Wanderlist: Vietnam

My current whereabouts for the next year or so is the hauntingly beautiful, powerfully compelling Southeast Asian country of Vietnam.

My initial post-grad plans were to come to Vietnam to teach English, but the universe rerouted me to South Korea instead. Four years later, I decided (on a whim) to relocate to Ho Chi Minh City. When I touched down, the environment felt promising, speaking to my curious nature. It felt like there was something new to discover in each day, making me realize how greatly I had misunderstood and undervalued Vietnam. In the past five months, all the antiquated wartime associations that I brought with me were thrown out the window. In its stead, I’ve come to embrace Vietnam in its current, modernized form. The former colony of French Indochina has suffered at the hands of the Chinese, the French, and even the Americans in its complex narrative, yet have managed to overcome and endure. Ever since the reunification of the north and south after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnam enacted an economic policy called ‘doi moi,’ moving away from old-style Communism in favor of a socialist market economy. Today, it is in the midst of a full on renaissance. As Rough Guides aptly described: “it is a veritable phoenix arisen from the ashes.” And amazingly enough, according to the 2016 Global Peace Index, Vietnam is one out of ten countries that are conflict-free.

They say you come to Viet Nam and you understand a lot in a few minutes. But the rest has got to be lived. – Graham Greene

MAPPING OUT THE COUNTRY

wanderlist vietnam

Many people come to Vietnam and underestimate the time it needs to cover the whole country.  If you invest in a month long visa, you can slowly make your down the S-shaped passage from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. But two weeks or less and the desire to see all is a near impossibility. For those with limited time, its best to fly but domestic flights are notorious for delays. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the mover and the shaker of the industrial cities. In the last four decades, it has become a force to be reckoned with. As foreign investors have set their eyes to the south, the northern capital of Hanoi remains steadfast in preserving its precious heritage. It is the gateway to the ethnic tribes of Sapa and to mystical limestone islands of Ha Long Bay jutting out of the Gulf of Tonkin. Vietnam’s waistline tapers in the middle, making way to the coastal lowlands of Hoi An, Hue, and Da Nang. It eventually broadens, transforming into the lush Mekong Delta. The topographical complexity impresses just as much, if not more than its tumultuous history. Buddhist pagodas, junkboats, French colonial architecture, and verdant rice paddies are some of the sights to digest. From what I’ve assessed from visitors and encounters with backpackers, the country is either received as either a hit or miss. Actually, Vietnam experiences only a 5% return rate of visitors compared to its neighbor Thailand, which welcomes a 40% return rate. This means that only 5% of foreigners return to Vietnam for a second-go around. For myself, I fear that even a year’s stay would not suffice in my desire to see everything. For those with a month’s stay, design your itinerary around the outlined route on the map. For those with about ten days, here’s your condensed trip (flying strongly advised):

  1. Touchdown in Ho Chi Minh City (1-2 days max) *its cheaper than flying into Hanoi
  2. Hoi An (3 days) *if you want to get any custom-made clothing, you need to allow yourself at least 3 days
  3. Hanoi (2 days)
  4. Ha Long Bay (3 days, 2 nights)

Read more about Vietnam here:


ON THE ITINERARY

wanderlist vietnam

Junkyards sailing around the emerald waters

Sail Around Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is probably the most iconic tourist destination in Vietnam. The jagged limestone outcrops cloaked in a tangle of primeval forest have been likened to the humps of a mythical sea dragon combing the Gulf of Tonkin. The name Ha Long itself alludes to said-fantasy, roughly translating to ‘where the dragon descends to the sea’ in local vernacular. Boasting more than 1,600 limestone crags, devote at least two nights/three days to soak in the beauty of rocky pillars soaring almost 100m into the sky, being lapped at by the emerald green waters from whence they came. There are various types of vessels to choose from including the classic wooden junk boat, the traditional paddle steamer, or a luxury liner.


wanderlist vietnam

Da Lat is the home of many majestic waterfalls / Credit: Life Adventures SI

Go Canyoning in Da Lat

French colonials, Vietnamese locals, and backpackers all know what’s up with Da Lat. The year-round cool weather makes it a prime spot to escape the unrelenting heat. Coupled with rolling mountains, bubbling waterfalls, and aromatic blooms,  it feels like a true Garden of Eden. French colonial style villas painted in a fading yellow only exacerbate the already picturesque qualities. After you’ve seen the townstead, make your way by motorbike to visit all the surrounding waterfalls. On top of the Elephant Waterfalls, the lesser-known Bao Dai, Bo Bla, and Lien Khuong should be on your list if you have time to spare. Keen on learning the lay of the land from the locals? Hire Mr. Rot to take you on a “secret tour” around the area. For the adventure seekers who don’t mind heights slash getting wet, go abseiling down the waterfalls. I’ve heard Groovy Gecko Tours is your bet for canyoning, an extreme sport that involves sliding, jumping off of boulders and rappelling down rock faces through cascading waterfalls. A word of caution: please listen to your guide as the strong whirlpools have caused a number of deaths in recent years.


wanderlist vietnam

The silk lantern lights make the town a spectacle to behold come nightfall / Credit: For A Few Summers More

Enjoy the quaintness of Hoi An

Walking down the pedestrian-friendly streets of the Old Town decorated with colorful silk lanterns glowing warmly is something out of postcard rack. Hoi An is a historic gem, a synthesis of Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese influences. For those who love wandering, take a stroll along the world famous Hoai River canal at dusk. The central region’s cuisine is lauded as the country’s best for being more flavorful and bold. It is here that you can cast your vote on the best banh mi in Vietnam: some are fervent about the stock at “Banh Mi Phoung,” however “Banh Mi Queen” served up by Madam Khanh is a strong contender. You be the judge. Hoi An also has over 200 tailor shops, that usually are able to meet a 48-hour turnaround. The custom-made services especially for men are a serious wardrobe investment.


wanderlist vietnam

The world’s largest caves / Credit: Nat Geo

Camp out in Hang Son Doong

It’s kind of eerie to think that the world’s largest cave system was only discovered in 2008. Ever since Hang Son Doong was made open to the public in 2013, it has bedazzled even the most seasoned of nature enthusiasts. Just think: more people have summitted Mount Everest than have been inside the caves. The cave is so large it has its own river, jungle, and climate. With elements so otherworldly, such as swirls of mist swimming through the cavern chambers and jungle vines impregnating the subterranean rockbed, it recently became one of the filming sites of the new King Kong remake. A weeklong camping trip is tacked with a heavy pricetag since navigating its passageways requires the expert guidance.


wanderlist vietnam

Local women and their carrying poles / Credit: National Geographic

Go Sand Duning in Mui Ne

If you need any further proof at how topographically diverse Vietnam is, look no further than Mui Ne. This sleepy Southern coastal town is experiencing an influx of Russians geared to set up shop with their resorts but further north of the city center lie the majestic red and white sand dunes. The white dunes are the better of the two and if you are confident in your driving skills, take a quad bike or a dune buggy out for a spin. Steer clear of the ostrich riding (animal cruelty, duh) and the plastic sledges that children touts will try to sell. The red dunes are popular for the Fairy Spring, a stream that runs its course through the psychedelic, rubescent dunescape. If someone tries to make you pay to cross the stream, follow the path further to avoid the scam and visit early/late in the day to avoid the midday heat.


wanderlist vietnam

The beautiful tribal women of Sapa / Credit: KristyCameron

See the Beauty of Sapa

The lush, terraced rice fields of northwestern Vietnam entices backpackers who are looking for peace of mind on their respective journeying. Sapa refers to the town in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains that is accessible via a steep, multi-day trek guided by local tribespeople. The journey to Lao Cai, the portal to this remote mountainous regions, is rather arduous. One can arrive to Lao Cai via bus or train. While the bus is a quicker option, many prefer the comforts of overnight sleeper train as the roadways are somewhat treacherous. The H’mong, Tay, and Dzao are some of the indigenous folk you’ll encounter and their traditional dress is a worthy site. If time permits, make your way to surrounding remote villages such as Cat Cat, Ta Phin, and Sin Chai. The best time to go is September to mid-December right after rainy season and before the temperature begins to plummet.


wanderlist vietnam

More like a dessert than your daily dose of caffiene/ Credit: HiVietnam

Sip on a Frothy Egg Coffee in Hanoi

The intrigue Hanoi possesses over me is mostly due to the fact that it birthed many of the quintessential Vietnamese dishes such as pho and bun cha. Having been primarily exposed to Southern cuisine and culture, I’m excited to try the delicacies like egg coffee, drip coffee topped with meringue-like foam, that I would never be able to find in Ho Chi Minh. Hanoi also is home to the Temple of Literature, a university dedicated to the learnings of Confucianism, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the final resting place for the father of the nation Ho Chi Minh, who is one of several communist leaders whose body has been embalmed and put on display.


These are some of the things I plan to get crossed of the Vina bucket list in the year or so. For anyone who has a suggestion, I am open to all ideas. How does/did your Vietnam itinerary look like? With love, Izzy #wheretonext

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Izzy Pulido is a Bostonian by way of the Philippines who loves to vagabond. At twenty-seven, she’s traded in gallivanting around Europe for the 9-to-5 grind… but don’t count out the vagabonding! With a new long distance relationship, she’s bringing American travel to the forefront. She lives for good times, good food, and good peeps.

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  1. Megan Indoe

    18 July

    We were really sad we didn’t get to travel Vietnam more while we were there! We didn’t really give Vietnam enough of a chance to be completely honest. After 8 months of backpacking we were ready to call a place a home for a little while and rest, we tried to do that in Hanoi but got tricked by a few places and got over EASILY when our old boss asked if we wanted to come back to Korea with a raise…. hahaha we quickly were on a plane to Korea. After some time had passed in Korea we regretted not giving Vietnam more of a chance and all our frustrations with the place were us not being patient enough. It’s crazy because one of our favorite places we have ever been to was doing a homestay in Sapa…and we look back at our time in places like Hoi An, and although we got a bad impression of that beautiful little town (we actually wrote a not so nice post about it) there were still things we liked about it and would like to revisit, now that we had some time away and give her a second chance! This post is great, and it’s making me want to get back to Vietnam and see everything you mentioned that we haven’t gone to! I really wanted to do the Mekong Delta as well!

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      I remember you told me you felt like Vietnam was too marred by all the scams. Its all good, there are those kind of places that we kind of kick ourselves about after reflecting (me and Korea) but you can’t be too hard on yourself. Whatever path you are on right now, have faith that that’s what you needed to do. I’m all about that destiny. I feel like from what I’ve heard, Vietnam is a true hit or miss. And you’re not the only ones to hate on Hoi An. I heard its run by gangsters cause of the tourism there so you know what, you’re in the right! Your blog is your personal space to just write whatever you want you know! Its not hard-hitting journalism where the facts have to presented without bias!

  2. mark wyld

    18 July

    Great read for someone who has never been to Vietnam but harbours desire to visit sometime in the future cheers

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      Just bookmark it on pinterest 😉 That’s the beauty of comment exchanges is that you have so much material to sort through!

  3. Natasha

    19 July

    Amazing — beautiful photos. I enjoyed my time spent in Hanoi, but only was able to spend a few days in Hanoi (long-weekend holiday) I have to get back and hope to dedicate a lot more time to my travels! Thanks for sharing this helpful guide!

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      I have yet to go to Hanoi! So it totally proves that you can be in a country and not truly even scratch the surface!

  4. Nina

    19 July

    Your itinerary looks great. You are covering all the main attractions. Wish you fun and safe travels. Looking forward reading your impressions.

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      Main attractions and then some! I think its important to be comprehensive, all my wishlists are kinda waaaaay too in-depth but at least it forces you to do your research!

  5. Vietnam is one of my favourite countries – you’ve definitely covered the highlights – I did pretty much all of it apart from the islands. Also I adore the Vietnamese street food and I’m so happy you’ve included the egg coffee, pure liquid Tiramisu! I would recommend using the trains if you have longer to travel around – some of the journeys, e.g. to Sapa and along the coast from Hoi An to Hue are spectacular.

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      Which islands did you miss? You mean Phuc Quoc??Thats so awesome that you did it all though! I have yet to meet a person who’s covered the country extensively enough. Omg shushhhh that sounds too good!!! Hanoi trip cannot come soon enough! I definitely am a train kinda person so I can’t wait to check out the country pass me by from a comfy seat. I heard the Sapa train ride is absolutely exquisite!

  6. Charisse

    20 July

    I’m hoping my family makes it to Vietnam before we go back to the US. Thank you for sharing and my favorite spots would be Ha Long Bay and Da Lat. Then I would hit Hang Son Doong. We love the outdoors and those three spots sounds exciting! Ideally, I would go to all locations, but realistically I would have to be living there or have an excess amount of money (plus vacation time) saved.

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      Are you guys native Vietnamese or its just a place on your bucket list. Yes, you cannot miss Da Lat. Ha Long Bay is iconic but I think Da Lat is a true destination. The great outdoors are truly so great!

  7. Wow! That really seems like my style – trying to see it all in the shortest amount of time possible (thanks, Korean vacation periods!). Vietnam has never really appealed or called out to me, but all my friends who teach in Korea who have traveled there have had the most fantastic time. Thanks for sharing with us!

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      Yea, I feel you! At least those short vacation periods teach us how to be quick and force you to kind of try to take it all in! I actually only really was motivated to hit up Vietnam because of all the people who praised it during their summer vacations in Korea!

  8. Wendy

    20 July

    More than the detailed itinerary, it’s the photos that amazed and entertained me. Beautiful! And you really sound you’re enjoying Vietnam. Add to that your change in job which makes it more dynamic for you. Congrats!

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      I always love scouring the web for the best photo collections when doing my wishlist posts. And I am really enjoying my time here except i worry I won’t be able to see everything. The new job really does help me enjoy the city in a way I would not have originally!

  9. Shirgie Scf

    20 July

    My co-worker here in South Korea is from Ho Chi Minh. He didn’t say anything about his place though except that it’s far from Hanoi. It’s true, we underestimated Vietnam. In fact, it’s not on my bucket list. There’s a lot of places, wonderful places to go in Vietnam and I can’t wait to see it real soon.

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      Hahah very true, they are on opposite sides of the country. It would be saying something like Tuguegarao City to Mindanao, thats how far apart they are from each other. Yes I never thought I would end up here and look at where I am now!

  10. Rachel

    21 July

    I’ve been planning to check out Vietnam for a while. HCMC is the top of my list, but now you’re making me think I should set my sights on some other areas as well! Hanoi looks awesome. Hagwon vacation schedules are terrible! You only ever seem to get a week at a time which is only enough for one or two spots on a vacation.

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      If you drop by HCMC, please hit me up! I’d be happy to show you around the city! Yes, hagwon schedules were the worst thing about working. I could deal with the long hours, not so much the four day offerings to travel. That was crap 🙁

  11. Emre

    23 July

    I Haven’t traveled South East Asia yet, but when I do Vietnam is certainly high on the list. I really want to go to those caves! Thanks for giving tips on avoiding scams as well, because that part of traveling I hate the most.

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      You should save up for the caves cause I think it would be an experience unlike any other! Being scammed really does put a wrench in your trip… I know the feeling all to well :/

  12. Nicole

    23 July

    Vietnam has always fascinated me and I’ve wanted to go for a long time. Before I decided to come to Korea I actually had a picture of Halong Bay that I ripped out a lonely planet magazine on a pin board on my wall it was my main reason for wanting to come to Asia but I still haven’t been! Like you said, there is so much to see and I’d rather wait until I can devote a big chunk of time to it. One day I’ll finally get to go!

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      I love reading stories about what visuals inspired people to travel! It might be a collab post, thanks for the idea Nicole! You will get there for sure, maybe after your year is through, take some time in between contracts to just see Vietnam like you intended!

  13. Laura Nalin

    24 July

    You KNOW how I feel about Vietnam, so I loved reading this post! I like that you’ve highlighted other towns. I think most people just think of the two “main” cities, but don’t realize how MASSIVE the country is and all the beauty that lies between the two. You’ll have a wonderful time once you’re off but the time now is great to just relax while simultaneously working that tush off and save the monies!

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      I know how you feel about Vietnam aka that is why I see you here so soon one day! Yes, so many forget how many glorious cities there are here. Yes I gotta save that monies (and relax!) Traveling is really tiresome!

  14. Gina

    25 July

    I really love this itinerary and it’s a fantastic break down of the country. Your post will be published on my Facebook page tomorrow in honor of my travels to Vietnam! I’m really looking forward to Da Nang and Ha Long Bay. I can’t wait to kayak around! That egg coffee looks divine and I can’t wait to drink it!

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      Wow I feel so honored that my post gets to celebrate your next big trip! I’ve been following you on insta and you seem to be having the BEST time! 😀 😀 😀

  15. Roxy Hutton

    26 July

    Vietnam was one of our absolute favourite places to visit in SE Asia! My hubby and I were there in Winter though, and it was FREEZING cold in Sapa. We ended up feeling very trapped by the tourist element of the town and left a bit sad. But ti was a great experience and we did the night train which was actually a lot of fun. We LOVED Halong Bay and spent a few days on CatBa Island and went rock climbing (my hubby is a pro climber) so that was definitely a highlight.
    I agree with your post though, 2 weeks is definitely not enough time to even scrape the surface of this beautiful country.
    x

    • Izzy Pulido

      1 August

      I heard Sapa gets incredibly chilly! I’m hoping to go in early November while the greenery is there! Wish I had a Roxy with me to get all those fantastic shots! And yes, I heard that the dark side of tourism has really sunk its teeth into Sapa, very sad. ANd I cannot wait to do Cat Ba island! I like rock climbing too although I am so out of shape haha!

  16. Brian Young

    24 September

    Hi IZZI
    One place you missed is Da Nang and visit Ba’ Na’ Hills Mountain Resort you have got the worlds longest cable car it takes you through beautiful gardens and a giant Buddha at the top 1487 meters the views are out of this world. There is a large French style village with a church, houses, restaurants, Hotel and a large building with games and rides for all ages on the way down the scenery is breath taking with water falls and wild life. We also stayed in Hoi An it was very crowded as it was the China New Year but it was even more enjoyable because everybody was there to enjoy themselves. Also Na Trang is nice plenty of night life excellent beaches dining is also very good if you fancy western foods. The Island of Vinpearl is a must you go by cable car the longest over water. We also went to HCMC and HANOI both very different but colourful

  17. […] Wanderlist […]

  18. Vietnam never fails to amaze me. Every time I read an article about Vietnam I am amazed at how much that country has to offer. The silk lanterns and sand duning, caves and canyoning bedazzled me beyond compare.

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