Two weeks in Vietnam allowed us to explore some of the major highlights, all beginning with H: Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi an, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. I’d hoped to take the train all the way up the coast from HCMC to Hanoi but this turned out to be the most expensive option, even pricier than flying. In the end, we took two excruciating 20-24 hour bus rides between the major cities. I want to give a shout out to my old team at UNA-UK, without whose kind parting gift of iTunes vouchers I would probably not have made it through these cramped journeys with my sanity still intact. The TV at the front played a nonstop run of some random salsa dancing competition that was bliss to escape. Audiobooks for the win!
Ho Chi Minh City
I had heard negative reviews about HCMC, known by the locals as Saigon, but was positively impressed by the place. We stayed in an Airbnb with a really chilled Vietnamese guy in a residential part of town where tourists don’t go. The tower block we lived in looked out over the Saigon river and a vast spread of low rise buildings and tangle of power cables that criss-cross the city.
The area was great for eating – something I enjoyed doing very much in Vietnam, after the oily and generally unexciting food in Burma. Food stalls serving everything from fresh French baguettes to fresh oysters lined the streets. The pavements were invaded by tiny chairs and tables spilling out from family restaurants all along the street. We were spoilt for choice. On our first night, we chose the busiest, most raucous place on the street, but we dawdled at the side looking for chairs. The floor was littered with beer bottles and peanut shells and all sorts of rubbish that just gets thrown under the tiny tables as people eat and swept up later when they leave. Suddenly all the other customers started making space, pulling up chairs and ushering us in with big smiles.
They clearly do not get a lot of tourists here. We were treated like celebrities. No one actually spoke English but they all had a good try. Others pointed to their beers and gestured like they were toasting and pointed at us, which we assumed meant they were recommending their beer; a recommendation that we took them up on many times. We picked something random off the menu – noodles with beef – and it was sublime. People were particularly interested in chatting with Hugo, patting him on the back and raising their glasses to him, speaking at him in Vietnamese as though he understood. We left with big grins on our faces, all the customers in the restaurant waving us off and raising their glasses. It was so funny.
The rest of our time in Saigon was spent in more touristy areas. We did the war remnants museum, a slightly biased but extremely hard-hitting collection of photos and stories from the Vietnam war, with a particular focus on American war crimes. It is the kind of place you come out of in need of a good warm hug. We indulged in the local coffee culture, getting iced lattes in a lovely French style bistro, with a little tarte au citron. We also went out one night to a bar called acoustic, with fantastic live bands all night but horrendously expensive drinks.
Saigon felt cool. It had a good vibe and was fun to just walk around, day and night.
Hoi an has the best of both worlds: a cute, unesco world heritage town centre; plus a beautiful white sandy beach. What more could you want?
We spent the days cycling around and walking up and down the long beach. I imagined all the clothes I was going to get made by the famous tailor shops in the town, which was a total fantasy because on this trip I have neither the money nor the space to buy tailor-made silk dresses closely resembling my wedding dress but in different colours… Anyway, it was fun to imagine. In the evenings, we sat by the water’s edge in the town centre, watching the sun go down over the lovely little streets as boat women tried to entice tourists out for a 30 minute boat ride on the water, drifting through the floating candle lanterns that littered the water at night.
We also got completely addicted to Stranger Things on Netflix and were in bed by 9pm every night to indulge in this little weakness.
Rain rain rain rain rain. Rain rain rain rain rain. As a result, I didn’t see all that much of Hanoi apart from the old quarter, where we were staying. We did get to eat a lot though.
Bahn Mi became my lunch obsession – basically a baguette with meat or tofu. But they all had such amazing sauces and marinades and mmmmmmmmm.
Pho was also tasted at many establishments, the best being pho 10 just west of the lake in central Hanoi. Nothing more comforting on a rainy day than a steaming hot bowl of noodle soup.
Coffee was everywhere. And not your average coffee. Egg white coffee that was almost like a cup of coffee flavoured marshmallow. Sweet cafe sua with condensed milk. The humidity made my asthma almost unbearable (probably the nerdiest thing I’ve ever said) and apparently coffee is good for opening the airwaves. So it was all medicinal, really.
Beer. Really, really cheap beer, called “fresh beer”. At one point, the beer was actually free at this party outside a tattoo parlour celebrating it’s first birthday. Glug glug glug.
Ha Long Bay
The rain stopped just long enough to give us time to visit Ha Long Bay on an overnight boat trip. It was bliss to sit at the very front of the boat, with a cold beer, watching the bay unfold in front of your eyes.
The company we used (ethnic travel) weren’t in for the big touristy bits of the bay, so we soon lost the fleet of companion boats and disappeared between the limestone towers that rise up out of the water. We got to kayak around some of the bay, tiny against these stone giants. The water was green and looked lovely, until you started to notice all the rubbish…there is clearly a huge problem with litter collecting in the bay and a lot more serious work needs to be done to clear it up. Thankfully, we weren’t allowed to swim: despite the humidity, bathing in plastic bags wasn’t too appealing.
The evening on the boat was really chilled. We had beers on the sun deck, watching the sun go down and the stars come out, revolving slowly on the spot on the flat calm waters. It was so still and the water looked like silk, reflecting the silhouettes of the limestone islands surrounding us. The movement of the boat was soporific – we were asleep by 9pm in our little wooden cabin at the back of the boat. We’ve really gone wild on this trip.