“Good morning Vietnam” was a line my dad used to chirp, on an almost daily basis, during my early childhood years. When I used to question him about it and where the line came from, I remember him briefly explaining something about war and ‘guerrilla warfare’ all of which went ‘over my head’ at such a young age. Little did I know that 20 years on, I would be visiting this breathtakingly beautiful country for myself.
What I’ve come to learn over the past few years is that there is a very good reason why ‘Club 18-30’ holidays finish at 30! Hitting the big 30 mark was a pinnacle moment in life when I realised that I was seeking more from life than just going on holiday, lying by the pool and indulging in far too many sugary cocktails (not that I am criticising this approach)! I guess becoming a runner and developing a real love for the great outdoors has played a large role in this.
After my very first 10k race last April, I knew immediately that I wanted to continue to race and train and when it came to deciding on a holiday, location and facilities were really the most important aspect. Ever since I had seen the ‘Vietnam’ episode of ‘Top Gear’ I had dreamed of visiting the country and in July 2016, my hubby and I decided we were going to make the trip of a lifetime. We had just under 3 weeks to play with, so we meticulously planned our itinerary to visit as many sites as possible.
Vietnam is a country of diversity: Chaotic cities and sleepy rural villages. Mountains and beaches, palm trees and pines. But no matter which area you travel through, the people of the country are so warm, genuine and sincere. For some, their visage tells a weary story, yet they embrace the simple life and amidst extreme poverty, would actually give you the clothes off their backs.
While travelling in Vietnam, we trekked through rice terraces, explored famous caves, sampled the unique cuisine, learned how to cook some tasty Vietnamese dishes, ventured up the Hai Van Pass, drove a motorbike through jungles and misty mountain passes and cruised along the stunningly beautiful Halong Bay.
Vietnam really blew us away and if you are planning a trip, here are 3 places that you must visit:
Hanoi was the starting point of our trip, which threw us into the deep end of Vietnamese culture. Delicious street food, crazy traffic and smelly streets are all part of daily life in Hanoi and if it’s your first time in Asia, you can expect to feel a bit of a culture shock on arrival. We stayed at the Hanoi Pearl Hotel in the old quarter and a minute’s walk from the renowned Hoan Kiam Lake.
As it was mid afternoon when we arrived, we took a stroll around the atmospheric Hoàn Kiếm Lake before exploring the narrow streets of the bustling Old Quarter and watching the sun set. We ended the up partying with the backpackers in Tom’s Bar and dancing the night away until 4am!
Although slightly fuzzy from the night before, we got up, I did 10k on the gym treadmill and then the day was spent walking across town visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex which is home to the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Former President Ho Chi Minh’s home. We also visited the War Museum, which was incredibly informative and provided a real insight into the war that the country had suffered. Visiting the Temple of Confucius was one of my favourite parts of Hanoi. It was a very healing experience and provided a fountain of knowledge and wisdom. In the evening, we checked Trip Advisor for the top 10 restaurants and did book ahead, as the more popular ones get busy pretty quickly. We went on the tuk tuk a few times, but be careful as the guys do try it on and overcharge-be sure to barter.
Hanoi isn’t the most friendly or relaxing place to start your travels, so I’d recommend spending 2-3 nights here tops. It’s worth noting that Hanoi is the central point in which to get to both Halong Bay as it has all transport links.
How many nights: 3
How we got there: We flew from Manchester to Hanoi via Abu Dhabi with Qatar Airways
Where we stayed: Hanoi Pearl hotel in Hanoi Old Quarter (clean, contemporary, great location, good little gym) £65 per night including breakfast.
Hanoi in 3 words: Crazy, Fascinating, Authentic
Next up was Halong Bay, undoubtedly one of Vietnam’s most famous assets. The best way to experience Halong Bay is by booking an overnight cruise package, which all include return transfers from Hanoi (this can be done online or at one of the many travel agents in Hanoi). There aren’t really many hotels around the bay, so it’s definitely best to stay on board one of the many cruise ships. We booked a 3-day, 3 night Oriental Sails Cruise.
We opted for one of the more luxurious cruises and were impressed by what we got for our money. Although a little tired around the edges, the cruise ship itself was a charming teak wood boat. The en suite cabin was clean and spacious with floor to ceiling sliding windows, the staff were fantastic and the all-inclusive a la carte food looked amazing. I say looked, as I had a bad stomach the day we arrived on the cruise and was quite sick the first day. I didn’t have much of an appetite, but the variety of dishes served was huge and as a non-seafood eater, they more than accommodated my requests for a veggie option. I was a little apprehensive as there was no gym and nowhere to run, but 6am Tai chi lessons as the sun came up, more than compensated for this and there was plenty of kayaking to help stay fit!
As part of the package, there were a number of active excursions included and on our first day, we spent time on the traditional wooden rowing boats exploring the fishing villages and watching the natives dive for fresh water pearls. We explored a number of fascinating caves observing the most phenomenal stalactites.
The following day, we had a sail boat with full crew and chef all to ourselves! It was just an incredible experience, diving off the boat into the sea, kayaking and more cave exploring. Experiences beyond the imaginable.
How many nights: 3
How we got there: Inclusive return transfer from Hanoi (3.5 hours each way)
Where we stayed: Oriental Sails Cruise (all-inclusive of excursions and food cost just under £500)
Halong Bay in 3 words: Spectacular, Memorable, tranquil
Hoi An was without a doubt my favourite place on our 3 week tour. If you only have time to visit 1 place in Vietnam, make sure it’s here! With it’s lantern-lit streets, colourful buildings and charming boutique shops, Hoi An is a slice of the exotic orient that we Westerners dream of discovering.
The old town area is pedestrianised at night and without the influx of noisy scooters, the whole place feels extremely relaxed. Spend your days getting lost in the many tailors, where you can custom order handmade boots, shoes, suits and dresses for unbelievably cheap prices. Take an extra suitcase if you can. We bought plenty of made-to measure clothes and shoes, as the prices were just so cheap.
The Japanese Covered Bridge is an iconic sight lit up at night and taking a long boat ride along the Thu Bon River at dusk is a magical experience. We were lucky that the Almanity hotel provided free and unlimited use of push bikes and so we cycled to An Bang beach for the day, which is located only 3km from the town. Hoi An is also the place where we feasted on the most amazing Vietnamese cuisine, so make sure you enjoy your fair share of fresh Vietnamese salads.
My favourite restaurant in Hoi An was called Hai Cafe, which is located on one of the most picturesque streets in the Old Town. It’s a little more expensive than your average restaurant, but the food is out of this world. We enjoyed it so much that we dined there 3 nights out of the 10!
We stayed in the luxurious Almanity Hoi An Spa resort. A duplex suite with breakfast cost us £69 a night and was by far one of the most amazing hotels I’ve stayed in. it included a breakfast of huge variety: smoothies, overnight oats, fruit platters, omelettes and even a full English. The staff were so welcoming and friendly and by the end of the trip, they had almost become like family. When we visit Vietnam again, there is no doubt that we would return to this hotel.
Whilst travelling, you’ll visit waterfalls and fresh water springs, but the most exciting part is driving through the famous Hai Van Pass; a 20km stretch of spectacular coastal road and panoramic scenery. The Hai Van Pass is historically significant to the Vietnam war as it was taken over by the Americans and at its highest point the bullet-damaged bunkers and patrol towers still stand today. It was was made even more prominent when Jeremy Clarkson featured it on UK Top Gear. A motorbike adventure through the Hai Van Pass is by far the most exhilarating way of exploring this part of the country. Although people recommend not to hire a motorbike, so long as you are ultra careful and mindful of the crazy drivers, it’s the best way to get the most out of the scenery. We visited Marble Mountains and the Monkey mountains and although we didn’t see any monkeys, the spectacular views more than made up for it!
How many nights: 10
How we got there: Vietnam airlines Hanoi-Dhanang (1 hour)
Where we stayed: Almanity Hoi An Resort and Spa (luxurious, spa, gym, great value and location)
Hoi An in 3 words: Colourful, Enchanting, Mesmerising
Whilst this only really provides a snap-shot of our adventures, it is well worth taking the time to plan an itinerary to make the most out of your trip. We researched online a lot and also found the lonely Planet guide helpful. Immunisations aren’t necessary if you are just staying on the mainland of Vietnam, however if you stay longer than 14 mights, don’t forget to get a visa from the Vietnamese Embassy in London. They are very helpful and super speedy at administering them. Lastly I would recommend taking currency, rather than using your card. You’ll feel rich carrying millions of dongs! There is something incredibly healing about this country and it is very authentic and unspoilt. We will be going back for sure!
Happy travelling and keep an eye out for my Madeira adventure next month!