Our 12-day tour across Vietnam was a fascinating experience and one of our most memorable trips ever. Beautiful landscape, people, and amazing food abound. The country continues to develop into a modern economy, yet remains close to it agricultural roots. For a first-time tourist, we cannot recommend enough to use a guide service. We opted for a premium (expensive) tour operator, but we got lots of value for the money, as they made all the difference in setting up the luxury accommodations and seamless ground and air transportation. The personal guides in each city were wonderful, and without them so much of the nuances of Vietnam could have been easily missed.
Our vacation in Vietnam was one of the longest trips we have done and included at least four cities. There is simply too much to cover in a blog post, so for brevity I’ll go over the highlights and some tips for next time.
Vietnam in General
- Don’t call it the “Vietnam War.” A lot of people will immediately correct you and say it was the “American War”. I found this interesting mainly because I thought the war in Vietnam had been going on long before and after U.S. involvement. The American involvement was very significant indeed. Monuments, relics, and other reminders of the war are everywhere, especially in the Hanoi.
- Always be ready for the tropical weather. It can rain at any time. Winter is mild in the South, but cold up North. If traveling in December, you gotta pack for both climates. For example, you could go swimming in Saigon yet need a warm jacket in Hanoi.
- Ask hotel where to find ATM and load up. Revel in being a millionaire, even if it is in Vietnamese Dongs.
Saigon, er, I Mean Hồ Chí Minh City
Saigon was one of the more relaxing cities we visited. We stayed at the Caravelle Saigon for a few nights. Caravelle was an important location during the Vietnam War, mainly for the Saigon bureaus of NBC, ABC and CBS. Visit the rooftop bar to tour the artifacts and get a glimpse of a significant part of history.
Although officially named Hồ Chí Minh City, most locals still call it Saigon.
The volume of scooters is an amazing sight and sound to behold. Our guide organized a city tour by scooter for the day, which was a highlight of our stay there.
The food is fragrant, fresh and delicious.
Warm weather ideal for sidewalk cafes and eateries, many of which reflect the French influences of a colonial era.
Despite the thousands of years of history available, most of it seems centered on the “conflict years.” Several monuments and museums depicting the tragedy of the Vietnam civil war, placing America as the central antagonist.
A short day-trip to the Mekong Delta turned out to be a great idea. It’s very rural and agricultural, with fruits and vegetables seemingly growing all over the place.
Quaint narrow village streets pleasant to stroll about and in the evening the lights make it very pretty.
Wonderful food experience at the Secret Garden restaurant, where we met up with the chef to go food market shopping before guiding our kids in preparing the meal. They even learned to make spring rolls from scratch.
Also of particular note was the restaurant called Bale Well, which serves all the ingredients for spring rolls that you assemble yourself. The people are very nice and they’ll show you how to make the rolls, after which point the food keeps coming as long as you like. Set menu pricing made for an easy and enjoyable dinner experience in a small alleyway.
Well known for its silk, we toured one shop’s operations starting from the silk worm “nests” to the finished clothes. I don’t think I had ever seen how silk is made and learning about it was fun.
Hội An is very popular place to have some clothes made. We tried a few places and found LeLe Cloth Shop as our favorite. The quality of material and workmanship is exceptional, and I still wear their clothes today. Fittingly, our local guide had brought us there first.
In Hanoi we stayed at Sofitel Legend Metropole. Top tier everything, as is expected from a Legend hotel. Highlights included getting a foot massage, hanging out in the poolside lounge, and going on a bunker history tour in the hotel itself. This hotel is a centerpiece of colonial and the war history.
Some cool war relics found such as the B-52 bomber crash site in a neighborhood pond.
The market district is vibrant and beautifully illuminated at night. Shops overflow into the streets selling all sorts of wares. For example, we came across a street that has shop after shop selling kitchen wares.
Beware you may see dog food in some of the markets; As in the dog is the food.
Uncle Ho’s tomb is worth the visit, mostly because single-filing through to look at a Communist leader laying in state is pretty cool.
Hạ Long Bay
A two-night stay on cruise boat is highly recommended. We spent two nights on the Paradise Cruise boat with about 20 other people and it was super fun. We would get onto a smaller boat to go ashore at various islands to look at caves, do some swimming, and climb up for panoramic views of the bay.