A country with a promising future as well as a troubled past, Vietnam has a rich history to learn from. Comprising a coastline that stretches for over 3,000 kilometers along the entire country, its beautiful landscapes offer photographic opportunities that will not let you down. Moreover, its weather is slightly chilly in the north yet comfortably warm in the south, so - depending on where you are from - Vietnam's weather is going to make you feel a little more at home.
Our journey started in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital as well as one of its largest and most chaotic cities. We flew in from Vientiane with Cambodia Angkor Air for USD 95 each, which was one of the cheapest flight deals that we found.
In case you're planning on flying in and/or out of Vietnam - or any other Southeast Asian country, for that matter -, Cambodia Angkor Air is not the only low-cost airline in Southeast Asia. Here is a list of the airlines that we used - and therefore recommend - while backpacking through Southeast Asia:
⦁ Air Asia
⦁ Cambodia Angkor Air
⦁ Jetstar Airways
⦁ Lion Air
⦁ Vietnam Airlines
Try to purchase your flight tickets a few days in advance so that you are able to find good deals. When we flew from Cambodia to southern Thailand, our tickets were a little too expensive for a backpacker's budget as we didn't book them beforehand.
As soon as we arrived in Hanoi, our first culture shock was the traffic. Honking scooters are all you're going to see the moment you step out of your hostel. It's not one, or two, or three, but hundreds of loud motorcycles simultaneously. Why do they constantly honk? you might wonder - because we certainly did -, and the reason is that that's how the Vietnamese communicate on the road: watch out! get out of my way! want a ride somewhere? etc. One of the first things that we had to learn in Vietnam was to cross the street without being hit.
|Dare to cross?|
|Motorbikes parked on the sidewalk in Hanoi|
If you need to get to the other side of the road, do NOT expect anybody to stop for you. Wait for locals to show up and walk right next to them, or take a deep breath and slowly cross the street. Drivers will miraculously dodge you.
Hoa Lo Prison
If you are interested in history, Hoa Lo Prison is a thought-provoking site that you shouldn't skip while staying in Hanoi. This prison was first used by French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners and, later, by North Vietnamese forces for U.S. Political Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War, when it was ironically referred to as the Hanoi Hilton by American prisoners.
|Public entrance to the prison|
Nowadays, it serves as a dark reminder of how the French imprisoned, tortured and executed the Vietnamese, as well as a reminder of how the Vietnamese did the same to their own people and the American soldiers they captured.
|Mannequins recreating prisoners in confinement|
Hoa Kiem Lake
We had plans to visit Dong Xuan market, but it was closed by the time we arrived. Therefore, we decided to go for a night walk around the city. And good thing we did! While Hanoi is not the most fascinating city by day, I can assure you that it becomes one of the most beautiful cities by night, especially if you go for a walk around Hoa Kiem lake, one of the major scenic spots in the city and Hanoi's focal point for public life.
|Turtle Tower in the center of the lake|
|Walking around the lake. It was cold!|
If you wake up early, you can see old people and teenagers working out either in group or by themselves around the lake. It is as if the whole city was up and ready to exercise for as long as the morning lasts. When darkness takes over, however, the city becomes a more romantic site and you can see lovers holding hands side by side as well as parents playing with their children and tourists walking along Hoa Kiem.
|Night walk around the city center|
|Night walk around the lake|
|Little bridge over the lake|
Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1994, Halong - whose name in Vietnamese language translates as descending dragon - attracts thousands of visitors all year round, especially between May and August. Its towering limestone islets and profound emerald waters make Halong Bay northern Vietnam's number one tourist attraction.
Most tours leave from Hanoi and include spending one or two nights on board a cruise within Halong Bay; however, an increasing number of tourists nowadays are deciding to head straight for the less visited but equally appealing Lan Ha Bay. We recommend sailing through Halong Bay, but sleeping on board a cruise within Lan Ha Bay, where there are no high rises to obstruct your view. It's more expensive, but you won't regret it.
|Alejandro and I swimming after kayaking|
|Lan Ha Bay at night time|
Without a doubt, this is Vietnam's most beautiful city. There's just no question about it. Before I tell you why - or before you see for yourselves when you go through the photos below -, let me tell you how to get to Hoi An.
If you're staying in Hanoi, the easiest and fastest way to get to Hoi An is to take a night train to Da Nang. Once you are at the train station in Da Nang, you can take a taxi to Hoi An. The ride should be about 250,000 VND total and not more than 30 minutes long.
|Night train from Hanoi to Da Nang|
Now here's why Hoi An is the most beautiful city in Vietnam:
Once a major trading port in Southeast Asia for centuries, Hoi An has been able to preserve its original architecture, authentic urban planning and rich fusion of cultures, thus making it one of Vietnam's most delightful places to visit. Japanese style bridges, ancient tea houses and Chinese temples abound on the streets of this charming town located on the banks of Thu Bon River.
|Walking around Hoi An|
|Just a nice villager|
|An Beach in Hoi An|
When the night falls, Hoi An becomes one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
|Beautiful decoration at Hoi An's night market|
|Japanese Covered Bridge|
Hoi An was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999. And no wonder why!
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Formerly named and still referred to by some locals as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam as well as a commercial and cultural city that has driven the country forward with its constant energy. During our time in HCMC, we visited the following places:
Ben Thanh Market
Popular with tourists seeking handicrafts, clothes, souvenirs and local cuisine, Ben Thanh market is one of the most important building structures in Saigon and a must-see tourist attraction.
There are 24 districts in HCMC, so if you want to visit Ben Thanh market and other tourist attractions in the city, you should stay in District 1, the preferred district among tourists.
War Remnants Museum
Once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, nowadays the War Remnants Museum is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Vietnam. It documents the devastating consequences from the appalling Vietnam War which lasted for almost 20 years.
|Public entrance to the museum|
The Agent Orange room was one of the most disturbing sections - at least for me - inside the museum, displaying photos of the horrifying effects of the many pesticides that the United States sprayed over Vietnamese soil during the Vietnam War.
|A mother and her disfigured baby.|
The Agent Orange room is full of photos like this one. And worse.
Out of respect, I decided not to post any other pictures of the Agent Orange room other than the one above. For me, coming here was a genuinely saddening experience, so I wouldn't like to be sensational about it.
In general, visiting this museum was not a pleasant experience; however, coming here is a must-do in order to learn from our own mistakes as human beings in the past so that we never repeat them again in the future.
The museum is open every day and the entrance free is 15,000 VND per person.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Hiding spots as well as communication and supply routes, these tunnels are an enormous network of underground secret pathways used by Vietnamese soldiers in their resistance to American forces during the Vietnam War.
|Our funny tour guide at Cu Chi tunnels|
Nowadays, the tunnels have become a popular destination among Western tourists, who can go in some parts of the tunnels that have been modified for foreigners.
- Vietnam uses the Vietnamese Dong (VND) as its local currency. The largest banknote is 500,000 VND (approximately USD 22). Coins are also in circulation, but locals prefer banknotes and might refuse to accept coins sometimes. Make sure your banknotes are in good condition; otherwise, locals will refuse to accept your banknotes as well.
- In order to enter Vietnam, you need a visa. We processed ours through cheapvietnamvisa. The website is user-friendly, so just follow the steps. Make sure to submit your visa application at least 3 days in advance.
- While traveling in Vietnam, we also visited Da Nang. However, we recommend skipping this city as it is nothing but a long beach strip along which hotels and restaurants are too far apart. It also lacks old buildings and history, which makes its counterpart - Hoi An - a much more alluring place to stay in.
- Try the street food, especially in Hoi An. It's delicious and traditional. Bubble tea is also something that you should try.
- In Hoi An, we treated ourselves to a nice place and stayed at Sunshine Hotel. It has an incredibly delicious buffet breakfast, free bike rental and a beautiful swimming pool. The rooms are all air-conditioned and the beds are extremely comfortable. A good night's sleep is 100% guaranteed here. Needless to say, this hotel is a place that we highly recommend.
- If you want to use a beach chair while you're at the beach, you will have to pay for it as well as for bike and motorcycle parking. As always, haggle the price down!
- When you go shopping for souvenirs, haggle prices down as much as you can. Vietnamese people are notorious for trying to rip tourists off. If they refuse to accept your offer, slowly walk away and they will accept your price right away. Just be patient and smile a lot!
- We wouldn't recommend renting a motorbike in Vietnam. The traffic can be very dangerous for someone who hasn't ridden a motorbike in this country before.
I hope my post has been of help to you all. If you liked what you read and thought it was useful, once again, I kindly ask you to share my blog and spread the word.