Vietnam in 22 Days - Part 1
My husband, Jimmy, is Vietnamese and so a trip to Vietnam had been a priority for a while. My friends Rachel, Linh, and Alex decide to join us, and then Linh's family came along for a portion of the trip too. We definitely wanted to take the opportunity to meet up with Jimmy's and Linh's family, but I also wanted to go to the tourist destinations. I think we planned a really nice mix of the two that let us have a genuine Vietnamese experience while also seeing all the sites.
Day 1 - Saigon
Jimmy's aunts and cousins picked us up at the airport and took us to their house for the night. After we settled in, Jimmy's cousins took us on their motorcycles to their favorite Pho spot. Riding on motorcycles in Saigon is terrifying and thrilling. There are so many motorcycles on the road which gives you this strange sense of community, and the traffic just kind of oozes where it needs to go without the order that I am comfortable with in the United States.
The Pho was of course delicious, but we were also very exhausted after not getting much sleep on the flight. It worked out really well that we turned in before 10 and then were refreshed and ready to go early the next day.
Day 2 - Saigon to Hanoi
Jimmy's aunts took us out again for a breakfast of vegetarian soup. Vietnam is fairly vegetarian friendly as most of the country is Buddhist and so practices "fasting" or being vegetarian for a couple days out of the month. Vegetarian in Vietnamese is chay, so if you don't see anything on the menu that is vegetarian, you can always ask for something chay. There are also so many vegetables in Vietnamese cuisine, that if you don't mind bone both, you can get a pretty well rounded meal just by picking out the meat and sharing with your meat-loving friends. We learned over the course of our trip that Jimmy's aunts really don't cook much, and after realizing how delicious and cheap street food is, I totally understood why.
Despite having already spent so much time on planes, we boarded yet another plane so we could meet up with Rachel, Linh, and Alex in Hanoi. It was a two-hour flight to Hanoi and so we got in a little bit before noon.
We checked into our Hostel for the evening, Hanoi Backpackers, which was incredibly clean and included thoughtful details such as outlets next to the top bunks. We went out to lunch at Quan An Ngon which was good, but as our trip progressed we learned that it's best to just eat street food in Vietnam. We ate at a few fancy restaurants in Vietnam and I generally felt that I could have gotten something as good or better on the street. Our group of 8 never once got sick from eating street food either, although two from our party did get sick from eating pizza in a restaurant (there's so much good Vietnamese food - do not eat pizza while in Vietnam!). I credit our stomach health on this trip to the value placed on freshness in Vietnam along with the fast turnover of food from small pots.
This restaurant was the first place that I experienced Saweet or Blood Cockrell's - the little clams below. They were pretty tasty and something I've never seen anywhere else. I reccomend you try them if you get a chance.
After lunch we wandered around Hanoi for a while which was exhilarating and a little bit terrifying too. Crossing the road in Hanoi really tests your faith in humanity. There really never is a time when all the traffic stops and you know you can cross safely. You just have to walk out into a sea of motorcycles and have faith that no is going to run you over. We had a good time checking out all the foreign sites and reveling in the chaos.
Then we went and saw the water puppet show at the Thang Long theater. It was definitely a unique experience; a puppet show on water with traditional Vietnamese music played by live musicians is not something you see everyday. But I must have still been a bit jet lagged because I definitely nodded off for part of the show. I think all the Hanoi noise and constant threat of being run over was also very exhausting for me. So much so, that I recommended to our group that we swap out our second day in the city for a day trip out of the city. I'm glad everyone else was on the same page, and we visited one of a thousand travel agent shops to book a trip to the Perfume Pagoda (Chùa Hương). The tourism infrastructure in Vietnam is amazing. If you show up in Vietnam and have no idea what to do, there are a ton of companies that can suggest plenty of amazing thing to do that will fit your budget and schedule. I have never taken as many tours as I have taken in Vietnam, but I found it be cheaper most of the time and they were all incredibly organized.
After settling on a more calming experience for our future, we also decided to calm ourselves in the present by taking a nice evening stroll around Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Everywhere you turn in Vietnam, you'll find a pagoda or temple of some sort. There were plenty around the lake too, and they do definitely provide a lot of tranquility amidst the chaos.
Day 3 - Halong Bay
Linh had booked a 2 day Halong Bay cruise for us through Halong Bay Tours, and our guide, Henry, picked us up from our hostel early in the morning. It was about a three hour bus ride to Halong Bay and we had a little too much fun playing 20 questions on the way there.
We stopped at about the midway point to visit a crafts factory. It was a total tourist trap, but a pretty cool one with lot of folks doing demos of traditional Vietnamese crafts.
When we got to our boat, they had lunch ready for us and then we made sure to spend plenty of time on the top deck taking in the bay scenery.
After cruising for a couple of hours, we moved to a smaller boat so that we could go to the "surprising cave."
I won't ruin the surprise, but I'll just say that it's a stalagmite in a fun shape. After wandering through the cave for about an hour, they gave us some kayaks so that we could explore the bay on our own for about another hour.
When we arrived back to our cruise ship, our boat was bumping with some techno music and had crazy laser lights going in all directions. Our cruise ship staff was all about a strict itinerary of fun activities, and there was a mandatory dance party as we boarded the ship. We obliged for a little but then went down below to check out our cabins.
After dinner, there was a mandatory karaoke party and so we did our part. Our cruise only had about 30 people on it, so we all got to know each other especially with all the mandatory fun activities.
The night wound down with some squidding. Squid are attracted to light, so our cruise staff showed us how to point a flashlight at the water and then catch squid with a net. Linh was ecstatic when she caught one and then thought it was super fun to eat it raw and live.
Day 4 - Halong Bay
After some breakfast and some more top deck time in the bay, we cruised to an Oyster Farm that specialized in making pearls. They showed us how the farmers would open the oysters and insert small beads which then causes the oyster to secret mother-of-pearl juices to coat the foreign object and protect itself.
When we got back to the cruise ship, we had a short cooking class to learn how to make spring rolls.
By the time we finished our lunch it was time to take the bus back to Hanoi, and by the time we got back to Hanoi it was dark. We got dinner at Highway 4 which was very fancy and a good way to ease out of cruise life.
We spent the night again at Hanoi Backpackers which by the way are fabulous about holding on to your luggage while you are taking a cruise or gone for the day waiting for a night train.
Day 5 - Perfume Pagoda (Chùa Hương)
Our guide, Moon, picked us up at our hostel around 9 for our tour of Perfume Pagoda. It took about two hours to drive to My Duc which is nestled in some very interesting limestone mountains. From there we hopped on a row boat and a village lady rowed us to the base of the mountain where the Perfume Pagoda is located.
Once we got off the boat, we got lunch at a little restaurant setup at the base of the mountain. Then we had the option of walking up to the pagoda or taking a cable car. Jimmy, Rachel, and I opted for the walk while Linh and Alex took the cable car. The walk up to the pagoda took a little over an hour and required climbing stairs for that whole time. They were actually preparing for a major pilgrimage later that month and so were setting up all sorts of temporary store fronts along the walk.
At the top, there were several pagodas and temples.
We went back to Hanoi the way we came on boats and then buses. This day was actually my birthday and so we had a small celebration by tasting one of every kind of beer we could find and my travel mates gifted me a new NorthFace backpack and rain jacket. You can find really cheap NorthFace gear in Hanoi.
Later in the evening we caught a night train to Dong Hoi.
Day 7 - Phong Nha-Ke Bang
It took about 9 hours to get from Hanoi to Dong Hoi. I slept really well on the train. The mattresses don't look like much, but they were actually pretty cozy and the train rocks all night long which was awesome for sleeping. Food vendors came on the train at breakfast time with pho and coffee. If you are a coffee drinker, you must know how to say Cà Phê Sữa Nóng, which means hot coffee with milk. The coffee in Vietnam is made in a small french press device. They poor sweetened condensed milk in a glass and then some very strong coffee on top. It's amazing stuff, and train coffee and pho did not dissapoint.
We arrived in Dong Hoi around 8 AM and it was about a 30 minute drive to Phong Nha Ke Bang. We stayed at Pepperhouse Homestay and they also picked us up from the train station for an extra fee. After settling in, we rented some bikes and a motorcycle and went to the visitor's center to book a trip to explore Paradise Cave. We found that we could get a better deal with a larger group, so made friends with some Australians. To get to Paradise cave, we boarded a boat that took us on a river that led through the cave.
These photos don't really do the cave justice. It was the biggest cave I had ever been in, and the first time I had ever been on a boat in a cave which was a surreal experience.
We got lunch at a restaurant outside of the visitor's center that seemed to be run entirely by children under the age of 10. Then we biked back to the guest house. The bike ride back was so much fun as there were a ton of kids on the street running after us to give us high fives. And the countryside was so beautiful.
We spent the rest of the evening hanging out at the homestay chatting with the owners who are just delightful.
Day 7 - Phong Nha-Ke Bang
We booked a tour to the Dark Cave through our hostel and so a van picked us up after breakfast for the 30 minute trip there. Throughout the trip we had a fun assortment of tour guides with quirky personalities, but this guide was probably the most memorable. He didn't speak any English and despite having two Vietnamese speakers in our group, he wasn't very interested in saying much to them either. He gave us some funky cave exploration shoes, a life jacket, and a helmet and motioned to us to suit up. So we did so and then loaded onto some inflatable kayaks to take a short kayak ride to the cave entrance. We really had no idea what to expect and so were a little shocked when we disembarked and started tromping through mud that sometimes was up to our thighs. Despite establishing no relationship with us whatsoever, our guide proceeded to fling mud at us and even slapped Rachel in the face with a handful of mud. Luckily we are a good natured group and had a good laugh at this odd experience. There are a couple of spots in the cave that have literal mud slides which were so much fun, and hopefully if you have a dark cave experience of your own you will wear more appropriate mud slide attire than we did. The dark cave experience ended in a pretty substantial river cave which was a great way to wash off all the mud. Then we had some time to kayak some more on our own before heading back.
Everyone but Jimmy and I were kind of caved-out so decided to head back to the home stay. Jimmy and I got dropped off at the Phong Nha Cave to explore it for a little while. This cave had a series of wooden catwalks so we could explore at our own pace.
We then decided we were also caved-out and went back to the home stay to finish the night out playing cards with some new international friends.
Day 8 - Phong Nha Ke Bang - Hue
We caught an early train from Dong Hoi to Hue which took about 3 hours. We got the cheapest tickets, but it was still a nice ride. We had a table to play cards and pass the time. There were also televisions playing a Vietnamese talent show for 3 -5 year olds. When we got into Hue, we checked into the Phoenix Hotel. All of our hotel experiences in Vietnam were pretty amazing - incredibly cheap but still very clean and great hospitality. I would have to say that this hotel however was the best we stayed in during the trip. It was also the cheapest at $18 for a room that accommodated all five of us and the friendliest most helpful staff.
We spent the afternoon wandering around Hue and taking in all the ancient things the city has to offer. We actually had talked about skipping Hue, but I'm so glad we didn't. We had so much fun seeing all the sights in the imperial city and then wandering around the newer part of town.
In the evening, we went to Hue Backpackers for some dancing and pool which was a ton of fun. The evening came to a weird end when the music got cut off for a performer whose act involved slithering all over a pool table while rolling a ball on his body.
Day 9- Hue - Hoi An
We took an early morning trip on the Perfume River in a Dragon boat. They took us to some more pagodas which were quite beautiful.
We left Hue in the late morning. We ended up on a sleeper bus which was not really needed as it was only a three and a half hour ride, but it was what was available.
Based on our experience on this sleeper bus, I would have to recommend the train for overnight travel. The bus was fine, but definitely not as comfortable as the train and not as comfortable as other sleeper buses I have been on in other countries (Argentina is the winner in my book in case you were wondering). We stayed at the Thien Nga hotel that was owned by one of Linh's Mom's friends. It was pricier than the other hotels we had stayed in so far, but it was nice and in a good location. We were also able to rent bikes from the hotel which was probably the best part about our stay in Hoi An. The Hoi An "countryside" was so much fun to explore by bike. It was relatively flat with really interesting scenery. We rode through rice paddies and vegetable gardens and stopped at cute little pagodas along the way.
Hoi An is famous for tailors and lanterns so we spent some time in the afternoon checking out fabric and arranging for Linh to get a couple of ao dai's (traditional Vietnamese dress) made. Then we strolled around the riverfront to check out the lanterns and get some dinner. We ate at Vy's Market which sold upscale versions of Vietnamese street food. I ended up getting the Silkworm Salad which was quite good. I loved all the salad's I had in Vietnam which are generally composed of a base of spiralized green mango or papaya with some kind of topping and fish sauce-based dressing. In this case, the silk-worms added a nice crunch to the salad.
We later discovered bia hoi on the riverfront. Bia Hoi is basically watered down draft beer that costs about 25 cents per glass - good stuff for sitting around and chatting while enjoying the riverfront scenery.
Day 10 - Hoi An
We took a tour to My Son which was about a 45 minute ride from Hoi An. My Son is a cluster of Hindu ruins and while I have never been to Anggkor Wat, we were describing it as the poor man's Angkor Wat by the end of the trip. It was really cool for a half-day trip, and I imagine it was similar to Angkor Wat, but I'm certain it also pales in comparison.
Some in our group decided to get massages afterwards, but since I don't like strangers touching me, Jimmy and I did some more exploring of Hoi An's outskirts by bike.
By this time, Linh's Mom, Sister, and brother-in-law had joined us, and so we were a rather large group. Linh's mom's friend owns a couple of restaurants in Hoi An and so offered to treat us for dinner. It actually ended up being Vy's Market where we had eaten the day before, but we were happy to eat there again. I think maybe Vy was not expecting such a large group of us or that we would order so much. She looked a little shocked at how much we had ordered, but still offered to foot the bill. She kindly showed us to her dessert restaurant around the corner and despite being so stuffed, we all felt obliged to order dessert. After walking through Hoi An a little to digest our food, we took an overnight train from Danang to Hoi An which was about a 10 hour trip. We had another lovely overnight train ride with the train rocking us to sleep.