My dear readers, this is insane, but maybe it’s only me because I live in small, quiet Slovenia. The explanation of this insanity stands in daily use of 60 million scooters and 30 million cars. There is not a second that you don’t see a scooter on the street. However, if this traffic insanity won’t shock you, prepare for a culinary shock (in positive and negative sense) and financial shock (in positive sense). Prepare for a spectrum of flavors, from delicious spring rolls and amazing street food offer to sweet cucumber salad and weird animals on your plate. 4 dollars will get you 2 main courses, a coke and a beer. Well, if that is not a good deal, then I don’t know what it is.
Vietnam is really safe. I have to admit, there wasn’t one moment when I felt scared. People are friendly and if they understand what you want, they will gladly help you. Most of them speak English very poorly or not at all, so hours spending playing board game Activity might come in handy in this occasion. Well, some of them speak English very good, but their accent is so strong, you won’t understand them a thing.
Like in every Asian country the best way to travel is with a backpack and no plans. Vietnam is no exception. You can book your accommodation one day in advance or simply find it on location. I can guarantee you won’t have to sleep on the streets because sleeping capacities are as ants in their anthill – there is a lot of them. I tried both options. Some of the accommodations were booked via Booking (though I realized later that Agoda has the cheapest options) and some were chosen on location. Though the second option left me in the lurch. I don’t complicate, but I really want a clean bed and there were times when this was not the occasion. A little advice, when looking for an accommodation apply the filter exceptionally clean rooms, because I paid 8 dollars for two with breakfast and was way more satisfied than with the one for 15 dollars or more.
Three or more weeks is a minimum when traveling around Vietnam. There are so many things to see, especially if you are travelling from north to south or the other way around. I only had 16 days and decided to calmly explore north and central Vietnam. My travel itinerary was: Hanoi-Sapa-Hanoi-Halong Bay-Cat Ba-Haiphong-Da Nang-Hue-Hoi An-Hanoi. If I have had more time, I would have also visited Ninh Bihn, spent a day or more in Sapa and maybe stop by in a village or two.
Hanoi is usually your first and shocking contact with Vietnam. After a long flight you land directly into the craziness. As soon as you step out of the airport, there is a chance you will get scammed. There are many taxis waiting outside of the airport willing to take you to the city for a “cheap price” of 20 dollars. Of course you can go with them, it is the most convenient option, but you can also take a bus for 1 or 2 dollars. It’s up to you. What is actually not a bad idea is exchanging money because the airport actually had the best tariff.
For the best experience of Hanoi book an accommodation in the Old Quarter. From street food and stores that sale pretty much everything to wondering how there isn’t a massive car crash and realizing that pavements aren’t actually meant for pedestrians, you will see it all. Pavements are actually meant for chairs and tables or for exhibition of products and pedestrians are walking on the street being overtaken by many cars and scooters. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.
Exploring Hanoi wouldn’t be complete without a stroll around Hoan Kiem lake, visit in Hoa Lo prison, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Van Mineu Temple of Literature and many more. What impressed me the most was walking around the city, watching people in their everyday life, tasting different foods and drinks and simply go with the flow. You might be surprised where the city takes you.
Hanoi is also a city where street food is a must. I would recommend trying Pho (rise noodle soup, with possibility to add meat), Bahn Mi (very big and filled sandwich), spring rolls (fried are way better than fresh), Egg Coffee (due to lack of milk in 1975 egg yolks and condensed milk was used) and Bahn Xeo (my favorite dish, which is actually sizzling pancake stuffed with pork, shrimp and veggies, then later rolled with rice paper and dipped in fish sauce).
I think the essence of Hanoi isn’t going sightseeing or visiting every single possible thing, but trying to blend in and live like the Vietnamese. So make sure you also end your day like one – slowly drinking beer, chatting while sitting on a chair that is too small for your butt.
For traveling around Vietnam I used an app called Bookaway, which offers a variety of options. Due to its convenience, the price is a bit higher. If you have a sensitive stomach, take a pill or two because the roads are in bad conditions, but the drivers think they are driving on a new highway. The feeling of coming from a busy Hanoi to hilly Sapa is indescribable. With its nature, rice fields and colorfully dressed locals Sapa blows you away. For the true experience book a homestay. Homestay is a kind of accommodation offered by locals between the rice fields or up in the mountains, where you get the chance to live like a local. You can spend time with a host family, they prepare you meals, take you hiking and so on. Don’t hesitate because these things are usually fully booked. If you are not that type of person, don’t worry. You can experience everything with a hiking tour. I took part in a one-day hiking tour (there was also 2 days, which I would gladly do, but didn’t have time) and saw rice fields, seeing how green and black tea is made, visiting villages and at the end enjoying a delicious meal. If you are a true hiker and are in good shape, you can also climb the highest mountain Fansipan (3143 m) – the tour takes you 3 days. What about if you still want to reach Fansipan, but don’t have three days? No worries, a cable car will take you to the peak for “only” 65 dollars.
In the centre of Sapa you can spot some French heritage. The Sapa station building is a typical French architecture, is also a place where the train takes you to the cable car and at the same time is also a luxurious hotel.
The traffic here is not so heavy and one dares to rent a scooter to explore Sapa. You can visit Cat Cat village (it is a very touristic way of showing Vietnamese habits and has many instagramable spots to be authentic too), drive to Silver Waterfalls, visit their famous market and visiting many other villages (they charge an entrance – a dollar or two).
One special feature in Sapa is the existence of rare and small ethnic groups, not reachable by tourist and known for their weird and obsolete habits. One of them allows the abducting a woman and forceful marriage and the other one buries an infant with a mother if she died giving birth. Of course these could only be tales and stories, but we all know every culture had or still has bizarre habits and beliefs.
So, let’s break it down. I would recommend 3-4 days for Sapa, one warm hoodie (it can get cold in the evening) and lots of energy.
Prepare to be a typical tourist, but it feels nice after being a backpacker. The main activity here is cruising around Halong Bay. For a reasonable price and the most experience 2 days & 1 night cruise is the best. The cruise ship is going to take you around Halong Bay, where you can observe the fascinating nature, you are going to try all the delicious food and even learn how to make spring rolls, you are going to swim, try kayaking, do morning Tai Chi, see beautiful caves and simply follow your guide wherever he/she takes you.
I chose Maya cruise and was a bit afraid because it was the cheapest option. I couldn’t be more glad I chose as I did. It is a small cruise ship, so it was a really personal and intimate experience. The staff was very nice and helpful. We talked about where to go next and we mentioned we might stay at Cat Ba for a night or two. They offered to drop us of at the island, so we wouldn’t have to pay for the ferry. They gave us some recommendations and took us to the island with a smaller boat. That’s the beauty of not planning.
Cat Ba was one of the most amazing parts in Vietnam. The whole island is covered in national park and has only two transportive roads. This is a place where you will eat the best sea food, find the cheapest accommodation, get your feet massaged for a funny price and get a chance to party because Happy Hour lasts the entire night.
The entrance for the national park is around 3-4 dollars and it also includes the visit of a cave nearby. So make sure to go to the national park first and then to the cave, otherwise you will pay double. Make sure you wear sports clothes and good shoes and DO NOT forget water. Some parts of the path are very tight and difficult, but even if it was completely straight and easy you are still going to sweat like a pig due to the climate. To the lookout tower it will take you around 40 minutes, but don’t stop there. Most of the visitors do, but if you walk 5 minutes further you are going to reach the highest point of the national park. Instead of trying to find a place in the tower, you will have the peak all to yourself. As I mentioned later you can visit a cave (it is a smaller version of Postojna cave in Slovenia, if you have heard about it) and a Hospital cave (extra charge), which was used to be a shelter for injured soldiers.
Cat Ba also provides beautiful beaches called Cat Ba 1, 2 and 3, but soon Cat Ba 2 won’t exist anymore due to construction of a luxurious complex. I spent the entire day being lazy at Cat Ba 3, which was almost empty (I was there in the end of October). By the way don’t forget the sun screen.
What I have to mention is a Restaurant Quan Cat Ba Family restaurant, which spoiled me the entire stay on Cat Ba. Here is where you will find the best sea food on the entire island. If you want to try or eat oysters this is the right place to do so. A fisherman in Halong Bay sells them for 1 dollar for kilogram (you can imagine the profit later on) and here you can get a portion for 3-5 dollars.
I would also recommend Cat Ba Green Hotel, 9 euros for two with breakfast. The best deal and really clean hotel. They even helped us rent a scooter for 3 euros for the entire day. Deal of a life time, huh?
Later on I flew from Haiphong to Da Nang. You will find the cheapest flights using Kiwi app – I flew for 35 dollars. I only spent an evening and the next morning in Da Nang, so there was only time for Dragon Bridge, which lights up and breaths fire at 9 pm at weekend. The next morning it was time for a quick stroll down the beach and a bit swimming. If I have had more time, I would have visited Marble Mountains, Hai Van Pass and Non Nuoc beach. Many people decide to visit Ba Na Hills, but after talking to them and listening how disappointed they were, I probably wouldn’t go.
Hue is an old capital with its main feature Imperial City. Discovering this “complex of palaces” can take you an entire day, half of the day or only 4 hours – depends on the route you choose. I was discovering palaces, altars, majestic entrances and doors, beautiful gardens and big Bonsais for 5 hours and must say that there were a lot of things left unseen.
The city is also home to many emperor’s tombs, like tomb of Ming Mang, Thieu Chi and Don Khan. An
Interesting experience is also to visit the market, where you can get easily lost. Oh, and you can forget about looking at the things calmly because the sellers are going to be bombing you from every direction.
Hoi An was named the best city in the world in 2019 and I have to completely and utterly agree. Beside the romantic atmosphere given by colorful lanterns, the city is full of shops, excellent tailors and only 20 minutes of away by bike the beach awaits. As soon as it began to darken I went to the city center, where I was drooling over vivid lanterns, colorful boats and busy night life. I know I keep talking about food, but try Cao Lao (Hoi An speciality), Ban Beo (rice pudding with shrimps) and sticky black rice pudding (just yummy).
Of course I overpaid for a boat ride, but it was so romantic it was worth it.
If you want a costume made dress, skirt, blazer, practically anything, you came to the right place. The price is really good and the quality doesn’t disappoint. Even though they are fast sewers, make sure you have at least 2 or 3 days because then they will have more time and do better. You will also come in for fittings and it is really good to have some extra time.
Hoi An was the last stop before heading home. I planned on enjoying in the city, laying on the beach with a cocktail in my hand, swimming and exploring the country side with a bicycle. None of that happened because it was pouring rain the entire stay here. The roads were flooded and all my shoes were soaking wet. The last day the weather took mercy on me and gave me 5 sunny hours. I borrowed a bike (they are usually free of charge in homestay) and headed to the beach and around the city. If it hadn’t been raining I would have visited the night market, took a basket boat ride and cycled to My Son Sanctuary.
P.S. for girls: Vietnam is a paradise for new fashion pieces, so make sure you come here with an empty backpack and go back home with a full one.