Halong Bay Sunset
Travel Itinerary (10 Days):
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) – Day 1-3
Hoi An/Da Nang – Day 4-6
Hanoi, Halong Bay & Ninh Binh – Day 7-10
Things to Remember:
Well, Vietnam has always been remembered for the incessant Vietnam War and its rather gloomy history, until recently it has picked up as one of the popular travel destinations in South-East Asia with its plethora of flavours, resonances, landscapes, and of course, people.
Vietnam had been in my bucket list for some time now but I didn’t know what happened to be a sudden drunk plan with my college buddies would actually turn out to be a pleasant reality, and that too for New Years. We took a detour from Bangkok as our last minute plan made the air ticketing cost a notch on the higher side, however there is good connectivity these days with direct flights plying from Delhi & Kolkata within a budget of INR 20,000 for a round trip.
When you plan a trip to Vietnam, a minimum of 10 days is a must, considering the elongated disposition of the country and the related travel time between cities in the Northern & Southern Parts. We started with South Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon and as you travel through the length of the country, it is interesting to observe the many changes that occur from one region to the next, from landscape to language, climate to culture, etiquette to ethnicity and so on. You can also start with North Vietnam i.e. the city of Hanoi and go southwards.
Day 9: Hanoi ~ Halong Bay
Our penultimate day in Vietnam was reserved for Halong Bay day tour. There are mixed opinions on whether to go for an overnights cruise or a day cruise to Halong Bay. Some suggest overnight cruise considering the extravagant cruise stays that are offered in various categories and costs, we didn’t have an option but to go for a day cruise considering paucity of time. Halong Bay, which means ‘Descending Dragon’, legend has it that Mother Dragon and her children descended to protect the Vietnamese people from invaders and while they defeated the invaders their teeth fell as giant emeralds along the bay and transformed in to several limestone islands and islets that we get to admire today. As the cruise went through the emerald waters and countless limestone archipelago, we enjoyed sumptuous food while witnessing one of the most scenic sight as the day progressed. We were taken to one of the spots to try kayaking which we thoroughly enjoyed and after which returned to our cruise for a breathtaking sunset that I will remember forever. Day tours can get a little tiring considering the long travel by bus to reach the harbour. However, we were all bloated with energy considering it was our last night in Vietnam and we ended up bar hopping till wee hours including one of the speakeasy bars in the city.
Day 4: Hoi An
We were yet to experience the most cherished chapter of our trip today – soon we found ourselves on board flight to reach our next destination Hoi An – an hour and a half drive from Da Nang airport. Da Nang, a coastal town in central Vietnam is also famous for its proximity to some of the great beaches of Vietnam but due to paucity of time, we directly moved to Hoi An. While napping and humming the tunes of ‘The River of Dreams’ by Billy Joel, we entered the ‘Mystic River Town of Hoi An’. Hoi An – a heritage town preserving it traditional timbre frame houses, with narrow pedestrian streets all lit up with myriad colored lanterns, open markets with countless colourful shops selling lanterns, leather goods and other traditional souvenirs – it seemed I was part of some painters’ paradise with his best hues adorning the town – ‘awestruck’ was my reaction in a word. If in Hoi An, one must definitely have the experience of staying in one of the hostels. We checked in to a hostel named Tribee Ede in Old Town that I would especially like to recommend staying in because of the vibrancy of the place all summed up by the kind of diverse tourists there were, the lively porch to chill and play board games and of course the complimentary rum hours at 7 pm J.
We went out on our expedition on the first night in Hoi An. What else do you wish on the first day of the year, when you end up randomly walking and reaching this dreamy river quay with lines of colorful bars and restaurants and hundreds of lantern boats ushering you for a ride – I am wondering how do I word in the experience of the boat ride – dreamy, calm, blissful or absolute paradise. We completed our 31st night party in couple of those river side bars with live music and of course some great street food – skewers, rice paper pancakes, banana pancakes etc. Do try out the amazing street food wherever you go in Vietnam – they are delicious!
Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh
When North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of this palace, the war was over
View from Hai Van Pass
Water Puppet Show
Basket Boat in Cam Thanh Village
Lanterns in Hoi An
Cu Chi Tunnels
Notre Dam Cathedral
Bui Vien Street
Hoi An Community Hall
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
War Remnants Museum
Ninh Binh Cave Boating
Day 5: Hoi An
Hoi An offers a fusion of indigenous and foreign cultures (principally Chinese, Japanese and later French influences) with well-preserved complexes of architectural monuments, religious buildings, pagodas, and old family cult houses. One needs to get a common ticket (available in town office near Japanese Bridge) for all these places and explore as per one’s choice. We started our walk through the Old Town, flaunting our Vietnamese conical leaf hats (Called the Non La) like locals, and exploring several of these heritage sites – The Japanese Bridge, The Community Hall, The Old Houses, The Pagoda and so on. You need a full day to explore all these places. Try some local cuisine at the Central Food Market and we also found an elixir drink somewhere on the street – the lotus tea.
After a day full of beautiful architectural excellence, loads of shopping (apart from lanterns and other local souvenirs, there are some great roastery in Hoi An to fill your bags with Vietnamese coffee), we went ahead to Cam Thanh village, a few kilometers east of Hoi An Old Town for a fun basket boat ride. Hoi An is also well-known for its tailor-made suit in Dong silk, stitched in less than 24 hours, so do try one of those tailor shops and get yourself an attire for remembrance. Around 2 hours drive from Hoi An is the Hai Van pass. You can rent a scooter for the same. The ride gets beautiful when you start climbing the mountain and offers picturesque views of the Da Nang coastline.
My Son Sanctuary
Day 1: Ho Chi Minh City
After crossing the crazy queues at immigration and security in Bangkok, we landed in our City Number 1 – Ho Chi Minh City, historically famous as Saigon. Ho Chi Minh is the business and financial hub of Vietnam and the first impression is very akin to Mumbai with tall towers and too much traffic. We checked in to our hostel in the backpackers’ area near Bui Vien Street which had quite comfortable & spacious rooms (except for no lift to climb all the way to third floorL) and a cute common area for chilling. Our day began with some authentic Vietnamese food where we tasted Banh Xeo & Banh Khot which is a local version of rice flour stuffed pancakes. We spent our first day mostly gallivanting around the streets, tasting some of the famous Vietnamese coffee at this quaint vintage coffee joint and finally ended up strolling in Bui Vien Street. Bui Vien Street is the main street of the so called ‘backpackers’ area of Ho Chi Minh with inexpensive restaurants, bars & pubs but not a place that I would strongly recommend considering too much crowd, may be due to the touristy season. If you are looking at some fun parties till wee hours then this is the place to be. We called it an early night as all of us were tired and sleep deprived.
Ninh Binh Boating
Day 8: Hanoi ~ Ninh Binh
This was the last day for one of our travel buddies as she could only manage limited leaves from work, so we had to pick either Halong Bay or Ninh Binh as a day tour option from Hanoi. After a lot of planning, exploring local tour operators, we decided to visit Ninh Binh, about a 100 kms away from Hanoi. Although Ninh Binh is not frequently featured in most Vietnam itineraries, upon reaching the place, I couldn’t believe we were planning to drop the idea of visiting Ninh Binh. With its fascinating landscape, I think it is definitely a place wherein one must plan a couple of days to explore its serene, laid-back character in the truest sense with acres of paddy fields, mountainous terrain and its several limestone cliff, pagodas and boat rides. However, we just had few hours so we hired a cab for the day who took us to the closest spot in Ninh Binh – The Trang An Boat Ride complex. We quickly hopped on a small rowing boat and a lady rower took us for a 2-hour journey through caves, temples and limestone karst peaks. As we rowed through this extraordinary landscape of limestone caves, with lotus blooms adorning the emerald lake, the light drizzles, and the Vietnamese instrumental chords playing at the backdrop, the feeling was all too mesmerizing. I so wished that time could pause for a while there. If you are still having doubts on whether to keep Ninh Binh as part of your itinerary, the answer is definitely yes. Exploring Ninh Binh further is definitely part of my next trip to Vietnam. Don’t miss the bicycle ride in the Paddy Fields near Ninh Binh.
Day 7: Hanoi
Time to pack our bags again and head further north to our last city, Hanoi, the Capital of Vietnam. If Ho Chi Minh was like Mumbai, Hanoi seemed more Delhi - it is a pleasantly dilapidated city, where several pieces of medieval era architecture finding its place amidst the modern hubbub of whizzing motorbikes, street hawkers and pulsating commerce. We checked in to our cute duplex that we booked through Airbnb in Old Quarter, which is basically the heart of the city. We started exploring the city with a round-about walk around Hoan Kiem Lake. The streets encircling Hoan Kiem Lake was vibrant with lots of street performances and acts, the day being a weekend. While we were exploring some of the French architecture around the city centre, we got to know about water puppet show. It is great way to visually sample traditional Vietnamese artistry and entertainment although it was only in Vietnamese with no translation. Another sightseeing place frequented by tourists is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum that contains the tomb of Ho Chi Minh as well as various museums and monuments. One can spend days walking around the entirety of this city exploring different nooks and corners, hosting some quaint café where we tried the famous egg coffee, or some French styled old houses, or an over-crowded market displaying a character of its own – one such place we found was a narrow alley with a train track with colorful cafés on either side – we could actually witness a train passing by as we reached that place, later we googled and found out that was Hanoi’s Instagram-famous train street. However, beware of the local café owners who might get quite annoying and not let you explore the train street unless you order something at their café.
Good Bye Vietnam!
Lantern Boat Ride, Hoi An
Day 2: Ho Chi Minh City
Our day started with Banh Mi’s (Vietnamese Sandwich – a must try especially from local street vendors but mind the spice) as breakfast before we left for local sightseeing. Owing to the French colonial rule over Saigon, you will find a lot of French influence in the architecture of buildings and historical monuments. We visited the Notre Dam Cathedral, followed by the Central Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel in gothic style. There is a cute book street just alongside the post office which is surely a delight for booklovers. We moved next to the War Remnants Museum where we went through the history of Vietnam War. Comprising of several themed rooms in several buildings with artillery and armour collection, it is more than a half day’s visit for history lovers. My mind was blown off to witness the decapitation chamber and the tiger cages actually used for Vietnamese prisoners, a testament of human atrocities. After a sumptuous lunch at a premium Vietnamese restaurant, we went ahead exploring Ben Thanh Market – a wholesale market with local souvenirs, handmade products and food stuff but much to our surprise the hawkers were quite rude unlike most Vietnamese people we interacted with. (Vietnamese are extremely cordial and goes out of the way to help tourists in spite of language barrier). Our night never ended with series of pub hopping of all scales from extravagantly expensive rooftop bar at 52nd floor to street side bars at Bui Vien and of course celebrating our New Year a day earlier. To understand the Vietnamese political history, it is worthwhile to visit the Independence Palace. The palace was the center of power for South Vietnam till the Unification. Interestingly, on 30th April 1975, the North Vietnamese tanks blasted through the gates of the Independence palace and that was the moment the long Vietnam war was over. The South Vietnamese general greeted the North Vietnamese general and said “The revolution is here. You are here. We have been waiting for you so that we could turn over the government.” To which the North Vietnamese general replied: “There is no question of your transferring power. Your power has crumbled. You cannot give up what you do not have."
Train Street Hanoi
Day 3: Ho Chi Minh City
Our day was reserved for a day trip to Cu Chi Tunnel (Booking through getyourguide.com). A must visit if you are in Ho Chi Minh, it is a human marvel. These thousands of miles of narrow tunnels by the Viet Cong were built in the Cu Chi district, northwest of Saigon, in order to combat the better-supplied American forces during the Vietnam War. Interestingly these were made in such a manner that it was only accessible to Vietnamese soldiers owing to their petite built – I almost choked myself while trying to enter one of the tunnels. Our trip became more fascinating with our guide who was himself a War veteran and his great story-telling kept us all absorbed.
Upon returning back, we got ready to usher in the New Years, although barely left with any energy after the trip and the binge drinking a night before. We had to reach Nguyen Hue Street, which is a broad walking promenade in the middle of District 1 (which is the city centre) for the fire-crackers but we got late and there was crazy traffic so we managed another viewing point to witness the Landmark 81 Tower firecrackers show. Fun fact is the entire city of Ho Chi Minh was out on the streets to watch the firecrackers show and soon after it was over, they made their way back home – This was New Years for them as their New Year is sometime in the month of January/February.
Day 6: Hoi An ~ My Son Sanctuary
Like Ho Chi Minh, Hoi An also offers several day tours in and around the old town. Since most of us were keen on exploring historical architectural excellence, considering our initial plan of Cambodia could not materialize, we chose My Son Sanctuary – A UNESCO Heritage site, an hour long drive from Old Town, having remains of tower temple clusters, much akin to the Ankor Vat Temple of Cambodia, although covering comparatively much lesser area. This Hindu-themed ruins dedicated to Shiva and other Hindu Gods & Goddesses feature many beautiful stone sculptures, temples and towers in tropical jungle surroundings, however our guide seemed to be too cocky with his Hindu mythology knowledge, half of which were his own interpretations. On our return, we tried the famous Pho (Vietnamese soup with rice noodles, herbs & meat, considered as Vietnam’s national dish). At this Pho joint, we got recommended to visit this beach called Hidden beach, which definitely was worth where the beach was all ours with absolutely no one we could trace there. We could sit there and reflect about life while witnessing the crimson hued sunset.
Roadside vendor in Hanoi
Day 10: Hanoi
Every good thing comes to an end too soon and same was the case with our Vietnam Trip. Our return flight was in the evening and we made optimum use of the day quickly scouting through the narrow alleys of Old Quarter & Dong Xuan Market, shopping several of the local flavours – Macadamia nuts, souvenirs, more of coffee and wait a minute, we didn’t know you get liquor in Vietnam at throwaway price. While we were busy picking stuff, we didn’t realize we would end up having as many as sixteen hand luggage. We were on the verge of missing our flight back since we kept our packing till the eleventh hour. As we moved to the airport, Vietnam seemed to grow on me and now as I write this while sipping my Vietnamese coffee and looking around my living room, with so many arty elements of Vietnam adorning my wall, it is only nostalgia that fills me and my heart says: “I, definitely, need to return to this mystic country to rediscover it all over again.”