I wasn’t mentally prepared for Vietnam, and I realized this within the first hour of getting there.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. It was a spontaneous decision to make this trip, so I hadn’t done much research or read up any travel blogs to curate my trip. I just had a hunch that I might like the place, and irrespective, it was sure to be an interesting experience.
If I had to describe Vietnam in four words, they would be- crowded, chaotic, colourful and charming. But the latter two adjectives came to me much later.
In two weeks, I decided to visit Ha Noi, Ninh Binh, Sa Pa, Ha Long Bay, and Hoi An, giving me a taste of the Nothern and Central parts of the country, leaving the southern part for another trip.
Read on to know more about my experience!
(Disclaimer: This is a longer blog post than usual, but I promise it’s quite comprehensive!)
My first few hours in Ha Noi were exasperating- for no particular reason other than the humidity and the chaos around me. My hostel was in the heart of the Old Quarter area of the city, where the streets were bustling with people and activities at all times of the day.
There were street vendors on both sides of the road, as well as on the intersections; there were two-wheelers and cars honking past me; there were tourists, locals and street animals going about their business; and there were confused travelers like me with Google Maps open on their phones, trying to find their way through the chaos.
Coming from India, this isn’t an unfamiliar scene, though it can still be very frustrating to experience. Through my sweat and a minor headache, I’ll admit, I did wonder more than once why I chose to come here out of all places in the world!
As they say, tasty food, a well-made drink, and a good night’s sleep can cure anything! When I ventured out the next morning, I already felt more familiar with the Old Quarter area and generally started warming up to the city. It was definitely an observer’s paradise! I also realized that there were several localities just off the Old Quarter that were less busy.
Exploring the winding streets on foot, trying out various street food joints and cafes, and observing people around me soon became something I started enjoyed in Ha Noi. I made the city my base through my two weeks in Vietnam, so in addition to my first three days, I also spent a few hours every other day on my way to and from various places, giving me a lot of time to soak in the city.
What struck me the most was the infest of colour around me- the fruit-print shirts, the street views, the food, and drinks… you get the gist. The place sure had its own charm!
There’s definitely a lot one can do in Ha Noi. I’m picking out a few experiences that I highly recommend below.
Learn More About Vietnam’s History & Culture
For many of us, our knowledge of Vietnam’s history is limited to the Vietnam War, and mostly from a Western perspective thanks to our West-influenced history books in school. Visiting the Ho Chi Minh Museum gave me an insight into the revered Vietnamese leader’s life and thinking, as well as what the War meant for the country.
My favourite part of the museum was the communist propaganda artwork on display (also widely available across the city as postcards and prints), and the museum reflects the crucial role art and culture can play in political revolutions.
Ha Noi has numerous other interesting museums that you can visit as per your interest and time, including the Museum of Ethnology, Fine Arts Museum, Vietnam Women Museum, Police Museum, etc. Other tourist attractions include Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, One Pillar Pagoda, and the Hoa Lo Prison Memorial.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral
I had no plans of visiting the St. Joseph’s Cathedral initially. I’ve seen so many cathedrals on my travels, I wondered if there would be anything new to experience here. I’m so glad I went because the architecture was simply stunning!
Surrounded by French cafes and bakeries, the St. Joseph’s Cathedral, built by the French Government in 1886, stands at the intersection of the French Quarter of Ha Noi in all its grandeur.
The French influence on the city and it’s food truly came alive for me when I walked into Artisee cafe and had their coffee and food. Slightly more expensive than the cafes in the Old Quarter, but completely worth it (and also a great place for digital nomads to work out of).
As touristy as it is, a functional railway track running through a narrow street in the middle of a busy city is undoubtedly fascinating! There are countless cafes along the train track, so once you’ve clicked your photos and walked the entire stretch of the track, you can grab some Vietnamese Ca Phe (coffee) and watch the train pass by at its scheduled time! (Most cafes display the schedule.)
While night markets across South East Asia can feel very similar, the shops in the Ha Noi night market are particularly dominated by apparel, shoes, and bags- mainly knock-offs of North Face, Under Armour, Nike, Kipling, and the like.
Although they are knock-offs, the quality is pretty good (compared to the knock-offs you get in India), and almost like a joke on the big corporations that feed off these economies to manufacture their goods! Most tourists can be seen scrambling to secure good deals and buy these branded products for a fraction of the original cost.
The area around the Hoan Kiem lake has a lovely vibe at night (as well as early mornings), with the lights and sounds, in contrast to the calmness of the water. Sometimes there is music playing on the speaker during the night market, and couples simply start dancing to the tunes in the middle of the street, which was very touching and fun to witness!
Even if you have nothing to buy, just stroll around, grab a drink, try the street food and enjoy the evening!
Vietnam, like most of South-East Asia, is all about its street food! While Vietnamese cuisine is famous in many parts of the world, it’s not as easily available in India, with only a handful of restaurants offering authentic dishes.
While the must-try food includes the Vietnamese Coffee (loved it at Lifted cafe), Egg coffee (not a fan), Pho Bo (Vietnamese beef noodle soup) or Pho Ga (Vietnamese chicken noodle soup), Bun Cha (most famous at ‘Obama Bun Cha’ ever since Barack Obama went there with Anthony Bourdain), and Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich- loved it at Banh Mi 25), go beyond the tried and tested dishes and order that unfamiliar cannot-pronounce-it dish on the menu- because that’s where the fun lies!
While Ha Noi has restaurants for every budget, I found the unassuming food joints that most locals go to (literally by the street with college canteen-like stools) to be the most satisfying.
The Hanoi Social Club is also a nice place to hang out, and the area around St. Joseph’s Cathedral has plenty of amazing cafes and restaurants (as mentioned earlier).
Also, if you love Vietnamese food, why not take a cooking class? I couldn’t take one due to budget and time constraints, but I loved the experience in Chiang Mai and highly recommend trying one out in Vietnam too!
Live Like A Local
On my latter stopovers at Ha Noi, I decided to cancel my hostel booking and instead stay in an Airbnb to experience the local way of life in more residential neighbourhoods.
I would definitely recommend doing this after you experience living in the Old Quarter though because that part of Ha Noi is far more convenient for backpackers (particularly first-timers) and has its own charm.
The restaurants and cafes in the residential neighbourhoods are more expensive, with fewer street-side/budget options. Not many people on the streets understood English (in my experience), although the locality is much more peaceful, with broader roads and quieter streets, and most of the hosts are well-versed with English and the needs of tourists.
What this experience does, though, is that it gives you a taste of what it’s like to live like a local in this city, particularly if you’re contemplating using it as a base for longer stretches of time, either while pursuing slow-travel, or life as a digital nomad (given the growing trend).
After spending half a day in chaotic Ha Noi, it was nice to getaway to the countryside on a day trip to Ninh Binh. I signed up for a day tour organized by my hostel, which was not only the most economical and time-saving option for me, but I also got to meet some interesting fellow travelers from my hostel who I may not have otherwise met.
Driving out of Ha Noi towards the countryside was lovely, with paddy fields and duck farms passing by every few seconds.
Our first stop was the Mua caves. 500 steps uphill to a panoramic view of the countryside, it’s well worth the climb! Mid-way, there’s a fork, and you can decide which path to take, depending on which view you think you’d like more (some people did both!).
Next up was my a 6-course traditional Vietnamese lunch at Chez Loan Hotel. This was most certainly one of my favourite meals in Vietnam!
Post-lunch, we head to the Hoa Lu temples of the Dinh and Le Dynasties, which had an old-world feel to them and I enjoyed walking around them. It also helped that our guide was very knowledgeable about the history of the dynasty and the temples.
Next, we went to Tam Coc, where we took a two-hour boat tour through the scenic UNESCO World Heritage Site. This included boating through several limestone caves and along many mini-islands, including the Skull Island of King Kong (movie) fame.
It was a lovely, peaceful and relaxing ride, with spectacular views of the towering caves. However, I didn’t particularly enjoy the Skull Island leg of the trip. There were local people posturing outside huts on the island, and the set-up felt too staged for my liking, not to mention demeaning towards the local tribe and their culture.
I loved that the majority of the boat tours were conducted by women from the neighbouring villages, although they don’t earn too much out of it (hence, do remember to tip them graciously). The tour lasted for two hours, although most of us felt that an hour would have been more than sufficient (if you have the choice, do keep in mind).
The first and foremost reason I looked forward to Sa Pa was the weather! From hot and humid Ha Noi, to cool and wet Sa Pa, it was quite a respite!
Most known for being home to Mt. Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam, it’s also famous for its cultural diversity, with several indigenous tribes hailing from here (the Hmong people being the most famous).
It’s also a popular hill station amongst Vietnamese city-dwellers, primarily to beat the heat during the summer months.
Amongst Western travelers, the picturesque rice-fields (made famous thanks to Instagram), hike up to Mt. Fansipan, and village homestays are the primary attractions.
Coming from India, I didn’t find any of the above to be particularly novel experiences, as the landscape, tribes, and culture are very similar to parts of India (particularly the Himalayan regions and the Northeast), although mountains, anywhere, are always wonderful. Further, what could have been an excellent cultural interaction between East and West, between visitors and the local tribes, felt more like a tourist gimmick (read ‘poverty tourism’; some villages even had an entrance fee!), which left me very uneasy (having experienced similar trends in India as well). While I empathize with the locals’ need to make a living, the glaring inequalities and the manner in which ‘village tours’ were conducted for Westerners left a bad taste.
I spent many hours walking through the valley and various villages by myself, which was a great learning experience, also exposing me to the underdeveloped realities of this tourist-famous hill-destination. It left me with plenty of questions and observations around the effects of tourism on the ecology, economy, and culture of the place. To witness large hotels being built of farmland, poor homes juxtaposed with wealthy Western travelers and their needs, food, and culture targeting Western tastes, etc. was painful, to say the least. All of this affected me to the extent that I actually decided to cut short this leg of my trip and head back to Ha Noi a day early.
I think the Universe sensed my plight because some of my best memories from Sa Pa are from my last few hours there.
I was blessed with the best weather, some of the most stunning views of the mountains, the best Vietnamese Ca Phe (at Cafe in the Clouds) and dessert (Apple Pie and Banana Bread at Fansipan Terrace) I’ve had in my entire trip, and brief interactions with some lovely Hmong women who sold me some beautiful traditional embroidery on hemp pouches to take back home.
Ha Long Bay
Visiting Northern Vietnam invariably means making a trip to Ha Long Bay! Another UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist hub, it’s marked by its towering limestone islands topped by rainforests and surrounded by emerald water.
‘Ha Long’ means “dragons standing by” in Vietnamese, and legend has it that the dragons protect the Viet people from invaders.
There are many tour companies that offer overnight cruises for all budgets (from the President’s cruise at USD 7000 per night, to three-star budget options for less than USD 100), which allows you to soak in the surroundings at leisure, as well as explore the caves and remote islands. Unfortunately, almost all operators follow the same route, and thus the caves and islands tend to be packed with tourists.
From this perspective, I enjoyed my time in Ninh Binh much more, although the two experiences cannot really be compared, as Ha Long Bay is beautiful and every bit worth the hype- my only worry being the ill-effects of such massive tourist footfall on a natural wonder like this.
As suspected, I soon learned that 25 years of tourism meant that there were approximately 500 boats conducting (overnight and day) cruises every day, and are required to stay within 14km distance from the harbor for safety purposes. Thankfully there are no new boats allowed, in an effort to protect the place, which has about 3000 limestone caves!
After much contemplation, I decided to take an overnight cruise instead of just a day trip, even though it was above my planned budget. I figured it’s worth experiencing at least once, and I decided to make up for the expense by cutting down on other comforts on the trip. I recommend doing the same, as the latter doesn’t give enough to really absorb and enjoy the experience. At the same time, a longer trip also seemed like a waste, as you pretty much repeat the same activities again (unless you’re on a private cruise).
My cruise had about 20 people in total, including a large Kiwi family, a couple from England, another couple from Spain, a Vietnamese family settled in the USA, and me. This mix of different nationalities and age groups (youngest was ten years old, and the oldest 80+) in itself was an interesting experience. Since I was by myself, I was temporarily adopted by the Vietnamese family and over every meal, I got to hear fascinating stories about how they immigrated to the USA (by boat) during the war!
We visited one of the biggest limestone caves in Ha Long Bay, the Sung Sot Cave (which means ‘surprise cave’), where our guide pointed at everything from an elephant, to a happy Buddha, to Lion King, to Romeo and Juliet carved out on the rocks… don’t ask. While the caves were magnificent, they were also packed with tourists!
Next, we went to Titop Beach, which, again, was quite crowded, as most cruises follow the same itinerary. Apart from swimming in the designated area, you can hike up to the viewpoint above the stretch, which was quite rewarding with its panoramic view!
We were also taken to a few smaller caves, similar to the ones in Ninh Binh, where we got to kayak through the caves by ourselves, which was super fun!
When I say Vietnam for me was all about ‘East Meets West’, the cruise wasn’t spared either. The speakers in my room played piano covers of old English classics, giving the whole experience a Western, old-world touch. I loved it, in spite of knowing this is as touristy as it can get! To top this, the Captain of our cruise also gave us a Tai Chi lesson early the next morning.
Everything else aside, my favourite experience on the cruise was at night post-dinner, when we all went on the terrace. It had been raining on and off all day, and at this point, although there was no rain, there was crazy thunder, which was absolutely spectacular to witness! This lasted for over an hour, and all we did was stare up at the sky in awe! (Check out my Instagram feed for footage of this.)
All in all, I’m not sure if all of the above was worth the money and experience. This wasn’t the kind of travel I particularly enjoy, but one can’t take away how beautiful Ha Long Bay is, and cannot be experienced the same way without taking the cruise. Next time, if I can afford it and have the time, I’d prefer going to one of the less popular Bays.
If there’s one place that friends who’d been to Vietnam told me I’d love, it was Hoi An, and so there was no question of skipping it, even though it was a bit far from Ha Noi.
Hoi An is a charming, colourful, old canal-town in Central Vietnam, and often referred to as the ‘Venice of the East’. I didn’t know this while planning my trip though, and having been to Venice, the first thought that struck me when I reached was indeed that it felt so much like Venice.
With its countless lantern shops, Chinese wood-houses, Japanese bridges, colourful French buildings, dotted with people wearing the traditional Vietnamese conical cap- the Non La, it was everything that Instagram and countless blogs preview it to be! Any side you look, it’s like a picture postcard frame.
The flipside of this is that it’s packed with people, and I felt it lacked the authentic small-town vibe I imagine it had in the past. I soon learned that the Ancient Town, which once saw a footfall of not more than 2,000 people, currently receives a daily footfall of over 10,000 people! Yes- let that blow your mind.
The Ancient Town of Hoi An is best explored by foot or cycle early in the morning before the sea of visitors trickle in. I also witnessed some of the most stunning sunsets here, so make sure you catch it- it’s almost like a stop-motion picture in the sky!
Some offbeat ways to explore this lovely city and get away from the crowd is to take a motorbike (or bicycle) tour of the countryside, learn how to make the famous traditional lanterns, or take a photography class!
I personally did a motorbike tour and it was certainly the highlight of this leg of my trip! I don’t know how to ride a bike, so I rode pillion and highly recommend Hoi An Motorbike Tour Adventures, as the owner, Mr. Phu, is one of the safest drivers I’ve sat behind! He took me on a full-day tour of the countryside, visiting several villages, an oyster farm, a Cham temple, some lovely local restaurants that are off the tourist map, and the Hai Van pass of Top Gear fame.
The route as such takes you to Hue (3 hours away), but since I didn’t have time (or money) to head there, I just did the pass, and it was simply beautiful!!! The kind of travel experience I felt lacking in much of my trip to Vietnam was instantly fulfilled with this bike tour, and I’m so glad I went for it (after much contemplation as it was over my budget! Lesson: Go with your gut).
The An Bang beach is just a 15-minute ride from Hoi An town, so make sure you head here for some beach time. There are also numerous farm stays available in the outskirts of Hoi An, if you’re looking to experience the countryside in more depth and can ride a bike.
Final (Honest) Reflections
Remnants of A Colonial Past
Overall, Vietnam truly embodied ‘East Meets West’ for me, and throughout my trip, I was quite fascinated by this.
While the notion of ‘East Meets West’ may sound poetic, it can also be chaotic and conflicting, with western culture overriding local traditions, culture, and way of life purely due to its economic and historical power. This was an interesting experience and pushed me to reflect on the long-lasting impact of colonialism, and the tussle between recognizing it and normalizing (sometimes even celebrating) it.
While I loved the French architecture, food and pop-culture inspirations (I found French movie posters, magnets and books in the most unassuming street-side shops- something not very common even in parts of Europe), I also wished that I got as much insight, as easily, into Vietnamese culture as well.
Tourism: A Double-edged Sword
Growing tourism, particularly in developing countries that are still struggling to promote/manage it can be quite the double-edged sword. As I mentioned earlier, many of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Ha Long Bay and Hoi An end up with way more tourist footfall than it is prepared to take. On one hand, this generates revenue for the locals, but on the other hand, it has an adverse effect on the environment, local people and culture.
From this point of view, Divya and Vikas (travel bloggers) suggest alternate options to most of the popular places in Vietnam. While I had read their blog prior to traveling to Vietnam, I couldn’t try this alternative route due to limitations of time, money, company and language barrier. However, the next time I visit Vietnam (and I’m sure I will visit again someday), I will definitely plan it in a way where I spend more time in the lesser-known parts of Vietnam, not just to experience the kind of offbeat travel I like, but also to help protect these famous tourist sites that might soon become extinct if we don’t take care.
Fair Skin Rules
Finally, I couldn’t help but notice the regard for fair skin in Vietnam. Again, not uncommon coming from India, but it was so widely prevalent (and evident) that I couldn’t help but be disturbed by it. Local women wrapped their faces in scarves, wore full-sleeved shirts in peak afternoon, young men wore thick leather jackets while riding their bikes, and even my motorbike tour guide double-checked with me if I’d be ok getting severely tanned through the course of the day while riding the bike. Upon speaking to a few local people, I further confirmed my observation that the idea of fair skin being beautiful was quite deep-rooted in their community, and extended to men as well.
This often also leads to reverence towards fair-skinned people from the West. Having experienced this in India as well, it made me wonder what it would take for us to get over this obsession (or is it just colonial hangover?).
All in all, as suspected, Vietnam was quite an interesting experience for me. It pushed me to think, confront my discomforts, find the extraordinary in the ordinary, and celebrate the colour in the chaos! If you get the chance to visit, don’t pass, and also know that there’s a good chance that your experience might be very different from mine!
You can find all the information with regard to visa types and requirements here. Getting an e-Visa is super convenient through the online portal, and you can pay the fee electronically and upfront with your application (you don’t require any actual bookings or bank statements for this). If you’re planning on getting a Visa on Arrival, you still require an approval letter from the Embassy- so you might as well just get the e-Visa (I received mine within 4 days).
Best Time to Visit
While the best time to visit Vietnam is considered to be spring (February to April) and autumn (August to October), if you don’t mind dealing with the humidity and occasional showers, summertime (May to July) is a great time to score cheap flight deals and enjoy off-season benefits.
It’s best to carry money in US Dollars and get it converted to Vietnamese Dong (VND) at the airport or at the money exchange and jewelry shops in the city. The jewellery shops typically offer a better rate than the money exchange counters at the airport or your hotel, but just make sure you go to a reputed one (lots of leads online, depending on where you’re staying).
It’s useful to have a working phone with the internet in order to use Google Maps and necessary apps. Most companies have tourist SIMs with short term plans (such as 1 day, 7 days, 15 days, 1 month, etc.) that are usually cheaper than international roaming plans. I got a Viettel SIM in Ha Noi airport itself and was quite happy with the coverage and speed throughout my trip.
The best way to explore Vietnam, in my opinion, is by foot. For farther distances, Grab is the best app-based taxi service and quite reasonably priced- and I’d recommend using GrabBike over GrabCar/GrabTaxi as bikes tend to whiz through the notorious traffic much faster.
Vietnam also has a fairly connected bus and train service, and most hostels/hotels/hosts/agents should be able to help you out with the bookings (it’s best to do this once you get there rather than booking by yourself if you don’t know much about it).
Needless to say, there are plenty of hostels, Airbnbs and hotels to choose from in Vietnam. I stayed at the hostels and Airbnbs mentioned below (mostly mid-range options that were comfortable and yet didn’t dig a hole in my pocket).
Little Charm Hanoi Hostel, Ha Noi
This Italian-styled hostel is very popular amongst travelers and located right in the center of the Old Quarter, making it super convenient to explore the area. This isn’t a party hostel, but they have a nice cafe cum bar where you can meet people (they also offer free beer every evening), a small indoor pool (feels a bit cramped) and also organizes free walking tours every afternoon. The staff is super helpful, and they provide free luggage storage for up to a month, provide paid laundry service, and also help with tour bookings (though I found these to be a bit pricey). The rooms and toilets are clean, and the beds very comfortable. I had a wonderful time staying here, however, at times I missed the “warmth” of a less commercial hostel.
While this cafe cum homestay has some stunning views of the mountains and the valley, as a hostel/homestay I wouldn’t recommend staying here. The service is poor and doesn’t have the cleanest setup. The food and coffee at the cafe were mediocre though pricey for the quality. They have a lovely seating area and the manager was helpful with bus ticket bookings, but other than that, it’s just a nice place to click pretty photos, nothing more.
There are plenty of other homestay and hotel options in Sa Pa. Indigo Snail Homestay came across as a nice option for next time (they have dorms as well as private rooms).
The cruise leader and staff on board were very polite and the service was good. The room was tidy with a wonderful view, however, the bathroom reeked of a weird smell. The cruise was a bit expensive for me but I still went ahead with it for the experience, but to be honest, I didn’t find it to be value for money personally. However, most other cruises also offer similar experiences at a similar cost. One night stay is more than sufficient and the cruise includes exploring nearby caves, a hike, short tai chi, cooking class, and kayaking.
I was intrigued by the concept of this homestay and booked myself here to simply check out the decor and experience it for myself. The interiors of this homestay are decorated with remnants from the war, such as trunks, barrels, guns, and bullets, giving it a feel of a war museum. You might love the concept or hate it, but it sure was unique. It is also conveniently located and the hosts are very helpful with recommendations and bookings.
Airbnbs in Ha Noi
There are several nice Airbnbs to choose from in Ha Noi. I stayed at Pan’s and Rose’s place on different stopovers and had a good experience with both. The hosts were very responsive and helpful, and both apartments had a basic kitchen with equipment, helping me cut some cost on food towards the latter half of my trip!
What To Carry
It’s best to travel light and a medium-sized rucksack is more than enough, especially if you’re traveling in the summer. Since I went to Vietnam in June-July (which is peak summer with occasional showers), I mostly carried light, breathable summer clothes.
Some places, like Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay, can get a bit chilly at night and early mornings, so it’s useful to have light pullover (also useful on flights and buses where the A/C can sometimes make you cold).
Most temples require you to wear clothing that extends to below the knees, so having a pair of cotton pajamas is useful, as it can be too humid for regular jeans or trousers.
Shorts, skirts, dresses and cotton t-shirts work wonders, and most hostels have laundry service or a washing machine, so you don’t have to carry too much.
Be sure to pack a quick-dry towel, pocket-raincoat or light umbrella, swimsuit, hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses.
Walking shoes or a good pair of floaters are useful because you’re likely to be walking quite a bit and would want to avoid blisters.
Carry a smaller backpack for day trips and shorter trips (many hostels provide free luggage storage so you don’t have to carry your big rucksack everywhere).
Enjoyed reading this post? Subscribe to my newsletter on offbeat travel and other musings!
A Taste of Thailand: First Timer’s Guide to Ten Days in the Land of Smiles
Rendezvous With a Burmese Monk in Thailand
Five Fun Ways to Experience Chiang Mai
Of Silk, Sand & Skeletons: A Week in the Kingdom of Cambodia