Vietnam – A 10 day road adventure beginning from Saigon To Hanoi
I remember it was a photo of the Ha Long Bay that I’d seen on a friend’s Facebook long before I actually planned my own trip that’s stayed somewhere in my mind. Turquoise blue waters peppered with hundreds of small islands and rocks – now that’s a place you can’t miss. Though after traveling to Vietnam, I found Ha Long bay was only one of the many unique sights and experiences Vietnam has to offer.
Preparing for the Vietnam VISA – avoid the scams
Vietnam is one of the few countries with a VISA-friendly relationship with India. One has to apply online through the many websites available for the same, however avoid being scammed as there’s no “official Vietnam VISA” website, and every site you’ll come across on Google is pretty much an agency that will charge a markup over and above the official Vietnam VISA fees. I looked around, and booked my VISA through what seemed to be the cheapest website (non affiliate link) at $8 for a 1 month single entry visa.
Vietnam 9 day itinerary
We had 9 complete days in Vietnam, remaining to be used for Laos. Although 9 days is too short, and most slow travelers would scoff at the idea, I would say for getting a taste of the country and seeing the highlights, 9 days in Vietnam were enough, although we could have skipped a couple of places altogether and spent them elsewhere.
Getting from the Ho Chi Minh Airport to the city for cheap
From Bangalore, we landed in Ho Chi Minh city or Saigon, the most populated and urban city of Vietnam, at the south edge of the long-shaped country. We had a booking at the “Budget Backpackers hostel”, a tiny, compact hostel just at the edge of Pham Ngu Lao street, the touristy backpacker area of Saigon. Although one could always take the cab from the airport, we decided to start our trip cheap, and a little research revealed a cheaper, and surprisingly convenient way. There’s a local bus no. 109 that leaves from just a little further from the airport, and takes less than $1 to most places in the city. We stopped at a stop closest to our hostel at the Pham Ngu Lao, and a 10 minute walk took us right to the hostel.
Exploring Saigon’s backpacker district, the Pham Ngu Lao Street
Although Ho Chi Minh city isn’t exactly the most exciting city for a traveler, being a base for most travelers to Vietnam, it has its share of backpacking lanes and people. The Pham Ngu Street is around 1 km long and is packed with hostels, hotels, cafes, bars and little local street side bars that serve up the famous ‘pho’ (noodle soup) and cheap “bia” (beer).
We exchanged our currency (dollars into dongs) and became instant millionaires! Due to the nature of the Vietnamese Dongs, our $500 or so gave us million plus dongs.
As always, the first task for me was to hunt for a nice, chill vegetarian place. While meats like chicken, beef and pork can be had at the best of cafes and the most local shacks, vegetarian food is far and few in between. I settled for an Arabic place and had myself a veggie falafel burger to start the evening off. This was followed by the cheapest 25 cents (INR 25 rupees) “Bia” at a local stall! Highly recommended for getting smashed for cheap, and enjoying a true Vietnam street experience.
The street really begins to fill up as the night wears on, and by 8pm, it teams up with backpackers, and locals alike. While most restaurants are street facing, the best way to enjoy the vibe of the street is to take up a stool at the local pop-up restaurant and enjoy some live barbecue, pho, fried rice and cheap beers! Be prepared to be invited by scantily-clad women to the happening bars and parties, and little girls selling trinkets and souvenirs. If you’ve been to Bangkok the atmosphere here would remind you of the Khao San road.
Tasting Vietnamese sordid war’s history with a trip to the Cu chi tunnels
As much as a history buff I am, somehow I hadn’t really studied the Vietnamese history or knew much about the whole US/Vietnam war angle. However a trip to Vietnam is almost impossible without getting in touch with its history in one way or the other. I wish I understood it better and elaborate it on here, complicated and nuanced as it is, but suffice to say, South Vietnam was a war base in the 1960’s, having been at war with North Vietnam, and almost all of the men in the country have fought in the Vietnam war (Remember all those “Vietnam veterans” and ‘Nam references in American pop culture?) Naturally, a lot of the relics of the war are still present in Vietnam’s landscape today, and a trip to the country would invariably involve some. We visited the famous Cu Chi tunnels which were a war site where hundreds of Vietnamese forces participated in guerilla warfare from underground bunkers and tunnels. As a part of the tour, you can also get inside the bunkers where decades ago, a soldier fired shots, and probably someone lost their life. You can fire shots from mock or even real guns, AK47s and hold torture equipment in your bare hands. There are sections where life from the war times is illustrated with the help of mannequins in action.
You can even squeeze yourself into one of the tiniest tunnels imaginable where soldiers spent days hiding without a ray of sun.
We were back to the hostel by late evening, and somehow affected and sobered by the sights of the day, we kept it a low key night, and had a dinner at the Pham Ngu Lao street.
We took it easy the next day, woke up late and had lunch at a local restaurant, and booked ourselves on an overnight bus to continue our journey northwards, towards Hanoi.
The unique buses in Vietnam!
The buses in Vietnam are something! I’ve taken 100+ bus trips in India but it’s all the bus rides in Vietnam that blew me away. Buses are one of the best ways to traverse across Vietnam and for a good reason. There’s a good number of buses from the most common routes, or at least every possible route backpackers would need to travel on. The buses themselves. All the buses are AC, and the long journey ones are flat bed completely sleeper buses.
While in India, one must specify whether they want a seater, semi sleeper or sleeper buses, the Vietnam buses are all sleeper by default! So not only are they an affordable way to get around, but are comfortable, and quite fun. The buses play TV for a couple of hours so there begins your orientation with local Vietnamese TV, movies and music. Another unique practice observed in all the buses is being asked to take off and keep your shoes in a plastic bag provided by the driver before entering the bus, and walking barefoot in the bus. This keeps the bus clean and dust free, which is especially nice considering all the seats are beds. However, I wasn’t a fan of the amount of plastic this called for consuming and ultimately trashing.
One day in Nha Thrang – the sea side resort town
We didn’t really choose to spend a day in Nha Thrang, but if you’re moving northwards from Saigon towards Hanoi via road, there’s no way to do it without a ‘layover’ in Nha Thrang, a beach town in the middle of Saigon and Hanoi. The bus reached Nha Thrang at around 8 in the morning, and we had almost 10 hours to kill in the city. You can leave your luggage at the bus company’s office in Nha Thrang and spend the day however you like. We hunted for a place to grab breakfast at, and finally settled for a sweet home cafe closeby. The sea at Nha Thrang isn’t to write home about and it was too hot for a swim anyway, so we spent hours killing the hottest hours of the day at this cafe, much to the happiness of the Vietnamese family that ran the place. In the evening, we checked out a famous church and a Buddha temple both on foot, through a 3-4 hour walk thorough the city. There’s also a nice local market close to the beach where we picked up some souvenirs for really cheap. We took the bus onwards to Hoi An, our next destination and yet again, it was one of those sleeper buses that we’d been looking forward to. (Also yay for saving up on one night’s accommodation while still being on the move!)
Hoi An – The most charming thing about Vietnam
When we decided to check out Hoi An – a tiny city in North Vietnam we didn’t know what to expect, and that was the best part. Hoi An turned out to be one of the best things about Vietnam and the only place we wished we had spent more than a day at. We reached Hoi An at around 8am, and from the bus stop, we took bike taxis to our hostel. The hostel was strict about the checkin time, so we waited an hour outside, chilling till we could enter our rooms and freshen up.
We decided to walk from the hostel to the old town of Hoi An, which is where you need to be as a traveler. It was a long and uncomfortable walk due to the weather, and where we reached more than made up for it. Hoi An is like an old town frozen in time. Rows and rows of yellow old Vietnamese heritage houses framed by bougainvillea and other flowers. Most of these houses have been turned into cafes, designer boutiques, and hotels.
A river passes through this busy area, with rows of these ancient houses on either side, making for a lovely spectacle.The idea is to find yourself a cafe or bar you like, plonk yourself there and just gaze at the people, the sights and the experience for hours, get up and do it again. That’s exactly what we did. We had the famous Vietnamese coffee at one of the local restaurants, we passed through a large produce market, and then we settled down at a river facing cafe, for a pizza and a 0.25 cent beer and some free WiFi.
Shopping in Hoi An – What to buy
If you’re looking to shop, Hoi An has the cutest paper lamps, and blue pottery items all around. I picked up a blue ceramic kettle here, which to this day is one of my most special possessions. The lamps come in all materials, colors and sizes and should be a must buy item from Hoi An.
We sat down at another charming cafe for dinner, listening to the live music at another cafe nearby, with hundreds of fire lamps floating in the river, in the sky and in the cafes, having experienced nothing like it before.
We walked back to our hostel again, stopped for food and coffee on the way, fully satisfied and happy about our day and what a find Hoi An had been. We slept the night at our homestay in Hoi An, and early next morning, took a 5 hour bus ride to Hue.
Hue – A lovely place for a small break
Continuing our journey north towards Hanoi, we had another ‘layover’ at a city called Hue. Hue for a traveler is mainly famous for its imperial castle, where we spent most of the day. It’s a walled palace within a citadel, and quite beautiful and imposing. You can see ancient Vietnamese architecture in this sprawling palace, and also watch the 15 minute AV presentation that simulates the kingdom the way it would have been when it was alive and thriving.
The citadel would also make for some stunning photo ops, given the elaborate doors, arches, and fields. We had a great time soaking up ancient Vietnamese history at the citadel, and clicking lots of photos here.
Again around post noon, we got back to our bus stop, and hopped on the truck to Hanoi, the 2nd biggest city in Vietnam, and the base for the famous Ha Long bay.
Hanoi – a French town in Vietnam
We finally reached Hanoi, on day 7 of our trip, at around 8am. It was pouring like nobody’s business, and we didn’t have a hostel booking. Hailing an expensive local cab (we didn’t have a local SIM to hail Uber if it existed in Hanoi) to a vaguely heard of backpack street was the only way. Interestingly, our bus ticket to Hanoi came with a free hostel which we realised after reaching another hostel! (In Vietnam a lot of bus tickets include a free hostel. Why? We’ll come to that in a bit) So, walking in the rains and getting lost multiple times, we reached the Free Hostel and checked in. We got clean sheets on dorm beds, and a bathroom without any water, but paying nothing for it, we didn’t mind so much. We freshened up, changed, and set out to explore Hanoi.
It was still raining so there was not much exploring to do, except to sit tight at a cafe and people watch. I grabbed a ‘Bah Mi’ – a Vietnamese sandwich with Baguettes and veggies and meat fillings. Mine was without meat of course, and it was delicious. Hanoi was a French colony in the olden times, and its influence permeates all spheres – its architecture, language and food habits. Baguettes, a French staple, are as ubiquitous as Pho in Hanoi.
After the rains decided to halt a bit, we walked around to find a tour for Ha long bay. Again different agencies would offer you different prices, but we found one at $40 per person which would include transport from Hanoi, and one day and night on the boat and all meals included.
Our hostel too had a package on offer – around $60 a person, and THAT is why it was free. There’s a good chance someone staying at the hostel would be too lazy to look around and sign up for the most convenient option of booking through their hostel! Though, the weather was looking iffy thanks to an impending typhoon in the bay and it was possible that the tour would never happen. As bummed as were about that possibility, our backup plan was to go to the Sa Pa Valley in place of Halong bay, if the typhoon situation did rain on our parade.
The train track that passes through houses
If you’ve seen that viral social media video about a train that nonchalantly passes through houses in a narrow lane, it’s in Vietnam, and we stumbled upon it quite accidentally! We were on our way to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum when suddenly we spotted this train track smack in the middle of a narrow lane with houses and shops on either side! Imagine our excitement when a top visited site in Hanoi just happened be on our way, unbeknownst to us! We learnt that it’s an active track, and one train indeed passes by everyday, when the stalls and tables and chairs put up outside houses quickly go back in, the train comes and goes, and life gets back to normal in seconds.
Uncle Ho’s embalmed remains
We had a day to wait out for any update either way, so we spent the whole day checking out Hanoi. We started walking towards the Memorial, where 50+ year old preserved remains of Ho Chi Minh are kept. He played an important part in the Vietnam War and is treated as a demigod in the country, and can even be called the Gandhi of Vietnam.
However we were out of luck as the mausoleum was closed by the time we got there, and we had to contend ourselves with seeing the impressive structure from the outside. We walked back to the backpacker district, with me breaking my shoes on the way, and spending the rest 2 hours limping throughout, and then almost serendipitously finding a pair of throwaway shoes on the road that fit me okay! It was a sign.
Halong bay was happening as the skies had cleared up in the bay, and our mood was upbeat again. We grabbed dinner at one of the cafes in the backpacker street where we were again locked in for a long time thanks to the rains.
Halong Bay cruise and kayaking in the bay
Halong bay was highlight # 2 of the entire trip. Having booked our tour beforehand, we took the shuttle bus to Ha Phong – the harbour town from which all the cruises to Ha Long bay leave, and reached well before 12. We were loaded onto our boat ‘Hai Au’- one amongst the dozens that seemed to be parked on the harbour, not a nice sight when in your head, you were picturing a lone boat in an ocean! (cue Life of Pi :p)
However, that’s just the reality of any famous place that’s too popular for its own good. Still, that didn’t take away everything from our experience, and we still had a good time. After settling down in our 20 seater boat we had a coastal lunch on the boat, and the room we had blew us away. A tiny wooden cabin lined with windows. And what do you see outside the windows? Emerald green waters, punctuated by lush “karsts” or rock formations as far as the eye could see.
Suffice to say, this is a unique experience, and Halong bay is one of the very few places bays of its kinds. For 2 hours, we enjoyed this view while lying in our beds.
The boat stops at an island for a optional paid swim and a trek up a hill for a vantage view point. We decided to skip it and just watch from our boat instead. (too bad we didn’t know this was the famous photo spot where most of the Instagram-worthy pictures from the Halong bay are taken!)
However our cruise included an hour long kayaking trip, so later in the noon, the 2 of us on our dual-peddle kayak went around the bay, touching the waters, getting up and close with the karsts, and soaking in the beauty of the sunset, in the best way possible.
The kayaking left us thrilled but exhausted, but the boat was well-prepared to handle that. Our fresh dinner was waiting by the time we came back which we devoured, talked with our fellow cruise-mates, and called it a day.
That we were in the middle of the sea, moored on a boat, surrounded by karsts, islands, and a hundred other boats, under a starry sky is barely something you notice once inside the boat at night.
Back to Hanoi and onwards to Laos
We woke up early morning the next day to capture the sunrise from the deck of the boat, and it was worth sacrificing a few hours of sleep for. There was breakfast on the boat (fresh guavas, bread, jam and fish.) after which it started to move back to the harbour. The 2 hours back to the harbour was the prettiest part of the cruise yet. I spent all these 2 hours soaking in the views from the deck of the boat, feeling lucky to be witnessing nature at its gorgeous best.
On the way back to the harbour, the cruise stops at a small cave tour, which is impressive by itself considering this huge cave exists beneath a karst! Looking at one from the outside, you could never tell. The approach to the cave is through a series of 100+ steps, and the cave is well lit up (disco lighting at that!) inside, and if for nothing else, makes for a nice retreat from the raging sun outside. After the cave tour, it takes another hour of cruising on the bay and then back to the harbour if you’re on the 1 night cruise. Many people also choose to stay another night, or hop off on to another island within the bay.
The 1 hour wait at the hot hell that was the harbour station wasn’t quite a befitting end to the cruise, but meh, that’s what you sign up for when you go for a package tour. The bus back to Hanoi filled up after an hour, heck the driver even managed to load people up on the aisle, (Vietnam has extra seats that pull out into the aisle if needed), and after making a customary ‘lunch halt’ at a handicrafts store, a 2 hour ride got us back to Hanoi by 5pm. Our bus to Laos was at 6, and we were unsure if we’d be able to make it back in time and to the bus stop in time, but as luck would have it, the minute we got off in Hanoi, we found a van to take us to the bus stop. How a van meant for 6 managed to load 12 people in it, is another story. However, we did reach the Hanoi bus terminal well in time for our bus, and had our last Vietnamese coffee and Pho at a cafe near the station.
By 7 pm, we were on yet another of those fully flat bed sleeper buses, and a long (24 hour +) journey to Laos lay ahead of us. The Laos leg of this trip calls for a blogpost of its own, so watch this space for more.
Meanwhile, as Vietnam was whizzing past us, with it all the small Bah Mi and Pho stalls, then the highway restaurants, we had had a lot of go over in our minds from the last 9 days. The sobering history of Vietnam wars, the endless volley of Pho bars, the charming Hoi An, the imperial architecture at Hue, the train tracks in Hanoi, and of course Ha Long Bay, that we had been in, just a few hours earlier.