plus a quick guide to Vietnam
This trip seems like so, so long ago, and in all honesty, it kinda was. I am talking December 2016, you guys. So well, you could say, it’s been a while. However, since this is my blog, and I get to make all the rules around here, I decree that it’s appropriate to share pictures and thoughts from a vacation that happened about 15 months ago. :)
Now, with that official business taken care of, let’s move on and get to the best part, right?
This trip with friends came together alarmingly last minute. We all wanted to visit Andaman & Nicobar Islands over the Christmas break, but because of terrible weather conditions in the weeks preceding (hurricanes, flooding etc.), we decided to play it safe, and after a bit of quick discussion, chose to travel to Vietnam instead.
I think all of the logistics of the trip – visas, itinerary, reservations, flight tickets, pretty much everything – were finalised in about 10-12 days, and all of that was possible only because one of our friend’s wife took the lead in getting EVERYTHING done. Honestly, this trip wouldn’t have happened if not for her.
If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, here’s a bit of advice to you: do not underestimate the size of the country. It might look like a tiny little country on the world map, but in reality, the country is rather vast and there are so many places to visit and explore that even a month would seem like less time to do it all. At the very least, I’d suggest 10 days if you want to explore bits of both North and South Vietnam (and they are REALLY different). We did both North and South Vietnam in 6 days, and I think we really didn’t do it much justice. However, we did get a good flavor of the different aspects of the country and a fascinating glimpse of the stark contrast between North and South Vietnam, and I am positive that I’ll go back some time to explore more parts of the country.
(Less Than) 24 Hours in Hanoi
Our first stop in Vietnam was Hanoi, which is the country’s capital (I was kinda surprised to know that, actually. I always thought Ho Chi Mihn City was the capital of Vietnam!). It’s a great base for exploring North Vietnam. We reached Hanoi in the morning, and after checking into our hotel and freshening up, we decided to hit the ground running because that day was pretty much all that we had in the city.
Things to do & see:
Lake Hoan Kiem & Ngoc Son Temple: A popular local and tourist hotspot. There’s a whole legend behind it, about how Emperor Lê Lợi (a ruler in the 14th century) returned his magic sword to the Turtle God. There is also a Turtle Tower to commemorate the legend.
At one end of the lake, stands the Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain), which is dedicated to the 13th century war hero Tran Hung Dao, Confucian philosopher Nguyen Van Sieu and scholar Van Xuong. It’s connected by a gorgeous red coloured bridge, which seems to attract crazy crowds (and an insane number of selfie sticks). On the whole, the lake, and the Ly Thai To park around the lake, is a fantastic place to rest your feet and indulge in some people watching.
Watch a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre: Water-puppetry is a centuries old art in Vietnam and is typically accompanies by live music and lights. There are multiple shows at the Thang Long Theatre (which is within walking distance from the Lake Hoan Kiem) every afternoon and evening, but I’ll be honest here – I (and my friends) didn’t really enjoy the show. There’s a bit of novelty for about the first 5 minutes or so, but then it quickly wears off. I am probably stereotyping here, but I think it would appeal a lot more to older tourists.
Ta Hien Street: After the Water Puppet Show, we walked across to the Hanoi Old Quarter circle. We grabbed some snacks and yes, Vietnamese coffee at one of the rooftop bars, and after that, walked across to where the action took us. Which was basically Ta Hien Street. It’s a completely street food focused area which comes alive after 6/6.30pm. There are plenty of food stalls basically spilling across the streets, mostly serving all sorts of Vietnamese foods. In the alleyways and adjacent streets, we also found a few souvenir shops and I ended up picking a few fridge magnets and small art posters at Propoganda Art store.
Things we didn’t do/have time for: Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum, Temple of Literature, Hao Lo Prison, wandering around the Old Quarter during daylight for photographs.
After a full day of walking around the streets of Hanoi, we went over to the railway station to catch our train to Lao Cai (the train station for getting to SaPa Valley.
48 Hours in SaPa Valley
SaPa Valley was first developed by the French in the early 1920s as a hill station, to get some much needed respite from the heat and humidity of the plains. Being home to Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak (and in fact, the highest peak in the IndoChina region), SaPa Valley also became a natural destination for trekkers. The best time from a trekking point of view would be April and May – when we went in December, it was rather foggy for the better part of the day.
Things to do & see:
Arrive in style via the Victoria Express: The Victoria Express Train is a luxury train service between Hanoi and Lao Cai (which is about an hour away from SaPa town). You could get to SaPa via an overnight bus ride, or if you’re that adventurous, even on a bike, but I think the Victoria Express train service is delightful.
The interiors are done up in rich wood with most of the upholstery and furnishings in white and red, and it’s absolutely the cosiest atmosphere. The cabins are available in combination of either 2 berths or 4 berths and they also have a pantry car/service on board. Arrival at Lao Cai station is around 6am. I’d recommend booking a car transfer to take you from the station to the hotel in SaPa (when we’d travelled, a reservation on the Victoria Express was possible only if you were a guest at the Victoria SaPa Resort & Spa).
Stay at the Victoria SaPa Resort & Spa: Our hotel in SaPa was uber charming and sorta old-world in it’s look and feel. There’s a fireplace in the lobby, a pool table and since we’d gone around Christmas time, the hotel was properly decked up with Christmas decorations and it was just all over delightful. The rooms and bathrooms are rather spacious and the service is prompt and efficient. It makes for a great place to stay while in SaPa.
Trekking: While December clearly isn’t the right time to go trekking, I think in April and May, trekking through the rice paddies and through the Vietnamese villages would be lovely. SaPa is home to people from various ethnic tribes and a trek through the villages would give you a chance to get a slightly closer peek into their lives and culture.
Eat at The Hill Station: Most of our meals while in SaPa ended up being at the hotel. However, one of the afternoons, we ventured out to the main market and kinda stumbled upon The Hill Station Restaurant and ended up having one of the best afternoons there. We lounged around and ate and chatted and just had a grand time. From their menu, I’d highly recommend the banana flower salad – it was unbelievably delicious.
Take the cable car ride up to Fansipan: Fansipan is the highest peak in the Indochina region (at 3,143 mts), and while you could trek to the mountain top over a couple of days, we took the easy way out and chose to ride the cable car up to the peak. The cable car station is about a 10 minute taxi ride from the city centre. We purchased our tickets on the spot. The cable car system is one of the longest in the world (about 6.2 kms or so) and takes about 15-20 minutes one way.
The views from up above are absolutely gorgeous, and while we were cloaked in fog for the most part, it only added to the charm of the cable car ride. Once you reach the Fansipan station, there is a small food court and a store selling cold weather essentials and local souvenirs. We were absolutely unprepared for how cold and windy it would be on the mountain top and ended up buying a weatherproof jacket and gloves before venturing out to face the elements.
From the Fansipan station, it is another 500-600 steps (and about 30-40 minutes of heavy breathing and multiple stops! ps – nothing like a climb up the stairs to drive home the fact that you’re absolutely out of shape!) to get to the summit. There are multiple viewing points built at the summit, but being December, and with all that fog, we didn’t really have views for miles. I think it would be unbelievably beautiful come summer time. Anyway, we used our time up there to shoot silly boomerangs and just had an overall fantastic time.
Things we didn’t do/have time for: Homestays (it’s quite popular in the region), walk through the paddy fields.
After two full days in SaPa, we took the Victoria Express back to Hanoi, onto our next destination – Halong Bay.
Ha Long Bay Overnight Cruise
Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a super popular tourist destination in Vietnam. It’s about a 3-4 hour drive from Hanoi (we’d rented a minivan for this journey). Around midway, there is a large handicrafts outlet store (Hong Ngoc Shopping Centre) selling everything from paintings, ceramics, clothes, home decor goods, snacks and they even have a small food outlet. We did buy a few things as souvenirs at this store, but later in Ho Chi Minh City, when we were wandering around the Post Office, we realised that the goods there were significantly cheaper than the Ha Long Bay outlet.
We got dropped off at the Tuan Chau Tourist Wharf, which seems to be the embarkation point for many Ha Long Bay Cruises, and waited at the Emeraude Cafe till we were given the go ahead to board the boat (Emotion Deluxe).
Over the next 24 hours, we lounged about the boat, ate delicious Vietnamese food (so much pho!!!), and apart from a guided excursion to the Sung Sot Grotto, we didn’t really take part in any of the activities offered (mainly, kayaking).
It was a lazy cruise, and the views of the limestone islands till as far as the eye could see was a visual treat beyond words. The cruise is even prettier in the morning, as we crossed Bai Tu Long Bay through Ba Hai and Hang Ma islands.
We were back on land around 11am, and then drove back to Hanoi to catch our evening flight to Ho Chi Minh City.
36 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City
Even after having spent four days in Vietnam, I was totally unprepared for Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). The contrast between North and South Vietnam is so pronounced and the cities bear witness to their divergent pasts. North Vietnam was dominated by the communist forces, while South Vietnam was predominantly capitalist.
When we’d visited Hanoi, it came across as any other modern third-world city, with international, high-street brands/restaurant chains jostling for space alongside local establishments. However, only after visiting HCMC did we realise how much more forward the city was in contrast to its Northern counterpart. The hallmarks of capitalism were more in your face in HCMC and just so much more evident.
Things to do & see:
Visit the skybars: HCMC is dotted with numerous skybars and it is the place to hang out come sundown (and after…). We hung out at Chill skybar one night (super fun vibes, fantastic drinks and amazing views) and tried to make it to Breeze skybar on the second night, but the place had already shut by the time we got there.
All of the cafes: Seriously, though, HCMC is like cafe-central. Every street you turn, there are half a dozen cafes or so. And then there are the “apartment cafes”. Instead of renting out apartments to people, some of the apartment buildings are rented out to well, coffee shops/cafes, so you’ve basically got an entire building of coffee shops/cafes. While there are a bunch of others, the Nyugen Hue Apartment Block which is bang of the Walking Street, is one of the most popular ones. Be sure to take in the views (and photographs) of the apartment building, lit up with all of the fairy lights, from the other side of the road. Read this if you want a better understanding of what’s on each floor.
Cu Chi Tunnels: This is a good one to visit, especially for the history buffs. I would also think that Americans might be more invested in the story/history behind it. The tunnels are a part of the intricate network of underground tunnels that were used by the Vietnamese resistance against the American forces during the Vietnam war. It is war memorial these days, and makes for a fascinating day trip. You’re taken through some of the safer parts of the tunnel system, and even some of the strategy rooms. You should budget about four to five hours for the entire tour, including the travel to and from HCMC. Also, if you are so inclined, you could also buy some snake or scorpion wine, which is supposed to improve your vitality and overall health. (I said, no, thank you.) There is also a shooting range in the complex, where you can use actual guns with live bullets.
War Remnants Museum: If you want a little more history fix, you could also visit the War Remnants Museum, one of the most popular museums in HCMC. It houses some aircrafts and period military equipment along with exhibits on the conditions during the days of the war as well as a depiction of the war crimes. It’s a stark reminder of Vietnam’s conflict-filled recent past and a bit painful to view. Within the museum complex, there are a couple of stores which sell the coolest movie posters and other movie memorabilia.
Eat at Propoganda: Highly, highly recommend a meal that this amazing little restaurant. It’s located in District 1, and offers delicious modern, fusion-ish Vietnamese food. We ordered a wide variety of dishes (including a couple of vegetarian ones) and supremely pleased with the tastefulness of the food and the overall quality.
Old Architecture: Some of the oldest buildings in HCMC bear testimony to the country’s French-ruled past, like the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office building (built by Gustave Eiffel). Both of the buildings make for some gorgeous viewing and photographs too.
It seemed like our 6 days in Vietnam got over in a blink of an eye, and like there is so much more to see. Which is why I’d highly recommend that at the bare minimum, for your first visit to the country, you should consider spending at least 8-10 days, if not more.
If it helps, I’ve put down our day-by-day itinerary for you guys.
Day 1: Reach Hanoi via a connecting flight at Bangkok. Freshen up, explore Hanoi – mostly walk around Lake Hoan Keim and the Old Quarter . Take a night train to Lao Cai (Victoria Express – departs daily at 10pm, except for Saturdays).
Day 2: Reach SaPa in the morning. Explore SaPa main market, walk to Cat Cat village, back in hotel for dinner.
Day 3: Cable car ride up to Fansipan, back in SaPa town by late afternoon. Night train back to Hanoi.
Day 4: Reach Hanoi early morning. Have breakfast. Drive to Halong Bay. Board ship. Cruise around Halong Bay.
Day 5: Back on land. Drive back to Hanoi airport to take flight to HCMC. Arrive late night.
Day 6: Half day trip to Cu Chi Tunnels. Back in HCMC by evening. Walk along Walking Street, dinner at Propaganda.
Day 7: Morning flight back to Bombay.
If I was to re-plan this, I would probably drop SaPa in the interest of time (especially if I was visiting in December), and stick to Hanoi (2 days), Halong Bay (1 day), Ho Chi Minh City (3 days). Of course, I am assuming that I’m sticking with just these cities.
So there you have it. A recap of our 6 days in Vietnam. There is so much more of this beautiful country that I want to explore – I can’t wait to go back there.
Have you visited Vietnam? What was your favourite bit about the country? Or, does it figure on your bucket list in case you haven’t been there yet?