Blog Series - Vietnam - Land of the Ascending Dragon and Timeless Charm
In this and the following three Blogs you can find the travelogue of my trip to North and Central Vietnam. Due to my limited time, I skipped the southern part of Vietnam in this visit. It´s usually common that travellers combine the North and South of Vietnam and often continue to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
However, I wanted to keep a slower pace for my travel and explore the various regions of the north in a more detailed way – therefore I have put my focus only on this varied part of Vietnam. This country has so much culture to see and some real breath-taking landscapes to explore.
In general, I was surprised about the real good touristic infrastructure that we found in most of the places. For my opinion it was actually already too much infrastructure in some parts, as they are aiming on a very questionable mass tourism market.
The standard of the hotels was excellent and the food that we tasted throughout our journey outstanding. We enjoyed a wide scale from good restaurants to local eateries and real yummy street food. From the culinary side Vietnam also does not disappoint.
Compared to other countries of the region Vietnam is quite organized and clean.
First a short listing of some basic travel information:
Entry to Vietnam
Some nationalities as for example Germans do get a free visa on arrival if they do not stay longer than 15 days, the arrival and departure day do count as a full day. Otherwise you need to apply for a visa online in advance. For further information on your applicable visa requirement, please visit www.evisa.xuatnhapcanh.gov.vn
If you like to travel to the North of Vietnam, Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi (HAN) will be your entry gate to the country. Hanoi´s international airport is served by many airlines from all over the world. Same applies for Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho-Chi-Minh City (Saigon - SGN) in the south. In central Vietnam you have Da Nang Aiport (DAD), which is now-a-days also served more and more by international airlines.
Within the country you have a good domestic flight network mainly served by the real nice Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com) plus some other low budget carriers like VietJet Airlines (www.vietjetair.com) or Bamboo Airlines (www.bambooairways.com).
For overland journeys you can choose between a railway network (Hanoi to Lao Cai in the North and Hanoi to Saigon in the south) or a vast selection of bus and overnight bus services.
Local currency is the Vietnamese Dong – USD and EUR can be changed easily in all the major cities and hotels. In most of the hotels and touristic places credit cards and sometimes also payment in USD is accepted.
Compared to western countries Vietnam is still a budget-friendly travel destination. Even 5* hotels and fine dining places are comparatively reasonable.
No worries if you don´t have a clue about the Vietnamese language – English is widely spoken in touristic places, so you should not have any difficulties to find your way around. Additionally, most of the Vietnamese people are really friendly and very open towards foreigners, so you can always find somebody who will try to help you out.
Health & Safety
In terms of health services, you can find international hospitals mainly in the big cities. If you travel to remote rural places, you should bring some common travel medicine with you. Don`t drink tap water and be careful with ice cubes, salads etc. In terms of food, we never had a problem, but if you have a more sensitive stomach watch out while eating street food. Street food is a part of the Vietnam experience, but you will see and feel where it´s safe to eat and where better not to eat.
I went on this trip with my mum and for us we never had any critical situation at all – for women traveling alone it is safe if you use your natural common sense. In general Vietnam is a very safe country with a low criminal rate especially towards foreigners – nevertheless watch out for pick pocketers in the big city and keep your valuable belongings in the hotel safe.
Vietnam serves all type of travellers from back-packers, individual tourists to groups and luxury travel. It´s your choice if you spend the time to arrange this trip all by yourself or if you go for the easier option and contact a travel agent or a local agent for this.
Our trip was arranged through VietVision – a very professional local tour agent that I can highly recommend for any tailor-made arrangements (www.vietvisiontravel.com).
In case that you are based in Singapore or around, I can also recommend to contact another trusted agent Tara Holidays (www.taraholidays.com.sg).
Blog Serie 1 – The bustling city of Hanoi
Hanoi is for sure one of the most charming Asian cities that I have ever visited. The city offers an attractive mix of Asian vibes, colonial history and modern features. I really fell in love with that place, especially a walk through the old town and the tasteful pleasure of a nightly street food extravaganza is something not to be missed.
As in any other big city of Vietnam the local traffic, especially all the motorbikes is something you need to get used to. In the beginning it can be a real challenge to cross a street – even if you can find a traffic light for pedestrians – don’t trust that the traffic come to a halt. So be brave and just cross a street – slowly and steady. The biggest mistake will be to stop or to hesitate – if you walk slowly the traffic will notice you and they will just find their way around you. Trust me – it really works!!! But it´s definitely nothing for the faint-hearted.
We stayed at the beautiful Apricot Hotel, which welcomes its guests with a gorgeous lobby that spreads a luxurious feel (www.apricothotels.com).
Further plus: the rooftop bar and pool from where you can have stunning views on the city skyline plus the famous Hoan Kiem Lake below.
Rooms were cosy with an open bathroom feature.
Furthermore you can enjoy a nice spa treatment at this property or an Afternoon-Tea in the charming library room.
Breakfast was very nice with many fresh and healthy options. They had a wide selection of Asian and International breakfast items.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Best to start your tour at the famous city lake of Hoan Kiem. Locals like to practice their morning Thai Chi routine at the shore of the lake or they take a nice evening walk around. This picturesque lake is the place of many legends and also known as the Sword Lake.
Its former turtle residents are no longer there due to the increasing pollution of the lake. But at the beautiful Ngoc Son Temple that is located on an island in the lake you can see some of their pictures and replicas.
Water Puppet Show
Around the lake you can also find Hanoi´s most famous water puppet theatre Thang Long Water Puppet Show (www.thanglongwaterpuppet.com), which is really worth a visit. This century old tradition is performed with wooden puppets in a waist-deep pool. Through their unique performance technique, the puppets seem to fly over the water, whereas the people who move them won´t appear during the show. Shows last usually around an hour and will show small stories based on the old legends or the daily village life. An English summary of each episode will appear beside the stage.
Alternatively, you can also visit the show at the Lotus Water Puppet theatre just a few minutes away (www.bongsenwaterpuppet.vn).
Hanoi Old Town
A walk through these lively streets is like a walk back in time. You can immerse in the daily life of the local residents while trying some delicious street food, observe the colourful grocery stores, buy a souvenir in one of the many little shops or relax in a coffee shop. In between all the bustling city life some ancient old temples provide little islands of tranquillity. Just wander around and get lost or take one of the Bicycle Rikscha´s and get a tour around. Don´t miss to visit the market halls of Dong Xuan market, where you can find all the fresh ingredients that are used for the outstanding Vietnamese cuisine.
A visit to the Mausoleum and the huge areal around, is for sure one of the must-see´s in Hanoi – however this experience might also create a strange feeling in most of the Western visitors. First of all the huge and communistic appearance of the Mausoleum itself is already very impressive. However, it is more the personality cult that is celebrated here, which evokes mixed feelings. A huge number of security personal will make sure that everybody is dressed and behaving appropriately. You will have to line up in pairs and join the queue in front of the Mausoleum. It might happen that a security guard yells at you if you step out of the line or walk in the wrong pace. Photography is strictly forbidden in the line as well as inside the Mausoleum. You will walk around the glass sarcophagus and get a glance of the embalmed Ho-Chi-Minh. Actually, it was never the wish of this humble hero of Vietnam to get showcased in such a big way after his death. A visit to the mausoleum is a once in a lifetime experience for every Vietnamese and usually you will find also many school classes around.
After the inside visit the tour course will lead you outside from where pictures will be allowed.
Afterwards you can walk around the old presidential office building as well as the private residences of Ho-Chi-Minh which are settled around a small lake.
Inside the Mausoleum area you can also fine the One Pillar Pagoda - a historic Buddhist Temple
Temple of Literature (www.vanmieu.gov.vn/en/)
This picturesque and large temple is dedicated to Confucius and was also hosting Vietnam´s first university. The temple consists of various pavilions, halls, statues and a huge garden area, which can all be explored, so allow some time for your visit there.
Hanoi has also a large number of interesting museums out of which I like to recommend two over here.
Hoa Lo Prison Museum (www.hoalo.vn)
Which obviously is a tough one to visit – but war with all its terror and cruelness is irretrievably connected with the Vietnamese history. The prison history is showcased in a vivid way and spans from the time when the French colonists used it for political prisoners over to the times when the North Vietnamese army locked US prisoners away. From this time this place also got its nickname the “Hanoi Hilton”. From the whole prison areal only the gatehouse remained, which is used as the main museum complex now-a-days.
Vietnamese Women´s Museum (www.baotangphunu.org.vn/en/home)
A more brighter place – however also connected to hardship and difficult circumstances is this museum dedicated to all women of Vietnam. Over several floors the life of urban and rural women with all their achievements and contribution to the history and culture of Vietnam is showcased here. The museum is always voted as one of the must-see attractions in Hanoi on TripAdvisor.
Where to eat
Well, as mentioned before number one choice for eating out in Hanoi is one of the many street food stalls. A good place to munch yourself around would be definitely the Old Town. There are endless options for street food and it totally depends on your taste and preferences, however there are some all-time- favourites that should not to be missed:
* Pho bo – the famous North Vietnamese Noodle Soup spiced up with herbs and your choice of chicken or beef
* Banh Mi – traditional French baguette served with various warm fillings
* Bun Cha – Hanoi´s most popular breakfast – rice noodles with pork meat balls
* Banh Trang Nuong – kind of pizza, Vietnam style
We indeed mainly had street food during our time in Hanoi, only few times we ate at also real good restaurants:
New Day Restaurant (www.new-day-restaurant-72-ma-may.business.site)
Koto Van Mieu (www.kotovanmieu.com)
Home Hanoi (www.homevietnameserestaurants.com)
When it comes to drinks Vietnam is a real coffee nation and you can find cute coffee shops all over, where you can taste deliciously brewed coffee. However, Vietnamese prefer to drink their coffee cold and iced. Try also the speciality of Coconut coffee or for the braver ones among you – egg coffee. Forget about Starbucks and better try out the local coffee chain (at various locations) Cong Caphe (www.congcaphe.com), Highlands Coffee (www.highlandscoffee.com.vn/en) or enjoy your coffee with a nice view at the Coffee Club on the edge of the Old Town (www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZBMle4Y0zQ). Another nice place to get your daily dose of coffee would be at Timeline Coffee (www.facebook.com/timelinecoffee79).
A more insider spot would be the hidden Café Pho Co, which you must enter through a clothing store (www.atlasobscura.com/places/cafe-pho-co).
I also became a lover of Vietnamese desserts, there is such a large choice and in cities like Hanoi you can find small Cafes that have dedicated themselves to the art of dessert making.
For a nice night out Hanoi can also impress with many bars mainly in the Old Town area – there you can also find the famous/infamous Beer Street with one bar after another, each with cheap drinks and loud music – a bit Thailand Pattaya style.
Another hot spot in town is the spectacular train street. On various times at night the local train will pass through this tiny little street, almost touching the walls of the houses beside only centimetres away. In this street you can find many bars from which you can observe this spectacle from close. However after a couple of incidents this street is officially closed and only open for the residents. Nevertheless if you approach one of the entry points (from Tran Phu street or beside Phung Hung street) waiters will come to pick you up and to guide you into their bars. The exact time when a train will pass is quite a myth and as the local trains are anyway always delayed you will have to try your luck and wait for some time, usually there should be 3-4 trains in the time between 19.00 -22.00 hrs. Watch this video to know more about this unqiue street www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUXMREIzv_Q
Lately also Rooftop bars got popular in Hanoi, check out: www.therooftopguide.com/rooftop-bars-in-hanoi.html
Hanoi a great opening to our North Vietnam journey - see my following Blog for places to see around Hanoi.