Vietnam isn’t your cosmopolitan Singapore or swanky Hong Kong. It will bring you face to face with rural lands, poverty and war remnants. But for a country whose history has been marred with wars and invasions, the people in Vietnam do smile a lot. No matter where you go, you can be sure to be greeted with a smile – even while informing you that your room check-in will take time.
Maybe it is their simplicity or just their optimism, but their smile sure makes it hard for you to be unhappy in Vietnam. So for four girls with frayed nerves (thanks to work and other things), Vietnam was the perfect recipe to bring back some cheer in life.
Where to go in Vietnam?
What you must know about Vietnam is that it is one long, narrow country. It spans over 1650 KM from North to South and if you are short of time, you need to make choices. You can choose to trek, hike and get busy with water sports or just relax. We chose the latter because frayed nerves!
Our one week was split between Vietnam and Cambodia so we had time only to cover Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. (Just realized, all the places start with H.)
If a lazy, relaxing trip isn’t what you want, then add Sapa Valley and Nha Tarang to your itinerary. While Sapa offers treks on the rice terraces, Nha Tarang’s colorful coral reef underwater offers opportunities for scuba diving and snorkeling
What to do in Vietnam?
Hanoi: Cheap Beer and 36 Streets of Shopping
Hanoi, the capital is probably where you would begin/end your Vietnam trip given the connectivity with other international airports. Be prepared to dive into some chaos and a sea of scooters. And if it gets a bit too much to handle, there’s plenty of cheap alcohol (I’m talking Beer at 40 cents/ 30 INR) to help you process it.
Our first place of visit in Hanoi was Hoan Kiem Lake which is the heart of Hanoi – not geographically, but because it is the hub for all social life. You will find people performing around the lake and there are plenty of pubs and cafes around it. Be sure to try out the traditional Caphe Sua Da here. This is a sweet iced coffee with generous amounts of condensed milk.
From Hoan Kiem, we booked ourselves a Tuk-Tuk tour of the Old Quarters. The driver took us through all the 36 streets and stopped at key places of interest. These 36 streets offer a plethora of shopping options. Most of these streets offer a single commodity and are named after it.
Also do visit the Thang Long Water Puppet Show in Hanoi. The entire show is in Vietnamese but I don’t think one needs to know the language to appreciate the highly skilled artists and the music.
Where to Stay ?
Stay near the Old Quarters. There are plenty of backpacker hostels and inns. You can also choose a hotel since prices are on the lower side in Vietnam. We stayed at Hanoi HM Boutique Hotel, very close to Hoan Kiem. Would definitely recommend this place.
Ha Long Bay: Where dragons and James Bond saved the day
Ha Long translates to Descending Dragon. And where there is a Dragon, there is a tail, I mean tale. Legend has it that the Jade Emperor sent down Mother Dragon and her Child Dragons to help the Vietnamese fight the invaders. The dragons emitted pearls that turned into stone islands in the sea. The invaders’ boats couldn’t go past these islands, crashed into them and ultimately broke into pieces.
Halong Bay also happens to be the location where James Bond saved the day in Tomorrow Never Dies and where I celebrated by 26th Birthday. My friends and I booked ourselves a 2 Day 1 Night Cruise. The Cruise operator picked us up from our Hotel in Hanoi and drove us to the Docks from where we took a small boat to our Ship. We spent the evening Kayaking in the sea and partied on the deck at night. The next day was planned for a visit to the Hang Thien Cung limestone cave but the weather played truant. We headed back to Hanoi and onward to Hoi An.
Most cruises have partial refunds in case of such cancellations so do read up on their policy before booking.
Find Inner Peace in Hoi An
Did you watch Tangled and wonder where you could go see those lanterns rising in the sky? Wonder, no more. Your search ends here in Hoi An.
Ancient and peaceful, Hoi An is one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam. Like I said, this trip was for us to cut off from the busy life back home and Hoi An helped us with just that. We spent the day cycling around Old Town and hired scooters to ride to the beach. On our way back, it started to rain and the scooter ride in the rain in an unknown land was quite an experience.
As for the floating lanterns I mentioned, catch a glimpse of this during one of Hoi An’s famous Full Moon Festivals. On every 14th day of the lunar month, Hoi An Old Town transforms into a colourful lantern filled paradise. We unfortunately couldn’t witness this but do plan your trip accordingly so that you don’t miss this.
I must add that East Asia isn’t the best place for Indian Vegetarians and Ganesh Restaurant in Hoi An was nothing less than Messiah for 4 starved girls. If you are craving Indian food, do visit the place. He also has a branch in Ho Chin Minh City with more variety in the menu.
Where to Stay ?
Stay as close to Old Town as possible. You will have to rely on cycles and walking in Hoi An so the closer you stay, it is better. We stayed at Hoi An Travel Lodge Hotel near Ancient Town. Extremely comfortable and they have an indoor swimming pool too. We went for a quick swim before breakfast and it was bliss. This was also quite close to the Indian Restaurant so it was perfect.
Check it out here – https://in.hotels.com/hotel/details.html?hotelId=538508&tab=description
Back to the City : Ho Chin Minh
HCMC was our last stop in Vietnam. After travelling through the countryside and old towns, the city girl in me was ecstatic to see skyscrapers and the streets laden with familiar retail brands.
Ho Chin Minh, also known as Saigon, is Vietnam’s commercial hub and most populated city. The skyline studded with Pagodas, Skyscrapers, and, French Villas speaks volumes of the amalgam that the city is.
This city played an important role in the Vietnam War. The many historical sites (War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace, Museum of Vietnam’s History, City Hall) and the Cu-Chi tunnels on the outskirts of the city provide for plenty of war-time nostalgia. The Cu-Chi tunnels are part of an extensive network of passages that go as far as Cambodia. These tunnels were built by the Viet-Cong group who fought the war against the USA and were key to their victory.The tunnels are extremely narrow and it is no wonder the Americans couldn’t find or fit into them.
Remember, this was a girls’ trip and as sexist as this might sound, shopping was more important on the agenda. And Ben Thanh Market was just the place. We spent hours here wading our way through tourists and the sellers. You will find almost every commodity here and if they could sell cars and houses, they would do that too. The place also sells a lot of fakes and export rejects, so if you don’t mind a loose thread sticking out of your Michael Kors bag, then shop away!
Where to Stay ?
District 1 is your best bet. This is the most happening part of the city and close to all places to visit. We stayed at Beautiful Saigon 3 Hotel. Wasn’t the best place but definitely convenient.
Our Vietnam trip ended at HCMC and we took a bus from here to Cambodia. But if you have time to spare then you can add Sapa Valley, Hue, Nha Trang to your itinerary.
Sapa is known for its rice terraces. This valley is actually at the Eastern extreme of the Himalayas and provides a lot of trekking opportunities.
Nha Trang is famous for its beaches and water sports. In my opinion, one can always visit Thailand or Philipines for beaches and it might be better to focus on the rest of what Vietnam has to offer.
Hue is Vietnam’s royal capital of sorts. The city was home to the medieval Vietnamese empires and the remnants of the complex monuments, tombs and pagodas are a history buff’s delight.
Day 1 : We flew into Hanoi from India via Kuala Lumpur. We spent the entire evening around Hoan Kiem Lake and Old Quarters.
Day 2 : Our shuttle picked us up from our hotel and took us to the docks to board our ship to cruise Ha Long Bay. Post lunch on the ship, we stepped out into the sea for an hour of Kayaking and a visit to the floating villages.
Day 3 : We were to visit the limestone caves but due to bad weather, we made our way back to Hanoi. From here, we took a flight to Da Nang and a cab to Hoi An. We reached Hoi An late in the night and a sumptuous birthday dinner at Ganesh Restaurant had us all in good spirits.
Day 4 : We spent the morning in Hoi An Old Town. After lunch, we rented scooters and rode to the nearby beach. Late in the evening, we took a cab back to Da Nang Airport and a flight to Ho Chin Minh City.
Day 5 : The morning was spent shopping at Ben Thanh and we packed ourselves some subs and headed to Cu- Chi tunnels. By the time we returned it was late in the evening and we set off to explore the pubs near our hotel.
Day 6 : 2 of us went to visit museums and the other 2 ( me being one of them) went back for more shopping. By 3 PM, we wrapped up with Vietnam and were off to Cambodia.
Internal travel between cities was by flight. We booked our flights from VietJet and JetStar. These are budget friendly airlines and are quite comfortable for short duration journeys.