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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One Week in Belize: An Island and Jungle Adventure

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My dad approached me last year with the idea of a 2018 family vacation.  I was all about it, but finding a place that would suit all five of our travel desires proved not easy.  My dad, brother, and boyfriend prefer to relax on a beach for a week (plus the first two really want to scuba dive), while my mom and I enjoy going out and doing things.  For my dad and brother living on the east coast, that usually means traveling to the Caribbean. Unfortunately the Caribbean is typically not very easy to get to (and expensive) from the west coast. I immediately thought of Belize, since it’s a little cheaper for us west coasters to get to, and about the same price for the east coasters.  In Belize I found that there is a nice combination of both beaches and mainland things to do.

We stayed for a week, with most of our time on Ambergris Caye.  My mom and I went inland to San Ignacio for two days and one night.  Here’s my Belize rundown of what we did and some helpful hints.  I will talk about money later on, but all $ is USD.   We had a great time and I loved Belize.  The people were friendly, I felt very safe, and it was a beautiful country with a wide variety of things to do.

Getting places

Ambergris Caye

To get to the Caye from the airport, you can grab a taxi to the water ferry terminal.  The taxi price for two people was $25 and I believe $5 for every subsequent person. Ferry prices are on the website.

Once at Ambergris Caye, you can take a taxi to your accommodations if you are not staying in town.  Our condo owner organized one for us and it was $30 for two people, $40 for all five of us. Once you’re at your hotel/condo/house, you can rent a golf cart.  We found that Avis was the least expensive at $190 for 6 days (not including taxes). They will even deliver/pick it up for you!  If you plan to cross the bridge on Ambergris Caye, it is $2.50 each way.  Sometimes they’re there to collect the toll, sometimes they’re not.

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Trying to figure out how to use the golf cart.

San Ignacio

We used Ron’s Belize Shuttle to get to San Ignacio.  They can pick you up from a variety of locations, and we were picked up from the water taxi terminal in Belize City.  Our drivers were very nice and it was really easy to coordinate. One driver even helped us organize a taxi to get to Xuantunich.  Price varies by how many people they have and I booked through the Belizing website (which, to be honest, was not the easiest platform to use).

Accommodations

Ambergris Caye 

We stayed at an Airbnb, about 2 miles across the bridge.

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San Ignacio 

We stayed at Martha’s Guesthouse.  It was right in the center of town, which was great for our short trip. It was very clean and the room was really cute!

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Things To Do

Ambergris Caye

Diving – The diving at Ambergris Caye is unbelievable.  The Belize barrier reef is the second largest reef system in the world (after the Great Barrier in Australia!).  We dived on this for one day and went to the Hol Chan Marine reserve for our second day. I was super impressed with the reef and I have never seen so many fish (of all different varieties) in my life at Hol Chan.  For Hol Chan, you typically do a shallow (30-40 ft) dive at the reserve and then they take you to Shark Ray Alley to snorkel. If you don’t scuba, you can also snorkel the first part, so it is great for mixed groups.  We all went on the same boat. At Shark Ray Alley, you can see some fish, but mostly very large nurse sharks, where you can get up close and personal with them. We used Sea Star Belize, and I would recommend.  The crew and divemaster were friendly and very knowledgeable.

You can also dive the Big Blue Hole, but it is a very long trip to get there (3-4 hours) and a very short dive (8-10 minutes).  We did not do this because it’s a very long trip for a short dive, and also very expensive. My dad had heard mixed reviews from other divers about it as well, so we skipped.

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Secret Beach – Secret Beach is not really a secret anymore, and it’s becoming a popular spot.  There are beach bars and it was pretty crowded (for the off-season).  It is a bit of a trek to get to though. You basically take the main road all the way until you can make a left.  Then you keep going on that road and finally you’ll hit the beach. From our condo location (which was 2 miles after the bridge), it took about 30 minutes via golf cart.  Although a lengthy and bumpy trip, it was really cool because you can wade out into the warm water for at least 100 yards. You can take your drink in the water and they have some games there as well.  

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Go into town/Belizean Arts – Town was nothing special to be honest.  We ate a few times in town and walked around a bit for souvenirs, but at night it gets a little crowded with people and golf carts.  Belizian Arts was a really nice art shop that I would highly recommend making this your first stop for significant souvenirs (aka things that are not shot glasses, magnets, etc).  I got a beautiful handmade pot.

San Ignacio

Xuantunich – My mom and I went here by ourselves (although you can take a tour).  As I said, our shuttle driver arranged a taxi for us, but you can also find taxis in the city center.  The taxi driver will drive you from San Ignacio straight to the Xuantunich parking lot (which involves crossing a really cool hand cranked bridge!).  Ours waited for us while we walked around the ruins (about an hour and a half) and then drove us back to San Ignacio for $35 total. The whole thing took about 2.5 hours.  Very cool experience and you can climb the ruins!

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Ignaua Hatchery – At the San Ignacio Resort Hotel (which was a short 10 minute walk from Martha’s Guesthouse), there is an iguana hatchery/sanctury.  They run tours on the hour and plan to spend about 45 minutes with the iguanas.  You learn a lot about them and can even pick them up and feed them!

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Barton Creek Cave tour – My mom and I took this tour and it was fantastic. We went through Kawaii Tours, and it was $85 each.  Our tour guide was Pedro and he was great! It involves a very cool drive on a very bumpy dirt road to get to the cave.  He picked us up around 8am and we were back in San Ignacio by 12:30pm. You go completely into the cave via canoe.  Might not be good for those who are claustrophobic or afraid of the dark.

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Butterfly sanctuaries – We did not have time to see these unfortunately, but there are two outside of the city that I read were very cool – Green Hills Butterfly Ranch & Chaa Creek Natural History Museum.  (Note: Google maps says Chaa Creek is a 15 min drive, but our taxi driver said it is more like 45 mins because of the roads.)

Tours, tours, tours!  – There are a whole bunch of tours you can take in San Ignacio.  The most famous being the ATM tour, which is a day long trek into a famous cave.  Possibly one of the most famous things to do in Belize. While my mom and I only did the Barton Creek Cave tour, the tour company we went with, Kawaii Tours hosts a whole variety of tours out of San Ignacio.  

AJAW Chocolate and Crafts – In town.  We did not take a tour, but stopped in for some chocolate.  SO GOOD.

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PS it was so hot/humid that this chocolate melted before we could even finish eating it.

Walk around San Ignacio – San Ignacio is pretty small, but the town is beautiful and very colorful. There is also a market that has fresh produce and other handicrafts.

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Places to eat

I found there were a lot of Mexican influences in a lot of Belizan food, and there was also a lot of seafood on Ambergris Caye.  Stewed chicken, Belizian fried chicken, and Belizian rice and beans are must-try dishes as well.  Try it all with some Marie Sharp’s hot sauce and be sure to wash it down with a Belikin, Belize’s famous beer!  Apparently another “must have” drink is the Panty Rippah, but I only saw it on the menu at Palapa’s.  It’s a simple, but delicious drink – pineapple juice and coconut rum.  Yum! I won’t review all the places we ate at unless there is something to note.  They were all delicious!

Ambergris Caye (over the bridge unless noted otherwise)

Paco’s – great quesadillas! 

The Dive Bar

Croc’s

Aji

PUR Tacos

The Truck Stop – we only had ice cream, but they also do fun things like have live music and trivia nights

Wild Mango’s (in town)

Palapa Bar and Grill (in town) – probably my least favorite food-wise, but they have a really cool bar and area where you can float on the water in tubes and drink!

(from top left: Dinner at Wild Mango’s, drinks at Aji – no shortage of tropical drinks on the Caye!, Belizian rice and beans at The Dive Bar, The Truck Stop, Palapa’s from a distance)

San Ignacio

Pop’s – great for breakfast

Ko-Ox Ha Na (Let’s Go Eat)

Erva’s

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Stewed chicken with rice and beans at Ko-Ox Ha Na

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Belizian fried chicken + a coke at Erva’s

A Few Things to Note:

The Belizian dollar is tied directly to the US dollar and has been for many years.  The cash conversion rate is two Belizian dollars to one USD in cash. Pretty easy.  When it shows up on your credit card the conversion is a little more precise.   I found that food and drinks were more or less the same prices as they are in major cities of the US on Ambergris Caye. San Ignacio was significantly cheaper. All places in Belize take USD or BZD in cash and most places take Visa credit cards. If you pay in USD, you will probably get BZD back.

We went the last week of July/first week of August.  It was definitely the low season and not crowded at all, which was great.  There was also a nice breeze (although two days were windy enough to cancel diving), and almost no bugs.  With the exception of my boyfriend claiming a few potential bites, no one got bit.

Ambergris Caye has this stuff called sea grass that washes up on shore.  From what people told us, there’s really no rhyme or reason to it; it just kind of happens year round, randomly.  It can be stinky and may put a damper on your beach or swimming time.

If you read forums as recently as a few years ago, you’ll notice it seems that Belize has had some of the world’s worst WiFi.  However when we were there I found that almost all places had WiFi, and solid WiFi at that. They have made great strides to increase their internet reach.  Our condo particularly had great WiFi that my boyfriend was able to use to do work while we were there. San Ignacio also had surprisingly good WiFi as well at our hotel.

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.