Vietnam has got to be one of the most incredible countries on earth.
One minute you’re walking through Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) surrounded by a whirlwind of colour, noise and people, assaulted by the smell of street food on every corner, ducking and weaving in and out of traffic. The next you’re floating down a river watching the locals fish from their junk boats, drinking from coconuts and enjoying the tranquil water lapping against the boat.
Vietnam is a country of extreme wealth and extreme poverty all in the same street, filled with people who are still suffering from the effects of the Vietnam War but are intensely proud of their country and how far they’ve come.
Mum and I spent two weeks experiencing everything Vietnam had to offer – from the food, to the custom made clothes, street markets, overnight trains and everything in between. I also learned that Mum is an excellent photographer particularly when it comes to candid pictures you can actually use on Instagram. Definitely a travel buddy worth keeping around. Anyway, here’s a quick wrap of some of our experiences.
Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City
What a place. This was my second time in Saigon and I tried to describe it to Mum before we landed but there is just no way to prepare someone for the chaos and cacophony of Ho Chi Minh City.
It is singlehandedly the craziest but also most fun place you will ever visit. It’s the ultimate Asian city in that you see the glitz and glamour of it – the rooftop bars, opera, high culture – but there’s also intense poverty, street markets and the most death-defying traffic you will ever cross through.
We spent our first night at the Opera House watching what was sold to us as the best Vietnamese show you will ever see. Apparently this particular show toured the world. It was… strange. At one point they were tossing logs across the stage, the next second they were leaping over each other in frog suits. It does, however, rank slightly higher than Beijing Opera in my list of things I would consider sitting through again.
The next day was a bus ride out to the Mekong Delta to see some local industries – fishing, coconut growing, snake whiskey producing – the list is long. It was really interesting to see some of the ways that the locals use the river as their source of food and revenue.
After a full day on the river we headed back to Saigon to pack up and move on to our next destination, Hoi An.
Hoi An has singlehandedly got to be one of my favourite cities in Vietnam. It has the most beautiful old quarter you’ll ever see and is known as being the place to get clothes made (which we took full advantage of). It’s also close to the sea and has some incredible beaches to relax on if the mood takes you.
Mum and I, being the intrepid travellers that we are, decided instead to take a day trip out to the famous My Son Temples which are Vietnam’s answer to Angkor Wat.
The My Son Temples are a set of ruined temples about an hour outside of Hoi An. They think that there is around seventy temples at the site but the government have only uncovered around ten, due to lack of resources. The most fascinating thing about the temples is that you can actually see giant bomb craters everywhere from the Vietnam War.
Our tour guide also took us to a local family for lunch where we got to make our own rice cakes. They eat rice cakes with just a soy sauce and chilli mixture and I have to say it was delicious. Somewhere in the archives is actual footage of me successfully cooking a rice cake but I’m saving that for a later date.
Speaking of cooking, we also took a traditional Vietnamese cooking class which was really cool – it was interesting to see how simple the food actually is. Yes, I cooked and no, I didn’t burn anything. It was a successful attempt all round. Proof below.
After an action packed two days in Hoi An, which involved at least four trips to the same coffee shop for coffee, we were off to our next city, Hue.
Hue was a former imperial capital of Vietnam. It’s most famous for the walled citadel that miraculously survived the carnage of the Vietnam War, and it’s also the location where the infamous Tet Offensive happened. You can actually see the bullet holes in the wall where the Tet Offensive occurred.
We started our time in Hue with, of course, lunch at a local restaurant. I had the most amazing fried rice I think I’ve ever eaten and am yet to successfully recreate, Mum had spring rolls, all washed down with the usual beer (I swear that’s all they drink in Vietnam). We then jumped on some cyclos to head to the citadel and wander around all afternoon.
After a peaceful sunset river cruise featuring more beer, we headed back to have dinner with a local Vietnamese family. They were so incredible – they spent the night talking to us about life in Vietnam and their family. The eldest son went to university to study English and ended up getting a job working in a hotel which is considered a very important and high ranking job. It’s fascinating to see the cultural differences like this between Australia and Vietnam.
They were also telling us that school is compulsory until the end of primary school but it’s also expensive – around $3000 USD a year. So many children still don’t go to school because their parents can’t afford it. This particular family supplements their income by having foreigners like us over for dinner.
I love doing things like this when I travel – getting to experience local culture and hear from them about their lives and what they do. However it can also be one of the most confronting things about travelling as you hear and experience how much harder life is for people in some of these countries.
Anyway, after two beautiful days in Hue it was time to jump on an overnight train to the final destination of our trip, Hanoi.
Hanoi is the polar opposite to Ho Chi Minh City in many ways. Whilst also a big city, it’s much calmer feeling and in many ways the more beautiful of the two capitals.
One of my favourite things about Hanoi is its proximity to Halong Bay. Halong Bay is a World Heritage Site because of its unique limestone cliffs and green water. We were lucky enough to go on a boat and spend a night out on the bay, which is harder than it seems – the government restricts how many boats can be out on the bay at any one time and getting a spot can be easier said than done. Interestingly they also mandate that all the boats have to be painted white to blend in with the cliffs.
After a night out on the water and some questionable karaoke with our fellow shipmates, we were back in Hanoi for another two days. We really had the full Hanoi experience – watched the footy grand final in an Irish bar with the local expats, explored the Hanoi Hilton where American soldiers were imprisoned during the war, wandered around the lake, had ice cream – it was a busy two days.
To end our time in Hanoi we had dinner at KOTO, a restaurant where street children are taught cooking and service skills so that they can get paid work. Koto stands for ‘Know One, Tell One’ – the philosophy dates back to the Vietnam War when the locals started picking up some English language skills. The idea is that you learn one word and teach one word to someone else every day so that everyone learns and passes on knowledge together. KOTO is an incredible foundation who have supported hundreds of children to get off the streets and into paid work.
By this point we were nearing the end of our trip and starting to get tired so it was nice to spend some time chilling out in Hanoi before going back to Saigon for two days.
Finally, we ended up back in Saigon for two days for some more cultural/questionable operatic experiences. This time we’d booked ourselves in to stay at the Intercontinental as I had a feeling that by this point of the trip we’d be itching for a comfy bed and a decent shower (which turned out to be very accurate).
We took a day trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, used by the Viet Cong in the war to move around underground without the American soldiers knowing. We got to walk/crawl through some of the tunnels which was fun, albeit slightly claustrophobic as the tunnels are designed for a tiny Vietnamese person.
That night we went on a street food tour run by Urban Adventures – it was really cool to be taken around by a local person to the street food markets. We had some incredible food that I don’t even know the name of but boy, was it delicious.
For our final day we went to the War Remnants Museum which I remembered as being one of the standout experiences of my first trip to Vietnam. And it was just as good the second time. The museum is basically the entire collection of war photography and memorabilia in one place and it’s absolutely incredible. They have photos of every aspect of the war – descendants of people hit by Agent Orange, fighting in the streets and jungle, features of the different war photographers from different nations. They also have some very confronting displays, the one that has always stuck in my head is the embalmed foetuses who died in utero as a result of their mother being hit by Agent Orange in the war.
Anyway, that was the end of our trip . We spent six hours at the airport when our plane was delayed, but by that point we were truly embracing the South-East Asian philosophy of ‘island time’ – after all, everything over there is ‘same same but different’.
Tl;dr: would highly recommend Vietnam. If you have any questions hit me up, been there twice and it’s an incredible country!