Intro to Vietnam
Situated in South East Asia, Vietnam is a narrow country with China to the North, Laos and Cambodia to the west, and the South China Sea stretching along the entire eastern and southern boarder. Vietnam’s history goes back thousands of years but its turbulent 20th century is what most Americans are familiar with. It was a quiet French colony from the mid 19th century through the mid 20th century until it suffered a brutal occupation by the Japanese during World War II. After the war the Vietnamese rebelled against the reestablishment of French Rule in the first IndoChina War. The country was victorious in 1954 but divided politically between the communist north and capitalist south. As such, the country became part of a cold war proxy battle and American troops entered Vietnam in the early 1960s. The bloodily conflict lasted until 1975 when the Americans pulled out and South Vietnam crumbled. Its former capital, Saigon, was renamed Ho Chi Minh city in honor of the North Vietnamese leader. Hanoi, the former North Vietnamese capital, is the present capital of the united country. Sadly the victorious communist government dragged the country into impoverishment and political isolation that lasted for over a decade. Reforms started in the mid 1980s and today the US and Vietnam have normalized relations, but you’ll still need a visa. Economic reforms have helped boost the economy. If you visit today you’ll see many signs of a burgeoning free market society on the streets of every city.
Many people ask us about the general attitude towards Americans in Vietnam, partially those who remember the Vietnam War. Although we experienced zero animosity the topic did come up several times during our visit but only in South Vietnam, the losing half of the country that fought alongside the Americans. Each time it was a sad memory of a lost one or hardships faced after the war (South Vietnamese who fought against the North were banished, imprisoned, tortured, or all of the above), it was never a political discussion. There is a strong sense of Vietnamese nationalism, most likely a bye product of communism and the nations struggles against major world powers in the 20th century. While the Vietnam War might have been a defining moment of a generation here, there it was just another battle against a series of invaders. In less than 40 years a small nation of mostly farmers successfully stood up against the Japanese, the French, and the Americans. There is an understandable level of pride in that, even if your parents were on the losing side of the last encounter.
Why we went
We wanted to go to Asia and originally picked China. As we started planning the trip it seemed like such a cookie cutter route; Great Wall, Shanghai, terra-cotta soldiers, etc. We wanted more discovery, more adventure. The mystique we wanted from China we eventually found in Vietnam. Still off the regular tourist route (but rising rapidly) Vietnam is a place that until recently, most Americans would never go to.
There are no direct flights. If you come here you’re doing a long trip, minimum 10 days. From the east coast you’ll fly 12-15 hours to Tokyo, or Shanghai, or Hong Kong, or some other major Asian airport. It will be another 2-4 hr flight to Ho Chi Ming City or Hanoi. To be most efficient fly into one and out of the other. While you’re traveling around Vietnam use taxis in the city and fly for any longer distances. You also have an option to make your layover city a long weekend destination.
When we went
May of 2012. Flew into Ho Chi Ming (slept 2 nights), flew to Da Nang and drove to Hoi An (slept 3 nights), flew to Hanoi (slept 1 night), drove to Ha Long Bay (slept 1 night on a boat), drove back to Hanoi (slept 2 nights).
NOTE: YOU WILL NEED A VISA TO VISIT VIETNAM.
What we did
With Saigon in the south and Hanoi in the north, flying into one and out of the other is the best way to play your vacation. We started in Saigon where we spent two nights, then three nights in the picture perfect town of Hoi An, one night in Halong Bay, and two final nights in Hanoi.
Saigon seems to present itself as a sophisticated french colonial inspired city. Pushed against the Mekong River it’s a city full of motorbikes and unique architecture. Just crossing the street is an adventure. There are few pedestrian walkways. You just cross at a steady pace with your hand out and the motor bikes, buses, and cars, go around you.
The old South Vietnamese presidential palace is one of the top sights, as is a museum of captured or destroyed American and French military equipment. There are several other markets to explore although we found better outside the city. The most fun thing we did was a foodie motor bike tour with XO Tours. You ride around with a local college student on a Vespa for about 5 hours and sample street food from the different neighborhoods of Saigon. It’s a great way to see the city and explore places you probably otherwise wouldn’t find. It’s also a great way to chat with friendly locals (i.e. the guides) as they are eager to practice their English.
Arriving in Saigon, our taxi driver asked if we were American and told us that his father had fought with the South and the Americans during the war. His father never came home and after the war he and his mother were forced into exile in Cambodia, only returning about 10 years ago. He was quite proud that his father had fought for what he believed in and was glad that Vietnam seems to be moving into the future and putting that chapter to rest.
For whatever reason the war came up far more frequently in South Vietnam than North Vietnam. Some people in the south still aren’t allowed to own businesses if their families openly supported the South.
A big difference between Saigon and Hanoi is the amount of propaganda. In Saigon the streets are full of propaganda posters, even the presidential palace comes complete with a [45 minute!] propaganda video for you to watch. But in Hanoi there were no posters or signs saluting Ho Chi Minh, perhaps they feel the winning city doesn’t need to be reminded.
There are numerous great beach towns in Vietnam. We picked Hoi An because it literally looks like a Disney set from Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, conveniently located just south of Danang, which is about an 80 minute flight from Saigon. We used Vietnam Airways to fly between cities. Danang was an important American air base during the war. The airport has two of the biggest runaways you’ve ever seen, lined with concrete hangers for fighter jets. The bombers are long gone but the airport serves tiny commuter planes full of vacationers.
Vietnam is cheap, really cheap, and the 40 minute taxi ride from the airport to the old city runs about $10. You can also get a 3 course meal for about the same price.
Hoi An is the kind of city you could spend hours just wandering through. It’s hard to believe this place is even real. But there are no big resorts in the city and it’s not a little patch of old town stuffed into a modern city that grew around it. The place is 100% authentic.
The food here was amazing, and the ambiance of the restaurants only added to the experience. Some of the meals here were our favorite of the trip. One lunch we sat along the harbor in a box of a room eating a deconstructed take on traditional Vietnamese food, prepared by a chef who was trained by the French as an officer’s cook. Dinner was often outside under the leaves of a banana tree, or under a fan in a small family run restaurant.
Hoi An is about a 15 minute bike ride to the beach. On two different days we borrowed bikes from our hotel and peddled through the rice paddies and out to the mostly deserted beaches along the warm South China Sea.
Hoi An is also known for its fine tailors and cheap clothing. Buy more than you think you will need. We regret not getting more things made here.
If you are in Hoi An for at least three days, you absolutely must have some clothing made. The prices are amazing. Finely tailored suites for the price of a tie back home.
There are places that can make leather weekend bags — also for a fraction of the price you could get one back home.
We went to Yali Couture and Dong Silk.
One day we joined a motorbike tour of the countryside. We rode alongside dikes, through rice paddies, and stopped in a little village for typical Vietnamese coffee.
Another 80 minute flight to the north is the country’s bustling capital of Hanoi. After Hoi An we spent a quick layover night there before heading for an overnight boat cruise in Halong Bay, which is a three hours drive from Hanoi. Cruises in Halong Bay are mostly all organized the same way. The junk boat you chose for your overnight cruise provides a van to pick you up at your hotel in Hanoi, which will drive you to Halong Bay in the morning. Once on your boat, you’ll have lunch while it’s sailing out of the harbor, then you’ll spend 1 to 3 nights exploring islands, inlets and floating villages.
Halong Bay is, according to Asian mythology, the place where dragons enter and exit the Earth. When you see the place you’ll realize how easy that is to believe. In addition to the tiny islands that look like daggers of rock jetting high into the sky, the morning are often completely shrouded in fog.
The last two nights of our trip were back in Hanoi. The city feels like a young vibrant place. The heat makes you want to nap in the day and not eat until well after dark. That’s all well and good but make sure you wake up early one morning to witness a spectacle unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Every morning, just before the sun comes up the city is literally overtaken by thousands and thousands of older (read elderly) people working out. There are impromptu dance classes, group calisthenics, hula-hooping, lots of walking, and badminton games all around you.
The city is also home to the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, where you can wait in a highly scrutinized long line of people and walk by the waxy embalmed body of modern Vietnam’s founder.
Before the Vietnam war, and before communism, Vietnam was part of the French Colonial empire. This left a lasting mark on certain aspects of their culture, including food. In Hanoi French baguettes are sold in the streets all over the city.
War Remnants Museum; Saigon. Operated by the Vietnamese government the museum tells the story of the “American war” (i.e. the Vietnam War). It has very graphic pictures of Agent Orange effects, tiger cages for prisoners, US helicopters and fighter planes, and history explanations that should be taken with a grain a salt.
Reunification Palace; Saigon. Former home of the South Vietnamese President. Its the site of the end of the Vietnam War (the “fall of Saigon”) on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates.
Japanese Jade Pagoda; Saigon. Worth popping into to see an old pagoda filled with incense.
XO Tours; Saigon. A must-do motorbike foodie tour at night. Get the chance to explore Saigon via riding on the back of a motorbike driven by really nice, eager to speak English, local women. It’s not only a great way to see more of the city than what you would typically be limited to but also a way to try an array of different types of DELICIOUS street food. Highly recommended and reservation required.
NOTE: YOU WILL NEED 3 DAYS IN HOI AN FOR A TAILOR TO CREATE WHATEVER YOU WANT — SEW/ FITTINGS (several) / PICK-UP.
Market in the old town; Hoi An. Go by there EARLY in the morning to see the vendors setting up…and before the hawkers come out.
Cua Dai beach; Hoi An. About a 2.5miles from Hoi An or a 10-15 min bike ride to this South China Sea beach of Cua Dai. Views of the Cham Islands can be seen from the beach and every so often a fisherman can be seen in round bamboo woven basket boat.
Hoi An Motorbike Adventure; Hoi An. A chance to explore the countryside and see farmers working the rice paddy fields. You will drive your own motorbike.
Wake up early to visit Hoàn Kiếm Lake in the middle of the city to see a spectacle that you probably haven’t witnessed before: older Vietnamese working out at 5:30am…hula-hooping, group jazzercise, tai-chi, weight lifting, jump roping, ballroom dancing and sword dancing.
Army Museum; Hanoi.
Com Nieu Sai Gon; Saigon. Famous for its clay pot rice dish where your meal is cooked in a terra-cotta bowl and your waiter, in a dramatic fashion, cracks it open next to your table and pours a scallion and sesame sauce over it. Highly recommended.
Temple Club; Saigon. Set in an old Chinese temple and popular with expats.
Fanny’s; Saigon. Grab some ice cream in the shape of sushi.
Hoavien Brauhaus; Saigon. A Czech style beer garden tucked on a side street. Delicious lagers.
“Lunch lady”; Saigon. This is street food at its finest. This woman sets up shop literally on a sidewalk. We sat in little plastic chairs and ate the soup of the day (some type of pho with an assortment of meat and vermicelli noodles).
Cafe Ames; Hoi An. Cafe run by Mr. Kim, a former chef for the First Officer in the South Vietnam army. In a small cafe along the water, it was a perfect lunch option. The food is cheap and tasty. We had 5 courses of chicken, seafood, veggies, soup, spring rolls and flan. (52 Rue Bach Dang, Hoi An)
Brother’s Cafe; Hoi An. Try the local specialty dish, cau lau. Dine under palm trees lit with lanterns next to the river.
Mermaid Cafe; Hoi An. Try the crab wontons and prawns cooked in coconut milk with a La Rue beer. Great dinner option.
Morning Glory; Hoi An. A high end street food restaurant, nice dinner option.
Nameste; Hanoi. An Indian restaurant with a friendly owner and tasty (spicy) food.
Quan An Ngon; Hanoi. Built like an outdoor food market (but it’s indoors). Great way to try a selection of typical Vietnamese street food. Cheap…and very busy.
Green Tangerine; Hanoi. French Vietnamese restaurant with a cute outdoor dining area.
La Badiane; Hanoi. French owned, dine outside on the patio or inside in the colonial era villa.
Hotel Majestic; Saigon. Located right next to the river, we opted for a room with a small balcony. It was built in 1925 by a French architect. Great breakfast with awesome fruit options and rooftop bar as well as friendly staff.
Anantara Resort (previously known as the Life Heritage Resort); Hoi An. Located in the historic part of town, our room was right on the water which gave us a front row seat to the morning fishing activity (this was awesome). It has a fabulous breakfast and pool. Also, they offer free bike rentals (which we used every day).
Hanoi Elite Hotel; Hanoi. The friendliest staff EVER runs this small boutique hotel which is tucked away on a small alley. This place still sends me birthday wishes every year.
Sofitel Metropole Hotel; Hanoi. Luxury hotel and a great splurge. Built by French colonialists, it is ‘the’ high end place to stay. Great pool and location.