After the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and a couple of days in the mountains and valleys around Sapa, we headed down to Cat Ba island to explore Ha Long bay area. While a lot of people book day trips from Hanoi, we felt like we wanted to spend a few days really seeing what the area had to offer, and we’d been told that Cat Ba was a great place to stay to see Ha Long bay without the hordes of tourists. So, without further ado, read on to see more of our Vietnam itinerary ideas.
Cat Ba island: the Ha Long bay alternative we should really keep a secret
The main activity that we did in Cat Ba was taking a full-day boat trip through Lan Ha bay and Ha Long bay, including a stop at the aptly named Monkey island, swimming (or watching people swim) with massive jellyfish, and kayaking through the karsts. We managed to find a company that did all of this for a crazily low price, and we ended up having an amazing day with a fun group. As the area is often known for delivering day-after-day of sea mist, we were very lucky to have a perfect day of cloudless blue skies, which also meant calm seas and a subsequently relieved Lauren after her seasickness experience in Hawaii.
The low point of our time in Cat Ba was Lauren’s missing shoe saga. We stayed one night in a hostel before moving to another place for the next two days, and as we were moving our stuff there, one of Lauren’s shoes must’ve fallen off her bag—something we only discovered the next day. By this point, her shoe had probably found itself a new Vietnamese home, and with no shoe shops on the island, Lauren was forced to wear flip flops for the next few days. Good job it was nice weather and the rain hadn’t started by this point…
Ninh Binh: the incredible stop between the north and the south that you simply cannot skip
After a few days, we grabbed another coach and headed to our next destination: Ninh Binh. Here we arrived at our homestay in the village of Tam Coc for a late lunch, then took some bikes out for a “short spin”. However, in true Alastair fashion (as Lauren put it), this turned out to be a 20-mile round trip with a three-hour rowing boat tour through the incredible Trang An cave network. It took so long that we ended up rowing the last half an hour and cycling ten miles back in the pitch black. Although Lauren was less than impressed with my planning skills, I was happy to point out that: 1) we had a great afternoon; 2) we were lucky we did it when we did as it started raining the next morning and didn’t stop until after we left the area two days later.
The next day we braved the rain and cycled through yet more beautiful karsts. It’s a beautiful area to explore by bike, especially when you go off the beaten track. The rain really set in towards the end of the day, and by the following morning it was so torrential that we decided to have a lazy day catching up with admin and Netflix inside. On our last day, the rain continued to fall, but we braved it to meet some friends we’d made in Sapa. Together, we walked the five-hundred steps up Hang Mua. This is a viewpoint over the karst-filled landscape and it’s something we’d recommend to anyone visiting the area. Even on the dreary day we visited the landscape was enchanting. We can only imagine how special a place it would be at sunset on a clear day…
Hoi An: a foodie’s dream
From one very wet place, we caught the sleeper train down to an even wetter place: Hoi An. Despite mixed reviews online, we actually had a really good train experience for the 13 hours we were on board. We were lucky to bunk with a really nice (and normal) German couple who neither snored nor drank to excess, unlike some of the locals in other rooms. Success.
What was less of a success was the weather when we arrived. Despite the fact the monsoon season was meant to finish a few weeks before, it turned out that we arrived on their wettest day of the year so far, with flood waters reaching our knees at some points. Conditions were so bad that our taxi driver refused to go any further, instead dropping us a mile from our accommodation. At this point we really loved travelling. Especially as everyone was posting pictures of cosy fires and pubs and mulled wine.
Anyway, the flood waters had subsided by the following morning, so we got the opportunity to mooch around Hoi An and to see what all the hype was about. We quickly understood: The town is a charming mixture of colourful buildings, friendly locals, and delicious food. We ate the best banh mi we tried in Vietnam here, and at an absolutely bargain price. £1 for a baguette loaded with pâté, chicken, herbs, carrot, cucumber, and a sweet but spicy chilli sauce. If only you could get something like that for lunch in London for the same price and quality! Other dishes that really stood out were fried wontons and white rose dumplings. Drool.
We also tailored some clothes for ourselves while in Hoi An as it’s the done thing…apparently. We went to a place called Mr. XE’s planning on getting a suit for me and a few work trousers for Lauren, but ended up coming away having ordered two suits and some trousers for me, and a jumpsuit, dress, and some trousers for Lauren. Whoooops. In all seriousness, we were impressed with how professional they were and the quality of the clothes they made and tailored, so we thought it was a great opportunity to add to our new wardrobes for Boston, especially considering the low price. We had to go for multiple fitting sessions and I think Lauren had had enough by the last one as the Vietnamese ladies working in the shop were becoming very interested in my “big booty” and “hairy chest”. Sigh. Vietnamese men surely have it easy if that’s all it takes…
Ho Chi Minh city: Vietnam’s most cosmopolitan city
The last stop of our Vietnamese adventure was further south in Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon, as most of us know it). We grabbed a bargain flight from Da Nang, the city near Hoi An, and arrived in Ho Chi Minh city expecting a city even crazier than Hanoi, and perhaps not in such a good way. However, we actually had a really good time and loved the city. It was far and away the most cosmopolitan metropolis that we came across in Vietnam. We stayed in an Airbnb just out of the centre by a local market, and it was this market that turned out being one of our favourite things in the city. The extremely friendly locals who couldn’t speak a word of English provided a lot of entertainment, with a game of charades usually being the best form of communication for us. We loved seeing local life buzz around us, unfazed by the presence of two inquisitive foreigners. Locals on foot, bike, and scooter weaved from stall to stall every morning looking to buy the best fresh fish, meat, and vegetables, most of which were covered in ice and franctically fanned to deter the fierce heat.
We were also lucky to be in Ho Chi Minh city to experience Vietnam beating Malaysia to win the AFF cup. We realised early on in our time in Vietnam that football was like religion to most Vietnamese, so we really enjoyed seeing the locals get happier and happier as their team progressed through the tournament. And when they won the cup while we were in HCM city, the jubilant scenes on the streets were a sight to behold. For at least three hours after the victory, millions and millions of locals got on their motorbikes and rode up and down the main street into the city waving flags, chanting songs, and screaming with happiness. We also had a great time meeting some friends in HCM city: some from Wadhurst, and some from Chicago. Small world!
Ho Chi Minh city: also a place to really get your head around the atrocities of the Vietnam war
Last, how could we visit Vietnam without learning more about the Vietnam war. We went to the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh city on one of our days and we were left disgusted at the atrocities that went on. While I won’t go into the details, one of the facts that most stood out to us was that more bombs were dropped on Vietnam by the Americans than there were bombs dropped by the Allies during World War II. It’s testament to the kindness of today’s Vietnamese people that they’re so friendly, hospitable, and welcoming to tourists after everything they’ve been through. While we may not have been able to communicate normally too often, it’s amazing how much a smile and friendly gesture can mean so much. Thank you, Vietnam.
All our Vietnam photos are here, if you fancy scrolling through them.