Travel,  Travelogue & Art Journal,  Uncategorized,  Vietnam

Top Things to do in Vietnam

“Vietnam. It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever.”

Anthony Bourdain

Things to do in Hanoi, Vietnam

Streets of Old Quarter, Hanoi.

The French Old Quarters is the heart of Hanoi. It feels straight out of Arabian Nights, with old buildings, temples, pagodas, and markets. Most travelers stay here. It is close by popular destinations, such as the Temple of Literature, Hanoi opera house, National Museum of Vietnamese History, and many temples and pagodas. The best way to see this area is on foot with frequent stops for iced coffee, banh mi1, and bun cha2.

1 The Vietnamese version of a sandwich made with baguette filled with a mix of meats, vegetables, and condiments.

2 A dish comprising grilled pork, rice noodles, herbs, broth, and a dipping sauce.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral in the Hoàn Kiếm district, Hanoi.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral in the Hoàn Kiếm district is a popular spot for portraits. Newlyweds and couples are often found posing for carefully composed photographs.

Other popular attractions are the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which is free but with a lot of security checks (I skipped this) and the West Lake. It’s the city’s biggest lake with a small island called the Tran Quoc pagoda. Around the lake are several cafes and restaurants. We even saw some local eateries with makeshift hammocks.

At the Dragon’s Favourite Haunt – Ha Long Bay

Movies and travel websites have made this iconic bay with Karst formations jutting out the symbol of Vietnam. Though extremely touristy, it’s still worth every minute you spend amongst those magical rock formations in the sea. Most tours include activities such as swimming, kayaking, cave exploration, fishing, cooking lessons, and tai chi(!)

Kayaking in this surreal landscape is one of my most beautiful travel experiences. The ships parked in the gulf feel like an open-air theatre where the performers are Karst formations and the majestic sea.

Caption: Many hues of Halong Bay
Night view from the deck.

Things to do in Ninh Binh, Vietnam

From Hanoi, there are several day trips to the nearby Ninh Binh district. During this tour, we had some fun experiences:

  • Visiting the ancient capital of Vietnam at Hoa Lu. The unique architecture is a fine example of Feng Shui principles in architecture.
  • Climbing up 500 steps to the top of a Mua caves mountain. After the arduous climb, we saw a panoramic view of rivers, fields, and mountains, and a magical Dragon statue, which inspired us to climb even in the intense heat.
  • After all this exercise, we relaxed on a boat trip post lunch. We sailed through fascinating caves and grottoes.
Climbing up Mua caves mountain
A scenic boat ride.

Ultimate Vietnam Adventure: Exploring Vietnam Caves at Phong Nha

Phong Nha is the entry point for Phong Nha Ke Bang national park, famous for its caves.

There are four caves open to the public –

  • Paradise cave (largest and a must visit),
  • Dark cave (you have zipline to its entrance),
  • Phong Nha cave (which was once a hospital), and
  • The Cave of Eight Ladies (which also has a temple nearby).

Paradise cave, a guide boasted, is big enough to park a plane in!!

The fascinating formations, some of which are around 400 million years old, made me feel like I am in a space adventure movie. I saw alien hands and spaceships everywhere. An animator could get inspiration for a dozen characters here, quite the ideal Pixar field trip!

While there are many tours to visit these caves, it is easiest to hire bikes and explore them yourself.

If you want to opt for more adventurous cave treks and tours, you’ll have to go with a tour operator and a higher price of course.

Walking inside Paradise cave.

Things to do in Hue, Vietnam

Hue is famous for the Imperial Citadel with a Forbidden City, modeled after the one in China. On our second day in the city, we went on a typical 8 dollar tourist bus that took us to all the major destinations around Hue:

  • Pagoda of the Celestial Lady
  • Tomb of Khai Dinh
  • Tomb of Tu Duc
  • Thai Hoa Palace
  • Cung Dien Tho

We started at 7.30 am and ended at 3 pm at the Imperial City, which gave us plenty of time to explore the sprawling royal complex. Though the ticket counters close at 5 pm, those inside the citadel can stay till 7 pm. Most of the visitors left at 5. We lingered on and got to witness some breath-taking sunset views. The citadel tops were silhouetted making me feel like a thousand dragons were about to take flight from the rooftops.

A young couple had also stayed back right till the end. And, when the place was lit up they broke into a waltz. The romance in unexpected moments.

 

Skyline at the Imperial Citadel – Romance in unexpected moments.

The Perfect Drive through Hai Van Pass

The journey from Hue to Hoi An is a scenic one, with roads and railway lines just beside the beach. On the way, we also saw some lovely lakes, lagoons, pagodas, and bridges.

Houses in Hue

Hoi An – a perfect Honeymoon Destination in Vietnam

Hoi An is steeped in history – an old port perfectly preserved. Days are spent wandering amidst yellow buildings and nights on a river lit by many, many lanterns. It is pure romance.

And it was all yellow …
Houses in Hue

Train Travelling: The Way Locals Do It

We had an 18-hour train journey, from central Vietnam to Saigon.

Our coach had sleeper seats (like the ones in Indian buses) and huge windows. We were the only tourists in the coach.

Even though we had language limitations, we made friends with the people sitting around us. And the attendants who would bring the food and refreshments.

Though hard on our backs and little harsh on our beer-fed bellies, this travel was one of the most authentic moments of my trip, as we got treated to fabulous views of the countryside, beaches, mountain valleys, and more importantly life in the villages and farms from up and close.

Journeying down south

Scintillating Saigon

The very last bit of our journey was at the fast and furious Saigon.

This huge city is a world of its own and comprises of many districts, each with its own attractions.

We stayed and shopped at District 1 (Quan 1) and spent a few hours in the china town of District 5 (chosen based on the iconic book, The Quiet American).

District 1 has the famous museums, where you can learn about the American War, the French imperial rule, and Vietnamese art and culture.

In the evening, the lights and high rises are a lovely backdrop for the eat streets and party culture. It’s also a commercial hub with the popular Ben Thanh market providing hours of fun times if you like getting lost in noisy vendors selling everything from coffee beans to exotic foods to souvenir T-shirts.

Incense sticks at a pagoda in China Town.

A Testimonial to Endurance – Cu Chi Tunnels

Almost everyone has heard of the guerrilla warfare techniques of the Viet Cong soldiers – you can get a first-hand experience at the Cu Chi tunnels.

As you step underground into this vast tunnel system, you’ll see how people survived in the harshest of conditions. These tunnels had beds, hospitals, schools, training units, booby traps, and kitchens for the Viet Cong. And were central to the Viet Cong’s victory in the American war.

There are two entry points to the tunnel, Ben Dinh (50km from Saigon) and Ben Duoc (70km from Saigon). The latter has fewer tourists as most group tours avoid it.

I would suggest hiring a car and going to Ben Duoc – it’s worth a full day exploration instead of clubbing it with other destinations.

Amazing camouflage

A Glimpse of the Mekong Delta at Cai Rang Floating Market

This floating market is at its best early in the morning. From Can Tho pier, take a wooden boat at 4 am and go to the floating market.

It is best if you fix one the day before, to save time. You will be greeted with boats of all sizes, selling a variety of items – from fruits to fuel to clothes.

Breakfast boats hand out steaming bowls of photo travelers. The sunlight falls in golden ripples on the water. It is a moment of calm amidst chaos. The few hours I stayed on the Mekong river enthralled me and I can’t wait to explore it again.

A glimpse of the famous floating market.

Here are Some Awesome Tips for Travelling in Vietnam

  1. It is difficult to exchange Rupees in Vietnam. So it is better to carry Dollars or Vietnamese Dong. Where ever possible, make online payments. You can also withdraw money from ATMs though it is a good idea to compare transaction fees before your trip so you can choose the best option.
  2. I booked all my bus tickets through See you at Lily’s travel agent, Snowy. This saved a lot of time and she helped me with some valuable tips.
  3. When in Vietnam bargain on everything – even if you are buying wine from a convenience store!
  4. While visiting Pagodas, wear something that covers your shoulders and knees. I noticed many travelers who wouldn’t follow these rules, but I feel it’s good to respect the local customs.
  5. Local eateries often have only chopsticks, so practice using one before your trip.
  6. If you are traveling with kids, look for good workshops and classes. For example, the Temple of Literature at Hanoi conducts art activities such as bamboo dragonfly making and decorating, kite making, writing calligraphy, and other activities. Cooking classes are also popular and can be found in all cities.
See you again, Vietnam!

 

Seema Misra undertakes freelance projects for illustrations, content creation, copywriting, and social media marketing through her blog Lonely Canopy. To unwind, she watches world cinema or travels across it. She talks to her plants and sometimes people as well. But more often than not … you will find her curled up in her favorite corner reading a book while sipping strong coffee.

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