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We, that is me and my husband went to Vietnam for the first time. We are used to organize our trips ourselves and traveling independently. Most times we only book the flight to and from the country we are visiting and the first two nights (to have a little time to adjust and deal with the jetlag). After that, we book day by day in order to remain as flexible as possible and decide last minute if we want to stay longer or shorter in a certain place.
Of course, we are always looking for interesting places for us, like spice plantations, tea gardens, markets, and so on. This means that we often leave the usual tourist paths. We also seek contact with the locals wherever possible. We usually take part in cooking courses, travel by public transport, and meet Facebook acquaintances (especially woodturning friends of Matthias, my husband).
That’s how we traveled around Vietnam. Here are our impressions and some tips.
By the way, you can find great travel guides here:
Our first week – Ha Noi and surroundings
On the way from the airport to the hotel, we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of scooters. Many carried twigs or whole kumquat trees with them. At the roadside vendor’s sell them. Later someone explained to us that the twigs came from peach trees that are specially bred in order to blossom on New Year’s Day. We are talking about the Lunar New Year, which is also celebrated by the Chinese and depends on the moon. In Vietnam this year (2019) (almost) everything stood still from February 4th until the 7th, because of Tet-Holiday. We didn’t consider that. Finding a flight from Ha Noi to Ho Chi Min on the Sunday after the Tet holidays – at a reasonable price – is unfortunately impossible. In this case, it would have been better not to be too spontaneous, but to plan ahead. Well, there is always a solution, so we booked a flight to Nha Trang.
But now it’s Ha Noi’s turn
Our hotel “Le Beauté de Hanoi” was located on a quiet side street in the old center. We were greeted and checked in in the friendliest way. We were also welcomed with a cup of tea and candied ginger pieces. During our second stay, we even got an upgrade – that time we got a bigger room with a window overlooking the city roofs. (In big cities in Vietnam the hotel rooms often have no windows or only windows into a courtyard or backyard. Usually, the room descriptions don’t say “without window” but rooms with a window are marked as “with window”. The advantage of a windowless room is that it is quieter ?).
Discovering the old Ha Noi on foot
Then the journey of discovery began. The first challenge was crossing the road. The roads are crowded with cars and even more scooters. In the hotel, they advised us not to hesitate, to walk slowly but steadily, and NEVER take a step back. We took that to heart – and it works!
We first got an overview of our nearest surroundings and got used to the fact that the footpath here is not for pedestrians, but used as a parking lot for scooters or to enlarge the shops.
Food in Ha Noi
In Ha Noi, there are street kitchens everywhere. In the morning small tables and stools are put outside, the kitchen is furnished and they’re ready to start. We ate in several such street kitchens and it always tasted good to us. We ate Phò – a soup with rice noodles, vegetables, sprouts, and beef or chicken pieces (Phò Bo/ Phò Ga) in it, or a Hot Pot (either like a table grill, or similar to a Fondue Chinoise, which is also available as a vegetarian variant). While eating you can watch the colorful hustle and bustle on the street. And by colorful, I mean really colorful, there always something going on…. life here takes place on the street!
Shopping in the old Ha Noi
If you like to stroll through markets or visit shops, you will get your money’s worth here. One shop follows the next. You’ll find tea, coffee, fabric products like silk sleeping bags or scarves, chopsticks, tea dishes, and of course food, fresh and dried, like nuts or candied fruit. We took home some very good tea, which we bought at “VietAroma“. Often you can also taste the tea in these shops.
A tip from us: Vietnam produces branded winter clothing and branded bags and backpacks which you can buy locally at a lower price than in Europe. But beware, sometimes they are not originals!
The lake – Ho Hoan Kiem
At the southern end of the old town, there is a small lake which you can easily walk around. Since we were there during Tet-Holiday, there was a lot going on everywhere. Whole families were there, all dressed in festive clothes and in a party mood. Street vendors sold fruit (I have never seen pineapples cut so beautifully) and cotton candy, while buskers entertained the audience.
In the lake, there is a small temple connected to the mainland by a beautiful wooden bridge. In the evening everything is beautifully illuminated.
Halong-Bay – a must!
After the turbulent Ha Noi – and because it was Tet-Holiday – we let the hotel organize a trip to Halong Bay for us. In my opinion, a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must.
These excursions are very well organized. You can be picked up from the hotel in Ha Noi or Hai Phong. We made our tour with Athena Cruise and had an overnight stay on the ship. Everything was taken care of; the food was excellent and the trips to the “Floating Fisher Village” and the stalactite cave were exciting. In the Floating Fisher Village, you can choose between being taken around in a rowing boat or rowing yourself in a kayak. We chose the kayak, which took a little bit of muscle strength, especially since my husband mostly took pictures instead of rowing ?.
In the evening there was a mini cooking class where we made our own spring rolls. Finally, I learned a trick how to moisten the rice paper sheets without tearing them – just put them on a wet washcloth and roll them directly on it.
In between, you can always enjoy the view and let the landscape – which is really spectacular with its almost 2000 limestone formations – pass you by.
In sunny weather, it’s a dream, and in less sunny weather also a dream, because then everything seems completely enchanted.
As in every spot where there are many tourists, the effect on the environment is big, many ships unfortunately also mean a lot of pollution.
We stayed one more night in Hai Phong, where we visited a woodturner. Thanks to Dung Phang we got an insight into life in Vietnam outside the tourist streams. It was an instructive and enjoyable day. Thank you Dung Phang for your hospitality!
From Hai Phong, we went back to Ha Noi by train. We passed countless rice fields and small villages. Amidst Vietnamese families, we got to know their way of traveling. It was very exciting to see what they eat during the trip. Many had food with them, like sunflower seeds, fruit, or biscuits. But there was also a mobile bar with coffee and snacks. Very unusual for us were the banana leaf packets with cooked food in them that you could buy from the mobile bar.
Phan Thiet and Nui Me
From Ha Noi, we continued by plane to Nha Trang from where we drove with a private driver to Phan Thiet. Phan Thiet and especially Nui Me are very touristic, with beautiful beaches, countless hotels, and restaurants.
We wanted to visit a fish sauce factory to see how this omnipresent fish sauce (Nuoc Mam) is produced. Unfortunately, we found almost no information on the internet and also in the hotel they knew nothing about a “factory”. We then found out that there are several small producers who sell their sauces directly at their own stand on the street. Between Phan Thiet and Nui Me we found what we were looking for (we just followed our nose) and even got to have a look into the barrels. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any explanations due to language difficulties.
For everyone who likes fish and seafood, we recommend having dinner at the Nui Me Fishing village. There everything comes to the table freshly caught!