As the great, late Anthony Bourdain once said “Going to Vietnam the first time was life-changing for sure. Maybe because it was all so new and different to my life before and the world I grew up in. The food, culture, landscape, and smell; they’re all inseparable. It just seemed like another planet; a delicious one that sort of sucked me in and never let go.”
While I didn’t fall as madly in love with Vietnam as he did (I saved my heart for Thailand), it was a life-changing experience. It opened my eyes to a different side of the world and I have never been able to see it the same since.
Still relatively new to mainstream tourism, Vietnam remains close to its roots and therefore offers travellers a real taste of its authentic culture. If you are looking for an exciting and untouched travel experience, Vietnam is the place for you.
Be sure to add some of these things to your bucket list while you’re there.
1. Leave your mark on The Note Café
The Note Café in Hanoi is a three-story building that is covered from top to bottom in tiny notes. Literally – covered. The walls, the seats, the tables, even the windowsills! Messages from all over the world, written by travellers who have stopped in for a bite to eat or drink.
Leave your own stamp on the building while you are there or browse some of the notes that were left by other nomads. You never know what you might read.
The menu includes a selection of coffee, smoothies and cakes. Decaf hasn’t quite reached Vietnam yet so if you are looking for something without a ‘kick’ I recommend their smoothies. The strawberry and coconut one is delicious.
2. Drink an egg coffee in Café Giang
Speaking of coffee, you have to try an egg coffee (or ca phe trung) if you visit Hanoi. It is a very specific drink to this part of Vietnam, I asked for it in other parts of the country and they’d never even heard of it.
Don’t just have any egg coffee though, be sure to seek out Café Giang. This place has been open since 1946 and is still run by the same family who use the original recipe.
It isn’t easy to find, but that makes it even better. If you feel like you’ve walked into someone’s house, you have definitely arrived. Ask for a seat upstairs, it’s lovely up there.
It’s obvious from its name that this coffee contains egg, so it’s not suitable for vegans. I also just found out that they use condensed milk and cheese too, that would partly explain why I was so ill in Hanoi. To be honest it was still worth it, it’s such a delicious little drink. It’s like a warm, gooey, caramel dessert in a cup.
3. Take a bus tour around Hanoi
The city is quite vast and has many different neighbourhoods to explore, so for that reason we decided to get the hop-on hop-off bus while we were there. It cost about €17 each and the ticket was valid for 24 hours.
I’m a big fan of bus tours, you usually learn loads about the place you are visiting. They take you to all the main tourist spots, so you don’t have to worry about figuring out public transport or walking too far.
This tour was really good, we got to see all the parts of the city we wanted and hopped off serval times to explore further. Some of my favourite places on the tour were: Hoan Kiem Lake, The Temple of the Jade Mountain, The Temple of Literature and Tran Quoc Pagoda.
4. Have your photo taken on Train Street
Chances are if you’ve looked up Hanoi on Instagram, you will have seen countless photos of people posing on Train Street – myself included. This residential street has a train track running through it that is still used several times a day.
When you come from a country like Ireland, where health and safety laws dictate everything, it can be difficult to believe that people actually live here. But they do.
Normal life continues regardless of the tracks.
When the trains aren’t running, you can take a walk along it and get to see one of the coolest places in the city. It is a beautiful area and is the perfect place to take some photos. Why not have a rest there too and enjoy a cold drink in one of the tiny cafes that the locals have set up in the front of their homes.
5. Experience Ha Long Bay
Leave the craziness of Hanoi behind and do an overnight trip to the spectacular Halong Bay. My favourite part of Vietnam by far, this place is like something out of a story book. You sail out into fantastically blue and emerald waters and are surrounded by thousands of gigantic limestone islands which are topped by rainforests.
Halong has inspired legends and stories for decades, with locals saying the bay was once protected by Dragons. I have to say, if anywhere was worth a Dragons protection, it would be this place!
It takes about 3 hours by bus from Hanoi, however on the way back it took us almost twice that. They went a different route and we had a flight to catch that evening, so you can imagine my stress! Be sure to confirm your return time in advance.
We booked a cruise through Booking.com for €90 each. This included our transport both ways (bus and ferry) and our cabin on the boat for the night. Also included were all our meals and activities. We even had a Thai chi class at sunrise on the deck! We went with Halong Camellia Cruise and I can’t praise them highly enough.
6. Kayak and swim in the bay
I recommend going the extra mile and taking a Kayak out for a paddle while you are in Halong Bay. It is a once in a lifetime experience and well worth doing.
See parts of the bay that the large ships can’t get to, float in and out of caves and get up close to the towering islands. If you go close enough, you might see some of the monkeys who live on these tiny rain forests (how did they even get there?!).
Some ships offer a swim in the bay as part of the package, which simply means they will let you jump off the boat for a dip. I say go for it! It’s beautiful and if you go to the bay on a hot day (temperatures in Vietnam can reach as high as 40 degrees), it’s a lovely way to cool down.
Our cruise also took us out to a pearl farm that is hidden deep inside the bay. They take you around the farm to see how the process works and they also have a floating store where you can buy genuine pearls and jewellery.
7. Visit Hoi An
The Vietnamese refer to Hoi An as the ‘gem’ of their country. This relatively small village is so colourful and vibrant that you could happily spend your entire time in Vietnam here (although personally, I prefer to see a few places when I travel).
The streets of the Ancient Town are lined with hanging lanterns that burst with colour during the day and offering a beautiful glow to the streets at night. Head towards the port and wander through the market where you will find fresh fruit, trinkets and even your own lantern to take home if you wish. But be warned, these markets also sell fish and meat, so the smells can be unpleasant.
In the middle of the town there is a place called the Ancient House. It’s a family home that is open to the public and has a water well, beautiful wooden carvings and a traditional yin-yang roof. It was built almost 250 years ago by the current owner’s ancestors. We bought some handmade silver jewellery from her while we were there, and she even asked us to come back for tea.
You can’t visit Hoi An without trying a sandwich in Bánh Mì Phượng. This tiny little café is world famous for its baguettes and people line up outside all day long just to try it. You will get served quickly though, so it is worth joining the que and ordering to go. The food was so delicious and fresh that we went back two days in a row.
8. Stay in a homestay
A homestay is a private home that offers accommodation. The Vietnamese are such friendly people, and there is no better way to experience their hospitality than by spending a few nights with a local family.
We booked a couple of nights in The Hanging Garden in Hoi An which is run by a family and a couple of staff members. Even though it is part of their home, they still had a reception, a dining area, separate entrances for each bedroom and private gardens (for each room).
We were mainly looked after by a girl called Anna; she checked us in, organised a moped for us to use during our stay, arranged our breakfasts and gave us lots of advice on what to do while we were there. She even sent us a personal email when we left to say how welcome we were to come back and how much their dog Lucky was going to miss us. It was such a lovely touch.
Our stay cost us €12 each per night and the location was perfect.
9. Try a fitness class
One of the coolest things we tried during that trip was a class at Hoi An Muay Thai, a semi-outdoor gym in the centre of Hoi An town. It was my first time trying Muay Thai and I absolutely loved it. We had the instructor all to ourselves and got to spend a solid hour training in this amazing facility. There was no need to book in advance although I did message them beforehand. They said to come on down to any of the classes while we were there.
There were lots of gyms I wish I had trained in during that trip. There were several I came across in Thailand that even train you on the beach, but we were stretched for time so it just didn’t happen. Next time we visit though, I will be making it my mission to do a lot more classes and I will definitely be checking out some yoga studios too.
10. Spend a day on An Bang Beach
A short distance from the town of Hoi An is the beautiful An Bang Beach. With white sand and a shore that stretches as far as the eye can see, this is a lovely place to spends a day (or 7!) while you are in Vietnam.
Because we had the rented moped from our homestay, we were able to visit the beach every single day. There is a safe place to park right beside it (it costs about €0.50 for the day as far as I remember, maybe even less) and if you aren’t comfortable with a moped you can always rent a bike or take a taxi instead.
There are lots of bars and restaurants that overlook the beach, from tiny little huts to modern beach clubs. Check out Shore Club for its juices, sushi and swimming pool! Some of these restaurants will bring your food and drinks down to you on the beach, while you relax under a bamboo umbrella – it really is paradise.
These are just a few of the wonderful things Vietnam has to offer if you ever decide to visit. I know that I barely scratched the surface of this fascinating country and that there is so much more of it to explore and enjoy. I can’t wait to go back again someday and learn even more about this amazing part of the world.
Written with love,