For our March/April trip, we decided to jump on the bandwagon and join everyone in visiting Vietnam. We spent just under three weeks in this magical country, which allowed us a whistle stop tour from the north to the south. If you’ve never seen a map of Vietnam take a look – it’s far bigger then you expect. We used a combination of internal flights, buses, taxis and trains to get around and we came away feeling we had seen and eaten our way across the country. Make sure to get your visa from your local embassy in advance as it saves time at the airport.
Day 1-4 Hanoi
Day 4-5 Halong bay
Day 5 -6 Hanoi
Day 6 -8 Hue
Day 8 – 11 Hoi An
Day 11-13 Dalat
Day 13- 15 Mui ne
Day 15- 18 Saigon
Our first taste of Vietnam was in the old city of Hanoi – a chaotic city where just crossing the road is an act of faith! We arrived on an early morning flight, and after leaving our bags at our hotel (we had splashed out and stayed at the Essence Hanoi hotel and Spa in the heart of the old quarter), we went for a wander around Hoam Kiem lake. On the weekends, parts of the old town is pedestrianised so there was plenty of people watching to be done, especially in the morning with Tai Chi classes, ladies with typical Vietnamese conical hats selling goods and children riding around in mini motorised cars. After a visit to a trendy coffee shop, (coffee is bizarrely expensive in Vietnam – similar prices to the U.K), we headed to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. Although the various floors and exhibits became a little repetitive, the museum provided a real insight into everything from women’s involvement in the arts, family life, fashion and their role in the war. After a delicious Papaya salad and some Hanoi Spring rolls at the museum cafe, we headed back to our hotel to crash out for a few hours before heading out for the evening.
Our hotel was right in the heart of the old quarter and on beer corner! The streets around this area came alive at night and were packed full of low tables and tiny nursery school chairs. This was a brilliant place to relax with a beer and watch the world go by. Our first meal was at New day restaurant – delicious street food and cheap to match – I’d definitely recommend a visit! Beer in Vietnam is cheaper than bottled water, so expect to drink a lot of it!
Tip: We use the Water-to-go filter bottles when travelling abroad to save having to buy multiple plastic bottles in countries where the tap water is not safe to drink. These are a fantastic investment and one filter in the bottle lasts three months – you just fill the bottle with water from any tap/stream/river and the filter purifies the water for you!
The following morning we decided to wake up early to go to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Unfortunately, with it being a Sunday, the queue to enter was huge. It took us half an hour of walking to get from near the front of the queue to the back! By all accounts, people have told me that we didn’t miss out on much. We decided to walk to the temple of Literature instead. This was Vietnam’s first national University and is a relatively large complex containing courtyards, gardens, halls and pavilions. It was here that we got our first taste of Vietnamese people practicing their English with us. In any public place in Vietnam, if you sit on a bench, groups of students will approach you to ask to practice English – so be prepared for lots of small talk! After a lunch stop at Quan An Ngon restaurant, we continued on to visit the Hoa Lo Prison – the “Hanoi Hilton”. Originally built by the French in the 1880s to house Vietnamese prisoners, it was intended to house 450 people but up to 2000 were held there in the 1950s! Having seen the oroginal tiny floor plan this must have truely been horrific. After the French left Vietnam In 1954, (having been defeated), the North Vietnamese Army took over and used it to house American Prisoners during the American War (in Vietnam this is what they call the Vietnam war). The prison exhibits largely focus on how the Vietnamese were treated during the French occupation and the museum exhibits are keen to demonstrate how well the American troops were treated during the American war. Like most museums in Vietnam, everything has to be taken with a pinch of salt as it does tend to be bias.
In the evening we went to a water puppet show, which actually was surprisingly entertaining and included not only creepy human puppets, fire breathing dragons, ducks, foxes, birds and fish puppets, but also live traditional music and singing.
The following morning we explored the side streets around our hotel, dodging motorbikes and rickshaws to get Phil his hair cut at the local barbers. After fending off a small Pug dog that was trying to attack my leg and Phil having a questionable hair cut, we headed back to the hotel for our planned afternoon activity. We had signed up to a cooking class through Vietnam Awesome Travel Company. We were picked up from our hotel and informed by our guide Nathan that we were the only people in the class that day! We were taken by taxi to the opposite side of the Red river where we were given a brief lesson in Vietnamese, (care with the pronunciation of Pho soup – if said wrong you might accidently order a prositute!). We then cycled to the local market and put our lesson into practice, ordering various ingredients and bartering in Vietnamese. It was fun at first, but seeing as we were the only people in the group it did get quite painfully awkward after a while! After gathering our ingredients we returned to the kitchen venue, ( a house on the Red river), and our cookery lesson begun. We made homemade Hanoi Spring rolls, banana leaf salad, chicken Pho and beef rice paper rolls. It was really good fun and the food tasted amazing – definitely book onto this course and make sure you go VERY hungry as there is plenty of food to eat!
Our next stop on the trip was to Halong Bay. We had organised this through our hotel at a discounted rate and were picked up and transported to our boat. The minibus took about three hours and was a little hairy in places – don’t look at the road ahead and have a nap instead to save yourself a heart attack! We were on the Aphrodite cruise boat which was absolutely amazing. After boarding the boat and settling into our cabin with a balcony, we were served a delicious three course lunch as the boat set sail. The staff on board were great, the food was superb and the sun even came out so that we could even get some sunbathing in! We were on a one night two day cruise which was probably enough to experience Halong Bay, although I could easily have stayed another night if time allowed. The excursions were so so, but overall the service, food and experience was brilliant – I would definitely book with this company again.
After transferring back to Hanoi, we went to the War Museum. Run by the Vietnamese authorities, it is very much a one sided view of the American War and heavily laden with propaganda. However it was extremely interesting to see how this historical era is portrayed and definitely worth a visit.
On the walk back to our hotel we dropped in to the Giong cafe for an egg beer and an egg coffee – both absolutely delicious, although sickly sweet! Essentially it tastes like meringue on top of coffee and the beer tastes like the butter beer in Harry Potter Studios! The owner of the cafe proudly showed us a CNN article about him as he claims his grand father was the creator of the egg coffee. Craving home comforts we visited the restaurant “Chops” in the old quarter for a dose of carbs in the form of a burger and chips and then continued to the beer streets for some al fresco drinks on our last night in Hanoi. Mad and bustling, Hanoi is a lovely little city. If you are short on time you can probably cram everything into two days, but do make sure to visit Halong Bay – it is worth it!