Vietnam had me falling absolutely head over heals in love from the minute I stepped off a sweaty bus and into the luxuriously cool Ho Chi Minh City. It’s hustle and bustle at it’s finest; a concoction of colours, lights, history and culture. The great thing about Vietnam is that it varies so dramatically from city to city – within hours you can go from the bar-lined streets of Saigon to the quietest of seaside resorts, and then on to ancient towns laced with traditional paper lanterns. Vietnam is unapologetically itself despite the growing number of tourists that flock, so you truly feel like you’re seeing the place for what it really is. Narrowing down my favourite places in the country was a ridiculously hard task, but I have worked my forehead muscles as I’ve squinted and pondered, and written up this little list.
Hoi An is without a doubt one of my favourite places in the entire world. We arrived in the evening and had to ride along a strip with terrible road to pot-hole ratio in complete darkness. The guesthouse we stumbled upon was absolutely faultless and I couldn’t recommend it more if you’re visiting Hoi An – Coconut Gardens. The owner was a lovely lady who was always closely followed by her mischievous twin toddlers, and she would go out of her way to make us comfortable. The room – which had “Swanky Hotel” status in our books – was only $12 a night with a little patio, and she threw breakfast in for only $2, so the home stay is unmissable.
As we had arrived on the eve of Lunar New Year – or Tet in Vietnam – we were encouraged to go out and see the town at its finest despite our tiredness, and boy were we glad that we did. The streets of Hoi An are lined with thousands of paper lanterns in arrays of shapes and colours. Every building has been kept in its original glory, dotted along the cobbled streets and painted in hues of yellow. The Tet celebrations are all about family time and drinking, so it’s easy to join in.
There is a canal running through the centre, which you’re able to bob along in a gondola or float your own candle-filled lantern along in the evenings. Get your haggling shoes on as prices will start high. If you’re up for a party, the bars are quite literally giving away drinks (my head didn’t love the deal so much the following day) – but if you’re looking for a more low-key or civilised affair, there are plenty of gorgeous restaurants hidden amongst the higgeldy-piggeldy streets.
Hoi An is also famous for its tayloring, which is noticeable even after a five minute wander because of the fact that every other shop is a taylor. If you are looking to treat yourself to a new suit or a dress that fits like a glove, you’ll hit the jackpot here – and for a crazily low price.
I could rave about Hoi An for hours, but I’ll stop now and just recommend it as highly as I possibly can. I absolutely dare you not to get caught up in the magic of the place.
Cat Ba Island
The excitement of visiting Cat Ba starts back on the mainland, when you take a ferry from Ha Long Bay. This boat ride was stunning; all sparkling blue and the famous jutting limestone islands that make Ha Long what it is. Once on Cat Ba, there are amazing mountain roads that sweep their way up and into the main town, which is a line of bars, restaurants and hotels overlooking the glistening sea. Here, you can get a basic hotel room with one hell of a view for $10. It’s a short wander uphill to the nearest beach, which is nestled in a pretty little bay and was never particularly busy when we stopped by. Don’t expect to bathe in the blue for long – I had to be picked up and thrown in after lots of toe-dipping and squealing because it is very cold in comparison to the hot island weather!
I’d highly recommend renting a scooter for the day on the island, as there are plenty of gems scattered around that are more than worth a visit, but would knock you out if you tried to trek! In particular, the fairly unheard of Hospital Cave was one of our favourite outings. During the Vietnam war, the Viet Cong built a fully functional three storey hospital into a huge, natural cave buried into the hillside. It’s an amazing display of how the Vietnamese people were able to take advantage of their incredible natural surroundings during the war, and how cleverly they used it – even filtering all smoke underground to prevent being detected by the Americans. The entry fee is around $2 and handy tour guides will explain each area for a donation.
Boat trips are advertised all over the island, and we were skeptical at first as they were priced highly. We met some friends and managed to haggle a tour down to $15 per person. The day was full of kayaking through caves, jumping from the boat and into the absolutely incredible turquoise ocean (again, somewhat reluctantly due to the temperature), hanging out with the angriest monkeys you ever will meet on Monkey Island, and cruising past the incredible fishing villages that float in the bay. With lunch thrown in and plenty of lovely people to chat with, it’s a brilliant day out.
Food and drink is generally quite affordable in the main town – we spent most of our time in the Oasis Cafe. They do decent Western and Vietnamese food, but it mainly comes alive at night when you can bond with travellers from near and far across the pool table, all with a cheap Hanoi beer in hand.
Cat Ba is a small island which can feel like an escape from the noise of the near-by cities, but it won’t ever leave you bored.
Dalat is tucked up in a blanket of mountains, and for a reason – it’s incredibly chilly! There is huge variation of old and new; the first attractions are tall, strangely shaped buildings set around the central lake. As you venture further into the town, the roads are lined with traders selling wonky-shaped, muddy vegetables and traditional ingredients locals buy in order to create the incredible Vietnamese cuisine. A guesthouse owner rushed up to us and led us to her house on her motorbike and gave us a good deal – the town is rich in cheap accommodation and they’re not afraid to approach you to offer.
In all honesty, we had been riding motorbikes in the rain for days on end and spent our time in Dalat mainly huddled over coffee and sheltering from the cold – pack your woolies as you’ll certainly be needing them at night. I would certainly recommend Salt Coffee and Windmill Coffee, both central. However, having met lots of people who also went to Dalat – we have since discovered that there was more to do! The Crazy House is famous within the town as it is a bar set in the middle of a maze, and getting lost there seems like a fun way to spend the day. ‘Canyoning’ is also a big hit, with day trips including lots of climbing and abseiling against the natural beautiful backdrop of the mountains.
We struck gold in terms of eating in Dalat. The aptly named Artist Alley was hidden away down a tiny lane in the town, with its walls plastered in artwork and a Vietnamese man quietly serenading the whole room with stunning Spanish guitar. The food was just amazing, you’d be silly not to try one of their claypots which are incredible value for money. For another dinner, we ate at Goc Hah Than and their DIY spring rolls went down an absolute treat. For breakfast, One More Cafe was gorgeous, complete with a balcony perfect for watching the world go by over a freshly-brewed mint tea. If you’re looking for a snack, Lien Hoa is a bakery that does Vietnam’s famous sandwiches, Banh Mi, for less than $1 and made freshly in front of you. It’s a little too easy to carb up here!
Whether you’re in it for adventure or the local delicacies, or just looking to cool off from the heat of South East Asia, Dalat has something for everyone.
Trying to locate where you are once you’re in the midst of Hanoi’s streets is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. The Old Quarters alone are hundreds of tiny roads full to the brim with bits and bobs – all categorised by what’s on sale; “Shoe Road”, “Bag Road”, even “Sellotape Road”! It’s a huge mashup of tradition and modernity, as you see the younger generations rebelling from some of Vietnam’s traditions, apparent in everything from their more risqué clothing and tattoo parlours to the teenagers premiering their homemade Indie Rock bands on the roadsides on Saturdays.
You’ll never be lost for things to do in Hanoi, whether it’s a night on the lash, a piece of theatre or a temple visit that you’re looking for. The Vietnam Military History Museum is a must – detailing a timeline of the Vietnam war and boasting a collection of both Vietnamese and American helicopters, aeroplanes, tanks and even canons. You’ve got to bear in mind that you need to take certain things with a pinch of salt as Vietnamese war museums have a reputation of being a little biased. Ngoc Son Temple, meaning “Temple of the Jade Mountain” is set in the middle of the Hoan Kiem Lake. In order to explore the tiny temple, you cross a beautiful red wooden bridge which adds to the experience. The entry fee is only $1 – half price if you have your student ID to hand – so worth a visit if you have the time. Vietnam is famous for its Water Puppets Shows, a traditional art dating back to the 11th century. There are up to 6 showings a day in central Hanoi if a little theatre tickles your fancy.
In the evenings you can drink a local beer for 25 cent – if you’re willing to sit on tiny plastic chairs in the road for the privilege! If not, there are hundreds of restaurants just waiting to be discovered down each lane. If you’re after Western Food, “Chops” is a burger joint which can rack you up quite a bill but is a treat for the tastebuds. There’s also a tiny place on the corner selling burritos along with tequila shots, for that little taste of Mexico!
Dorm rooms are the same price as anywhere, but we found doubles to be a little more expensive. We hit the jackpot with ‘Ghecko’, a chain of hotels where we found a gorgeous room complete with an indulgent breakfast for only $15.
Hanoi is a maze of chaos and noise, and it would be easy to feel lost – but if you find one area and explore it well on foot, you’ll soon find your own piece of home amongst the disorder.
Ho Chi Minh City
Known by most by its previous name, Saigon, HCMC is a brilliant introduction to the hustle and bustle of Vietnam. It is not quite as hectic as Hanoi, but the town feels awake and moving at any hour. For good bars, markets and a great central location, head to District 1. Here, you’re squeezed into roads that are jam packed with bars and restaurants, making your stagger home with a full stomach or blurry vision very easy. A short walk away, stunning architecture stands as a shadow of French colonialism as well as being a symbol of the changing times; the Saigon Notre-Dam Basilica now sits proudly in the centre of a frantic roundabout.
For your fill of history, be sure to check out the War Remnants Museum for more moving history on the war – just remember not to expect a neutral standpoint. There are many temples and pagodas which are worth a visit if you have the time – notably Giác Lâm Pagoda, which was built in 1744, making it one of the oldest temples in the city. In contrast, the evenings bring out scantily clad women on street corners who only offer “massages” to the male tourists walking alone, and bars full of beautiful yet miserable-looking ladies surrounding overweight foreigners – the harsh realities many women are facing in times of financial struggle, despite the laws on prostitution.
District 1 is host to amazing food; from traditional Bo Pho (beef noodle soup) for $1, to Vietnamese delicacies for whatever your price range, along with any Western food you could ever fancy. The nights end when the people stop dancing, with music from bars and clubs blaring at all hours, making for a brilliant night out; especially when a Saigon beer can be yours for 50 cent. Anyone from waitresses and guesthouse owners to market stall holders will throw themselves into helping you in any way possible, whether it’s sharing their umbrellas in times of downpour or giving you tips on your travels country-wide. It is apparent that generosity is a huge value within Vietnamese culture.
If you’re looking to venture to South East Asia, I would really recommend Vietnam as one of your first stops. Whilst it can be lively and tireless, the likes of Hoi An and Cat Ba can be sleepy and calming. Once you’ve found the area you settle into the most, the country will absorb you into its daily life and make you feel like you’ve been there for years. Just remember the basics and Vietnam will become your oyster: traffic lights mean nothing, and there is always time for coffee and/or beer.