05 Apr One week adventure in Vietnam
by Kaustubh Ambegaokar from Kenya
I’ll be honest. Before embarking on my week long trip to Vietnam, there was very little I knew about the country. There are a few phrases I associated with the country: American war, Ho Chi Minh, tailor-made suits and pho. Yet, as I boarded my, I felt this ineffable excitement mixed with a strong dose of anticipation – an emotion that every traveller can associate with but cannot put into words.
Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam and my first stop of the tour. Passport stamped, I collected my baggage and headed towards my hotel. After much research and deliberation, I decided to select an accommodation in the French Quarter, which houses mid-level to high-end hotels. Budget conscious travellers have plenty of options in the Old Quarter.
A must visit in the capital is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. How can you visit Vietnam without paying your respects to Uncle Ho? The aura within the surrounding complex of this Vietnamese shrine makes the visit a surreal experience. Security is taken very seriously here, the gardens are well pruned and photography is prohibited. The mausoleum however is just that, a mausoleum. In and out within five minutes. Till date, I’m not sure how to describe my experience of seeing the embalmed body of the country’s most well-known figure head. With time on your side, you can also make a quick visit to the One Pillar Pagoda, Presidential Palace and the Ho Chi Minh Museum nearby.
Vietnam, Presidencial Palace in Hanoi by Kaustubh Ambegaokar
I would say that the heart of the city is Hoàn Kiếm Lake and the adjacent Old Quarter district. Take a leisurely stroll around the lake and drop in to the Ngoc Son Temple via The Huc Bridge. In the morning you’ll see locals playing badminton and middle-aged couples practicing Tai Chi. If you’re looking for knock-off North Face jackets then you’ll have an endless number of options in the markets along the Old Quarter.
The Huc Bridge at Hoàn Kiếm Lake by Kaustubh Ambegaokar
The best place to take in the sights and sounds of Hanoi would be to snag a balcony spot on a Friday night at one of the many roof-top restaurants and coffee shops that surround the lake. From here you’ll get to see locals enjoying a well-deserved time off with their loved ones.
Top tip: Two full days are just about enough to explore the top attractions in Hanoi. Uber was my preferred mode of transport for distant locations as it was cheaper than metred cabs and avoids price disputes with cab drivers.
Ha Long Bay
Have you ever wanted to cruise along limestone karsts, visit caves, go kayaking and visit a floating village? If yes, then Ha Long Bay has all this to offer and more. It is one of those places that is difficult to describe unless you see it in person.
Vietnam, Kayaking in Ha Long Bay by Kaustubh Ambegaokar
Due to the popularity of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are a number of cruise companies operating and all claiming to offer the best experience. Hence it’s important to do your research and chose a well reputed company. Most will also offer a free pick up and drop off to your hotel in a luxurious seven seater minivan.
Top tip: If you have a tight budget then a one night cruise is the best option as it allows you enough time to enjoy Ha Long Bay without breaking your wallet.
The quickest way to get to Hoi An from Hanoi is to take a flight to Da Nang followed by a half hour car ride. For the more adventurous types, myself included, nothing surpasses the thrill of a sixteen hour journey in a train that takes you back into the travel days of the 80’s. I shared the four bunkbed compartment with a Vietnamese couple, with whom the only form of communication was to nod and smile.
There is enough written about Hoi An Ancient Town in every travel guide, blog or vlog that you can find. Nothing that I write can add to what has already been said or shown. However, I can reaffirm that every bit of is true. Hoi An is simply magical!
The town comes into its own at night when the lanterns light up the alleyways and create a mystic glow. Take in all the town has to offer by walking along the streets and popping into the stores to buy handicrafts. There are plenty of shops from which to select a tailor-made suit, with the option of same day delivery. Just make sure you brush up on your bargaining skills first!
Vietnam, Handicraft shop in Hoi An by Kaustubh Ambegaokar
As much as I was enchanted with the beauty of Hoi An, I was also overwhelmed by the sheer number of tourists that jostle along the streets and with them a vast number of hawkers that try to sell you everything for ‘one dollar only’. If you want peace and quiet (and space!) to appreciate the town, then an early morning sunrise walk is recommended.
Vietnam, Street lanterns in Hoi An by Kaustubh Ambegaokar
Everything kept aside, what makes or break a place is its food! Yes, its food! I was most looking forward to having a hearty bowl of pho. In a little side-street off Pham Ngu Lao in Saigon, I had the most delicious pho of my life. It was so good that I returned there for dinner.
Vietnam, Delicious pho in Saigon by Kaustubh Ambegaokar
What did pleasantly surprise me though, is the country’s love for coffee. Vietnam is a true coffee lover’s paradise. After the exhaustion from the daily sightseeing activities, I loved to stop at a nearby coffee shop and have cà phê sữa đá – an iced Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk. It was so good that I now have it regularly at home.
Vietnam, Coffee and people watching by Kaustubh Ambegaokar
Top tip: if you’re vegetarian, fear not! Utter the words ‘ăn chay’ to the servers in the restaurant and you’ll be shown your options.
Vietnam lived up to and surpassed my expectations. Yes, the country is trying to make the most from the tourism boom, yet I felt I was able to get a feel of the country and the daily lives of the Vietnamese. I would definitely visit again and if you haven’t been there yet, start planning!