As we prepared for our trip across the Cambodian border into Vietnam, yet another backpacker dispensed the same advice we had already heard countless times.
“You’re doing Vietnam in 9 days? Impossible. Can’t be done.”
Seriously though. We got this phrase so many times that we eventually came up with private jokes and pre-agreed key words to respond with, just to keep sane.
Vietnam in 9 days was a whirlwind. There are so many places I would have loved to visit – but with just under a month to fly through 3 countries in South East Asia, including Cambodia and Thailand, we had to choose wisely.
5. Mekong Delta.
Cruising down the Mekong Delta should be on anybody’s bucket list of things to do in Vietnam. It’s a maze of lush, leafy plants, winding rivers, floating markets and traditional villages that feel distinctly Vietnamese. Most hostels arrange day tours to the Delta from Ho Chi Minh; these usually provide you with the opportunity to sail down the canals on a little boat, which was my favourite part (except for the two American ladies in the front of the boat who simplified the Vietnam war into “we only wanted to bring freedom here, and look what happened to us”). After our river cruise was over, the tour also took us to a neighbouring village with some interesting temples and buddhas, and then onto visit a local workshop where we could sample some coconut candy…or hold a giant snake.
4. Ho Chi Minh and the Cu Chi Tunnels
Okay so I cheated, this is kind of a two in one. But as the Cu Chi Tunnels are currently the #2 thing to do in Ho Chi Minh city on Trip Advisor, and they were definitely my favourite part of being there.
My first piece of advice with Ho Chi Minh, especially if this is your first stop in Vietnam as it was mine, is FOR THE LOVE OF GOD LOOK OUT FOR THAT WAVE OF CARS HEADING RIGHT TOWARDS YOU. The traffic here is insane. Walking around the city feels like a continual death-defying experience at times, a bit like Smiler at Alton Towers, but with more screaming. Apart from that, the city is pleasant and has pretty good nightlife; Lush I remember being awesome and there’s a Saigon Pub Crawl which I imagine would be a great place to meet fellow travellers (I went on a similar pub crawl in Hong Kong).
It’s best to head to the Cu Chi Tunnels with a tour group, which like the Mekong Delta, can be arranged from your hostel or hotel. The tunnels are in the middle of the jungle and were constructed during the Vietnam war to both hide from and mount attacks on American soldiers. If you’re at all interested in guerrilla survival, tactics or booby traps (because, lets face it, who isn’t) then the Cu Chi tunnels will be well worth a visit. I had a minor panic when my travel pal Danni disappeared into the underground tunnels and didn’t resurface for about 20 minutes, I guess giving me an insight into the harsh realities of war and fallen comrades (or something).
3. Halong Bay
Christ. When I look back on my night in Halong Bay – spent on the infamous Castaway Tour – I cant help but shudder slightly. The tour was everything I disliked about University; inorganic shouts of “tonight we’re gonna get WAAAASTEEED”, casual sexual favours being publicly displayed at the bar, forced drinking games some of which involved taking 24 shots in a row and “drinking through the vomit”, starting drinking at 2 in the afternoon so that you’ve got a hangover by midnight, and that overwhelming feeling of “is it just me, or is this party just a bit terrible”. This blogger sums up the experience pretty well.
We were lucky in the respect that pretty early on we befriended a similarly cynical group of people from the UK, who joined us in our complete bafflement. It’s the reason why I’ve put Halong Bay at number 3 on my list of things to do in Vietnam – it’s a truly beautiful place, and kayaking round the limestone cliffs, discovering tiny and secluded beaches, was probably one of my best moments of the trip. Halong Bay is 100% worth going to. Just read some reviews before you book your tour.
2. Hoi An
When people excitedly described Hoi An to me as “the place in Vietnam where you can get anything tailored”, I found it hard to contain my unenthusiasm. But Hoi An surprised me, and has so much more to offer than dresses and suits. By day, you can stroll around freely without the worry of cars running you over, look in the riverside shops and cafes, sample the fresh fruit and cao lao, and yeah, get probably the best fitting clothes you will ever wear in your life (I guess I’m a convert). There’s also something about Hoi An which felt weirdly European to me; if anyone is a His Dark Materials fan, it kind of reminded me of the deserted town of Citagazze.
When the sun sets, the entire city lights up with lanterns on every street. It feels magical. For such a quaint, chilled-out place, our expectations of the Hoi An nightlife were pretty low but it far exceeded them. It struck me as one of those places where, because there aren’t many bars and clubs, everyone seems to end up in the same venues. There are quite a few backpacker bars by the river, and some clubs further out (taxis are far and few between so make sure you don’t end up getting lost for 2 hours on your way back, as we did).
Oh yeah, AND it’s got a beach.
1. Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is an odd one. It’s feels unfrequented and remote, yet is perfectly accessible from Hanoi; it’s well known by Vietnamese tourists, but not by Western ones; and it’s one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever been, yet nobody ever really seems to mention it. Just before I left Ireland, I showed a friend a picture of Ninh Binh. Her response was simply – “is that real?”
I went to Tam Coc, which gave me the chance to row a boat round the huge rock formations and jungles in the area, as well as explore the caves hollowed out under the cliffs. There were temples dotted around, where I could see locals praying. This was also the only time travelling South East Asia where I got stared at – I mean STARED – and had photos taken of me, something I hadn’t experienced since my first time in China. That’s always a sign that I’m a little of the beaten track.
Similar to the Mekong Delta, the row-boat fun ended and I spent the next couple of hours wandering around a huge temple complex in the area with a pagoda at the top, offering incredible views. It was a trip that took an entire day, and left me happily exhausted as I returned to Hanoi that evening.
Other stuff: During the trip, we also briefly visited Hue and Hanoi which I’ve mentioned a bit. Sadly the combative force of food poisoning and a 15 hour bus journey left me debilitated in Hanoi for a couple of days. The Imperial Citadel in Hue is worth seeing through. If I had another shot at Vietnam, I’d give Nha Trang, Sapa, and Da Lat a go.