Vietnam: Exceeding Expectations in Hanoi, Halong Bay & Hoi An
While planning our trip, everything we read and heard about Southeast Asia focused on Thailand and then tacked on countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos as somewhere you might as well visit when you’re in the area without giving much detail. We also read A LOT of negative things about Vietnam focusing on how westerners were treated very negatively during visits. So, we headed to Vietnam simply because we felt bad not going. Although we entered the country guarded, it turns out we were 100% wrong about Vietnam and it totally exceeded our expectations!
We already posted our highlights from Hanoi so you can check out our Hanoi tips and pictures by clicking here.
These were our favorite moments from our 9 nights in Vietnam:
Cruise of a Lifetime in Halong Bay
Much like our decision to come to Vietnam, we decided to book a Halong Bay cruise because that’s what it says to do when you Google “things to do in Vietnam”. As per usual, Google was spot on. Our cruise through Halong Bay will go down as one of the most amazing parts of our trip.
We booked our cruise through Swan Cruises, which is a midrange cruise line in the Halong Bay cruise world. Our boat was a large wooden boat with lots of character. We enjoyed clean cabins with amazing views as we were cruising, 7- and 10-course meals in the dining room, and a top sun deck with lounge chairs (my favorite part!).
As if cruising through the unbelievable mountainous islands of Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay, and Bai Tu Long Bay wasn’t enough, we also got to go kayaking through the pristine waters to caves, swim at secluded beaches, visit the Vung Vieng floating fishing village, jump off the boat for an evening swim, try our hand at squid fishing at night and practice Tai Chi at sunrise. Much like yoga, I sucked at Tai Chi.
Our guide, Tommy, was quite a character and added a lot of flair to our cruise in Halong Bay. In addition to being a trip and a half, Tommy gave us some very interesting, absurd, and sometimes biased facts about Vietnam such as:
- The head of tourism in Vietnam sent scouts to the “western world” to learn about tourism, which has resulted in all of the boats in Halong Bay being painted white. Apparently, westerners prefer white boats???
- The same scouts gathered information that is forcing all of the cruise companies to change from wooden boats to metal boats. Bye, bye pretty old school boats. 🙁
- It is Vietnam law that families can only have 2 kids to help with population control, but the government only fines government employees if they break this law. So, it’s a halfsies law.
- The government strictly regulates a lot of the tourism industry such as controlling one of the floating fishing villages and encouraging the residents to row tourists through the village rather than actually fishing for a living, as their ancestors had done for centuries before them.
- Many people in the tourism industry choose an American name. Since our guide is “not creative” he just took his ex-girlfriend’s name, Tommy.
- Tommy insisted on putting all people into limited categories such as “the Vietnamese”, “the tourists”, and “the poor people”. According to him, “the Vietnamese” are superstitious and unfriendly (we didn’t experience this at all), “the tourists” are difficult to deal with/dumb, and “the poor people” live on fishing boats. Take it all with a grain of salt….
A Night Train Sleepover to Hoi An
To get from Hanoi to Hoi An on Vietnam’s central coast, we again had the pleasure of sharing a berth for another overnight train adventure with our friends Jeff and Catherine. Simply put, train sleepovers are the BEST! Our train berth was clean, comfortable, and a great bargain for a night’s sleep and 15 hours of travel. We enjoyed playing Monopoly, eating doughnuts, and making plans for our inevitable return to “real life”.
Banh Mi Eating Competition
One thing we did know going into our trip to Vietnam was that we were going to get to try real deal Banh Mi. After a lot of research we ended up trying 3 different Banh Mi stops. Banh Mi 25 in Hanoi, Madam Khanh-“Banh Mi Queen” in Hoi An, and Banh mi Phuong in Hoi An. While all were delicious here is our Banh Mi breakdown:
Second Runner-Up: Banh Mi 25– Banh Mi 25 has their street food set up down pat. They have plenty of staff and lots of places to sit on the street and inside their small store. They are very tourist friendly and a great place to dip your toes in the Banh Mi pool. Their bread is top-notch and the toppings are very simple. You can choose between pork, pork with pate, jambon and sausage, mixed meat, or chicken. All of the sammies come with fresh veggies such as carrots, lettuce, and cucumbers.
First Runner-Up: Banh mi Phuong-This spot takes you to a crowded street food shop where the sandwich making station is over crowded with Vietnamese women hustling to crank out their famous Banh Mi. Anthony Bourdain once claimed this was the best sandwich in the world. We agree it’s super yummy, but didn’t win our Banh Mi expedition. The Banh Mi here comes on super duper crunchy bread that is baked next door and comes with pate, mayonnaise, pork, cheese, pickled papaya, cucumber, tomato, cilantro, spring onion, and mint—now that’s a flavor bomb!!
The Winner: Madam Khanh-“Banh Mi Queen”– Madam Khanh wasn’t B.S.ing when she self-proclaimed herself the “Banh Mi Queen”. When you arrive at her unassuming sandwich shop she simply states, “how many baguettes? All the same, one menu.” So, you get what you get and it’s DELICIOUS. From what we could conclude, it’s a mystery meat sandwich that includes, but may not be limited to pork, pate, sausage, egg, pickles, carrot, parsley, chili sauce, and a mystery sauce. This Banh Mi was our favorite because it had crunchy, fresh bread and the most flavor.
Cannonballs and Beach Lounging in Hoi An
We were super excited to head to Hoi An for some R&R and we did just that! We were obsessed with our amazing hotel, Sincerity Hotel & Spa, which had a Vegas style breakfast buffet, huge pool, gym and super nice rooms for about $23 a night (WHAT!?!?). Enter cannonballs.
When we weren’t eating and swimming (or watching the Cubbies, of course) at the hotel, we were at the beach in Hoi An, which was WAY nicer than we expected. The beach is clean with soft sand and great water for swimming. And, don’t forget about the beautiful view of Danang down the coastline and islands in the distance. We enjoyed lounge chairs for free as long as we ate lunch at the connected restaurant. The best part of these lounge chairs was the woman we arranged them through. She loved throwing out catch phrase from other cultures such as: “shrimp on the barbee”, “no pain, no gain”, “happy wife, happy life”, “see ya later alligator”, “yo, what’s up?!”, and “no worries, man”. Nothing better than some laughs with a local while relaxing at the beach!!
Explore Lantern Filled Hoi An Old Town
After a long day at the pool or beach, the Old Town of Hoi An is a great stop for shopping, restaurants, bars, and people watching. This area is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is a blast to walk around. There are wooden shophouses, French inspired yellowish/orange buildings, boats cruising the river, and lanterns EVERYWHERE. There’s lots of great shopping for jewelry, leather goods, clothing, and crafts. Hoi An is known to be one of the cheapest places in Southeast Asia for custom made tailored suits and clothing, but since we got our fix in Chiang Mai, we did not partake.
Our favorite activities in Hoi An Old Town were taking a 30-minute night river cruise, during which we enjoyed an ice cold beer while surrounded by floating lanterns. We also had a total blast eating at Bale Well, which is a short walk from all the shopping and nightlife. Here you are given pork skewers, spring rolls, lettuce, and pickled vegetables. Then, a waitress teaches you how to create your own variation of a wrap—see our GoPro video for how it all works. If you’re lucky, your waitress will also hand feed you some pork!
As you can tell, we absolutely loved our time in Vietnam and are so thankful we made our way to this wonderful country. Despite what we had heard, the locals were beyond friendly, the landscape is beautiful, the culture is fascinating and welcoming, and there’s never a lack of things to do! We hope to make it back to Vietnam some day to explore even more cities!
More snapshots from our time in Vietnam: