Wow. What a place. What a cuisine. What an onslaught of motorbikes. In 30 days we snaked our way up the coast, from Saigon to Hanoi. We loved almost every second and ALMOST every dish. Here’s our greatest hits list, coupled with even GREATER travel puns because why not.
Swimming Through Caves in Phong Nha
You’d think it’d be impossible to pick a #1 experience. But Liza and I both agree on this: caving in Phong Nha Ka-Be national park. We spent three days trekking through dense, humid jungle, swimming fully-clothed in darkness through wet caves, and illuminating 3-story stalactites with our head lamps… with no other tourists around. Have you ever swam through a cave? No? Neither had we. And since most of the caves in this system were only “discovered” after 2012, we can smugly count ourselves among the first few thousand visitors. To access the caves, we spent two nights camped alongside waterfall-fed swimming holes, drinking rice moonshine (“happy water”) and sleeping in mosquito-netted hammocks. If this sounds cool, check out the 3-Day Tu Lan Adventure with a company called Oxalis. Currently, they’re the only outfit allowed here, and also the only peeps permitted into Son Doong, aka the LARGEST CAVE IN THE WORLD. We didn’t see that one because you have to book a year in advance. So, maybe next year?
Crossing the Street Leads to Existential Crisis in Saigon
You spend a year planning your trip. You buy travel books and special containers for all your shampoos and creams. You order chemical-free melatonin spray and get some gross Chinese herbs from your acupuncturist “just in case”. You think you’re prepared for the-journey-of-a-lifetime. But then you take TWO STEPS out of your hotel to get an espresso and are instantly engulfed by a surging current of honking motorbikes that is so terrifying you realize IMMEDIATELY just how ill-equipped you actually are deal with what some people call “adventure.” And even though you don’t want to look like a dumb gringa and also really want an espresso, your cortisol levels indicate that maybe you should just go back inside and take a nap. Also why are all the drivers wearing full-body polyester and transporting precariously-balanced mini-fridges? Who knows. We were in Saigon for four days and crossing the street NEVER STOPPED BEING SCARY.
The Secret Tour in Dalat
A mysterious-yet-adamant reco from another traveler? Check. Bizarre emails from our tour guide telling us to not mention anything to his mom? Check. A clandestine meeting location? Check. A van that takes us to the-only-cricket-farm-in-the-country? Another check. One of the most enlightening, surprising and memorable experiences of the entire month? Double check. The Secret Tour was by far one of the coolest/weirdest things we did. Unfortunately, we’re sworn to secrecy (for political and/or marketing reasons) and are not supposed to blog about it. And while we can’t divulge any details, we can say: If you ever find yourself in Dalat, Vientam, sniff out the The Secret Tour immediately.
A Single Culinary Misstep
I had ONE bad dish in Vietnam. Sure, a few things here and there weren’t tip-top (see: minced rat and fried crickets) but there was only one thing that made me gag. Tip: If you go to Nha Trang—which is something you should only do if you’re a middle-aged Russian—DO NOT order the crab/asparagus/egg soup at the weird tourist restaurant by the bus station. It contains only one of those ingredients, is the consistency of snot, and will just make you sad.
Street Food Everywhere
All great cultures are street cultures. And at night, the sidewalks in Vietnam heave with sweaty humans chatting, drinking and—most importantly—eating. For $1.25, you can pluck out an amazing bánh mì, a crispy bánh xèo, a meaty bun cha or any one of the hundreds of other delicious nubbins frying, sizzling, and sometimes swimming, curbside. Plop yourself onto a plastic kindergarten stool, point at something you can’t pronounce, and it will arrive steaming, piled high with a medley of fresh herbs. And if you’re worried about getting food poisoning, I promise, you won’t regret it. If you’re worried about roaches crawling up your wife’s leg while she eats… yeah, that’s a thing. But hey, you gotta pay to play.
Street Food Tour in Saigon
Since there’s street food everywhere, it can be hard to narrow it down (especially if you’re indecisive and haven’t learned to say “I’m trying to avoid MSG”). So we booked a Back of Bike Tours street food crawl that seemed kind of dorky, but was totally worth it. At 6pm, two 19-year-old girls picked us up, plopped us on the back of their motorbikes and zipped us around to six different spots including food tents, back-alley dives, and locals-only shacks that we never could have found on our own. Yes, the motorbike part was a little scary, but the bánh xèo (minced pork wrapped in herbs wrapped in fried egg wrapped in rice paper and eaten like a taco!) was totally worth it. Also Andy ate a fetal duck egg which he claims to have enjoyed.
$0.30 Beer and Street Karaoke
You’re sitting on a 10-inch yellow chair in a sea of travelers, locals and ex-pats at a little closet-bar where a smiley middle-aged woman is cheerfully pouring $0.30-beer after $0.30-beer from a pony keg propped up on another set of chairs. In the middle of the intersection (which is also where you’re sitting) is a live karaoke band that’s been pumping out jams for three hours while people from the massive crowd take turns belting Maroon 5 and Pharrell hits with global accents. Next to you some Vietnamese students are laughing so hard they’re crying, and across the way, a table of drunken British touristas with douchy travel tees are sucking down whip-its from bright white balloons they ordered off the menu. As the final chorus of “Happy” kicks in, you turn to the smiley lady with the keg and shout, “Em ơi! Một bia hôi!” And she pours you another glass.
For $35 you can buy a hop-on-hop-off bus ticket up or down the coast, that stops at multiple towns. And when the ride is under 5 hours, this is actually pretty efficient if you’re in country for a while. But when the ride is longer, you have to take this thing called a night bus. I know what your thinking: Isn’t that a GNR B-side? No. It’s worse. Imagine a redeye flight, only instead of a plane, you’re on a bumpy, 11-hour tour bus with bunk beds. Actually “beds” is an overstatement. It’s more like bunk recliners, 3 across, stuffed with lanky Nordic tourists whose hairy feet are dangling deep down into your personal space. For 11 hours. Also there’s no bathroom, just two rest stops and 18 smoke breaks for the driver. We did this twice, and when it came for the third round, we opted for the one-hour flight instead. Airfare price? $35.
Just How Red is Vietnam Really?
As we wandered through the streets of Saigon on our first day in the country, we were so confused. It was hard to reconcile all the red-and-yellow, sickle-and-hammer flags with the bustling city exploding with Korean motorbikes, backpacker hostels, electronics stores and even an ironically(?)-themed Viet Cong bar. Vietnam is ruled by one of the four remaining communist governments in the world (the others are China, Cuba and Laos). I was lucky enough to visit Cuba ten years ago, and that felt... really communist. But Vietnam felt different. Like, kinda normal. Sure, there are Lenin-esque propaganda posters of Ho Chi Minh hanging from every third lamp post, but it also felt like any other modern city concerned with making cool stuff as well as making a buck. The reality is that modern-day Vietnam is far more Capitalist than dreaded Red.
We are by no means experts, but here’s where we landed: It seems like Ho Chi Minh’s ambitions were more nationalist than socialist. It was more about creating a sovereign, independent Vietnam, free from French—and then American—control. Unfortunately for him (and the country), he happened to be a communist.
As Vietnam recovered from the war in the ’80s and America lifted trade embargos in the ’90s, it seems like the sparkle of free-market economics was bright enough to eclipse old ideals. Today, much of the government has converted from communist hard-liners to corrupt capitalists (some of the worst in the word) who give lip-service to the idea of a socialist state. There’s still repression, censorship and extreme corruption, but in general, it seems like things are looking up. At least that’s what it felt like to us. Although if you ply your tour guide with a beer or three and strike up a friendly cross-cultural conversation in broken English, he might tell you what he really thinks. In hushed tones of course.
(Here’s a good article on the subject).
Learning about the “American War”
I don’t know any Americans who fought in the Vietnam War (a thing that I studied for all of one month in 7th grade) and 90% of my knowledge on the subject comes from Apocalypse Now. So it was interesting and a little weird to learn about “The American War” from the people who—even if they didn’t fight in it—lived it. It’s not a war here, it’s the war. Battlefields, museums, and underground VC tunnels are primary tourist attractions. American camo clothing and bullet-necklaces are ubiquitous. And it’s hard to walk down the street in Saigon or Hanoi without seeing someone suffering from physical deformities characteristic of Agent Orange exposure. (This is a toxin the US used during the war—it can stay in DNA for 4 generations). Despite the war’s lingering presence in Vietnam’s present-day narrative, we certainly didn’t sense any weird anti-Americans vibes. If anything, it seemed (and I may be projecting) like people saw the influx of American tourists (and there is a HUGE influx) as proof of progress and healing. At least that’s what I told myself while I was listening to “Born in the USA” at a bar called DMZ, shooting pool beneath an upside-down US Army chopper lamp.
Running Through Rice Paddies
Despite the lack of any proper hills and regular temps in the 90s, the running in Vietnam was pretty delightful. It gave me a chance to get out into the countryside, villages and rice paddies to see parts of the country few tourists experience. (Including being the first person inside Paradise Cave one morning and seeing the lights come on—having the place all to myself for a few minutes before the throngs of noisy Chinese tourist arrived.) Also, running’s not reeeeally a thing in Vietnam (or Southeast Asia in general) for obvious reasons. So, seeing a bearded gringo blowing through the village in the middle of a solo marathon elicited a wide variety of reactions—from enthusiastic thumbs up, to blank stares, to one guy who stopped me to say “you are so strong.” Iknowright?
Cruising Through Karsts On Halong Bay
Halong Bay is sort of the Empire State Building of Vietnam—to visit the country and NOT see it would be criminal and people would rightfully judge. Currently, the only way to experience this incredible landscape, is to sift through the HUNDREDS of somewhat-shady-seeming cruise companies on Trip Advisor and roll the dice. Opt for a price point that’s too high and you’re stuck on a boat with 100 Chinese septuagenarians—go too low and you’re sharing a cabin on the S.S. Whip-it with four Austrian backpackers. We went with Vega Travel on a reco, and although it wasn’t exactly a floating Ritz, we were (mostly) pleased. And if you can’t tell from the pics, Halong Bay is ridiculously ridiculously good-looking.
Ninh Binh, by Accident
The morning of our three-day Halong Bay cruise, the tour office matter-of-factly mentioned that “the government” wouldn’t let us go to destination #2: Cat Ba Island. Since this left us homeless for a night, he suggested we check out Ninh Binh instead. So we did. It was a bit of a haul to get there, but man, what a bucolic, tranquil little corner of Vietnam. It has the same massive limestone karsts of Halong Bay, except on land, surrounded by rice paddies and water buffalo. Lonely Planet barely touched on this place, so it felt even sweeter to have stumbled upon it. (Or directed to it or whatever.)
Vietnamazeballs Hoi An:
Go for the Food, Stay for the $15 Custom Leather Sandals
The cave tour was amazing, but I’m gonna rate the charming, UNESCO-registered, admittedly-touristy town of Hoi An a very close second. If you go to Vietnam, definitely stop here. The food is outstanding, the streets are walkable, wine exists, and custom tailoring is the industry du jour. (I had a bridesmaid dress made for $60.) It also didn’t hurt that we stayed at the nicest hotel of the whole trip AND got our laundry done—so I might be biased. If you go: make sure to hit up Bánh Mi Phượng for $1.25 worth of sandwich MAGIC. Just get your measurements taken before.
As you can probably tell from our puns, this was a truly inspirational trip. We think it would be tough to do it tourist justice in less than a month, but if you’ve never been and only have two weeks, our selects are Hanoi, Hoi An, Halong Bay, and DEFINITELY the Cave tour in Phong Nha. Also, just go for a month.
We’re in Laos now and it’s really hot.