The many faces of Central and Southern Vietnam

Vietnam is just one country, but it sure feels as many different ones. If you are heading out to this Asian pearl, the north part should be (in my opinion) your main priority. I still long for those emerald karst mountains. However, if you have a bit more travel time, central and southern Vietnam are parts of Vietnam that cannot not be overlooked. Well, most parts of them anyway.

Ancient emperors in Hue

Hue, the capital of the Nguyen emperors, really is the middle of Vietnam. It is a city most people only pass for a day while on their way to Danang or Hoi An. But it is worth it to linger for a few days in this small, cozy city. The main reason is the Citadel. A walled city within the city, showcasing how the emperors of old days lived. It’s impressive and pretty big, you can easily get lost there for half a day. If you can stand the burning sun, going during mid-day will give you the most alone time with the temples. The ancient city is not the only thing that has been abandoned. A half an hour motorbike ride takes you to an empty amusement park. Water slides and swimming pools that havent heard a child’s laughter for ages, now overgrown with trees and bushes. It’s also possible to do a tour to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), an area that played a big part in the Vietnam war (or American war, as the Viets call it). Next to sightseeing, Hue offers lots of nice little cafe’s, eateries and rooftop bars for some lounging around. A great little budget hotel is Glenda guesthouse, friendly people, great location and a nice breakfast included!

Vietnam

Feeling at home in Hoi An

An absolute must in Vietnam is taking a tour on the back of a motorcycle with an easy rider. These drivers take you from one place to another, while you enjoy the road and the scenery (perfect if navigating yourself through the Vietnam traffic chaos really isn’t your thing). There are lots of options to do these tours, but the route from Hue to Hoi An is a famous one. The reason? The Hai Van Pass (a.k.a top gear mountain since Jeremy Clarkson cruised this road for his tv show). Winding roads up and down the mountain, combined with stunning vista’s of the sea and the mountains. There is no camera that has the ability to capture these pretty pictures. Go see for yourself!

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On the way to Hoi An you’ll pass Danang. If you are looking for anonymous 5 star resorts, lots of Russian tourists and a beach, this is the place to be. Otherwise, skip this boring city and spend your time in Hoi An. And time is what you need in this cute little town. Yes, there are tons of tourists here, but that doesn’t dull the little lights coming from the lampions that hover above the narrow streets. There is lot’s to look at in Hoi An and even more to buy. Get your tailor made clothes for a dime (i recommend Maya) and pretty leather bags for even less.

Have dinner at the waterfront and sip on a brightly colored smoothie while you watch all the people passing by. Most hotels won’t be in the ancient city centre so opt for one that includes (free) bicycles. It’s the perfect way to explore ánd to head to An Bang beach for some time in the sand and water. Lots of beach bars offer free loungers if you take lunch with them, a fair deal! The Hoi An Rose Garden Hotel is in between the city and the beach and offers a nice swimming pool to cool down after a day of strolling/biking around. A word of advise: don’t go with one of those snorkling trips to the Cham Islands. The underwater scenery is meh and much worse: you’ll be surrounded by tourists in life jackets who are stepping on (and thus damaging) the corals. The trip you should take is to My Son. These ruins will take your breath away.

Adventurous Dalat

Further down the coast lies Nha Trang. The beaches are nice, but that is about it. This town has been attacked by many tourists. If beach is what you want, just stick around Hoi An a little longer. If adventure is what you seek, head to Dalat. This is one unique city, as it lies up in the mountains and carries a much cooler climate. There are waterfalls, there is wine and a lot of adventure sports. The true adrenaline junkies have to sign up for canyoning. Abseiling from waterfalls, sliding through rock pools and jumping of a 11 meter cliff (if you dare). After a day like this, you’ll be pumped for the rest of your travels. You can book a tour at Vietchallenge.com

Lie down in Mui Ne

In need of some chill time now? On the southern coast between Dalat and Ho Chi Minh City, quiet Mui Ne will give you just that. It has a beach which is okay and some nice restaurants. Hire a beach lounger at coco beach resort and you’ll find relaxing here is pretty easy (they have some very nice massages there too). If you are an avid wind or kite surfer, Mui Ne offers it all. But be aware, the prices for lessons and gear hire are extremely high. There are many places to spend the night in Mui Ne, but the Xin chao hotel offers the best bang for your buck. Spacious rooms, a pool table ánd a refreshing swimming pool. Near Mui Ne are the white sand dunes. All little piece of desert in Vietnam. Pretty cool to run up and down those sand mountains. Lots of excursions to these dunes are organised in Mui Ne. However, most of them are package deals, also tacking you to other (tourist trap) sights. Oh and they mostly forget to mention that you have to pay an extra fee when you want to go up the dunes. So be extra aware on what you book and if it is what you are looking for.

Central and Soutern Vietnam
Mui Ne

Smoggy Ho Chi Minh City

You either love it or hate it, the second big city of Vietnam is Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a smoggy and crowded metropole, with lots of bars, shoppingmalls and street food. Try to find a local or a tour that takes you out of the centre to experience true Vietnam city life. A city full of skyscrapers asks for a drink in a rooftop bar. The best one: the View rooftop bar. It is not the highest one, but you’ll find a great informal vibe and an amazing cocktail list.

theviewrooftopbar Cnetral and Southern Vietnam
The View Rooftop Bar Source

Ho Chi Minh City also is the gateway to the Mekong Delta. Multiple or one-day tours are on offer throughout the city (or just take a bus and organize everything by yourself). If you take a one-day tour its worth it to spend a bit more money. That will get you smaller groups and more time to experience life in the river delta. Little boats will guide you on small canals through fields. Learn how to make coconut candy and down a fermented-snake-shot. It all is a bit touristy, but still a lot of fun.

The ‘once was’ paradise: Phu Quoc

Surely, before the tourist boom hit Vietnam, the Southern island of Phu Quoc was a real beauty. But the white sandy beaches now are full of rubbish and troubled by fumes from all the boats. But there are still a few nice places left to end your Vietnam trip in pure relaxation. Ong Lang Beach is quite far from the nearest town and therefore very peaceful. The beach here is a bit rough, but clean. Phu Quoc Dragon Resort & Spa will give you all you need for ultimate relaxation (at very reasonable rates). While you’re in the area, grab a chicken sandwich at Sakura restaurant. Not a very Vietnamese lunch, but you’ll be craving this sandwich for weeks afterwards! And if you are on the island in the dry season, hop on a boat for some underwater life. Be aware that the diving schools offer snorkel tours for a slightly higher price than regular tour operators, but that is probably worth it. The regular tours are, again, full of Tourists (you know who) who have no respect for the aquatic life.

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Still lovely; Phu Quoc Dragon Resort & Spa Source

Central and Southern Vietnam has some flaws, but most definitely it’s beauty. There is only one way to find out if you love it or not: go see for yourself.

Love,

Jill

The highlights of Northern Vietnam

Vietnam is hot. And i’m not only talking about the weather. This long stretched south-east Asian country is on the rise for backpackers and travelers alike. Not so strange when you come to think of the perfectly spiced and easy-to-digest food goodies, bright rice paddies, staggering karst mountains and sandy beaches. Vietnam is the place to be if you want to take in as much different scenery as possible. If you start of in the North of the country, there are a number of hotspots you simply cannot miss.

Happy in Hanoi
Sweat is dripping of your face, not to mention the rest of your body. Around you it’s a hot mess of honking motorbikes, waving salesladies and strange smells. This is Hanoi. One of the two big cities of Vietnam and for many travelers the kick-off of their journey. It’s also the gateway to many of the highlights in the North of the country. Many people use this city in exactly that way, a travel-through kind of city to get to more beautiful places. But Hanoi should not be overlooked. It’s a bustling city with lots to see, feel and do. For all you foodies out there, your mouth will water with the endless options of amazing dishes. From sitting on little plastic chairs on the street to high-class dining it’s all there. My advise: opt for the plastic chairs for intense flavors and a true local experience. Think rice pancakes, filled with shrimp, beansprouts and pork. Fresh springrolls, rice noodles with beef and amazing broth, it’s all heaven. Order a glass of fresh draft beer (starting at 20ct’s a glass!) look around you and enjoy! Besides eating, Hanoi offers enough sightseeing. Go to the Hanoi Hilton Prison to experience what it was like being captured by the French, to the Ho Chi Minh Masoleum to see the body of Vietnam’s great leader (check opening hours carefully to avoid closed doors) and stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake where Vietnamese kids will try to learn some English by starting a conversation (and taking some selfies). Budget wise, Hanoi won’t burn a hole in your wallet. Hotels and hostels are cheap and fine. My advise: the Bluebell Hotel. In the middle of the backpacker district, offering large and clean double rooms with a funny and friendly manager and price tag.


The streets (and rails) of Hanoi

Halong Bay Beauty
Probably the most famous landmark of Vietnam, Halong Bay lies a 3,5 hours drive east of Hanoi. Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is full of amazing vista’s, high-rising karst mountains and deep green waters. It’s not an option to go to Vietnam and not see this epic landscape. There are several ways to see the bay. Cheap and less touristy is arranging a bus to Cat Ba and board a tour from there. However, this does take up a lot of travel time that you could have spend on the water. Feeling lazy? Book a tour in Hanoi and everything will be arranged. Some pointers: never book a one day trip, as you will spend most of your day in the bus traveling towards Halong Bay. 2 or 3 days is perfect (also on days 2 and 3 you will enter the less touristy part of the bay). If you want to have a relaxed and clean stay, always go for those that are a bit more expensive. Sailing 3 days for 80 dollars will most likely mean you share your cabin with cockroaches and a fishy smell. The tours that come with a price between 130 to 160 dollar (for 3 days) are worth the splurge. Always ask what you get for the price and what kind of luxury (or not) you can expect. Now all you need to do is chill on one of the loungers on deck and take in the view!

Halong Bay, Northern Vietnam
H
along Bay

Scenic Sapa
Rice fields as far as your eyes reach, in stunning shades of green. A local ‘mama’ guiding you around on steep paths and into their homes. Sapa, close to the Chinese border, is not to be missed. Unfortunately I did miss it and still regret it deeply. Everyone who has been there, mentions it is one of their Vietnam favorites. You can take a bus or a train there, and local guides will be waiting to take you at the station. This is a cheap way to see Sapa (most of the times this includes two days of hiking and one night in a traditional homestay). If you feel more comfortable knowing who you are going with upfront, book a tour. Do expect lots of begging little children and people trying to sell you stuff, the tourist industry is booming here (not in a good way). You can avoid this a bit by booking a tour that takes you to another part of Sapa and usually only costs a few dollars extra.

Imagine lush green mountains and valleys full of rices fields

Biking Mai Chau
A lot less touristy and still very beautiful is Mai Chau. Those who have limited time, will often skip this area since it is not on the standard route. But that is a mistake. Mai Chau feels more authentic than most of the other places in the north. Imagine lush green mountains and valleys full of rices fields. Add the occasional herd of cows crossing the road and local markets (not advisable for those with sensitive noses and stomachs) and you have a pretty good picture of what to expect. Cycling through the valleys is the way to move forward and to learn about the traditional Thai and Hmong people living here. During your bike ride, you might encounter the 1000 steps stairway, leading to a cave and a great viewpoint. Be aware that these stairs are not for those who are in a bad shape. The steps can be slippery and are quite uneven. Oh right, and there are a thousand of them! The perfect place to spend the night is Mai Chau Sunrise resort.

Tam Coc Adventures
They call it Halong Bay on land and the latest King Kong movie (Skull Island) was shot here. For a reason I might add. The Tam Coc mountains are stunning. To gaze at the mountains you can book a boat ride, but this is expensive and a lot of travelers mention it’s unpleasant due to the demands for a big tip by the ladies rowing the boat. So, why not grab a (motor)bike and see the area on your own terms? It’s the perfect way to explore and enjoy. Climb the stairs at Hang Mua (only 500 this time, and way easier) for an Instagram worthy shot of the karst mountains and the river. If you have the time, make your way to the temple complex of Bai Dinh (about 20 KM from Tam Coc). Even if you are not a temple lover, this place will impress you.

Northern Vietnam, Tam coc - viewpoint
The stunning viewpoint at Tam coc 

Booking A Tour
‘Book a tour’ is mentioned a number of times above. But in Hanoi, there are almost more tour agencies than there are motorbikes (okay, not sure if that is possible, but still) and not all of them are honest with what they sell. But there is one local angel that will make your trip (and life) a little easier and fun. Lily’s Travel Agency truly is number one. They offer fair prices, but above all: honest advise (they actually listen to what you want and what you don’t want) and the best service I’ve have ever had from a tour operator (including free water and fruit while waiting and a free beer when we stepped back into her office to give some feedback).

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think there are some rice pancakes calling out my name.

Love from Vietnam,

Jill