There were a few moments over the course of Jonah's and my trip to Vietnam last month when I stopped short in my tracks. How am I going to tell people about this? The two weeks we spent there (including two days in Bangkok) were packed with so many trip-of-a-lifetime experiences, from hiking up dramatic hillsides, to motorbiking windy island roads, kayaking in a sea of blue, and caving in a jungle. It feels almost impossible to distill it all into one conversation—or post. The short version is that it felt like ten trips in one, each to an entirely different, equally memorable location—from cities buzzing with excitement and street food, to the rice paddies just a few hours south, dotted with fog-engulfed karsts.
When we bought the flights a year ago (which we found on Scott's Cheap Flights for $400 roundtrip), I assumed two weeks would feel like a lifetime, but they went by in the blink of an eye. We spent roughly two nights at each place—giving us an evening and a full day to explore. It was nearly perfect, but also didn't account for exhaustion or error. If I could do it again, the only change I would make would be to extend the trip by two days (if possible), to allow for an extra day in Ninh Binh and Ho Chi Minh City. Guess that means I'll have to go back! Here's how we spent two weeks in Vietnam (plus Bangkok!):
Hanoi is the largest city in North Vietnam, and was my favorite city we visited. The sidewalks are so packed with street food and markets (and the smells that come with each), that walking through it means navigating around patrons on tiny stools slurping Bun Cha. As a result, it's equal-parts overwhelming, vibrant, and welcoming. Every time we turned a corner there was something unexpected. I wrote in my travel journal at the end of the first day, "Every ten seconds in Hanoi, something surprises me, whether a hardware store that, on second glance, you realize is full of roosters; a family of five riding a single vespa; an old woman balancing hanging baskets from a bar across her neck, each filled with a vat of oil frying pork chops; a wrong turn that led into a hidden alleyway packed with people eating snails and drinking bia hoi; a grey, dead pig in the middle of the street; shop entryways that double as homes—little vignettes of thousands of different lives. It's that full."
Things We Did and Loved:
- The best food we ate during our trip was from tiny street stalls in Hanoi. While we went to tons of recommended places (like Bun Cha 'Obama'), the spots we stopped in based on smell alone were just as memorable, like the woman with a basket of fresh crabs who cooked them on the spot and served them whole with a sweet kumquat dipping sauce.
- Towards the end of a long day, we considered stopping by our Airbnb to rest before dinner and drinks, but instead opted for a foot massage at Dai Cat - which we learned in the process actually meant "entire body massage." It turned out to be the perfect thing - we felt fully revitalized by the end of it for a night out drinking fresh street beer, or bia hoi!
- I made a quick habit out of Communist-themed café chain Cong Cafe's coconut ice cream coffee. It's so delicious and the perfect pick-me-up!
- Fried spring rolls wrapped in lettuce and dipped in vinegar at Quan Goc Da (down the street from the cathedral) and breakfast, a beef noodle soup in a spicy crab broth or bun rieu cua at 38 Hang Tre were among the best things we ate during our entire trip.
Highlight: Aimlessly wandering the city—there was so much to do and see! You hardly need an itinerary.
Where We Stayed: Airbnb
Roughly a four-hour bus-ferry-taxi ride from Hanoi, Cat Ba is the slightly less touristy version of Ha Long Bay, with stunning karsts that rise out of a turquoise-blue bay. It's almost so beautiful you have to actively remind yourself you aren't looking at a photograph—but some of our favorite parts of the island were spent exploring its interior. We stayed at a small hotel that helped us plan everything from boat rides, to transportation to our next destination, which was hugely helpful!
Things We Did and Loved:
- Forewent a larger boat and instead paid a fisherman to take us on a private tour of Cat Ba, which we organized through our hotel. He showed us his floating home and slowly motored us around karsts until dropping us off for two hours with a kayak, so we could explore the bay ourselves. We stopped at Monkey Island on the way back, which has a short but steep hike with stunning views.
- After missing the bus to the national park (where we were planning on doing a hike from the center of the island to the coast), Jonah and I rented a motorbike to explore the island on. We drove all over, stopping wherever looked interesting, including 'Hospital Cave,' a cave that became a hidden bunker during the Vietnam War, a hike to the highest point on the island, a Buddhist temple only reachable on a stilted walkway over water. Our only loose plan was to find a small town called Lien Minh, which after eight hours of wrong turns, we had given up on finding entirely until we turned a corner to directly face a huge red arch that said "Lien Minh." (It felt like the scene in Big Fish where Ewan McGregor stumbles out of the forest into the perfect, untouched town.) There, we stumbled upon a popular rock climbing wall, Butterfly Valley, and met a Vietnamese couple who served us a feast out of their home. We made it back in time to catch sunset from "Beach 2" or "Cat Ba 2" and grab a drink at the top of a hostel called Mountain View before dinner! Honestly can't think of a more perfect day.
Highlight: Renting a motorbike and exploring the island on our own, before meeting new friends, a German couple we met on our trip (Hi, Thies and Kati!), for dinner!
Where We Stayed: Little Cat Ba
The only thing I'd read about Ninh Binh before visiting, which we reached on a super easy four-hour bus ride from Cat Ba, is that it's where Vietnamese people often go for vacation. While I saw mostly European tourists there, I can see why it draws so many people—the area is flat for miles, filled with rice paddies, interrupted by dramatic karsts (and water buffalo) with a few temples built into them, which are all easily reached by bicycle.
Things We Did and Loved:
- One of our favorite things about Ninh Binh was the place we stayed in: Tam Coc Garden. While most of the hostels are in the town of Ninh Binh, Tam Coc Garden is a small resort that feels like an oasis in the middle of rice paddies, and is much quieter than the town itself—it felt like a Zen retreat. We easily could have stayed an extra day here!
- Biking, then climbing up 500 steps, to the altar above Hang Múa, a temple with spectacular views of karsts and a stone-carved dragon on top. Go at sunset (as long as you're okay with walking down the stairs at dark!).
- At the Jade Pagoda Temple, we followed a path around to the back of the temple that turned into a tiny footpath that led into a valley that looked like an undiscovered paradise with tiny homes nestled into caves. It was a lesson we adopted for the rest of the trip—to take off-the-beaten-path trails and roads.
- Took a boat ride to Tam Coc, or "three caves," which is a roughly two-hour boat ride (where rowers operate the oars with their feet!) down a river that goes through three caves, past rice paddies, and even a few river pigs!
Highlight: Speaking a very rough Vietnamese-French-English hybrid with our guide along the Tam Coc boat tour, who showed us her rice paddies and told us about her life in Ninh Binh, despite significant language barriers.
Where We Stayed: Tam Coc Garden
After a nine-hour sleeper train ride, where we spent pretty much the entire journey chatting with another passenger on his way to the DMZ, we arrived in Phong Nha. The area only recently became a tourist destination after the world's largest cave was discovered in 2009. Like Ninh Binh, there are tons of rice paddies, but also an impressive national park, Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, filled with caves and underground rivers.
Things We Did and Loved:
- The reason most people travel to Phong Nha is for the caving and outdoor adventure tours. There were plenty of options, but we opted for a tour with Oxalis, the go-to caving outfit in the area, to an enormous dry cave, Hang Tien. The tour included hours of jungle trekking and scrambling over rocks and down muddy hills, which was actually as exciting as seeing the cave itself, since the jungle is unbelievably dense and beautiful. Plus, we were rewarded at the end of the trek with a delicious BBQ pork fresh spring roll lunch and beers!
- We stayed at Phong Nha Farmstay, an Australian-run hotel, that hosts social events almost every night so guests can meet and mingle. While there, we were treated to a Philippines-based pop rock cover band (nine out of their ten songs were Alanis Morissette covers, but still) and movie night. Super nice people, and the perfect place to come back to after the long day caving and hiking.
Highlight: The moment we came around a bend and saw Hang Tien cave, which looks otherworldly—like a triangle mouth jutting out of a mountainside (see the photo above).
Where We Stayed: Phong Nha Farmstay
Hoi An is a city frozen in time. While it was a bustling trading port for hundreds of years, from the 15th to 19th centuries, the rivers silted at the end of the 18th century, leaving it largely untouched, except by tourists (at least according to my handy-dandy Lonely Planet guidebook). As a result, it's beautiful but teeming with tourists (like us!). Because we arrived in Hoi An at night, after a 6-hour sleeper train, we only had a short evening and full day in the city but it turned out to be the perfect amount of time. While a longer stay means you can take advantage of the tailors all over the city—who can duplicate any outfit from a photo, fit exactly to your size—the tourists and chains (like Cocobox and Hoi An Roastery) made it feel less authentic and more like Disneyland than other cities we visited.
Things We Did and Loved:
- As soon as it's dark, the city becomes even more vibrant and charming. We loved wandering the night markets and eating a piecemeal dinner from street carts (though beware: we're 90% sure we got food poisoning from some iffy grilled squid we ate), before settling with a beer at a restaurant to people-watch.
- Many of the restaurants are owned by the same woman, Ms Vy. It's worth stopping by one of her restaurants since Central Vietnamese cuisine is considered to be among the most complicated, and her restaurants are some of the best to cook it. We enjoyed going to her restaurant, Morning Glory, for classic dishes like a peppery Japanese-influenced noodle dish (cao lau) and Chinese shrimp dumplings ('white roses'), still made by the same family who originally introduced them to the city!
- Some of our favorite banh mi over the course of the trip was from Madam Khanh Bánh Mí Queen which was delicious but very different from any banh mi I've had in the states—less mayonnaise, more unidentifiable but delicious meats.
- This town was a basket heaven. I bought a few ark bags that were dead-ringers for the Cult Gaia bags that sell for 10x the price, as well as tons of straw baskets as gifts for friends.
- We immediately embraced fresh sugar cane juice, which is sold from carts all over the city, and tastes exactly like chewing on a fresh sugar cane.
- Though the chains Hoi An Roastery and Cocobox Juicery (same company) have pretty much taken over the city, they're super-convenient and reliable spots for a quick pick-me-up.
Highlight: Experiencing Hoi An at night, visiting the night markets, then people-watching with a beer in hand.
Where We Stayed: Airbnb, 'The Little Yellow House'
Our trip to HCMC was a comedy of errors. After waking up with food poisoning (the most likely suspect is the barbecued street squid we ate), we barely made it to the airport in one piece. At one point while I was waiting, after we miraculously made it through the security line and Jonah had run to the bathroom, I realized a moment too late I was sitting down next to a baby boy, sans diaper. Within a split-second, he managed to pee all over me, to the point where I had pee dripping from the tip of my nose, and all over my jacket sleeve (he was a very well-hydrated baby). By the time Jonah came out of the bathroom, I had mostly cleaned myself up but was only able to get out "He peed on me!" before breaking down into tears. Luckily, I was able to clarify "he" was an infant, as Jonah looked around for the perpetrator, and within minutes we were laughing again, and beyond relieved to arrive at our next location.
As our splurge of the trip, we treated ourselves to two nights at a beautiful resort (but still incredibly affordable, compared to what a similar place would cost in the States), An Lam Retreat. A 30-minute boat trip from HCMC down the Saigon river, it felt like a secluded secret from the massive city and was a welcome respite near the end of our fast-paced trip.
Things We Did and Loved:
- Since we still felt sick, we only spent eight hours in HCMC, taking a boat ride from our resort at 10 AM and heading back at 6 PM—far from enough time to make any real dent in the sprawling city! After quickly walking through the main market, Ben Thanh (the smells were still a bit too much for us), we headed to Pasteur Street Brewing (thanks to all the readers who recommended it!), a brewery that uses American techniques and Vietnamese flavors to create unique beers, like a Passion Fruit wheat beer. For lunch, we had a small meal at Secret Garden Restaurant. Here's what I wrote in my travel journal about it: "We followed a small sign down an alleyway into an old apartment building dripping in electrical wires and climbed the stairs - they said four stories, but it felt closer to eight - before arriving straight into a kitchen on the roof, which opened to a charming rooftop restaurant. The highlights were tonkin flowers in garlic, which were like the best parts of broccolini - toothy little not-yet-opened buds in a light garlic stir-fry."
- After lunch, we walked to the War Remnants Museum, which covered the atrocities of war, primarily by the French and Americans against the Vietnamese. While the museum itself wasn't fantastic (it was unclear where to start, and overhead lighting made it difficult to see photos against the glare), its contents were striking and unforgettable and felt especially personal since my dad was drafted into the war while Jonah's dad was arrested for evading, then protesting the draft. I wrote this in my travel journal: "What stood out most - after relearning what a colossal mistake the war was, and the bravery of those who fought in it along with the war photographers who covered it -was how much it still impacts Vietnam. I was horrified to learn about the continued effects of Agent Orange, a deforestation chemical that burned its victims but also causes severe birth deformities that are still affecting babies born four generations after those who ingested or inhaled it, not to mention the thousands of unexploded landmines that still litter the country." It's impossible to visit Vietnam without being reminded—importantly, so—about the lives lost in war just fifty years ago.
Highlight: Taking a speedboat to HCMC, where we visited the War Remnants Museum, then returned for dinner at our beyond-beautiful hotel.
Where We Stayed: An Lam Retreats
Since we were already on that side of the world, we took a short flight to Thailand to spend two nights in Bangkok! What we didn't account for is how exhausted we'd be at this point in our trip, but we rallied and managed to see (and eat!) a ton—which is lucky, because there is so much to see and do there!
Things We Did and Loved:
- My boyfriend's and my favorite brewery, Mikkeller, has an outpost in Bangkok, so that was obviously a must-visit for us. Probably the coolest place I've grabbed a beer!
- While we went to very few "nice" restaurants this trip, favoring street food, we made an exception for The Never Ending Summer, a favorite lunch spot of Chef Andy Ricker of Pok Pok. We loved pretty much everything we ordered, all unique takes on classic Thai dishes in a bright and beautiful dining room.
- Our first night in Bangkok, we walked through Chinatown to a block packed with cool cocktail bars. We grabbed a drink at Teens of Thailand, Tep Bar, and Asia Today, all of which were fantastic (just learned the neighborhood is called Soi Nana)! On our way home, we walked through the notorious backpacker party street, Khao San Road, for the spectacle of it.
- At the end of our full day, we crashed into our Airbnb exhausted at 10 PM, but after getting ready for bed, I realized I still felt hungry—which didn't feel right in such an amazing food city! After a quick Google, we realized we were a ten minute walk from a pad thai spot, Thipsamai, so we jumped out of bed before we could decide against it. After waiting in a line of mostly Thai people (good sign!) for 45 minutes, we were served some of the most incredible noodles I've ever eaten. While pad thai can taste somewhat bland in the States, this was anything but, and wrapped in a super-thin scrambled egg casing.
- The final meal of our trip at Chote Chitr, a tiny family-run restaurant, was one of the best. The food can take up to an hour to come out (two people multi-tasked, taking orders and cooking dishes from scratch), but it's so worth it when it does. We heeded advice to order a few recommended dishes: the banana flower salad (shrimp and banana tree flowers cooked in coconut milk), mee krob (fried vermicelli noodles in a sugary-gingery sauce, with candied oranges), and tom kha gai soup.
- We spent most of our full day there on the subway, which is super easy to navigate and above-ground so you can see the city from it, hopping off at every stop that included a place we were interested in visiting!
Highlight: Our spontaneous pad Thai dash to Thipsamai.
Where We Stayed: Airbnb
Special thanks to my favorite travel partner, who planned 99% of this incredible trip, took the better photos in this post, and is the only person I know who could rally through food poisoning to eat "one more banh mi." Respect.
P.S., There was so much I couldn't include in this post—including many meals we ate, people we met, and things we saw—but I did my best to distill it! If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them!