When my mum heard that we were travelling to Vietnam, the first question she asked was “Is it safe?” Vietnam was formerly associated with war, but more recently has become one of the trending travel destinations and rightfully so. Described in a sentence – Vietnam is utterly compelling, filled with natural beauty, smiling locals and unique heritage sites. Each place we visited had its own character, which made travelling through the country almost addictive. Vietnam had been on the cards for a while. Looking for an affordable destination with expiring Emirates airline miles to use, it was our destination of choice for December 2016. We were limited to 10 days and carefully selected to visit Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong Bay. We unexpectedly did a day stint in Sapa too, more on this to follow.
Our adventure kicked off in bustling Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), southern Vietnam. The best way to fully appreciate any destination is on foot. We laced up our walking takkies and were ready to embrace the City. We stepped out of our hotel, with a general itinerary for the day. Believe it or not, the first challenge we faced was crossing the street. Sounds like a simplistic task, but when the city is framed by a kinetic river of traffic (mostly scooters), the simple task of crossing the road becomes extremely complex. And just when you think you’re safe from the devilish scooters by keeping to the sidewalks, you’re surprised by a scooter zooming passed you on the sidewalk too!! Ridiculous! The key to crossing the road is not by running across screeching (like I initially did), in the hope of not getting knocked down. Remain calm and cross the street confidently, the scooters will somehow manoeuvre around you. Or find a local crossing the street and keep close to their side.
HCMC is touched with glorious French colonial architecture, perfectly depicted in the Notre Dame Cathedral and the old post office. The distinctly French architecture is a fascinating glimpse into history and the fact that it is still a functioning post office makes the experience a little sweeter. Still walking, we popped into the Reunification Palace, a relic frozen in the 1970s. The not to be missed landmark is surrounded by a lush garden, while the corridors hold secrets of a war filled history. Although the palace is still used to host events (we witnessed a university graduation), the most significant event was when a war tank rammed down the iron gates, signifying the end of the Vietnam War.
There were 3 experiences that pulled at my heart in HCMC- Jumuah (Friday prayer) at the HCMC mosque, which reiterated that Islam is universal, visiting the war remnants museum and a day trip to Cu chi tunnels. The war remnants museum is a reminder of the monstrous atrocities of the Vietnam War. The museum walls are lined with factual encounters of the war, some of which are first – person narrations from war veterans. The recollections and exhibitions do not spare your feelings and I left the museum teary eyed and with a shattered heart, reminded of a life not so long ago experienced by the Vietnamese. I was astonished by the fact that despite the injustices infringed upon the Vietnamese during the war, they remain proud, warm in nature and display an optimistic attitude.
Feelings of heart wrench and astonishment were both reiterated by our visit to Cu Chi tunnels the next day. We opted for booking a half day tour, which included a guide as visiting the tunnels would be foolish and meaningless without one. En-route to Cu Chi, we stopped at a village where artisans produce exquisite, intricately handcrafted panels made with crushed egg shells. The artisans are all victims of Agent Orange, a powerful mixture of chemicals used by the US military forces during the Vietnam War, whose ramifications are still very evident presently in Vietnam. At Cu Chi tunnels we experienced claustrophobia – inducing tunnels, shooting an AK47 (I was petrified but seized the opportunity) as well a tasting Cassava (a root eaten by the Vietnamese during the war). I was fascinated as the tunnels highlighted the intelligent and savvy nature of the Vietnamese, being able to outsmart the US forces by creating a maze to live in underground.
Our evenings were spent getting lost in the bustling streets of HCMC, stopping at quaint coffee shops and stumbling across the most interesting streets one of which was an entire street lined with bookshops, with coffee shops therein. We added some culture to our experience by attending an AO show at the Opera house. The show we attended was called The Mist and told the story of a day in the life of a Vietnamese, beautifully articulated through ballet and contemporary dance. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance; the only part my husband enjoyed was the complimentary peach and lemon grass ice tea! We caught views from the Bitexco Financial Tower and did some shopping at the Ben Thanh market. Ben Thanh has a day and night market to be enjoyed.
Hoi An, a welcome stillness from HCMC, was our next stop. A week before we were scheduled for travel to Vietnam, I read about flooding in Hoi An. There had been continuous rain for weeks and the Ancient Town was approximately 1.3 meters under water. As such, I was sceptical travelling to Hoi An, unsure if the city had recuperated from the very recent flooding. I was glad to arrive to a fully operational city, with hardly any evidence of flooding.
Hoi An is ranked as my favourite city in Vietnam that we had the pleasure of touring, and most of the credit goes to the Ancient Town. It has to be one of the most graceful, romantic and atmospheric towns. Lantern lit by night, the town is laced with ancient Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese influenced architecture, hip restaurants and of course an endless amount of tailors. The historic buildings such as houses, temples and Pagodas, which have been preserved, are open for viewing. In order to view these, buy an Old Town ticket which allows you entrance into these historic sites.
For the remainder of our time in Hoi An we braved hiring a scooter from the hotel and whizzed around town, visiting the tranquil Hoi An silk village as well as a much needed relaxing day at the An Bang beach. The scooters are relatively cheap to hire for the day and safe to park outside the sites you are visiting. We even used the scooter to run errands such as fittings at the highly recommended Thu Thuy Silk tailors. The service and quality received was excellent. Our stay included a visit to My Son sanctuary, the impressive Hindu – themed ruins, likened to the Angkor Wat ruins in Cambodia.
Having a glorious time in Vietnam thus far, our luck ran out when we reached Hanoi. We were just to spend a day in Hanoi after which we were scheduled to depart on the much anticipated Halong Bay cruise, booked with Brilliant Halong Cruises Agency. Readers, please steer clear of booking a cruise through this agency. Before leaving South Africa, I received confirmation that all was in order with our cruise booking. The night before our cruise, I reconfirmed with the agency only to be informed that our cruise had been cancelled with no explanation as to why. The repercussion of this was that we had 2 nights with no accommodation or itinerary. Overwhelmed and feeling helpless, I sat on the bed and broke into tears. While travelling, the need to be agile is essential. I picked myself up, brainstormed a bit with hubby and came up with a new itinerary, which geniusly (or not so much), landed us sleeping in moving vehicles (trains and a plane) instead of hotel rooms for three consecutive nights. We ran this by the hotel concierge, who arranged the logistics for us. Within a few hours we had a new itinerary which included an extra day in Hanoi, an overnight train ride to Sapa and a day on a Halong Bay cruise.
The extra time in Hanoi was spent walking down most of Hanoi. We started at the Tran Quoc Pagoda on the water, walked to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, passed by the one pillar Pagoda, stopped at the temple of Literature, strolled by the flag tower and eventually ended with a stunning sunset at the Hoan Kiem Lake. We shopped in the streets of Hanoi Old Quarter, which interestingly enough has dedicated streets for different shopping items (bags, shoes, silk, jewellery and paintings).
Completely fagged out by all the walking, we boarded our night train to Sapa and despite being upon a noisy train, slept quite soundly through the 9 hour journey. We shared a cabin with two other people. For a higher fare there is the option of getting a private cabin. The bunk beds are fairly comfortable and the blanket provided is warm. Be sure to pack ear plugs to drown out the sounds if you are a light sleeper. The train stops at Lao Cai station, about a 45 minute uphill car ride away from Sapa.
We spent half the day trekking through the spectacular stepped rice fields of Sapa, chaperoned along the hike by 3 locals. The locals were extremely friendly, sharing their personal experiences and enquiring about ours along the way. One of our guides was eloquent in English by Vietnamese standards. We came to learn that she never understood English before and picked up the language by accompanying tourists on hikes. We bore witness to a simple life lead in Sapa, where instead of being enticed by technology, the kids played outdoors, with each other, the way kids should. We were swooned by the locals, who assisted us greatly along a hike that was quite tricky due to slippery, wet mud along the way. The only compensation they asked in return for their warmth and kindness was to buy a small token from them, which I was happy to do. I wore light grey takkies on our hike – Rookie error! Luckily these were salvaged by one of the many locals waiting to polish your shoes outside the train station, almost squeaky clean for a small fee. The extreme beauty experienced and the clean, fresh air inhaled in Sapa definitely made the 9 hour journey each way worthwhile.
Halong Bay, described by most as the highlight of Vietnam was not so for us. Make no mistake, its vast waters with thousands of towering limestone islets, make the surroundings quite a sight, but personally there were definitely better experiences we had that encompassed the true Vietnam essence more. Maybe the unfortunate encounter with the cruise agency left us with a bitter taste, so I would encourage you to visit Halong Bay hoping that your escapade will convince me otherwise.
In terms of climate, HCMC was extremely hot and humid, but the temperature was moderately cool and comfortable as we travelled up North, with Sapa being quite cold. The temperature may have reduced as we travelled from South up North, however the warmth, hospitality and customer service received only increased. We stayed at Avanti Hotel, District 1 in HCMC. The hotel was well located, opposite the Ben Thanh market and within walking distance to most of the attractions. The hotel room, albeit a bit small, was neat and sufficient for our 3 night stay. They offered a basic breakfast and had an in-house tour operator who assisted with booking our trip to Cu Chi tunnels.
In Hoi An we opted to stay closer to the Ancient Town instead of at a beach resort. Golden Bell Boutique Villa was our home away from home for 3 nights. The hotel staff were amazing and from the onset were genuinely interested in assisting and making our stay personal and pleasant. The hotel was spotless, with well furnished rooms and conveniently located (about a 15 min walk to the Ancient Town and a bike ride away from the An Bang beach and silk village). The hotel manager assisted with tailoring our tours and getting us well acquainted with our surroundings.
Just when we thought the hospitality experience couldn’t be topped, we arrived at Hanoi La Selva, located in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. I’ve never seen a hotel with a more original and artistic decor. The rooms were very spacious and the rooftop restaurant offered a glorious A La Carte menu for breakfast. While I was smitten by the décor, it was the hotel staff that made the experience at this gem top-notch. After just a few hours, each member of staff was addressing us by name at every encounter. They were kindness personified and made our stay at Hanoi La Selva truly unforgettable.
Let’s talk about food. If you have no dietary restrictions, you will be rolling out of Vietnam a good few kilos heavier than when you arrived. The food, especially the street food, looked amazing. Given that we have dietary restrictions (Halaal), all we could do most of the time was look and inhale the aroma. We managed to find Halaal food in the cities, but struggled in Hoi An and Sapa. The Vietnamese food that we did sample was flavoursome and delicately prepared with good combinations of chilli, lemon grass, spring onion, ginger and garlic. The Vietnamese coffee, sweetened with condensed milk, was utterly delicious and so were the freshly squeezed fruit juices. I would suggest packing lots of snack if you do have certain dietary restrictions. For the Halaal restaurants we managed to locate, refer to my cheat sheet.
I had a glorious time being captivated by Vietnam, its people and natural beauty. I do have regrets of certain places left unexplored due to time constraints. If you have more time than we did, I’d suggest researching the following as well:
- Mekong Delta, a drive away from Ho Chi Minh City
- Cham Islands, a boat trip away from Hoi An. We were unable to visit as tours are not operated during the rainy season (Oct to Feb)
- Spending a night on a junk in Halong Bay (as we initially intended) and a night at a Homestay in Sapa (instead of a day trip)
- Phu Quoc and Nha Trang look like excellent coastal destinations too
- Attending a cooking class and water puppet show also seems to be quite popular in Vietnam
The places we explored gave us a great overall feel of Vietnam and I would definitely recommend visiting to get your passport tattooed.
View photos from our trip here: Vietnam 12.2016