I’m not going to lie. When we were on our flight from Bangkok to Hanoi, my wife and I were both nervous. We had heard conflicting reports of Vietnam. Some travelers loved it. Some hated it. We honestly had no idea what to expect, but once we touched down in Hanoi, a city that just celebrated its 1000th birthday, made our way to a guesthouse, and sat down in an alleyway for our first bowl of steaming pho (priced at $1US), we just had a feeling that we were going to be part of the group that really liked Vietnam.
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Fast forward a month, and we were strongly considering extending our visas to stay another month in this beautiful and fascinating country. Why is this? What about Vietnam enticed us to consider staying longer? Was it the people? Was it the sites? Was it the beaches? Was it the cities? Was it the Mekong? Was it the food?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. There were so many highlights of Vietnam that it’s really hard to count. We were honestly blown away at every turn, and the diversity of the country is what really made it stand out against others in the region. Sure, the Vietnamese people may not be as friendly as the Thais or as laid-back as the Laotians, and they may have a bit of an edge, but that’s one of the things we liked. As long as you know what to expect and show some respect, the Vietnamese will open up and be as warm as any other local people we have met.
Hanoi, for all its chaos, traffic, and overcrowdedness, can actually be quite charming. The Temple of Literature is a quiet oasis in the middle of the city, and it’s definitely worth a visit as it dates back to the 11th century. The park surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake is a joy to walk around, and if you can get yourself out of bed early in the morning just after dawn, you can join what seems like the rest of the city as they start their days. You won’t see many tourists at this time of day, only locals as they walk, run, do tai chi, sip coffee, and get ready for the workday.
We’ve been fortunate enough in our travels to see many amazing, natural wonders, and Halong Bay stacks up against all of them. Picture setting off via boat (or junk as they are referred to here) and slowly meandering your way around this massive bay, with limestone cliffs jutting out of the water in every direction. Picture hopping on a kayak and paddling around the quiet areas of the bay, taking in the scenery at a slow and leisurely pace. Envision standing atop your junk at nighttime, with the moon and the stars illuminating the cliffs and the water as you sip a beer and just take it all in. A trip to Halong Bay is completely unique and one that you won’t get anywhere else.
Variety is what really endeared us to Vietnam. While it’s not hard to find bustling cities and beaches in Vietnam, the city of Hue offers travelers something different. It is filled with historic sites, great art, and amazing architecture. If you like exploring ancient temples, seeing tombs, visiting palaces, and checking out ornate pagodas, then you’ll love Hue. Cross the Perfume River from the new city, where you’ll be staying, and head to the older part of the city to check out the massive Citadel. This is Hue’s main attraction, and it would be easy to spend an entire day exploring, photographing, and just relaxing around the immense complex of temples, pavilions, and moats.
In my eyes, travelers should visit Hoi An for two reasons – to shop and to eat. Hoi An is the town made famous for its tailors, over 400 of them at last count, and tourists flock here each year to get custom, tailor made clothes made for rock bottom prices. If shopping isn’t your thing, have no fear as the food here is among the best in a country filled with amazing cuisine. The Vietnamese know what they’re doing when it comes to cooking, and Hoi An has a few specialty made dishes that are unique to this city only (white rose and cao lầu the two most popular). If you fancy a good, cheap beer, look around for Bia Hoi signs outside restaurants and makeshift bars. Bia Hoi is offered all over Vietnam and is a homemade brew sold for the equivalent of a quarter.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Most locals still refer to this city as Saigon, and exploring this city steeped in history, especially if you come from America, is quite interesting. It’s filled with museums and sites dedicated to what the Vietnamese refer to as The America War, and to see this controversial part of each our countries’ histories from the other side’s perspective is fascinating. Of course, that’s not all Saigon has to offer. Like most cities in Vietnam, the food is incredible and cheap, and if you are brave enough, you should seek out a market to stroll through. Be prepared to have some attention thrown your way as a westerner, but it’s all part of the fun if you go in with an open mind and some patience.
Visiting the towns south of Saigon along the Mekong Delta is like hopping in the DeLorean and traveling back through time. This area of the Vietnam is much less crowded and hectic, giving a nice respite from the rest of the country. And visiting the floating markets on the Mekong is a must. Getting a glimpse into the rural lifestyle of the people of the Mekong is quite the captivating experience. We could have spent days puddling around on a tiny little boat and checking out these markets on the river.
Vietnam certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you do your homework and are aware of the pitfalls that annoy other travelers who aren’t fond of this country, then you can have an amazing time here. Traveling through Vietnam independently can be challenging, especially if you are on a time crunch.