2017. We're back! This time we explored other parts of Vietnam. Started off in the South, made our way up North. Took our sweet, sweet time. 2 weeks in Vietnam suddenly turned into 4. Unexpected rain had slowed us down a bit, as well as travel fatigue. But not complaining, though! We did eat tons of good (cheap!) food in the meantime as we figured out alternative rainy day activities. In between the adventuring, we noticed a massive onset of trendy cafes. Something we didn't see much of in 2009. (A recurring theme all over Southeast Asia, it seems!) Things looked more touristy nowadays, but the essence of the Vietnamese spirit is still very much prevalent. After all, isn't that why so many of us travelers fall in love with Vietnam?
More of Jincent's 2017 Vietnam adventures down below!
// HO CHI MINH CITY //
Coming to HCMC was purely out of curiosity. None of the travelers we've talked to placed this city high on their Vietnam Must-See list. Nobody raved about the Mekong Delta or the Cu Chi Tunnels. Yet, I had to see what's down in The South! A few days spent in HCMC proved all the naysayers right. It wasn't much different from the chaotic big city vibe that we had experienced in Hanoi back in 2009. If anything, it almost kind of felt like we were back in Hanoi! But the food - Ah, the foodie street scene! - was HCMC's saving grace. Forgoing the idea of hitting up the Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi Tunnels, we instead, opted to do a few sightseeing stops around the city before moving on. We had to prioritize and allocate more time elsewhere in the country. HCMC was not the place for us to do so, unfortunately.
>> STAY : Sigoong Hostel
>> RECOMMEND : Independence Palace/Reunification Palace, Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, Saigon Central Post Office, Ben Thanh Market
// HOI AN //
Now this is a city that every traveler raved about on our Asia journeys. The more we explored Old Town, the more prettier and quaint the city got. It really felt like we were in a fairytale village scene! But at night is where all the magic happens. The river fills with boat rides and floating candle-lit paper flowers, the streets aglow with numerous colorful silk lanterns, the tourist crowds swell to insane numbers, engagement photoshoots are everywhere. The Most Romantic City in Asia has certainly earned the title hands down. No doubt, Hoi An is a very touristy place, but with sights and scenes unlike any other Asian city - I can see why everyone LOVES it here! When we're not busy haggling street vendor finds and getting suits/dresses done for a cheapish price (Honestly, I thought it would be cheaper!), we were working away in the MANY various coffee shops around town. Motorbiking to Hue, bicycling through the countryside, checking out the beach - we did not. I know, I know. Sad. It rained half the time we were in Hoi An. And we were there for nearly 2 weeks! But we did enjoy a cooking class (despite getting rained on), spent a nice Valentine's Day here, and even starred in a friend's Youtube video of local cuisine finds.
>> STAY : Ngo Homestay
>> RECOMMEND : Cooking classes (See your Hotel/Hostel for recs), Haggle with the Street Vendors, Get a suit/dress tailored, Take a 20-30 minute boat ride (Tip: Haggle the price to ~50,000 DONG per person), Bike ride to the beach and nearby countryside.
>> MUST TRY LOCAL CUISINE : Cao Lau, Mi Quang, Com Ga, Banh Vac, Banh Dap, Banh Beo, Ban Xeo, Xi Ma. Check out the Anthony Bourdain-approved Banh Mi restuarant (Banh Mi Phuong).
>> HOI AN YOUTUBE VIDEO #1 by CupofTj
>> HOI AN YOUTUBE VIDEO #2 by CupofTj
// HANOI //
Coming back to Hanoi after all these years felt a bit deja vu-ish. In 2009, we stayed in Old Quarter - which oddly enough, for a touristy place - felt like we were the only foreigners walking the streets! "Where did all the tourists go?" question stayed with us well into the Ha Long Bay harbor, where we've spent an adsurb amount of time scrambling up and down the port in search of our junk boat. That was then. Fast forward to 2017, we opted to stay in a different part of Hanoi. Aptly called Food Street. It's lively. But nothing compared to the craziness of Old Quarter night life, which surprisingly, is the total opposite of how we've remembered it to be! Full of tourists AND young locals - loud, chaotic, crowded. Hanoi is fast-paced and bustling, but a great city as a base for Ha Long Bay.
>> STAY : Soft Pillow Hostel
>> RECOMMEND : Food Street, Old Quarter, One Pillar Pagoda, The Huc Bridge, Hoan Kiem Lake
// HA LONG BAY and BAI TU LONG BAY //
Ha Long Bay port itself was another surprise for us, as it is now a well-oiled operation. Gone are the days of laidback communication with the actual tour guide and getting picked up in a rundown truck and finding our own way to the junk boat like chickens with their heads cut off. Now, all the cruise companies pick you up in fancy vans and personally walk you to your junk destination. This time around, we opted for a full tour of the quieter Bai Tu Long Bay, steering clear of the now super touristy Ha Long Bay. We loved everything about our small and intimate Bai Tu Long Bay 3D/2N package. It was quite similar to our Ha Long Bay cruise in 2009 in terms of number of people, boat size, nature visuals, itinerary, and activities. The only major difference is that all the boats are WHITE now! (They all used to be RED and looked absolutely stunning against the turqouise waters!) Also, there's now a very high standard of organization and etiquette. If we had to choose which cruise experience was our favorite - we slightly preferred Ha Long Bay 2009. We missed the laidback backpacker adventure style! But overall, both experiences, 2009 and 2017, were quite enjoyable. Visually and mentally.
>> BAI TU LONG BAY JUNK CRUISE : 3D/2N package through Indochina Junk
When: February 2017
Temp: 80-89F in the South, 60-80F in the North
Cities: Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hanoi, Ha Long Bay / Bai Tu Long Bay
Stay: Refer to individual cities above.