Let’s start with the coffee. Because in Vietnam coffee is more than just a drink. It doesn’t come venti or frappuccinoed or with whipped cream. And it definitely does not cost $3.75 a shot. No, coffee in Vietnam is thick, cheap and super-sweet. And it is beautiful.
Good coffee is just one of the many happy discoveries I had in Vietnam. It was my first trip, and as an American I had some baggage about visiting. You know, the war and all. The Vietnam War (or as it’s called locally, the American War). Telling friends that I was planning a trip to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) generated a shock-surprise-fear response that I was not prepared for, at least from people old enough to remember the nightly news reports from the battlefront.
So I was half-expecting a chilly response when I arrived. After all more than 400,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed in the war, not to mention the impact on the land itself (ever heard of Agent Orange?). There were plenty of reasons for the Vietnamese not to like Americans.
Yet the reality could not have been more different. No matter where I went, no matter who I met, the people of Vietnam were unfailingly polite, friendly, approachable. I am not just saying that, either. I’ve been to dozens of countries, and there is no contest here: by a mile the Vietnamese win the awards for “most friendly” and “most gracious.”.
The other great surprise for me in Vietnam was the food. Fresh, simple and full of flavor. Since my trip I’ve become addicted to pho (rice noodle soup), which is delicious for breakfast or dinner; gao nep (sticky rice), which is suitable for the vegetarians among us; and nem (spring rolls), made with rice paper, minced pork, crab, mushrooms and extra-fine noodles called vermicelli.
I spent almost three weeks in Vietnam, traveling south to north from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. My Vietnam itinerary is below, in case you’re planning a trip of your own. If you have questions about Vietnam, leave a reply and I’ll do my best to field an answer for you.
- Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City (direct flight)
- Two days in Ho Chi Minh City. I didn’t get a chance to visit the Mekong Delta, but wish I had. The city itself is worth exploring. The American War museum is first-rate. Plenty of restaurants, bars and clubs have opened in the past few years. I’ve heard some people say that Ho Chi Minh City has the best nightlife in Southeast Asia.
- Three days in Mui Ne, a postcard-perfect beach village, very quiet and laid-back. Definitely not as busy as Na Trang. I prefer the calm of Mui Ne to the bustle of Na Trang.
- The it was off to Hoi An (via Danang). This was my second-favorite spot in Vietnam. The center of Hoi An is a well-preserved French Colonial relic, with limited access to cars. For me the place was heaven. Hoi An has cafes, street markets, riverside restaurants, and the best hand-tailored clothes in Vietnam. I took a cooking class and learned how to make fish wrapped in banana leaves, squid salad and homemade dumplings. For less than US$100 I also had 7 shirts, 3 pants, 1 jacket and 1 suit made to order. The quality is not perfect. But who cares at these prices. One tip: If you own a shirt that you like or that fits you especially well, bring it! The local tailors can make copies in a dozen different fabrics.
- After an all-night train trek we made it to Hanoi, my favorite place in all of Vietnam. I don’t know what it is about Hanoi that I clicked with. Maybe the jam-packed streets, packed sardine-style with bicycles and mopeds, which you cross at your own risk. Or maybe the tree-lined streets bursting with all manner of stores, shops, workshops, alleyways, impromptu temples, sidewalk restaurants.
- We also did a trip to Halong Bay, which is definitely worth doing. If the weather is hot, consider doing an overnight or two-night trip so you can swim and relax and take in the scenery. The setting is absolutely unique, with rounded rock formations as far as the eye can see, often shrouded in mist that gives Halong Bay an otherworldly feel.
- Last but not least, it was a flight back to Bangkok. While you’re there, get a message at the Wat Po TraditionalThai Massage School (on the grounds of Wat Po itself, in the heart of Bangkok). It costs something like $5 for 30 minutes. Was it the best massage I’ve ever had? Yup. And it’s enough to make me plan another trip to Vietnam. Via Thailand, of course.
Editor’s Note: I originally posted these Vietnam itineraries last December, to answer the many questions I was fielding from friends about where to go and what to do in Vietnam. Over the past few months dozens of travelers have asked some great questions about traveling in Vietnam, which I wanted to share. If you have a question, just leave a comment and I’ll do my best to reply.
By Scott McNeely
Photo of Halong Bay Courtesy of Viator