By: Sofia Sacre
I’ve been planning a trip to Vietnam for over 2 years. The initial plan was to spend a month on a scooter going around the country, but unfortunately I couldn’t get the days off, so I settled for 9, busy, exciting, condensed days and I was not disappointed at all!
The first thing I would like to say… if you are travelling to Vietnam in western summer months, and you are the kind of person that sweats, be prepared for waterfalls, if you aren’t, get ready to sweat anyway… The humidity is close to 90% and you’ll be doing all sorts of fun activities that’ll bring up your heart rate. Don’t expect to see Vietnamese sweating though, no matter what they are up to.
We started our trip in Ho Chi Minh City, where we met up with an old friend. Ho Chi Minh is a big working city, definitely worth a visit but I couldn’t tell you much more about it as we spent most of our time eating and partying. What I can tell you is that it seems to be largely overlooked by most tourists, even though it is the place to be if you’re interested in the country’s recent history. Here you would be able to visit the war tunnels and get a better gist of the real city life. 1.5 days later, we bused it down to Can Tho in the south. Vietnam has these amazing sleeper busses, with enough space to lay down, really comfortable and cozy. If you are using public transport to get around the country they are worth a try.
From an over crowded, bustling city, we found ourselves in a little sleepy town on the Mekong delta. My sister and I stayed in the Nguyen shack there and it could not have been more perfect. Run by Theu and Maxime, there’s an 800m walk to get to the shack along the riverbed, which, despite our heavy backpacks, was a fantastic intro to Can Tho. Theu greeted us, along with the resident piglet, kittens, puppies and chicks and we quickly felt at home. I had already booked all the activities they offer, so we were hurried onto a motorized boat and taken down the delta at 4:30PM to witness the local life. I am still in awe at the lifestyle the Vietnamese have over there: washing clothes in the delta, teaching their kids to swim, washing themselves. You can’t but admire the beauty of their simple life, the happiness that radiates from their faces and the joy of their kids, running along the shore, following the boat saying ‘hi’ over and over again. Fun fact… ‘hi’ actually means 2 in Vietnamese, which is why they usually show you the ‘peace’ sign.. They are just relating hi to 2.
We also visited their floating market, a must if you go to Vietnam in the near future; it probably won’t be there for much longer, as most things are moving on land. We finished our stay there with a bicycle ride around town, visiting the school, the local blacksmith, their Pagoda, rice factory and rice wine makers. Another fun fact, I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in 8 years and the streets are quite narrow, used by cars, other cyclists, and kids running up and down… Suffice to say, my riding skills had to come back to me quickly… which was lucky for me, as it wasn’t the last time I cycle on this trip.
After Can Tho we headed to Ha Long Bay… I’ll spare you the gritty details, but if you are going to be taking public buses, make sure you get on a proper coach bus and not a mini van. The van will take ages to get you there, following an obscene amount of stops while making sure that not even a fly can fit amongst the passengers anymore in order to maximize profit. And it doesn’t help that the floor is crawling with little cockroaches and that everyone is yelling at each other in Vietnamese.
Ha long Bay, unfortunately, has to be done through a company or tour. There are packages ranging from 1 to 3 nights and of course varying in luxury. Personally I found that one night (rather than the longer 3 night trip) was enough to be stuck on a boat, canoeing for a couple hours a day around the beautiful scenery but to each their own.
Our next stop, Ninh Binh has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. We stayed in the Nguyen shack again, and experienced the same hospitality as the previous one. It was like seeing long lost family. If you are staying there, keep an evening free and help teach an English class… That was a lot of fun.
On our first day in N. B we rented 2 mopeds with drivers (learn how to drive a motorbike is next on my bucket list) and drove around the area visiting the National Park and a few other beautiful stops along the way. The bike ride was fantastic, beautiful scenery, smooth ride along the rice plantations, into the national park and through small villages. If you are short on time, it is the perfect way to get to see the area and still cover ground. Another fun thing to do, is to take bicycles (yep here they are again) and get lost. We met locals that took us on their boat down the stream and cycled through the wrong village, which was kind of an ‘uncharted’ territory for tourists. If you haven’t cycled through a carpet of drying rice, you haven’t lived!
Finally, Hanoi was our last stop. A complete contrast to the other places we had experienced so far. Busy, chaotic, shops everywhere and completely disorganized. Unlike the rest of the country, travelers we met in Hanoi were younger and up for a great party. If you are the type of traveler that wants to have drinking buddies for the trip, start in Hanoi and make your way across the country. Here everyone is either buying or selling mopeds, looking for travel buddies or celebrating the end of their stay in Vietnam. It was a great place to end the trip.
With the short time we had, we missed out on a few places that should not have been skipped like Sapa: cobblestone towns, rice fields and unbelievable scenery. I do not regret it though; it is simply another great reason for me to go back soon.
If you are traveling through Vietnam and have time, try to make it on a moped or bike and absorb the scenery. It really is the best way to experience this wonderful country. If, like me, time isn’t easy to come by for you, their public transport is excellent and the fastest way to travel around the country: the bigger the vehicle, the more damage they can inflict, and so the faster they can go….
So, what are you waiting for? Pick up that backpack and go explore!