Musings on Vietnam

Post-travel depression is a real thing, you guys. Usually I come back from my travels and it’s a struggle for a few days, but we’re going on weeks now. Vietnam is on the short list of the most beautiful places I’ve ever explored – it’s up there alongside Patagonia and Dubrovnik, Croatia. But what captivated me most and has continued to resonate in the days since are the people. The culture in Vietnam is above and beyond my favorite of any country I’ve visited.

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There’s no shortage of breathtaking sights in Vietnam. The country offers a little bit of everything and each destination has a unique aura surrounding it. In a single week you can lose yourself amidst the motorbikes and busy streets of Hanoi, trek through the remote jungles and caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, and cap it off with a Vietnamese iced coffee, admiring the lantern-strung streets of Hoi An. The one consistency across these diverse settings is the quality of people. We were met with nothing but kindness and encountered some of the most genuine, beautiful people I have ever met. The entire experience was such a breath of fresh air.

We spent 16 days traveling; the bulk of that was in Vietnam. At the end of our trip we hopped over to Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor. Below I’ve provided commentary on my itinerary for your reading pleasure.

Day 1) Fly from Chicago to Hanoi, Vietnam (via Seoul)
Chicago to Seoul is a fourteen-hour flight. It’s really not that bad if you A) mentally prepare and B) muster up some concoction of sleeping pills and alcohol. We flew Korean Air and their service/timeliness was the best that I’ve experienced. Although it should be noted that my standards aren’t tremendously high since I’m used to the joke that is domestic U.S. airlines. Vietnamese visas need to be applied for ahead of time; Cambodian visas are available upon arrival.

Day 2) Arrive in Hanoi
You’ll arrive late the following night after losing quite a bit of time (Chicago is twelve hours behind). Sustained sleep is critical that first night or you’ll be off for days. Revisit the concoction that helped you survive the initial flight. You can also make a quick trip to a nearby pharmacy and procure some Valium; it’s a miracle worker. You can’t get the name brand – but the generic stuff is just as good. You can thank me later.

Days 3 & 4) Halong Bay
Halong Bay is perhaps the most famous tourist destination in all of Vietnam. We did a three-day, two-night cruise through Halong and Bai Tu Long Bay. Bai Tu Long is the less crowded version - it’s a little further out and has more vegetation. As with many places, the pictures don’t quite do it justice. It’s a surreal experience to be cruising/kayaking amidst the thousands of beautiful limestone islands.

You’ll need at least one night here; two might be overkill but we wanted to relax and adjust to the time difference. It’s not worth doing as a day trip; it’s quite a haul from Hanoi (four hours one way). There are hundreds of companies that do this cruise, so it can be a bit overwhelming. TripAdvisor is a good place to start before shopping around for prices. Don’t skimp too much or else you’ll end up on a boat with Master Splinter and friends.

Day 5) Overnight Train to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Return to Hanoi for the evening after your cruise to explore the Old Quarter and grab dinner. Afterwards catch a sleeper train to Dong Hoi – the closest stop to the national park. Remember to buy your train tickets in advance. We reserved three beds in a hard berth cabin. The only difference between hard and soft berth cabins is that hard berths have six beds crammed in, stacked three high on each side (soft berths have four). Unless you’re narcoleptic, you won’t fall asleep sober. That’s just part of the experience. Valium.

Day 6) Phong Nha Ke-Bang
Phong Nha-Ke Bang has only recently come onto the map of destinations in Vietnam. I would highly recommend making this a priority on your trip. It’s the launch point for exploring the world’s largest cave system, Son Doong. This area is relatively untouched which makes it all the more genuine. If you want a true Vietnamese countryside experience come here. Set up shop at the lodge-style Phong Nha Farmstay and the friendly Aussie-Vietnamese owners Ben and Bich will give you the inside scoop.

Days 7 & 8) Hang En Cave Trek
We did a two-day, one-night expedition to Hang En cave. There are a variety of cave treks available ranging anywhere from day trips to six nights. Most have to be organized through the local tour company, Oxalis. Hang En is an affordable alternative to the hardcore Son Doong trek. The cave is absolutely massive. As added incentive you make camp inside the main chamber, which is guaranteed to be one of the most memorable experiences of your life.

Day 9) Hue
It’s quite a haul (five hours) from Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park to Hue. Hue was the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty. The walled Citadel is the primary draw here. You can either hit this in the afternoon when you arrive or early the next morning. It should take a half-day to cover thoroughly. While you’re in Hue, make sure to swing by Nina’s Café for a meal, any meal. We had dinner here when we arrived and came back the next morning for breakfast. Both were terrific, drinks and food alike (see the board for specials).

Day 10) Hoi An
Find your way from Hue to Hoi An (another four hours). Hoi An was the highlight of the trip for me. I’m a sucker for smaller towns that radiate culture. You can easily spend days wandering the Old Town and its markets. There’s also a great beach here and it’s a great central location for daytrips to surrounding areas.

Hoi An is known for two things: by day, the hundreds of tailors swarming at every corner, by night, its lantern-illuminated streets. If you’re looking to make additions to your wardrobe, make sure to research the tailors ahead of time. As a rule of thumb, you get what you pay for. If you’re like me and shopping for clothes gives you an anxiety attack, there are also some great art galleries in town.

Days 11 & 12) Hoi An
It’s worth spending some extra time to soak up everything Hoi An has to offer. I’d highly recommend staying at Moon Homestay. Moon is an amazing host and will go out of her way to make sure you enjoy your time. These were our favorite accommodations of the entire trip. Moon lends out plenty of bicycles and it’s less than a ten-minute ride to town. In Vietnam you’ll notice frequent use of the term ‘homestay’ – think bed and breakfast.

While wandering the Old Town, make sure to check out Cocobox for your coffee/tea/juice fix. This was my favorite spot to sit back and take it all in. I spent quite a bit of time writing here during the days while my travel companions were out shopping. If you’re looking for a good dinner spot, check out The Little Menu Restaurant and try the local specialties: banh bao (dumplings filled with minced shrimp) and cao lau. Spend your evening sampling happy hours and wandering the quiet lantern-filled streets.

Day 13) Fly from Danang to Siem Reap, Cambodia
Danang is a quick thirty-minute ride from Hanoi. The flight to Siem Reap takes about an hour. You’ll receive your visa upon arrival – bring an extra passport photo. If you’re traveling between multiple countries, it’s always a good idea to have a few extra passport photos stashed away. Siem Reap is home base for those looking to explore the legendary temples of Angkor.

Day 14) Angkor Wat & Siem Reap
Hire a tuk-tuk and hit Angkor Wat for sunrise. It’s breathtaking but I will say that it’s a bit of a tourist trap. There were hundreds (probably thousands) of people there for sunrise. I can’t imagine how crowded it gets later in the day. It’s a must-see, but adjust your expectations. As soon as the sun comes up, make your escape before the mass exodus and head over to Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider temple). It’s a fascinating display of nature reclaiming the Khmer ruins. Finish the Small Circuit by exploring Angkor Thom, the last great capital and largest collection of ruins, and admiring Bayon, the famous faces of Angkor.

Return to Siem Reap to escape the mid-day heat and explore the city later that night. The Night Market and Pub Street are both worth checking out. Pub Street is the place to be if you’re looking for a party. With hundreds of bars/restaurants and neon signs overhead decreeing “Pub Street,” you won’t miss it.

Day 15) Depart Siem Reap – Red Eye Home
Most international flights leave late at night so you’ll have the entire day to explore. Siem Reap is an intriguing city. Grab brunch at Sister Srey Café. Overall, Vietnamese food was some of the best we’ve ever had, but this was the best restaurant we found on our trip. The banana bread will change your life.

Day 16) Arrive Home
If you have any questions about any of the areas we traveled to or logistics – feel free to contact me directly. I’m always happy to help fellow travelers on their adventures. I absolutely love planning trips so if I can point you in the right direction, it would be my pleasure. For more pictures from my trip, follow me on Instagram.