We have visited Vietnam three times, spending two to three weeks there each time. Each trip was different, and we tried to include a wide variety of experiences. Vietnam is a country of such colour, texture and atmosphere, that just walking the streets is a memorable experience….particularly when walking those streets involves crossing some roads!
However, there are a few things that really stand out. So, below I have listed my top 10 memorable Vietnam experiences with links to the longer posts for each item. Like I said in the 10 memorable New York City experiences post, these are the moments that have stuck with me, and bring a smile to my face whenever I remember them. If I’m sending emails to friends with tips or advice for Vietnam, these are the items that are top of my recommendation lists (yes, even a ‘compulsory’ Christmas Eve dinner).
1. Overnight on a junk on Halong Bay
Sometimes when you travel, there are moments that venture into the surreal – it’s almost as if you’re caught in the set of a movie. Spending two days and one night on a junk on Halong Bay was one of those experiences.
Halong Bay is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is a 1,500 sq km area consisting of more than 2,000 limestone and dolomite outcrops (karsts) dotted throughout a calm bay. We booked to do the overnight junk boat tour with Red Dragon Junk and due to a quirk in their total numbers booked for that day, we ended up being the only guests on a junk with five passenger cabins. So we had the delightful crew of six and the whole boat entirely to ourselves.
It was a totally magic experience, and one I recommend that all visitors to Vietnam do. Obviously, its better in warmer months when you can swim, kayak and relax on the junk’s sundeck.
2. Cu Chi tunnels
A visit to the Cu Chi tunnels seems to be on most Ho Chi Minh visitors must-do lists. When I looked into it and realized that we’d need to go by car or bus, and that it would take at least an hour and a half on those crazy Vietnamese roads…with an Impossible Princess who gets extremely car-sick, I was less than enthusiastic. Luckily, I stumbled onto another option…going to the Cu Chi tunnels by speedboat on the Saigon River.
Back in 2010 when we first went, Saigon River Express was quite a new company. They have since expanded, and we used them again in 2013 for both Cu Chi tunnels (again) and Mekong River tours. It’s a quick and enjoyable way to get to and from the Cu Chi tunnel complex.
The Cu Chi tunnel complex is just a small part of the 250 km of interconnecting tunnels which played a key part in the guerilla warfare of the Vietnam/American War. They consist of several levels of tunnels up to 10 metres deep. There are living spaces, kitchens, hospitals, factory rooms. It was an ingenious system, but I’d imagine living and working in them would have been hideous.
3. Cooking school
The food in Vietnam is so fresh and flavorsome, we were hooked on it within days. Of course, we wanted to attempt to recreate it back at home. So it made sense to do a day at a cooking school to pick up some tips.
There are a lot of cooking school options to choose from in Vietnam. We did the the half-day cooking school at Secret Garden restaurant in Hoi An. Secret Garden is a hidden gem of a restaurant. It can be tricky to find, as it is right in the middle of a residential area behind some of the main streets. Access is via one of three laneways (that start at 60 Le Loi St, 130 Tran Phu St or 71 Phan Chu Trinh St) but once you find it, it is a lovely quiet garden restaurant, with a fish pond and shady trees.
The cooking school started with a trip to the markets to find out all about ingredients, then we came back to the restaurant where we learned how to make four dishes (which were then served to us as lunch). Even though The Impossible Princess lost interest in the cooking part half way through, she had a fun time with one of the restaurant waitstaff, who helped her catch guppies in the fish pond.
4. A countryside cycling tour
We had a few days in Hoi An to fill with activities, and thought it would be fun to get out into the countryside a bit by taking a cycling tour. Together with The Britannia Entourage, we did the Heaven and Earth Countryside Morning Tour.
We had specifically chosen this tour because it advertised, “cycling though the scenic countryside of Vietnam, far from the traffic the motor scooters, and the noises of the city”. It failed to mention that the first ten minutes of the tour is right through the busiest streets of Hoi An to get to the dock for the ferry that takes you to those quiet island roads. After an initial scary start, we got over our wobbles and all reached the dock intact.
From then on, it was all cruisey-cycling. Our guide (Lan) really made the tour for us- she was entertaining, witty and had excellent English. When we realised the forecast that day was for rain, we were a bit worried about how that would pan out. However, once it started raining Lan and her assistant (whose name, I unfortunately can’t remember) produced plastic ponchos for us all and we rode on. Within an hour or so, the rain had stopped and it was sunny again. It hadn’t really impacted on our enjoyment of the ride and the sights.
There was one very funny moment when a cow lunged out of a side lane and seemed intent on charging our bikes, but we just rode faster and laughed it off. We finished up with lunch at tables set under a mango tree at the home of a Vietnamese family. It was simple, but tasty.
Later in the holiday, when the eight of us all listed our ‘three holiday highlights’ this bike tour featured on every list.
5. The Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City
The photograph of the North Vietnamese army tank crashing through the gates of the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (or American War, as it is now known in Vietnam) is one of the enduring images of that War. That moment at 11.30am on April 30, 1975, marked the Fall of Saigon and the end of the War. Since then, the Reunification Palace (as it is now known) has been preserved exactly as it was. It is a museum and also used for government conferences and entertaining.
This Palace was the first thing we saw on our first trip to Vietnam, and really was an unexpected delight. It was designed by architect Ngo Viet Thu and is a wonderful example of modernist architecture and interiors. Many of the architectural features and furnishings of the Palace would not be out of place in contemporary Australian homes.
Because everything has been left pretty much as it was in the 1970s, it offers a fascinating insight into the lives and times of the South Vietnamese ruling elite.
6. ‘Compulsory’ Christmas Eve Dinner
If you happen to be in Vietnam over the Christmas/New Year period, you will notice that a lot of hotels add a ‘compulsory’ Christmas Eve or New Years Eve dinner to the room rate they quote you. Compulsory is their way of saying that you will be charged for it, regardless of whether you actually go to the dinner or not.
We were staying at the Vinh Hung Riverside Resort in Hoi An on Christmas Eve with The Britannia Entourage. We figured we may as well go to the compulsory dinner (for which we had been charged VND 840000 per adult – about USD$40) and check it out.
Oh my! It ended up being the most hilarious night. There was a whole evening of entertainment put on by the hotel’s staff. Choral singing, solo and duet singing, multiple fashion parades that went on for just a little bit toooooooo long. Then there was a guest talent quest…where a tiny five year old (who we think was from Korea), got up on stage and danced like Beyonce… followed by some Swedish guests who’d had quite a few beers by this stage and sang Christmas carols in Swedish. The program for the evening also outlined that there would be ‘structured play’ – which turned out to be some quizzes and raffle draws. Queenie managed to snag a quiz prize because she knew the name of the river the hotel is located on.
The buffet spread for this compulsory dinner was a bit average…and lukewarm by the time we were actually allowed to get to it, but I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed as much in one night.
7. Hanoi Kids tour
On our first trip to Vietnam, I organised for us to get a Hanoikids tour and we had the two most delightful young women as our guides.
Hanoikids is a student-run organization based in Hanoi. The university students voluntarily take city tours in Hanoi, as they want to offer travellers an insight into their culture, tradition and beautiful city. In return they get to practise their English, and learn more about other cultures. They wont accept payment, you just pay all entrance fees, transport, meals and drinks costs for the day.
8. Full Moon Lantern Festival in Hoi An
It takes a bit of good luck or good planning to end up in Hoi An on the night of a Full Moon Lantern Festival as they only happen once a lunar month (on the full moon, obviously). I’d like to say it was good planning that we ended up in Hoi An for the December 2012 Festival, but it was totally by accident.
It was a very fortuitous accident, as the Festival is a wonderful opportunity to experience the beauty of a lantern-lit Hoi An, and to revel in some of the local games, customs and entertainments that are showcased.
9. Thap Ba Hot Springs
10. New Year’s Eve in Ho Chi Minh City
The second was NYE 2012 which we spent there with The Britannia Entourage. This time, we were ready to get out and among it. We had made a reservation at a restaurant about 20 minutes walk from our hotel. At least, on a normal day it would be 20 minutes. What we hadn’t factored in was that every one of HCMC’s 8 million inhabitants would be on their motorbikes and heading into the centre of Saigon. There were bikes travelling everywhere…on the footpaths, on median strips, across roundabouts. Walking as a group of eight was challenging to say the least. And it was only worse on the walk back to the hotel.
I’ve since spoken to other people who have spent New Year’s Eve in HCMC, and it is like we’re swapping war stories. We all share the same outlook on it – that it was crazy, possibly dangerous, and also one of the most exhilarating experiences of our lives. At least, that’s how we though about it once.we.were.safely.back.in.the.hotel.