GOOD MORNING VIETNAM
A country famous for the diversity of its landscapes as well as its food, history and temples, Vietnam is a wallet-friendly destination which encompasses South East Asia’s best bits. Ollie Evans took a month-long trip across this fascinating country
and picks out his favourite spots to explore.
After an exhausting 22-hour journey from Gatwick we finally arrived in Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, where your senses are immediately sent into overdrive by the close heat and the constant backdrop noise of moped horns.
We spent a total of four days in this timeless city – dodging vehicles and living in constant awe of its fascinating relationship with the jungle where they allow the native trees to grow wild creating an almost calming yet surreal atmosphere in one of the fastest moving cities in South-East Asia.
It’s certainly easy to lose yourself in the diversity of Hanoi where streetside vendors and stunning French architecture combine to provide an intoxicating mixture of cultures that makes this such a fascinating place to visit.
What soon struck us was how friendly and welcoming the Vietnamese people were towards us and we immediately felt safer travelling here than we ever had throughout Europe, and with comfortable hotel rooms costing as little at £7 a night, it’s certainly much cheaper than a weekend in Paris.
It’s fair to say that Vietnam probably has the most underrated cuisine in the world and we were spoilt for choice when it came to dining out at the countless stunning restaurants overlooking the bustling city where you can enjoy a delicious meal with a few beers for less than a fiver. Hanoi’s party scene is an experience to remember and while it takes a few days to acclimatise to the pace of this crazy city there are plenty of opportunities to relax in the local pagodas which serve as a haven from the hectic hustle and bustle of this incredible city.
Must visit: Cerender Ceramics – an incredibly full and cheap handmade ceramic shop
Top Restaurant: Hong Hoai’s is amazing but also try the street food as this is what Hanoi is famous for
Top Attraction: Vietnamese Women’s Museum
Top experience: Crossing the street
After four days in Hanoi we were ready to escape to the mountainous town of Sapa – a six hour drive from the capital city that takes you above the clouds into a magical paradise that would be our home for the next week. Sapa is renowned for its stunning rice terraces, diverse ethnic communities and life-changing hikes. After spending a day or so at our mountainside bungalow, meditating and staring at the mountains, we decided to join a local tour guide for an eye-opening hike 14 miles through the hills where we learnt about the rice trade, the various ethnic groups of the area and experienced some of the most fascinating sights.
Every night we took a 10-minute walk to the same restaurant Good Morning Vietnam – a place we became so attached to because of the quality of the food and atmosphere that it would’ve been too much of a risk to go anywhere else. To this day, over five months later, I still miss the food from this incredible restaurant.
At night in Sapa we would go to the main square and observe some of Vietnam’s incredibly energetic dancing traditions where adults and children join together to perform the very fast paced and dizzy dance for tourists and family members before venturing back to our accommodation to enjoy the deepest sleep imaginable thanks to the amazing air quality high above the clouds.
Best Place to stay: Catcat Garden House
Top Restaurant: Good Morning Vietnam
Top Experience: Hiking through the local villages
CAT BA ISLAND
A further 12 hours of sleeper buses and a short trip on the world’s tallest cable car saw us arrive on the picturesque island of Cat Ba.
Cat Ba is the largest of the 367 recognised islands of Lan Ha Bay and is regarded by many as one of the quietest and less touristy destinations to visit. Cat Ba was historically named ‘Cac Ba’ which means ‘Women’s Island’ as legend depicts the bodies of three ‘Tran Dynasty’ women floating here centuries ago. Its geography is mind-blowing, with jungle covered mountains, limestone outcrops and giant fishing villages all neighbouring one another.
We stayed at a very creative hostel equipped with a pool, café and motorbike rental. Having never ridden a motorbike, I was able to hire one for five pounds with no ID check and very minimal advice on how to ride. We put on our poorly fitting helmets, got fuelled up by a lady with bleach bottles full of petrol on the side of the road, and headed off into the jungle.
The freshly tarmacked and empty roads wound through open jungle where we were able to capture views of the entire bay and feel a true sense of freedom. Eventually we arrived deep in the national park and tackled an intense hike up the mountain which was well worth the effort given the breathtaking view that awaited us at the summit.
While on the island, we took the opportunity to go on a day cruise around the bay which involved cave kayaking and bay swimming as well as sampling a delicious banquet of fresh local food. Once back on land we decided to visit Cannon Fort – a Japanese military fort built in WW2 to defend against potential air strikes which was later occupied by the French in the Indochina War and the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.
Must Visit: Lan Ha Bay
Best place to stay: Secret Garden Hostel
Top Attraction: Cat Ba National Park
Top Experience: Riding a broken moped through the jungle
Including a stop over in Hue for a few days, the beachside city of Da Nang marked the midway point of our Vietnamese adventure having now travelled 16 hours south of the capital. As you move further south in Vietnam, the cities become less touristy, and you find yourself having to think more like a local in terms of eating and navigation.
Da Nang is one of Vietnam’s largest cities and will give you a better insight of how the Vietnamese people really live, with a huge amount of local street markets. That said, there are some incredible hotels and restaurants in Da Nang, aimed at national and international business people at very reasonable prices.
Interestingly, our favourite restaurant was not a traditional Vietnamese place, but a family-run pizza spot called Olivias. We ate here during a tropical storm for added effect which probably made the pizza taste even better – but it was to die for. This city is one of the few places in Vietnam where you can hire surfboards and get surf lessons. The beach culture here is huge. You’ll see locals swimming, surfing and driving their mopeds across the sand whilst you eat local Bao Buns. Photographically, Da Nang was a visual playground, it seems to be blessed with eternal golden daylight whilst the variety of architecture and culture provides endless subject matter and it definitely has an atmosphere that differs from anywhere else in the country.
Must Visit: Local food markets
Top Restaurant: Olivia’s Pizza
Top Attraction: My Khe Beach
Top experience: Getting caught in a tropical rainstorm
HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON)
If you find yourself in South Vietnam it would be sacrilege to not visit the nation’s largest city ‘Ho Chi Minh’. Named after their adored former president, this city is a testament to Vietnamese resilience and community. The concrete jungle also known as ‘Saigon’ feels like a complete journey forward in time whilst still retaining that Vietnamese street spirit.
We spent a lot of time exploring vintage clothing shops, art galleries and bookstores to find unique yet cheap gifts to bring home. The restaurants are incredible, and the street food is second only to Hanoi, however the most valuable aspect of Ho Chi Minh is the opportunity to educate yourself on Vietnam’s turbulent past.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to visit the famous ‘Cu Chi Tunnels’ due to arriving on a national holiday, however, we were able to visit the War Remnants Museum. The exhibitions in this museum aren’t for the feint hearted and are immensely upsetting but are almost necessary if you intend to fully understand and appreciate the country.
We spent a lot of time walking in Ho Chi Minh trying to adjust to the overbearing heat and humidity whilst watching the locals unfazed in their full attire. Ho Chi Minh was the final stop on our tour of the country before our long flight back to London, and we couldn’t help but feel a bit nostalgic despite only having known Vietnam for a month.
We knew it would be hard to leave the beautiful culture and scenery of this stunning country behind and it cannot help but leave its mark on anybody who visits.
A magical place that will captivate, amaze and educate you in equal measure and one you’ll definitely want to return to.
Must Visit: Cu Chi Tunnels
Top Restaurant: Bep Me In
Top Attraction: War Remnants Museum
Top Experience: Exploring the local markets and streets