From the North to South: A Two Week Vietnam Itinerary
I first learned my mom and “twisted aunts,” Jill and Pam, would be visiting Vietnam for over 2 weeks in July I was ecstatic. I was excited because I hadn’t seen my mom since I left home in November. I was thrilled because I’d get two weeks off of work. I was pumped to plan a big adventure for a group of first time visitors to Asia, and to introduce my Vietnam life to some special people from my Wisconsin life.
I planned a fairly busy itinerary, which would have us exploring the center of the country, heading back to Ho Chi Minh, and finally flying north to embark on a 3 day 2 night cruise through Vietnam’s most famous natural landscape–Ha Long Bay.
Ho Chi Minh City: One Day
To begin our first full day, we walked to my favorite shady spot in the city–Tao Dan Park–for a breakfast of crispy baguettes with runny fried eggs, sweet iced milk coffee and coconuts. The park has a lovely outdoor cafe with typical Vietnamese miniature plastic furniture and a spot for men to bring and hang their caged pet song birds to sing together. We took about as long of a walk as the steamy Saigon weather would permit, grabbed another refreshing coconut, before regrouping at my place.
For lunch, I took the ladies to a good Bahn Khot spot (mini rice pancakes wrapped in herbs lettuce, dunked in spicy fish sauce). And in the afternoon, we treated ourselves to massages at the parlor next to my house. In the evening, we flew to Danang, a city in the center of Vietnam, where we’d get transport to the nearby UNESCO world heritage city of Hoi An.
Hoi An: 3 nights/4 days
In Hoi An, the ladies got their first true taste of the kind of suffocatingly hot and humid weather Vietnam is famous for. In turn, we spent much of our time lounging in our rented beach house, lounging at a nearby seaside restaurant, and exploring the city’s ancient downtown in the evenings, when the weather cooled down a tad. We spent too much money getting clothing made (and shoes!) for us by one of the numerous tailors which line the city’s atmospheric center. And we found a favorite rooftop bar which we returned more than once.
One day we booked a cooking class, which involved a shopping trip to the local market and a boat ride to reach the cooking school. Unfortunately in the market, Jill was victim of an experience all too common in Vietnam, when a skillful thief, carefully unzipped her purse and snatched her iPhone.
After a breezy boat ride to the school, we learned how to make spring rolls, beef salad, and beef pho (noodle soup), and in the process stuffed our faces with the delicious Vietnamese food.
When purchasing train tickets failed (sold out!), we had no choice but to take the night bus to Nha Trang. Though I was deeply disappointed by this, I was a tiny bit excited to give my mother a glimpse into an experience I’ve had countless times in Asia and Latin America. Our night bus turned was a packed, frigid ice box. We spent the next 12+ hours, drugged (Tylenol pm), tossing and turning in the cramped seats, trying our best to protect ourselves from the freezing air conditioner. At one point, in the middle of the night, our bus stopped for nearly 2 hours so our driver could watch a world cup match. It was miserable and long ride, though all “part of the adventure.”
Nha Trang: 2 nights/3 days
In the coastal city of Nha Trang, we check into a popular hostel, giving the ladies their first hostel experience (albeit not a “real” one, as we shared a private room). Drained from our Hellish ride, we decide to indulge in a day at the spa. We purchase the VIP package, featuring mud baths, massages, and naps by the pool–the perfect antidote to 12 frigid and back bending hours on a Vietnamese night bus. We end the afternoon with mani-pedis and cocktails at the posh Sailing Club. Though this day in no way resembled my usual travel days alone, it was a much needed day of pampering. Sometimes you need a holiday from your vacation.
Fo our second day in Nha Trang, we book a snorkeling tour. For a mere $15, we spend an entire day snorkeling in the nearby colorful nearby reefs, alongside young backpackers.
We spend our final day in Nha Trang on the beach, eating our recently discovered favorite dessert (coffee creme brulee) and napping on lounge chairs, before a nauseating bus ride to the cool mountain city of Dalat.
Dalat: 2 nights/2 days
The crisp, cool evening air of Dalat welcomes us to our newest destination. We book a full day tour for the following day before retiring early for the night. The next day begins with breakfast at the hostel, before meeting up with our tour guide (a friendly Vietnamese man with a brother who lives in Texas!) and fellow tourists (3 young Russian girls with limited English). What follows is a lovely, though jam-packed day of exploring the Dalat countryside. We visit a flower farm, and a silk factory where we see the entire process–from silk worm to loom. After, we stop at a coffee plantation and learn about the process from which “weasel coffee” is produced–from weasel poop to cup. Next is a pagoda featuring lovely views of the green countryside, then on to the Happy Buddha statue, and finally to a waterfall.
Once we’ve had lunch of Com Tam––a ubiquitous type of food vender in Vietnam featuring various grilled meat, and steamed veggies on “broken rice”–we are taken to another waterfall even more stunning than the previous. On our way back to the city, we stop at a mushroom farm and a strange, though very Vietnamese, amusement park, where we walk down many flights of stairs to a tourist-packed waterfall. We purchase tickets to ride a “roller coaster” back up the steep hill. It’s anticlimactic, but beats walking up the stairs. We end the day with dinner at a recommended restaurant.
Though we have nearly a full day before flying back to Ho Chi Minh, we are limited in activities due to rainy weather. We manage to squeeze in a visit to the Crazy House–the bizarre architectural creation of a local woman–before the crummy weather drives us to spend the rest of the afternoon in a coffee shop. That evening, I’m happy to return to the warmth of Ho Chi Minh.
Ha Long Bay, 3 nights, 3 days;
Ho Chi Minh City: 2 nights/2 day
Having our fill of Vietnamese food, I take the ladies to my favorite French cafe for a breakfast of eggs Benedict, smoked salmon scrambled eggs, breakfast sandwiches and excellent cappuccinos or ice coffee. We wander around some of the city’s famous shopping spots. In the evening we fly to Hai Phong, then on to Ha Long Bay for our cruise (for a full post on Ha Long Bay, see here). We are in the north for a total of 3 nights, before flying back to HCMC.
For the ladies last 2 days, we spend much of our time shopping and wandering around District 1. To escape the heat, we go to the shady city zoo & botanical gardens, where we get a glimpse at some of the exotic animals of Southeast Asia and stumble on a hidden spot for $1 “fish pedicures.” We laugh hysterically as tiny fish suck the dead skin from the ticklish soles of our feet. After dinner at a favorite spot, we have expensive cocktails on the roof of the historical Majestic Hotel, and watch the river boats cruising around the harbor. We get mani/pedis at my favorite spot, a hectic alleyway featuring stalls of nail parlors–$2 for hands, $2 for feet, $2.50 for nail art.
Our final meal is, ironically, at an American BBQ place. We stuff ourselves with tender pork shoulder and ribs in homemade sauce, and wash it all down with Pale Ale. After 2 years on the road, I don’t feel guilty indulging in a taste of home every now and then.
When the ladies flight home is delayed, we get to spend an extra few hours together–however we are all so full and tired, we sleep the entire time. Finally, with a heavy heart, I say goodbye, unsure of when I will see my mother next, and so grateful for the adventure we’ve just shared.
In these moments I’m always reminded that though traveling can teach the best lessons and cause great personal and emotional growth, saying goodbye to the ones you love never gets easier…