Vietnam: Pho-nomenal Nam
Vietnam exceeded all expectations. When we planned our two month trip around southeast Asia, Vietnam was one country I didn't read a ton about, didn't have high hopes for and hadn't heard much about from friends and family. By the end of the trip it was decided that Vietnam was one of our favorite countries and we had to get back to explore the diverse countryside and islands that we heard so much about from other travelers. We realized the country warranted it's own trip. I was inspired by the the Vietnamese culture and enthralled by their turbulent history with America, China, Khmers, Chams and Mongols. The mixture of Chinese and French influence can be detected throughout the country and especially in the larger cities. The Southern city of Ho Chi Minh was our first stop, then we headed North to Hanoi and ended with a junk boat trip in Halong Bay.
H o C h i M i n h
Saigon is a lot more cosmopolitan than Hanoi which has small, old, winding, streets, whereas Ho Chi Minh is made up of big boulevards with many lanes, skyscrapers and inherently has a more industrial feel. While wandering through the streets of either city you see large tangles of telephone wires hanging above the streets, vespas and motorcycles overflowing onto the sidewalks and tourists trying to dodge vehicles crossing the streets.
I would highly recommend staying at the The Hideout Hostel, we didn't stay there but I have heard great things! It's only 8 USD a night and they provide opportunities for pub crawls and tours around the city. It's very basic but clean, modern and only a 10 minute walk from Bhen Tan Market.
Bhen Tan Market has everything you can imagine. From textiles, to local cuisine, to souvenirs, handicrafts, jade and more when you walk around the market you feel what I call "sensory overload". There is so much going on and so much to see, you don't want to miss anything! It's one of the oldest buildings in Saigon and is an important landmark to tourists and locals alike.
As an American the War Remnants Museum was fascinating. The museum was obviously curated from the Vietnamese point of view and focused on the lasting effects of Agent Orange gas as well as the mended relationship with the Unites States.
The food scene in Ho Chi Minh was a lot more diverse than expected. The Temple Club was definitely the place to splurge, written up by many as one of the city's best, we broke our budgets to try the best Vietnamese food we could find. The restaurant serves modern Vietnamese cuisine that was very fresh. The vibe was very eastern chic, with candles lining the hallways and entrance, as well as antique, carved wooden chairs at every table. Fanny's Ice Cream was an epic dessert spot, especially since Ho Chi Minh is so hot. They have other locations as well if you don't make it to Saigon.
Black Cat Cafe offers a mixture of pub grub and local cuisine. The man who owns this quirky spot is from Oakland, California. If you make your way there, ask him about his Vietnamese friend who cooks crab out front of his home in the outer parts of the city. He recommended we try it for a unique experience and it was one of the best meals we had. We pulled up in our cab, jumped out, told him we wanted crab (to find out that was the only option), and then were served huge amounts of crab on large tin plates to share with sides of bread to dip into the delicious sauce. They only have two tables in their front yard which they converted into a type of open air restaurant.
Spending happy hour at the top of the Sheraton Hotel is key for great views of Ho Chi Minh's skyline.
H a n o i & H a l o n g B a y
Hanoi Lucky Guesthouse is an amazing hostel purely for their service, the interiors are nothing fancy or special, but cozy and comfortable. The staff is extremely helpful and will always wait up late for you if you don't come back before midnight and can be a great source of information if you are planning any overnight trips from Hanoi to Halong Bay. They have couches and computers in the lobby and the beds were quite comfortable.
The Vietnamese legends are important to the country's history and are quite fascinating when compared to western tales and history. Hoan Kiem Lake is located in the center of the historic town of Ha Noi and is considered an important site in Vietnamese history. It's a great place to run around in the morning if you are looking for a good workout. When you visit Ngoc Son Temple in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake you will learn about the legend of the lake and why it is physically and symbolically the center of the city. Another site worth visiting is the Temple of Literature which was originally built in 1070 and since has since been the prestigious location where the Confucious school of thought is taught.
There were also multiple remnants of the Vietnam war, from the American B52 that was shot down and landed in the middle of the city along with the Ho Chi Minh museum, B52 Victory museum, and Vietnam military history museum. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a gigantic memorial to the man himself and is worth a walk around. It's a reminder of communist Vietnam and Minh's declaration of Independence when he declared Vietnam as a Democratic Republic.
As for the food in Hanoi, I was just as pleasantly surprised as I was in Saigon. First of all Pho from any little restaurant on the street is great, so highly recommend sitting down at any small cafe on the street and ordering a local beer along with your pho while watching the motorbikes and locals walk by. They also have cheap street food all over, including pork buns and fruit.
If you've been traveling in Asia for a solid amount of time, you'll probably going to want to mix it up every once in a while which can be hard to do. If you do feel the need to ditch the local cuisine, then definitely have lunch or dinner at Mediterraneo near St. Joseph's Cathedral for pizza and pasta. Sit up on the second floor for a great view of the cathedral.
Another cultural must try besides Pho is Vietnamese coffee. It's sweet, refreshing and delicious. The most traditional is egg coffee, which is less popular than the ones with condensed milk. Great egg coffees can be found at either of these cute spots Cafe Giang or Ca Phe Pho Co.
Halong means "descending dragon" and the name does the landscape justice. As many limestone islands just up above the emerald water and are topped with dense, green, rainforest jungles, one can envision the islands as the body of a dragon weaving in and out of the bay's water. It's a unique and magical site, and witnessing the spectacular views from a traditional Vietnamese Junk boat is quite special. As a unesco world heritage site, it is sought after by many tourists so there are many tours in the bay every day. Most include kayaking, hiking through caves and jungles along with staying on a remote island if you choose.