Vietnam receives mixed reviews from backpackers but I wanted to explore this intriguing country for myself, and I decided to spend a month making my way down the coast from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south.
What to see and do when you’re in Vietnam
We arrived at the bus station in the capital of Hanoi late in the evening after a gruelling 24 hour journey from Vientienne, Laos. The air was thick as we stood in the yard of the Hanoi bus station waiting for our bags to be off-loaded as taxi drivers waited around for a fare. We agreed what we thought to be a fair price to take us to our hotel in the centre of Hanoi, where we were meeting a friend I’d met in Africa, and another Brit who’d I’d met on the message boards at gapyear.com.
The following morning we set out to explore the city. The first thing that strikes you about Vietnam is the constant sound of honking horns and motorbikes. On my first day I remember standing by the side of the road, waiting for a break in the traffic so I could cross. This went on for some time but the traffic just wasn’t letting up. I must have appeared concerned as I felt someone grab my arm. I looked down to see an old lady who must have been at least 80, half my size, and wearing a conical hat. Her eyes twinkled as she gave me a knowing smile. She took me by the elbow and gently led me across the road; I grimaced as the bikes whizzed around me but I eventually made it back to the relative safety of the pavement. I thanked her and she simply nodded and went on her way. My conclusion? Just walk. The bikes will go around you and once you have mastered the art of motorbike dodging you are all set for travel in Vietnam.
Hanoi is steeped in history and is a great base for visiting the popular attractions of Sapa and Halong Bay. We spent a few wonderful days strolling around the city, spending an afternoon at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre (an experience you should definitely try). We spent an evening at the famous Chả cá Lã Vọng restaurant and ate the Vietnamese dish of fish with turmeric and dill. This small restaurant was packed with locals and tourists alike. The food was delicious and I strongly recommend you try it. After dinner, we went to the Old Quarter, a lively destination where tourists and locals sit drinking cold beers on small, colourful plastic chairs in the warm night air.
The following day, we boarded a mini-bus and headed toward Halong Bay. Tourists flock here to spend a night on traditional junk boats. We opted to take a tour that allowed us one night on a boat, and another on Cat Ba Island which is also known as ‘Monkey Island’. We were promised a beautiful island experience, complete with a floating bar and monkeys.
Halong Bay is made up of a mysterious collection of islands rising majestically from the emerald green waters, and locals live in the shelter of the islands in floating houses grouped into a number of fishing villages. We spent a blissful afternoon kayaking around the bay, jumping off the boat and swimming in the opaque waters. That evening consisted of 90s boy band karaoke classics, drinking games and cards with the rest of the group.
On day two, we said goodbye to our tour guide Dat, who was then replaced with another character called Bai, who immediately decided that he wanted me for a wife and proceeded to tell me that he loved me at every opportunity for the rest of the trip. We spent the morning exploring Hang Sung Sat (Surprising Grotto), a beautiful network of caves (the ‘surprise’ being a very amusing phallic shaped rock), before sailing to the mysterious ‘Monkey Island’. We spent the afternoon relaxing on an idyllic private beach and playing volleyball. As the sun was setting, Bai waded into the sea with a rubber ring under one arm and a cooler under the other, it soon dawned on me that this was the ‘floating bar’ that we had heard so much about! I couldn’t blame them for the creative advertising and it was very fun! That evening the staff set up a disco. The highlight? Bai doing a spectacular version of Thriller.
We headed back to Hanoi to catch an overnight train to Sapa. Our four bunk cabin was basic but comfortable and I drifted into a deep sleep, only waking as we arrived. Sapa is a picturesque town, famous for trekking and for the best mountain views in Vietnam. Or so I’m told. It was so foggy, we could barely see a few metres in front of us – and it was freezing – we should have checked the weather forecast. However, the calmness of Sapa was a welcome break from busy Hanoi but the weather showed no signs of lifting, so we decided to only stay one night before heading back.
Further south we stopped in Ninh Binh the day before we caught the overnight bus to Hoi An. Hoi An is a quaint, fairy tale town where you can spend your days wandering through the silk lantern lined streets, browsing the art galleries and filling your belly with exquisite French cakes. But the star attraction? Hoi An is famous for its tailors and you can have anything you want made there at a fraction of the price you would pay at home. All you need to do is take a picture of what you want and voila! Most items are ready within a day or two. It was one of the loveliest places I have ever been, however, I had to leave before my bank balance and waistline took too much of a battering!
Next stop on our whirlwind tour was Nha Trang, a beautiful coastal resort. In order to see the ‘real’ Vietnam, we booked onto an Easy Rider tour. Our guides picked us up early in the morning and we hopped on the back and set off. We spent a few glorious hours zipping down the coast through green paddy fields and villages that you would never usually see on the tourist trail, finishing off with a dip in a beautiful waterfall. A perfect day.
Ho Chi Minh City, probably better known as Saigon, was our last stop. It is a city alive.
It’s dirty, busy, crazy, colourful and I love it. The traffic in Hanoi is nothing compared to Saigon. Everyone passes through Ho Chi Minh City so it’s a great place to catch up with all the friends you’ve met along the way. From here we also took a trip to the Mekong Delta where we meandered down the river in traditional canoes, stayed with a local family and saw the floating markets. Also, no stay in Ho Chi Minh would be complete without a trip to the War Museum and the Cu Chi tunnels to learn about the Vietnam (which they call the American) War.
My verdict? I loved every minute of Vietnam and with so much more to see I can’t wait to go back again!
Helen Davies left the corporate world to seek out a life less ordinary travelling the world on and off since 2009. Make sure you check out her blog Helen in Wonderlust and follow her on Twitter @helenwonderlust.