5 things I absolutely adored about Vietnam.
In July 2018, V and I packed our bags and took off to Vietnam. Probably not the best time to visit a country with such a hot summer (we were pretty much walking around in 40-degree celsius weather), but we had a blast.
We were there for 8 days — most of which were spent in Hanoi. 2 days went in our mini-trip to Ha Long Bay. If we’d planned better, we might have seen a lot more of Vietnam – Da Nang, Hoi An, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City… but our trip was a joy nonetheless. We explored the different sides of Hanoi — the old quarter and the political centre — both interesting in their own right.
When we returned, I felt like I could fill a book with what we’d seen, but I decided to keep it short. Here are my top five favourite things about Vietnam. Things you should definitely check out if you ever visit.
1. Hoan Kiem Lake
If you ask me what’s the one thing I’d recommend you do not miss in Vietnam, this would be it. I know what you’re thinking: a lake, really? Hear me out. On our first day in Hanoi, we set off to explore the neighbourhood we were staying in. While we were sipping on the first of what would be many many many Vietnamese coffees, we saw someone cordoning off traffic from entering one of the streets and then someone literally parallel parking toy cars on the side of the street. Our interest piqued, we walked up to check it out, and saw kids clambering into the cars and driving around. For the really teeny ones, their parents had a remote control to drive them around. It was the cutest thing and a lovely welcome to Vietnam.
As we followed these kids around, we saw the rest of the spectacle that is a weekend around Hoan Kiem Lake. With the traffic blocked on all sides, the roads around the lake become this gorgeous hangout spot for everyone. Kids and adults gather in groups and play games, dance, set up mini concerts — creating an environment that’s high on chill and creative energy. We couldn’t get enough. We came back the next day, and on both days the following weekend — and each time, we left feeling relaxed, yet totally high on the spirit of these people.
2. Vietnamese Coffee
I loved Vietnamese coffee even before I’d tried actual Vietnamese coffee. There’s something really soothing about the combination of condensed milk, strong coffee, and lots of ice. When we left for Vietnam, I knew I was going to spend the trip OD-ing on this amazing concoction. Let me tell you — it does not disappoint. Ever. The Vietnamese serve you three types of coffee — black (just the extracted coffee, or decoction as we call it here), white (with milk), and brown (with condensed milk – my absolute favourite). You can have them hot or cold. Apart from these, we also tried a variant with coconut milk that V loved, and one with frozen yogurt, that I hated.
In our week in Vietnam, we had coffees at about 14 different cafes and they were all amazing. On our way home, we bought some coffee and the traditional Vietnamese coffee filter so we could try making it at home. I’d made Vietnamese-style coffee at home before, but I had never gotten the same vanilla-caramelly flavour that we found in every cup there. When we got home and opened the packs, I realized why. The coffee powder smells nothing like any coffee you’ll find here in India. It smells like vanilla and caramel. If you go to Vietnam and love the coffee, buy some when you go home. And while you’re at it, please buy me some too — I’m running low.
3. Ha Long Bay
When you’re researching your trip to Vietnam and looking for things to do, a cruise to Ha Long Bay will feature everywhere, and once you get there, you’ll see why. We might have been overexcited for this mini trip because it would be our first cruise, but it thoroughly deserved all the excitement.
While booking your cruise, you can also choose to be picked up and dropped off at your hotel in Hanoi, (which is what we did) or you could figure out a way to get to the Ha Long Bay Area on your own. I’d recommend choosing to be picked up and dropped off, because it makes everything easier plus the van they pick you up in is glorious! And, ours was a budget cruise. Can’t imagine what the fancy cruises pick you up in!
Once we got on the ship and checked in, a brunch was set up. The food was a delicious non-vegetarian spread — a lot of seafood, obviously. We’d informed the cruise while booking that one of us was vegetarian, so V got a nice mini spread on the table for every meal. After brunch, we went exploring around the islands — we saw natural caves, a beautiful beach (that we couldn’t swim in because of new government regulations), we even went kayaking in the ocean! In the evening there was a cooking class where we learned how to make Vietnamese spring rolls, and then got to gorge on them while we enjoyed the sunset in the middle of the ocean and sipped on cocktails.
The next morning we got up early and set off to explore a fishing village. It’s an entire village set up on floating houses. Even the school and the hospital were floating! We got to see oyster farming, up close too. This cruise was a gorgeous experience that I will not forget. But it was so jam-packed with activities, I didn’t get to do the one thing I really really wanted to — sit on my little balcony with my book and read as the waves sang their song in the background.
4. 3 minutes of English?
Vietnam is not an English-speaking country. We had a tough time communicating with a lot of people. Our cab drivers, little shop owners, when we needed directions… safe to say we had to rely on Google Translate A LOT.
But what I loved about the people there is that they’re trying really hard to rectify this situation at least with the next generation. On at least three occasions, little kids walked up to us — on the road, in museums — and told us they’d like to practice their English, and could they talk to us for 3 minutes? They were obviously given a set of talking points by their teachers at school, but they tried to make it their own. I even asked some of them to teach me a bit of Vietnamese and they happily obliged.
This little exercise warmed my heart every time. And the fact that these kids were able to walk up to a bunch of strangers with so much confidence tells me Vietnam is going to go places.
5. Let’s DIY!
We spent an entire week in Vietnam walking everywhere. We explored museums and art galleries and restaurants, and spent a ton of time around the Hoan Kiem Lake. Towards the end of our trip, precisely when I’d already started missing the place, we chanced upon this DIY studio called DIY Box — and I knew I had to go make something to take home with me.
Vietnam works mostly with crocodile leather. And at DIY Box, they teach you how to fashion fun things out of it — passport holders, vanity pouches, wallets, phone cases — anything you can think of. I decided to make a passport holder and spent a good three hours happily trimming, hammering, and stitching everything by hand. There was another girl in the studio, making a leather case for her AirPods. Two cheerful girls spent the afternoon showing us what to do one-on-one. While I was crafting, V set about exploring the studio, getting to know the iguana in the corner and taking time-lapse videos of me as I got my DIY on. Overall, an afternoon spent in one of my favourite ways — creating something from scratch.
- Flights: We booked our flights on Scoot. They were both connecting flights with layovers in Singapore. (Changi Airport FTW!)
- Visa: You can apply for your Vietnam visa online* once you book your tickets. We got the approval letter the next day. You’ll have to submit the letter and a form once you land, along with photos and your passport and they’ll print the visa onto your passport. I’d suggest you print out and fill the Visa form beforehand so it’s quicker once you land. Plus, you’ll need to include the address and contact info of your place of residence in Vietnam, so make sure you have all that info before you take off since you might not have connectivity there. (*Denotes affiliate link)
- Stay: We stayed at two AirBnBs* in Hanoi — one in the Old Quarter Area** and one in the Political Centre. If you’re in Hanoi, I’d recommend living in the Old Quarter Area — it’s right in the centre of everything. (*Denotes referral link — we’ll both get a discount if you use it.) (**Disclaimer: This link doesn’t lead to the place we stayed. Turns out that listing isn’t available anymore, but this one is by the same hosts and they were amazing so you could check it out.)
- Cruise: We booked our cruise via booking.com — it was called Huong Hai Sealife Cruise, and we paid about USD260 including the pick up and drop and the kayaking.
- Money: We carried most of our money on a Multi Currency Forex card from HDFC Bank and about USD150 in cash to pay for the Visa on arrival in Vietnam + some cab fare. We withdrew cash at ATMs there for street shopping to buy tickets for museums, etc. but wherever we could, we just swiped the card.
- SIM cards: We bought 2 sim cards valid for 7 days from Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport. It cost us about USD8 each.
- Travel: We mostly walked everywhere, but when we had to go far, we used Grab Taxis because Uber had been recently banned in Vietnam.
- Things to do: We relied a lot on Google Maps to look for places to visit that were nearby and find restaurants, but we also did look for things to do on AirBnB — that’s where we found DIY Box.
- Language: A lot of the people you will interact with can speak English, but small shop owners and your cab drivers might not, so be prepared. We had to use Google Translate a lot.
- Safety: We were only in Hanoi, and it seemed quite safe. The city pretty much shuts down at 10pm though, so work that into your plans.
- Food: Food is a little tricky for vegetarians especially if you want to try out the street food. Most of the hawkers aren’t good with English so you can’t figure what’s in your food. But there are a ton of restaurants where you’ll definitely find something to eat, no worries.
If you have any other questions about our trip, ask away in the comments or DM me on Instagram and I’ll get back to you. You could also check out my highlights on Instagram for a more day-to-day view on our trip.