Pointy hats. Rice paddy fields. Vietnam war. Pho noodles. We didn’t know much about Vietnam other than the usual clichés. I’m often asked which country was my favourite – Vietnam definitely rates highly as one of them (because I have more than one favourite). But where to start? It was such an interesting and vibrant country, the cuisine just blew us away, there were so many things that we would never be able to get here in the UK so it was a brilliant culinary experience! Of course it wasn’t just about the food! Here’s a summary of our Vietnam highlights and lowlights.
Our Vietnam highlights
THE FOOD! We ate some of the best street food we’ve ever tasted in Asia in Vietnam, who knew you could make so many different things out of rice paper?! Or that there were so many variations of Banh Mi? Everything was so incredibly fresh, healthy and packed full of incredible flavours. And helped by the fact that everything was also extremely cheap – we could gorge on a huge dinner feast in a local establishment for less than £5 each, grab a big bowl of delicious fresh pho for lunch for £1 and at night time drink fresh and locally brewed ‘Bia Hoi’ for 20p (yes, you read that correctly). We enjoyed Bia Hoi on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) and Hanoi where everyone just sat on little plastic stools ordering bar snacks and socialising with other revelers on the streets till the early hours of the morning. We met some great people on Bia Hoi corners and in local bars, other fellow travellers or locals wanting to practice their English. It was in Hanoi that Neil got accosted to sing on the stage in a bar with the house band – twice! We also loved the markets, we gorged on all the fresh exotic fruits, luckily for me it was lychee season and I bought bunches and bunches and ate them like sweets. The seafood, especially in Mui Ne was cheap and tasty – huuuuuge tiger prawns, fresh fish, huuuuuge lobsters…I was in food heaven.
Thanks to Couchsurfing and TripAdvisor we met some awesome locals to hang out with. On Couchsurfing we met a lovely girl called Ngoc in the Southern city of Can Tho, we didn’t surf with her as she only allowed females to stay with her, instead we met up several times and not only did she arrange for us a fantastic boat tour at sunrise with a local fisherman to tour the Mekong Delta and visit the world’s largest floating market, but she also arranged for her friends Thi and Martin to be our tour guides as well. Thanks to Ngoc we only paid a third (£20) of what the local tour guides wanted for a Mekong Delta boat trip – most of which they’d pocket themselves anyway and the poor boatman would only get pittance whereas our fee went straight to our fisherman’s pocket. The boat trip was amazing, the floating market was great, and drifting along the calm and serene canals reminded us of the backwaters of Kerala in India. They also took us to see a rice noodle factory and took us out several times to try loads of famous Vietnamese dishes like Nem Nuong, Banh Xeo, Ca Loc Nuong Gion, Bun Cha, Bún thịt Nuong and a traditional Vietnamese BBQ for fresh crocodile steaks.
Thanks to TripAdvisor we found Hanoi Kids Free Tours and Hoi An Free Tours which were run by students from the local universities. The Hoi An free tours were run by students from Da Nang University who volunteered as free tour guides (we just paid for bike hire, ferry fees and gave small donations to the local vendors which all added up to less than £3 each for the day) and they took us on a bike tour around the local area of Hoi An away from the tourist hub. We met Nhanai who we hung out with after the tour, she took us to sample one of Hoi An’s famous dishes – Cao Lau noodles which were delicious. Hoi An was one of my favourite places in Vietnam because it was a fun and relaxing place to explore, was steeped in history and stunning architecture, had fantastic cooking classes and was also near one of Asia’s most beautiful beaches – An Bang Beach. Hoi An was famous for the tailoring business, we did a lot of research first and window shopping before we committed to any specific tailor since the quality of tailoring varied so much amongst the hundreds of tourist stores there. We settled for two tailors, one to make Neil’s three-piece wedding suit and a more low-key tailor to make a simple smart blazer for Neil and a jumpsuit for me. It all turned out brilliant, but only because we were meticulous with the detail and quality and made sure the tailor shops didn’t pull a fast one on us which was quite common there.
We loved exploring the country on motorbikes and scooters, Neil taught me to ride a scooter and the freedom of riding around was great but a bit risky because the locals rode like lunatics. We loved our motorbike tour around the highlands in Dalat, visiting coffee plantations and sampling more local cuisine like com tam. Parts of the highlands reminded us of the UK with the lush green farmland, the strawberries, the cute cafes and of course, the rain!
Another huge highlight of our Vietnam trip was meeting our friend Tina who came out to join us for a couple of weeks. We took her around Hoi An and then we made a trip up North to visit the very famous Halong Bay which was quite pretty, but we weren’t blessed with the best weather when we were there. Tam Coc near Ninh Binh was absolutely spectacular, it reminded us of the phenomenal karst formations of Yangshuo in China and was a rather understated place on the tourist trail which was nice, as it felt like we were off the beaten track compared to the very hectic and touristy Halong Bay.
Of course we have to mention Vietnamese people! They were so friendly and lovely! Especially so in the South. It wasn’t uncommon for groups of school and university kids to start chatting to random foreigners in the park or in tourist areas. Unlike in China where people that approached us just wanted to scam us, these were genuine youngsters who just wanted to converse and practice their English. Definitely one of the best ways to learn more about Vietnamese culture and get locals to take you to hidden gems not found in travel books.
I celebrated my 30th birthday in Vietnam. It was the perfect excuse to become ‘flashpackers’ rather than backpackers so we checked into a luxury suite in 4* hotel in Nha Trang (which was still a third of the price compared to Europe) and we treated ourselves to an amazing luxury buffet at the Sheraton Hotel next door complete with bottomless wine flight. *Hic* it was a good night….
Learning about the Vietnam war was really eye-opening. The war museums and tours around the Củ Chi tunnels were mind blowing, despite it being one of the worst yet most fundamental parts of Vietnamese history we wanted to learn what we could. The museum photos were graphic, no holds barred, uncensored and not for the faint-hearted.
Our Vietnam lowlights
Apart from the usual minor scams and hiked-up tourist prices that were prolific in all of Asian countries we visited, we didn’t really encounter any trouble that had put a dampener on our travel experience. The only thing I didn’t like was Catba Island (which Tina and I charmingly nicknamed ‘Crapba’) because it was horrendously touristy, we had constant hassle from touts, the food on the island was the worst we tasted in the whole of Vietnam, the hotels, guesthouses and boat trips were obscenely overpriced. It probably didn’t help that it was the Northern Vietnamese holiday at the time so every man and his dog were on the island too. Sure, Halong Bay was ok, but we wish we just did a day trip from Hanoi. But even then, I didn’t think it was anything that spectacular – Tam Coc was miles better in comparison in terms of beauty and an authentic Vietnamese experience, though of course there were touts in Tam Coc but it was nothing compared to the hassle we got at Crapba and Halong Bay.
Just as an observation and my own personal opinion, I found the Northern Vietnamese to be pretty rude, harsh, aggressive and scammy. Of course, not everyone was like that, since we were hopping from one tourist hub to another, we couldn’t get away from the incessant nagging and scamming from the touts. They reminded us of their Chinese neighbours, not surprising really since they border each other. We couldn’t understand why some travellers we met were scared off by the Vietnamese and vowed never to return, I understood that they started up in the North and got scammed on a Halong Bay trip, they then didn’t realise that Hoi An, Dalat, Nha Trang or Saigon were nothing like that so fled the country without travelling down to the South. My review of Halong Bay might be a bit harsh, but after being so lucky to travel around Asia, India, Nepal, Australia and New Zealand for one and a half years on this trip – of course I am a bit jaded!
Another thing we noticed in Vietnam was the fakery. Like in China, lots of fake goods were available to buy – but what was worse were fake services! I’ll write a separate blog post about it as it’s something to look out for!
We both LOVED Vietnam and would recommend anyone to go. We can’t wait to return and explore more of the country.
Places we visited: Saigon, Can Tho, Mui Ne, Dalat, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Cat Ba, Nimbin, Tam Coc & Hanoi