If its your first time visiting Vietnam, there’s no doubt that you’re going to go through a bit of culture shock on arrival. Having travelled to Thailand and the Philippines, I thought I was pretty well-equipped for what Vietnam had to offer. I knew what to expect from Southeast Asia. Busy streets, vibrant nightlife, incredible experiences and some of the most amazing food you will ever try in your lifetime. As it turns out, you can never really be prepared for what a country has to offer, just because you’ve visited its neighbours. Similarly, you should take what others tell you with a grain of salt, because what makes a country special to you might be exactly what makes another person never want to return. Travel with an open mind and think of travel as the opportunity to see what you can’t experience in your own backyard.
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley
“Where are you headed on your holidays?” my coworkers would ask. When I answered “Vietnam!” the look I got in return was a mixture of disbelief and fear. Disbelief for why I would choose a country like Vietnam over 2 weeks at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico and fear for the unknown, because the truth is most of them really had no idea what Vietnam even had to offer. Even now that I’ve returned I still find myself explaining why we chose to travel to Vietnam, and what about this Southeast Asian country peaked my interest in the first place. I guess I really can’t blame them. Most of the people I interact with on a daily basis spend the majority of their time working 9-5, and can’t fathom why anyone would want to spend 40 hours travelling across the world only to be welcomed by less than desirable amenities. Still, it continues to amaze me that so many people can’t see beyond what they have heard about a place and are so quick to form opinions about somewhere that they’ve never even been to. Well I’m here to put the disbelief and fear to rest and tell you exactly what I loved so much about Vietnam, and convince you that if you ever have the opportunity to travel to Vietnam, you should take it in a New York minute. Over the next while, I’ll be sharing every little detail about our travels in Vietnam, from where we went to what we saw to why I loved it so damn much. To those skeptics who think that Vietnam leaves something to be desired, its my hope that I can open your eyes to a different way of travel, and maybe spark a little part of you that desires to explore the road less-travelled.
Our Route – Exploring Vietnam from South to North
There are basically two ways to go about your travels through Vietnam. North to South or South to North as we chose to do. Vietnam is a long s-shaped country that spans the coast line of the South China Sea, making it easy to travel from city to city and providing breath taking coastal views along the way. For our journey, we flew in and out of Ho Chi Minh City. From Ho Chi Minh, we took the train to the coastal town of Mui Ne before taking a sleeper bus back to Ho Chi Minh City to fly to Da Nang where we stayed in Hoi An for a few days. From here we took the train from Da Nang to Dong Hoi where we spent a few days in the mountain village of Phong Nha. From Phong Nha, we took the overnight train to Hanoi and bused to Halong Bay for a 2 day 1 night cruise before eventually making our way back to Saigon for our international flight home. It was a jam-packed 2.5 weeks and I’m so happy that we were able to fit in everything we wanted to see in such a short amount of time.
A Note on travel within Vietnam
If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, then you’ve probably done your research about the best way to get from city to city. You’ve probably heard countless horror stories from other travellers about the dreaded sleeper buses, which have likely scared you off sleeper buses all together. I’m here to tell you that in my experience, there’s absolutely no reason to fear. We travelled by plane, train and sleeper bus and never encountered any major issues in our travels. We made some questionable decisions on transport in order to save time and money. Like the time we chose to take a 5:00 a.m. sleeper bus from Mui Ne to Saigon with Hanh Café after reading terrible reviews on Trip Advisor, which ended up leaving us pleasantly surprised as we arrived on time, with all of our belongings in hand. Just another reason why you should always form your own opinions and experience something first-hand before passing judgment.
Be prepared for anything and don’t sweat the small stuff
This rings true no matter where you are travelling to, but I feel like it’s especially important to keep in mind when you’re travelling in Asia. The truth is, things probably aren’t always going to go according to plan. You may have thought that you had everything all figured out, only to find that someone or something will throw a wrench into your plans and mess up your who schedule. Be prepared for unexpected expenses, like the possibility that the Vietnamese police will pull you over on your motorbike and demand that you pay them, even when you have an international drivers’ license… a story for another day. But most of all, remember that YOU are fortunate enough to be on the other side of the world, exploring something completely new and exciting. An opportunity that is certainly not available to everyone and one that we sometimes take for granted. When you run into an issue, stay calm and figure out the best way to handle it and then forget about it. No sense in wasting your time and energy thinking about what you could have done differently, especially when you have a limited amount of time on your hands.
Indulge your taste buds, and eat all the spring rolls
If you’re looking for delicious food, this is the country for you! From the popular Pho noodle soup to Vietnamese spring rolls, to Banh Mi, there’s sure to be something to suit everyone’s tastes. One of the things I liked most about trying different foods throughout the country, is that the taste varied depending on where you were geographically. The North, with its influences from nearby China, boasts delicious savory stir-fry’s and noodle based soups. As you move South, you’ll notice a heavier Thai-presence, providing a slightly sweeter broth and savory dishes with more palm sugar. From salty and savory in the North to sweeter in the South, your left with is a deliciously balanced, aromatic assortment of dishes that are sure to send your senses reeling.
Take time to stop and soak it all in
As you walk down the streets, take time to stop and notice what’s around you. Vendors selling an assortment of fruits, vegetables and meats street side creating an aesthetically pleasing assortment of colours. Store fronts adorned with an assortment of trinkets and goodies run by local families looking to say hello and help you along in your travels. Locals racing by on their motorbikes, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic providing a sense of organized chaos as they get what they need to start their day. The sweet aroma of local Vietnamese cuisine dancing through the streets enticing you have just one more taste. The group of gentlemen sitting on plastic chairs drinking a fresh glass of Bia Hoi as they share stories with one another.
It seems that in every corner of every street of every town, there is a story will leave you with a lasting impression. The Vietnamese people that we encountered on our travels were all so friendly and welcoming, and you can really feel the energy as you explore their country and embrace their culture. Sometimes when we travel, it can be hard to stop and appreciate your surroundings, particularly in countries like Vietnam. Just remember that most of the people you encounter in your travels in Vietnam will never have the opportunity to visit your home country and we are damn lucky to have the opportunity to visit such a beautiful and lively country.
Have you guys been to Vietnam? What are some of your favorite parts of this beautiful country? Also, if there’s anything in particular you’d like to know about our travels, comment below and I will try my best to include it in my upcoming posts!
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