We only had a week to experience Vietnam and I can safely say it left me wanting to see more of this diverse, chaotic and welcoming country. Still, one week was all we had, so we planned an itinerary to include a mixture of culture, top tourist hits, and a touch of relaxation.
Starting in Hanoi, we had 24 hours to discover what the capital had to offer: street life, great food, historical sites and sights, puppet shows and propaganda- you can read about all of that and find out if I was brave enough to try the street food in my 24 hours in Hanoi blog post.
From Hanoi we followed the well-trodden tourist path to Halong Bay for an overnight cruise. There are various options available from a whole host of companies, including day-only trips, but we opted for a two-day-one-night package with Glory Legend Cruises. From embarking the boat at lunch time, to disembarking the following morning, we were treated to four excellent meals on board, and activities that included kayaking in a hidden lagoon, swimming off a sandy beach, sundown cocktails and a vietnamese spring roll cooking class, squid fishing after dark and morning Tai Chi (I’ll admit, I opted out of the 6am wake up call for that one) – all against the dramatic backdrop of beautiful Halong Bay. Don’t expect exclusivity: the bays we anchored in were all full of similar boats and the activity areas were teeming with tourists. For me though, this didn’t detract from the experience, and the boat we chose had few enough guests to feel intimate and elegant.
The Halong Bay trips generally include transfers to and from Hanoi- it’s a 4 hour drive so with a two-day-one-night package you’ll be picked up around 8am and returned to Hanoi by 5pm the next day (although you’ll need to be staying in the Old Quarter if you want to be picked up from your hotel). With time of the essence, we chose to head directly to the airport from Halong Bay, and a private transfer was arranged by the cruise company for a flat rate ($82 – by far the most expensive transfer of the trip, but we didn’t want to take any risks with an early evening flight).
Our next stop was Hội An for a relaxing couple of nights by the beach and a chance for DM to get some diving in. I’m told that travelling by sleeper train is a great way to experience Vietnam if you’re taking in the length of the country from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, with stops available at the popular destinations of Hué, Da Nang and Nha Trang. I used the excuse of our tight schedule to cover for my lack of enthusiasm on that front and we booked a flight.
We flew with VietJet Air, who offer multiple daily flights between Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City amongst plenty of other destinations. Here’s a word of caution: don’t plan to a strict timeline with this airline. Both flights we booked with them were rescheduled at least once in the week before the flight and again on the day. They even change the time on the departure boards rather than label it as ‘delayed’- so make sure you keep an eye out for your flight number! When we finally arrived at Da Nang we were too late for dinner and I felt robbed of an evening of my holiday- thank goodness we were staying two nights.
In fact, I could happily have spent an entire week enjoying the beaches of Da Nang and Hội An. We stayed at the Boutique Hội An Resort, about 15 minutes outside the ancient town on a stretch of idyllic white beach (most of the beach hotels offer free shuttle buses to town throughout the day). The next morning, while DM was up and off early for his underwater adventure, I started my day at the spa, then whiled away a good few hours at the beach and pool before we met at the bar for Happy Hour cocktails on his return. It was tempting to stay and enjoy the hotel’s hospitality for the evening, but with only one night left in Hội An we knew we had to get out and see the ancient town itself- and I’m so glad we did. I had no idea it was going to be so charming. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I really was blown away by the artisan, villagey feel of it: fashionable bistros, organic juice bars and live music venues alternate with small boutiques and local tailors’ shops under a canopy of lanterns strung between pastel coloured shuttered buildings. It’s touristy, of course, but it didn’t feel like it had been ‘ruined’ by tourists so far. I hope that remains the case.
After a delicious dinner at Home Hội An we wandered the streets around the riverside, admiring the merrily floating river candles and taking in the happy buzz of shoppers, diners and drinkers. We stumbled across a busy night market and street performers, and stopped for drinks at a laid-back backpackers’ bar and a trendy wine bar before taking a local taxi back to the hotel. (We’d already checked with the hotel how much it should cost, and made sure we agreed on the fare beforehand).
Our fourth and final destination in Vietnam was the southern city of Saigon, now known officially as Ho Chi Minh City. Again, a good few hours of our holiday were claimed by VietJet Air and their delays- but this time at least we arrived in time for dinner at Noir, a ‘dining in the dark’ experience where the waiters are visually impaired and if you haven’t worked it out already, you eat in complete darkness. You can read more about that, and how we spent the rest of our time in Saigon, in my 48 hours in Ho Chi Minh City post. If you can’t be bothered with that I’ll summarise thus: an evening scooter tour is a great way to experience the vibrant street life, the Cu Chi tunnels makes an interesting war-themed day trip, and I finally summoned up the courage to try some street food and it was deeelish!
We barely scratched the surface of Vietnam, sticking to the trusty tourist destinations for a whirlwind week of history, culture, relaxation, fantastic food and plentiful propaganda- but it was enough to give me a glimpse of a warm and friendly nation and a country full of surprises (and scooters).
Here are some tips based on our week-long experience:
-Uber is a great way to get around the larger cities and to and from airports.
-If you’re going to take a taxi, make sure you do some research and agree a fare beforehand, or insist on using the meter.
-Museums tend to shut at lunch time for at least an hour, so check the hours before you go.
-Wine is expensive; beer is cheap.
-Don’t expect anything – internal flights, day trips – to run on time. Be mindful of this if you’re trying to cram lots of activities in.
-Crossing the road: don’t expect scooters to stop at zebra crossings. They will, however, avoid you if you cross at a predictable walking pace. Chicken!
-Tailoring opportunities: if you are staying more than a couple of days in one place, take advantage of the highly skilled and super cheap local tailors to have bespoke items such as suits and party dresses made. Hội An is especially good for this.