On my six-week Southeast Asia tour through Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, it was Vietnam that I loved the most.
I loved everything about the $2 bahn mi, the organized chaos of Hanoi, and the quiet afternoons strolling Hoi An. Every turn offered some new and exciting glimpse of life.
Except for that overnight train ride. I never wanna do that hellish nightmare again.
[BTW, I did this trip with G Adventures. It was a fantastic experience for a first-timer in Southeast Asia, and I wrote a full review of the highs and lows of it all.]
Here are my favourite things to do in Vietnam.
1. Eat all the food
On my first night out in Ho Chi Minh, a group of us went to the Asiana Food Town – a food court with an insane number of Vietnamese food options (as well as dishes from other parts of Asia). This was my first intro to Vietnamese food beyond the Canadiana kind. I ordered a shrimp and minced pork dumpling soup for about $4 CAD (including a beer) and then went back for seconds.
Later, my friend Mark and I went in search of pho. I had been in Vietnam for about two days at that point and hadn’t yet tracked down the perfect bowl of broth, noodles, herbs, and meat (I preferred chicken). Where did I find the best dish? At a small restaurant called Pho Quynh, after wandering aimlessly down a street. It cost just over $3 CAD.
And the bahni mi? Never turn down a bahn mi. These sandwiches are usually made with pork and beef on a baguette, and they’re better than any sandwich you’ll find at home. My favourite was the $1.25 CAD sandwich I had at Bahn Mi Phuong in Hoi An.
2. On that note – take all the FOOD TOURS!
The food in Vietnam is ridiculously cheap, so as you can imagine, a lot of my fellow travellers opted out of the paid food tour experiences. But food tours and cooking classes are two things I don’t mind splurging on (remember my tour in Rome?), so that’s exactly what I did.
In Hoi An, I participated in an Oodles of Noodles noodle-making demonstration. This is actually one of the projects that G Adventures funds; it supports young students at STREETS, a hospitality/culinary school. The organization helps impoverished kids from all backgrounds (whether they’re victims of homelessness, child trafficking, etc.) and trains them in cooking, hospitality, and more. The noodle-making demonstration also helps them to practice their English.
It was a surprising amount of fun for me. We each made rice noodles by pouring batter over a cloth stretched over a boiling pot, covering it, counting down (in Vietnamese), removing the rice with a bamboo stick, and then spreading it thin. Afterward, we were treated to this delicious bowl of noodle soup.
It’s practically a work of art.
In Hanoi, I toured with the Hanoi Street Food Walking Tour for an afternoon of eating everything in sight. We stuck to the Old Quarter, pausing for a beer at Bia Hoi Corner serving bia hoi – a local brew made of rice and wheat (costing less than $0.50 CAD per glass). We drank and ate peanuts under an awning, taking in the madness in the streets.
What else? Epic bahn mi at Bahn Mi 25, which has locations all over the city. We stopped at Thanh Hop Restaurant for my first ever bowl of bun cha soup, which, surprisingly, I loved more than pho. And then we wrapped it up with famous Vietnamese chicken egg coffee at Hanoi Food Culture, where we watched a server concoct the thickest, sweetest cup of coffee I’ve ever had using egg white and condensed milk (and chocolate and cinnamon, of course).
Did I mention that I love food?
3. Have a night out in Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh was my first stop in Vietnam; the hot shower at my hostel felt like pure luxury after all the somewhat questionable hostels in Cambodia.
Ho Chi Minh’s Pub Street (Walking Street) was one of the wildest bar scenes I’ve seen in my travels. It was the first time I had ever seen people inhaling those white balloons of laughing gas — perhaps the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen at a bar (and I lived in Berlin). When I started blogging nearly 10 years ago, and every blogger on the planet was in Southeast Asia, THIS was what I imagined in my head. So it was kind of neat to witness this free-for-all debauchery.
I mean, Southeast Asia is so much more than that, and I’m not even remotely interested in club-hopping anymore. (That’s not to say I don’t enjoy nightlife…it’s just usually a little quieter these days.)
My G Adventures crew and I met some fun people, danced until the wee hours of the morning, and downed overpriced Saigon beers ($5 CAD compared to the $0.85 CAD beers at my hostel). We played beer pong, laughed until our sides hurt, and then stumbled home early in the morning. Carefree nights like those? Worth it.
4. Enjoy a quiet day of bathing in mud in Nha Trang
Did I mention the horrific overnight train experience? After a sleepless night trying to avoid cockroaches (I literally wrapped my laundry bag over my head to keep them out), I arrived in the seaside town of Da Nha Trang. I immediately asked my tour leader Sony if he could get me a private room, and he booked me one at the nearby Pelican (everyone else was staying at Bondi Backpackers). I needed rest. The very, very sweet owner met me at the hostel lobby, picked up my oversized bag (it was seriously twice her size), and led me to the hotel. I slept like a baby until the late afternoon. It was EVERYTHING.
(Also, aren’t private bathrooms just so underappreciated? I must be in my 30s.)
After all that rest, the next morning I was prepared to hit up the mud baths with Dana and Alex. We decided to hit up the Thap Ba Spa, which cost us about $11 for a full spa day complete with mud baths (it was another $0.60 CAD for a towel rental).
Cool, smooth mud is pumped into your outdoor tub. Chances are you’re sharing this tub with others – in our case, there were a whole lot of Russians. Endless Russians. Russians forever.
After some time hanging out in a thick mud soup, you climb out and lie in the sun to absorb all the (questionable) minerals. Then you walk through some hydrotherapy shower jets while trying to keep your bathing suit appropriately placed on your private bits as streams of water ricochet off your body. Then you take a warm mineral bath.
The rest of the day, we lounged around the pool, eating ice-cream and sipping beers.
Are these minerals really minerals? Did my skin feel as fresh as a newborn baby’s? Well, I’ll let you decide. But hey, it made this list.
5. Literally anything in Hoi An
Hoi An, also known as the Lantern City, was the highlight of my entire Southeast Asia trip. I maybe could have stayed there forever, wandering the quiet pedestrian streets in the Old Quarter. It’s perhaps the only quiet part of Vietnam.
In my notebook, I scrawled the following words: “The bridge to the night market is all lit up with lanterns. It’s magic. Why didn’t I buy a lantern from the gummy, toothless lady? She looked sad when we passed her, and suddenly I missed my mom.”
To enter the Old Quarter, you’ll have to pay about $7 CAD for a pass – but then you get full access to all historic sites like the museums, the Japanese covered bridge, and Chinese temples. You’ll find a ticket booth at every entrance to the Old Quarter.
I spent an hour making my own lantern at a little studio, and then I wandered into a tailor shop. Ah yes, the famous tailor shops of Hoi An – one of the best things to do in Hanoi, where you can get decked out in a full wardrobe for pennies. I should warn you that I did NOT HAGGLE for this experience, and it cost me a fortune. I’m a dummy.
But the experience was worth it. I ended up in Blue Chic, a family-owned biz, where several women fawned and fussed over me, took my measurements, and treated me like the QUEEN I AM. I had been dying to find the perfect one-piece pantsuit for ages and what better way to do it than with a tailor-made outfit?
This insanely beautiful grey winter jacket was also made for me.
The damage? About $200 USD. I told you I’m a dummy.
I’m also amazed at the speed of which they put all this together. I placed my order at noon and went for pick-up at 6PM. I ended up having to ship everything to me in Canada (another $40 USD, but they also packed up some artwork for me).
Where to stay in Hoi An: Hoi An the Imperfects Hostel Original
6. Take a bicycle tour in the countryside
On my second day in Hoi An, the others and I opted for a $25 CAD bicycle tour of the Vietnamese countryside. I hadn’t been on a bicycle in a while, and we had to bicycle through Vietnamese traffic.
And yes, I did wipe out. Into a brick wall.
Beyond the traffic, we cycled through rice paddies and farm plots, learning about the coriander, basil, and mint grown there. It was quiet in the countryside, our view only interrupted by the comical sight of a man sitting on a water buffalo playing with his phone.
At one point, we stopped and talked with a 96-year-old farmer with a wiry beard and a big smile. We were told about his fame; apparently, he and his wife were the favoured subject of many photographers over the years. And then it struck me: I had literally purchased a gorgeous black-and-white photo of him and his wife just the day before. So I took a picture with him, although his wife had sadly passed on.
The highlight was our final stop along the Thu Bon River, where we ate spring rolls dipped in peanut sauce and drank cold beer before climbing into round basket boats to float down the river.
I sat with my roommate Sarah as our goofy captain spun our boat around, and then chopped down long stalks of grass to construct various gifts for us. For me, a beautiful necklace and a ring shaped like a cricket. I hadn’t laughed that hard in ages.
7. Go for a cruise in Halong Bay
Can I just say…the iconic Halong Bay was actually the most disappointing part of this trip for me? I had been aching to see this place for years and considered it to be the number one “bucket list” item for this trip. But as most things go, my hopes were too high. And having just moved into the rainy season, the entire bay was overcast and hazy.
Woe is me, right?
I include Halong Bay here because I can’t imagine coming to Vietnam and skipping over this experience. I’m still glad I did it.
Halong Bay is an ethereal, dreamlike landscape of thousands of karst islands, algae-green waters, sheer cliffs, circling hawks, and enormous caves.
No shortage of cruise companies will take you out for a day (or multiple days) on the bay. Ours was basic: we left late in the morning, had a seafood lunch, then set out for a day of sailing. It also included about an hour of kayaking. There were moments when the entire group of us fell silent in awe. Probably the only time we were silent on the whole trip.
So yes, still worth it. Just not what I was expecting.
Where to stay in Halong: Gold Mark Hotel Halong, on what I called “The Strip” – a noisy section of the main drag that pumped loud techno music in our rooms facing the street (so make sure your room is not facing it). An excellent location in town to do things, but not quiet by any means.
8. Soak up the chaos of Hanoi
As much as I loved the slow and steady beat of Hoi An, I also revelled in the chaos of Hanoi. As I wrote in my journal, “I LOVE HANOI. Love, love, love!”
It’s not quiet in Hanoi, not for one second. We stayed in the Hanoi Old Quarter, in the middle of the chaos, where narrow streets are crammed with shops, restaurants, hotels, and take-out joints. Each street here is named for the trade practiced on that street for generations, which is why you’ll find shops selling specific things (household appliances, computer repairs, etc.) all clustered together.
The variety of life amazed me, and how all the cars and tuk-tuks so deftly navigated around me and the others. Standing outside a shop waiting for bahn mi, I watched a tiny elderly woman serve her husband from a rice cooker. They had their eyes glued to their television, doing nothing much, just sitting and ignoring me and the others entirely. Every street had a small corner eatery where people sat on low chairs at low tables, eating and drinking, and occasionally chatting with the women pushing carts laden with fruit.
I actually did a lot of sightseeing here, but one of the best things to do in Hanoi is visiting the Hoa Lo Prison Memorial, which offers some insight into the Vietnam War. That, and the afternoon spent on Train Street – which, unfortunately, has been closed off to tourists since my visit. Probably with good reason. See?
Where to stay in Hanoi: The Signature Inn, in the heart of the Hanoi Old Quarter.
These are all some of my favourite things to do in Vietnam. I wish I could have spent WEEKS more here, but alas, Laos was calling. If you have reservations about exploring Southeast Asia on your own, I do recommend G Adventures. I’m glad I did it, and the next time I’m back, I’ll feel much more confident about flying solo.
If you’ve already been to Vietnam, what was your favourite thing about the country? Or your favourite destination? I love a good dose of FOMO. What did I miss?