I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: before our RTW, Southeast Asia had never been at the top of my list. Pretty much all of South America and most of Africa trumped my desire to head toward the backpackers’ holy land. It’s not that I NEVER wanted to go, I just had a laundry list of places I’d rather see first.
Obviously, SEA ultimately finagled its way into our five month plan, and as soon as we settled on our itinerary, I suddenly realized just how much I want to see ALL OF IT. Sure, we were cramming Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand into one month, but what about Laos?! Malaysia? The Phillipines! Indonesia!?! Photos of beaches and street food and elephants were clouding my vision!
Fortunately, this is where the ever-logical hubs stepped in and said, “here is a glass of wine and here is our itinerary.”
And thus our new Official Planner of All Things Southeast Asia was born… you know, post-Singapore. Singapore was all me (because the flight was already booked and all I had to do was figure out where we were sleeping and what we were eating… and I didn’t even do a great job with that one).
So, post-Singapore, the Official Planner of All Things Southeast Asia first took us to…Vietnam!
Here’s how our we fared during our ten days:
Stop 1: Hanoi
Hanoi is one divisive city. People either love it or HATE it. And, like most things that cause such a visceral reaction, the people who hate it REALLY want to tell you how much they hate it.
“You will get hit by a moped and DIE; you will ingest a strange parasite that burrows into your stomach lining and renders you immobile; you will get scammed out of your life savings; you will accidentally eat DOG. Or RAT. And you WON’T EVEN KNOW IT BECAUSE HANOIANS ARE TRICKY MOTHERFUCKERS. Oh, and also bobbit worms.”
None of this was remotely true (Hanoi doesn’t even have beaches, you bunch of bobbit worms). Although, I guess technically the dog/rat thing COULD have been true? We did eat some weird looking meat. But since I don’t know for sure that I was tricked into eating anything weird, I’m going to assume it was all as advertised.
In reality, I’m on team LOVE when it comes to Hanoi. The energy was insane, the traffic was out of control, and the air… well, the air made me feel like a giant piece of steamed broccoli. It was hot and stinky and smoggy and soupy. Would I move to Hanoi? No, I don’t think so. Is it a place you have to buck up and visit if you make it to Vietnam?
Yes, yes annnnd yes. And put your expectations in check, missy.
Hanoi is not an easy travel experience. It’s all a little jarring, and walking through the city streets will likely throw you out of your comfort zone with every step. We stayed at the Tu Linh Palace Hotel in the Old Quarter, which I actually think was one of the reasons we didn’t feel targeted by scammers, because we were tucked away from the ultra touristy areas. When we did venture over near the lake, we started to see what others were talking about. For one, I never thought we’d have to yell “NO POLISH FLIP FLOPS” at a hawker, but you know. You gotta do what you gotta do.
Hanoi was also another city where, upon realizing just how hot it actually was outside, we opted out of mass amounts of site-seeing. We visited a few temples, swung by the Ho Chi Minh Museum (but skipped the mausoleum because I didn’t need to see an embalmed Uncle Ho, thanks), and hit up the water puppet theatre when we were feeling particularly aimless and in need of some AC. Skip the water puppet theatre, FYI. I mean, maybe go if it’s your thing…but it’s not my thing.
As for the food, well, I want to go back right now and sit on the ground and eat a giant bowl of pho and drink a huge cold Bia Ha Noi, please and thank you. And! No strange parasites of which to speak. Unless it’s still burrowing? I’ll get back to you.
Stop 2: Halong Bay
I was always excited about Halong Bay, which means that by the time we were ready to head off on our boat tour, I assumed I was going to hate Halong Bay. Remember the Milford Sound incident? Our boat tour experience was looking like that x’s one million.
Luckily, our concerns were (mostly) unfounded and it was just as beautiful as we had hoped.
Our hotel in Hanoi arranged everything for us prior to our arrival. The staff at the Tu Linh, it should be known, is AMAZING. The managers run a tight ship, and everyone was incredibly welcoming, warm and friendly during our entire stay. When we arrived, they ran through our tour itinerary with us and advised that we leave behind our luggage and instead carry a small overnight bag with us for our night on the Halong Bay junk ship. This advice was much appreciated—especially after we realized just how tiny and packed our four-hour van ride to the boat would be.
When we finally arrived at the port, our guide broke us into two groups. We had made some friends on the bus, and naturally we were separated. Instead, we were put into a new group of the most boringest borings to ever bore me. The hubs and I desperately tried to make casual conversation once we boarded the boat and everyone just stared blankly at us—and each other.
Still, even with all the cards stacked against us, Halong Bay was so ridiculously gorgeous that the boat experience was worth it. An added surprise was a walk through Sung Sot Cave, which I will admit: I may have found it to be impressive because our cave experience in Fiji was such a bust.
Also! After our hike and our swim and copious amounts of “same same but different” experiences throughout the bay, we re-boarded our boat to find three guys from Bristol, England who were joining our tour for the night. It turned out that they were a perfect match for our general wit and sarcasm, so it all really did all work out in the end.
Stop 3: Hue
After our time in Halong Bay and one more night in Hanoi, we hopped on a train and headed south to Hue. We decided to take overnight trains down the coast—which is, really, the only way you can travel if on a budget. The buses were… well, we’d heard horror stories. Trains it would be.
This first train from Hanoi to Hue, in hindsight, was majestic. We did have an old man follow us to our train car and try to get us to give him money to buy beer, but these things happen. He also slapped my thigh when I told him to leave? But I’d go through it all again just to see the hubs puff out his chest and try to intimidate a 70 year-old Vietnamese man who was all of 4’10”. Once he left, we agreed that our cabin was clean enough (thank god for sleep sacks), introduced ourselves to our two female bunkmates from the Ukraine, and settled in for the night. Everyone was pleasant, and our ride was mostly odor free (nothing is ever perfect).
In Hue, we splurged on a stay the Imperial Hotel and it was worth every penny. We wanted to completely zone out after our time in Hanoi, so we spent most of our time at the pool or in search of the best meal. We found it at the Mandarin Cafe—a definite must if you’re in Hue, and don’t leave without chatting with the owner, Mr. Cu, about his photographs adorning the walls. We toured the Citadel, we tried to visit the market only to get caught in a monsoon, and later, we took the world’s worst cooking class (I don’t want to disparage them publicly, but if you are considering a cooking class in Hue, let me know and I’ll give you my thoughts).
Best of all: we hit the Royal Spa at the Imperial Hotel. Seriously, this. was. heaven. We opted for a couple’s massage and it was one of the best massages I’ve ever had. I picked the aromatherapy option and it was almost impossible to pry myself off of the table—though we did get to relax in the plunge pool immediately after, which made it just slightly easier. Even if you don’t stay at the Imperial, I definitely recommend a visit to their spa, followed by a drink on their rooftop overlooking Hue and the Perfume River.
I’d return to Hue just for this. For realsies.
Stop 4: Nha Trang
After a few nights in Hue, we boarded another overnight train and made our way down to Nha Trang. I do wish that we had made time for Hoi An, and if I could go back in time, we would have figured it out. Just more of a reason to return, right?
Unfortunately, train ride #2 is where we learned that our first experience was a dream. As soon as we boarded, I just knew. Instead of the dim lights from our first experience, the train was lit with a series of flickering fluorescent lights. Babies were crying, people were crammed in 6 or 7 to a cabin, and everyone seemed to have gotten an urgent email prior to boarding, advising that they bring along the smelliest soup they could cook up. It was everything I feared. Then, about three hours into our ride, two men stormed into our (locked) cabin, talking loudly. The hubs and I realized they were staff, and watched as they stepped on all of our stuff as they climbed into the two empty bunks in our cabin. We tried to be accommodating, until one of them started conversing via NEXTEL. It was around then that the hubs stepped in and asked that they let us sleep (it was after 2 AM and they weren’t ACTUAL PAYING CUSTOMERS, after all).
Luckily, all was redeemed when we checked into our room at the Sheraton Nha Trang and these views were waiting from our corner balcony:
Sheratons get a bad rap in the US and are usually pretty budget, but we learned on our trip that this is definitely not the case everywhere…and certainly not in Vietnam. Our stay–thanks to our SPG points–was the highlight of our Vietnam tour and we were seriously taken care of. There were upgrades, there were free happy hours for SPG guests, and there were extra servings of brownies sent to our room after the manager heard how much I loved them (because I told him… multiple times… at the free happy hour).
We also hit up the Thap Ba mud baths (amazing) and took a snorkeling trip out to Mun Island, which I would definitely recommend for the views alone.
Stop 5: Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon
As we boarded our final overnight train in Vietnam, I was bracing myself for the worst. It was a slight step above our previous experience (the fluorescent light/soup combo was improving), but not by much. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the middle aged lady in the bottom bunk, across from the hubs.
While I tried to get comfortable in my sleep sack right above him, I heard the hubs saying, “uh… no? No. Not yours. NO.” I peeked over the edge to see him in a complete FACE OFF with the woman across from him, both of their feet firmly planted on the ground in front of them. When I asked what he was doing, he pointed indignantly at the woman’s feet.
Bitch was wearing my flip flops!
She looked up at me, smiled, and said “mine?” while holding out her mangy flip flops, which were approximately six sizes too large for either one of us. “Uhhhh… no?” I replied, and pointed back at her feet. “MINE.”
At this point, I had had it. I was ramping up for another long ride of mysterious odors, flickering lights, and suffocating heat. THIS LADY WOULD NOT WIN. She just kept smiling blankly, nodding, and saying “mine!”
I’m not entirely sure what compelled me to go through with this next part, but I leaned down off of my bunk, clapped in her face and firmly yelled, “NO. MINE.”
She slowly handed them up to me, and it was clear: I had won this round. We kept one eye on her sneaky ways for the next ten hours.
Needless to say, Ho Chi Minh City and I? We were off to a rocky start.
Things I liked: breakfast at L’usine, which seriously satisfied all my western breakfast cravings; the friendliness of the people, as with all of Vietnam; our self guided tour of the War Remnants Museum, which was an extremely difficult but necessary stop. I had taken classes in college dedicated to the Vietnam War, which definitely opened our eyes to the atrocities committed by the US and our allies, but seeing it in this light–and hearing the war referred to as the American War–was a completely different experience. We skipped the Cu Chi tunnels tour because of the excessive heat, so I’m extra glad we made it to the museum.
Also, I did enjoy seeing how the Vietnamese have embraced their French influence, and kept my eyes open for the little ways it affected the city–sometimes so much so that I felt we could be thousands of miles away, in Paris:
Things I disliked: adjusting to calling it HCMC instead of Saigon… and pretty much everything else. I’m sorry, HCMC/S. I tried. But I just can’t get behind a city that even lacks charm from above:
When people have asked me for my favorite places we visited on this trip, it’s been almost impossible to narrow it down…but I will say: Vietnam is always near the top of the list.
My most sincere apologies for dismissing you so soon, Southeast Asia. I can’t wait to return.
– Thank you to the Imperial Hotel in Hue for inviting us for an afternoon at your gorgeous spa. As always, all opinions are my own!