Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) was a true delight after being in cities like Kathmandu, Nepal and Delhi, India, mainly because it was missing the deafening and distinctive sound we knew all too well – horn honking. When Jack and I got outside arrivals and walked towards the taxi rank, we couldn’t believe how quiet it was. There was order, road rules, traffic lights and taxi drivers waiting patiently, (emphasis on patiently) for our signal. Well this is new! Welcome to Vietnam.
As mentioned in my last post (Born the be Wild), our plans in Vietnam changed from staying in HCMC working as TESOL teachers, to biking across the county with a group of friends. It was a spontaneous decision that led to breath taking scenery, local experiences, delicious food and new friendships. We started in HCMC in the South and went all the way Sapa in the North over a 2-month period. This gave me ample opportunity to get a real taste of the country and what it has to offer.
Here are my Top Highlights from Vietnam – South to North:
Ho Chi Minh City
Scooters and cars fill the streets in a seemingly calm and organised chaos. It’s a clean, modern and metropolitan city with employment opportunities for both locals and expats. One might even guess that you’re in an Asian America, with the urban shopping centres like Vincome and New York style pizza slices at ESBY Pizza. For some real Vietnamese culture, head to the street food markets in district one. Here you’ll find various produce, food stalls, small stools to eat on and fresh coconuts. For some history, be sure to check out The War Remnants Museum, it offers a fascinating, yet disheartening perspective of the Vietnam War.
For beautiful coastline, beach resorts, and fresh seafood, Mui Ne is a perfect spot. We found a resort on the beach for approximately $20 per night for a double room and pool included. You can enjoy the beach, watch the sunset and then head into town for a seafood dinner. Most of the restaurants on the main strip offer endless amounts of seafood (cheap as chips) including red snapper, lobster, shrimps, squid, crab and oysters. Definitely take a day to explore the impressively vast and barren white sand dunes. You might feel like you’re in the Sahara desert, not Vietnam.
It’s city in a mountainous, hilly region in the South Central highlands. There’s no shortage of backpackers around to experience the many outdoor activities offered including canyoning down waterfalls, paddle boarding and horseback riding. Being that Delat is a hub for tourist, there’s also cooking classes and city tours offered. As a group, we stayed at a pumping hostel called Tiny Tigers, where we felt very welcome by the owners. It’s cheap rooms, cheap beers, and optional family dinners every night, followed by a pub-crawl. Be sure to check out Cave Bar, it feels like your partying in a tree house in the amazon jungle.
It’s a coastal city sitting on a stretch of beautiful beaches, surrounded by a few small islands. Many people like Na Trang for its resorts, activities and seafood restaurants. However, if you (like us) want to escape touristy and commercial places, we found a hidden gem just north of the city. Jungle Beach is a basic Canadian owned homestay, sitting on a secluded, 3 km stretch of white sand beach and turquoise waters. You sleep in bamboo huts, eat your meals together as a group, and enjoy a campfire on the beach every night. This was by far, one of the best things we did.
As we moved into the central coast, we found one of Vietnam’s most enchanting cities. In the Old city of Hoi An, you’ll find remarkable temples, tea warehouses and old buildings with a Japanese influence. Not only is the architecture impressive, the surroundings as whole will move you. At night, the shops and restaurants light up in string lighting and colourful lanterns giving a Zen-like atmosphere that’s seemingly romantic. There are copious amounts of delicious restaurants available from Asian Fusion to Italian. We treated ourselves to the ‘white rose dumping’ at Mermaid Restaurant as well as Nocturnal Artist. Additionally, Hoi an is the tailoring capital of the world, so if you need a dress or suit made, get it done there!
Home to a national park, UNESCO World Heritage site, never-ending limestone structures, with over 300 caves and grottoes is Phong Nha. For us, Phong Na was just a place that we were passing through. While we didn’t give it much thought, as were biking in, we instantaneously knew how mistaken we were. Maintaining a quiet, village feel, not overrun by tourist just yet, Phong Na was a true delight. There’s an abundance of cool things to check out, especially the caves. You can also take a bottle of wine down to river and watch the sunset behind the lush, jungle covered limestone cliffs.
Small laneway-like streets bustling with both tourists and locals, it’s easy to find whatever you’re looking for in Hanoi. While it’s subtly more relaxed, slower paced and slightly smaller than Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi is actually the capitol city of Vietnam. It’s a patriotic city with numerous governmental buildings, museums and monuments from the Vietnam War. There is an undeniable French influence that presents a European feel, making a daytime stroll through the streets pleasant with the French colonial architecture. Be sure get some street food and go to New Day restaurant for some deliciously cheap local food. If you’re looking for some nutrients, Maison de tet décor is an amazing café for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Cat Ba Island / Ha Long bay.
Escape the city smog, traffic and horns with a getaway to Cat Ba Island. Getting there from Hanoi is really cheap via motorbike and ferry. Additionally accommodation on the island is very reasonable. This is the trick around paying overcharges to sail around the famous Ha long Bay by boat. There are a few tour company’s on Cat Ba Island that do daily trips to Ha Long bay, which ends up being a quarter of the price of the overnight packages, essentially offering the same thing. Plus, you can explore Cat Ba Island, which also has stunning scenery, waterfalls, caves and good hikes.
Filled with terraced rice fields, local farms and lush mountains, Sapa is the ideal place to relax and get amongst the local Vietnamese culture. With hill tribes, women dressed in traditional attire, children running around barefoot, and farm animals roaming at their own leisure, it’s impossible not to enjoy yourself here. I suggest staying at a homestay in the hills just outside of town to get a more authentic experience. We stayed at an amazing place called My Tra Homestay. It was perfectly basic, with a wrap around porch, hammocks and cold beer in the fridge. Not to mention, an adorable Vietnamese girl (daughter of owner) running around, filling the room with laughter.
Ultimately, Vietnam was a beautiful country, with a wealth of fascinating history around the Vietnam War, and really nice local people. If you’re thinking about going, think no more. Hopefully you will find my Highlights from Vietnam – South to North useful, for current or future adventures.
Thanks for reading!
Related post: Born to be Wild – Biking in Vietnam
Next post: Best of Thailand.