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Vietnam is a fascinating country to visit. After five weeks of travel, our overwhelming impression is one of redefinition. This Southeast Asian country redefines everything: cities and caves, traffic and driving, markets and commerce, music and noise. Everything is louder, faster and livelier.
Vietnam also impresses with its scenic and cultural diversity. The mountainous north feels utterly different from the river-abundant south. The rural areas are animated with water buffalo, pigs and cows. The cities are energized with steady, endless streams of motorbikes. If there is one unifying force in Vietnam, it’s Karaoke. Wherever you are, you will hear confident voices singing.
Getting around Vietnam is rather effortless. At each destination, you’ll see booking agencies that offer bus trips to other tourist destinations. You can also directly book your transit through your hostels and guesthouses. It’s a good idea to compare prices, before making a decision. And most importantly, know that listed prices are flexible. We’ve learned (rather slowly) that negotiation always works and will guarantee a discount.
The exception is Ha Giang Province. As of November 2017, the only way to complete the Ha Giang loop is by motorbike or by hiring a driver. There’s no public transit between Dong Van and Meo Vac.
Official Name: The Socialist Republic of Vietnam
Government: Communist Party-dominated constitutional republic
Regions: Vietnam is divided into 58 different provinces.
Population: 92.7 million
Tipping Etiquette: Tipping isn’t customary among the Vietnamese.
Water Quality: Poor. Only drink bottled water. Also, remember to brush your teeth with bottled water. When ordering an iced drink, make sure the ice is filtered.
Something Interesting: The largest cave in the world is located in Vietnam: Son Doong.
Chứng nào tật nấy
(Photograph: Snake Wine)
Who drinks, will drink again.
The extensive cave system of Phong Nha-Ke Bang cannot be imagined; it must be seen. Entire cities could fit inside some of these caves. But, it’s not just their size and depth that impresses. It’s their column-like stalactites and stalagmites that literally take your breath away. A stalactite is a type of formation that hangs from cave ceilings. It appears to be dripping. A stalagmite is like a stalactite, but instead of dripping from the ceiling, it rises from the cave floor. These formations are created over millions of years by the deposits of calcium carbonate from water. They vary in shape and size. Some look like bones and cake frosting, others look like cauliflower and mushrooms.
There are several different ways to visit the caves. Some can be accessed independently, and others only with a guided tour. You can:
How much time do you need? We happily spent four days in Phong Nha. Most travelers spend 2 days here.
Ha Giang Province is home to 17 different ethnic minorities, including: Tay, Dao (Yao), White Hmong, and Black Lolo. These groups intermingle weekly at regional markets, resulting in a colorful display of traditional ethnic dress and commerce. Livestock, meat, vegetables, herbs, clothing, corn and rice wine are bought and sold. The majority of the sales are negotiated by women, though men typically tend to the livestock. We visited the Meo Vac Sunday Market and the Bao Lac Market. Witnessing the market scenes felt like entering a parallel universe. Unlike so many other places, it’s not contrived, or set up for tourists. It’s real.
In Meo Vac, White Hmong men, women and children enthusiastically shop for clothing, drink rice wine, smoke out of bamboo pipes, and sell livestock. Dressed in vibrant patterned skirts, pants and sequin-decorated tops, White Hmong women shimmer as they walk. Boys carry their purchased chickens upside down. Men lead pigs and cows through the packed streets. Buyers evaluate raw meat with a poking technique. Inside the covered market area, noodle soups are prepared and devoured.
At the smaller Bao Lac market, Black Lolo, Dao (Yao), Tay and White Hmong come together every six days based on the lunar calendar to buy and sell their home-grown food.
Cities are usually anonymous places where people ignore each other. Not in Hanoi. You’ll be greeted and locals won’t hesitate to start conversations with you.
Exploring Hanoi isn’t for the faint-hearted. You’ll need nerves of steel to cross some streets, or even walk on the sidewalk. The sidewalks of Hanoi are chaotic spaces. Some operate as motorbike parking lots. Others function as wedding venues. In four days, we saw 6 different wedding tents on the sidewalk. Pedestrian streets also serve as restaurant space. You’ll see locals tightly packed together, sitting on mini-plastic stools, on the curb.
Hanoi is also a city of hidden treasures. The storefronts of Hanoi are like book covers. You can marvel at the front and make a guess about what’s inside, but until you start reading, you won’t understand it. For example, you’ll enter a restaurant, and you’ll find a hidden vintage shop on the third floor. Or, you’ll walk into a textile shop, ascend four stories, and you’ll find yourself in a café specializing in egg coffee. The old quarter is a layered labyrinth of small businesses. On one block, there are silk and North Face factory outlet shops. On the next, there are graveyard plaque and medicinal herb shops. And scattered in between, are tourist booking offices.
We explored Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay via an organized one-day tour operating out of Cat Ba Island. The tour included a guide, lunch on the boat, kayaking through caves, visiting Monkey Island, and swimming. We were surprised about how serene and secluded the experience was. Many of our friends, who had done Halong Bay tours, recommended doing an overnight tour, in order to access more remote areas of the bay. By accessing the bays from Cat Ba, there was absolutely no need to do an overnight. The whole experience was secluded and remote. Another benefit of taking a day tour from Cat Ba is the competitive pricing. You’ll only pay $15 – $20 per person.
For us, the highlight of the trip was seeing a Langur family swinging and jumping across the karst landscape. Another highlight was seeing a floating fishing village.
Cat Ba Island is the gateway to Lan Ha Bay and the secret passageway to Halong Bay. There’s plenty to do here to occupy a few days. For us, it was a great place to relax, catch up on sleep, and go on a few independent excursions.
Here are a few things we recommend:
Where to eat:
Hoi An, an old trading port, is at its most beautiful at night. Silk lanterns light up the streets and the traffic seems to die down (at least a little). The old town itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are number of historical houses, temples and assembly halls squished between tailor shops and souvenir stores. While this lantern town is indeed visually charming, the sales pitches quickly become tiresome. There’s a constant barrage from locals to get you to eat, or buy something.
The good news is that Hoi An has an exceptional food scene. We ate so well in this city. The food is fresh, flavorful and absolutely delicious. We wholeheartedly recommend:
In the Mekong Delta, the sun shines brighter and the Vietnamese smile wider. Palm trees arch over waterways and boats with painted eyes move silently over pale brown water. You’ll see trees bearing magnificent durian and jackfruit. Seafood markets, floating markets and night markets are vibrant and full of life.
The Mekong is also full of lies and secrets. Floating market commerce is disappearing as more bridges are being constructed. If you visit, you’ll likely be disappointed by the size and diversity of the floating markets. No doubt they will continue to exist as tourist attractions in the years to come. The Mekong is also a place of slaughter. Luxury European brands source exotic skins (python, crocodile) from this region of the world. It’s ghastly to witness. With consumer demand fueling this industry, more Vietnamese will begin farming animals for their skin.
We explored the Mekong independently. From Saigon, we traveled to Can Tho to visit the Cai Rang Floating Market. Next, we visited Ben Tre, before returning to Ho Chi Minh City. If you’re interested in doing a DIY tour, check out our Mekong Delta Itinerary.
White Rose Dumplings – Soft steamed rice flower dumplings filled with ground shrimp. This is a Hoi An specialty.
Bo Nuong La Lot (Beef in Betel Leaves) – these rolls are stuffed with beef and wrapped in green betel leaves.
Bún riêu – crab noodle soup. This is Hanoi’s soup speciality. It’s savory and a bit sour. It’s the perfect thing to order on a cold day.
Cơm tấm (broken rice) – fragmented rice served with grilled pork. You can get a fried egg on top too.
Cao Lau – thick noodles, roast pork, fresh herbs and croutons. Eat this in Hoi An.
Leafy Greens, or flowers stir fried with garlic and ginger – At local institutions, look for the baskets of fresh leafy greens. Menus usually list: water spinach, green mustard, pumpkin flower, watercress.
đậu sốt cà chua (Tofu in tomato sauce) – cubed tofu is stir fried with tomatoes and onion, resulting in a flavorful dish that is a good addition to a meal.
Traveling throughout Vietnam is rewarding, but at times challenging. You feel like locals are trying to sell you something all the time: guided tours, transit, tailored clothing, boat rides, etc… It’s hard to access objective (no strings attached) advice. In certain areas, selling tactics are charmless and you might feel slightly harassed. More often than we’d like to admit, we felt like we were being taken advantage of. You really need to armor yourself with knowing what things cost before engaging in a sale. The price you get is the price you negotiate for.
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