Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Of all the places I have ever been, Vietnam is the one that really tested my love for adventure. It made me question if I really am a “traveller” or if in fact, I just like to go on holidays? It is a country that will introduce itself to your senses so quickly you almost go into shock.
Was I ready for such an intense place? How could I be when I didn’t even know it existed?
Before I delve into a ‘top things to do in Vietnam’ blog piece, I feel a sense of duty to tell you a little bit about the reality of visiting this part of the world, compared to what it looks like on social media.
Social media VS reality
While I was planning our trip around Asia, I fell in love with the idea of Vietnam. I couldn’t wait to see the picturesque landscapes that were splashed across Pinterest, or to walk the quiet streets where French architecture seamlessly meets Asian mystique. I couldn’t wait to tuck in to a steaming bowl of noodles and chilli or try some fresh Banh Bao. I was going to love Vietnam and I was going to have an authentic and memorable experience. That was my plan.
Fast forward to the end of our first day in Hanoi, Vietnams capital city. As I took a step out on to a dusty road, I felt Brian jerk me backwards as a moped rushed past. It drove right through the space where I was standing a millisecond earlier. I could almost feel it graze my body, it was that close. I could have been killed; I would have been killed, if it hadn’t been for him. It was too much.
A wave of emotion hit me, all the feelings and regrets I had been trying to ignore escaped and I began to sob. Why on earth had I decided to take us to Vietnam? This isn’t what it was supposed to be like.
If you read my post on Bangkok, you’ll know that we loved it. It was a wonderful introduction to South East Asia and everything went right for us there. We had amazing food, a lovely hotel and saw some beautiful places during our short stay. It set the bar extremely high for the rest of Asia. (You can read it HERE)
After resting there for a couple of days, we headed straight back out of Thailand and towards Hanoi. Ready for our next adventure. Bring on #Vietnam!
We flew with Air Asia, the Ryan Air of South East Asia. Our flight took about 90 minutes and cost us €70 each. You can get a flight much cheaper than that, about €35 on average, but we were on a schedule and needed to fly that day, so had to go with the expensive flight.
We weren’t even in the country half an hour when I got my first clue that life in Vietnam was quite different to what I had been expecting. We decided to take a taxi into the city from the airport and I now know what it must be like to ride in the back of a getaway car.
Our taxi driver, to be fair to him, was an expert – raging in and out of traffic, cutting past other cars, trucks and mopeds, and squeezing in to spaces by the skin of his teeth. My knuckles turned white as I gripped the seat for the entire 30-minute journey. I would learn over the next few days that everyone in the city drives like that.
This first thing you will notice about the streets of Hanoi is the busy noise, followed quickly by the smell. You would be forgiven for thinking that everyone has road rage there. The noise, the constant beeping, it never stops. But, I eventually stopped noticing it and it has since become a familiar backing track to our time there.
Later in our trip I realised that they actually use the noise as their way of letting other moped drivers in front of them know that they are coming up on their right or left. Quite clever actually. All day long, the 5 million mopeds that zip around the city chime away at each other, communicating one beep at a time.
The Old Quarter
The hotel I booked was in the Old Quarter and was called the Hanoi Chic Boutique Hotel. For €13.50 a night, we couldn’t have asked for more. It was clean and central, that’s all we needed.
The staff welcomed us with a super sweet Vietnamese fruit drink and checked us in quickly – but not before sitting us down and talking us through a map of the city. They were eager to help and offer tips on what we should do over the coming days. One vital tip we received was to be suspicious of meat – “they eat dog here”, the receptionist informed us “be careful”. Personally, I never wanted to believe that was true, but it is. Just knowing about it made me so upset and I did see it on some menus. The city officials are planning to eventually have it banned, but for now it is sadly still available.
The reason I choose the Old Quarter as our base, was because I read lots of blog posts before visiting the city and that was where most of them advised. It is the most authentic part of the city, but it is also very overcrowded. It is the place where locals live and go about daily life. If you want to immerse yourself, this is the place to do it. It’s not like in other cities, where the ‘Old Town’ is trying to be quaint or intentionally stuck in time, this area really is.
Every street has its own thing – its own trade. One street may be lined with shops selling only handmade metal pots and pans, while another may only sell bamboo furniture or shoes.
Local butchers lay their selection of fish and meat across boxes and makeshift stalls for people to buy. This is a big contributor to the very distinctive aroma in certain parts of the city.
Whatever is for sale, every square inch of this area is used by someone trying to earn a living. The average monthly wage in Vietnam is around €300-€400, however there are places where it is as low as €130 a month. This is worth remembering when you are haggling on the markets. Of course a haggle is expected, and to be honest the opening price is usually double what they really sell for, but remember that while a euro or two may not mean a lot to you, it could feed an entire family over there that evening.
Many families own small street restaurants, which are not what you or I would traditionally imagine a restaurant to be. Our first meal was in a little corner restaurant close to our hotel. We sat on the pavement on these tiny plastic stools and waited as the owner cooked our noodle soup on the side of the road. It was delicious, and I gobbled it up – excited to finally be trying some real Vietnamese Food. When we were done, she took our bowls and handed them to the little old lady who was sitting on the road in front of a bucket of soapy water, for cleaning. This is how most places were ran in the Old Quarter.
The food in Vietnam is so versatile and tasty, you really will find anything on a menu there. Unfortunately for me, it did not agree with me. I was sick for my entire time in Vietnam. I don’t know if it was the hygiene or if it was just too rich in oils and salt etc., but I sadly don’t have too many recommendations to offer anyone heading there.
I found a handful of places that were nice, and I will include them in my next article but for now my main tip would be to do your food research beforehand. Finding somewhere on the hop was difficult for us, and we are real foodies, so it shouldn’t have been. On our last night in Hanoi we actually had pizza! I know, it’s a sin to go all that way for Dominos, but by that stage I just couldn’t take being sick any more and wanted something plain that my stomach could handle.
The good and the bad
It’s strange, despite all the above, despite all the stress and discomfort, I still look back on our time in Vietnam with great fondness. There was a lot more to the country than its craziness and intensity.
I haven’t told you about the café that was covered in notes from travellers all over the world. Or about the beautiful temples and villages, or the place that, according to local legend, was home to dragons thousands of years ago. And I never told you how my eyes filled with tears and my breath was taken away when I saw just how beautiful that place was in real life.
It’s a complex country, with a complex past. And yes, they have a complex way of living, but I am so, so grateful I got to go there. I pushed past the initial shock and ugliness and found the beauty in it.
You have to take the good with the bad when you travel. Not everywhere is going to live up to your expectations, and equally some places will exceed them. Vietnam taught me to travel with an open mind and that nothing lasts forever. It also taught me to go out and find ‘real’ people to follow online who will give me an honest insight into their adventures.
That first night in Hanoi, as I sat in our hotel room desperately searching for an early flight out of there, wanting to run away from the chaos, was only the beginning of my exciting time in Vietnam. I didn’t know what lay ahead, but I’m glad now that I stuck around to find out.
I wanted an “authentic and memorable experience” and that’s exactly what I got.
Ill be posting my top things to do in Vietnam over the next few days, so check back here if you’d like to see some of the great things we discovered along the way.
In the meantime, come find me on Instagram to follow my travels and experiences @lovelytomeetme.
Written with love,