Vietnam diaries: Cheap beer, conical hats & lots of pho
Known for its bustling cities, beautiful landscapes, beaches and night markets, Vietnam is an extremely happy country. I mean it because, I don’t think I have heard any Vietnamese yell or scowl. They simply put the widest smiles on their faces and drive their motorbikes. Despite having almost non-existent tourism marketing according to news reports, this country thrives on the ‘travel image’ created by the constant inflow of foreign tourists.
Usually, a trip to Vietnam is best planned when combined with the neighbouring countries — Laos, Cambodia, Thailand — depending on your budget, and the number of days you have. If you look at the map of Vietnam, you’d realise that it is a vertically vast country. North Vietnam is significantly different from the southern part, in terms of food, culture and things to see. In a short trip, the key is to pick either North Vietnam or South Vietnam as travelling cross-country in a train will take you between 30-40 hours. The good news is, a domestic flight costs the same as a train — $35 to $40. And if you have only one week for a getaway, here’s my six-day itinerary to get around Vietnam.
Day 1: Hanoi
Pick a daytime flight to Hanoi, as the bird’s eye view of the Mekong River meandering along the foot of the lush green mountainous terrains is something you don’t want to miss. Welcome to Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. The Old Quarter is a perfect location for your stay, and filled with backpackers from all over the world, with everything in walking distance. It will take you a few hours to get used to directions and street names, but thankfully, the Vietnamese script
is similar to English.
Recommended stay: Hanoi City Backpackers Hostel, 55 Bat Su street. $5 with breakfast or `337
Food: Banh Mi ($1.5), Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk ($1.5), Ph ($2.5), Bia Hoi beer (50 cents).
Trivia: In Hanoi, you’ll get to see a lot of street names starting with Pho, which is not to be confused
with the Vietnamese staple noodle soup dish, pho. Pho means street, district, neighbourhood and can also mean house or apartment. The Old Quarter of Hanoi is often called the “36 Old Streets”, but in reality has more than 70 streets. And there are eight different kinds of “phos”, each with varying accents, all of which have different pronunciations and mean different things too.
Places to visit: At the Lotus Water Puppet show ($.4.40) get a crash course into Vietnamese culture in less than an hour.
Hoan Kiem Lake & Ngoc Son Temple: This lake is the central part of one of the busiest areas of the capital city, and home to a lot of cheap — and rather yum — street food.Dong Xuan Market: The night market is active from Friday through Sunday.
Day 2: Ha Long Bay
Imagine a landscape of serene teal blue ocean waters surrounding huge chunks of towering lime-stone islands, topped by rainforests. That is Ha Long Bay, a three-hour drive down to the seaside from Hanoi city. Although it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994, tourism at Halong Bay began roughly a decade ago. There are two or three day-long cruise rides and other adventurous packages offered to tour around the Bay, but a one-day tour or what is locally called a ‘junk’ cruise, is sufficient to get a glimpse of the full place. The day-long tour that starts at 8 am, includes a pick-up from your hostel, lunch, wine, entry fee, kayaking, a four-hour long cruise, evening refreshments and drop back to Hanoi by around 9 pm. Your full day, in just $45 and nothing more!
Day 3: Da Nang
Da Nang, the beach city, was an important port during the French rule. Much has changed since then, and the Vietnamese themselves are surprised at how quickly this city has emerged as a urban centre. The coastal curve resembles Mumbai.
Recommended stay: Da Nang Backpackers hostel ($5 per night, including breakfast). It has one
of the largest dorms in the world and the breakfast on the roof-top includes a perfect 360-degree view of the full city.
Places to visit: Consider a trek up the Marble Mountains during the daytime, on the outskirts of the city. Ensure that you get back to the city by evening to see the sunset from over the Son Tra (Monkey) Mountain, under the tall Lady Buddha statue. As you set out to eat some street food, catch a ride on the Sun Wheel (giant wheel) too!
Day 4 & 5: Hoi An
After all the city hustle, Hoi An serves as the best escape for a spot of quiet, to indulge a bit more in the joys of ancient Vietnam. An hour-long drive from Da Nang, this small town deserves at least two days of one’s itinerary, as every crossroad and every building here is truly mesmerising. The name Hoi An translates as “peaceful meeting place”. The old town, which encompasses almost the whole town, has been declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Recommended stay: If as a backpacker, you’ve always wanted to experience what staying with a local family feels like, Hoi An has the best options for you. I stayed at Little Leo Homestay for two days and they hosted me for a family dinner with 10 other tourists, handed me a bicycle for a $1 deposit, organised a buffet breakfast and gave me a ton of memories!
Places to see: Start your day by heading to Hoi An Central Market, which is always buzzing with sounds of bicycle bells and locals bargaining with customers over fresh fruit, spices and handicrafts. Have lunch in one of the river-view restaurants. By evening, head to Hoi An old town. The beauty of this town lies in its restricted cycling and walking zones.
Walk down the narrow streets and first look for the Japanese Covered Bridge. Walk in the direction of all the Chinese lanterns and pretty soon, you would have toured the Fujian Assembly Hall, the Chuc Thanh Pagoda and the Hoi An Museum of History & Culture. Buy yourself a floating candle, make a wish and release it in the Thu Bon River. Spend your day getting a good summer tan at the An Bang Beach. You can also visit the My Son Sanctuary to walk through some 17th century ruins from the Champa civilisation.
Food: Try the under-1 minute readily cooked banana pancakes ($1) from the handcarts right along the riverside.
Day 6: Ho Chi Minh
Backpackers on a tight budget and a week-long vacation, looking to escape the urban-life chaos, would beg me to explain why I’m making them visit another big city? Despite feeling that Ho Chi Minh can be a city worth skipping, there is something in the air here that makes you feel the opposite. Still known informly as Saigon, this city is filled with political posters and is a reminder of its wars in history.
Recommended stay: Everything in HCM is expensive, almost making it seem like New York City. So don’t be alarmed if you find a decent hostel that charges you $8 per night. The Like hostel in District 1 is a cosy welcoming place.
Places to see: The Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, the Independence Palace, the Cu Chi tunnels are all natural routes that tourism websites would recommend. If you feel like doing something off-beat, the two things you ought to do are walk to the Benh Thanh market and then to the Benh Thanh Street Food market. You’ll get to eat at least 20 different kinds of food and be a part of live music jams!
1. Visas can be obtained on arrival, but you will need to process an online application so you obtain an invitation. On arrival, it’s barely an hour-long process to get your passport stamped. Total: $33/`2,110 for one person.
2. The local currency is Vietnamese Dong (VND), where 1 VND is equal to 0.0028 INR. The best way to go about all calculations would be to preferably transact and convert in USD. So, don’t be taken aback when you see figures like 2 lakh VND!
Pack light cotton wear, along with rain wear as the weather is always hot, humid and cloudy. Except for some pagodas and museums that require you to cover your shoulders and knees, the Vietnamese don’t
bother about the kind of dresses you wear.
The streets of Vietnam are defined by their love for local beer, where middle-aged men sit shirtless on plastic stools and sip beer all day long, while their faithful wives, donning conical hats, butcher meat and prepare pho.
10 words to help you get around:
Hello/See you again: Xin chao/Hen gap lai
Thank you: Cam on
Coffee: Ca phe
Turn right: Re phai
Turn left: Re trái