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Exploring Vietnam

December 10, 2018

Like most international vacations, our planning started with Europe. But somehow, amongst visa interview dates, proper documentation and a myriad of other issues, we finally found ourselves looking at traveling to a South-East Asian country. And of course, there isn’t a dearth of choices there either. Having finally worn ourselves down to two options – Indonesia and Vietnam – we decided on Vietnam, and I couldn’t have been happier. I was finally ticking something off my travel bucket list.

I still remember the first time I decided to put Vietnam on my bucket list – I was watching a show in which Chef Luke Nyugen explores the food of his home country! The green tomato salad is a recipe I took down and tried and it was pretty amazing. And the country itself was no less. While one knows about Vietnam mainly due to the American-Vietnam War – not much more is known about this rather large, expansive country that borders Cambodia & Laos in South East Asia. A 15-day trip to Vietnam is not enough for one to explore the hidden secrets of this gorgeous and exotic location – but it is just enough for any traveler to fall in love with the country, its food, its culture and its people.

Since we were two couples – one with a 1-year old child – we decided to take it a little easy in terms of exploring and stuck to three main cities/towns one in each part of the country. The itinerary included the following:

  1. Ha Noi city (the cultural centre of Vietnam)
  2. Ha Long Bay (a UNESCO World Heritage Site)
  3. Ninh Binh (to see Tam Coc or three caves)
  4. Hoi An (the super picturesque sea-side town in Central Vietnam and the food centre of the country)
  5. Ho Chi Minh/Saigon (the economic and more cosmopolitan capital city of Vietnam)

Here’s a lowdown on what you can do when you visit Vietnam and any of these cities/towns.

Day 1

Ha Noi

We landed in Ha Noi from Dubai in the morning. Ha Noi is the cultural centre of Vietnam. A charming city in its own right, it has some amazing attractions. Divided into the Old Quarter and French Quarter – Ha Noi is known for its famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre – which is a Must Watch attraction. Located near the Hoen Kiem Lake, the show costs about $5. The Hoen Kiem Lake its self is an expansive lake with some really pretty attractions. A simple walk around the promenade will make you go wow at the street vendors selling water chestnuts, bamboo hats, etc. Go have the popular Ca Phe Trung or egg coffee at one of the café’s and definitely do not miss out on cà phê đá or the Vietnamese cold coffee complete with condensed milk. Even for a non-coffee drinker like me, it was delicious. We of course had it throughout our Vietnam trip – but Hanoi is a good start. We also visited the weekend night market – but I would skip it and focus on other smaller stores. We spent a day in Ha Noi, but you need a minimum of two days for sure to explore the city.

View of Old Quarter, Ha Noi
The gorgeous Hoen Kiem Lake

Day 2

Ninh Binh Province

Now, Ha Noi is the closest to two major attractions of Vietnam – Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh Province. Our second day was a trip to Ninh Binh province. We booked a tour directly with our hotel – and the services were quite good – it was a typical guided tour complete with a busload of people, a tour guide – who was really sweet – and different places that we were taken to. We visited two temples, which give us an idea of the history of Vietnam – but the best part of Ninh Binh was Tam Coc or three caves. Tam Coc are three caves that form tunnels in the meandering river creating a beautiful experience. Watch out for beautiful scenery, floating markets and even concerts on the banks of the river (yes!). Quite entertaining, I must say!

At one of the temples in Ninh Binh
The dock for the Tam Coc tour
My favourite pic – love how the boat riders used the oars
Floating markets
Under one of the caves
That’s me, living the life

Day 3 & 4

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay on the other hand is a whole different world. Unique limestone mountains literally rising from the aquamarine waters make up this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site. The best way to experience this wonder is through a cruise – there are scores of options and you can book them either online or even through your hotel. We booked a cruise with A Class tours – which picked us from and dropped us to our hotel. You usually pay for the entire package inclusive of activities and food. Our activities included a stop over at an island for a top of the world view of Ha Long Bay, followed by an amazing experience kayaking between the mountains and a trip to a few beautiful caves in the bay. The entire Ha Long Bay experience was a one night, two day trip – totally worth it!

Top of the world view of Halong Bay
Ha Long Bay while Kayaking
Thienh Canh Son Caves
View of Halong Bay from the Caves 
Another view of the Bay

Day 4, 5, 6

Hoi An

After our Ha Long Bay trip, we came back to Ha Noi for a quick stop to buy souvenirs and promptly rushed to the airport to fly to Da Nang, which is the closest airport to Hoi An. Hoi An is the food capital of Vietnam – a quaint town with beautiful yellow walls and buildings signifying its European history. A 2-hour drive from Da Nang, the town has a lot to offer – from its lantern-lit night markets to its beautiful fields, to its beaches – An Bang and Cham Island (an island not far from Hoi An). The best way to go around is on a cycle or scooter. The town is small and perfect to see on either of these modes of transport. It is also easier to park since most areas are mainly walking streets. Ishaaq and I also took up a cooking class with Cookly – which was an amazing experience. The chef took us to the local market, showed us the local ingredients and then took us to his farm cum home and we had a wonderful cooking class with him. The cuisine available in Hoi An includes French, Vietnamese and an odd combination ofItalian food. And there are innumerable restaurants to choose from.

The Japanese covered bridge might have been a thing of beauty in the past – but I think the view from outside is way better. Even better is the absolutely gorgeous market of Hoi An near this famous attraction complete with quaint buildings, boutique stores and my favourite yellow buildings. This was by far the most magical place for me along with Ha Long Bay. Hoi An is also known for its tailoring shops who claim to stitch your clothes within a day. Feel free to bargain and get at least something done – it will be worth it. But don’t spend all your time just after the tailoring shops – spend more time exploring the town. On another note, we stayed at a homestay in Hoi An, which is definitely worth mentioning. Flamingo Villa is a quaint and beautiful home located near the Old market in Hoi An. It is run by three sisters; the rooms are gorgeous and they go out of their way to make you comfortable. Definitely a must stay while you are in Hoi An. 

Hoi An’s Ancient Town
The local market
Local fruits of Vietnam
Fresh water crabs from Thu Bon River
Making a Vietnamese curry
Rice paper rolls! 
The gorgeous lanterns at Hoi An’s ancient town
Sticky Soft Shelled Crabs on the street (I didn’t eat them)
Outskirts of Hoi An
The Ancient town
The charming lane in the newer part of Hoi An

Day 6, 7 & 8

Ho Chi Minh/Saigon

Ho Chi Minh/Saigon is the capital of the country and is in the South. A modern city in its own right, it is known for its cosmopolitan cultural sensibilities. There is much to see in the city – the General Post office, Notre Dame Cathedral, The Reunification Palace. Bui Vien is the party street – a complete contrast to the beautiful cultural calm of Hoi An and Ha Noi – but perfect for party people. Ben Thanh market is like the ‘Crawford Market’ (ref: Mumbai) of Ho Chi Minh City – where you get everything from clothes to food. Roam the streets, soak in the culture, pop into small shops, take a massage, or take a cruise down the Saigon river. But, in my opinion, do not spend more than a day here. The Mekong river delta is the closest option to Ho Chi Minh so are the Cu Chi tunnels (a maze of tunnels created by the VietCong during the American-Vietnam War), which I think would be more interesting if you are not a city traveler.

The Notre Dame Cathedral
The General Post Office

Food of Vietnam

While we tried a lot of local cuisine, it was mostly in restaurants – because none of us could deal with the idea of eating the food on the streets without knowing what exactly it was – I am not so adventurous. But we did have beautiful local cuisine in various restaurants.

Crumbed Seafood Spring Rolls at Cau Go Vietnamese Cuisine Restaurant in Ha Noi
Deep fried rice paper spring rolls from Cau Go, Ha Noi
A selection of mushrooms in a soy jus – Cau Go, Ha Noi
Prawn Curry with amazing deep fried dumplings – D’Lions Restaurant, Ha Noi (for Halal meat)
Pho for president – D’Lions Restaurant, Ha Noi
cà phê đá or Vietnamese cold coffee – the best take away from Vietnam
Smoked Salmon Pizza at Pizza 4 Ps – a must visit in Ho Chi Minh
Tom Yum rice – at Tuk Tuk Thai Bistro in Ho Chi Minh

Tips:

  • Travel to Vietnam in slightly colder months – being a tropical country, it is really hot and sticky in summer (which is when we travelled)
  • Be ready for the internal flights to be delayed – they are rarely on time
  • The Vietnamese people are extremely hospitable and sweet – and English is not a problem
  • When booking hotels in the bigger cities, try and ensure you take a look at the area they are in in images – we didn’t have a great experience in Ho Chi Minh City – the hotel was lovely but the locality was not the best.
  • Take walking shoes; theres nothing better than exploring thecity on foot
  • Do NOT miss out on Halong Bay – its an experience of a lifetime
  • Other attractions apart from what I’ve listed here, include Mekong River Delta, Cu Chi Tunnels, Cat Ba Island, Da Nang City, Phu Quoc Island, Cham Island, etc.

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