Vietnam - Final Thoughts
Maybe it’s because it was the first South East Asia country we visited, maybe because it’s where prices were finally lower and we started truly to act like backpackers, or maybe because of the rich (and sad) history of the country that we got to learn more about and reflect on, but after spending a month in Vietnam, it is a country that we love.
Vietnam is really an ideal country to travel through, and even better for backpackers. The S-like shape of the country (narrow and slightly winding) means people are following a path North to South or vice versa and the buses, trains or flights all provide easy (and usually affordable) options. As for backpacking, the affordable food, accommodation and transportation make it possible to move through the country at ease, deciding more or less at whim where to go.
How we planned:
This changed week by week. We always had a general sense of which cities we wanted to visit, but this changed as we spoke with locals and foreigners along the way. For example, we thought maybe we’d stop in Nha Trang, but ultimately decided to pass after learning that it was really just a touristy party town. There were a few times where we didn’t know where we would stay or how we were getting there until a day before. For example, when we were in Ha Long Bay, we were banking on WiFi to get everything settled for the next stop in Tam Coc. Silly us for thinking our WiFi would be strong enough while sailing off the coast of Vietnam. All of the cities we visited, even those that were more rural cater to tourists and backpackers, so it was never an issue booking last minute and often worked in our favor. We also always had a private room in Vietnam and more often than not (I think), our own bathroom.
So, where did we go?
Here are the cities we visited in Vietnam, in order. A full itinerary will also be posed for those who are interested.
Ha Long Bay (Bai Tu Long Bai)
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
What cities were the best?
I have to say, I’m pretty proud of the itinerary we made for ourselves, the length of our stay in each place really allowed us to enjoy the experience in each. Each city is hard to compare, we were never doing the same thing. So while I love the cities where we got to have memorable experiences with locals, touring country sides, hiking, or learning about the culture & history, I also loved the cities that were more about relaxing, going at a slow pace eating good food & finding places to read and write.
Navigating the streets
The cities, specifically Hanoi, HCMC (Saigon) & Hue are buzzing with motorbikes. It’s truly a sight to be seen. Motorists don’t really pay attention to street directions or lights, so even if you are crossing a one way street you have to look all around to be safe. I remember on our first day trying to cross a street in Hanoi, one with a street light at that, and after missing the opportunity to cross at the green light saying to Will, “I’m so confused!” After 30 days in the country though, we got the technique down: Start walking and be confident that the bikes will stop for you!
We did eventually get comfortable enough to ride a motorbike on our own in certain cities. Tam Coc provided a perfect first place to give it a go - it’s flat and traffic is basically non existent compared to the bigger Vietnamese cities. It definitely opened up a new way to experience the countryside.
Food we ate
Even on a budget we ate WELL in Vietnam. We stayed exclusively at places that had breakfast included. Which meant lots of fried eggs for me and banana pancakes for Will, also lots of baguettes, fruit and if we were lucky smoothies. Vietnam’s cuisine is much more diverse than I ever realized and like other big countries, shifts as you move from North to South. We probably ate spring rolls of every kind and in every form possible. Lots of rice noodle dishes both hot and cold. Given how much farming is done in Vietnam, getting our veggies wasn’t as issue, especially in the south. As we moved south the heat becomes pretty oppressive, which meant I was seeking out smoothies or smoothie bowls wherever possible. Banh Mi, we also found was an easy, cheap and always delicious option.
Check out Will’s Food Takes post for more :)
Style of travel
Although primarily stayed in homestays & hostels, we always had our own room, and more often than not, our own bathroom. We loved staying in homestays, which usually meant we had some interaction with other travelers, local families and usually their little kids! With the exception of some very hard mattresses, everywhere we stayed was comfortable, spacious, & clean. And given what we were spending (on average our accommodation was $15 / night), I’d say we really did well for ourselves.
Although I am painting a backpackers experience of Vietnam, a higher end experience of Vietnam certainly exists; We stepped into the Metropol in Hanoi and drooled over menus in Hoi An that were out of our budget. Given how much construction we saw, I expect it will be a very different country if we were to visit again even 5-10 years from now and it’s hard to imagine both high end and backpacker Vietnam living in tandem.
The people we met along the way:
We were fortunate to have had some very special interactions with locals and foreigners as well while we were in Vietnam. Generally, people couldn’t have been nicer to us. The Vietnamese don’t use pleasantries (please, thank you’s, even hello is rare), so initially we weren’t sure if people were cold or not happy with us, but overtime we learned that was not the case. But the majority of the time people were trying to help us (i.e. when 2 separate times walking from our bus in Saigon to our Hotel, locals helped us cross the street due to the overwhelming traffic and motorbikes). The interactions we had in Vietnam deserve an entire post on their own, so stay tuned for that.
A note on the history of Vietnam and experiencing it as an American
Sadly Vietnam’s history involves many wars, and because of that in Vietnam, the Vietnam War as we know it is referred to as ‘The American War.’ Of course, as Americans, and personally as the child of Baby Boomers and a father who easily could have been drafted into the war, The American Vietnam War was something I thought about daily, and certainly from the moment we arrived in the country. I was fully expecting to experience resentment from locals, maybe some hostility if we mentioned our Nationality, but that never happened. In fact, once we got to Hue in central Vietnam and beyond, any local we met was clearly Pro America and talked more openly with us about the War. It was also interesting to see the shift in narrative at the War museums as we traveled from the North to the South. Primarily in who is to blame, who committed the greatest atrocities, etc. Seeing some of the sights was incredibly disturbing, specifically for me seeing the gorilla tactics used by the VC to trap and injure southern Vietnamese & Americans. Seeing these first had effects me in a physical and emotional way that is hard to describe and I can think only of the men who were forced to fight and all those in my parents generation who lived through that time.
No matter what country I am in, as a traveler I often feel some internal conflict. In the case of Vietnam, it was primarily the conflict between enjoying my time as traveler while respecting and honoring the memory of those who suffered in the war. Ultimately what allows me to more easily navigate this inner struggle is the strength & resilience of the local people.
My time in Vietnam energized me in a way I did not expect. I learned about traveling (overnight trains are OK, overnight buses are not), about myself (I am not defined by my work or routine), and about issues I hope to get even more involved in (women’s empowerment, environment). I look forward to returning to Vietnam again one day, but given the rapid development we saw (lots of construction everywhere, making way for even more tourists), know the Vietnam we saw and experienced will forever have a special place in my memory.