Vietnam has all the good parts of East Asia—great food, polite service, plenty of ancient culture and wow sights to devour—yet it has subtle differentiating touches of its own. I mean, the sight of scores of locals and tourists sitting on low stools—red and blue—chugging fresh beer (Bia hơi, 20 cents, I kid you not) out of large decanters, throwing peanut shells and questionable animal leftovers onto the floor, and creating a party cacophony into the receptive night… was really uniquely Vietnamese
Nothing like I’d experienced before.
My memorable experiences were many, but I’ve tried to list the top five, which despite being hyped and touristy, were totally worth doing.
(1) Cruise along the Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Quang Ninh Province of Vietnam. Hạ Long means “descending dragon”. The bay is known for its emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rainforests. Junk boat tours and sea kayak expeditions take visitors past islands named for their shapes, such as Stone Dog and Teapot islets. The region is popular for scuba diving, rock climbing, and hiking, particularly in mountainous Cát Bà National Park. (source: Wikipedia)
It was totally worth the hype and the money paid. Cruising along the bay, watching the sunset amidst the gently lapping sea, looking over as the towering hills pop out of the sea and loom around as I sip an unidentified cocktail on the ship’s deck, was quite something else.
A Hạ Long bay cruise costs between USD 170 to USD 220. Paradise, Indochina, and Dragon Junk are among the better-rated cruise companies. We took the Huong Hai Sealife cruise which was very good too. It visits the Bai Tu Long bay, more remote than the others, else we hear the night docking area looks like a parking lot. As part of the cruise, we also visit some fishing villages, learn how to cook local fare, watch movies of the French rule or American war and attempt Tai Chi. Cheesy, but wholesome and picturesque fun.
(2) Take a Boat Tour on Trang An
Situated at the south of the Red River Delta in Vietnam, the Trang An Landscape Complex is a spectacular landscape of limestone peaks permeated with valleys, many of them partly submerged and surrounded by steep, almost vertical cliffs. This is less crowded than the more popular Tam Coc, just minutes away, but equally mind-blowing. Rowboats, rowed by hardy women, take you through the limestone caves and the hills, and over a period of three hours you get a taste of darkness and light…green hills and greener waters…slow lapping of the paddle…gentle lulling of the sun on your face…silence of the tall hills around…bees buzzing in your ears… you get the picture.
Usually, 4 people share a boat on a Trang An cave boat tour, rowed by a local Vietnamese woman. You can play your part and help her row the boat as well, and tip her after. Only when you try your hand at rowing, you realize how difficult it is. How do these women row a boat on their own?
A boat trip costs 200,000 Dong per head and takes around 3 hours around a circuit. You pass through tall mountains, green as moss water, and scarily narrow and dark caves. Every moment is wow.
When in Ninh Binh, stay at the Vancouver Hotel Ninh Binh. Central, affordable, and very hospitable.
(3) Ride a Bike from Hue to Hoi An
This is a must-do activity when in Vietnam.
We were lucky to have good weather and a fantastic tour group organizing this for us and we had the best 8 hours of our Vietnamese sojourn. We had already tried all modes of transport on our Vietnam trip by then—we had flown (JetStar – good enough), had taken the SE19 train (basic and clean), cruised along the Ha Long Bay, took a local bus to Ninh Binh (decent but avoidable in bad weather) and a bike trip such as this rounded the portfolio.
It drizzled on our faces. The wind blew our hair. The roads were wide and smooth, the sights beautiful. Especially when we moved over from Hue to Da Nang. If you want to stay overnight at Da Nang, look up at a great list of accommodations here.
The Hải Vân Pass (or “ocean cloud pass”), is a ~21 km long mountain pass on National Route 1A in Vietnam. “Historically, the pass was a physical division between the kingdoms of Champa and Đại Việt. The pass is renowned for its scenic beauty. Presenter Jeremy Clarkson, the host of the BBC motoring programme Top Gear, featured the pass during the show’s 2008 Vietnam Special, calling the road “a deserted ribbon of perfection—one of the best coast roads in the world.” Wikipedia
The Le Family Riders conduct bike trips from Hue to Hoi An and alternately, from Hoi An to Hue. No problem if you cannot ride a bike yourself, you can ride pillion on one of the family members. If going from Hue to Hoi An, You will also stop at Elephant Springs, eat some yummy local cuisine at the Fishing Village, cross Da Nang, then finally visit the Marble Mountains. But crossing the Hai Van pass or the Ocean Cloud pass is the highlight of the trip. The tour starts at 8 AM from Hue and ends at 4:30 PM in Hoi An. At Hoi An, they drop you at a tailors’ (also a family member), so you can spend some time ordering a 24-hour custom-made suit or a formal dress.
(4) Traipse along Hoi An
Hoi An is an ancient well-preserved town in Central Vietnam, in the Quang Nam province. It has a history of over 2000 years and is a UNESCO work heritage site. The closest airport to it is Da Nang, 30 km away. The city has several architectural and cultural influences, even now alive and thriving: Cham, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Portuguese, French. It is a mish-mash of many things, but better because of them.
What a great, great little place! Very touristy, mind you, but so romantic, so quaint. It is located by the riverside too, so you know that adds to the charm.
This little town is called the Venice of Vietnam and you’ll see why as soon as you’ve stepped foot on it. Beautiful night markets, lanterns in the sky, a fancy Japanese bridge, perplexing artwork, old houses, crafts, and coffee…I didn’t want to leave. Umm… did I mention lanterns in the sky?
Buy a ticket for 120k Dong to enter the old quarters. Then just walk and walk. You can visit up to five sights with your ticket. The main attractions are a Japanese covered bridge, Precious Heritage Museum, Quan Cong Temple, the 17th-century Tan Ky House, Museum of Folk Culture, Museum of Trade Ceramics, Hoi An Museum of History and Culture, etc. I don’t remember much of what I saw, but I felt like I was walking through a medieval town.
(5) Rock the Nightlife
Definitely go to the Backpacker’s street in Saigon and Ta Hien street in Hanoi – party the night away with cheap beer and pop mixes which seem to run on a loop. The locals love a good party too and the weekends are throbbing with activity. But be careful of your belongings. Bike born thieves can take you by surprise.
Did I convince you enough? Pack your bags for Vietnam now. It is pocket-friendly and offers experiences you will scarce find elsewhere.