Do you know the feeling when you travel to a new country but for some reason you can't understand what all the hype is about? This happened to me five years ago when I first visited Vietnam, expecting it to be amazing but not really finding what I was looking for (not that I really knew what to expect)... I just didn't seem to "get" the country and its people. So after a month in Indonesia, Sean and I jumped on a plane to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) with a one month visa, hoping to make sense of it all this time 'round.
We arrive in Saigon in the dark and after initial hiccups of not being able to locate our guest house and then being locked inside, we finally make it back out onto the streets, ready to take in the smells and sights. And what an insult (I mean this in a positive way!) to the senses this city is at night... Every street corner is occupied by vendors selling mouth watering foods, the traffic is pumping, horns are beeping, and the crazy maze of lights and neon signs illuminates the night. I wonder if Saigon ever sleeps?
The next morning we wake up early to wander around the busy Thai Bin market (not to be confused with the much more touristy Ben Than market), where we eat our way through seemingly all of Vietnam's street food at once (this would later turn out not to have been such a good idea). From Banh Mi to pork & lemongrass skewers, noodle soup and of course a glass of iced Vietnamese coffee, this morning at the market does not disappoint. We would just sit on tiny wooden stools for hours, watching the locals get on with their day, women selling their fresh vegetables, scooters delivering all kinds of cargo (including entire pigs), and dogs playing with each other under the market tables, hoping to catch a fish. Despite the busy-ness of the day, and to our amazement, the Vietnamese people always have time for a chat.
On our fifth morning, we get up early and catch a taxi to Saigon train station where, loaded up with breakfast Banh Mi's, we board a four hour train which takes us to the coastal area of Mui Né. A welcome break to the hustle and bustle of the big city, Mui Né is a small fishing town with colourful houses and a palm fringed beach stretching all the way to Phan Tiet - good enough to rest our legs and gaze out to the ocean for a few days before heading further north.
From Mui Né we take the bus inland to Dà Lat, the capital of Lâm Dong Province in southern Vietnam’s Central Highlands, which proves to be a breath of fresh air (the temperature instantly drops by about 10 degrees!) after the craziness and pollution of Saigon. Dà Lat can best be described as a French style hill station, surrounded by pine forests, lakes and waterfalls. Even though we don't explore the countryside but rather opt to sit in one of the hundreds of small coffee shops and watch the world go by, the ride to and from Dà Lat is beautiful.
As if Vietnam wasn't crazy enough to explore by bus and train, we decide to buy a second hand motorbike and take off into the Central Highlands, slowly travelling North to Hoi An. Unfortunately, the bike proves to be a lemon and after numerous repairs, we are forced to ditch it at the side of the road, handing over the keys to a stunned Vietnamese family who happen to live nearby. In the pouring rain, we hail down a mini bus which takes us back to Pleiku, a grey industrial city in the centre of the country, from where we organise a 9 hour sleeper bus to the City of Lanterns - Hội An. Lesson learnt!
Hội An is located on Vietnam's central coast and known for its well-preserved Old Town which showcases a mix of architectural styles, including wooden Chinese shophouses and French colonial buildings. Little laneways of yellow houses weave around endless canals and once dusk settles in, everything is lit up by thousands of colourful silk lanterns - a place for lovers and backpackers alike. If you're into local food, make sure you try some of Hội An's famous dishes including Cao Lầu (pork noodles).
Travelling further north, we ride through the stunning 20 kilometre long Hải Vân Pass, which historically divided Vietnam into North and South and which to this date represents the border between the cooler North and the warm South.
We decide to travel the final leg into the northern part of Vietnam by train. Running out of time, we choose Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park to visit the world famous underground caves and, even further north, Ninh Bình Province, a mystical network of limestone mountains and waterways. Both areas are simply breathtaking and best to be explored by scooter or motorbike.
We finish our one month journey of Vietnam in the capital, Hanoi. We explore the vibrant Old Town, Hoan Kiem Lake area and watch the trains pass through narrow residential streets. We indulge in our last street food and drink cheap beer on the side of the road, watching the stream of fresh tourists arrive. Vietnam has been amazing, but for now it is time to move on to another adventure...
If you're travelling to Vietnam and would like some inside tips for travelling independently, don't hesitate to send me an email. I am always happy to answer questions and make recommendations!