This is an article that my friend Melinda wrote a few years ago after her first trip to Vietnam. I was in awe of the amount they did and saw, and the experiences she had. A big thank you to her for allowing me to include it on the Travel Charm blog.
Vietnam by Melinda
We visited Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Sapa, Hoi An & Ho Chi Minh City. We had a great mixture of adventure, relaxing and sightseeing.
My friend shopped around for ages for good flight prices, and we eventually flew Scoot Sydney–Singapore-Sydney and then Jetstar and Vietnam Airlines for other flights. Scoot was great, really roomy and no problems, if you have an iPad or tablet you can access their movies etc., but you have to download the app before you fly.
Anyway, our itinerary was pretty busy (apart from the six nights in the resort at Hoi An), but it was a great way to see and do a lot.
We started in Hanoi which is a crazy town, so busy but just walking around town is fun. Crossing the road with motorbikes coming at you from every direction is scary at first, but it’s amazing how quickly you learn how to do it (i.e. pick your spot across the road and just aim for it, don’t run or hesitate, the bikes will go round you).
Markets are always great to visit, and the lake area is pretty. In the morning, lots of locals go to the park for exercise, dancing, stretching, etc., it’s enjoyable to wander around and see everybody doing their thing.
While we were there we did a day tour of Ho’s mausoleum which is interesting, and the grounds are beautiful, we also went to the Literature Uni which is an old building worth a visit. There are lots of beautiful galleries and museums, so it just depends on what you want to see. We went to the Women’s Museum which was really good (just the girls went, but men would like it too, our men were too thirsty and went in search of $1 beer instead).
There is also a prison you can visit, I really wanted to go, but ran out of time. You can organise a day tour before you go, or do it when you get there. All the hotels can organise it for you and having a tour guide is pretty much essential as they will make it all so much easier and quicker, plus in our experience, they are very knowledgeable so they will give you heaps of information and answer all your questions (they are also cheap, so well worth it).
In Hanoi, we stayed at a great hotel called Golden Land Hotel which is close enough to the action, but in a slightly quieter part of town. The staff were amazing too. When we came back from our Sapa trip, we came back to Hanoi for a few hours before our flight to Hoi An, and we stayed at the Nova Hotel for breakfast, showers and rest. It is right in the thick of things, but it is also a lovely hotel. 3-4 days in Hanoi is probably enough to see and do most things.
Ha Long Bay
We left Hanoi for Ha Long Bay by minibus ride; I can’t remember exactly how long but at least a few hours drive.
We organised our Ha Long Bay and Sapa trips with TOM – Trails of the Mountains. Mr Tom was our contact; he was brilliant. I would thoroughly recommend these guys, they do everything possible to make sure you have a trouble-free, fun holiday and the tour guides they provided were excellent.
There are heaps of choices with Ha Long Bay cruises; you can just do a day cruise or a night or two. We did an overnight cruise, and because we were a group of 14, we had the boat to ourselves which was awesome. Smaller groups have to share, but it could be a fun way to meet new people.
We did so much in the two days we were on the boat, kayaking, island visit with a short hike, swim and beach soccer, karaoke at night (was just awful, but very funny), prawning, tai chi in the morning, cooking class and a visit to an impressive cave. Our tour guide was with us the whole time and the crew were fantastic.
The bay is beautiful and worth a visit.
After Ha Long Bay, we then went back to Hanoi and that night caught the overnight train to Lao Cai (an experience, that’s all I’ll say). We then drove to Sapa which is a beautiful town in North Vietnam, kind of like an Asian Switzerland, very mountainous.
We had a new guide for this leg and she was great as she was from North Vietnam. On the way to Sapa, we had a lovely boat ride down the Chay River and we visited these awesome markets where all the local villages come together.
In Sapa, we had two 10k hikes on both days through villages in the mountains. The first-day hike was really difficult as it had rained the night before and was very muddy and slippery. It is a really hard hike, those amongst us with questionable fitness were struggling a bit, but it was a real challenge and we all agreed we were glad to have done it.
The 2nd day’s hike was less mountainous but had its challenges as it was a very hot day. Both hikes are through villages and it was awesome to be amongst the minority people and see how they live and work. Makes you suck it up when you’re feeling exhausted as you see firsthand how hard life can be for them. All the way on the hikes, you will have the company of the H’ mong, Zay or Red Dao women. They will walk with you hoping that by the end of the walk you will buy some of their handicrafts.
We then did the overnight train back to Hanoi and that evening flew to Da Nang. Da Nang to Hoi An and by minibus to Palm Gardens Resort which is 5 star and amazing.
Typical resort on a beach with a fabulous pool. There are lots of resorts on the beach in Hoi An, so just a matter of finding the right price.
Only 10 minutes from town, Hoi An is amazing too, the old quarter is world heritage listed, beautiful architecture, as does Sapa & Ho Chi Minh City.
We did a lot of lazing about here, but also lots of pampering because massages are really cheap. The resort is cheap, but outside of the resort is heaps cheaper. Loads of excellent cafes and restaurants too and the food is to die for, always so fresh and delicious.
We did a walking food tour with an Aussie guy that spends part of each year in Vietnam. He was fantastic. It was about 4 1/2 hrs and we had 40 odd courses of food and drink, visited markets, street stalls, restaurants etc.
Hoi An is the place to get things made like clothes, shoes, jewellery, glasses. All very cheap.
Ho Chi Minh City
We left the resort kicking and screaming and flew to Ho Chi Minh City. It is a modern city, but with a million motorbikes and more cars than we were used to. Very bustling, but it has a sense of excitement too.
There are lots to see and do here as well. Very big markets here but too much like Paddy’s market for me. I got some Converse shoes for $20 but you really have to be in the right frame of mind to enter these type of places. There are also lots of designer shops if that’s your thing – nice to look at even if you’re not buying, although heaps cheaper than Australia.
There are also a few big department stores if you have any money left. We visited the Cu Chi tunnels here which is about an hour and a half outside of the city.
I just arranged that the night before through the hotel got a minibus and guide and shared the trip with two other people. It’s a great place to visit for some history regarding the war in Vietnam, very good for kids to learn this kind of thing.
There are heaps of organised tours you can do from Ho Chi Minh and there are also things within walking distance such as the war museum, opera house and even the post office is an amazing building (Eiffel tower architect has left his mark in this city).
All in all, we had a fantastic holiday. My biggest tip would be, book tours with an English speaking guide – TOM tours highly recommended.
A lot of signs, even at tourist spots, are not in English, so a tour guide comes in really useful. They work hard to get good tips, so in my experience, they provide excellent customer service and don’t forget to tip the bus driver too.