Vietnam Part I: Where banh mi’s and broken rice flow freely

This blog post is being written from one of the infamous Vietnam sleeper buses. We’re traveling from Phong Nha to Hanoi, departing around 9 PM and expecting to arrive in Hanoi at 6:30 AM. It’s much different than any bus experience in the United States. There are 3 rows of seats with 2 aisles running in between the rows. Each row has 2 tiers (or levels) of seats (think bottom bunk and top bunk). In theory, each passenger is able to recline most of the way; however, it isn’t really made for someone 6’3. We’re about 1 hour into the journey and hoping to get a few hours of sleep!

Despite the long (this is our 2nd 8-9 hour bus journey) and sometimes painful travel around Vietnam, we are both in LOVE with Vietnam. We’ve been here 9 days so far and have 4 days left in the country. Hanoi will be our 4th and final stop in Vietnam. We’re planning to do a 2-night cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay before heading to Laos.

Stop 1: Ho Chi Minh City “HCMC” (2 nights)

We have heard some horror stories from getting scammed by taxis in the HCMC airport. So, when we heard Uber was a thing in HCMC, we were pretty pumped. Our Uber ride from the airport to the hotel was ~$4 and was a good 30 minute ride. So awesome!

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    Matt standing at the repaired front gate.

    Vietnam War History: We landed early afternoon and dropped off our bags before heading over the War Remnants Museum.   The museum largely focuses on the United States role in this brutal war. Reading about the horrible things our country did was tough to stomach at times, but was really educational. There was also some amazing photography on display here. The next day we visited the Reunification Palace, which is where South Vietnam’s president lived. This is most famous for where the Vietnam War ended when a Northern tank broke through the front gate. This moment was caught on TV and some famous photos were captured.

  • Food: This will be a pretty consistent theme of Vietnam. We both agree that the food in Vietnam is our favorite of the trip so far. In HCMC, we went to a place that served the best Banh Mi I’ve ever had. (We had found this place via an amazing food travel blog we’d stumbled across- Migrationology that shares free and detailed food guides for certain cities. Here’s the Saigon food guide we used.)  Total cost was around $1.50 per Banh Mi. We also had broken rice and noodles for breakfast each morning.
  • Other sites: We also went to one of the most famous post offices in the world designed by Eiffel (you guessed it – same guy that designed the Eiffel Tower). Right across the street, there is a famous Catholic Church. We attended Sunday morning mass in English to experience the church and how the religion is practiced in Vietnam.
  • Motorbike capital of the world: We have seen our fair share of motorbikes in Asia, but HCMC takes the cake. In order to cross the road, you have to forget everything you know about American traffic patterns and crosswalks. The best strategy is to just walk out confidently and cross the road. The motorbikes will weave around you.

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    This does not do the traffic justice.
  • Recap: Overall, I had fairly low expectations for HCMC and I was really pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed it. The history was fantastic and the food was to die for.

Stop 2: Hoi An (4 nights)

We decided to fly to Hoi An. Booking flights 2 days prior to departure only cost around $20 each. This was a pretty easy journey as the bus ride would have been over 14 hours. The flight just took 1 hour + a 45 minute taxi ride to Hoi An.

  • Old Town: Hoi An is a really old port town with French architecture and really old buildings. We spent most of 1 day + 2 evenings exploring Old Town. It’s a great place just to walk the streets. It’s especially beautiful at night with all of the lanterns lighting up the street.
  • Beach: Our guesthouse was about a 3-kilometer bike ride to the beach (and about 1 km to Old Town). Unfortunately, the weather was not great during our stay in Hoi An. It rained pretty heavily at times and we rarely saw the sun. We didn’t let this dampen our spirits as we still biked to the beach every day and took walks. The water was pretty rough and there were no swimming signs posted. Guess we’ll be holding out for Thailand to have a more traditional beach experience.
  • Cooking Class: We decided that Vietnam was a good place to take a cooking class and Hoi An is pretty well known for their classes. The day started around 8 AM with a visit to the market to pick up all of the ingredients for our cooking. After picking up the ingredients, a boat transported us to a really cool island surrounded by a river and palm trees. Then, for the cooking and eating. Overall, it was a good experience. We prepared fresh spring rolls, beef salad, Vietnamese pancake and beef noodle soup.
  • Danang Tour: Since we had some extra time, we spent a day touring the neighboring city. The highlights were Marble Mountain and Monkey Mountain. Monkey Mountain is the home of the largest female Buddha statue in all of SE Asia. It was really cool to experience this with Phi. Even though it was raining pretty hard here, it didn’t dampen the mood.

  • Food: Similar to HCMC, we enjoyed the food in Hoi An. The Banh Mi’s were not as good; however, we found an incredible broken rice restaurant where we could eat like kings for $1.50/person (including a Coke). This was one of our favorite 2 restaurants in our 2 weeks in Vietnam.

  • Recap: We both wish we had stayed 1 less night in Hoi An and added 1 night in either Phong Nha or HCMC. We had heard from a lot of people that Hoi An was their favorite stop in Vietnam. While we enjoyed it, Hoi An was not our favorite stop (continue reading for more).

Stop 3: Phong Nha (2 nights)

Phong Nha is well known for being the location of the world’s largest cave as well as many other caves. It also fits what I imagined Vietnam to be like: jungle, mosquitoes, lush green mountains and farmland. Phi and I debated really heavily on whether or not to stop in Phong Nha. Bypassing it would have saved us two 9-hour bus rides and allowed us to take a quick flight to Hanoi. Ultimately, we decided to come and this was one of the best decisions of our trip! What an amazing place we found. Phong Nha is not touristy (yet). It’s so beautiful. Noise pollution is almost none-existent and the locals are so friendly.

  • Our homestay: This homestay was probably the best stay we’ve had on our 2-month trip. The host went so out of her way to make sure we were comfortable and having a good time. From picking us up and dropping us off at the bus station, to making us delicious breakfast and lunches every day, to doing all of our sweaty laundry, to arranging motorbike rental and to having the coolest dog to hang out with. If anyone ever visits Vietnam, you must stay here!

  • Renting motorbike: We rented a motorbike both days in Phong Nha. This was also one of the most fun things of the trip. We got to spend our days riding around a National Park with very little traffic. We both drove (though Phi preferred the flatter and paved roads). It was a blast!
  • Dark Cave: Have you ever taken a full mud bath? Our hike into Dark Cave involved swimming, zip lining, some kayaking, walking through knee deep water and at the end taking a complete mud bath. It was one of the more unique experiences of the trip.
  • Botanical Garden Trek: On our 2nd day here, we took our motorbike to do a jungle trek. The trek was only 3-4 miles, but we saw some incredible jungle scenery.
  • Food: Basically, our food was entirely eaten at the homestay. She was an incredible cook and made us an abundance of delicious Vietnamese food. The one exception to this was our visit to Pub with Cold Beer for lunch one day. I’d recommend googling this restaurant. First, the motorbike ride down a 2 KM muddy road was a little sketchy. The restaurant is true farm to table as you pick the chicken you eat and they kill it/cook it for you. They give you the option to kill it yourself; however, Phi and I were not interested in this.

  • Recap: This was in the top 3 stops of our trip for both of us. It was really a remarkable place and there were hardly any tourists here. We both think due to the recent discovery of new caves and more people coming to Vietnam, this place will blow up in a couple of years. We were on the fence about stopping here and we were so glad we did!
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