This was George’s second trip to Vietnam and the reason we visited was because he had told me it was his absolute favorite place in all of Southeast Asia. We heard so many great things about it. The people, the food, the different landscapes. We were really excited to visit!
Rewinding back a bit: our journey as a travel couple began when we met whilst backpacking solo in the north of Thailand. We met at our hostel in Chiang Mai and became inseparable ever since. After travelling around Thailand for a few weeks we both went to Cambodia together for a month and continued our travels together for 2 more months!
Then Hanna had to go back to the United States because she had a corporate sales job lined up in Los Angeles. So the two of us ended up doing long distance for 2 years between California and London. We would see each other every 2 months and tried to spend as much time as we could together.
Finally, we got sick of the distance and felt too young to get married just yet and so we decided that our love for travel would be a great way to continue to be together. Then in January of 2019, we packed up our things, moved, sold everything and hit the road. We are planning on travelling around the world together for 2 years!
Travelling from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi
Our recent trip to Vietnam started in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) coming via bus from Cambodia. First impressions of Vietnam was just how busy it was! Arriving in Ho Chi Minh, with all of the motorbikes surrounding you and the sound of the city was really fun.
We spent a total of a week in Ho Chi Minh. There we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Museum. After Ho Chi Minh we went to Da Lat for a week which was a great experience. We spent time admiring all of the gorgeous nature there and the cooler temperatures.
Next we went to Hoi An which is probably one of our favourites of them all! We spent 9 days there and completely fell in love with the Old Quarter and the beauty in Hoi An. We also got tailor made clothes which was a fun experience.
After Hoi An, we rented a motorbike and rode the Hai Van Pass up to Hue. This was a really fun experience. Some of the most beautiful coastal roads we had ever seen. Once we made it to Hue, we stayed there for 5 days and explored the ancient city! One memorable day in Hue was when we went with some local friends to their favorite food places around town.
From Hue, we took the night train to Ninh Binh. The night train was an interesting experience for us. We honestly think it’s all about luck and who you get in your cabin. We didn’t have the best luck unfortunately, but we made it to Ninh Binh nonetheless.
Ninh Binh was also probably one of our favorite places in Vietnam. We stayed for 9 days and really fell in love with the beauty. Bich Dong and the Hang Mua Caves were a highlight. After Ninh Binh we took the bus to Hanoi. Hanoi was where we celebrated George’s birthday and we had a whole week to explore and relax!
Train street and the art museum were two of the best things we did there. Then we went up to Ha Long Bay and spent 3 days there. Mostly to do a certain hike and then a day boat trip! After Ha Long, we took the night bus to Sa Pa. We were in Sa Pa for 2 weeks which seemed like a long time but we loved it.
We did a full day trekking trip with some locals and we also had some much needed rest time. After Sa Pa we headed back to Hanoi for 5 days before we caught our flight to our current destination: Sri Lanka!
Our Favourite Experiences and Destinations in Vietnam
Tam Coc (Ninh Binh) was a place that really took us by surprise! We absolutely loved it there. As opposed to Hoi An where we were expecting to love it, this place blew us away. It was such a quiet yet gorgeous part of Vietnam.
I think one thing we loved about Ninh Binh was that it was less touristy. Not many backpackers either know about it or have time for it. I would say hiking Hang Mua Caves in the early morning was one of the most magical and memorable experiences of our trip. Just taking our motorbike there and riding through the mountains was unforgettable.
If we had to recommend 3 must-do experiences for first-time travellers to Vietnam they would be:
1) Tam Coc (Ninh Binh): While there are still backpackers that make it to Tam Coc, it is definitely more off the beaten track and less crowded than other parts of Vietnam. We would recommend that travellers rent a motorbike here and take it through the mountains. There are plenty of amazing views to ride to.
2) Ha Long Bay Hike: We wrote a whole guide about this hike on our blog. Essentially it is a pretty challenging hike that overlooks all of Ha Long Bay. In our opinion, it has the best view there is. The hike itself is hard to find and is closed off, so it requires a bit of bravery to do. That being said, getting up to the top is not too hard and worth it.
3) Sa Pa / Ha Giang Loop: So many people also miss the North of Vietnam due to time constraints. Sa Pa and the Ha Giang Loop were two places that blew us away. The infinite amount of rice terraces and the beauty of the mountains there are insane! There are very few places in this world that take us back and make us literally say “wow”!
How Vietnam Compares to other Countries in Southeast Asia
We think in general Vietnam is much cheaper than other countries in Southeast Asia. It is also very culturally different than many others. It is a country that has had a divided history and a rough past so you can see how cities differ from north to south.
Also, since it is so large, there is more variety! You can be at the beach down south near some sand dunes, or in the north next to a giant mountain with a flowing river and hundreds of rice terraces.
The people were another reason why we found Vietnam to be one of the best destinations in Southeast Asia. Overall we found the people to be extremely friendly and welcoming. We had the chance to meet locals in different cities and of different ages.
In Hoi An we met locals our age which was fun because they showed us their way of life. They actually invited us to do a karaoke night with them which was such a blast! In Sa Pa we had a local village woman named Sophie as our guide. She was in her late 40’s and gave us an entirely different perspective of her way of life.
Then, of course, there is the food which is arguably the best in Southeast Asia. We tried many local dishes in Vietnam and thoroughly enjoyed them! In Hoi An we went out with some local friends to eat outside on the side of the road. They were serving a traditional hot pot and other Vietnamese sides. We let the guys order for us and it was super tasty.
In Hue, we went to Dong Ba Market to try Bun Bo Hue a traditional noodle soup. We also went out to eat with local friends we made and tried Banh Nam — steamed flat rice dumpling filled with shrimp and wrapped in a banana leaf! We also tried sweet soup: a traditional dessert which consists of different jellies, fruits, beans and ice in a cup.
Visiting the North of Vietnam: Our Number 1 Recommendation in Southeast Asia!
Vietnam is extremely affordable which is great for backpackers. It is easy, however, to spend more because everything is cheaper… if that makes sense. So we would recommend keeping an eye on how much you actually spend. But since Vietnam is such a large country, there is so much variety. If you have the time, do not miss the north!