We just finished our WHIRLWIND week in Vietnam!!
This was a stop that was really high on my list (makes Nick giggle every time) of places I was looking forward to…because why not? I LOVE Vietnamese food…the country is just beautiful…and literally all the extensive travel research I did screamed “VISIT THIS PLACE!!” So yeah, I was really excited to hit Vietnam.
And ya know what? It did not disappoint. In fact, it’s safe to say that this is one of the favorites so far, if not THE favorite. It’s almost hard to put into words what we liked about Vietnam so much but we’ll tell ya about what we did and attempt to do so 🙂
Our time in Vietnam was split into 3 main chunks – Hanoi to Sapa to Hanoi – with two overnight trains in between. For those keeping track at home, this is technically country #18 (our quick jump through Bangkok, Thailand was #17). Once we are done in Vietnam, it’s back to Thailand for about 30 days!!
Time in Hanoi
We’re gonna sounds like whiny, repetitive babies but…man, it was hot. We have really not been able to escape the heat and humidity ANYWHERE we’ve been since we got to this continent about a month ago. Poor Nick is sweating to death. BUT…we really, truly enjoyed Vietnam so much that we could *almost* forget how hot it was. To be honest, from our first meal to our last in Hanoi, we can genuinely say that we did not have one bad meal in Vietnam. We loved almost everything we ate. LOVED it. From flavorful bowls of pho to beautifully sauced noodle plates to perfectly cooked spring rolls…it was all just so, so delicious. Every single meal we had, we would take our first few bites, look up at each other and say something like “oh my god…” and then promptly remain silent until we had finished every last bite. Two places we ate at were SO good that we ate there twice.
I knew I would like the food in Vietnam but I had no idea how much I would LOVE it. Sadly, I’m sure it’ll never be the same back home…one of our favorite ways to find a good spot to eat was to look for a place jam packed with locals where no one spoke English. The streets are littered with these small tables and chairs and locals crammed around them eating bowls of soup or noodles.
Nick will have to weigh in on his own but I *think* the favorite dish we both had was called bun bo nam bo – we found a locals only spot that served these magical bowls of freshly prepared food for $2.50 each. And we ate every speck of food in our bowls. See below.
In case the food wasn’t enough to make our whole trip, the COFFEE places were out of this world. This was where we felt the most French influence in Vietnam…the coffee cafe culture. There are really cute coffee shops on every corner. And the Vietnamese “milk coffee” – insane. It’s so good. I kept trying it at different places and replacing my “this place has the BEST” with every subsequent place I went…it just never failed me. At home when you order this, it’s almost cloyingly sweet…in Vietnam, it’s the perfect balance of strong coffee and slightly sweet milk. It’s just good. Drink it all.
No, we didn’t JUST eat and drink in Hanoi. We decided to take the wandering around route and see where that took us…we walked to Hoan Kiem Lake, right in the old quarter, and spent time reflecting on the beauty of our surroundings. The architecture in Hanoi was a true amalgamation of French and Asian and just wandering around was an incredible way to take in all the city had to offer. While Hanoi is BUSY, we were pleasantly surprised that it didn’t feel all that touristy. According to one of our guides later on, this is a busier season for Asian tourists who can handle the heat and when it cools off, that’s when more European tourists come. But most of the hotels we stayed in weren’t very busy, we didn’t have to wait for dinner anywhere and while there were other tourists, it was nice not to feel like it was overly touristy compared to some of our other stops.
The Night Train
Neither of us had ever taken an overnight train before in any other part of the world but I have always really loved train rides. To get to Sapa – in the northernmost part of Vietnam, practically at the border to China – your only options are 1) take a motorbike 10 hours, 2) pay for a very expensive car ride the same distance, 3) take an uncomfortable bus there OR 4) take an overnight train. To us, it was an easy choice once we knew we wanted to visit Sapa. These trains have been running a Hanoi to Sapa route since the 1920s – and they have been doing so on the same schedule since then!!! We had no idea what to expect on the train but had read a whole host of mixed reviews and travel blogs. Now on these sleeper trains, you have a few options of your seat and prices correspond…you can take a regular train seat that reclines just a little, book flat beds in a sleeper car that you share with others or rent out your own “VIP” sleeper car with two beds. We decided to “splurge” and get the VIP sleeper car so we had more space for all our stuff and privacy…and we were really happy we did! Nick already had trouble just fitting on the train!
So how was the night train you ask? We actually really enjoyed it, both directions. We also learned a really interesting fact about how the trains actually work – there is only one train. But lots of companies that run within the train. So for example, company #1 could have cars 1-4 while company #2 could have cars 5-8. So what you get on each car and in each cabin was very different – we used two companies and while the differences weren’t stark, there were obvious differences! We didn’t sleep a ton on the train either way – it is not a gentle ride, even if you are somewhat being rocked to sleep and the A/C would come and go, making temperature adjustments a little challenging. But overall, the car was really comfortable – we had bottled water, snacks, free beers and sodas and we stayed up watching the cities go by until it got too late 🙂 Overall, a really cool way to travel.
The train you take to get to Sapa actually leaves you in Lao Cai – which we didn’t realize is nearly an hour’s drive to Sapa. So we boarded a big van with a lot of other people and started the climb to Sapa. The windows of the van were open and you could literally feel the temperature cooling down and the humidity lowering…once we stepped off the bus, we turned to each other and practically breathed a sigh of relief at our good fortune with the weather!! Even though we were only in Sapa two nights, the 75 degree, breezy weather was a godsend. The air feels and smells cleaner, it was constantly breezy and Sapa is just BEAUTIFUL. One of our most highly recommended things in Vietnam!!
Similar to Hanoi, we did a lot of wandering around this cute little mountain town. What this area is known for – and we learned quickly on our drive up the mountain – is the seemingly endless rice paddies that go on and on for miles. It’s truly breathtaking. Sapa town is nestled in between mountains, overlooking the vivid green rice paddies. Quite the spot to just peacefully sit, eat good food and sip coffee for a few days.
But of course we had to go trekking.
We booked with this cute local company – Sapa Sisters – and took a day long trek through three separate villages outside Sapa. We learned about the different groups of people living in and outside Sapa, many fun facts about how they grow and harvest rice and got lucky enough to stop and take in some stunning views. Obviously we made a stop for a tasty Vietnamese meal too 🙂
We were lucky enough to find this beautiful restaurant and bar – Skyview – where we not only enjoyed yet more delicious Vietnamese coffee and food, we had a front row seat to a REALLY intense and beautiful storm. This restaurant basically has open doors as its windows so it feels almost like an open air restaurant and it’s on the edge of the hill so you’re looking straight over at the mountains and down into the valley. You could SEE the storm coming. And it was a BIG one. The storm got so intense at one point that the thunder was directly overhead and ear splitting…the rain was so heavy that you could look out the window and see NOTHING. Not a single mountain despite how big they were and how close they were. It was a pretty cool few hours.
The last night we had in Hanoi, we decided to just sit at this cute outdoor local bar owned by a husband and wife. We were just sitting there, having a few drinks and minding our own business when directly in front of us (I mean really, no more than 10 feet in front of us) we watched in horror as a young, local guy had a very scary looking motorbike accident. As was everyone else, we were shocked and jumped up to help or do what we could…and I have to say, this was one of the most heartwarming moments of our trip. Never have I seen such an immediate, caring and selfless response from locals, foreigners and shopkeepers at once. The Belgian couple next to us immediately rushed to his side, threw their jacket under his head and had him stay still. Shopkeepers rushed out with ice, first aid kits, water for this poor guy, a phone that he could use to call his family…the list keeps going. Luckily he was able to get up, hobble over to the stairs across from us and wait for his family, pretty banged up, but with non-serious injuries. As he waited for his family, the locals and the shopkeepers never left him alone. They made sure he was okay. They made sure he was comfortable. They bandaged his knee and ankle. They found him ice packs. It was a wonderful demonstration of small communities coming together, in spite of limited money. When the guy’s family got there – quite the pack! – they checked in with everyone, checked his bike out, talked to the shopkeepers, thanked the nice Belgian couple (since poor injured guy didn’t speak enough English to do so himself) and got him on the back of their bikes to get him home. It was awful to see this guy’s night end so badly but it was really heartwarming to see how immediately and without thought everyone banded together to take care of this guy.
Ha Long Bay
Back to Hanoi we went! One of the most highly recommended things we heard from others was a place called Ha Long Bay. It’s about 2 hours drive from Hanoi and there are a TON of different companies that organize either day trips from Hanoi or overnight cruises. Given our short time in Hanoi, we decided to take an “all inclusive” day trip…we got picked up and dropped off at our hotel, we cruised around the bay for 6-7 hours and we got a really tasty lunch. It’s a UNESCO site and when you get there, you can tell why. It’s really awe inspiring. A series of many, many limestone “islands” – covered in greenery and jutting out of the water. Even on the muggy, cloudy day we went, you knew this place was special. The particular cruise we used was fine and met the need but we kept imagining what this place would look like on a perfectly clear, blue sky day…and wait until you see the drone shots Nick got!!
- Since our continent switch, we have been in quite a few VERY polluted cities so I thought y’all might appreciate knowing what cities we’ve been to so far that rank in the top 500 worldwide most polluted cities: Delhi #6 (!!!!!), Kathmandu #203, Hanoi #214, Krakow (!) #405, Bangkok #474 – still to come are two pretty high-ranking polluters: Beijing #56 and Xian #64 which we’ll hit in September! In all the cities (but Krakow) that we’ve been so far, the awareness of the pollution is evident by the number of locals wearing masks and how many shops sell them.
- The number of motorbikes in Vietnam was fascinating to us…we saw plenty of them in India and Nepal, but in Vietnam, the main source of transport for the locals was definitely motorbikes. So much so that walking the streets in the evenings (or really any time of day), if you weren’t dodging out of the way of a moving bike, you were having to walk in the street to avoid the rows upon rows of parked bikes on the sidewalks.
- We scheduled two walking tours – one more historical, one more foodie – and for BOTH of them, our tour guides never showed up. We decided to stay good humored about it and ended up loving our self-created tours but it was very strange!!
- We went shopping and Nick bought two sets of knock off Legos. Because, why not?
- If you’re now thinking “I should go to Vietnam” – definitely do it. Also note that this is one country that requires a Visa in advance! Process was really easy and all online…and really inexpensive.
Anyway, we could go on and on about Vietnam. We loved it. We loved the food, we loved the coffee, we loved the cool bars, we loved the people and all of the places we went. So far, this is our #1 spot and our #1 “return to ASAP.” If you’ve ever considered coming here, stop considering it and just go.