10 days never feels long enough to experience a country, especially one as diverse as Vietnam. One advantage of such a short holiday is that you never let a moment go to waste. This is how my girlfriend and I approached our recent trip to Vietnam – let’s enjoy every moment.
We flew into Ho Chi Minh City which is formerly known as Saigon when it was under French colonial rule. The French and Spanish conquered Vietnam in 1859 and you see many classical Western-style buildings and French villas throughout Ho Chi Minh.
A couple of popular landmarks from this era are the Notre Damn Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh City Municipal Theatre, and the Ben Thanh Market which was built by the French in 1870 and was named Les Halles Centrales, before changing name to Ben Thanh Market in 1912.
Ben Thanh Market is the perfect place to haggle for cheap clothes and enjoy some quality street food. One rule of thumb is that whatever price you first get offered you should automatically half it and if no deal is done, be prepared to walk away.
Even though prices are low, it is still a lot of fun to barter and engage with the local vendors. They tend to inflate prices by double or triple when they see that you’re a tourist. Although, at the end of the day, you don’t mind paying a little bit extra if you can share in a laugh or two.
Workshop Coffee is located in an old colonial era building close to another colonial icon: Hotel Continental. A dark stairwell leads to a top level space with high ceilings, industrial lighting, re-purposed timber and trendy interior design.
This is a favourite hang out spot for tech-savvy locals who enjoy the free Wifi and power outlets. You won’t find Vietnamese coffee here, instead you can order espresso, v60 pourover and Aeropress. L’usine is another trendy Ho Chi Minh hotspot with three different cafés located in District 1.
After overloading on caffeine, we decided to learn more about Vietnam’s history at the War Remnants Museum. The museum has been criticised internationally for lacking balance as it displays many of the war crimes committed by the United States and neglects the atrocities committed by the North Vietnamese.
Regardless of the politics of the Vietnam War, this museum was a haunting reminder of the costs of war, especially the area dedicated to the victims of Agent Orange – a powerful herbicide used by the U.S. military to eliminate forest cover and crops for Viet Cong troops.
It took me a while to shake off seeing a group of children at the museum who were descendants of Agent Orange victims. They all had severe disabilities ranging from crippling blindness to limb deformities. It was quite harrowing.
Nonetheless, we managed to brighten the mood by making our way to the famous Café Apartment and posed for a few Instagram pictures with the locals as the sun set over Saigon’s Nguyen Hue Walking Street.
Next Stop Da Nang and the Beautiful Hoi An
So, with that in mind, we flew to Da Nang and then took a private shuttle bus 40 minutes south to our homestay in Hoi An. The best word to describe Hoi An would be ‘magical’. We explored this romantic little Vietnamese town on scooters, bicycles and good-old fashioned walking.
The market was a great place to eat cheap Ban Mhi and Pho, and we found some amazing artisan shops in the surrounding streets selling everything from designer Vietnamese clothes to decorative lanterns. We also found an awesome brunch spot called the Cocobox café – highly recommended!
At night the river lights up with a display of hundreds of boats, lanterns and floating candles. We hustled through the street food stalls and tried a few BBQ skewers before settling in at a riverside restaurant for a couple of cold beers watching the world go by.
Even though it’s the most touristy thing you can do, you’ve got to take a short boat ride down the river and send a floating candle away with a few wishes. We are still waiting to see if our wishes come true. Fingers crossed!
The next day we had a flight scheduled for Da Nang to Hanoi at around 7pm. So, we decided to make the most of the day by jumping on our scooters early in the morning and (ambitiously) we headed for the Ba Na Hills in search of the much-hyped Golden Bridge.
Unfortunately, I was on Google Maps duty and entered the wrong address. We scootered down dodgy roads, through backstreets and small villages before we arrived literally in the middle of nowhere 2 hours away from the Golden Bridge.
At first, my girlfriend Kat looked so disappointed. But then, as you do when you travel, we both just looked at each other and laughed hysterically. Within the next 2 minutes, the heavens opened up and it started to poor down with rain!
What’s that famous clichéd quote? “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” Well, that certainly applied in our case. We rushed into a tiny little restaurant in the hills with a local family who sheltered us and cooked us up some much-needed Pho.
Exploring the Treasures of Cat Ba Island
We flew to Hanoi that night and the next morning we were awake early ready to travel to Cat Ba Island. I would recommend using Cat Ba Express who will take you from their office in the Old Quarter in Hanoi directly to your hotel in Cat Ba Island.
Cat Ba Island is the largest island in Halong Bay and a great place to base yourself while you explore Halong Bay. The town itself, however, is pretty disappointing. Concrete high-rise hotels dominate the main streets and there is a lot of noisy construction work going on.
That being said, the island is still beautiful and worth visiting. We stayed at a nice little homestay called Cat Ba Homely with a lovely family of 4. The moment we arrived they greeted us with lemon tea and welcomed us into their home.
Cat Ba Homely is located just around the corner from Cannon Fort which offers incredible views over Cat Ba Island. As you can tell by the photos, this is one of the most astounding views in Vietnam with panoramas of jungle-clad hills rolling down to colourful fishing boats and beautiful karst formations.
Hot tip: make sure you arrive at Cannon Fort with plenty of time to spare. We arrived just after 5pm (with 30 minutes until sunset) and the lookout was absolutely packed with tourists. There are also a few good viewing points on the road up to Cannon Fort if you’ve got the legs for walking up.
The best way to experience Cat Ba is to explore the island on a scooter. We heard through the grapevine that there were a couple of amazing beaches not including Cat Co 1, 2 & 3, but we had no luck finding them. It was still a lot of fun to hoon around on scooters looking for hidden gems.
One place we highly recommend is hiking up the top of Cat Ba National Park to Ngu Lam Peak. The walk is about 1km long up a winding rocky pathway which leads to a couple of lookouts with an elevation of 3,280 feet high. The walk up takes about 30-40 minutes.
Although it took us a bit longer because we hiked up in our flip-flops which was tough work but well worth it for the incredible views. I wouldn’t recommend using flip-flops unless you are a mad Kiwi like myself and think flip-flops are appropriate footwear for any occasion.
One sad aspect of Cat Ba National Park was the number of plastic bottles littered and piled up around the place. As we were to find out, this would become a theme of Halong Bay too.
Halong Bay: A Wonder of the World that Desperately Needs to be Cleaned Up
Halong Bay is one of the wonders of the natural world but unfortunately it is currently infested with rubbish. I had high hopes of Halong Bay and accepted that there would be many tourists. But I didn’t expect to see this level of rubbish – endless beer cans, plastic bags and water bottles.
We started our Halong Bay adventure with a private boat exploring Lan Ha Bay and cruising to hidden spots where the tourist boats don’t normally go. It was lovely to have the boat to ourselves and enjoy the wind in our hair as we looked out over the green emerald waters and limestone karst formations.
On a few occasions, we stopped by secluded beaches. From the distance these beaches looked stunning. Golden sands with not a single person in sight. However, as soon as we got close we saw piles of rubbish washed up on the shore. Halong Bay attracts over 5 million tourists per year and is having trouble containing the amount of rubbish that ends up in the water.
Despite the rubbish, we decided to join a small group cruise the next day which included more of Halong Bay and stopping off at Monkey Island. This was a lot of fun. The best part was when we anchored at a secluded bay (which was clean) and jumped off the boat into the emerald green waters.
Missed Opportunities: Sa Pa and Ban Gioc Waterfalls
Going into our trip, Sa Pa was high on the list of must-see places. Unfortunately, we ran out of time and had to catch our flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and then back home to Melbourne. I have heard wonderful things about Sa Pa and hope to visit one day.
Another beautiful place we missed was Ban Gioc Waterfalls located by the border of China in the North-eastern corner of Vietnam. But with only 10 days up our sleeves we felt like we gave Vietnam a fair crack.
Frequently Asked Questions of Vietnam
Is Vietnam Cheap?
Very cheap. We spent between $10 USD – $20 USD per night for a private double room. The cheapest beer we found was around 70 cents. You can also hire a scooter for around $5 USD per day.
Is Vietnam Safe as a Communist/Socialist Country?
Short answer yes. We never felt threatened or unsafe on our trip. The people are very friendly always offering a smile and having a laugh. I met one young Vietnamese man on the plane ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang. He told me: “we are socialist only by name” with a glimmer in his eye.
Do you need a Visa to Travel to Vietnam?
Yes for some countries you will need to apply for a Visa before you can enter. Being a New Zealander, I needed to apply for a single-entry Visa which cost me around $17 AUD + a $25 USD stamp fee on arrival. For more information see the link here: vietnamvisa.org