As a U.S. Army veteran, part of the reason I wanted to go to Vietnam was to experience in a way some of what our soldiers experienced being deployed to a mysterious country 12,000 miles away, a country so foreign in every way possible, from the weather to the language, food, terrain, etc. On our 12 day trip, we flew into Ho Chi Minh CIty, saw the central part of the country next, and then flew to the northern part.
Halong Bay junk
Day 1-3: Ho Chi Minh City
We erred by spending too many days in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), a crowded city like so many others in the developing world. Don’t get me wrong, the food was great and there were some sights to see, but I wouldn’t recommend adding this city on your itinerary if you’re only going to be in the country for two weeks or less. There is just so much else to see in Vietnam. I thought it was also kind of dangerous even trying to cross the street, as there are few stop lights. We had to just carefully and steadily step out in front of all the motorbikes to make our way across the road; if you don’t take this measured leap forward, you’ll end up stuck on one side of the road waiting for an opening in the traffic that might not come.
Typical street in Ho Chi Minh City
As a Vietnam War buff, there was some stuff that I wanted to see, including the some of the colonial-era hotels that served as the hang-outs of the press corps and the military leadership and spokespeople, including the Rex Hotel and the Caravelle Hotels, the former being the site of the infamous “Five O’Clock follies,” a derisive name for the unhelpful 5pm press briefings by U.S. military spokesmen. We also visited the Reunification Palace, or the former residence of of the South Vietnamese president. I loved the 60s style architecture and military equipment placed around the building. The palace is now a museum whose every detail, including the furniture, is frozen in 1975.
We also visited a park where the Saigon Zoo and Museum of Vietnamese History are located. There was a festival the day we were there. The park was decorated with the red flags of Vietnam, which reminded me that I was in an Communist country.
Area around Saigon Zoo
Day 4-9: Central Vietnam
We then flew up to the middle part of the country and made a little town called Hoi An, our base for the next 5-6 days. We absolutely loved our hotel, the Victoria Hoi An. It was right on a beautiful Pacific Ocean beach right outside of the town and was an oasis after the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh. The hotel even had a pair of water buffalos that “raked” the sand on the beach each morning. Since Emily and I are early risers, we watched this event each morning with curiosity.
In front of our hotel; morning beach-raking by the resident water buffalo
The Victoria has a huge pool which seemed to spill right out onto the ocean. There was also an extensive buffet each morning that contributed to me gaining a few pounds on the trip. The price of the hotel was pretty reasonable for western standards–about $140 a night. Yes, expensive for Vietnam but for a nice hotel on the beach, I was happy to spend about the same amount of money a Holiday Inn outside of Dayton Airport would have cost.
Victoria Hotel, Hoi An
Although Hoi An was renovated into a more of a tourist area than a “real” Vietnamese city, I didn’t feel like I was in a tourist trap. The architecture was really unique and the river that runs through the city provides a sort of humid calm that blankets the city. There were also a lot of tailor shops where you can get clothes made. Emily and I had some stuff created for us–a couple of dress shirts and a sport coat for me and a few work clothes for Emily.
Emily in Hoi An, trying out the local way of doing things.
Hoi An also had some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. Each night Emily and I went out to a great restaurant–there were dozens to choose from–and went nuts trying all sorts of new foods. I can almost eat anything, but Emily is a vegan and had to be careful not to consume any meat or fish-based products.
Typical meal we ate in Vietnam
From Hoi An, we took a couple of day trips: one to Hue and the other to Mỹ Sơn, an ancient ruin in the hot dense jungle of central Vietnam. Visiting there gave us an idea of how hot the country is and what our soldiers must have felt like fighting in dense jungle.
The other day trip was to Hue, where U.S. Marines fought during the 1968 Tet Offensive. At the Citadel, the large castle-like structure built during the 1800s, bullet holes were still visible in the walls and in some of the imperial regalia, such as these huge pots (pictured).
Moat at Hue. See us?
On the way back from Hue, we drove through Danang, where American soldiers went for R&R at China Beach. I was really impressed by how clear the water was and the good waves along the coastline. It must have been tough for them to go back to the jungle after a few days lounging around the beach.
Day 10-12: North Vietnam
Our next stop was Hanoi, which we preferred 100% over Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi is also sprawling and really crowded, but it retains more of an Old World feel than Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi retains a lot of beautiful old French architecture and seemed to be more cut off from the Western world than its southern counterpart. I also liked how there were lakes inside the city center, most notably Hoan Kiem Lake. The food was also excellent and cheap.
One of the highlights of our trip was our stay at the French-Colonial style Metropole Hotel, in downtown Hanoi by Hoan Kiem Lake. The Metropole is probably the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. The rooms were impeccable, the service above and beyond, and the inner courtyard where the pool is was gorgeous.
Hoan Kiem Lake, Turtle Tower
Old French houses in Hanoi
John McCain’s flight suit at the war museum
During the middle of our stay, we did an overnight at Halong Bay a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most beautiful areas of the world I’ve ever seen. Although the 4-5 hour van ride sucked, the scenery of Halong Bay certainly made the journey worth it. There were dozens of boats we could have chosen for overnight trip, but we ultimately went with Indochina Junk. I don’t remember the name of the specific boat we were on but the overnight trip was amazing. See pics below. We also stopped at a fake little beach where we got to play with these cute puppies and swim in the water.
The one unfortunate part of the trip was a kind of forced-visit to a fake fishing village that was clearly only there to serve the needs of tourist companies. I felt like it was one of the biggest tourist traps I’ve ever had the misfortune of getting caught up in. The “villagers” all lined up to take us on a boat ride through their cove and showed us how they live. Yeah right. Anyway, the scenery made up for it so I didn’t dwell too much on it.
Typical boat in Halong Bay.
Cute puppies we got to play with on the beach
Emily and I seeing how the real people of Vietnam live.
Fake fishing village
Emily looking good
I got one of the best night’s sleep in my life the night we were on the boat. The gentle rocking of the boat was my own natural Ambien. I would recommend staying on Halong Bay for one night; two would be nice but I think you can see a lot on the 2day/1 night trip.
Recap: Vietnam is ridiculously awesome and everyone should try to get there at least once in there lifetime.
- I opted for the Visa-On-Arrival (VOA) and picked up the visa after landing at the Ho Chi Minh airport. Going this route is a good way to save some money if you’re on a tight schedule after arriving at the airport. We only waited about 10 minutes for our names to be called.
- Take advantage of your time in Vietnam and get massages for a fraction of what they cost in the U.S.
- Order a lot of different things off the menu at restaurants. It’s very cheap and you’ll get to try different dishes without killing your wallet.
Ho Chi Minh City, Legend Hotel: Nothing to write home about. It provided good value for the money but we just felt like we were living in some big apartment building with a big lobby. The location was excellent right on the river and within walking distance to the city center. Great breakfast buffet though.
Hoi An: Victoria Hoi An As I described above, this hotel was the highlight of our trip. We loved the ocean views, the great buffet in the mornings, and the open-air feel to the lobby.
Hanoi: Hanoi Metropole Sofitel: Probably the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in–all for about $200 a night (that may have changed). Every detail in the rooms was perfect. I got used to the awesome buffet in the main dining area, and they also have a smaller buffet in an area right off the pool. We stayed in the Opera Wing, the cheaper area of the two sections of the hotel. The older wing of the hotel has fewer rooms and is more expensive. We were fine with the $200 a night rooms. Yes, expensive for Vietnam but the prices were similar to what you’d find at the Holiday Inn outside San Francisco or something.