Chào and happy holidays from Vietnam! 🇻🇳
Over the Christmas season, I spent one week exploring the country of Vietnam. 🎅
I flew into Hanoi and traveled overland as far south as Hoi An. 🚌
This country is absolutely massive, but for those of you that are short on time, this post will help give you a general idea of what you can see in only seven short days!
Now, each country has a particular set of rules when it comes to Americans traveling in their country. Prior to traveling, I always check to see if I need a visa, which is basically a piece of paper in your passport giving you permission to enter a country. If I do, I always check to see if I can apply for it online, or if I need to apply at an embassy beforehand. Depending on the US relations with that country, this process can be seamless or a total pain in the rear! For Vietnam, that procedure was quite strange. First, you have to apply for a visa beforehand using a visa service agency. It takes about 3 days for approval and they will send you a confirmation e-mail, which you must print out, along with an application, and two passport photos that you’ll be giving to the immigration office at the airport upon arrival. The cost for this service was 12 USD. The strange part was that this confirmation letter had TONS of other random names on it. It’s like they’re too lazy to give you your own paper, so they try to bundle a bunch of other requests onto one sheet instead.
The second strange part is that when you fly into Vietnam, you need 25 USD cash to pay for the visa. Why is this strange? Because Vietnam has its own currency! Why does it want American money? And it’s not just Americans that need this…if you’re Indian for example, you’ll need to bring 25 American dollars to Vietnam to pay for your visa! Now, logistically, when you arrive at the airport, you’ll present all your documents and wait in a long queue for them to process your papers. I waited almost 1 hour and 30 minutes, so be prepared.
Luckily, I wasn’t like the travelers that hadn’t applied in advance. I overheard the immigration officer tell them to either pay about 200 USD for their mistake, or fly back home. 😮
Traveling from Bangkok to Hanoi:
Now getting back to my journey. I flew into Hanoi airport, and visited the towns of Ninh Binh, Hue, Danang, and Hoi An. I stayed in hostels each night, and took one drama-filled 12-hour overnight bus, which I’ll talk about later in this post. During my time, I saw a few tourist attractions, but mainly focused on eating all the delicious Vietnamese food. 😋
In fact, I ate so much of their Vietnamese food, they wanted to BANH MI from coming back! 😂😂
Just kidding, but seriously, what was most surprising to me was that after seven days of accommodation, buses, and meals, I only spent 90 USD! So cheap! This didn’t include my flights, which were about 60 USD each way. I flew with VietJet and AirAsia, which were both delayed multiple times and only allowed 7 KG of luggage, but still a nice low-cost option.
When I arrived in my first city, Hanoi, at 8 PM on a Saturday, I immediately took the airport bus to the city center. It cost a bit more than a dollar and took about 60 minutes. I even waited with this sweet Indian couple who offered me snacks, which was so nice after waiting so long for my visa at the airport. After arriving in the city center, I tried to navigate to my hostel and really wasn’t prepared for the crowds that I saw. Coming for Bangkok, I was absolutely shocked! 😮
There were so many people sitting on the sidewalks and in the streets! The atmosphere was jovial, yet totally chaotic. Music was blasting all around me, street carts were constantly trying to push through and motorbikes were zooming by. Surrounded by the colorful Chinese lanterns, I later realized I was on the busiest avenue in town, beer street. 🍺
This somehow ended up in me joining in on a cross-dressing pub crawl, but hey, when there’s madness all around you, might as well join in on the fun! Hah! 🍺
Now, the next day was my only day of sightseeing in the city, so I decided to focus on the top attractions.
Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace and Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh was a communist revolutionary who fought against many French and Japanese militia during WWII and eventually created the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945.
FYI: France ruled Vietnam (at the time Indochina) for over six decades and you can see much of their influence in the food and architecture here. As a positive outcome, there are many beautiful European-style buildings here, a thriving cafe culture, and lots of French bakeries embedded in the cuisine.
As a con, the French colonial rule was very oppressive, and their harsh taxes left an already impoverished nation practically penniless. Anyway, although Ho Chi Minh detested what the French were doing to his people, he still valued Western ideals of governance. As a leader, he was very progressive in his values and also incredibly non-violent. He almost always sought after a peaceful solution to any problem. For this, he became of the most beloved figures in the 20th century and in his memory, the capital city was even changed to his name: Ho Chi Minh. While I didn’t visit the capital, in Hanoi you can visit his burial site and his former presidential palace.
Just be careful when visiting the mausoleum as it is heavily guarded with lots of signs and many soldiers yelling at people who aren’t following the rules.
The coolest part for me was visiting his old garage and seeing his collection of antique cars. Admission to the palace was only 2 USD, so it’s definitely worth a gander!
Notorious for its pollution, visiting this freshwater lake near the city seems to be an absolute must-do! The lake surrounds a gorgeous pagoda, and as you walk around the lake you can enjoy lots of great people watching as it seems to be where many locals like to congregate for bonding with family.
And for bonding with their fur family too! 🐶💙
I also felt like I was there during some sort of choreographed dance competition.
I thought their outfits were quite futuristic looking, but then I wandered by the local Prada store and saw this advertisement and realized I just might not be up-to-date on current fashion trends. 😂
My favorite part though was at this local McDonald’s where they had blocked off traffic and had heaps of toy cars/trucks available for kids to play with. I’m lovin’ it! 😉
Afterwards, I wandered up to West Lake, which was much less crowded and near a stunning Buddhist temple.
Getting around Hanoi:
On the whole, most people in Vietnam tend to get around with either a bicycle or scooter, but since I like to take in my surroundings and take lots of photos, I opted to walk.
This gave me the opportunity to see lots of buildings, which had an eclectic mix of European and communist-style architecture with subtle posters of propaganda. I also saw how people lived in local neighborhoods, where street haircuts, artsy cafes, and edgy street art seem to be a thing.
What to Eat/Drink in Hanoi:
Street food is epic in Vietnam, and with so much food being prepared and eaten along the streets, it seems like the sidewalk here is used for everything except walking. 😂
Bun Cha Obama
Bun cha is a regional dish served in Hanoi. It consists of flattened pork meatballs served in a sweet broth of fish sauce, vinegar, lime juice, and chili. Alongside this soup you are served a plate of vermicelli noodles and fresh greens. With your chopsticks, you dunk the leaves and noodles into the broth. As a faux pas, you should not pour everything into one bowl.
I ate this dish at Bun Cha Huong Lien, which became very famous when former President Obama and Anthony Bourdain dined here in 2016.
You can now order a Bun Cha Obama combo, which is what he ate during that meal. This order came with the bun cha soup, a fried seafood roll and a beer. The table where the two dined is now even enclosed in glass as a memorial. This is probably one of the most expensive places to eat this dish, but the grand total only came to 6 USD.
‘Pho’ means noodle soup and ‘ga’ means chicken. This soup is cooked with rice noodles, coriander, green onion, fresh cilantro, and chicken, among many other spices and sauces. It’s served with chili, lime, and garlic, and was absolutely the perfect thing for me as I was just getting over a cold. 😷
This Vietnamese coffee chain had a nice combo deal, which included a coffee and banh mi sandwich for only $1.70. Not a bad deal when you consider the nice atmosphere of each restaurant and complimentary WiFi. ☕
Banh me is a traditional Vietnamese sandwich, which can include a wide variety of fillings. This unusual one had curried chicken, mushrooms, cilantro, carrots, and potato.
They also have a very obscure list of drinks, which included teas with lotus seeds and beans. I stuck to a ‘den da’ which is a black coffee with no sugar or milk. Delicious!
I also checked out the local convenience store to pick up bus snacks and found this very French inspired sandwich at Circle K.
As I previously mentioned, due to the French influence, coffee culture is HUGE in Vietnam. 😍
Since I’m a serious coffee lover, I usually call this PERKATORY, even though I know it’s worth the wait! 😂
Traveling from Hanoi to Ninh Binh:
My hostel, Happy Feet, which only cost 3 USD per night, arranged my transportation to Ninh Binh for only 5 USD. The ride took about 3-4 hours by bus and included one stop for snacks and the toilet.
As a highlight, we passed by this random palace en route to Ninh Binh, and I also met this Egyptian traveler who came along with me for the next few days. He’s an engineer in Texas and a professional player on the national water polo kayak team.
Ninh Binh is a province blessed with lush greenery, rice fields, limestone monoliths, flowing rivers, and massive underground caves. 😍
Here are two of the top attractions to see in Ninh Binh.
What to See in Ninh Binh:
Hang Mua Viewpoint and Cave
This scenic mountainside spot gives you an absolutely stunning viewing of the surrounding landscape.
To get to the top, you’ll walk down a long paved pathway and ascend a sturdy staircase to two stunning mountaintop vantage points.
Bich Dong Pagoda
The other must-visit attraction is Bich Dong Pagoda.
This is a serene Buddhist temple with many traditional Vietnamese pagodas and shrines.
You have to do a bit of climbing to get to the top, but it’s a great spot to listen to the birds, smell the incense, and take in the scenic landscape.
Getting Around Ninh Binh:
Many people get around Ninh Binh by bicycle, but my friend Sami and I decided to walk.
It gave us a chance to appreciate the landscape, admire local homes and animals, and breathe the fresh country air. 😍
Day trip tip:
Buses typically drop off in either Ninh Binh or Tam Coc. I’d suggest Tam Coc, since it’s much closer to these two attraction. Tam Coc is a sleepy tourist town with lots of restaurants, guesthouses, and tourist booking agencies.
We took about 6 hours to visit both these places, and by about sunset, we were as sleepy as that puppy and ready to walk back to Tam Coc. 😴
Before venturing out to sight-see, we dined at this local restaurant in Tam Coc. I had Vietnamese fried spring rolls, which were loaded with flavor and only cost 1.50 USD.
This restaurant in Tam Coc also served as a local barber shop. Why not add a few inches to your waistline and cut a few inches off your hairline all in one go? 😛
After a long day of walking we went back to Tam Coc to wait for our overnight bus. At a different local restaurant, I had tofu with tomato sauce and rice, and Sami tried the local specialty, goat with lemongrass and sesame seeds. We also spotted this party bar bus, which was great entertainment while we waited. 🎵
Traveling from Hanoi to Ninh Binh:
Now before I start my rant, I just want to mention that although I may look sweet and innocent, I’ve learned to become a real you-know-what when I need to get something done.
Well, we booked and paid for two overnight bus tickets to Hue and had the tickets as a PDF on our phone. When the bus pulled up, I realized that there were more people waiting than seats available on the bus. The bus driver was pushing us aside even though we kept trying to show him our tickets, and instead let a bunch of local Vietnamese on the bus and any people that had locals with them. I even saw my friend’s name on the bus list, but the driver still wouldn’t let us on. He was almost like a bouncer at a night club. Well, knowing that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted by being pushed over, I decided just to barge right on the bus with my bag and plop down in a random seat. This seemed to work, and I was just glad to not be one of the travelers left behind. The problem came the next morning, when we hadn’t taken a toilet break ALL NIGHT, and it was near 7:30 AM and we were entering Hue. Side note: We weren’t allowed to keep our shoes on and had to put them in a plastic bag. The drivers kept alternating throughout the night and the drivers not driving had laid mattresses down on either side of my chair throwing my bags around in the process. Well, some locals were asking to get off at this point, although we hadn’t yet made it to the bus station. He let them off with no problem, so I told Sami that I really needed to get off to use the toilet. I saw on Google maps that we were close to our hostel, so as the bus driver was pumping gas, I grabbed my bag and asked to be let off the bus. He angrily swished his hand in my face yelling “No, no, no!” This made me mad, since other people had been doing this all morning. Why couldn’t I? Anyway, being the stubborn you-know-what I am, I put up a fit and marched right off the bus with my bag. Well, unfortunately, since the driver had thrown my bags during the night, I realized that one of my shoes had fallen out of the plastic bag! Oh no! This meant that I had to frickin’ get BACK onto the bus to find the shoe and then shout again to get off the bus. So ridiculous! 🤦 My friend quietly followed behind me. Later, I spoke with a different traveler who said a bus driver also got mad at her for something similar and slapped her in the face. 😮 This whole experience left a poor taste in my mouth, but I know this only represents a small fraction of the people here. On that same positive note, I’ll next talk about some of the loveliest people I met in Hue, Vietnam. 💜
Hue was the imperial city of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945. It was the epicenter of Vietnamese culture, including food, music, art, medicine, and literature. Hue is divided into two parts: a moated Citadel and a French colonial city.
Personally, I felt like Hue was the best city I visited. 💚
The street life felt very authentic and had almost Latin American vibes, where people would congregate in the local plazas to mingle with their friends. It was also incredible walkable, which was great for someone who loves discovering a city on foot.
What to See in Hue:
Undoubtedly, the main attraction in Hue is the moated Citadel and Imperial City.
They say that the Imperial City was designed according to the philosophy of feng shui, and that all the royal structures face south. Feng shui looks at the power struggle between the tiger and dragon.
Personally, I really admired all the small touches on each roof tile, wall, and piece of decor.
Because the city is so massive, you can even hire a golf cart to navigate to the different sections.
Near the exit, we also found this base, which housed old military fighter planes. Apparently, much of the city was destroyed during the war.
One of the more off-the-beaten-path attractions in Hue is the abandoned water park.
I got there on motorbike with the help of sweet locals at my hostel. The whole story behind the park is quite sad though considering the water park was only shut down due to the poor economy. Apparently, local wages are so low that most families couldn’t afford to visit and the place quickly went out of business.
I guess you can still enjoy the slides, although we didn’t have to pay some random guy 1 USD to enter the abandoned park.
It also had a scenic view of the countryside and a few local residents enjoying the park as well. 🐄
Vong Canh Hill
After visiting the park, we took the motorbikes to this scenic viewpoint over the Perfume River at sunset.
My new friend Gin was a great driver and I loved whizzing through the streets with her, and feeling the cool breeze on my face as we drove through the town hung with colorful Christmas lights.
My friend Sami wanted to check out this local noodle lady who set up her table near the bridge by Dong Ba Market.
The soup had a thick, greasy broth, lots of fat chunks, organs, chili, onion, and some random meats…and leaves that fell from the tree above 😂, but I felt like it was as authentic as I could get. Bottoms up!
This banh mi lady in Hue means serious business. She serves up delicious, yet simple egg and sausage sandwiches. The bread is nice and chewy, and she fills them with chopsticks using lots of cilantro, cucumber, chili and a touch of mayo.
The sweet locals that took us to the water park also showed us this PHENOMENAL local dumpling shop.
There were three different types of shrimp/pork dumplings. The first came in a small dish, and the second/third were wrapped in banana leaves. The second was made with rice flour and the third used tapioca flour, which was much more translucent. They were all topped with a chili fish sauce. Absolutely delicious!
Traveling from Hue to Hoi An:
The journey from Hue to Hoi An was arranged by my hostel, Freedom Hostel, for only 4 USD. By the way, my hostel only cost 2 USD per night and included a free breakfast. 😮
Hoi An is a strategic port city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What to See in Hoi An:
Because Hoi An is such an incredibly beautiful town, it also receives about 1.5 million tourists per year. After only a few hours in the ancient town, I felt like I was walking in some type of fabricated tourist attraction…a combination of locals trying to hawk their goods and tourists trying to get that perfect selfie. 📷🤮
There were a few beautiful temples, so the town is definitely worth a gander, but just be prepared for the imitation feel of this once authentic town. On the Japanese bridge, which links the new city to the ancient town, they are even starting to change an entry fee of 5 USD. 😮
One of the highlights of visiting Hoi An is the plethora of tailors available to make custom clothing for you to take as a souvenir. They’ll design dresses, suits, and everything in-between. Just be sure to ask around before you decide on a price.
The town also had the nicest selection of boutique souvenir shops. They had very well-made prints, pottery, and fabrics, so I’d suggest stopping here to stock up on your goodies before going home.
I enjoyed a lovely coffee beach side…a tropically delightful Christmas indeed. 🎄
To get to the beach, I also walked by gorgeous tropical plantations, people working in the fields, and got a feel for the variety of local housing in this area.
What to Eat/Drink in Hoi An:
I’m loving how each banh mi stand seems to have their own unique twist on this dish. I tried a BBQ pork and a mixed sausage banh mi filled with a sweet chili sauce. So yummy!
Since the French influence is so strong here, I also tried some egg bread at a local bakery. It was cooked with a hot dog and a sweet glaze, but was very well-balanced. I am no stranger to this hot dog craze after living in Thailand. 🌭😍
Side note on the local language: Come on…hurry up…let’s go!
Now one of the things I always try to learn when visiting a new country is how to say “hello” and “thank you”. This was difficult for me in Vietnam; however since “thank you” in Vietnamese is “cam on”, which sounds to me like a Jersey boy saying “come on!”. It always felt like I was trying to rush them, when I was really just trying to say thank you. 😂
Traveling from Hoi An to Danang:
To get to Danang I wanted to experience the local bus. It cost about 1 USD and took 1.5 hours. Easy peasy!
Danang was the last stop on my list, since it had the nearest airport where I could fly back to Bangkok. Compared to Hoi An, I felt like Danang was so underrated! The beach was spectacular and city vibe felt very vibrant. 🐚
Danang is also seated on the Han River, and the river walk almost reminded me of a mini Singapore.
What to See in Danang:
My Khe Beach is an absolute must-see when in Danang!🌴
It’s an incredible sight with the Marble Mountains and pagodas in the backdrop.
Dragon Bridge is the longest bridge in Vietnam. Apparently, on top of the nightly light show, the dragon also shoots flames from his mouth on weekends. He represents power, nobility, and good fortune. 🐉
Since one of my days in Danang was a rainy day, I opted to check out some street local art. These colorful cultural murals did bring a nice smile to my face and brightened up my day. 🧡
Cong Caphe is military-themed coffee chain in Vietnam.
Let’s be real, at this point, I was eating so much banh mi, I started using the rubber bands that were wrapped around the sandwiches to tie up my hair! Your girl’s got some issues! Hah! 😂😂
Anyway, Danang surprised me with even more unique fillings, like crunchy pork skin, pork floss, and some sort of chewy, ear-shaped ingredient. I didn’t want to ask, but it tasted superb!
I picked up a tofu noodle dish and a coffee coke. Easy, cheap, and delicious!
Le Bo Bun
Now for my last meal in Vietnam, I wanted to go out with a bang! I decided to dine at this restaurant called Thien Ly Danang-style. They had such a wide menu that I could probably go back there each day for a month and try something new. They had Vietnamese pancakes, meat skewers, fresh spring rolls, fried rice, and an assortment of noodle dishes. 🤤
Anyway, after much deliberation, I decided on Le Bo Bun. This French-inspired noodle dish is made with lemongrass beef, vermicelli noodles, mint, lettuce, coriander, carrot, peanuts, shrimp, bean sprouts, and topped with a sweet chili fish sauce and seafood egg rolls. 🤤
I loved all the strange rules on the menu, and even had to Google “Beijing Bikini” after I left.🧐 Apparently, it’s when a man pulls up his shirt to cool off….I guess it’s common in China.
So glad I Googled this AFTER eating! 😂🤮
Anyway that wraps up my eventful week in Vietnam. There were highs and lows, like with every trip, but I got to learn many things about this country that I didn’t know before. I always say, it’s better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times. Don’t take somebody else’s word for it. 😉
As a final note, please enjoy this collection of clips from my trip in Vietnam, including a snapshot of my friend’s sunset boat cruise in Ha Long Bay…a worthy side trip if you have the time!
Now I’m back in Bangkok, appreciating my own bed and shower, and enjoying time with friends.
Anyway, I’ll be having many visitors in the coming month, so stayed tuned for lots of updates on teaching and traveling in Thailand! Until then! Happy New Year everyone!