Sail Away To Halong Bay & Top Up Your Tan In Hoi An: A Few Incredible Things To Do In Vietnam
Whilst the backpacker trail through South-East Asia has long been a well-trodden route, it’s fair to say that the Top Gear Special put Vietnam firmly on the tourist map.
I hadn’t actually seen the episode when I travelled to the country, but having since watched it, I find myself longing to return.
Despite Vietnam’s heart-breaking history, the local people are gracious, warm and welcoming. Their country offers the keen traveller an intoxicating mix of tantalising cuisine, spectacular scenery and enchanting culture.
With so much to see and do, I’ve decided to split this blog into two parts; the first of which will concentrate on Northern Vietnam and the second focussing on the South.
So without further ado, here are my top things to do in Vietnam.
Explore the capital
Prior to arriving in Vietnam, I had been enjoying the beautiful weather and lush, languid setting of Luang Prabang in Laos. Touching down in Hanoi, my heart sank. It was dark, freezing cold and pouring with rain.
The lazy streets of Luang Prabang had been replaced with the chaotic main roads of Vietnam’s capital. I disliked it immediately. Then my taxi turned into Hanoi’s Old Quarter and I completely changed my mind.
Each of the Old Quarter’s 36 streets are named according to the trade in which the merchants on that street specialise. So for example, Hang Bac is the street to head to if you are after silver, but if it’s shoes you want then get yourself off to Hang Dep.
It’s worth spending a few hours browsing the shops here to pick up a few bargains and then I’d recommend heading to Hoan Kiem Lake to see if you can spot the turtles that call the lake home. Everybody I know who has visited has seen one, including myself, so the chances are high!
You can head over the picturesque Huc Bridge to the tiny Jade Island that sits in the centre of the lake. Here you will find Ngoc Son Temple where you can learn more about a local legend that saw the return of the Golden Turtle God to Hoan Kiem Lake.
Performances by the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre take place on the banks of the lake every evening. It makes for a very traditional end to the day.
If you’re up for something a bit different, then why not visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. The former president’s body is entombed in a glass sarcophagus that can be viewed, in single file, under the careful eye of the surrounding guards. Just make sure you check before visiting that he will actually be there. Every so often the body is flown to Russia for maintenance!
If you have the time, then I would also recommend a visit to the Museum of Ethnology. It’s an easy bus ride from Hoan Kiem Lake – just ask the bus driver to tell you when you’re at your stop. The museum itself has exhibitions both inside and out – everything from art work and erotic carvings to full scale traditional houses. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the cultures in early and modern day Vietnam.
For those intending to volunteer in Vietnam, Hanoi is a fantastic city in which to base yourself. There are numerous care centres and schools in need of help and, as I have just covered, plenty to keep you occupied during your free time.
Head to the hills
Surrounded on all sides by the Hoang Lien mountain range and overlooking verdant paddy fields, Sapa is certainly picturesque.
The area is home to numerous hill tribes, such as the Black H’mong and Red Dzao, most of whom still adhere to their traditional way of life.
The best way to explore this region is on foot. To really get the most out of your visit, I would recommend hiring a local guide who knows the area well and will take you on treks to remote hill tribe villages, far from the tourist throngs. It is possible to arrange homestays in some villages but just keep in mind that January and February can get bitterly cold.
There are several market towns dotted around the area surrounding Sapa, the most famous of which is Bac Ha. A sleepy town for 6 days of the week, on Sundays Bac Ha bursts into life.
The Flower H’mong pour into town for the Sunday market where everything from cattle and horses to fresh vegetables and ruou corn hooch (the potent home brew of the Flower H’mong) can be purchased.
The women dress in vivid blues, reds, greens and pinks, making this a particularly colourful event. As a result, Bac Ha market is extremely popular with tourists and the town is often flooded with day trippers from Hanoi. The local tribespeople sell many homemade wares, such as handbags and trinkets, which make for perfect souvenirs. Be prepared to haggle though.
Get off the beaten track
It’s all too easy to follow the well-trodden tourist trail when travelling in South-East Asia, but some of the most memorable experiences tend to occur when you veer off the beaten track.
I travelled to Vietnam with my mum, dad and two brothers. As a family we had been sponsoring a Vietnamese boy called Duong for a couple of years. He lived in a tiny village in the hills north of Hanoi so, when planning our trip, we made sure to allow time to visit him.
The charity through which we were sponsoring him made arrangements for us to be collected by mini-bus and driven to the village. It was a 5 hour drive down appalling roads and through lush, hilly countryside. It was a world away from the busy streets of the capital.
We knew it was a small village, but didn’t realise exactly how small. There were probably no more than 40 people and the houses were traditional wooden stilt houses.
We’d expected to meet and spend a little time with Duong, his parents and his sister but, when we arrived, we were surprised to find that the entire village had turned up at the house to greet us. Nobody spoke a word of English, but it was clear that they were genuinely thrilled to have us there and they couldn’t have made us feel more welcome.
We were most likely the first Westerners to have ever set foot in the village and they obviously wanted to make it a day to remember. They had killed a pig in our honour – something that, as an animal lover, I wasn’t overly pleased to hear – and prepared a special brew of rice wine.
A spectacular array of food was laid out on the floor of one of the houses and we sat down with the entire village to eat. I’m not the most adventurous when it comes to food and I had no idea what most of the stuff was. However, they had obviously gone to considerable effort so I made sure I had a bit of everything. This really was Vietnamese food at its most traditional!
Once lunch was finished, the rice wine made an ominous appearance and the drinking began. The villagers downed a shot, turned their glass upside down and then yelled something that sounded like “champa champ”. They then indicated for us to follow. I’m teetotal so enjoyed watching rather than partaking.
The rest of my family followed the villagers’ lead, tipped their glasses and yelled the same Vietnamese phrase. The villagers immediately insisted everybody repeat this. This went on and on and on. It took me a while to realise that the aim was to ensure that there was no wine left to drip out when the glass was turned. If there was, you had to drink again. It took my family a lot longer to cotton on to this.
The end result – a mad, drunken party and a night to remember!
Set sail in Halong Bay
A four hour drive west of Hanoi, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Halong Bay simply has to feature on your list of things to do in Vietnam. Thousands of limestone karsts jut out of turquoise green waters, concealing numerous grottos and creating a mystical maze begging to be explored.
The ultimate way to view the bay is on-board a traditional Vietnamese junk. If party boats are your thing, then these are available although I felt they were out of place here. If you prefer peace and quiet, good food and a more relaxing experience then do your research beforehand and select a boat that only caters for around 8 people.
If you have the time then it’s well worth spending a night on-board, if not two. This gives you the chance to view both sunset and sunrise over the bay.
The boats usually depart Halong City at around midday. Do not confuse the city with the bay itself. The karsts of the bay take a good hour or so to reach by boat and are barely visible from the city. I found Halong City devoid of charm, so would recommend staying in Hanoi and travelling to Halong City on the day you intend to catch your boat.
Sailing around the bay is pure bliss. I stayed on a small boat with just 7 other people and spent most of the day on the top deck sunbathing, taking photos and just generally watching the world go by. The variety of the karst islands that you pass is astounding; some are densely forested, others are inhabited and some boast stretches of sandy beaches.
We stopped off at a floating village and also at a large cave complex, the name of which escapes me. Before entering the caves we were told that, if you use your imagination, the stalactites and stalagmites take on incredible forms. Ever the pessimist, I didn’t believe this for one minute. I was quite wrong. Within a few minutes I could see statues of eagles, elephants and so on and so forth.
The entrance of the cave offers a fantastic view of the bay which, more often than not, is speckled with traditional junks.
Most of the boats have a few canoes on-board which you can take out to explore some of the smaller coves. Sunset is a particularly beautiful time at which to do this and really helps you build up an appetite.
Finish your day off with some delicious grilled fish prepared by the crew and then drift off to sleep, aided by the gentle rocking of the boat. What could be better?!
Chill out in Hoi An
Hoi An is a former trading port and, in recent years, has become a magnet for tourists travelling through Vietnam. As this ancient town’s popularity has increased, inevitably, much of its traditional culture and heritage has been replaced with cafes and shops that cater for tourists.
It remains, however, a lovely little place to visit with exquisite food and a laid back vibe.
There is no airport or train station in Hoi An, so you will normally arrive in the nearby city of Danang and, from there, catch a taxi.
Hoi An is famous for its tailors and a fantastic place in which to have a suit fitted for a very reasonable price. Competition between tailors is fierce and some try to get in there early by teaming up with taxi drivers.
I experienced this first-hand when my taxi driver explained to me that he didn’t know the way to Hoi An and was picking up a local woman who could direct him. Of course, within seconds she began explaining how her husband ran a tailor-shop.
I had heard about the scam before and was ready for this. I told her firmly that I wasn’t interested in the slightest and put my headphones in for the remainder of the journey, much to her displeasure. Do watch out for this. They can be very persistent and it quickly gets irritating.
When you eventually arrive in Hoi An, the first thing you should do is a grab a coffee and a slice of cake in one of the many wooden cafes that line the town’s narrow streets.
Then head to the famous Japanese bridge which you can cross to explore the museums and old trading houses on the other side.
If you’re happy to head a little further afield, then you could hire a bike and cycle to the nearby beaches. Alternatively, you could arrange a visit to My Son, a historic temple complex 40km from Hoi An. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, these temples date back to the 13th century and, despite heavy bombardment during the Vietnam War, have been well preserved.
For the budding chef or the adventurous foodie, Hoi An is a great place in which to test out your culinary skills. I went with The Lighthouse cookery school and it proved to be one of the most enjoyable days of my entire trip.
We started the day with a trip to the local market which was both informative and interesting. This was followed by a lovely two hour cycle ride around Hoi An, stopping at various sites along the way.
Then we gathered in the spacious kitchen and learnt a little more about the dishes we were to be making. This ranged from fresh spring rolls to spice-stuffed squid. The cookery teacher was enthusiastic and patient and our small group spent a fun-filled few hours working away over the stove before sitting down together to try our creations.
We finished the day with a boat trip along the river, before returning to the lantern-lit streets of Hoi An.
I spent only 5 days in Hoi An but I fell in love with it and didn’t want to leave.
In my next blog we head to the tropical south for seaside and sand dunes, chaotic Saigon, and the mighty Mekong.
Have you been to Vietnam? What was the highlight of your trip? Have you got any good tips for readers regarding things to do in Vietnam? We want to hear from you. Please leave your comments below.
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