It’s actually over 3 years since I went to Vietnam, better late than never in writing up about it! This trip was March 2017.
I had a direct flight from London to Hanoi with Vietnam Airlines, an extremely reasonable flight price of around £450 return if I remember rightly. After a 12+ hour flight, I landed at 4.30am local time, and after swiftly clearing immigration (British citizens didn’t – at time of travel – require a visa for stays under 15 days) I had quite a long wait for my bag as it was basically the last one round the carousel – always a slightly worrying time! I’d arranged a transfer to my hotel in central Hanoi, and after arriving at the hotel at around 6.30am I took myself off to bed. Top tip, especially when travelling somewhere where accommodation is cheap by western standards – if you are arriving somewhere first thing in the morning, book a hotel room for the previous night so you can check in and either get some kip for a few hours, or freshen up before you start exploring. The hotel I was staying in was approx £30 per night which was worth every penny to be able to crash for a few hours.
As it turned out, I was absolutely knackered, the product of being in a job I didn’t enjoy (part of the reason I’d gone on sabbatical the year before), and at the time I’d actually just been successful in interviewing for another job in the same company which I would start shortly after returning from this trip. Much less stress and a better work/life balance, but that isn’t the topic of this blog, and as such I pretty much slept through the entire day. Fortunately I’d arrived a day early to join the trip so I didn’t miss out on that much, and it gave my body clock a chance to adjust.
After a long sleep, I awoke refreshed on the second day and after breakfasting in the hotel, I set off exploring Hanoi. One thing I had been warned about prior to this trip was that attempting to cross the street in Hanoi would be an interesting experience, certainly if you waited as you would in the U.K. for a break in the traffic, I’d still be stuck on the wrong side of the street now! It is a little unnerving basically having to walk out into traffic but, unbelievably, it works. Most people in Vietnam ride scooters as the taxes on (usually imported) cars are prohibitively expensive, and they are used to adjusting their speeds for pedestrians. After building up confidence to cross the street, I made my way to Hoan Kiam Lake and walked around it, enjoying the early morning sights including the locals enjoying some early morning yoga/meditation along the shores.
After some more wandering to a temple and to the market, I headed back to my hotel for some much needed air-con. After a short break from the heat, I ventured back outside and grabbed lunch – a delicious Bánh Mì from Banh Mi 25, one of the top-rated places for Bánh Mì in Hanoi. Bánh Mì are a delicious fusion sandwich, a baguette-style bread roll filled with pate, grilled meat, cucumber and pickled veg, and an absolute bargain with a Bánh Mì and bottle of water costing the equivalent of 75p!
In the afternoon I walked to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum complex and around the botanical gardens before retreating back to the hotel. In the evening I met the rest of the group (a G Adventures trip) and we headed out for dinner.
An early start the next morning as we headed to Halong Bay. It was a 4 hour drive punctuated by a stop at a project which creates employment for disabled people by teaching them crafts and needlework which is then sold. A very interesting idea.
We arrived at Halong Bay and boarded our overnight junk boat in time for lunch. As we set sail through the bay, the limestone karsts that we passed through reminded me a little bit of Milford Sound. I’ve since also been to Khao Sok in Thailand which was very reminiscent of Halong Bay. We sailed through the bay in the afternoon, stopping off in a couple of places including Ti Top Island where we climbed up 400 steps to take in the views.
We had dinner on the boat, all freshly made on board and plate after plate of delicious food was served up. After enjoying the stars with a couple of drinks, I retreated to bed. Another early start the following morning with breakfast at 7am before we visited a Sung Sot Cave, the largest cave in Halong Bay, which had this amazing, wave-like ceiling.
We then headed back to land and late morning got off the boat and headed on the 4 hour journey back to Hanoi. We were taking the overnight train south to Hue but had a few hours spare before then, so I went on a street food tour. If you haven’t already gathered, I absolutely loved the food in Vietnam. I think it’s the best food I’ve had anywhere, and certainly the cheapest. We wandered the streets of Hanoi, sampling lots of delicious food before ending up in Hanoi Food Culture where we had the Vietnamese speciality of egg coffee (or egg chocolate in my case as I’m not a coffee drinker)
We boarded the train in the evening, around 9pm. We were travelling in first class which comprised of 4-berth bunks with shared toilets/squats at the ends of the carriages. Second class was 6-berth bunks, followed by soft seats and hard seats (as you might recall from the Top Gear Vietnam special). I took a top bunk. The journey itself was very loud and the train was very shaky, and I don’t remember sleeping too much. The overnight train I’ve since been on in Thailand was a much more comfortable ride.
We arrived in Hue at 10.30am the next morning. It was noticeably hotter and more humid. Despite arriving early, we were able to check in to our hotel where I promptly showered before heading out for a quick wander before we went on our included trips in the afternoon. I ventured for a walk along the Perfume River before retreating to the air con ahead of our afternoon tours. Firstly we went to the Tien Mu Pagoda:
We then went to the main attraction in Hue, the Imperial Citadel. An imposing collection of buildings, and much, much larger than I imagined. The citadel was built in the early 1800s and was targeted during the Vietnam War. You can see the bullet holes from the Vietnam War in some of the walls.
We also squeezed in a visit to the Royal Tombs on an busy sightseeing afternoon.
The next morning I did a motorbike tour (as backseat passenger!) – an absolute must-do in a country where motorbikes/scooters are the primary form of transport. We were taken out to the countryside outside of Hue, seeing rice fields, monasteries and a colosseum where elephants and tigers once fought. We had an included vegetarian lunch at the monastery which was, once again, absolutely delicious.
We arrived back in Hue after lunch and then headed south over the Hai Van Pass towards Hoi An. Unfortunately it was a bit cloudier than ideal which didn’t make for the best photos, but we still saw some great views.
We arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon. Our guide took us on a brief orientation tour as we had 3 nights here to explore. We bumped into Jack Whitehall and his dad filming their Netflix travel series whilst we were wandering down tailors row – an unexpected sight! Hoi An is famous for getting cheap tailoring which can be ready in as little as 24 hours, but I didn’t partake on this occasion.
The following day we had an included excursion in the morning to Planeterra’s project here, Oodles of Noodles. This project taught local kids both the skills of cooking in a professional environment, as well as some English language. We learned to make rice pancakes, and then enjoyed a delicious bowl of noodles for lunch:
We had a free afternoon where I enjoyed walking around Hoi An old town. Sincerely the prettiest place I’ve ever been.
The next day was a free day. The weather was a bit dodgy, grey with the occasionally downpour but still very warm, so after a relaxing morning at the hotel, I went for a hot stone massage in the afternoon. £20 for a 90 minute massage was an absolute bargain, even if I was a bit sore the following day! In the evening we enjoyed a walk (and some bargains) in the night markets.
The next morning was an early start for a flight from nearby Danang to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly Saigon. Even hotter and more sticky than Hue. After checking in to the hotel mid morning, and then going for lunch to have pho (finally!), we then had a free afternoon. Ho Chi Minh City has some pretty spectacular architecture, including many remnants of the French colonial era:
The following day we had an included trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of tunnels built by the Viet Cong outside of Saigon during the Vietnam War. It was fascinating to learn about the guerilla tactics used by the Viet Cong, and amazing to see the size of the tunnels, which were utterly minuscule.
We came back to HCMC for lunch and then had a free afternoon. I decided to go to the War Remnants museum which is is a sobering affair. Be warned – there are some very graphic pictures of the effects of the chemical warfare. It was also horrifying to learn that people still live with the effects having been exposed at the time, but also because some of the effects can be passed on to offspring. A sobering reminder of the legacy of war, and well worth a visit.
That evening was our final group dinner before I left the following day. More delicious food, this time Vietnamese barbecue.
I had most of the next day free before an evening flight back to London via Hanoi. It was extremely hot and sticky again, and after a walk in the morning to the Reunification Palace and a failed attempt to find the Jade Emperor Pagoda, I retreated back to the hotel and air con and a shower before heading to the airport in the late afternoon.
So, what were my impressions of Vietnam? Genuinely part of the reason I went was after I’d seen the Top Gear Vietnam show, it looked a beautiful and fascinating country. A few people I’d met on my previous travels had also been and talked about what a wonderful country it is. And it certainly was. Everyone was friendly, I didn’t feel afraid walking around by myself, a solo female traveller (albeit on a group tour). It was very cheap – obviously I’d paid for the trip and accommodation/transport beforehand, and so all I had to buy whilst there was food, drinks, excursions and souvenirs. I was there for 10 days and spent less than £150 – and that included a $40 motorbike trip and a £20 massage. The absolute best food I’ve had anywhere I’ve been either before or since (with Peru close behind). And a fascinating, and devastating, recent history. Would absolutely recommend, and when I do go back again to South East Asia, I wouldn’t think twice about going back.