It's only fitting that my first ever post in 2020 is a rambling travel-related piece because if COVID-19 and the resulting months of quarantine have taught us anything, it is how to be introspective, not to take the good things in life for granted, and in my case, how to take risks and just go for it. So here I am, living vicariously through my old adventures and chronicling one of my most epic South-East Asia trips: Vietnam. Early in the new year of 2019 when my friends and I first started throwing ideas around for what we now consider to be our annual adventure jaunt (2020 is canceled and does not count), Vietnam seemed like a wild card. It was not at the top of anyone's bucket list and two full weeks in one corner of South-East Asia seemed excessive; we actually spent more time than I care to admit haggling about the amount of time each of us could spare for this incredible country. After a lot of back and forth, we finally settled on two weeks and to nobody's surprise, it was barely enough to scratch the surface. We had a jam-packed itinerary where we hit 9 destinations in 14 days, traveled across the length of the country, and met some of the most friendly and cheerful people, and still, there were so many sights left unseen and activities left 'undone'. The entire trip felt like a series of contradictions: it was somehow both frantically charged and languorously relaxed; everything was meticulously researched and planned months in advance, but final reservations and changes were made on the fly. Two weeks flew by in the blink of an eye and yet our final goodbyes at Hanoi International Airport felt like we had stayed at least a month. We were as thick as thieves and at the same time, mildly sick of one another. I stand by the fact that if I don’t feel this way at the end of every backpacking escape, I haven’t done it right.
Itinerary at a glance
Day #1: 9am arrival Ho Chi Minh City, explore the local area Day #2: Downtown Ho Chi Minh & Bui Vien Day #3: 6am 'limo' bus to Da lat, night market Day #4: Motorbiking, downtown Da lat & Maze Cafe Day #5: Canyoning in Da lat, 1pm bus to Nha Trang, beach club (birthday!) Day #6: Spa & mud baths, Tran Phu beach Day #7: 6am flight to Da Nang, taxi to Hoi An, An Bang beach, old town by night Day #8: Old town by day, Marble Mountains (Da Nang) Day #9: 6am flight to Hanoi, Hoan Kiem lake, old quarter nightlife Day #10: 9am bus to Cat Ba Island, Cat Ba town & local market Day #11: Lan Ha Bay day cruise Day #12: 8:30am bus to Ninh Binh, Hang Mua Cave Day #13: 1pm train from Ninh Binh back to Hanoi, french quarter Day #14: Train street, Bia hoi Corner, shopping Day #15: 10:30am international flight from Hanoi
General tips & things to know before you travel:
Getting a Visa: Requirements for a tourist visa are dependent on your nationality, however most people will likely need to get one if planning to spend 2 weeks or more in the country. The three ways to obtain a visa include: - In-person at your local Vietnamese embassy - Online through a 3rd party company that can get you the visa prior to travel - Online through a 3rd party company that can supply you with the pre-approval letter needed to get Visa On Arrival (VOA) at the airport.
We went with the third option and although this meant a little extra time at the airport (approximately half an hour in our case), the turnaround time pre-departure was the fastest (we use Vietnam Visa Online) and we had our letters in hand with all fees paid up-front within a day.
Budgeting your trip: Vietnam has all the makings of the perfect budget backpacking trip and a few tips and tricks can stretch your dollar even further. This comes down to personal preference however we chose to save on accommodation and instead spent our money on day trips and activities (and tailored clothes in Hoi An but more on that later). Food, drinks and transport are relatively cheap to begin with and it will easy to eat and drink to your heart's content and still stay within budget.
AirBnB's & Hostels are top-notch: Speaking of affordable accommodation, first-rate Airbnb’s and hostels can be found in spades. For us as a group of 4, Airbnb’s were the more economical and comfortable option however if you are planning a solo trip or traveling with fewer people, I recommend checking out hostels in both the cities and smaller towns. It is an excellent way to find comfortable accommodation on a budget while meeting fellow backpackers and travelers from around the world. More on what we looked for and where we stayed can be found under each city section.
Carry cash (VND): Cash is king in Vietnam and as a bonus, you have the chance to feel like a millionaire. More importantly, the best places (read: street stalls, smaller stores) will only accept cash. ATMs are easily accessible in big cities and money can be withdrawn on the go as needed so you don't have to handle large amounts of cash for the entire trip. Having a debit card with no or minimal international ATM withdrawal fees can also be helpful.
Bargain anywhere and everywhere: Bargaining is the way of life across almost all of Asia and Vietnam is no different. We even tried at places you wouldn't expect; it didn't work at the bar, but it was worth a shot. As a rule of thumb, if you buy anything off the streets at face value, you have massively overpaid for it.
Minimize travel time where possible: While buses and trains are incredibly comfortable and cheaper than domestic flights,I recommend flying for longer legs of the journey especially if you are trying to squeeze in a lot of places in a short amount of time. For intracity transport, we either stuck with GRAB, the Vietnamese equivalent to Uber, or rented motorbikes in smaller towns.
Get a local SIM: Vietnam is incredibly well connected with Wi-Fi and service available in even the most remote parts of the country. Having a local sim, with google maps and google translate on hand, made getting around a lot easier.
Pack heavy-duty mosquito repellent: A staple in Asia, especially in the hot and humid months of summer. We coated ourselves in Ultrathon Insect Repellent, especially in Dalat, Cat Ba & Ninh Binh.
Immunize against local diseases: As a precaution, we took malaria tablets two weeks before we travelled.
Backpacks>suitcases (even if you are not a backpacker): As the title suggests, we only carried backpacks on this trip but even if you would not generally characterize yourself as a backpacker or can't fathom the idea of traveling without a suitcase (been there), I do not recommend taking a large, unwieldy suitcase - even the carry on sized variety - on this kind of a trip. I cannot even recount the number of times we hauled ourselves and our luggage through fields, marshes, over hills (okay inclines), on planes, buses, boats, motorbikes, and any other variety of transport known to mankind. Light and portable is the only way to go.
Spontaneity is key: Do your research and plan before your trip (I would not be me if I suggested otherwise), but to take full advantage of this holiday and have a real adventure with a capital A, I suggest being flexible with your schedule and bookings. In our case, we only booked our Ho Chi Minh accommodation and the two domestic flights prior to arriving in Vietnam and made the rest of the bookings as we went along. We could change up our itinerary as we pleased and travel to new places – this is how Ninh Binh came about – at the recommendation of locals and fellow travelers. There was an abundance of places to stay at every location and this departure from the usual way of planning a trip - especially for me - was like a breath of fresh air. We were living on the edge and clearly enjoying the ride, but even just making flexible bookings and not being too tied to your plans will help you make the most out of your trip. Note: The only thing I recommend is booking domestic flights in advance, if utilizing any. While availability is not usually an issue with a ton of local flights running every day, prices can quickly go up during the peak season and local festivals. We arrived at a packed airport at 6am when flying out of Danang and security took us more than an hour to clear.
The two primary entry points into Vietnam are either Ho Chi Minh City and subsequent travel north or flying into Hanoi and traveling South. We decided to begin our trip from the South for no other reason than the fact that the flight was more convenient and cheaper. In hindsight, it started our trip off right as we embraced with frantic energy and vibrancy of the city. We spent most of our first day in Ho Chi Minh getting out bearings and taking in the sights and sounds (and food and beers) in the city. Still referred to as Saigon by the locals, the city is famous for its buzzing nightlife and delicious street fare.
Where we stayed
We stayed at the Ivy Apartment hosted by Vi which is tucked into a little alcove at one end of Bui Vien street. It kept the noise and revelry at bay while still being in a convenient location. Although we only spoke online, Vi was incredibly easy to reach and was helpful with Ho Chi Minh recommendations and further travel.
What we did
The nightlife of Ho Chi Minh is incomplete without a visit to Bui Vien Street. Bui Vien Street also known as 'backpackers street', can be easily mistaken for any ordinary crowded street in the day but transforms into a wild party at night packed with bars, clubs, and restaurants where the music and atmosphere can rival the strip in Vegas. Traffic comes to a standstill as the street gets packed with pedestrians from end to end. It is a tourist cliché for a reason, and we spent both our nights here exploring the different offerings in and around the area.
The two most popular day trips from Saigon are to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta River. We initially had plans to visit both but at the advice of some locals and other travelers we met on our first day, we decided to use our limited time to better explore downtown Ho Chi Minh instead. With a lot of travel hours packed into the latter half of our itinerary, we were glad to rest up and forgo the 6-hour long round trip to and from the city.
We instead visited the War Remnants Museum for a little bit of history and insight on the Vietnam War (or the American War as it's known here). The rest of the day was spent strolling through the markets of district 1, taking in the Notre-Dame Cathedraland Central Post-Office, life-sized symbols the French Colonial influence in this country.
What we ate
As a disclaimer, most of my recommendations will be vegetarian/ vegan friendly.
There isn't one specific place that I can recall in Ho Chi Minh City because to be completely honest, my favourite meals here were the 1am Banh Mi's we grabbed from random street vendors off Bui Vien Street. Saigon Street food is world renown and cannot be passed up on. If it was good enough for Anthony Bourdain, it was good enough for us and even if you're looking for vegetarian (or vegan) eats like me, there are plenty of options.
Ho Chi Minh City is also first place we were acquainted with Cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese Iced coffee), especially Highlands Coffee, which from here on out was a trip staple.
If you have yen for other cuisines, restaurants here are plentiful however we mostly stayed away from those. The one Indian place we visited (not sure why we decided that was a good idea on our first day) was sub-par at best.
DAYS 3, 4 & 5: DA LAT
A hidden gem and collectively voted as the favourite leg of our trip, Dalat's slow-paced rustic tucked-into-the-highlands atmosphere was a complete 180-degree from the stifling heat and party-all-night vibe of Ho Chi Minh City. While Dalat is a big tourist destination for locals, it is still relatively unknown to international tourists. As big-city dwellers ourselves, it was a welcome change of pace to put on a sweatshirt, breath in the crisp air, and take in the stunning panorama as we biked through the mountains.
How we got here
We took or the infamous Vietnam luxury bus or "limo" as it's known here (resembles this), from a location just behind Bui Vien Street. Some wandering and inquiring the day before yielded discounted tickets (as with everything in Vietnam: bargain), and we set off on our journey at 6am the next morning. The bus was slightly delayed – traffic and the ensuing delays are just the way of life in Asia – however, this was hands down the most comfortable journey of our entire trip. Long spacious sleeper seating, privacy curtains between seats, headsets, and a mini TV and importantly, a comfortable, clean rest stop en route – decidedly not the way of life in Asia – got us to Dalat within 8 hours in style.
Note: We already had all our AirBnb booked in Ho Chi Minh City, but you can always take the sleeper bus overnight as intended and save on accommodation for one night. Did I mention we slept like the dead?
Where we stayed
One of the few places where we stayed at a hostel, the Redhouse Backpacker Hostel was a great experience. Although there was a mix-up and we did not get the room we originally booked, it was still a great stay overall and one of the better hostels in the area. The rooms were clean and comfortable, breakfast was a basic but delicious Vietnamese spread and the front desk staff spoke English and were easy to communicate with. Located just a kilometre away from the city centre, it was a great place to meet other travelers, both local and foreign.
Like other smaller towns in Vietnam, the two best ways to get around are by foot or by bike and we did both. Unlike big cities where driving a bike might be a tad intimidating for the uninitiated (like me), driving a bike around smaller towns is a gentler learning curve and was by far the best, and most enjoyable way, to get around.
Canyoning! Are you an adventure junkie? Even if you're not, this is a unique once-in-a-lifetime experience that I cannot recommend highly enough. Even the more nervous amongst us (read: non-swimmers) felt completely safe and had the best time. How often are you going to get the chance to rappel down waterfalls? And that's just a part of it – cliff jumping, water sliding, swimming, abseiling, zip-lining, hiking – this tour had all the things that we generally plan our trips around (the name of the vacation gives it away really).
We booked with Highland Holiday Tourswhich was a result of the usual initial internet scouring with our final booking made in person the evening before (this theme persists throughout). It was a small group package with 8 people in our entire tour, including the 4 of us, accompanied by 3 guides who were both friendly and confident, immediately putting us at ease as they guided us on this 6-hour adventure. Pictures here speak more than a thousand words but I could easily write up a whole other essay about this experience alone. As our tour crew repeatedly chanted, "don't be lazy, be crazy!" and give this a shot.
Another highlight was the Dalat Night Marketlocated in the city centre right next to the Xuan Huong Lake. If the food doesn't get you there, dozens of stalls selling souvenirs, clothes, fresh produce, and almost anything else you can think of should lure you in. The place was crowded and spilling onto the streets but unlike Bui Vien, the atmosphere of festivity was light-hearted and wholesome; families were milling about together, children played with brightly lit toys bought fresh off the stalls, and high school and college students gathered together singing and performing in their corner of the street.
We spent our evening wandering around here, eating and window shopping, closing off with drinks at the Maze Bar. It seemed a little gimmicky at first, but we decided to trust the rave reviews and give it a shot. True to its name, we actually did get separated and a little lost in there and after a little exploring of secret passageways, stairwells, hidden rooms (and bathrooms!), we whiled the evening away sipping beers in a cozy little cove we found and had all to ourselves.
Note: Layer up before you venture out cause the evenings here get chillier than expected.
What we ate
Veggie options are plentiful in Dalat and we enjoyed two of my favourite meals from the entire trip here. The first and most memorable was at one of the seemingly endless night market food stall’s devouring a bowl of piping hot rice noodle soup. I have no idea what we ordered, I just pointed at the menu and ensured there was no meat in mine (the keyword is ăn chay).
The other was at Nhà Hàng Chay Hoa Senlocated in the city centre that we visited at my behest and ordered the best hotpot known to mankind (even my non-vegetarian friends agreed).
Note: There will be fewer people who can speak English in smaller towns so keep that google translate handy and expect for some things to be lost in translation. We accidentally ordered up a whole cold (somehow?) duck one night and had no way to duck out of there (pun intended), without eating some to appease the cook who stood smiling by.
Located along the Vietnamese coast, Nha Trang is a lesser-known little beach town where you can simultaneously relax and rejuvenate at its famous mud spas and beaches while enjoying a vibrant nightlife. It's often skipped over when short on time however located only 4 hours away from Dalat, I recommend stopping over if you have a chance.
How we got here
After an early wake-up call and long exhausting morning of canyoning, we decided to take it slow today, departing for Nha Trang at 1pm after a leisurely brunch at the hostel. The bus picked us up right at our doorstep and a quick 4-hour bus ride from Dalat deposited us right at the city center in Nha Trang. Our Airbnb was close enough that we hoofed it over and spent the rest of the evening acquainting ourselves with the city.
Where we stayed
We stayed at the Thành phố Nha Trang Airbnb, a decent-sized two-bedroom accommodation in an apartment complex conveniently located right off Tran Phu beach. It boasted superior amenities like a washing machine, which we desperately need at this point, and a stunning view of the coastline.
Since we were only here for a day and a half and were located right at the beach, we either walked for the most part or relied on GRAB.
What we did
This was a hard one to narrow down but if we are talking in terms of spending your money on an indulgence in Nha Trang, the famous hot mineral springs would be my pick. There are multiple spas to choose from and we decided to go withI-resort that even had a mini water park located on-site (hey it's an adventure trip right?). While the waterpark was a bit of a bust, (there was mainly one giant slide that would barely slide), I can personally attest the rest of the spa experience, especially the concluding foot massage that had us on all in a trance. Value for money meant we had to try it all and we closely resembled boiled shrimp after our hot mudbath - and following herbal tea bath and following sauna - but the pools and waterfalls littered around the property quickly cooled us down.
Pro tip:Bring two sets of swimsuits as one will be a hot muddy mess after the spa and the resort provided attire that can be worn to the pools and waterfalls was not the most flattering thing to lounge around in.
The spa was especially welcome after our previous night of drinking and debauchery, celebrating a friend’s birthday. We kicked off the evening at Sunrise Gaming Club, a small casino we stumbled across while strolling down the beach. An hour or two after indulging in our vices and even stronger drinks (they are not playing around with their alcoholic beverages in Vietnam), we landed atSailing Club Nha Trang, a beautiful beach-side lounge with great music, service, and people! Looking back at our blurry videos, I think I can safely say that we were the ones that initiated the transition from tranquil sundowners to rambunctious dancing. We said let's turn up the party and the Vietnamese people were more than happy to oblige! As the night wore on, more and more people joined in teaching us their moves and generally having a great time. I can't speak for my friend, but I am sure this ranks as one of her best birthdays.
Not usually one to say no to roller coasters, we uncharacteristically decided to skip Vinpearl, the water and theme park located on its own island just off the coast. It's on the pricier side and along with saving our $, we wanted to spend our time on the more unique aspects of the city.
What we ate
Apart from hole-in-the-wall street food gems, finding unique and quirky places was now a trend and Rainforest delivered. As the name suggested, it boasted a rainforest-themed interior design complete with indoor slides, hammocks, and tree-house style place seating. A great break from Vietnamese food as well if you are missing a taste of home.
One of the most popular locations in Central Vietnam, Danang, and mostly it's arty neighbour Hoi An, are generally at the top of most people's travel itineraries.
How we got here
There are multiple ways to get into the city by road and air, most of which connect through Danang which is the closest major city to Hoi An. We decided to take an early morning flight into Danang to save on travel time. The plane ride took just over an hour (via Vietjet) with a 30-minute cab ride at the tail end that got us from Danang to Hoi An.
Where we stayed
We booked an Airbnb at OHANA Pool & Garden View and were hosted by Jenny and her adorable little son. We not only had access to a semi-private pool, bicycles, and a spacious room, but Jenny was also the sweetest most accommodating host who made us feel right at home. She even provided us with breakfast at the ungodly hour of 5:30am, well before the allotted breakfast hours, so we could nosh before our early morning flight to Hanoi on our last day.
We rented a bike whenever we were out of a big city and Hoi An was no exception. It was the best way to see both the old town and visit the beach located about 5km away.
What we did
Get something tailor-made! Hoi An is famous for this with more than 200 tailoring shops lining the streets of old town. The first thing we did as soon as we got in was to head into one of these stores (Tuong tailorat the recommendation of our Airbnb host) and pick out some formal wear we fancied. Nothing fits better than a tailor-made suit and the four of us decided to go with workwear-inspired styles, but they can conjure up anything your heart desires and in record time. Our pieces were ready to pick up the very next day with minimal adjustments to be made that were done right on the spot. Even if you are crunched for time, if you head to one of these stores as soon as you get into town you can probably walk away with your own tailor-made pieces. Tuong Tailor even had the option to ship to your home country for an additional fee.
Note: Tailor-made items made with quality fabrics are going to invariably be more expensive than any other threads you pick up in Vietnam, even in Hoi An itself. Despite that, they were without a doubt better investment for my wardrobe and cheaper than tailor-made items I could buy elsewhere. All the other clothes I picked up in Vietnam have pretty much fallen apart by this point however, the tailor-made blazer and trousers I picked up for myself have stood the test of time and are still going strong.
The Hoi An Night Market is a sight to behold all lit up with its trademark colourful lanterns and with street vendors out in full force. We mostly window shopped here, hopping from stall to stall trying snippets of interesting street food. We gave in to the urge to get out onto the river of floating lanterns ourselves and drifted along in one of the traditional boats, sipping on a cold beer and taking in the sights and sounds around us.
Note: As of the more famous night markets of South East Asia, prices here are quite inflated to account for the number of tourists milling about.
In the daytime, we strolled across the Japanese Covered Bridge in Old Town learning about the historic significance of this trading town and the foreign influences that have shaped its culture. We also popped into some stores where we unsurprisingly bought (more) clothes and other souvenirs.
An Bang Beachwas crowded but a great way to relax and unwind on our first day after our early morning flight in. The weather in central Vietnam was a few blissful degrees cooler than the South and a blessed departure from the heat of Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang. Banana boats were a definitive plus.
We didn't have enough time to explore Danang central however we did manage to squeeze in a trip to Marble Mountainsknown for its historic pagodas, numerous caves, and five marble crests representing the five elements of nature. Marble sculptures are produced by artisans in adjoining villages although interestingly enough, the marble used by them is imported from China. We made it in time to watch the sunset and the view of Danang's skyline was worth the relatively easy climb to the peak. There is also an elevator available for a slightly higher fee.
What we ate
The night market is known for its unique street food and while two of my more adventurous friends went for frog (tastes just like chicken apparently), the banana pancakes were my personal favourite. While you can't go wrong with any of the street food, the one sit-down restaurant we randomly went to later in the night was not the best find.
We didn't get a chance to visit any of my vegetarian finds here in Hoi An but for a midday coffee pick-me-up, Hoi An Roastery Espresso & Coffee Housedefinitely delivered. The Coconut Ice Cream Coffee and Matcha Frappuccino were a superb and the location just off the Japanese bridge is a great reprieve from the heat.
My friends also ate at Huong's Chicken Rice which has a hole-in-the-wall aesthetic with reportedly excellent chicken-rice.
The Vietnamese capital has a lot to offer to suit every mood and preference from ancient architecture reflecting the deep French and Chinese colonial influences, a diverse community, vibrant nightlife, abundant shopping choices, and customarily delicious food.
In some ways, the streets of Hanoi will remind you of almost any street corner in South and South-East Asia while in others, it is uniquely its own. Some of those commonalities include the plentiful street food, casual use of traffic laws, and an overabundance of mopeds, people, heat, and noise. As an India native and frequent South East Asia traveller, I have become inured to what the uninitiated refer to as 'bedlam' and 'hair-raising road crossings', however, I would be remiss not to mention that this, of course, is especially the case in Hanoi. If this is completely foreign to you, you don't even need to leave the city to find some heart-pumping adventure. The main thing to remember is to cross with confidence, keep a steady pace, and not to turn back or hesitate once you've started crossing a busy street. The drivers around here are accustomed to and are experts at avoiding pedestrians; they will just drive around you.
How we got here
Another early morning flight from Danang got us to Hanoi airport in a little over an hour. Ideally, we would have continued on to our next destination, but we decided to break our journey here and stay for night utilizing the rest of our day to get acquainted with the city. This also allowed us to meet up with a friend who was coincidentally in Hanoi for work.
On our way back to Hanoi the second time around, we took the early afternoon train from Ninh Binh Railway Station at the advice of our host and were back in city within 2 ½ hours.
Where we stayed
For our one-day layover of sorts in Hanoi, we stayed at De Miason's Airbnb located in Ba Dinh District, a 15 minutes drive from the hectic and crowded centre of the Old Quarter. It boasted 2 basic rooms on the smaller side and a wide-open rooftop with a comfortable seating area (the primary draw for us). We stayed up till the wee hours that morning, chatting and drinking on that rooftop.
For our last two days in Hanoi, we stayed at the more spacious and luxurious 3-bedroom townhouse with roof access at Tien's Airbnb, located only a street away from our previous residence. Already acquainted with the area, we had an easier time getting around and used GRAB both times to visit locations further away.
What we did
This comes down to personal preference as there are so many things to choose from in Hanoi but my favourite evening here was our very first day when we took to the streets of Old Quarter and visited Hoan Kiem Lake. Locals and tourists aplenty were milling around the lake, singing, performing, and generally enjoying the start to their weekend. We tried our hand at jianzi (like badminton except you're kicking a weighted shuttlecock with your feet) with some local kids (and failed miserably), ate some delicious street food (as always), and joined the masses in circling around the lake looking on at the beautiful pagoda at its centre.
As dusk faded into the night and the streetlights came up, a stage surreptitiously placed at the edge of the street north of the lake was lit up and came alive. The atmosphere was transformed, and the street was buzzing with excitement and energy. It turns out, there was a big football match underway and big screens flashed the game while everyone sat where they were, right there in the middle of the street, to drink and cheer on the home team. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese team lost that game, but it didn't stop the locals from collectively celebrating the effort anyways. A concert sprang up on stage and the energy was once again transformed into one of a giant after-party. Nobody parties and takes full stock of life quite like the Vietnamese, and this was one of those unforgettable experiences.
Hanoi Train Street is another unique part of the city where train tracks wind their way through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter and a train still passes through twice a day. As the train's punctured horn blast heralds its arrival, the locals simply pack up overflowing chairs, usher in their children, and watch the train go by with less than a meter to spare from their houses on either side. Trains come by at 3:30pm and 7pm and although we did not make it in time to see the train, it was worth a visit.
You cannot come to Hanoi and miss out on visiting Bia Hoi Corner, which as the name suggests, is just a street corner at the heart of Old Quarter where the world's cheapest beer (25 cents a beer!) is brewed fresh every morning and is available all-day year-round. While Bia Hoi is widely available in Hanoi, drinking at this spot is just as much a part of the quintessential nightlife experience. Just draw up a plastic chair and join the crowd spilling onto the street and enjoy a pint (or 4, who's to say) while motorbikes and pedestrians veer around you.
For an escape from the hustle and bustle of Old Quarter, Binh Minh Jazz Club is a hidden gem tucked right behind the Hanoi Opera House at the edge of the French Quarter. Its soothing blues, luxurious setup, and cozy atmosphere impart a Parisian allure and give you a completely different take on Hanoi's nightlife. Similarly, a walk along the banks of the West Lakein North Hanoi has a more cosmopolitan and high-end appeal with stylish hotels, restaurants, and bars dotting the lakefront.
What we ate
If it isn't clear by now, street food reigns supreme in Vietnam and Hanoi is no exception. Banh Mi 25is a well-known street vendor famous for its extensive variety and authentic flavour. We snagged the last meal of our trip from here and it did not disappoint. Grab one (or three) Banh Mi's from this little stall and sit across the road in open-air seating and chow down.
I can't remember exactly where we tried another one of Hanoi's novelties, the infamous egg coffee, but it is easy enough to find, listed on the menu of almost every coffee shop. It was entirely too sweet for my taste but try this controversial pairing for yourself to decide.
We didn’t visit many sit-down places in Hanoi but of the few, Aummee Vegetarian Restaurantwas the most memorablefor itsdelicious Thai hotpot and lunch selection. The blasting aircon, calming ambiance, and proximity to our Airbnb didn’t hurt either. On the other hand, if you’re missing the taste of continental fare, Lifted Coffee & brunch delivered with a classic brunch spread paired with my constant, Cà phê sữa đá.
Considered one of the '7 natural wonders of the world', Ha Long Bay is listed as one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites and draws a big crowd. A few of the popular ways to experience Ha Long Bay include:
A day trip from Hanoi
A 1-3 night cruise ranging from backpacker style bare-bones junk boat tours to more luxury vehicles
Staying on one the islands in the bay and taking a day cruise from there
You can get a completely different experience from this place depending on the route you decide to go for and your vibe. A large majority of people choose to go for the Ha Long Bay cruise from anywhere between 1 to 3 days however if you are anything like us, long scripted tours of the multi-day variety, are not really your cup of tea. We instead went with the last option and chose to explore the area on our own using Cat Ba Island as our base.
How we got here
We booked Hanoi to Cat Ba Island transport from one of the numerous reliable agents that have set up shop in Old Quarter Hanoi. A bus got us from Hanoi to Dao Tuan Chan harbourin about 4 hours. The rest of the journey was covered by ferry which took us across to Cat Ba Island in another 30 minutes.
Where we stayed
Most of the accommodation in Cat Ba caters to backpackers and hostels were a dime a dozen with pretty basic accommodation. Catba Oasis Bunglows was one of the few places on the island that more closely resembled a hotel and since this was one of the last legs of our journey, we decided to indulge ourselves without completely breaking the bank. Don't let the name fool you into conjuring up an image of a luxury resort, however, for the few extra dollars, we were happy to have a pool and pool-side service (the pool was the key selling point for us if you can't tell).
What we did
Cruise the bay! (In any shape or form that suits your fancy)
While Ha Long Bay is the most well-known, the distinctive limestone karsts can be found across three interconnected water bodies including Lay Ha Bay, Bai Tu Long Bayand of course Halong Bay.
Taking the day-long cruise through the less-crowded and relatively untouched Lan Ha Bay gave us the flexibility we wanted without having to spend big bucks on a luxury cruise or availing a boat without too many facilities. Cat Ba was a good base to unwind and relax and served as the perfect jump-off point to the surrounding waters. We booked the cruise directly from the resort and were picked up the next morning. Despite being the lesser-known cousin of Ha Long Bay, the waters were slightly murky and polluted which was disheartening to discover and marred the beautiful vista to a certain degree. Despite that, we managed to eat our weight in food, swim, kayak, jump off the boat, explore an uninhabited island, burn to a crisp, and generally have a smashing day.
Pro tip: From personal experience, take the staff up on their offer and wear a lifejacket if you can't swim. Also, the islands can be rocky and abrasive so wear water sandals if you have them and avoid some of the pain we went through to get to the shore.
Apart from the appeal of the bay, Cat Ba itself truly shines when you drive a little ways from the crowded hostels, markets, and tourists of the main town centre at the southern tip of the island. While we, unfortunately, didn't find any bioluminescent plankton at the beaches or even get a chance to hike at the famed Catba National Park, it was the perfect place to just grab your bike, turn up the music and explore.
What we ate
We mostly ate either in-house at the hotel (by the pool of course) or on the boat during the Lan Ha Bay daytrip. Fresh ice-cream rolls from the street vendors in Cat Ba Market was a delicious way to close off the day.
Ninh Binh, also known as the 'Ha Long Bay on land', was a completely spontaneous destination that we didn't plan to visit until we were already in Vietnam. At the advice of some other travellers we met in Saigon who had been living in Vietnam for the past 2 years (shoutout to Demi), we decided to forgo the typical Ha Long Bay cruise and spend a night in Ninh Binh instead.
How we got here
A conversation with the resort staff and a 4 ½ hour bus and ferry ride later, we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere in Tam Coc, Ninh Binh. Google Maps was telling us to just forge on ahead through the rice fields and a hot sweaty, slightly disorienting walk led us to the steps of our homestay.
Where we stayed
The most unique aspect of Ninh Binh – and the experience that sold us on this place – was our room at Tam Coc Homestay which was an actual honest-to-god cave(!) at the base of the mountain. A natural spacious cavern fitted with two queen-sized beds, an A/C unit, and a bathroom made for a bizarre and unique living situation. While the idea of living in a cave was tantalizing, we quickly realized that our city-bred sensibilities would need to adjust to the deafening silence that left us reeling contrasted with the heightened chirping of the crickets reverberating through the walls. Even the stray worm or two had us diving for cover under the invisible safety of the mosquito-repellent nets enclosing the bed. Well, we wanted an experience and we most definitely got that.
Having your own transport aka renting a bike is almost a necessity to get around here especially if your homestay is a little isolated like ours.
What we did
We've hiked a lot of places in the past, but the award for the sweatiest hike has to go to Ninh Binh's Hang Mua Caves and its 450 steps to the peak. Inland geography combined with peak humidity meant that everyone was soaked before we even began the climb and most of our time here was spent stopping to take pictures and yelling "where is the wind?!"
The view from the top was worth it though; with the dragon statue at your shoulder and the limestone karsts winding along the river as far as the eye can see, Ninh Binh easily had the most majestic and picturesque views neatly edging out its famous sister bays to the north.
The rest of our Ninh Binh experience was a true reflection of rural life in Vietnam where rice fields could be found at every corner and people enjoyed a more tranquil and laid-back way of life. The weather could go from hot and humid to a raging rainstorm in the blink of an eye and we sat with other travellers in the open-air lounge of our homestay and just took it all in. Since we had already done the Lan Ha Bay cruise and were crunched for time, we opted to forgo the riverboat rides here although I have heard mostly good things about that experience.
What we ate
Tam Coc Homestay not only prided themselves on fascinating rooms, but also served up a simple and delicious fare and we ate basically all our meals right here. Because Ninh Binh is often overlooked by other travellers, the area is generally cheap and cheerful, and the food reflects that quality. Unlike the city though, stores will close up shop early so be mindful of that when wandering around town for a bite to eat.
Other locations to consider (that we missed)
Sapa:Located at the northern tip of the country, Sapa is the model hill station of Vietnam characterized by terraced rice paddies, long mountain hikes, and diverse ethnic tribes. Known for its wonderful homestays, the real Vietnamese cultural experience is said to be found here.
Ban Gioc Falls: Located 8-hours by road from Hanoi, the Ban Gioc Waterfall is shared with China at Vietnam’s northern border. Bamboo rafts are available at the base of the falls that take you right up to them till you can feel the spray on your face as you take in the largest and most visually stunning falls in Asia.
Hue – via the Hai Van Pass: The 21km long Hai Van pass is known to be one of the most breathtaking drives in Vietnam winding through the mountains with the coastline peeking through. Located just a half hour from Da Nang, the Hai Van pass connects to Hue, the ‘Imperial City’ which served as the emperor’s seat throughout the 19th century.
Phong Nha Caves: Located in the Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park in the north, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is about 500km from Hanoi and holds several world cave records including the biggest cave in the world (Hang Son Doong). While Hang Son Doong can cost a hefty $3,000 per person, there are more than 300 spectacular caves in the area than can be experienced as little as $10.
Phu Quoc Island: Located in the far south close to the Cambodian coastline, Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island known for its white sandy beaches, reef diving, and other assorted beach-side activities.