Of all the countries in South East Asia, Vietnam is often at the top of the list for many. With the promise of various landscapes/traditions/chaotic cities and communities, I decided to see what all the fuss was about first hand.
I was fortunate enough to have the luxury of time on my hands so I opted for the three-month visa to travel the length of Vietnam at a leisurely pace, allowing time to absorb all it has to offer.
The first decision to make when going to Vietnam is whether to travel North to South or South to North. I chose the prior, mainly as Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay were my two prioritised places to visit and Hanoi serves as the perfect gateway to both of these.
Below is a countdown of the highlights of my trip in which I spent a total of six weeks exploring many tourist hotspots and beyond.
Once over the initial initiation challenge of navigating the amazingly uncoordinated traffic – just walk, don’t (try not to) panic and somehow it just works – Hanoi is a very walkable and accessible city.
There is plenty to do and see in Hanoi and I thoroughly enjoyed discovering this by strolling from street to street (and with the help of maps.me).
One place I stumbled upon was ‘The Hanoi Social Club’; a hidden gem amongst the city’s chaotic streets. This three storey cafe is the perfect place to spend a free afternoon and look out upon its bustling surroundings. It also has a great wide-ranging menu for when you need a break from Banh Mi or a rest from rice. It’s quite pricey for Vietnamese standards and rather unauthentically Western, but still infiltrated with plenty of Vietnam Charm!
Just a short motorbike ride outside the historical imperial city of Hue is a semi-constructed waterpark that (amongst other rumours) was abandoned due to a lack of funds needed to complete it.
Although now an ironic unconventional tourist attraction amongst travellers visiting Hue, this derelict waterpark is not as well known by locals in the area, and seeking it out without any structured guidance is part of the fun.
The rides themselves are not functioning but it is definitely worth a visit to see how nature has begun to claim back its rightful land.
This museum is not for the faint-hearted. It is a heavy, harrowing reminder of Vietnam’s devastating battle for freedom, predominantly represented through graphic visual imagery.
That said, it is a very informative and interesting depiction of why, when and what the war entailed for Vietnam and other countries involved.
Anyone visiting Vietnam’s capital city should take the time to immerse themselves in what has shaped the country it is today, and the War Remnants Museum is a great place to start.
Propelling myself off rock faces was not something I ever bargained on doing in Vietnam. However, it is what everyone seems to be doing in Da Lat and I quickly got roped into following the crowd, quite literally.
Da Lat is also the home of homestay hostels which provide delicious family-style dinners and a true communal feel. I stayed at ‘Friendly Fun‘ and it was both of named things. I booked my canyoning trip through this homestay with Highland Holiday Tours, which promises to be one of the best value tour companies in Da Lat.
My advice for anyone keen to participate in these canyoning tours is that ignorance truly is bliss. I’m glad I experienced it but had I known what I was really in for I may have put up a bit more resistance, and not just on the rope.
Ha Long Bay is arguably one of the main draws of tourism to Vietnam, offering breathtaking views and the opportunity to be submerged in natural serenity. Or for others, the chance for a multi-day boat party in amazing surroundings.
There are countless tour companies to compare and options to choose from when planning a trip to Ha Long Bay. Perhaps the first being whether you want a party cruise or a calm cruise, or somewhere in between. The next decision is the length of the trip you would like to go on, perhaps dictated by visa length and personal timeframe.
There is also the option to bypass the overwhelming amount of package tours offered altogether and head to Cat Ba Island (on the Southeastern edge of Ha Long Bay) independently, which is the one I chose.
I stayed in Cat Ba Central Backpackers and arranged a one-day cruise of Ha Long Bay through here; this included lunch, kayaking and free swimming at a fraction of the price of previous tours I had looked into. For me, just the one day was enough, but everyone has their own preferences, and these can certainly be met by at least one of the myriad of options on offer.
Mui Ne is a destination that is often overlooked on many itineraries, if restricted on time it is slightly off the tourist trail and not particularly prioritised. However, after visiting here I would encourage anyone to visit if logistically possible.
The beach town itself doesn’t have that much to offer, other than lots of beach-front restaurants and fancy resorts but the long stretches of sand dunes are definitely worth a visit, and unlike any other landscape, you will find in Vietnam.
The best time to see the sand dunes is at sunrise, something tour companies and hostels are very aware of, but with good reason. After an early rise, you are taken by an open-top Jeep (or similar) to the White Sand Dunes just in time to see the sun rise above the sandy horizon. It definitely beats any sunrise I have ever made it up in time for.
If in Mui Ne, make sure to stay at Mui Ne Budget Hotel – for just $5 a night you have access to three swimming pools, set with plenty of free sun loungers and great poolside food – a true flashpackers paradise, without flashing the cash.
Along with providing excellent access to the wonders of Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island also boasts an impressive National Park in its centre. You can easily arrange a taxi trip here but the best way to see it is by renting a scooter and exploring the island on two wheels.
When you reach the foot of the National Park, expect stairs, and lots of them in order to reach the spectacular views on offer at the top. Every one is worth it when you are rewarded with peak after peak of lush green hills as far as the eye can see.
Ninh Binh can be a convenient stop-off point whether travelling up or down Vietnam. It is also close enough to Hanoi to arrange a day excursion here, which is what I did.
Known as ‘Ha Long Bay of the land’, Trang An provides the perfect landscape for a tranquil boat ride along the lotus-flower laden river and through an impressive collection of caves.
This boat trip is very popular among Vietnamese tourists as well as Western, so avoiding weekends and holidays is advisable to steer clear of Trang An traffic on and out of the water.
Word of mouth advocates that everyone loves Hoi An, and once there it is easy to see why. From sandy beaches to affordable tailored clothing to the charming Ancient Town, there really is something for everyone. The worst part about going to Hoi An is leaving.
Partly by chance and partly by choice I was lucky enough to be in Hoi An for the monthly full moon Lantern Festival. In Vietnamese culture, the full moon presents a chance to celebrate and pay respects to their ancestors.
Hoi An is famous for its colourful paper lanterns which can be found in abundance throughout the town, and certainly make for a pretty picture if not a purchase. During the festival electrical lights are switched off, hosting the opportunity to showcase these lanterns at their best and even float a candle-lit lantern from a boat into the canal.
Whether you make it in time to experience the lantern festival or not, Hoi An is not to be missed, only once you’ve left it.
Perhaps being one of my first impressions of Vietnam’s impressive natural landscapes, there was something about the enchantment of Sa Pa I found hard to shake.
With rolling rice fields and endless natural wonder combined with a simple and traditional way of life at a truly relaxed pace, Sa Pa’s charm is instantaneously contagious.
I first stayed in a homestay in Ta Van, just a few km outside of Sa Pa town which was situated in and amongst the rice paddies and was the perfect immersion into the way of life here. You can be easily led into signing up to various tours, treks and guided walks in Sa Pa, and the temptation is strong due to ease and security in a place so far removed from familiarity. However, a little faith goes a long way and you soon realise you can do this on your own, in your own way. Speak to the local Hmong community and they will be happy to show you around for a small contribution of cash and a big investment of interest.
I also stayed in Go Sapa hostel in Sa Pa town and after looking at various different ways to reach the top of Fansipan mountain (including multi-day treks), I opted for the easiest (laziest) option and took the cable car. The views from this suspended car were indescribable as it sailed through the thick clouds and appeared to drop you into a whole new reality atop. Views were limited, both short and long-sighted due to being physically engulfed in cloud, but the scenes this alone created were worth the journey.
Of all the countries in South East Asia (that I’ve visited), Vietnam is now at the top of my list.