Vietnam means a lot to me because it’s where my family are from. We are of Chinese origin but my grandparents migrated to Ho Chi Minh and there my parents were born and raised, until they later came to England and settled into Liverpool.
I first visited Vietnam when I was 8 years old. Those memories are hazy but there are certain experiences that stayed with me until I returned 20 years later, aged 28 to experience them once again. One of those experiences, deeply ingrained in my memory was that incredible rush you feel on the back of a motorcycle when you ride through the busy, frantic Saigon district. It’s buzzing, the air smells different and your adrenaline is racing high.
I’ve travelled around Vietnam twice since then and often have friends asking me for tips and advice. I could have done with writing this quite a long time ago. For the purposes of keeping this reader friendly, I am splitting Vietnam into two posts. This first post focuses on North and Central Vietnam and I’ll eventually get around to writing about South Vietnam.
1.Build in extra time to see Sapa
Sapa is a mountainous town further north of Hanoi and it’s spectacular and stunning. See the breath taking, dramatic views of the curvy green fields .Wake up to the beautiful mist that surrounds on an early Sapa morning. It’s a gorgeous, wonderful place to trek.
Be prepared to be stunned by the local tribes who wear flimsy flip flops. Their feet have accustomed to their daily commute and they race through the hills like ninjas, guiding and helping you through the trickier parts of the hike.
Often people are squeezed for time when travelling on a short break but if you can fit it in, you won’t regret Sapa.
- Be aware of dodgy tourist companies in Vietnam. There are so many tourist companies it’s hard to know which ones are legitimate. If they have a website on their shop front, check it out there and then. We had a slightly unfortunate experience booking with one of these companies. We booked a bus and tour package but the bus dumped us in the middle of Sapa at 3am in the pitch black dark . With other tourists we managed to find the hotel (thankfully someone had offline maps) and we all slept in the lobby until they opened. When we went back to this company to complain they took no responsibility and it turned out their website didn’t even exist. To be safe I’d say book excursions through your hotel or try and seek out advice from fellow travellers who are in the area. There are sleeper trains that take about 8 hours from Hanoi to Sapa and apparently trains are safer than buses.
- During the Sapa trek, a lot of Sapa locals will follow you around and ask you to buy souvenirs from them. Of course this is a lovely way to contribute to tourism but I’d recommend you only buy from your allocated local tour guides and buy from them at the end of your tour. If you start buying from the others or they spot you buying stuff from your tour guides over lunch, they will flock and I promise they will not leave you alone! I always think it’s nicer to buy from the people that you are officially trekking with as way to say thanks at the end.
2.Visit Ha-Long Bay
This is one of the top rated and most visited North Vietnam destinations. Here you will see a wonderful collection of towering limestone islands.
There are various cruise tours all at different prices for different lengths of stay.
Take a walk through the stunning lit up caves, overwhelming in size and drowning in humidity.
Go kayaking around the islands and take a boat ride out to see the cave where they filmed a scene in James Bond Tomorrow Never Dies.
Lie on the deck of your boat at night and star gaze in peace as the islands go to sleep.
And dive off your boat and swim in the sea!
3.Walk through Hanoi Old Quarter and see the Water Puppet Show
This may not be to everyone’s taste but I think it’s a beautiful and wonderful Vietnamese tradition. The water puppets tell the stories of the daily life of Vietnamese farmers from cultivating to catching fishes and tending buffalo. Due to its popularity the theatre runs shows throughout the day but if you’re not in Hanoi for long, go early in the day to book tickets to avoid disappointment.
Then take a walk through the Old Quarter, visit the temple and lake near the Theatre and pick up some street food and a beer on your way.
Food in Hanoi
I’ve had some amazing food experiences in Hanoi, here are my top two experiences:
1.Try a street BBQ
There is an area in the Old Quarter where the streets are lined with these outdoor BBQ restaurants. If you can’t find them, worry not, your nose will take you there! Cook your own meat (options are a heap of seasoned pork or beef) and have it Hanoi style with some banh (baguette).
Hanoi also has some great street food tours, I haven’t been on one personally but I’ve read some positive reviews on Trip Advisor and other various travel sites.
2.If you fancy a treat, dine at the Red Bean restaurant
Brilliant customer service, a Vietnamese twist on fine dining in a beautiful restaurant, 5 courses all for £22, what’s not to like?
Their website is here: http://www.redbeanrestaurant.com/
Central Vietnam is full of many gems but the two I can share are Hoi An and Da Nang beach.
1.See Hoi An and visit a tailor
The ancient town of Hoi An is one not to miss. It’s streets are littered with colorful lanterns and the preserved nature of Hoi An is an absolute stark contrast to the busy city of Ho Chi Minh. Famous for its tailors, get quality handmade suits and dresses made for a fraction of the price you’d pay in the West. I’ve not actually had clothes made by a tailor but I recommended it to a friend and she came back raving about her new dresses.
There’s also a beautiful beach in Hoi An (about a 20 minute taxi ride away from the main town) so relax and put your feet up here for a day.
2.The luxurious Da Nang Beach
I feel like we got super lucky here because when we rocked up at Da Nang beach (sorry I can’t remember which end!) it was completely deserted and untouched. We had an entire beach to ourselves for a whole day. Da Nang wasn’t a huge tourist area when I was there in 2013 which may explain the luxury absence of company. I believe it is now rapidly growing as a popular destination which doesn’t surprise me.
The hot white sand became unbearable to walk on but luckily we also had a strip of hotels along the beach and for a tiny fee of £2 we accessed the hotel pool (again, all to ourselves) for the day.
That’s it from me for North and Central Vietnam. I’d love to hear from people who share and love the Vietnam experience and I’d be interested to know if much has changed since I visited.