Whirlwind Week Through Vietnam

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Vietnam is a bustling, vibrant, beautiful country with a rich history.  My friend Jennifer and I went on a week long trip during the first week of October 2018.  We had an aggressive itinerary – 3 cities + 3 day tours – there is just so much to see in Vietnam!  Our main hubs were Saigon, Nha Trang, and Hanoi. Fortunately, Jennifer speaks some Vietnamese, which helped a bit. However, even if she hadn’t spoken Vietnamese, we would have still been able to easily get around. Vietnam has a mix of unique cities, beautiful beaches, and stunning nature.  It’s a wonderful country with a lot to see and AMAZING food.

Ho Chi Minh City

We started off our trip flying into Ho Chi Minh City and stayed there for three days.  No one really calls Ho Chi Minh City by its name; it’s almost always referred to as Saigon, the original name.  Saigon is fast paced, lush, and somehow gritty yet elegant at the same time. You can definitely see the French influences on the city in the layout, parks, and architecture.  

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Lil guy at Jade Emperor Pagoda

What We did in Saigon

Admire from outside/walk around – Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral, Post Office

Take tours – Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum

Jade Emperor Pagoda – beautiful Buddhist temple, busy with people in the morning stopping to pray

Ben Thanh Market – crazy huge market with food, trinkets, and lots of fake bags, sunglasses, and shoes.  This is where Jennifer’s Vietnamese helped the most by haggling to get amazing discounts!

Bitexco Financial Tower (Saigon Skydeck) for views of the city and also has a swanky top floor bar with equally spectacular views.

Mekong Delta Day Tour of Mỹ Tho through Asiana Link Travel – This tour was jam packed with a variety of activities.  While I felt it was a little “touristy”, it was still fun to take a few boat rides on the Mekong Delta, see a honey farm, and have a delicious lunch.  We also got a refreshing fresh coconut on the way back! Plus, on the way there you stop at a Vĩnh Tràng Chùa, a temple with huge Buddha statues.

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Honey + bee pollen tasting

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Vĩnh Tràng Chùa

Food

We had pho at both Pho 2000 (multiple locations) and Pho Hoa Pasteur – 260C Pasteur, Ward 8, D3.  Pho 2000 was better in my opinion.  We also drank a lot of Vietnamese iced coffee, milk tea (my favorite was peach), and ate a ton of bun cha, bahn mi, and lots of spring rolls, washing it down with some Tiger beer!  We stayed at Bay City Hotel, which was a clean, business-y hotel with a rooftop pool.  It was down the street from lots of restaurants, so the location was pretty good. Another notable place we ate at was Secret Garden – it is a rooftop restaurant and you have to go up a few flights of dingy stairs to get there, but it’s worth it!

Getting Around

We felt safe walking around Saigon.  We were on the hunt for a dessert shoppe one evening and failed to find it, and after walking around for about a half hour in the dark, we decided to hail a taxi and go home.  

I enjoy walking around cities, but we used taxis in Saigon more than I usually do since they were very cheap ($3ish USD for a ~15 min ride) and our time was limited.  One caveat – use Vinasun only.  We found those were the cheapest and the most reliable. We got in a different brand taxi and the price was 2x what we had been paying in Vinasuns, even with the meter. Most taxis go by the meter, so they are fairly reliable, and you can hail them on the street or the hotel can call you one.

Nha Trang

Nha Trang was once a sleepy fishing town, but it’s transformed itself into a bustling beach club city.

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We stayed at Mia Resort. It was a bit outside the city (a taxi ride into the city was about $20-$30 USD, so pricey!), but it was one of the few resorts in Nha Trang that are actually ON the beach.  And let me tell you, it was STUNNING.  I’m not usually a resort person, but this place was impeccable – the pool, the beach…all of it. The food was amazing (they have a Vietnamese buffet a few nights a week), as were the drinks.  For about $180 USD (we were kind of on a shoulder season), we got a huge room with an outdoor patio area, an in-room breakfast fit for a king, plus the gorgeous grounds.

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We were able to enjoy the resort, and the second day we went into the city of Nha Trang in the afternoon to see the Po Nagar Cham temple towers and have dinner.  

Hanoi

We made our way to Hanoi on VietJet and unfortunately did not arrive to our Hanoi hotel until around 2am because of flight delays.  It was very frustrating because both the flights we booked on VietJet were delayed in some form, so it made us arrive a few hours late to Nha Trang and at an obnoxiously late time in Hanoi.  The flights were outrageously cheap, but there apparently are overnight and regular trains from Saigon to Nha Trang as well.

What we did in Hanoi

We used Hanoi as a hub for two day tours – one to Nihn Binh and the other to Ha Long Bay.  We were able to see Hanoi by night and the morning before we left. We stayed at the Pearl Hanoi Hotel, which was in a great location in the old town and the Hanoi weekend night market was a short walk away, as was Hoan Kiem Lake Park and many restaurants.  The night market was super crowded with so many different things to purchase, ranging from clothes to handicrafts to snacks, and seemed to go on forever! If you are traveling around Vietnam, I would recommend waiting to get your souvenirs in Hanoi.  There seemed to be a lot more of that stuff there than the other areas.

Nihn Bihn Tour – Nihn Bihn is still a bit off the beaten path, and rightfully so.  It’s basically the middle of nowhere, but is described as a landlocked Ha Long Bay.  It’s absolutely gorgeous. On this tour, we went to a temple in Nihn Bihn, took a boat ride on river/canals in Tam Coc, and had a bike ride through the countryside.  I appreciated this tour because the bike ride was substantial and we really got to experience the town. Fair warning, the bikes suck and our tour guide was biking like he was in the Tour de France, which made me a little frustrated.  However, once he made it clear he was not going to leave me and a few other slow riders to fend for ourselves and was realizing how awesome the experience was, I was less annoyed.

Ha Long Bay via IndoChina Junk – What can I say about Ha Long Bay?  You gotta do it. It is a long, long day (the bay is 4 hours from Hanoi).  I would suggest if you have the time to stay overnight on the boat or stay closer to the bay in a city like Hai Phong, you should do it.  But, if you can only do one day, Ha Long Bay is still doable. I always find tours and driving nice because, you do get to see a lot of countryside, even if it is from the car.  Unfortunately it was a bit overcast during our tour, but it was a beautiful experience and I enjoyed the boat ride. We also got to kayak, and saw a stingray jump out of the water and a really beautiful jellyfish.

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Food

Hanoi is famous for its street food and we tried some pho at Pho Ga 26. It was amazing.  It was interesting to experience the regional differences of pho – beef in the south and chicken in the north.  We also finally got the dessert we were searching for in Saigon – coconut ice cream with toppings inside a giant coconut!   I’m not quite sure if the place had a name, but the address was at 29 Hang Than in Ba Dinh District.  We also ate at Highway4, which has a few locations.  It was a bit fancier and had some interesting Vietnamese dishes that are meant to be shared, and a cool atmosphere.  Craft beer is having a “moment” in Vietnam right now and I was able to enjoy a really delicious mango cider there.

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Overall the coffee was SO AWESOME in Vietnam.  It is typically served iced + condensed milk.  I topped off the trip with a Hanoi favorite, egg coffee! It’s basically coffee, but with an egg yolk to make the coffee super rich and creamy.  It’s surprisingly delicious.

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Other Things:

Visa – If you live in the USA, don’t forget your visa, you need one to enter Vietnam.  We got ours through the Vietnam Consulate rather than do the visa on arrival.  While more expensive ($100), it is quicker upon arrival and seemed like there would potentially be less problems.

Weather – I was honestly expecting it to rain at least once a day when we were there, but it didn’t rain once.  October is kind of a shoulder season for the north and south and I found the weather hot and humid (worse in Saigon), but overall tolerable.  It’s the start of the rainy season in Nha Trang.

Bugs – Jennifer got one bite on her foot, but we were also lathered in bug spray.  I think we saw a few mosquitoes, but didn’t really have an issue with them.

Wifi – the hotels had great wifi and many restaurants did as well!

Getting around – to get from city to city we flew (more on our VietJet experience above), and getting around cities we either walked or took taxis. Sometimes we hailed them from the street, and in some instances we booked them in advance (usually when we were to be arriving/department the airport at a weird time).  We used Hanoi Airport Transfer in both Saigon and Hanoi.  While it was a bit more expensive than getting one of the street, it was nice for a 1am arrival time at Hanoi airport to have a taxi waiting. 

In Nha Trang, the closest airport (Cam Ranh) is about 45 mins away from the city, so be prepared for a hefty bill if taking a private taxi.  They had group minivans at the airport for cheaper than a private taxi at 100,000 VND (~$4.30 USD). The only weird experiences we had with taxis (other than the 2x the price one in Saigon) was in Nha Trang. Our driver going into the city screamed obscenities at two women on a motorbike…for a very long time (we had no idea what they did wrong, but Jennifer could decipher a little).  He also at one point pulled off the main road into a neighborhood, got out of the taxi and left us there for about 5 minutes. He came running back, got back in the taxi, and we kept going. We think he had to pee.

Lastly, anywhere crossing the street in Vietnam you are basically taking your life into the hands of everyone around you.  Cars and motorbikes are everywhere and traffic lights are few and far between. It’s a steady flow of traffic, so the cars/bikes don’t necessarily stop for you if you are in the road, you have to eloquently dodge them and they do the same.  It’s kind of nuts, but eventually you’ll get the hang of it. Follow a local is the best tip I can give. There were a few instances where very nice women helped us cross the street. Hanoi was worse than Saigon, but have been in Saigon first we already had some practice!

Please note: These are based off my own experiences and are not to be taken as absolute facts.  As with anything in the world, things are subject to change at any time and your experience might not be the same as mine.  Also, all of these pictures are my own and owned by me.  Please contact me if you would like to use them.

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