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
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):
- Touchdown in Ho Chi Minh City (1-2 days max) *its cheaper than flying into Hanoi
- Hoi An (3 days) *if you want to get any custom-made clothing, you need to allow yourself at least 3 days
- Hanoi (2 days)
- Ha Long Bay (3 days, 2 nights)
ON THE ITINERARY
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.
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.
For things to do in Dalat, check out Top Five Things To Do in Dalat.
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.
For things to do in Hoi An, check out Top Five Things To Do in Hoi An.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For things to do in Hanoi, check out Top Five Things To Do in Hanoi.
Press play for a highlight reel of my time in Vietnam