by Emma Higgins
After living abroad in Thailand for a year, teaching English, I took a three-month trip to travel around southeast Asia. I spent the first three weeks of that journey in Vietnam. Going into the trip, I didn’t feel incredibly excited about Vietnam — not that I was bummed, but I just didn’t have high expectations. Looking back, though, it was probably one of my favorite countries.
I was in Vietnam from mid-September to mid-October, and I personally think it was a great time to go. It was hot — but Vietnam will always be hot. I visited right on the brink of tourist season. It wasn’t too crowded yet, and it also wasn’t monsooning anymore.
I didn’t go into Vietnam with a set plan at all. I had a plane ticket into the country and a plane ticket out three weeks later. My “plan” included traveling to a city, hanging out for a couple of days, then figuring out where to go next and how to get there. At times, it was stressful, but it was ultimately a great decision. I’m really glad I did it that way. It allowed for a lot of flexibility and exploration.
Good Eats All Around Vietnam
My plan was to start in Hanoi, Vietnam (north) and work my way down through the country, ending in Ho Chi Minh City. On my first day, I got into Hanoi around 7 pm after a long travel day. I was starving and exhausted. Luckily, I was staying right in the middle of Old Town and there was food — literally — on every corner. I sat down at the first street stall I could find and ate a life-changing bowl of chicken noodle soup.
Vietnamese food is amazing and I’m sure most people have enjoyed a westernized version of it at home. But the thing that makes Vietnamese food great is the simplicity of it. My chicken noodle soup was literally chicken broth, chicken, noodles, and herbs, made right there on the sidewalk. And it was spectacular. Vietnamese cuisine is founded on the ideas of fresh and easy, and since the cuisine’s main ingredients are water and rice, it’s one of the healthiest in the world.
Some other amazing dishes I had in northern Vietnam were beef pho with chili (pho bo), fish soup with lemon and dill (bun cha), spring rolls, and banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich on baguette). Probably my favorite meal I had was a meal called banh xeo. Banh xeo is a rice flour and egg pancake, stuffed with meat and vegetables. My personal favorite is shrimp, diced onion, bean sprouts, topped with a little sweet chili sauce. It’s like an egg taco and it’s fantastic.
Hanoi was probably my favorite city in Vietnam, and I just got lucky that it was also my first. Hanoi is the epitome of Vietnam, with absurd traffic, coffee shops everywhere, and life happening outside and all at once. It’s loud, chaotic, and charming. Moving south through the country, the lifestyle might relax a little, but the Vietnamese chaos never disappears.
The Gorgeous Sides of Vietnam
The next two cities on the itinerary were Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh. They’re both very similar, geographically, except there’s an inland one and an island one surrounded by water. Otherwise, the mountains and limestone features of both cities are the same. The food, the people, and the culture are also very similar. And while these cities are much smaller and less crowded than Hanoi, they have so much to see.
Halong is famous. If you’ve ever looked into traveling to Vietnam you’ve probably seen boat tours around the bay. People know it for its beautiful and plentiful limestone islands that pop up in the water. Some are small islands while others are big mountains where you can dock and look around. During the boat tour, I saw a beautiful cave and got to lounge on a gorgeous beach. Just simply sailing through the bay was spectacular.
A little to the south, Ninh Binh also has the beautiful limestone hills and mountains – they’re just on land. The city is really cool to drive through because while the ground is very flat, everywhere you look there are rows and rows of mountains. I hiked up one of the mountains, Mua Cave, and it was amazing. It was so cool to see all of the peaks and valleys from so high up. More than just mountains, Ninh Binh also has rivers and beautiful lotus gardens.
Scratch the Surface
Vietnam doesn’t only offer natural beauty, though. Hue was my next stop, a city located in central Vietnam. Hue is an ancient, imperial city, and one that has been around since at least 1789. The city’s citadel is now preserved and considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Literally worlds of history attached themselves to this beautiful town.
Some people don’t know that Hue and Vietnam have a very artistic culture as well. An old, abandoned water park turned tourist must-see and a local hang out became one of the coolest things I saw the whole trip. Over the years, graffiti and age caught up to it a little. Nonetheless, it seemed like a great representation of the art and history that many know Vietnam for. It was beautiful, secular, and bursting with history. And Hue is like that everywhere — even coffee shops and bike taxis are creative and fun to look at.
The thing that stands out most to me about Hue, though, is the culture. Yes, Vietnam can be loud and chaotic, but at its heart is compassion and kindness. The host I had for my Airbnb in Hue was one of the nicest people I have ever met. He showed me around the city, cooked for me, and offered tons of help. I wouldn’t have gotten half the experience I did without him. And this is just how Vietnamese people are: helpful and warm-hearted.
From Hue, I made the journey to Da Nang. When I bought the bus ticket, someone told me it would be about a three-and-a-half-hour journey. But, it ended up being much longer than that — a common theme among my entire trip. What was supposed to be an easy and fun bus ride, became a full-day event. We would make stops often — to pick up people, to pick up packages, once to even pick up a motorbike. And this is just how it works in Vietnam. Nobody is in a rush, and nobody is bothered with efficiency.
Da Nang is Vietnam’s third-biggest city and is very similar to any metropolitan area. It has a lot of cool attractions, like the city, a beach, and a few mountains. So maybe a lot cooler than your average city. Very close by was Hoi An, another ancient city preserved. To get to Hoi An, you could either take an expensive taxi or drive motorbikes. After living in Thailand for a year, I felt confident in my moped-driving skills and made the hour’s journey to Hoi An. Motorbike riding is very common in Asia, and you can rent a motorbike in most cities. I could write a whole article about motorbikes and parking, but to keep from boring you I’ll sum it up: be careful.
After getting too close for comfort in traffic and almost getting scammed for parking in Hoi An, I finally made it to the ancient city. I grabbed coconut coffee and walked around a bit. These cities have really become gentrified and a lot of the culture has been replaced by tourist stops and shops. Most old buildings now sell counterfeit purses or the same “authentic” souvenir magnets. My favorite tourist scams include the completely overpriced tours of rice paddy fields.
Bang for Your Buck. . . or Dong
One of the biggest draws to SEAsia, for a lot of people, is the cost. SEAsia, and Vietnam particularly, is crazy cheap. If you’ve heard anything about Vietnam it’s probably about the 5 cent beers and 50cent banh mis. And it’s true — everything is ridiculously cheap. And that is especially apparent in a city like Ho Chi Minh. The conversion rate in Vietnam is 1USD to about 23,000 Vietnamese dong, so math could get a little tricky at times. It was absolutely worth it, though!
After leaving Da Nang, I made my way south to the capital city. Ho Chi Minh is the biggest city in Vietnam, with more than a million people. It’s also huge and has many different neighborhoods like most large cities. And like most cities, each neighborhood has its own personality and signature. There is District 1 for backpackers, Little India, Phu Nhuan, Chinatown — and so many more. The best thing about each of these is that they are all different versions of Vietnam. And even though Saigon is a huge city, you can get all of these perspectives of the country at really cheap prices. You get a modern-city-feel for a fraction of a modern-city-price.
Staying in Ho Chi Minh
I stayed in an Airbnb in between the Japanese district and business district. I was walking distance to all of the tourist stops, right next to tons of restaurants, but still right in the heart of a local neighborhood. It was $12 a night (Twelve). All of my meals were cheap and delicious. And while you usually expect to see tourist spots with outrageous prices, places like the War Remnants Museum and the Independence Palace were fairly reasonable. They were well worth it, too. It was really cool to learn about the Vietnam/American War from Vietnam’s point of view.
By this point in my trip, I had two and a half weeks of laundry to do. So after some searching, I found a place doing a kilogram of laundry for 75 cents (USD) — washed, folded, delivered. Sounded fantastic to me! I dropped off a huge backpack of laundry. It was returned the next day for less than $5. These hard-to-believe costs are all over Asia and especially apparent in a city like Ho Chi Minh. It’s one of the reasons I recommend Vietnam to anyone who asks. Not only is a great city — but it’s a great city for a great price.
A Month in Vietnam
Vietnam is one of the coolest countries I’ve ever visited. Even a month might not be enough to fully take advantage of just how awesome it is. You’ll eat some of the best food you’ve ever eaten, while bouncing around to any landscape or city imaginable. There’s plenty of history and culture to see. You’ll get all kinds of comfort-zone-pushing experiences, while being able to stay under budget. Vietnam is truly a fantastic place and I can’t recommend it enough.
I have written a lot more about my trip to Vietnam and Asia in my own personal blog. If traveling to Asia is something you’re interested in, or if you just like to read about other cultures I’d love for you to check it out!