We were told to pack up our belongings, leave the bus behind and approach the Vietnam border on foot. The walk between Cambodia and Vietnam was chaotic with screaming traffic and luggage piled onto wooden carts dragged along the busy roads. I instantly could appreciate a dramatic change in my surroundings compared with Cambodia. Transportation and population numbers seemed to triple as soon as we entered Vietnam and the temperature dropped so dramatically that we all ran to buy the nearest sweaters we could find!
(*Please note: If you have an Irish passport, you do need a visa for Vietnam– My friend found this out the hard way!)
Check out my 10 top things to do in Vietnam:
1. Live like the locals at Phuongja Homestay
Our first stop on our Vietnamese journey was a one night stay in a local homestay, ‘Phuongja’.
This is a great cost-effective accommodation that provides you with a chance to be fully immersed in local day-to-day life, as well as the knowledge that you are providing well needed funds to the families you stay with.
The warm and welcoming family of farmers introduced themselves and cooked our traditional Vietnamese dinner in front of us – Traditional rice flour pancakes with pork and leek, sweet and sour tofu, green beans and more.
We were given thin mattresses on the floor, each with its own mosquito net, in large common areas and it felt like a communal slumber party with the girls. Once we got used to ignoring the sound of scurrying rats on the tin roof above us we actually had so much fun!
The one couple who were travelling on the trip were lucky to be given their own private room (or so we thought until they soon realised there were sharing it with a huge reptile/lizard/dinosaur hiding between the small crevice between the wall and roof!) Sweet dreams guys…
2. Taste fresh fruit from the floating markets
If you have a chance to experience a floating market – You have to do it! The whole group climbed aboard a river boat and we didn’t have to travel far before locals were pulling their boats alongside ours to sell us iced coffees in plastic bags and exotic fruits. I tried freshly picked logan berries, sa ri berries, jack fruit, mango, pineapple, rambutan and guava. It was so busy and fascinating to see the different produce (and the huge amount of it!) available fresh here in this unique way of shopping.
3. Climb into the historical Cu Chi Tunnels
One of the best destinations to learn about the war history of Vietnam is definitely the Cu Chi Tunnels. Local ‘guerrillas’ fought against American soldiers in the Vietnam war from inside an intricate system of booby-trapped underground burrows. It was hard not to appreciate the guerrillas intelligence and initiative as they used American bomb scraps for metal and tank tires for their sandals. The minuscule crawl spaces leading to hidden kitchens and meeting rooms were amazing to see and I even had the chance to try and fit my booty down one of them!
4. Experience Sleeper Train travel
I was excited to experience an overnight journey on one of Vietnam’s sleeper trains from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang. I felt like I was on the Hogwart’s Express as we squeezed our giant backpacks down the narrow corridors to find our 4-man cabins. Despite the odd swaying motion, I slept surprisingly well (maybe the cake and rum-fueled Uno games before bed helped slightly…) However, being woken up at 5am by the fog-horn train alarm as we pulled into our destination station was not my favourite part!
*Top tip: Pick the bottom bunk, as the curtains don’t block the light from the top ones and it’s bright all night!
5. Watch the sun rise over Nha Trang beach
After arriving in Nha Trang from the sleeper train in the early hours of the morning, we were lucky enough to witness the beautiful sun rise over Nha Trang beach. Dozens of residents had parked their bicycles and were practicing their morning yoga – We quickly fell in love with our new stop-over.
6. Soak in natural mud at the I-Resort, Nha Trang
Just a short drive from Nha Trang’s main beach area, you will find the wonder that is I-Resort: A spa/waterpark that is definitely worth every penny! After a whole day soaking away our woes in natural mudbaths, hot spring pools, cold pools, huge waterfalls and hurtling ourselves down exhilarating water slides, we returned to our hotel rejuvenated and bonded as a group of even closer friends.
7. Get your clothes tailored at Hoi An
This was my absolute favourite stop in Vietnam. After our 2nd sleeper train from Nha Trang (and our 1st official sighting of a cockroach on board!), we arrived in the beautiful 16th century trading port of Hoi An and I instantly wanted to extend my stay. The town is absolutely filled to the brim with fashion boutique stores and tailors offering to produce virtually any garment for you overnight and the colourful riverboats and Chinese historical buildings will keep you entertained for days.
8. Learn to cook Vietnamese-style
As part of the tour group itinerary, we were booked to participate in an ‘Oodles of Noodles’ workshop in Hoi An. During the class, we learnt how soft noodles are made from rice grains and got a chance to make rice crackers ourselves using various traditional cooking techniques.
Similar to the New Hope foundation in Cambodia, this organisation trains young adults who come from backgrounds of poverty, orphanages and the sex trade to become world class hospitality employees. We then enjoyed a delicious lunch cooked by the students!
9. Sail between the dragon pearls of Ha Long Bay
Despite the unfortunate rain and clouds that decided to curse us on my most anticipated day, Ha Long Bay was still the paradise I was expecting!
We did a day-only boat tour around the area however you can book ‘party’ boats that go out to the formations and stay overnight as well! We approached some locals who were fishing in the area and they offered to canoe us into one of the many coves.
Our tour-guide explained that Ha Long Bay means ‘Descending Dragon’. Legend has it that the islands are the pearls and diamonds spat out by the dragon to defend Vietnam’s coast against its enemies. The story somehow makes it even more of a mystifying and magical place!
10. Brave being a pedestrian in Hanoi!
The Vietnam capital city is definitely worth a visit – Although be prepared to be seriously outnumbered by mopeds! We were told to ignore all that we had been taught as children to ‘look and listen’ before crossing. Due to the sheer volume of vehicles, pedestrians have to just walk out (never stopping or hesitating!) until they get to the other side. The swarms of mopeds will accommodate and circle around you. The memory of us crossing the street holding hands and screaming together is one of my favourites -Terrifying!
Whilst in the city, my favourite experience was definitely watching the Water Puppet Show. Puppets are above water on sticks held by performers and live music accompanies them as they act out various Vietnamese legends and myths. We were told that the art was created by the rice field farmers during the wet season – Genius!
What are your favourite memories and stories from Vietnam?
Any recommendations that I haven’t mentioned?