Vietnam was one of those countries that will forever ignite my five senses when I close my eyes and remember it. We spent about 2 1/2 weeks collectively in this country and that doesn’t even scratch the surface on how much time you truly need here to explore. Our time was split between the north and the south, visiting the cities of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Ninh Binh and Halong Bay.
The best way for me to give you an accurate picture of how different the northern part of Vietnam was to the Southern part is comparing it to the United States. A home cooked meal in Rhode Island is drastically different than a home cooked meal in Alabama, am I right? From political views to accents to pace of life, there is a vast difference between living in the North & South of the USA and it’s the exact same way, in my opinion, in Vietnam.
After 36+ hours of travel from Aruba to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam we arrived at our hotel at 2AM. Remember, this is our first stop in Asia, even though it’s my last post, because we left and entered Vietnam 3 times in our 6 weeks in Asia I wanted to save this blog post for last so I could talk about each location. So getting back to our arrival, we were exhausted, slightly delirious and absolutely starving. Where did we go for our first meal in Vietnam you ask? We walked 7 minutes to the only restaurant that was open and ate 20 chicken nuggets (each) from McDonalds. So embarrassed to admit that but hey, it satisfied our taste buds in every way possible.
We woke up a few hours later ready to explore the city of Saigon. I don’t think anything will ever prepare you for the first sightings of the streets buzzing with motorbikes. We later found out that there aren’t any rules in Vietnam for driving. Zero. It’s a free for all. Motorbikes drive in every direction, despite the regular flow of traffic, helmets requirements for babies are not a thing and they often drive on sidewalks if there’s a hold up on the road. Crossing the street as a pedestrian is a truly skilled art form that you master with time. The key thing to remember is NEVER hesitate. You need to confidently start walking into the traffic with your arm out to signal stop, and gun it. Our friend Lu told us that the motorbikes will take your lead when you cross and move around you but if you stop and panic- that’s when there’s trouble.
We decided that a relaxing massage would calm us down after our morning dodge of motorbikes. When I say relaxing that really means our bodies twisted into pretzels. At one point Andy and I were both positioned in the “Boston Crab” (google Boston Crab wrestling move if you need a visual) and I peeked my right eye open to see if Andy’s body was morphed like mine and let out a giggle when I realized it was. There was not one second of this massage that was relaxing but one thing’s for sure is I went into that massage room not able to touch my toes and left it being the most flexible, stretched out girl in the world. We were human Gumby’s in there.
Our first night we whipped around on motorbikes with Nancy and Lu who showed us around different neighborhoods in Saigon and trying Vietnamese specialities at every stop. At our first roundabout I had to close my eyes as Nancy just sped into oncoming motorbike traffic. I could hug the people next to me that’s how close you are to one another. Absolutely wild. After a few minutes Andy and I both loosened up and the 4 hour food tour via motorbike through the city was one of the best experiences we had in Asia, for sure. Our favorite food stall was on Ho Thi Ky street, called Banh Trang Nuong, their specialty: Vietnamese pizza. It’s made on thin rice paper with duck egg, a bunch of different veggies and maybe some meat? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what was on it but you just close your eyes and bite into it and it bursts with flavors that you’d never expect would go well together. Semi spicy, a hint of sweetness and the perfect crunch, UGH I can salivate just thinking about it. We also had Bun Bo Hue which (in my opinion) is better than Pho. I know, crazy, but it’s true. The soup has a sweetness about it that goes unmatched to any broth I’ve ever had before. We got to know Nancy and Lu, they told us about their upbringing and how much they want to go to America. They asked us tons of questions about life in NYC and told us about how difficult it is for them to get visas to come to the USA to visit.
We decided to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels the next morning. These are tunnels that were used by the Vietnamese to hide in and fight the Americans during the war. When you first arrive they show a propaganda video about how the Vietnamese used guerrilla warfare to fight the Americans, running around barefoot setting up booby traps. Without getting in to the war in my blog post it was pretty eye opening to learn about the war from the Vietnamese perspective. Our guide told us that he forgives the Americans but he will never forget. We were able to go down into the tunnels to see how it was for the Vietnamese when they were fighting. The tunnels were made extremely narrow so Americans wouldn’t be able to fit inside them if they did find the entrances. The Vietnamese had a smaller body frame and they built these tunnels using that to their advantage. They widened the tunnels post war for the tourist attractions but they are still extremely narrow and low that you immediately feel claustrophobic. We had the option to go down into the tunnels for 20M, 40M or 100M and with every intention of crouching to the end, Andy and I went back up at 20M. The air was so thin, it was dark and you have to talk yourself into not having a panic attack. No thanks.
Pho. Have you ever tried it? I’ll admit, I’ve always been a Ramen girl so I had never tried it before Vietnam. We tried tons of Pho in every city in Vietnam but our absolute favorite was at Pho Quyen in Saigon. You have to order the Pho Ga and get the iced orange juice for a drink. I will forever crave these two things.
After Laos, we landed in Hanoi which is in the northern part of Vietnam. Vastly different from Saigon, especially when it comes to cuisine. We had our friends Jackie and Ryan with us here and we started off our day on our own little tour of the city. We found the Old Quarter and went on the famous street where the train runs through a narrow neighborhood. You legitimately have to press your back against the walls of the houses to avoid direct contact with the speeding train going over 60 MPH past you. It’s surely a sight to see. We spent the day trying egg coffee, yogurt coffee, spring rolls and over course some cocktails. Because the motorbike food tour was so much fun in Saigon we thought it would be such a good time to do it with our friends. To see the look on Jackie’s face when she entered the buzzing streets of Hanoi, was priceless. We tried Bun Cha, the noodle dish with pork patties and bacon in a sweet soup that Obama tried with Anthony Bourdain last summer, it was so tasty. Of course we also had Banh Mi, Pho Cuon and Xoi Yen.
Thankfully, we were very happy to have had the food tour that night because the next day we encountered a bit of scene that none of us will ever be able to erase from our memories. We arranged for a cooking class and were sent out to a local Vietnamese market to buy all of our ingredients. The food was fresh, very fresh. You are able to pick out your duck or chicken and right then and there they cut the head off and hand you your meat. The veggies were plentiful and looked delicious but as soon as we rounded the first corner we saw a grilled dog and it was very alarming, to say the least. Understanding this is a delicacy in northern Vietnam, we were not disrespectful but it definitely put our stomachs on a meat strike for the next few days (or weeks, maybe months, for Jackie). The rest of our cooking class was great! We learned how to make Pho (vegetarian style) and rolled our own spring rolls while sipping local beer.
Next up, Halong Bay!!! This was a DREAM! We boarded a luxury cruise to see the sights by water and it’s definitely the way to go. We were able to kayak through the bay, practice Tai Chi and wake up to the massive rock formations right outside our balcony. We closed the boat down that night with Karaoke and played Asshole with a few other travelers we met, in the middle of Halong Bay. It was so surreal and you could tell in that moment that all four of us were very grateful to be traveling to such an iconic place.
The next day after exploring a bit more of the bay we docked and I decided that we should go climb up a secret mountain to see the views of Halong Bay from above. You have to knock on a local’s door and she brings you through her house, out her back door, you pay her 5 dong per person and up you go. She just points in the direction the “path” is. We were extremely prepared with no water and wearing flip flops. Sense my sarcasm? Most of the climb you have to do using all fours because it’s a steep vertical route. When you get up there the views are absolutely insane, even on a cloudy and rainy day which we had. We get back in the car and I thought it was only a 2 hour drive to Ninh Binh but our driver shook his head and said 4 hours. Let’s just say I wasn’t the most popular girl in the car after we learned that.
Ninh Binh is said to be the Halong Bay on land. And it sure was. We stayed in a small town called Tam Coc where we could ride bikes through rice fields and to temples that have been there for hundreds of years. There are 2 boats you can take in Ninh Binh, Trang An or Tam Coc. Take the Trang An. It’s a bit longer and takes you through caves and around every corner you find yourself staring up in complete awe of these natural formations that are incredibly green and lush. Did I mention our small boat was operated by the sweetest older Vietnamese woman? Her back muscles are likely stronger than the most fit 20 something year old. The next morning we woke up to hike the Hang Mua Caves (The Lying Dragon Mountain). It offers stunning views of Tam Coc with rice fields for days!
Hoi An was our next stop in Vietnam and it was all sorts of magical. The historic town is lined with hundreds of lanterns and it’s hard to not stop every couple of steps, look up and snap some photos. We had some of the best meals here and tried white rose dumplings, cao lao from Morning Glory and the famous banh mi that Anthony Bourdain named the best in the world (Banh Mi Phuong). We found out that the full moon lantern festival was the day we were set to leave and we rearranged our schedule to be able to spend an extra night to see it. Hundreds of people flocked to the ancient town to light a lantern in the water and be a part of the celebration. I’m not a fan of massive crowds in small spaces so if I had to do it again I think being in Hoi An on a regular night is a lot more of a special feeling than the full moon festival, but that’s just my opinion.
Hue, the Imperial City. This was our last stop in our trip in Asia and at this point we were exhausted. We gave in and had Italian food for dinner and ate at Baskin Robbins for dessert. I know shame on us, but at that point all we wanted was a taste of western comfort dishes. We toured the Imperial City but could barely stay outside because of the sweltering heat. You just dripped in sweat for being outside for less than 5 minutes.
Vietnam is a country that everyone should see. It has the most beautiful terrain, history and culture that I guarantee will make you remember it forever.