We experienced the vibrancy of Vietnam in April, a time considered to be “quiet season” due to the hot temperatures and approaching wet season. We started in Hanoi, experiencing the whirlwind of the Old Quarter.
It was reassuring to see so many other tourists, but clearly distracted from the ever-elusive authentic experience. We were blown away by the product-themed streets and were keen to try the street food. After a particularly uncomfortable experience my sensitive stomach soon informed me that street food, particularly spicy hot pot, was not for me.
We then headed to Ha Long Bay for a three day boat trip around a less tourist-trampled area. The highlight was jumping off the boat into the ocean early one morning and starfish floating in the calm waters surrounded by the towering limestone cliffs. Not a single other boat was in sight, just me, my husband, two good friends, and the fish in the sea (not including the weird giant white jellyfish we saw the day before and the “hoiking” noise our guide made that put a shiver down my spine).
We also did a day trip to Hue, to see the Old Citadel and the King’s Tomb. If it wasn’t the hottest day on planet earth, it would have been a nice stroll around the extensive grounds. We also went over the Hai Van Mountain Pass, which was a fun, windy road that took us to a viewpoint of the Da Nang area.
After Da Nang we took a private car to Hoi An, passing the Marble Mountains on the way. The Marble Mountains had one particular large cave at the end that was straight out of an Indiana Jones Movie. A real marvel with a giant Buddha overlooking the people. The caves were a nice respite from the heat. Hoi An overtook all our expectations. It was quaint, with a small maze of streets only accessible by foot and bicycle; a pleasant break from the incessant tooting of scooters. At night the lanterns lit up all the alleyways, creating a magical vibe. The food was the highlight of Hoi An, with multitudes of delicious restaurants offering dumplings, noodles, and seafood fried rice. No matter what you ordered, it was mouth-watering. We had our first (and only, yet) “big night” in Hoi An, dodging the rats and roaches to get home after curfew.
Returning to Da Nang, we flew to Ho Chi Minh, just in time for Ben’s birthday. We spent his big day on a scooter tour around the “non-touristy” districts of the city. We ventured to the slums, the local markets, the Chinese temples, seeing few other tourists on our way. It was a great trip and we ranged from the slums in the day to the nicest restaurant in town for dinner that night. The contrast was drastic and gave a unique comprehension of the city around us. We visited the chilling Cu Chi Tunnels and the seething Mekong Delta. Having ridden on a pony-carriage, a sampan boat, and pedaled around the small islands (not without incident!), we were overwhelmed with the river lifestyle.
From the big city to the beach, we headed to Vung Tau for Reunification Day. The masses thronged around us and we battled the heat by drinking beer with the middle-aged white male Aussie expat community. We tried to find Jesus, but were out of luck.
After two days and two sleep-ins we caught a chicken bus (blessedly sans chickens) to Mui Ne. Mui Ne was a highlight of the trip. The beach was glorious and the weather was perfect. We watched the days pass by from a luxurious lounger and tried stand up paddle boarding for the first time. Spoiler alert – it was so much fun! From there we took an unusual sleeper-style bus back to Ho Chi Minh for one night, before catching a bus on to Cambodia.
Vietnam was fantastic. The food had high-highs (Fat Fish), with the odd low-low (Hanoi hot pot). The constant tooting and aggressive hawkers were exhausting. Without the beach-side retreats mixed in between I may not have made it. Whilst it was unbearably hot nearly every day, the lack of other tourists was refreshing. We had little rain, with the exception of a significant lightning/thunder/rain storm on our last night in Ho Chi Minh. Even this was something to be marveled at. Vietnam is well-traveled by tourists. English is spoken in most places and hotels are cheap. I would gladly go back. Whenever I close my eyes I am back in Ha Long Bay floating on our private boat, wondering why I am so lucky to be in such a place.
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