Of course, I had to try them all, and collected a plethora of labels for a purpose that has yet to be determined. (Anyone have any crafty ideas?)
Before we left the country, we made sure to stock up on North Face gear for ourselves and our families. The company has a factory in Vietnam and there are stores on every street corner that sell (mostly legit) products at only a fraction of the price you’d pay in America. After buying up almost an entire store, we were able to ship it all in a box to the States, though it won’t arrive for about two months.
From Hanoi, we booked a three-day trip to Halong Bay, where we marveled at the beauty of the limestone cliffs scattered throughout the water. It was overcast and chilly when we went, but I suppose that’s better than the hundred-degree weather Vietnam sees in the summer. We cuddled in sweatshirts on the rooftop deck, kayaked around one of the 2,000 islands in the bay, climbed through natural caves, learned how to fish for squid and sang karaoke with our fast new friends.
Day two brought us to Cat Ba Island, where the once pure and untouched beaches are now lined with concrete hotels and mini-marts. Outside the town, we went hiking and motored over to nearby Monkey Island, where baby monkeys ran all over, swinging from trees, chugging beer and posing for photos. While it was a little touristy for our taste, Halong Bay’s natural beauty made an impression and it was definitely worth the visit.
Vietnam is a country we’d definitely like to visit again and would HIGHLY recommend to anyone traveling in Southeast Asia. Even though we were sad to leave, we’ve already begun exploring Laos and can’t wait to tell you about it!