Now that I’m more settled back to life in the United States, I’m finally getting around to posting more about my travels from the past year. There’s so much to catch up on! It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year already since I left Australia and began my journey through Asia and Europe. This post is written to reflect on my time in Vietnam.
From what I had heard from friends and fellow travelers, Vietnam was always one of those places that you either loved or hated. While the general consensus was mostly positive, regarding Vietnam as a place not to be missed, there were the few I came into contact with who would say otherwise. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was one of the countries I was most looking forward to visiting during my time in Asia.
Luckily, it lived up to the reputation that lots of people had talked about. In fact, it’s one of my favorite countries that I’ve been to thus far! Finding the allure in Vietnam I think takes a certain type of traveler and personality to appreciate. Compared to other SE Asian countries, it doesn’t really have the best beaches. The cities are crowded, polluted, and chaotic. Petty theft and scams are common. Street vendors and touts are constantly buzzing around trying to sell you something. The people have a reputation of being unfriendly to tourists. The heat and humidity is drains you. Despite all these groans that many travelers have when they visit Vietnam, some of these negatives where actually positives for me. I loved the crowded, chaotic streets buzzing with endless motorbike traffic and honking horns. I’d never seen such chaos and activity like that before. It was absolutely crazy and there was always something interesting going on around the next corner. And ever since Vietnam, I’ve never worried too much about crossing the street in traffic anywhere else in the world!
As an American in Vietnam, I wasn’t sure what the reception would be to locals I’d meet considering my country’s bloody history and involvement there in the past. While I didn’t find people there as friendly as those in nearby countries (mostly people from older generations), I generally got that the resentment was because I was a tourist not just because I was American. However, there were several times where I had positive interactions with people who seemed genuinely curious in where I was from and what I was doing in Vietnam. Oftentimes, especially while hanging out in city parks, university students would come up and politely ask if I could talk with them to help practice their English. I remember one particular group of college students who went out of their way to buy me ice cream (for those who know me, nothing makes my day more than free ice cream)! There will always be bad apples anywhere you go, but I like to think that there are more than enough good ones around to make up for it.
The thing I loved most about Vietnam by far was the food. With over 500 traditional dishes varying region by region across the country, there was such a multitude of flavors and culinary wonders to try everywhere you go. With the mix of the French, Vietnamese, and Chinese influences, Vietnam is a melting pot of different cooking styles. Being in tropical Asia, there are also plenty of strange and exotic fruits to try. Best of all, eating is extremely cheap and there’s always something yummy cooking somewhere.
There is also a lot of natural beauty packed into this country, with lush jungles and rain forest, wondrous caves, steep misty mountains, stunning karst landscapes, and vibrant green rice paddies that cover entire hillsides. Although the scars of war and modern-day industrialization have altered the environment in negative ways, Vietnam is still a stunning place visually.
Trying to pack in as much as I could, I spent nearly a month traveling through this marvelous country. Here were some of my favorite places:
My favorite of the two major cities in the country, Ho Chi Minh (called Saigon by the locals) is bustling, crowded, and the streets are chaotic, amok with endless motorbike traffic (fun fact, Vietnam has more motorbike drivers per capita than any other place on Earth). Even crossing the street here is an adventure—the traffic rarely ever stops so you just have to bravely and confidently just keep walking as everyone drives around you like the parting of the Red Sea. We stayed at an amazing hostel in a high-rise building for just $6 a night, which had a pretty cool rooftop bar with fab views of the city.
One thing I noticed about Ho Chi Minh, as well as several other Vietnamese cities, were that they were very green despite being so polluted. Hoi Chi Minh especially was full of parks and green spaces where people could go out and enjoy the nature. It was often a place where people gathered in the morning for group exercise and in the evening to socialize.
You can also learn quite a bit about the history of the Vietnam War here. The War Remnants Museum gives an interesting perspective on the war, and the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels allows you to see and experience how the Viet Cong carried out their military campaigns using their extensive underground network of tunnels.
Mui Ne was originally a sleepy fishing village, but now most tourists come here to windsurf and check out the nearby sand dunes. The hostel I stayed at, was one of the nicest I had been to in Asia, was right on the beach for only $6 a night! The whole town is very spread out, all along the coast with accommodations and restaurants catering to tourists. We took a tour in an old US Army jeep for the day that made several stops around the area, including the village where we could see how the fishermen make their catch with nets and a little round boat that resembles a soup bowl. That part of beach was really polluted however, with trash strewn everywhere and the air was thick with the smell of dead fish. Not super interesting really. We also stopped by this really unique place called Fairy Creek, a little stream flowing through reddish/orange rock and sand formations. But the big attraction here are the sand dunes. Far out of town are mountains of sand that resemble more of a Saharan landscape than one in Southeast Asia. Not as impressive as the ones in New Zealand, but still very cool to see and worth the visit! Also Mui Ne was where we had the best bahn mi in all of Vietnam, right from this little old lady’s street cart.
Farther inland and high up in the cool, misty mountains, is the city of Da Lat. Also known as the “Paris of Vietnam”, Da Lat is not your average Vietnamese city, full of French-style bakeries, well manicured parks, and Parisian-esque architecture (the town even has it’s own version the Eiffel Tower). Situated in the Vietnamese highlands, the climate here is much cooler than what you would normally expect in Vietnam. The city is popular among Vietnmese tourists and newlyweds as a honeymoon destination. We came here for a few days to get a relief from the heat and humidity that Vietnam is so well known for, and to check out the several waterfalls that are located around the region. The waterfalls and surrounding mountainous terrain make the area ideal for adventure sports, including canyoning, which involves the exploring a canyon by a range of different activities such as rappelling and cliff jumping. I had never done it before so I decided to give it a go and had a blast scaling waterfalls, floating down the river, and jumping off a 40 foot cliff with a diverse group of fellow travelers.
Oh Hoi An. Easily one of my favorite places that I went to in Southeast Asia. This ancient town by the river is incredibly atmospheric and fantasy-like, almost something like you might see in a Miyazaki film. The Old Town is so well preserved, with colorful old weathered buildings evoking French, Japanese, and Chinese influences during its heyday as a major port city and cultural melting pot. Unlike other cities in Vietnam, the pace of life in Hoi An is taken back a notch. As a UNESECO world heritage site, some of the streets are pedestrian only, and what a difference a place makes without the constant buzz of motorbikes.The atmosphere is calm and peaceful. At night the whole city lights up with beautifully decorated lanterns lining the streets and floating serenely down the river. It vaguely reminded me of a scene from a Miyazaki film. Aside from lanterns and old buildings, the town is also known for its tailor shops where can get a custom made suit or dress made for you for a really good deal. Being situated near the coast, the beach is an easy bike ride away as well, making it a relaxing place to hang out at for the afternoon. I ended up staying here for five days with a group of friends and would still go back if I ever find myself in Vietnam again.
I was only in Hue for less than a day, but I thought what I saw there was really impressive. The city was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors and is home to a massive complex known as the Imperial City. Located in central Vietnam near where the north and south halves of the country meet, it was also the spot where one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war took place. I spent a good portion of the day wandering around the city, a lot of which was damaged during the war but now restored.
A UNESCO Heritage Site, everyone who comes to Vietnam inevitably ends up here at some point of their trip. It’s well known for it’s emerald green waters and the thousands of stunning limestone rock formations and islands that rise straight out of the sea. Given the sheer size of the bay and the fact that’s only accessible by boat, the best way to see it is to do an overnight cruise, which we did. Our itinerary included a visit to the cathedral-like Thien Cung Cave, kayaking in the bay at sunset, an on-board Vietnamese cooking class, and hiking on the famous Cat Ba Island. It was super touristy, but given it’s status as one of the great natural wonders of the world it was so worth going to!
Just outside of the industrial and not-so-attractive city of Ninh Binh lies one of Vietnam’s lesser known gems. From here rice farmers make their living working the fields and paddies in the shadow of a dramatic karst mountain range, resembling somewhat of a terrestrial version of Ha Long Bay. Here slow moving rivers lazily meander their way through the steep mountain valleys and cave systems, which also harbor old sacred temples and pagodas. Low-lying wooden boats gently glide down the river, typically rowed by local women. While the stunning scenery rivals Vietnam’s other natural wonder, Ha Long Bay, the atmosphere here is much more relaxed and you gain a sense of what rural Vietnamese life is like. Aside from taking a cruise down the river, I fondly remember renting a bicycle and riding deep into the countryside, past villages, waving kids, farm animals, stray dogs, and vibrant rice terraces. It was here that I felt like I had somewhat left the main tourist trail and was seeing the real Veitnam. I’d take Tam Coc & Trang An (the two rivers that flow through this region) over the hyper-touristy Ha Long Bay any day.
Sa Pa was a highlight of my trip to SE Asia. The town itself is just a pretty little mountain station, perched high on a hilltop in Vietnam’s northern highlands near the Chinese border. The town faces across the valley towards Fansipan, the nation’s highest peak at over 3100 meters (10,312 feet). The valley below is beautifully sculpted by rice terraces that seem to go on forever, built and taken care of the the various hill tribe communities that make their home here. The region is known as a prime spot for trekking, which becomes apparent as you walk down the streets with shops full of North Face backpacks, trekking poles, jackets, and other mountain gear. You can have a trek arranged through your hotel or travel agency, but we decided to just go along with these two little Hmong ladies who convinced us to go on a walk with them to their village (one of which was 8 months pregnant–such troopers!). They guided us through the rice terraces, showed us which plants they use to make dye for their clothing, how to extract and process it using their traditional methods, as well as making the material for their clothing from hemp, which grows naturally on the mountainsides. I even did a home stay in one of their homes and got to see how they live on a daily basis. It was an eye-opening experience and incredible seeing this lifestyle still existing in the 21st century. Something I will never forget!
Although I spent nearly a month here, I still feel like I only scratched the tip of the iceberg so to speak in Vietnam. There’s so much packed into this country, I don’t think it’s possible to see it all for what it is in just a single trip, or even multiple ones for that matter. I’ve heard so many stories and experiences from friends and fellow travelers of incredible places they went to that I never had the time to see. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it back to Vietnam again any time soon (so many other places in the world left to see) but if I do, it’s assuring to know that I can come back here again with so much more to discover.