Many people I know went to Thailand. It must be a very beautiful place.
My stubborn head however thinks: I don’t want to go where everybody goes.
I decided in favour for Vietnam, a country with many faces.
Three Weeks in Vietnam
Vietnam is a tremendous elongated coastal state. The north south expansion amounts up to 1.650 km, whereas the narrowest spot in the middle of the country only has a diameter of 50 km. The coastal line sums up to imposing 3.400 km.
As a result the climate varies heavily between north and south Vietnam.
Therefore, it is a bit difficult to find the right season to travel to Vietnam. In the north you find cyclic humidity: chilly from November to April (when we went we had temperatures around freezing mark) and very hot from Mai to October. By contrast the south is tropical: warm to very hot all year long, but monsoon season from Mai to October.
However, Vietnam is always worth a trip. Cold and rain will not get stuck in your head as the major memory of your journey, but the beauty and variety of the country will. There are many transport options to get around Vietnam.
Our trip starts in the north: Hanoi
Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. It is the oldest still existing capital city in South East Asia. It appears very traditional, like an old town district in a modern metropolis. Mediaval meets the modern. When you get there you will be overpowered by the traffic. The highway from the airport into the city is already very crowded. Thousands of scooters line the streets, honking steadily. The closer you get to the city centre, the fuller the streets get, although it’s almost impossible. You find complete families of 4-5 members sharing one scooter. It’s unbelievable that accidents do not happen more often.
Our first stop is a hotel in the midst of the city. Entering the lobby we know immediately we won’t get lost. All hotels and hostels are very organized. They have several computers in the lobby (including internet connection) and offer a large choice of different trips into the environs. You don’t have to go to a tourist information. The offers at the hotels are just as good.
After a short break we get ready to explore the city. The streets, although amazingly crowded, are not too big. You even find a lot of little alleys.
In Hanoi you don’t find skyscrapers. The architecture is old-fashioned, but for that even more charming. The houses often have 3 or more floors, but are rather skinny and built directly next to each other. Most of them have a little shop on the ground floor. This is because you pay the property by the length of the pavement and it gets even cheaper when you conduct a trade.
Mostly impressed we are by the way the people in Hanoi do the wiring. From house to light post to tree and back. I do wonder how they will find the error in the right telephone line. As many wires you can see, as many scooters there are on the streets (if not even a whole lot more).
If you want to cross a street, you will find yourself in some sort of computer game avoiding to crash into approaching obstacles. Red lights only seem to be rather an advice than a rule. The trick: don’t stop walking. The people around you do see you and calcuate your steps. Once you stop, they will hit you.
Next, we want to explore the old quarter of Hanoi, which turns out to be exactly the Asia we dreamed of from afar. Still we have to be brave and watch our steps, crossing the street, but we as well need to raise our heads to have a look at the elegant old architecture. In the old town you find uncountable little stores and shops such as handicraft businesses. Most certain handicrafts own a complete street or at least block, so you find a bamboo, a paint, wooden or shoe street.
Other sights to see: Temple of Literature, a relaxing retreat from the noisy streets. // Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, located at a square where the former leader of Vietnam read the declaration of independence in 1945 // Tran Quoc Pagoda, one of the oldest pagodas in Vietnam and located right at the West Lake
You can also join various tours of Hanoi if you don’t want to wander around on your own, there are both full day and half day tours available.
Hanoi to Sa Pa
From Hanoi we take a night train up north to the area of Sa Pa (you can book tours easily at a hotel in Ha Noi) — you can also go by bus. The journey to our destination Lao Cai takes about 10 hours. That might sound worse than it is, because the couches on the train are rather comfortable plus you save money for two nights at a hotel. Anyway, the trip to Sa Pa is worth any inconvenience and you should definitely take some time to travel up the mountains. If you’re into trekking then a two day trekking tour from Hanoi to Sa Pa is highly recommended!
Located very close to the Chinese border the highlands are of endless beauty: luscious landscapes, cascading rice terraces and mysterious minority cultures. When you visit off-season, don’t forget to bring warm clothes, it can get down to 0°C. Furthermore, the winter brings fog and drizzle.
Don’t be dissapointed, if you cannot clearly see the terraces, the fog makes the landscape even more mysterious – think positive. On the first day, we make a little guided tour (about 3 hours) around the village. The largest ethnic groups in this area are the H’mong and Dzao people. The tours are guided by members of those groups and often escorted by children, who ask questions about your family or where you come from – of course, to sell goods to you later on, but they are so cute, you just cannot resist. They also tell stories about their lives and families, so the trading is not the only benefit they and you gain.
In Sa Pa we go on a day-long hiking trip. We are a very small group of 4 people accompanied by an equal number of H’mong women. Besides our bamboo walking stick, beautiful, dainty, small women are suppose to catch us, in case we slip off the track. I don’t know, how that should work, what again let the adrenalin rush through my body. I wear sneakers without treads.
The tracks at some points are not bigger than a few decimeter and I don’t even want to guess how far down you can fall slipping off the abyss. There are no handrails. At a certain point we have to hold on to the brambles, turn towards the steep face and cross the shortage laterally. What an adventure – indeed worthwhile. You get to see miraculous landscapes and can taste the way of living in the small villages of the highland.
Sa Pa to Ha Long Bay
Going back via Ha Noi our next tour takes us to Ha Long Bay (again booked at a hotel in Ha Noi), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Arriving at the bay you instantly feel like being part of Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. The scenery is just like in the movies, incredible!
Our tour guide escorts us to one of the many junks that anchor in Ha Long City. On board we move into a neat private room en suite. Real soon after leaving the harbour, limestone islets raise from the water and form a spectacular scenery.
The whole area of Ha Long Bay involves about 3.000 islets.
Leisurely we float past one karst after the other. Our first stop is a grotto named Hang Sung Sot. It is exciting to walk through and realize it must have been here for ages. Honestly, the staging is a bit corny with colourful lights, but I guess, that’s the Asian way – it’s cute.
Back on the junk we set a course for one of the many floating farms. Indeed people live off draught and shrimp farming in this area. Their homes are incrompehensible to us. It is just a little wooden house including a terrace floating on the water, but if you carefully glance through the doors and windows, you see that they are prepared with TV and all other modern amenities.
We stop at one of the farms to by some dinner. This fish is more than just fresh, it is still alive. You can pick anything you like from prawns to crayfish. Back on the boat you give your purchase to the chefs, pick some side orders and enjoy a perfect dinner on a junk in a miraculous surrounding landscape.
A little hint: before booking your trip, make sure, you don’t get on board of a karaoke junk unless you want to. We are lucky to just enjoy the smooth waves around the boat, but from afar we can hear the party going crazy.
Ha Long Bay to Ninh Binh
After our Ha Long Bay trip we leave the coast for a little trip inland. By night bus we travel to Ninh Binh. From here we want to visit the area of Tam Coc, the so called Dry Ha Long Bay.
You can either rent a scooter on your own or you “rent” a driver as well. That can be very useful, because he knows exactly where to go and in case you get along well, he will give you a more detailed insight into the life in this specific area (or might even invite you to his home). The Ha Long Bay as a UNESCO World Heritage Site revels all the fame, but the limestone islets in this area are not less impressing.
To me this scenery is even more powerful, because you get much closer to the limestone hills than at the bay. Majestically the little mountains grow from the elsewhere flat ground, which is traversed by numerous creeks and rivers.
At a little landing pier in Tam Coc, you can go on board to do a little rowing boat trip (about 2 hours). You are taken through caves and grottos. On the way you can see people harvesting rice. One great benefit this trip brings along is silence. There are no honking cars, no busy cities – just the sound of nature.
Our next destination is the former imperial capital Hué, which is packed with temples, tombs, palaces and pagodas. I have to admit, after all great things we have experienced so far, we crave for some warm weather and sun. In Hué it’s finally time to unpack your sandals.
When you walk the streets people always ask you to show you around on their motorbikes. Some might be afraid to go with strangers, but I have only made positive experiences accepting these offers. Once again I find myself on the back of a scooter trying to understand the guy in front of me. I get my private city tour and my companion patiently waits, while I have a look at the citadel.
From Hué you might want to take the train, just for fun. It’s a great experience. It is a looooong train and probably not faster than 60 km/h. The tracks run parallel to the coast line. You have a wonderful view onto the sea. Additionally you cross the climate border. Although we already had sunny days in Hué, this feels different. The blue sea, the beaches – I feel a lot warmer all the sudden.
Hue to Hoi An
The train takes us to the picturesque town of Hoi An, knows as the highlight of any trip to Vietnam. A sleepy riverside village fondly renovated after successive wars.
Hoi An can also bee seen as the capital city of handicraft in Vietnam. You can buy anthing from prints to sculptures, but the most popular branch of trade is the one of the tailors. They sew anything you wish for. Whenever you plan a trip to Vietnam, start collecting pictures of the dresses you see in magazines. Just bring those pictures and the gifted artists will sew you your costumized Oscars Night dress (Guys: take your measures. Suits are ridiculously cheap).
Since we have ordered some pieces at the tailor (some – haha. Blouses, skirts, dresses and even shoes!) we decide to stay a bit longer and book a trip to My Son, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Set within the jungle, about 55 km away from Hoi An, you will find ruins that are the most important remains of the acient kingdom Champa.
Arrive in Ho Chi Minh City
Being tired of the night bus and to save time, we book a flight from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City.
Wow! Here we are, back in civilization!
Cars, busses, flashing lights, skyscrapers and many other things a modern metropolis brings along. Saigon is Vietnam’s largest metropolis and its undisputed capital of commerce as well. What I would urgently recommend for Ho Chi Minh City is a vist at the War Museum. Everybody has seen dainting pictures of the Vietnam war, but what you find in this museum is beyond imagination. You need an extra portion of strength to walk through these rooms with the illustrations of massive destruction.
I just can’t get enough adventure and book myself a field trip on the Mekong. The way of life involving this river is incredibly fascinating. The houses are built directly by or even on the water. Some families just live on house boats. The entrances of shops lie towards the water, so you just stop in front of it with your boat.
As a spoiled western European you feel this to be strange, but for the people who live here, it’s their normal way of life. They carry their bikes on canoes. Kids sit on little Hello Kitty trycicles in a boat that takes them to the kindergarten.
My trip on a motor boat takes me through the smooth waves of the Mekong. We stop at a little island, where we do a little bike trip. That is a great experience. There are no cars on this island. Our tour guide takes us to places where people make candy and rice paper. We stop at a fancy restaurant to eat some lunch and chill in a hammock. We leave the bikes here and hop onto canoes that take us through very tiny creeks. The water is so shallow, that we have to stalk through the water instead of rowing.
Last stop: Mui Ne
Knowing I have made the right decision by going on this trip, I finally take off to Mui Ne as well. In this little village of fishermen we spend the last few days of our inspiring journey through Vietnam.
We recall the adventures we have experienced, lie on the beach and just relax.
If you’re less inclined to travel Vietnam by yourself then why not join an organised tour of the country? Check out the Vietnam Highlights tour or the Vietnam Experience tour with Contiki. They both cover a lot of the spots mentioned above.
Travel Tip shared by Landmeedchen