Getting Lost and Then Found in Vietnam

It didn’t take long for us to dislike Vietnam.  Well, not at the very beginning.  We had been warned about Hanoi from countless travelers.  It was going to be too busy, loud, and in your face.  We had low expectations, but ended up finding it enjoyable.  It was afterwards, when heading south that we encountered the worst type of welcome we have received anywhere in the world.  But when we were ready to give up on Vietnam, we looked a little deeper and found a country with much to love.

Different from everywhere else in this region, we met some really crummy people in Vietnam.  The type of people that intentionally tried to ruin our taste for the country.  After five months in Southeast Asia, only twice did we encounter people with malicious intent towards tourists, and both were here.

A parking lot attendant in Tam Coc tried to make us pay entry for a free temple.  We declined, but later found our rental scooter tire slashed when we returned.  Our hotel angrily explained that some “very bad men” do this to tourists.  Really, Vietnam?  We brushed this off as one narrow minded loser and tried not to let it change our view.  But then we took an overnight bus to Hoi An.

First, make sure to always check which bus company you are using before buying a ticket.  We got two through our hotel and didn’t think to ask.  Our fault.  We should have gotten a laugh at the reviews of Camel Travel (which are the worst we have ever seen),  but we didn’t and ended up on a fifteen hour bus ride from hell.  To sum it up, this tourist bus company intentionally screwed over every foreigner on the bus for fun.  Yelling, forcing them out of their seats in the middle of the night, smoking on a non-smoking bus, making them sleep in the isles despite having paid for a bed, dropping them off in the middle of nowhere and laughing when they have no way to get to town.  No joke, and this was just our experience.  The reviews note theft, molestation, and worse.  And again, seriously Vietnam??  How can you let this company continue to operate?

After these experiences, we had almost written Vietnam off for good, but fortunately we decided not to let a few really bad apples ruin our pie.  It took a lengthy stay in Hoi An to turn us back into believers.

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Ok, we admit it.  We stuck mostly to the tourist route in Vietnam, which is much different than our normal off-track style in countries like Cambodia and Laos.  But after eleven months of continuous travel and tons of planning needed for our following month in China, it just had to happen.  Our flight from Laos brought us into Hanoi and we were flying out of Da Nang, meaning we had only 19 days to spend in the top half of the country, and Vietnam is deceivingly large.  We ended up splitting that time between Hanoi, Bai Tu Long Bay, Ninh Binh and Hoi An.  And alas, we will share what to skip and what not to miss on this route.

This country is a very affordable travel destination.  We lived well on less than $70 USD per day as a couple, including over $26 daily average on optional entertainment for food tours, massages, yoga, etc.  Not a bad place to spend time relaxing.

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Instant mood enhancer

Hanoi: Only Crazy If You Haven’t Visited India

“When Moon say sticky rice, we stick together!”, our guide emphasized again before plunging head first into traffic, dragging us along into the swarm.  We had been warned numerous times about this city.  The craziness, bustle, non-stop noise, constant streams of scooters.  We were ready to hate Hanoi, but our time in India had prepared us well and instead we found it rather charming.  This is a huge city with lots to do, but first and foremost, people come here to experience the legendary food culture.

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Being in Vietnam almost required us to take a tour to learn about the world famous foods, with Hanoi being a mecca for unique eats.  We had a private tour with Hanoi Street Food and tried some of the most traditional and unexplored dishes and restaurants in the old quarter.  Our food tour guide, Moon, was full of hilarious sayings and life lessons.  “Moon used to be half moon, but now Moon is full moon.”  Apparently lots of Vietnamese food can have that effect.

When we weren’t gorging, we found plenty of other things to do in Hanoi.  The famous and ancient Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre was enjoyable, and has several very reasonably priced daily shows of traditional water puppet art.

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The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum attracts crowds of visitors, with queue lines reaching into the thousands.  The former leader is famed for leading Vietnam to victory during war time, and people come from all around, braving excessive security and unnecessary rules to see the shockingly well preserved body on display.  We didn’t quite understand the madness, but then again, we aren’t Vietnamese.  The Mausoleum has limited opening hours, so check before your visit.

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We visited the Ho Chi Minh and War Prison museums, but found them to have very poor English translations and full of government propaganda.  We enjoyed neither, although we hear very good things about the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.

One of the most fun things to do in Hanoi is to wander the streets and people watch.  Life goes on for the residents, with little attention paid to the tourist crowds.

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Bai Tu Long Bay: The Shyer Sister of Ha Long Bay

Vietnam may be most famous for its unique and incredible Ha Long Bay, where karst mountain ranges from mainland continue into the ocean, leaving well over a thousand limestone peaks jutting out of the water.  We had heard that the fame of this natural wonder attracts extreme crowds, and the Bay is typically stuffed with hundreds of sightseeing cruise boats.  With tourist crowds being one of our pet peeves, we almost decided to forgo a visit until we found a less touristed area to see these stunning forms.

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The government recently opened Bai Tu Long Bay to tourism, which is a neighboring portion of the same bay.  While this is by no means an off the beaten path experience, it does mean seeing a couple dozen cruise boats instead of hundreds in Ha Long Bay.  It seemed rather silly to travel all the way to Vietnam without a visit here, so we sucked it up, bought matching “We Love Vietnam” t-shirts (not really), and hopped aboard.

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Many street corner salesmen in Hanoi offer Ha Long Bay cruises for as little as $40 per day, which gets you a cramped shared room on a large and noisy boat.  We did a one night trip with Swan Cruises, a higher end operator which services Bai Tu Long Bay.  Our two day trip set us back $136 a person, but got us door to door service from Hanoi to a comfortable small boat with only eight cabins and no partying backpackers.

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Ninh Binh, Tam Coc and Surroundings

After the tire slashing incident, our time in Ninh Binh was off to a flat start.  We could easily have limped our scooter back to the hotel but would have missed some amazing countryside.  At just a couple hours from Hanoi, this area is easily reachable on a side trip or as a stop along the well traveled route south.  There is no question that this area has found its way onto many tourists Vietnam itinerary, and for good reason.  The landscape is known as the Ha Long Bay on land, with karst mountains dotting the otherwise flat horizon.  Many people do this on a whirlwind day trip, but miss most of the best things to see which are located outside of the main towns.

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We stayed in Ninh Binh, and used a scooter to explore the many sites and vast surrounding rural area.  Despite many options, there were three standouts which should certainly not be missed.

Hang Mua is a viewpoint in the Tam Coc area reachable by a long set of stairs, made particularly difficult in the Vietnamese heat.  Pain aside, the climb is well worth the effort which rewards visitors with stunning views of the surrounding peaks and farmland below.  There is a 100,000 VND fee for entry, plus whatever the hordes of parking lot scammers can squeeze out of you.  We got the 15,000 VND “parking fee” down to zero but then decided to pay 5,000 anyways to guard against a second flat tire.

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Bai Dinh Temple, often referred to as the New Pagoda, is located several kilometers northwest of Ninh Binh.  This sprawling Buddhist temple complex is the largest in Vietnam and sits at the base of Bai Dinh mountain.  With huge ornate structures and a towering pagoda viewpoint, this was definitely a highlight of our visit.  Entry is free but there is a 15,000 VND parking fee and 50,000 VND ticket for the tower viewpoint, plus additional cost if you want transport on the electric trolly.

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Possibly our favorite thing to do around Ninh Binh was take a river boat ride at Trang An, which is on the way to Bai Dinh.  This is part of a community based eco-tourism project and employs only local villagers.  The ride lasts three hours on a manually paddled small boat.  The river in this area snakes between extremely scenic karst mountains and passes through seemingly endless limestone cave passages underneath.  By the end, we had taught our oarswoman how to say “watch your head” in English.  Unbeknownst to us at the start, this amazing area was part of the set for Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which our captain was giddy to point out.  There is another boat ride from Tam Coc, but we heard horror stories about scammers and touts demanding additional money after the ride starts.  Trang An has a no hassle 200,000 VND price and was worth every penny.

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After seing such an incredible area, it was a good thing we decided to brave the scooter and explore on, in spite of what one sour puss wanted.

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Hoi An, the Town That Relit Our Vietnamese Lantern

After our hellacious overnight bus experience from Ninh Binh, we were feeling pretty negative about travel in Vietnam, but fortunately Hoi An didn’t care what we thought.  This charming river city is full of welcome and quick to put a smile on anyone’s face.  We were very pleased to stay in this relaxed town for eight days where there are many things to do.  Despite the sometimes overwhelming number of tourists in the area, local life continues and the area has managed to retain much of its authentic feel.

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Like Hanoi, this town is a foodie paradise.  Regional cuisine is distinctly varied from other areas of the country, and the options are cheap and endless.  With an overwhelming list to try, we started out with a private Hoi An food tour to learn the local eats.  Quang noodles, Vietnamese pancakes, cao lao, white rose… This tour ranks among the best things to do in the area and the guides are happy to accommodate vegetarians.

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Ancient Town is full of character with colorful walls, flowering vines, vibrant markets and lanterns strung up at every turn.  Most tourists spend their time wandering only this district and may not see much else of the town.  While this section is certainly worth a visit, we found more interesting and less touristy places in other areas.

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Most hotels offer free bikes which are the best way to get around Hoi An.  We took ours to the nearby river island of Cam Kim to explore a more rural way of life, and also to watch sunrise at Cua Dai Beach with the locals.

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We did exactly what we had planned in Hoi An.  Relaxed, explored, and ate tons of food.

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Food, Glorious Food

Sorry, rest of Southeast Asia, there’s a new girl in school and she just raised the bar.  After mouthwatering experiences in Malaysia and Thailand, we expected Vietnam to be same same but different (you’ll get this reference if you’ve ever traveled to SEA), but it definitely topped our expectations.  Not limited to Hanoi and Hoi An, the food is unique, tasty, full of fresh leaves and veggies and certainly not same same at all.  This may be the highlight for many travelers in this country like it was for us.  After 19 days, we were well on our way to becoming a “full Moon”.

Here are the best restaurants we found on our trip:

Banh Mi 25, Hanoi  –  This was our favorite place for a Vietnamese style sandwich in the country.  Surprisingly affordable at 15,000-25,000 VND for a baguette.

Apron Up, Hanoi  –  Traditional Hanoi style cuisine on a quiet street in old town.  Friendly and helpful staff willing to teach the local techniques for these hands on foods.

Goc Da, Hanoi  –  Some of the best street food dishes in the area, including shrimp pancakes, dumplings, donuts, pillow cakes and fresh spring rolls.

Vietnamese Chopsticks (Dua Viet), Hoi An  –  Serving very well prepared local style dishes which were the most flavorful in town.  We tried to set up a cooking class here as well but they were booked out for several days.  We promise you’ll be back!

Baba’s Kitchen, Hoi An  –  Superb Indian food and the best we have had outside of India with possibly the most friendly service anywhere in the world.  We went twice.

Red Dragon, Hoi An  –  Family owned higher end restaurant with fresh seafood options.  Great for a special occasion.

Rosie’s Cafe, Hoi An  –  Vietnamese owned cafe serving delicious continental style breakfasts and cold brew coffee.

Revolution of Mushroom (ROM), Da Nang  –  Vegetarian restaurant serving local style dishes without the local style meat.  This may be our favorite restaurant in the whole country, and likely the top vegetarian spot in Southeast Asia.  This is a great place to stop if you are flying out of Da Nang Airport.

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The Fascinating People

As with anywhere, you can’t judge a population based on only few people.  The vast majority of Vietnamese were wonderful and made our stay in their country memorable.  Given enough time, we grew to love this diverse and exciting place.

We and Vietnam make sticky rice … we stick together.

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You can see other posts from our adventures around the world, including our trek through Nepal, Great Ocean Road trip and South African safari.  And take a look at our Adventure Gallery where you can see inspiring pictures from dozens of countries.

Do you have an interest in long term travel?  Check out our Trip Planning posts, where you can learn how to prepare for a lengthy trip, see how to never check your bags on planes, find out about travel security and make sense of travel insurance, amongst others.

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