We arrived in Viet Nam with mixed expectations. We've heard it all. Some travelers hate it. Older generations don't understand why we would even want to set foot in the country. Backpackers love to rage there for pennies. The Vietnamese hate Americans. The food will make you sick. We put all the noise out of our minds as soon as we landed in Hanoi.
When giving a place a real "go," it's important to not judge based on first impressions. Our first impression was immigration and it was annoying. Americans need a visa to enter, but unlike most other countries in Southeast Asia, you can NOT get one upon arrival. This left us three options:
1. Send our passports away to the consulate in D.C.-Not an option
2. Visit a consulate in a capital city of another country. -Not an option
3. Pay an online service to fill out our application and email us the certified approval. -Winner!
As soon as we arrived back from our safari we submitted our paperwork and forked over $8 each. Big spending, we know! Within three days we had received our approval letter via email.
So, we arrive in Hanoi thinking we will just need to pay our $45 USD for a single-entry visa because our paperwork is already done. Nope. We were turned away at immigration to fill out more paperwork after they had already taken our certified visa letter and our passports. We waited until they flashed our photo on a giant screen to pay and hand over our additional paperwork. Then they returned our passports with our visa attached. It was a strange process.
We arrived in Hanoi and immediately fell in love with the food and the city itself. We spent nearly a week in Hanoi wandering the city.
Learning to cross the street was one of our first challenges. This is a big deal because Viet Nam has zero traffic laws. I'm talking nada. The few traffic lights are merely suggestions. You can drive on sidewalks, against on-coming traffic, stop in the middle of the road, anything. You do you. We quickly learned we couldn't stay on the sidewalk forever and the traffic never slows.
Here is a quick tutorial on crossing the street in Vietnam:
1. Traffic has an unspoken hierarchy. Buses, cars, scooters, bikes and finally, pedestrians. Know your place in the system and you're off to a good start.
2. Drivers anticipate the move pedestrians are going to make, so make moves slowly. Step in to traffic when there is a slight break in congestion. Don't step out in front of buses. See number 1.
3. Walk slowly and surely across the street. Wave your hand a bit to your side to indicate which way you're anticipating cars or scooters going around you, either in front or behind you.
4. Do not stop but never run! Traffic is like a river, it flows around rocks. Pedestrians are rocks. The traffic will flow around you if they can predict your location.
5. Finally, breathe! You made it across the bustling streets of Hanoi.
Some of our favorite things from Hanoi:
1. Hanoi Street Food Tours were an excellent way to start our eating adventure in Viet Nam. There is no way we would have felt comfortable ordering or trying certain things had it not been for this experience. We highly recommend this for a first or second night in Viet Nam. We even ate the infamous balut, a hard boiled duck fetus. We both cringed and gagged before finally swallowing. At least we can say we've done it. Yuck!
2. The Water Puppet Show was a silly one hour spent seeing the history of Viet Nam through plastic water puppets. While not a must-see, it was interesting. If you have an hour to burn, you'll have a few laughs and enjoy the AC.
3. You can easily put together a self-guided walking tour of the major sites including the Temple on the Lake, Temple of Literature, Hoa Lo Prison aka Hanoi Hilton, the Imperial Citadel and Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum.
Tips: To see Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum you will need to be fully covered. Shorts and short sleeves are not allowed. Hoa Lo Prison closes at 4 p.m. Do this in the morning to give yourself plenty of time. The Temple of Literature has no books. The Imperial Citadel was destroyed so many times, the remaining structure is from as recently as the French occupation of Viet Nam.
Ha Long Bay
When in Northern Vietnam, a visit to Ha Long Bay is a must. The scenery is breathtaking with the green mountains rising from the middle of the water. We booked upon recommendation from a friend with Ha Long Party cruises. This turned out to be 50% fun and 50% a terrible mistake. We should have known better by the name alone. We were on a boat with 20 raging backpackers and felt like the mom and dad the entire time. On the bright side, we met a few really amazing young people getting ready to start careers and had incredible conversations, listening mostly to their dreams and goals.
Brian and I mostly did our own thing while we were on the cruise, but got to watch the college-esq shenanigans from afar, reminiscing our own.
We are glad we didn't miss Ha Long Bay but would have picked a different tour.
One of Brian's wish list excursions on this trip was to do caving in Viet Nam. These caves were recently discovered within the last five to ten years and are huge. You can fit a three story building in some. The excursion starts from a small town called Phong Nha, a one street town with a few hostels and restaurants.
We took a two-day, one-night trip with Oxalis Adventures. This was plenty of time to see the caves. We were picked up from our hotel and driven out to the gorgeous countryside. Oxalis provides waterproof bags and also has porters to take your small bag of bare necessities to the rustic camp site.
We hiked several hours up into the jungle mountains and spent the afternoon swimming through the caves. It is dark, the water is murky and I'm pretty sure I won "wife of the year" award for this excursion. No running water, a hole-in-the-ground toilet and mosquitos in full force. It is not a trip for the high-maintenance.
We woke up early the next morning to make it through three more caves, swimming and hiking through each and exiting somewhere in the middle of the jungle. We scrambled up rock facings and crossed small waterfalls as we went. It was truly an incredible experience.
We took a jam-packed bus to the old Imperial Capital of Hue, home to many emperor pagodas or tombs. We spent a long afternoon touring the Imperial City aka the Forbidden City aka the Ancient Town. There is a lot to see surrounding Hue and our one full day here wasn't nearly enough. We wish we had stayed longer.
We quickly moved on through the Hai Van pass to Hoi An, where we met Elizabeth. Brian and Elizabeth worked together at Beck and she's the only non-family member we had join us on our travels. Yay for Elizabeth! It was great to have a familiar face traveling with us.
Hoi An is known for its tailors and we indulged in a navy suit for Brian and a Grace Kelly-inspired black dress for me. We were fairly impressed with Ha Na Tailors. My dress was $55 and the suit was $130. Not too bad for a completely tailored article of clothing that was started at 11 am on day one and finished at 11 am on day two.
We explored the Ancient Town, which costs a 150,000 dong donation to enter. This also grants you access to five attractions of your choice within the town. The Ancient Town is pretty much the only place to eat, drink, see in Hoi An, so you can't get out of paying this "donation."
A MUST visit when in Hoi An is the now-famous (thanks to Anthony Bourdain) Banh Mi Phuong. While Tony's suggestions rarely rock our world, this time he pulled through in a big way. At the counter, order a number 9 and your drink and grab a table under a fan. This sandwich comes with roast pork, pate and just enough spicy red sauce. It was the perfect bahn mi. We tried a few others on the menu, but came back again for the #9.
Our favorite day trip from Hoi An was biking to see the small pottery village and then out to the beaches. We ate great seafood from Ca Restaurant and then lounged in the waters of the South China Sea. All the restaurants along the beach have beach loungers for use if you order food and drink.
Another must see is the My Son Sanctuary. We booked an easy bus trip from our hotel. The half-day tour was plenty of time to see the restored ruins and our guide was such a riot. He rolled his Rs and made hilarious sounds to simplify his heavily-accented descriptions of things. Say this out loud: At the end of the tourrrrrr, we take a verrrrrry, verrrrrry, rrrrrrrrromantique walk. That is an actual sentence our tour guide spoke.
Ho Chi Minh City
We flew to HCM from Da Nang, the major airport in central Viet Nam.
Our only plans were to visit the War Remnants Museum and take a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, used during the Viet Nam War by the Viet Cong. The War Remnants Museum is gut-wrenching, knowing the atrocities both sides committed during the war. The effects of Agent Orange on the people have proved to be lasting and we saw many crippled people throughout our time in the country. It was sobering.
The Cu Chi Tunnels were an unbelievable experience. The system built underground was extensive and provided a way to get to Ho Chi Minh or into Cambodia. The tunnels were so claustrophobic and hot, we couldn't believe people lived in them. We moved through the widened tunnels (for tourists) and had to exit a few times to be able to breath. We were also shown the guerrilla warfare tactics used by the Vietnamese and it turned our stomach.
In HCM, we had an "American" night, with gourmet burgers from Soul Burger and then craft beers from Pasteur Street Brewing. It was a nice break from noodles.
One thing we will not miss is the flagrant nose picking that goes on. We have never seen more people openly digging for gold in our lives. But, you just have to laugh and think, "It's Viet Nam!"
Overall, we really loved Vietnam and would put it in our top five countries visited. The people were so friendly and we never shied away from saying we were Americans. There is a "western tax" we paid from time to time, but it was so minimal, it never felt like a scam. The food was incredible, cooked fresh and cheap. The natural beauty shocked us. We even skipped a few places we would happily go back to experience, including Sapa in the north and a Mekong Delta visit in the south.