Start in the north flying into Hanoi, the hectic capital of Vietnam. Making sure you spend enough time here to sample all of the culinary delights the Vietnamese capital has to offer. Next take a short trip east to Ha Long. Here you can spend a night or two staying on a boat in the UNESCO world heritage site – Ha Long Bay. Masses of companies in Hanoi offer 1-2 night tours, exploring Ha Long Bay and sleeping and drinking on a boat. Your tour should include the return journey to Hanoi.
From Hanoi take the 12.5 hour overnight train to Hue. A couple of days here should be enough to explore what Hue has to offer, including another UNESCO world heritage site – Hue’s Imperial City.
You’ve got the option to fly to HCMC from Phu Quoc, but if like us you came from HCMC you probably won’t want to go back on yourself. Luckily there’s also the option to travel by boat to mainland Vietnam and then onto Cambodia. We opted to start our time in Cambodia by travelling from Phu Quoc to the Cambodian capital – Phnom Penh.
Although HCMC is not the capital of Vietnam, it is clear to see that this city is the economic hub of the country, driving the country forward into the 21st century. There’s a huge contrast across the city, there’s the one section of the city which is home to high rise buildings, expensive restaurants and upmarket hotels where the cities high flyers will more than likely be found residing. Then is another section of the city, you will find your stereotypical Asian inner city scene, street stalls selling delicious food, the roads packed with loud, smoky motorbikes and chaotic markets.
The main reason we made our way to Da Lat, was to experience the canyoning. After seeing a few pictures beforehand and having never been abseiling before, we thought why not?!
Da Lat was the only place in Vietnam where I actually had to wear a jumper while walking around at night. The altitude of the town causes lower temperatures compared with the rest of Vietnam. There’s also contrast with Da Lat compared to the rest of the country in terms of the architecture of the buildings and look of the town, which isn’t quite the conventional Asian style and I would say more of a European style.
A majestic and peaceful town in central Vietnam, It is very easy to see why Hoi An attracts so many tourists and backpackers year after year. Once a busy port town, Hoi An has now developed into an easygoing and relaxed destination with tons of character. In my opinion, it’s an extremely beautiful town, with grand architecture and peaceful riverside settings. Hoi An is one of Vietnam’s wealthiest town, down to a tourism boom in the 1990’s, transforming the town into a metropolitan, cultivated hot spot.
Ha Long Bay is truly amazing. Being designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 and more recently being named one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, Ha Long Bay should definitely be on your ‘must see’ list for South East Asia. The area consists of around 2000 prominent limestone islets rising out of the gleaming turquoise, Gulf of Tonkin waters.
First things first, the main reason we absolutely loved the Hanoi, was the ridiculously delicious food, which we couldn’t get enough of! Every day we were tasting something new, thinking nothing could top the food we had just tasted, how wrong we were. It would be extremely difficult to give an answer to what my favourite dish is in the Vietnamese capital. Of course, though, there is more to Hanoi than just the food (no matter how moreish and fantastic it was).
Probably the first thing you will notice when you arrive in Hanoi is that the city is absolute chaos, masses of motorbikes clog up the narrow streets, the tiny pavements are busy with tourists and locals alike, along with hawkers attempting to ply their trade at every opportunity. However, the more and more you explore Hanoi you will get used to the chaos and more than likely come to fall in love the Vietnamese capital, exactly as we did.
Also, did I mention… The food was absolutely out of this world!!
Where/What To Eat & Drink In Hanoi
If you love food, just as we do, then you will definitely enjoy wandering around the streets of Hanoi in search of authentic local dishes. One district in particular which was packed with restaurants which specialised in the best cuisine Hanoi had to offer, was the Old Quarter. Along with mouth-watering food, the Old Quarter also has an array of coffee shops where, we happily spent a few hours with a cup of strong Vietnamese coffee, sat on a tiny chair on the pavement, watching the hustle and bustle of Hanoi go by, without a care in the world.
Banh Goi (Pillow Cakes)
52 Ly Quoc Street, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi.
What can be said about Pillow Cakes, there aren’t enough adjectives to describe how tasty these actually were. Just down the road from our hostel in the Old Quarter was where we first tasted the small, stuffed, deep-fried pastries which I’ve been longing for ever since.
There isn’t much to the small restaurants on Ly Quoc Street, inside there are a few red plastic tables, surrounded by tiny plastic chairs and near enough on the pavement stands a huge metal pot, filled with boiling hot oil with a slightly moody Vietnamese woman sat by it ready to fry the food freshly to order. There’s a number of items which can be ordered from the menu, but to be honest I actually can’t remember the other food they sold, because I wouldn’t recommend getting anything other than Banh Goi!
Banh Goi is deep fried pastries filled with minced pork, vermicelli noodles and mushrooms, kind of like a Vietnamese style pasty, but that comparison definitely isn’t doing them enough justice for just how great they are. Order some pillow cakes, pull up a tiny stool at a table, smother in the homemade chilli sauce and tuck in. At 9000 Dong ($0.4) each, you will more than likely be hooked and back for more.
Next to Pho 10 Ly Quoc Street, Hanoi.
A couple of doors down from the pillow cake stall is another restaurant which sells another popular Hanoi dish, called Bun Cha. Bun Cha is made up of grilled pork patties in a broth, served with a huge plate of noodles and another of vegetables and herbs. Once again there’s not much to the small restaurant, but the décor isn’t the main event here, it’s clearly the exquisite food.
Xôi Yến, Corner of P Nguyen Huu Huan & P Hang Mam, Hanoi.
Once again, another must try dish located within the Old Quarter. It’s hard to believe that one small area within a large city can be home to so many brilliant restaurants which I would happily visit again, again and again. The next restaurant to feature is Xôi Yen, where you can get the pleasure of tasting their only dish – Xôi.
Xôi is a bowl of sticky saffron rice topped with shavings of dried Mung Beans and your choice of topping from the menu. I went for the braised pork, which was outstanding, to say the least. It would be an extremely hard choice, but I would say that Xôi was up there as one of my favourite meals I had during our time in Hanoi, but as I mentioned earlier, I couldn’t possibly pick a definite favourite. With a bowl of the flavourful Xôi costing 27,000 Dong ($1.20), again I can guarantee you’ll want to come back for more.
Bun Bo Nam Bo
67 Hang Dieu, Hanoi
As I write this, I’m wishing I was back in Hanoi to try all these dishes all over again! Another dish we had the pleasure to taste was, Bun Bo Nam Bo. Bun Bo Nam Bo is basically vermicelli noodles with stir fried beef topped off with crispy onions and a ladle of steaming broth. All those ingredients make for a very enjoyable bowl of food, at a cost of a bargain 55,000 Dong ($2.50), you really, honestly don’t get much better than Hanoi food for these prices.
Catfish Spring Rolls
25 Bat Su Street, Hanoi.
The only ‘proper’ restaurant we ate at while we were in Hanoi was Highway 4. We had heard a lot about their famous Catfish Spring Rolls. Every travel guide we had a look at for Hanoi mentioned these spring rolls, so I suppose the only thing we could do was give them a try and see exactly what all the fuss was about. It’s fair to say, all the hype surrounding the spring rolls was justified!
Going to Highway 4 was a nice break from sitting on tiny plastic chairs, which were definitely not designed for a 6’3″ person, like me! Also, the restaurant wasn’t too expensive. In all honesty, we didn’t think much of the other dishes we tried, but the Catfish Spring Rolls made the visit worthwhile.
While you’re in Hanoi, you’ve got to give Bia Corner a visit. Bia Corner is basically what it says in the name, street corners filled with hundreds of travellers and locals sipping on the local choice of drink ‘Bia Hoi’ (Bia – pronounced kind of like Australians pronounce beer – Bee-a). My best suggestion is to grab a small plastic chair, order a dirt-cheap beer and watch the world go by for a few hours. Bia Hoi may not be the tastiest beer in the world, but at around 5000 Dong ($0.22) for a glass, does it really matter what it tastes like?!
Things to do/see in Hanoi
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
I know it will be hard, but if you do manage to drag yourself away from the street food stalls, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum may well be worth a visit. Be warned, the mausoleum is closed from September-December each year for maintenance. Of course with our luck, we were in Hanoi in October, so, unfortunately, we didn’t actually get to go inside the mausoleum. Even if you are in Hanoi between the closure dates, like we were, still make the way to the mausoleum. The building is superb even if you are looking at it from behind the barriers.
Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace
Close by to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, is the Presidential Palace. The palace remains strictly off limits to all visitors, but it’s still possible to explore the expansive palace grounds. The palace complex is open every day from 7:30am-4pm, with a lunch break 11 am-1:30 pm (long lunch, I know!). There’s also an entrance fee of 25,000 Dong ($1.10). Ho Chi Minh didn’t actually live in the palace, there is a stilt house in the grounds, where he lived, it is possible to enter this building when you are exploring the grounds.
For me to say that the Old Quarter is mentioned a few times in this blog would definitely be an understatement. The repetitive mentions are definitely for a reason though, it’s by far my favourite region in Hanoi. It’s my favourite due to a number of reasons; obviously, there’s the food, there is the delicious coffee and every day you can find something new to eat, drink or see within this small section of the capital. There’s so much going on here, every street brings something brand new. Spend the day walking around here, sampling the food, coffee and beer.
We landed in Hanoi quite late at night, so we decided that we would take up our hostels offer of airport pickup. We had booked to stay at Central Backpackers Hostel, located in the heart of the Old Quarter. The hostel was actually really good. We booked a double room for 380,000 Dong ($17) per night. The room was very clean, modern and en-suite. Not to mention, it was free beer at the bar downstairs from 7.30-8.30pm (not the nicest beer in the world, but it was free, so who cares!). There are also cheaper dorms available at this hostel.
We also booked our trip to Ha Long Bay through the hostel, which cost us, $89 each for a 2 day 1 night tour. I’d definitely urge you to book a tour to Ha Long Bay with Central Backpackers; it was probably one of our favourite day/nights in the 6 months of travelling.
Once upon a time, Vang Vieng was known for being a crazy party town, which was mostly down to the river tubing which took place on the Nam Song River, with party goers stopping at each illegal bars lining the river. However, following huge international media attention and the pressure caused by the deaths of young backpackers, the Lao government finally decided to crack down and close the illegal bars. Although the tubing clampdown was definitely for the best, you might be asking yourself, as we did, is it really worth going to Vang Vieng anymore?!
After 3 days travelling by land and boat from Chiang Mai, we finally arrived in Luang Prabang, the beautiful and captivating town located in north central Laos. The very first thing that struck me the minute that we arrived in Luang Prabang was the fantastic architecture. The Main Street through the town is lined with European colonial style buildings which home stylish cafés and restaurants. The beauty of the town of Luang Prabang was officially protected when the town was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995.
I have got to say Luang Prabang was definitely up there with my favourite towns/cities which I visited throughout South East Asia and it was definitely my #1 location in Laos. There was a certain charm about Luang Prabang which invoked my sincere fondness of the peaceful town.
After Chiang Mai, it was time to make our way to the next country, Laos. There are a number of ways Luang Prabang can be reached from Chiang Mai – slow boat, fast boat, minibus or plane. We opted to take the slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. We were told by a number of people, this was the best way to travel into Laos in terms of the experience. The journey does take 3 days, 2 night, so it’s definitely not the quickest journey. The minibus may be worth taking if time is not on your side as this can be done overnight. The fast boat also takes less time but is dangerous, due to the shallow rocks in the lake.