10 Day Itinerary
After leaving Malaysia, we headed to Vietnam. We were doing North to South Vietnam by way of bus, sleeper train, motorcycles, plane and taxi. To add to the spirit of adventure we decided to not plan and just pick our route as we went along. Armed with just a travel book and recommendations by people we met along the way, we covered nearly 2,000 miles in just 10 days, seeing 3 UNESCO World heritage sites and exploring 5 different places. It was pretty jam packed!
It is possible to pack lots into a trips without feeling like you tied down by a strict schedule. Below I included my Vietnam Food Experiences, keeping fit while abroad and an itinerary that got a pretty perfect combination of not having too strict plans yet fitting a lot in. There is an art to it, hopefully you can take some inspiration for your next trip.
First we headed Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. It’s a bustling city. There were masses of people on motorcycles, coming from every direction, carrying everything 50inch TVs to mattresses on these small bikes. As traffic lights didn’t appear to be adhered to, trying to cross the road through oncoming traffic, you were literally taking your life into your own hands. This was even more apparent when we did a tour of the city on a tuk-tuk. For adrenaline junkies, I would recommend this! Mid tour, the driver unexpectedly hopped off the tuk-tuk and got down on one knee in the middle of traffic, to take a picture of us. We were in such shock at the near death experience for the three of us, we laughed for a solid hour after it! The Vietnamese really do seem to have their traffic navigation skills down to art form.
Pro tip: Take a tour of the city and you’ll fit in a lot. Some points of interest in Hanoi: Get a massage (10$/hr) to stretch out your muscles after your flight. Go and see a traditional water puppet show. After the show, head to the old quarter. This ia where it’s all happening at night time. One bar/cafe that stood out to me was an old military style place called Cong. Amidst the ivy, you can sit out on the balcony and read old pieces of propaganda. There are also lots of interesting places to visit i.e. The Museum of Literature and the museum of Ethnology. Book tickets through your hotel for the best discounts.
2. Halong Bay
After a 1.5 day stint in Hanoi, we hopped on a bus and just under 4 hours later we arrived in Halong Bay. I was beyond excited to see the majestic emerald waters and 2,000 limestone islands covered by rain forests that I had only seen in photos. Despite being overcast when we got there, it was easy to see why this place is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. We boarded the Junk Boat Cruise which we would stay in for the night. That evening we had a cookery class, where everyone on board was shown how to make traditional Vietnamese dumplings and a few side dishes. For the next two days, we did some kayaking around the islands, admiring the floating villages (there is even a small floating school) and then we went to explore the caves and saw how pearls were made on the pearl farm.
Pro tip: Look up the weather forecast before you go, as you may want to hold off going until it is a sunny or at least clear day. We booked the junk boat tour through our helpful hotel staff, which meant the price was discounted and they arranged for us to be collected.
Booking online tends to be more pricey and it’s also good to get recommendations from people in the know as there are several hundred Junk Boat tour operators. The price different varies quite a bit between some of them, the more expensive ones offer things like Tai Chi classes in the mornings so if you're not too limited by budget I would go for a more expensive one. I think one night is enough here.
3. Phong Nha
After Halong bay we headed to Phong Nha. This was FAVORITE place in Vietnam! It was action-packed and full of adventure. We stayed in a lovely place called The Lake House. Bicycles and kayaks were included in the room. The balcony opened onto a lake that was surrounded by mountains. So far, pretty ideal. We then rented a motorbike,. I mean how dangerous could it be? Turns out, pretty dangerous. Motorcycles accidents in Vietnam are extremely common. The amount of people we crossed paths with who had serious injuries from falling off. Not going too fast or too far, we miraculously got by without a scratch.
The next day a bus of us went to UNESCO World Heritage Site, Phong Nha- Ke Bang National Park followed to be followed by a day of adventure. The first stop was Hang Son Doong, another cave. At this stage I had already been in two caves in Halong bay, seen one cave, seen them all though!? Or so I had thought. This was beautiful and vast. The tour guide informed us that we were standing inside the worlds largest cave. After the cave, we zip lined into another set of smaller caves wearing only our swim gear and helmets with head torches, we went into this dark caves and chilled in these mud baths. After exiting the caves, we kayaked back to the zip line area and played some water games. Followed with an amazing lunch (picture below). It's an experience I'll never forgot, and I high recommend doing it if you're near by (Link).
Pro tip: Be very, very cautious riding a motorcycle and if you do get into an accident be careful going into pharmacies. I had a doctor in tow with me so knew what medicine we needed. When he went into the pharmacy to buy me some eye drops, the pharmacist apparently gave him something extremely strong and not recommended. He knew to hand it back and ask for something containing a specific ingredient. Google is your friend, so do your research before purchasing medicine here. If you go to phong nha and the adventure caves, bring a go pro. I wish I had one with me!
4. Hoi An
To get to our next destination we get an overnight train from Da Nang to Dong Hoi. The overnight cabin was only free for 2 hours so when the 2 hours were up we had to sleep in a seat beside hens, and chickens and crying babies. It really was all part of the authentic Vietnamese experience so I didn't mind but I would advise trying to book a sleeper cabin in advance, especially if you’re travelling around a lot you will relish the sleep. We happened to arrive in Hoi An, just in time for the Full Moon Lantern Festival. The whole town is filled with lanterns. It is a sight to be seen. The old town is a UNESCO heritage site. We hopped on bikes that we got from the hotel, and went exploring. It's so humid there that cycling is nice breezy activity too. You can wander around the night time street market, followed by a boat cruise down one of the rivers. We bought some lanterns and let them float off down the river. This town is also renowned for its high-quality tailoring so this would be the spot to pick something up on your travels on Vietnam. I got a gorgeous cocktail dress made for such a bargain.
Pro tip: Be careful with your money here. I got robbed by a taxi man stating we hadn’t paid about one minute after I had given him the money + tip. Within, what felt like seconds we were surrounded by a group of Vietnamese men shouting at us. I had to hand over whatever I had, which was the equivalent of 50euro. That was just a case of bad luck, but to be aware that these things can happen to tourists. Do barter with the tailoring places and go to several of them to get an estimate of price ranges, as some will try their luck and try to charge extortionate prices.
5. Ho Chi Minh
After a Hoi An, we hopped on a plane and headed to our final destination, Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon), and it was back to city life. We had come full circle. Things I would recommend doing in Ho chi Minh:
A. Chu Chi Tunnels-
Vietnam was arguably the most devastating war. I had read a book on the Vietnamin the run to the trip to brush up on my knowledge but nothing would prepare me for going to see the Chu Chi Tunnels. Viet Cong soldiers used these tunnels as hiding spots, supply routes and living quarters during combat. I got to fire an M16 assault rifle at the firing rang. It was a surreal experience thinking of the terror people experienced there years ago. The tour guide walked us through some of the booby traps that were laid out and told us about the signals the soldiers would give to warn each other that there was a booby trap on a certain area i.e. a leaf, with a stick strategically placed through it.
Pro tip: Pay extra to get a good guide for the tunnels. You pay for what get on these tours. You can miss out on a lot by going with the cheaper ones, some of them don’t include entry into the underground tunnels nor do they go through the history. Oh and go to the shooting range. It’s really fun!
B. Saigon Opera House- This opera house is 119 years old, having been built by the French is 1898. It’s a stunning piece if architecture so I had to book tickets to see a show there. It was a sophisticated cultural show featuring traditional music, dance and acrobatics. Beautiful choreography and stunning optical illusions lend to a story about how a rural Vietnamese community adapts to urbanization.
C. Rooftop bars-
Saigon Saigon Rooftop bar: Well worth a visit. This iconic landmark was the setting for daily war correspondents briefing during the Vietnam War. Get a spot out on the balcony, enjoy the jazz band music and soak in the views of Lam Son Square.
Chill Skybar: This place exceeded expectations. As soon as we reached the 25th floor of the New World building and walked out onto the balcony, the views were incredible. The DJ was off the charts, playing dance and hip- hop music. If you’re in Ho Chi Minh, I would check this place out. Remember to bring your wallet (cocktails are nearly 20euro here) and dress code is smart.
D. Visit Ben Thanh market - Not to be missed. Food, art- you name it, they have it.
Food and Fitness Vietnam
Dining out- The food here is so cheap. You can get 4-course meals for about €4. Rice is the side dish for most meals here. Skip the rice and order another meat dish. Another great option is a veg stir fry, sans noodles. You’re going to need to alter your Paleo diet a small bit in Vietnam but you can get by if you alter the dishes slightly for example if you really want soup, ask for it extra hot and order Pho with extra bean sprouts and no noodles.
Fitness: Opt for walking and cycing tours so you can site see but also get some cardio in. I also packed some resistance bands so, in between all the Vietnamese food, I could get some workouts in. We were on the go quite literally all the time on this holiday, from walking to kayaking, swimming and cycling, these leisurely activities were great but the resistance bands were good for getting the heart rate up.
We were on the go quite literally all the time on this holiday, from walking to kayaking, swimming and cycling, these leisurely activities were great but the resistance bands were good for getting the heart rate up. Everywhere we went it was humid, so very humid, so we used the resistance bands in the air-conditioned hotel room. You often feel slightly out of sync coming back from a holiday having possibly over indulged or not moved your body at all, so next time try incorporating some fitness into your trip.
How to not get sick- avoid: tap water and ice, just stick to drinking bottled water. Avoid salads, raw meat, soups and raw veg. I had all of the above and got sick. Instead opt for fruit with skin like banana, oranges, watermelon. Eat at food stalls at your own risk- personally I avoided them but if they look to be clean, and have decent hygiene standards and prepare food freshly they could be ok.
Cookery Classes- Definitely add at least one cookery class to your bucket list. Use an app like Trip Advisor or Foursquare to find one that suits yours needs. Some include a half day at the market before heading to the kitchen to get your cook on. If you’re on a time constraint, then you can opt for just the cookery class. I went to the Saigon Culinary Art Centre and found it great.
Happy exploring! x