10 Unforgettable Vietnam Experiences

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During a two-month trip through Southeast Asia, I traveled through Vietnam from north to south.  After spending a few days in Hanoi with a backpacker tour group that I had been traveling with for two weeks in Thailand and Laos, I organized the itinerary for the remainder of the trip on my own, arranging desired activities and attractions. I consumed both print and internet resources and absorbed stories from fellow travelers I met during the adventure, who gave me great advice on things to do and places to go.  I hope this post, which shows ten highlights from my twenty-day trip through Vietnam, will inspire and encourage other travelers to visit Vietnam and experiment with solo, flexible travel.  Visiting Vietnam offers a chance to learn about its intriguing and heartbreaking history, indulge in mouth watering culinary experiences, discover stunning geological formations, encounter ornate religious sites in which to pray, meditate or simply learn, or unwind on golden, tranquil beaches. Vietnam is perfect for a solo travel adventure.

Hanoi

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My trip to Vietnam started in Hanoi, the country’s ancient capital. After landing at the airport, we experienced the city’s frenetic traffic, filling the streets full of motorcycles carrying multiple people and sundry goods.  We stayed in the Old Quarter, where, thankfully, the streets are narrow. Here, we could practice crossing busy streets before wading into the wide rivers of motorcycles in the newer parts of the city.  Near the bright gold French Colonial Presidential Palace (pictured above), we took an interesting, yet macabre tour through the nearby Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, where you can still view the embalmed body of the Communist revolutionary.  Our guide helped us locate a lagoon with the wreckage of an American B52 fighter jet from the Vietnam War. Hanoi lived up to its reputation as a city for food lovers, offering us places to slurp down bowls of pho in a cafe or noodles at a cooking school. In the afternoon, we visited the Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple dating back to 1070, with pavilions and courtyards adorned with stelae on the backs of stone tortoises, honoring the doctorates of its graduates.  That evening, our group attended the famous water puppet show at the Thang Long Theatre, which displays a fascinating millennium-old tradition in which colorful, lacquered wood puppets dance on a pool of water. After the show, we strolled around Ho Hoan Kiem lake, crossing the red bridges to the island temple. We finished the evening with expensive cocktails at a fancy hotel.  The following day, I saw the Hanoi Opera House, drank some weasel poo coffee, sweetened with condensed milk, and toured the prison where John McCain was held as a prisoner of war. My tour group went their own separate ways from here.  I stayed in Hanoi another night and made arrangements with my hotel for a two-night trip to

Ha Long Bay

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Ha Long Bay was on my “must see” list for visiting Vietnam.  Most hotels in Hanoi offer organized all-inclusive cruises to the area for 2-3 nights, but you probably can get a cheaper deal if you book through a travel agency.  Another traveler recommended that I only book one or two nights because the boat trip can becoming a little boring after that much time.  The drive from Hanoi out to Haiphong, where the boats depart from, was really long, noisy (the Vietnamese love to honk) and bumpy.  Finally, we reached the harbor and I somehow managed to find the boat for my tour.  Fortunately, there were only a few other travelers on the boat, so it was a quiet and pleasant journey.  On both days of the excursion, the sky was overcast, but the water still gave off its famous bright emerald green color. From these waters, thousands of limestone karsts jut up throughout the bay like jagged teeth. We were able to float in kayaks around some of these rock formations and through austere fishing villages.  We also went swimming, but the water was really cold! On the last day of the trip, we took an excursion to an “amazing cave,” which was absolutely massive.  The crew of the boat taught us how to make flowers from vegetables and seemed to enjoy getting us to buy drinks. Overall, the trip was enjoyable in spite of the cloudy weather. We made our way back to the mainland where I boarded a night train for Hue.

Hue

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I took a rickety, overnight train from Hanoi to Hue, the seat of Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty from 1802 to 1945.  Once I arrived in Hue, I checked into my hotel and decided to take a motorbike tour of the tombs and Citadel.  I visited the Tomb of Khai Dinh, built for an Emperor of Vietnam during the 1920s even though it appears much more ancient; the Tomb of Tu Duc, built in the 1860s; the expansive Citadel, which suffered extensive damage during the bloody battle that took place in Hue during the Vietnam War; and the seven-story Pagoda of the Celestial Lady (Thien Mu).

Marble Mountains

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I traveled from Hue to Hoi An with a private taxi on a very rainy day.  Unfortunately, the weather was not good enough to tour some of the bunkers from the Vietnam War along the coast.  The storms finally cleared up by the time we reached the Marble Mountains.  South of Danang, five large marble and limestone mountains poke out from the middle of the city, each named for the five elements: Tho (earth) Son, Hoa (fire) Son, Thuy (water) Son, Moc (wood) Son and Kim (metal) Son.  A park at Thuy Son allows visitors to tour the network of caves and tunnels in one of the mountains. Corners of the tunnels and caves are carved with Buddhist and Hindu grottoes and illuminated with colorful lights. You can also climb a stairway up to the summit, which is adorned by pagodas, and take in an expansive view of the city and the other marble mountains.

Hoi An

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Hoi An is a pleasant, popular and touristy town in Central Vietnam. The center of town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and forbids cars and motorbikes, making it much quieter than Hanoi or HCMC.  If you have traveled to other places in Southeast Asia, the town has a similar feel to smaller tourist centers such as Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang or Siem Reap.  Hoi An offers several low key but lovely tourist attractions. The Japanese Covered Bridge, a landmark of the city, dates back to 1590 and was built by the Japanese community living in Hoi An at the time.  I also visited the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation, the Assembly Hall of the Cantonese Chinese Congregation, the Quan Cong Temple, the Tan Ky House, and the Phung Hung Old House.  The following day, I visited the Chuc Thanh Pagoda and rented a bicycle for a ride out to the Cu Dai Beach, where a con artist tried to force me to pay a toll along the way.  Following one of the popular touristy things to do in Hoi An, I had a couple tailor-made shirts at one of the many shops in town.  I also ate at several wonderful restaurants such as Morning Glory or Green Mango. The riverfront is an especially lovely place to have a stroll a night and drop a floating lantern into the river for good luck.

Cooking Class

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After sampling so much delicious Vietnamese cuisine on this trip, I finally decided that it was time to take a cooking class, so I could learn how to cook some of these delights for myself.  While eating at the Morning Glory restaurant, I signed up for the cooking class for the following afternoon. The class started out with a tour of the city market, some history about the marketplace, and a description of typical foods in Vietnamese cuisine.  During the class, the teacher explained how to cook a soup with your own stock and fresh ingredients.  She said that making a delectable soup was very important for impressing a Vietnamese mother-in-law.  We also prepared a young (green) mango salad, a noodle dish, a shrimp dumpling, and a dessert. Participating in a cooking class allows you to experience a culture’s cuisine in a deeper way.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

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I flew from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in southern Vietnam and after landing felt as if I had entered another country.  And from 1955 to 1975, it was.  HCMC differs from Hanoi in that it feels more modern, western, and even happier.  During my first day there, I visited the War Remnants Museum, which offers a decidedly Viet Cong view of the war, the Notre Dame Cathedral (an architectural remnant of the French Colonial period), and the Reunification Palace, fascinating for both its history and its mid-century furniture.  The following day I took a motorbike tour of several Saigon temples: the Thien Hau Pagoda, the Phouc An Hoi Pagoda, the Quan Am Pagoda, and the Giac Lam Pagoda.  That evening I visited the Ben Thanh Market.  I highly recommend reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American for a literary take on Saigon during the French colonial period and war shortly before America’s ostensible involvement in Vietnam’s civil conflict. During my last day in Saigon, I took a tour of the Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels, both of which are worth their own entries on this list of experiences.

Cao Dai Temple

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The Cao Dai Holy See Temple, located in the city of Tây Ninh, is home to a syncretic religion called Caodaism. Cao Dai is the name of the Supreme Deity worshiped. The religion formed in the early 1920s and was founded by Ngô Van Chîeu, a bureaucrat serving the French colonial administration, who claimed to have received visions from Cao Dai. Caodaists venerate Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, Sun Yat Sen and Victor Hugo (French author of Les Miserables) as saints.  Caodaists have often opposed the ruling political power, including the French colonial regime, Ngo Dinh Diem, and later Communist rule.  In fact, due to concern with its subversive traditions, the religion was suppressed until 1997.  Today, Caodaists worship openly and the Temple of the Holy See is open to tourists.  Inside the temple, priests are dressed in red (Confucianist), yellow (Buddhist), and blue (Taoist) and parishioners in white. Watching the ceremony offers a compelling glimpse at a unique aspect of Vietnamese culture.

Cu Chi Tunnels

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After leaving the Cao Dai temple, the tour took us to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The park demonstrates a network of tunnels built by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.  Tourists can explore the actual tunnel. I was able to crawl through it, but found it somewhat creepy, especially after a bat flew over my head and back while I was crawling through the tunnel.  I would not advise doing this if you are in any way claustrophobic.  A brighter side of this activity is peeking through one of the trap doors (see above), which would ordinarily be camouflaged by dirt and leaves.  Hilariously, the park has built a “Western tunnel” to give everyone the experience of a tunnel passage, even if they are too wide to crawl through the historic tunnels.  The museum grounds also exhibit booby traps the Viet Cong set out in the jungles for the Americans: pitfalls with spikes and other nasty instruments.  Visitors can also shoot AK-47s and M-16s at a firing range, something which seems to go against the park’s stated goal of not glorifying the war.  Despite the propaganda messages, the park has been popular with American and Canadian veterans of the Vietnam War.

Phu Quoc Island

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Vietnam offers several beach destinations for basking in its tropical climate.  Originally, I had planned on going to Mui Ne or Nha Trang, but several other travelers that I met along the way told me that I should visit Phu Quoc Island instead, it being less developed and crowded than the other more popular beach destinations.  Phu Quoc lies south of the Cambodian coast and is actually claimed by that country as its territory.  Phu Quoc has traditionally been a quiet place, its economy supported by farms, fishing villages, and fish sauce factories.  The coastline is ringed with golden-sand beaches where you can swim and snorkel.  I stayed at a relatively rustic resort called Bamboo Cottages along the relatively undeveloped Vung Bau Beach.  Staying there was very relaxing.  I spent the days wandering or jogging along the beaches, encountering only one or two other travelers on the way.  At night, I glimpsed bioluminescent plankton glowing in the waves like aquatic fireflies.  One day, I rented a bicycle and breezed past fishing villages and nearby resorts.  On the trip, I encountered several construction sites, leaving me with the knowledge that the remote feel of this island will someday disappear. Now four-star resorts are being built in several places on the island.  From there, I continued my Southeast Asian journey into Cambodia.

So these were ten highlights of my solo trip through Vietnam.  Some other places that I considered visiting, but did not have time for, were Sapa, the Phong Na Caves and the Mekong Delta.  I was glad that I did not do too much advance planning, so I had enough flexibility in the trip to improvise some last minute changes (like adding Phu Quoc Island to the end of the trip).  Vietnam might seem exotic and forbidding to some, but if you arm yourself with a good guidebook or enough information, you can have a very safe, satisfying, and carefree experience.  Traveling solo does not need to be lonely either.  Plenty of other curious wanderers are in Vietnam seeing many of the same places along the way.

Have you traveled solo or otherwise in Vietnam?  What was your experience like? Please share your itinerary.

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