Vietnam – month long adventure
Stayed – 30 days
When: 3 February to 5 March
Having never visited Vietnam but hearing some glowing first hand accounts from family and friends, we wanted to take our time and experience as much as possible.
We stayed in four cities and ventured further for short tours. Our experience was enjoyable and memorable. Being an extremely cheap country to visit, where beer is less than soft drink in many parts, it made our journey all the more enjoyable. The people are, in most parts warm and accommodating, but at times forceful and cajoling, determined to make some money.
Long stay: 14 nights
Accommodation: two bedroom hotel apartment in the heart of Old Hanoi.
Hanoi is very busy, noisy and chaotic. In Old Hanoi there are overhead cable lines and motobikes running along streets in equally nonsensical fashion. A pedestrians existence is thwarted by the motorbike parking and the pop-up street eateries. One day a corner will have bracelet sellers and the next there will be a lady frying eggs to be served on steamed rice, with customers miraculously finding small plastic chairs to enjoy their meal street side. If motorbikes are not parked on footpaths they become a free for all and all is nearly free. The prices are so low that you don’t know how they make a profit. And it is clean, not Singapore clean by any measure but the streets are cleaned daily and hygiene standards for street food stalls are much higher than we expected.
The street food is delicious, with anything in Vietnamese rolls (banh mi) to noodle soup (Pho it is spelt; fu, fo or fur, it is pronounced) to fried spring rolls (bun cha or nem), you really can’t go wrong on quality, freshness and price. The restaurants, on the other hand, are a bit hit and miss. With an abundance of Western travellers using the city as a gateway to Sapa, Ha Long Bay, Ninh Binh, Mai Chau, Hoa Lu and Tam Coc (described as an inland Ha Long Bay by many) the restaurants have overdone the Western dishes and the authentic, stripped back flavours that make Vietnamese food so unique is hard to find. The places to eat are small locally run cafe’s or eat at a street side stall to taste the real Vietnam.
- Ha Long Bay – there are many options to choose from. One night or two on the boat, a night on Cat Ba Island or a night on Monkey Island. We chose one night on the boat and one night on Monkey Island in two cabins both nights. It poured with rain the entire time until we were transferring back to the mainland but we still thoroughly enjoyed the change of scenery from Hanoi.
- Old Hanoi – Hoan Kiem Lake, the night markets and eating streets.
- Motobike tour – you can book a tour of the city and explore the West Lake (Tay Ho Lake North West of Old Hanoi) with the many boutique shops and eateries, our guide calling this the French Quarter.
The Chinese New Year mass migration of locals put a swift but pleasant end to our plans in Hanoi and next stop was Hoi An.
Medium stay: 7 nights
Accommodation: family room in a 3 star hotel 10 minute bike ride out of the main town.
A tiny city packed full of charm. Each street is a photographers dream, lanterns zigzagging overhead providing mood lighting that oozes romance. The Ancient Town of Hoi An has retained the 16th and 17th Century charm that made it an international trading centre in its assembly halls, pagoda’s, shrine’s, temples, markets and wharf area.
Eating out introduced another element with many dishes unique to the city; cao lau, a noodle dish with a slice of pork on top, com ga, meaning rice chicken, it is a bed of yellow rice covered in cooked shredded chicken, onions and fresh herbs and white rose, prawn dumplings in white dough, they are light, soft and presented as a rose on your plate with fried ginger sprinkled over the top. We ate these three dishes nearly everyday, except just before and after new year when white rose was unavailable in many low priced restaurants as they had sold out.
- Local village tour – included was a cooking lesson and pottery making. With many restaurants offering cooking lessons, picking can be hard but we were approached on our first night by a long term host called Mr Trung. He has testimonials from past visitors and photos of happy customers, seemed wrong not to take up his offer.
- Beaches – An Bang and Cua Dai, four kilometers and two kilometers out of town, respectively, they are both equally good beaches but with equally pushy beach staff.
- Tailors – we are told that there is over 1000 tailors in Hoi An and so with that in mind we bargained hard to get three pairs of pants made for the rest of our journey.
- Hired motorbikes – a cheap and relatively easy feat if you have had experiences on them before.
Short stay: 2 nights
Accommodation: family room in a 2 star hotel on the main causeway.
Located in central Vietnam on the coast is a beautiful arc beach with crystal clear water and light yellow/white sand. As you look toward the ocean you see mountainous rock formations as far as the eye can see. These rock formations sit solid and sombre, reminding you that you are in Vietnam not some tropical beach in Australia. The beach is six kilometres long and has a maze of eateries, public lagoon style pool with swim up bar, parkways and even a boutique brewery.
The strange thing about this destination is that it is dominated by Russian tourists. There are Russian convenience stores in the basement of many hotels (completely in Russian, from the name on the front to everything inside including the price and currency) tourist agents employ or are owned by Russians and each hotel displays tourist information entirely in Russian. Some restaurants have menus in either Vietnamese or Russian because there are not many English speaking tourists.
- South end of the beach mostly and the public pool.
- Louisiane Brew House – set right on the beach, it has a very Western menu, plenty of lounges with cushions and umbrellas surround a square small swimming pool and a great selection of locally brewed beers on the menu.
Vietnamese food on the waterfront is either European (there is a German restaurant, incorrectly spelt Gernam) overpriced or really poor quality. It’s the first place in Vietnam that the food could be described as Chinese fusion and with not a Hanoi or Hoi An dish in sight we were extremely disappointed in the quality.
Ho Chi Min City
Short stay: 5 nights
Accommodation: family room in a 3 star hotel in District 1. Cheapest accommodation ever.
Our last destination in Vietnam and the most fun. With our hotel close to a large central city park, we could take leisurely walks, jogs or even join the outdoor group exercise classes. This is another transit city as in Hanoi. Many of the cities top tourist attractions are in close proximity and accessible in half day or full day tours.
Again we sought out the local delicacies of this city and region and was pleasantly surprised to find a true blend of everything we had already experienced, except for white rose, the delicate dumplings in Hoi An. Some good, some not so great and then the classics from Hanoi with a HCMC twist.
- Cyclo tour – normally one person per bike we squeezed onto two. They took us to the Ben Thanh Markets, the Post Office, Saigon Notre Dame, the War Remnants Museum and a memorial statue to honour the Buddhist monk that set himself on fire during the 1965 Buddha Crisis.
- Cu Chi Tunnels – only a half day tour is needed to wander through the many displays set up in the jungle of Cu Chi before diving head first into a dirt hole in 30 plus degree heat. Very interesting and a must do.
- Mekong Delta – a full day tour that included visiting Vinh Trang Pagoda with three large buddha’s, laughing, standing and resting, visit a local outdoor candy making business, hand rowing in sampan boats down the Mekong and eating local fruit and honey tea while being serenaded by Southern Vietnamese folk musicians and singers.
Top picks when eating out:
- Banh mi Vietnamese rolls – order on the street in Hanoi for as little as 18,000VND (just over $1 AUD)
- Bun cha – or called nem, they are the best spring rolls in Asia; as voted by our family.
- Bun bo nam bo – vermicelli noodles in a bowl with some fresh greens, lettuce, basil or mint leaves, peanuts and slices of bbq’d pork or beef, drown the entire bowl in fish sauce and it is a taste sensation. Our first experience of this dish was in Hanoi, and then again in HCMC where they added spring rolls on top, yum.
- Com ga – rice chicken, it was always a safe bet, similar to ordering fried rice in Singapore and China although com rang is traditional fried rice, this particular dish had few ingredients.
- Cao lau, a noodle dish with a slice of pork on top, exclusively found in Hoi An.
- White rose – prawn dumplings, another exclusive Hoi An dish.
- Favourite eating out experience was at the HCMC central market. The staff allowed us to eat at local prices and went out of their way to find us desert from the other side of the market.
The traffic is a big talking point amongst travellers and all seems chaotic but easy to understand, mind you we saw two crashes in Vietnam, one in Nha Trang when a taxi pulled into the street too quickly and hit a motorbike that proceded to flip the driver off and both driver and bike rolled down the middle of the street. The second crash happened in HCMC right in front of us as we ate dinner, this time the driver had a passenger and it was the first time we saw a Vietnamese person get angry at another but not surprisingly the other driver just stood there and both bikes rode off, no repercussions, as with the taxi driver and bike rider in Nha Trang.
On a year long budget, purchasing trinkets is avoided at all cost. Once you start you find yourself wanting just ‘one’ little thing from each location and this is not something we have budgeted for. Then onto contradiction of all contradictions, we purchased a laptop in Hanoi. We needed it and as I write this, on our original laptop while our 13yr old is doing school work I am positive that it was an excellent move. It cost only one third of our laptop from home and after we sorted out the Vietnamese windows package in Dha Nang, we have felt up to full speed ever since.
Best experience as voted by the entire family:
- Riding motorbikes around Hoi An. A close second is the Cu Chi tunnels in Ho Chi Min City.
Worst experience as voted by the entire family:
- Bad food, we experienced some shockers in Hanoi, Hoi An and Nha Trang. Restaurants that were cheap and also nasty made us rethink our eating approach. Normally we don’t like to eat at the same place twice, but after finding the best local food in Hanoi we went back again and again, trying different dishes off the menu and this is a tactic that we continue to use as we travel.
- A few burgers were consumed by our 8 year old and we all ate them as our last meal in Hoi An. All else was local.
- Getting off the bus in Nha Trang at 6am after a frightening ride from Hoi An caused us to pick the first taxi, who proceeded to do a huge block of the suburbs before taking us the 700 metres to our beach side hotel. This is why we choose to find buses or recommended drivers if we can’t walk it and 700 metres after a 12 hour bus trip was too far to walk.
Would we go back?
Yes, most definitely; we would like to spend time in rural areas and explore Sapa, Mai Chau, Ninh Binh, Hue and DaLat. We were totally blown away by the price of things, for example, our bill in HCMC, below, is for 5,741,000VND equaling $268.90USD meaning we paid $358.80AUD. This bill includes 5 nights accommodation (remember this is four people in two double beds), a 3 hour cyclo city tour, half day Cu Chi tunnel tour, full day Mekong Delta tour, laundry service, 4 hotel beers and 1 water and 5 printed pages. At these prices why wouldn’t you visit Vietnam?