Thursday after work, I hurried home to pack and prepare for my travels. My 2:00 am flight was delayed, so the delay and subsequent re-booking of my second flight caused my 10:00 am arrival time to become 4:30 pm. The flights were good; however, when I arrived, there were issues with my Visa. The officer helping me was not initially the most helpful person to deal with, though in the end, he was very kind, and acted like it was no big deal. Overall, it took three hours to sort out and fix the issue, but after having witnessed officers tell another person they couldn't enter the country and to book a flight and leave, I was grateful to have the issue resolved. I was finally on my way to explore Vietnam!
Finally having made it through customs, and not having had anything to eat or drink the entire three hours (I was afraid that if I moved from where the officer told me to sit, he would undoubtedly make me book a flight back 😂), I needed to find food and water. Thankfully the airport had restaurants, so I got some dinner, ordered a Grab (Vietnam does not have Uber, though Grab is essentially the same thing) and hit the road to my Airbnb. Having been awake for about 36 hours, I decided to get settled in and try to get some sleep.
For my first day in Ho Chi Minh City, I decided to explore whatever was in the area and play everything by ear instead of doing a guided tour. As I was getting ready to leave for the day, I had my purse slung across me crossbody and walked out of my apartment. Walking to the elevator, I kept feeling a tug on my shirt. I assumed the tugging was from my purse and that perhaps my shirt was caught somewhere, so in turn, I pulled on it a few times hoping to solve the problem. However, as I was standing waiting for the elevator, it became shockingly clear to me that it wasn’t that my shirt was caught up, it was that something was crawling on me! That something had now moved from my shirt and onto my neck. My ninja-like reflexes went into high gear, and I quickly flung the unknown creature to the floor. My heart was pounding; what was it?! I looked down and staring back up at me was a little lizard whose heart was beating as quickly as mine. We stared at each other for a moment as if to exchange apologies, then we both went our separate ways.
I started out visiting the Emperor Jade Pagoda. While walking around the pagoda, looking at the different Buddhas, a young Vietnamese woman started explaining the Buddha in front of me. She told me that he was like an overseer of your works, almost like a good and bad person on either of your shoulders advising you what to do. In his hands, he held a pen and scroll to keep track of your deeds.
Next, I decided to walk to the park that was just down the road. I saw it on the drive to the pagoda, so I wanted to explore the park more. The park was full of gorgeous greenery, and many locals were enjoying their lunch breaks.
After visiting the park, I decided my next stop would be reunification palace. I caught a Grab and selected a ticket for the self-guided audio tour of the palace. It was certainly an impressive building full of much pomp and circumstance. Once the home of the previous President who fled South Vietnam in the war, it is now a symbol of the reunification of the country.
The next stop was the war remnant museum. The museum has multiple tanks, planes, and other equipment from the war, including US vehicles.
There is an entire exhibit dedicated to journalists who died or went missing during the war and the photographs they took throughout that time. There is also an exhibit devoted to showing the effects of agent orange. The images in both displays are jarring. Heartbreaking. Sobering. Another part of the museum introduces you to the US Soldiers, Airmen, and Marines who were POW’s during the war, some who were there for eight years. Yet another exhibit demonstrates the support from other countries for peace in Vietnam by showing newspaper clippings, headlines, and pictures of protests in support of Vietnam. Finally, in the middle of the museum, running on a constant loop is a video talking about the war and the after effects. One of the things noted in the video is the work, supported in part by the United States, going into clearing land mines from rural fields and land so that people are able to traverse and cultivate the area safely. It was a sobering and educational experience.
Next, to end the night, I got onto my food app and searched for a restaurant close to me that provided options I would be able to eat. I located one, ordered a Grab, and arrived at a packed restaurant. The restaurant was at least four levels (as are many of the bars/restaurants and shops in Vietnam) so the waiter showed me up to the third floor to my table. The restaurant was decorated elegantly with low lighting, colorful lanterns, and had large picture windows overlooking the busy street below. The service was excellent, the food was terrific, and I was tired.
Arriving so late on Friday caused me to lose a day from my time in Ho Chi Minh City, and so my plans of leaving Sunday afternoon shortened that time even more as well. As much as I wanted to try and fit other things into my day on Sunday, I decided to take it easy, pack up, check out of my Airbnb, and do some planning. So, I found a coffee shop and worked on planning the next couple parts of my travels.
I arrived in DaNang on Sunday evening and headed straight to my Airbnb. I checked in and started getting settled but needed to run to the store for a few things. It was 9:00 pm and dark outside and I didn’t want to wander around in the dark alone, so I figured I would take a Grab. I messaged my Airbnb host, Trung, to see where he suggested I go, and instead, he offered to take me. On the way to the store, I chatted with him about my travels. He was surprised I was traveling alone, and I explained why. We talked about what I wanted to see while I was in Vietnam, the fact that when I travel, I enjoy seeing and doing the things that the locals do, and that I like to find non-typical tours. I asked him about the Buddha on the dashboard (it was something I had seen in literally every car in which I rode in Vietnam). He explained that the Buddha was to remind them to be patient and safe while driving, that this is for protection.We stopped at the store, and when I was finished, he offered to show me around DaNang. We drove around and looked at the bridges (including the Dragon Bridge and Han River Bridge) in the darkness, each lit up with thousands of lights. The city was alive with motorbikes and scooters, music from the bars, evening river cruises, and people happily visiting with their friends and family.
After showing me a few of the bridges, he asked if I wanted to try coconut jelly at one of the local places since I wanted to see where the locals go. Though I had no idea what coconut jelly was, I enthusiastically agreed.
Before I knew it, I found myself in a large group of people sitting in small chairs on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant, watching the busyness on the street.
Trung ordered for us, and as we waited for our order, we discussed my plans for my time in DaNang. After telling him about a few things that I wanted to see, he told me not to book a tour the next day, and that instead, he would take me. Not only that, but he said he wanted to take me to breakfast to a local restaurant to have a traditional Vietnamese breakfast, and then we would get coffee. How could I say no?
The next morning I met Trung for our first adventure of the day. I found him outside with his scooter and two helmets. He said “you ready?!”, and a part of me started thinking through all the warnings about not riding scooters and motorbikes in foreign countries, but the other part of me smiled and said “yep!” while donning the helmet.
Trung took me to a local restaurant with large metal tables and plastic chairs and found us a couple of seats. He explained to me that this fish soup is one of their traditional breakfasts.
After breakfast, we went to a packed coffee shop where we again sat on tiny chairs and drank our coffee.
During the ride to our next destination, I noticed there was no Buddha on the scooter, so I pointed that out to Trung. He laughed and thought it was a good point, saying maybe he would get one for it. So perhaps next time I see him he will have figured out how to mount a Buddha to his scooter.
Next, Trung dropped me off at the market area of DaNang so I could walk around and see a few things. This area was busy, with many tourists and large buses pushing through traffic. I walked around for a bit, through a massive indoor market where people had stands selling everything from touristy trinkets, coffee, and fresh fish.
I then moved back outside and visited some shops, but finally settled in at another coffee shop (yeah, I know). Here, I ordered coconut coffee, sat in my tiny chair, and enjoyed a little people watching.
Later that afternoon, Trung and I took the scooter up Son Tra Mountain (aka Monkey Mountain) a little way. We stopped at the Linh Ung Pagoda, which houses the largest Buddha statue in Vietnam.
After wandering around and taking in the views there for a little while, we drove down the road a little farther to take in the view overlooking the bay.
Heading home from Son Tra, we passed the fishing area of the beach and noticed people bringing in their nets. I asked Trung if he would be willing to stop and let me watch the process, and he quickly agreed. I sat there for thirty minutes watching the struggle of pulling in the nets.
The fishermen and women had people on either side of the nets working together to bring in the catch. The longer I stood there, the larger the crowd of observers grew. Finally, the nets reached the shallows of the shoreline, and the crowd converged to get a first look at whatever may be in the nets. However, the excitement was short lived. The nets were empty. While fishing isn’t the sole livelihood of the fishermen and women, I can imagine the disappointment of working so hard, for so long, only to bring in empty nets.
Tuesday morning, I woke up early to meet my tour guide, Tram, a local student who offered scooter tours of DaNang through Airbnb Experiences. I ended up being the only person on this tour, which was great. Tram said we would head to Marble Mountain first, so I hopped on the scooter and off we went.
On the way to Marble Mountain, Tram explained that the road we were on used to be the runway for the military base in DaNang during the war. Then he pulled over and showed me some of the aircraft shelters from the war. He explained they are still used today.
Next, we stopped at the base of Marble Mountain. Tram said he likes to come here earlier in the morning because it is before the tourists were out and about, so it would be pretty empty (a strategy which I appreciated). We walked around the mountain area, enjoying the view from the top of the mountain and checking out the caves (where we saw some areas riddled with bullet holes from the war) and pagodas. Tram explained that there used to be five marble mountains, but that the locals kept mining and taking the marble from the mountain so much that it destroyed one of the mountains. Once the government realized what was happening, they stepped in and have been able to preserve the other mountains since. Looking down into DaNang you can see the “Marble Village” where the streets are lined with marble Buddha statues.
Tram initially planned the next stop to be the Linh Ung Pagoda, but when I explained I went there the previous day, he quickly altered course and said we were going to the top of Son Tra mountain instead. On the way to Son Tra, we saw the fishing village with many round boats on the sand, and a little way offshore the longer, rectangular fishing boats. I asked Tram about the round boats, and he explained they are usually used for fishing or traveling on the rivers. Because the rivers are full of sharp bends, the round boats are easier to navigate than a long canoe or kayak, so they are not used too much on the open water, except to perhaps
I soon found myself back on Son Tra Mountain. The ride up the mountain is at times steep and takes you around sharp blind corners, but I trusted Tram to guide our scooter safely up the mountain. On the way up the mountain, Tram pointed out an old radio station and a bunker that
The views from the top of the mountain were stunning. It was quite the juxtaposition to see the cityscape amidst the natural beauty surrounding DaNang, but it was beautiful to behold.
That afternoon I booked a tour to Hoi An, which was about 30 minutes away from DaNang. Hoi An is rich with history and architecture from multiple sources including Chinese, Japanese, and French influences.
The tour took me around the Old District of Hoi An to see a Pagoda, the Old House, and an 18th century Japanese wooden covered bridge. There were many impressive sculptures and paintings at the pagoda. We stopped at a statue of a fish and a
On Wednesday, I traveled to Hanoi. Before I left, Trung offered to take me to breakfast and then to the airport; he wanted to take me to another local restaurant, so I accepted. We ate traditional bowls of Chicken Pho and split a sizeable baked rice cracker. Trung and his family made me feel so welcomed and at home in DaNang that I almost didn't want to leave, they were the most wonderful people!
I arrived in Hanoi Wednesday afternoon and settled into my Airbnb. Not having booked anything for that day, and knowing Thursday would be a full day, I decided to rest. Located about 1/2 mile down the road was a mall housing a theater, so I decided to see a movie. I ordered my ticket, water, and popcorn. After ordering my popcorn, the girl at the counter asked me which option I would like: cheese, sweet, or caramel. There was no option for regular popcorn, so I chose the sweet option (it was good!) and settled into my seat in a small theater that had about 25 seats.
Thursday I traveled to Ha Long Bay. This trip was one of my top "must-see" stops in Vietnam, and I would absolutely recommend adding it to your list if you plan to visit Vietnam. Not wanting to spend four hours each way on a crowded bus, I chose a slightly more expensive option that included an eight-passenger limo-van, the highway route (which was two hours instead of four), and smaller tour size. This tour option ended up being a great decision. Once we reached the bay, we were joined by a few other groups and put onto a speed boat that then took us out to our cruising boat. The boat was lovely, we were served a five-course lunch, and then offered activities such as bamboo boat rides through a cave, kayaking or swimming in the bay, a cooking class, and a sunset party. However, as nice as the boat experience was, there was nothing that beat the experience of cruising through Ha Long Bay. Admiring these mountains emerging up out of the water was certainly a worthwhile experience. Kayaking around the bay in the shadows of these massive formations was utterly intimidating, awe-inspiring, and humbling all at the same time.
Friday I selected another fantastic tour: horseback riding. This tour took me to the outskirts of Hanoi. We rode through the country, by rice paddies, through two small villages, beside the Red River, and then back to the stables. It was a unique perspective on life outside of the city. Additionally, it was a fun experience for the locals in the villages we rode through as they don't see foreigners very often, especially foreigners riding horses. People stopped working in the fields and said "hello!" or waved, and children in the village ran to line the streets and shouted "hello!". After the ride, our guide (an American expat) took us to a small restaurant for a traditional "buffet" type of lunch.
With my flight scheduled to leave at 12:30 pm on Saturday, I wanted to try and fit in a tour where I could see more of Hanoi. I was told by Trung (my host in DaNang) that if I could find an early morning tour that would be an excellent tour to get a taste of what the locals do, because it is as they are preparing for the day, and most tourists are not out at about. Luckily for me, I found an early morning bike riding tour starting at 5:30 am, so it was perfect!
The bike ride ended up being about 7.5 miles around the city. Stopping first at the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, we watched the flag raising ceremony and the parade of soldiers. After that, we went to train street, where the train runs through the city. There are coffee shops set up in the buildings directly next to the tracks, and they will write the train schedule on the outside for those interested in getting jarringly close to the action.
For being so early, the city was active! People were out running, participating in jazzercise in the park, volleying a badminton birdie, shopping the markets that opened early and the flower market that closed at 7:00 am. Trung was right; it provided terrific insight into the local's everyday activities.
Our next stop was the train bridge, where I may or may not have climbed over a railing and jumped over a two-foot-wide gap in the boards (leading to a thirty-five-foot drop) to take a few pictures with my guide. About a minute or so after we climbed back over the railing, a train rounded the corner, and we had a great view of the train as it passed. After the train passed, we took our bikes down the stairs and did a little off-road riding on a trail through some banana farms by the Red River.
We stopped at a farm to admire the view. As we were taking in the sights, we heard a guard dog and thought that was the end, but out of nowhere, we heard the owner assure us it was fine. The man then welcomed us onto his land and showed us his gardens and all of his animals (including puppies, kittens, a chicken, and a pig). Back on the bikes, we caught the flower market before it closed, then moved on to the regular market, and then the spice market. We then stopped to have breakfast; Pho, and fresh pineapple for dessert. Finally, we stopped at a coffee shop where I tried egg coffee (like all the Vietnamese coffee I had, it was amazing). This was yet another unique and wonderful
Overall, my experience in Vietnam was amazing! The Vietnamese (with maybe the exception of the customs officer, though even he came around) were so kind, welcoming, and wanted to show and teach me all about their gorgeous country. I wish I could share every detail with you here; perhaps someday we will be able to chat about it more in depth. However, I have decided to create public albums on my Facebook page to share more of my photos with you, and maybe I'll do some videos as well.
Over the next few weeks, I will be traveling to different places around Bangladesh. Keep an eye for those updates! Next stop: Jashore, Bangladesh!