The longer we’ve been on the road, the less we plan in advance. When we got to Vietnam, we really didn’t know what we were doing. We knew we wanted to see Ho Chi Minh City in the south, some famous caves in the middle of the country, the limestone coastline in Halong Bay, and the countryside in northern Vietnam, but we had no real plan. Between our dear friend Cody’s encouragement (he bought a motorbike and rode through Vietnam for 3 weeks a few years back) and the conversations with a few people in South America who cruised through Southeast Asia on a motorbike, our plan was to start our time in Southeast Asia in Vietnam, buy bikes, and ride for the next 5 months through this part of the world.
We ran into a few problems in our planning though.
1 – We don’t have motorbike licenses. And it’s next to impossible to get them in Vietnam as a foreigner.
2 – Our travel insurance doesn’t cover us medically if we were to ride a bike and get hurt, since we aren’t licensed.
These seemed like substantial problems, but we REALLY wanted to experience part of our trip on a bike. Keep in mind that this bike dream of ours started during our RV fever days while we hitchhiked in Patagonia. We had so much freedom and we knew that having bikes would significantly increase our freedom and overall experience in Asia.
It would also increase a lot of other things. Like lack of safety for instance. Which brings me to problem number 3.
3 – I’d never driven a motorcycle. Or ridden on the back of one for that matter. Honestly, this is embarrassing to admit, but I’m barely comfortable on a bicycle, and I still get a little nervous at first when we rent them. In India, we rented a scooter for a week on the beach and our plan was that by the end of the week, I would learn how to drive and conquer this obstacle. However within minutes of driving the scooter, I freaked out and was all over the road. Buying two motorbikes was a big no no. I was terrified to ride and likely wouldn’t be conquering anything anytime soon.
We decided it wasn’t worth the risk to buy one bike for both of us and both bags, with no medical insurance coverage, and no license. This was probably the right call. We were bummed at first, but we changed plans and made it work. We spent our first three weeks of Asia in Cambodia instead of Vietnam (we'll eventually blog about it.) And we were extremely happy to not have a motorbike once we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and saw how chaotic driving was in Vietnam.
We still knew we wanted to spend as much time as possible up north in Vietnam, but didn’t want to skip out on the rest of the country. We also hadn’t given up our dream of a motorbike just yet.
We took a bus from Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City and spent two days exploring the city and the Cu Chi tunnels in the south. As soon as we crossed the border, things were similar to Cambodia, but the differences between the two countries began immediately.
On the ride in, we saw rows of roosters under cages and on display in the front of each shop, and the pointy bamboo hats you think about when you think of Vietnam were everywhere.
Vietnam immediately seemed more developed than Cambodia. The houses looked the same at first, but nicer. There was also a significant decrease in the visibility of Buddhism and religion here, and there were government propaganda billboards every now and then.
Gone were the days of the tuk tuk, which also meant that we no longer saw tuk tuk food vendors on each corner, serving dishes from kitchens attached to the side of their motorbikes. No more tuk tuks driving down the road, looking for the next corner where they would stop and set up shop to feed hungry humans. We were also back in a land where letters were no longer symbols in the language. We still couldn’t read or understand anything, but least the letters were recognizable.
We were now in the world of motorbikes. Jesse and I didn’t bring up wanting a motorbike to each other on the bus ride in, but I know we were both thinking about it still. Everyone wears helmets here too, which was a nice change from other parts of the world where helmets are few and far between.
There were lots of men sitting at cafes on street corners, facing the street like the cafes full of men in Morocco, but the men looked happier here. And there were plenty of women out and about too. The longer we spent n Vietnam, the more we saw men and women out together and in groups of gal pals and bro circles.
Locals are always eating out. There may not be tuk tuk restaurants like in Cambodia, but open front restaurants with kindergarten sized plastic sidewalk seats are the norm. And these places are always PACKED, with people of all ages. The Vietnamese people, in each city and town we’ve seen, seem like they have such a strong sense of community. I think part of it stems from always eating together. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. You always see groups of Vietnamese family and friends sharing a meal. I do have to say that I’m not as impressed with the noodles in Asia as I thought I would be, but we’ve definitely come across some killer meals here.
Oh, and people have their country flag up EVERYWHERE. Army surplus clothes are all the rage. And toddler fashion is more important than adult fashion.
Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh in the afternoon, checked into our place and spend the rest of the afternoon and evening wondering around the city. The city was modern, yet distinctly Vietnamese. It was developed and inexpensive.
The sidewalk culture was strong. Huge open spaces, manicured frequently. Bright neon LED street lights, with organized chaos on the streets below.
We woke up the next morning and searched for some food and coffee before hopping on a bus, and an older gentleman waved at us to come sit with him on the sidewalk. It was 7 AM and he’d already had his breakfast and coffee and had moved onto tea, a Vietnamese morning tradition. He helped us order bánh mi sandwiches and coffee from the women’s cart behind us while he smoked his Marlboro cigarette and asked us about ourselves. We sat down at his mini plastic table to have our first real interaction with a local and weren’t quite sure how we would be received as Americans.
Side Note: I know very little about the Vietnam War, which they call the American War here.
What little I knew though before this trip was mostly wrong though. This makes me question how much of history is mistaught, misleading, or skipped altogether. We watched part of the 18 hour PBS documentary on the Vietnam War, and although it’s long, it’s eye opening. I highly suggest watching it yourself, but I’ll summarize. America was wrong over and over, and we did a lot of terrible things. “Right intentions” or not, we did so many things that we never should have done, in my opinion at least. I wasn’t sure how this man would react once we said we were American.
We were surprised. Pleasantly. He didn’t care at all that we were American. He just wanted to get to know us and suggest things to do and see around town. Unfortunately, we were about to do a bus tour for the day and then were taking a flight in the evening to the middle of the country, so we weren’t able to take his suggestions, but we were left with smiles and excitement for our month in Vietnam.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Have you ever thought about how one becomes a tour guide? I’ve never heard of tour guide school before, so where exactly does a tour guide get the information that they give on a tour, especially if it’s a historical tour of a time period before they were born?
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a massive network of connected underground tunnels about a two hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, which is the major city in southern Vietnam. These are just one section of tunnels that were built throughout Vietnam, and even Cambodia, to aid in the quick and the originally secret movement of northern Vietnamese troops and supplies during the Vietnam War.
So where would a Vietnamese Cu Chi Tunnels tour guide get his information? I’m not sure, but I will say that our tour was very biased, one sided, and at times factually incorrect as far as my knowledge. But if you haven’t done your research and you take the word of a tour guide at face value, how accurate of information are you really getting?
Not that I have even a fraction of a percent of knowledge of what exists on the Vietnam/American war, but the PBS documentary gives the perspective in first-hand accounts of Northern Vietnamese, Southern Vietnamese, and American troops throughout (and I know that our tour guide’s tour was incomplete.) Each first-hand account of the war in the documentary was difficult to watch. The stories and voices were filled with fear and anger, which was sometimes very valid, yet other times illogical even by self-admission of the war veterans.
Americans bombed the Cu Chi tunnels that we visited, which the tour guide repeatedly pointed out. This killed innocent civilians and left damaging chemical effects that are still felt in the land today. That said, our tour guide did not mention a single thing about Americans joining the war alongside southern Vietnamese troops, fighting with them for an ideological dominance in Vietnam. The whole tour was told as a one sided story that ignored this fact.
I’m sure the PBS documentary leaves things out too, and isn’t completely accurate, but it definitely told a more accurate version of the story than our tour guide. However, I am grateful for the chance to really think about history and question where my knowledge of the world originates.
The most impactful part of the tour was watching an old propaganda video extolling the virtues of killing Americans, Vietnamese troops traveling the front lines to kill Americans, the war heroes that killed many Americans, the damning of Americans for bombing such fertile land and the Americans’ assassination of the first southern Vietnam president . It was quite the video...
The PBS documentary played recordings of JF Kennedy talking about South Vietnam generals asking for assurances that America wouldn’t pull out of Vietnam if they assassinated the president. When we watched this section of the documentary, we both cringed at the soft American approval of the assassination of the first southern Vietnam president, misguided as it was portrayed, but this still was very different from the propaganda shown on our tour.
This tour also made me think about the impact that a field trip can have on students. The Vietnam War was never something I actively researched, but my ability to see the tunnels in person increased my desire to learn more about the war so much. As an educator, I’ve always believed that field trips were an important part of learning, but this belief just keeps growing.
I’m on a year-long adult field trip and I’ve never been more curious or had more questions in my life.
This is why we travel.
The original tunnels aren’t open to the public anymore, but as a tourist in Cu Chi, you’re able to slide down and crawl around tunnels that were replicated to mimic the tunnels that Vietnamese soldiers used in the war. I was the first volunteer to drop down below into the unknown and I must say, crawling underground is much harder than it looks.
And you know the tourist replica tunnels are nicer than the real things were. Despite Jesse’s size, he crawled around too. It was exhausting though, and we barely scratched the surface, or underneath it, of the tunnels. We also only went down one level, the actual tunnels were 3-4 levels deep and were filled with booby traps, livings rooms, air ventilation systems, and had access to water sources underground.
Da Nang/Hoi An
After our tour, we had the bus driver stop outside of the city, close to the airport so we had enough time to hop on a plane and fly to the middle of the country at Da Nang. It’s a much bigger city than I expected and is where most tourists fly for a visit to Hoi An, an hour bus ride from Da Nang.
We spent one night in Da Nang and it was a much nicer city than we expected. My favorite part of the city was the massive dragon bridge. It was a distinctly Vietnamese city.
We woke up early and took the hour long, local bus to Hoi An. We stayed around 2 km outside of the historic area, which turned out to be a blessing because it was very touristy and packed with foreigners. Good touristy, but it was still nice to stay a little outside of what almost felt like Disney at times, with the manicured lanterns hung on every street and gift shops on each block with overpriced tourist items. I’m ragging on the city, but it really was nice despite streets packed tightly with tourists.
Some famous cities paint their houses a certain color, like the blue city of Chefchaouen in Morocco or the pink city of Jaipur in India, while others have famous landmarks or bridges that earn them a name around the world. Despite my best effort to not like Hoi An, the lanterns spread throughout the city have their charm, and the river in the old town lit up at night brings a certain undeniable romance to the city.
We rented bicycles for a few days since we weren’t in the central area and mostly just rolled around and explored. We also took a cooking class in a local farming village which I’ll write about later at some point.
The best part of Hoi An? The sandwiches at Bánh Mì Phượng. Basically every blog and website about Hoi An mentioned the sandwiches here, and with good reason. It was one of the best things we ate in Vietnam. The second and third times we ate there were just as good as the first.
And a few more pictures.
Phong Nha National Park
After Hoi An, we took the bus back to Da Nang, enjoyed a lovely train ride north along the coast for 6 hours, and then took another bus west to the Phong Nha National Park in central Vietnam, the cave capital of the world.
We spent a few days here exploring the caves and the countryside on a motorcycle that we rented. Tours were insanely expensive, and you could rent a bike for less than 5 dollars a day, so how could we resist? The bike we got was a cross between a scooter and a motorcycle and the freedom we gained was addictive, our dream of buying a motorcycle quickly resurfaced.
We met an Irish couple and spent our first day of exploration with them. We got extremely lost multiple times trying to find the entrance to the first cave and ended up leaving the bikes next to some small village field at one point. The problem? We first arrived on the wrong side of the river and the boats wouldn't pick us up. The drivers all motioned for us to get to the other side of the river to enter the save. We followed their mimed instructions, but just got more lost. We found the other side of the river, which is where we thought the tourist boats departed. The only active boat was filled with a bunch of young boys playing, but they motioned us around the corner on the shore.
Earlier in the day we met a French pair, a mom and her 10 year old son. He was the one driving the bike, which was a bit ridiculous, especially considering how bad of a driver he was. They were just as lost as us though so they followed us en route to the caves. They kept going though by bike once we ditched our because their rental was much better equipped to handle the rough terrain. When we rounded the corner though they were loading his bike on a local women's raft. We waived for them to wait for us, excited that we finally found someone who would take us to the cave. We all got on the raft and set out on the river. At one point the raft was rocking and the boy and his motorcycle almost went overboard. We'd spent about 2 hours trying to find this cave's entrance we we were so close, but this lady just took us to the same point where we started earlier that day.
It was laughable at this point. We communicated in broken hand signals that we needed to go back with her to where we started. We hiked back the way we came, found our bikes, cruised back to town, and realized that you had to take a boat from the center, which was in walking distance to our hostel. Turns out we didn't even need a bike to get to the cave we wanted to see that day. That's alright though, the countryside exploration was beautiful.
We ended up waiting until the next day to see the caves, but the drive around the countryside was more than worth the bike rental. The countryside was beautiful and the caves were much more impressive than I expected too when we finally did get to see them.
Vietnamese farmers in the central part of the country also use seaweed at fertilizer. Check out everyone fishing for farming seaweed!
Halong Bay/Cat Ba Island
Our next stop was Halong Bay and Cat Ba, another capital of the world, but this time, the capital of limestone islands. Unfortunately though we weren’t there at quite the right season, so it was pretty cold and the sky was filled with rain and mist during most of our stay there.
Halong Bay is along the coast of the main land in Northern Vietnam, and Cat Ba is an island about a 2 hour ferry ride from Halong Bay. Everyone we’d talked to said to skip Halong Bay and go straight to Cat Ba; everything was cheaper and less touristy there. That sounded perfect, and we did go to Cat Ba, but we spent our first night on the main land to do a hike overlooking all the limestone islands in Halong Bay.
I’d heard about the hike from a pinterest article, and the image from the post was too beautiful to say no to. Both the article and MAPS. Me told us that the original trail to Bai Tho Mountain was closed, but the article also said that you could go find an old lady and pay her to bring you through her property and start the trek up to the lookout point.
The blog's description wasn’t entirely accurate, or maybe things have changed since the post was written, but the trail most certainly was officially closed. We found the area where MAPS.Me said the trail started and began our search for this old lady. We looked lost, because we were lost, and getting nowhere. We started asking around a few people for Bai Tho mountain and the locals helped us find this famous little old lady.
She showed us around the corner from her house to a little alley and motioned with her body that we would have to hop or climb over the fence. She told us 50,000 VND each, which we were expecting to pay her, but then she unlocked the gate to the trail. I’m not sure how she held the keys to this trail or what she meant by her miming since she unlocked the gate for us, but we happily began our hike up to the top.
About 5 minutes later we came up to another gate, this one most definitely locked, and we realized that she meant we would have to climb this fence to make the hike. This fence was much more daunting than the one she unlocked though. It was covered in barbed wire and some green slippery substance that was meant as a deterrent for the less adventurous, rule following travelers. Luckily, that wasn’t us.
We met another traveler while we searched for the old lady earlier, so the three of us hiked together. As we approached the gate, he volunteered to go first. Some locals had thrown a bunch of old clothing and rags over one section of the barbed wire to assist in tourist trespassing efforts, but it still looked extremely dangerous. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to attempt that climb, or if I was even tall enough to make it. There was a small hole that looked about Emily sized, so I opted to slide under the hole instead. Jesse went for the climb, and through careful maneuvering, we both made it to the other side.
The views were every bit worth the adventure of getting to the top.
The limestone islands in Cat Ba island were a lot of the same; same same, but different. We went kayaking in the Cat Bs Islands, which let us get up close and personal with the limestone. The movie King Kong: Skull Island was filmed on a lake in Vietnam with similar limestone wonders, and despite the mist, you can’t help but wonder at their natural beauty.
Next up was Hanoi, a huge city in the North of Vietnam, the yin to Ho Chi Minh City’s yang. If Ho Chi Minh City is the Charlotte of Vietnam, then Hanoi is New Orleans. It’s just as crowded and of course we loved its flavor. We didn’t do a whole bunch here except walking around since I was focused on interview prep. We did come back here though for our last few days in Vietnam. It’s the most comfortable we’ve felt in a city and could definitely see ourselves living here if we had to choose a city in the world to live.
We’d once heard someone say that if you wanted to do heroine with an underage prostitute, Hanoi is the place to go. This is funny though because we never once got the drug and hooker vibe from the city. It’s a huge city though so who knows.
A little about our time in Hanoi. The tourist puppet show was the best tourist show we’ve seen and was well worth the money. The streets in one section of the city are old school and are named after what’s sold there. So you have a sweets street, a baby clothing street, a spice street, etc. The traffic here is the epitome of organized chaos. People don’t usually walk on the sidewalks because they are packed with street restaurants, locals passing the time on stools by the shops, motorcycles parked, or any other number of business activities. So people, cars, and mostly motorbikes share the roads, and despite the lights and signs, people go whatever way they want, whenever they want. And we didn’t see a single accident in 30 days in Vietnam, which is shocking for the way of the roads.
This is true of everywhere in Vietnam, but sidewalks and store fronts are often occupied by men sitting on plastic stools and smoking tobacco out of pipes. It’s THE THING here. Jesse tried it once from a local who offered and could barely sit in a chair for the minutes following. He said it was like smoking 6 cigarettes in seconds, with a rush of light headedness, the feeling of floating, and the knowledge that you just did some serious damage to your lungs.
Another thing that’s true of Hanoi and most places in Vietnam is that casual street sports are popular. We saw women in the park doing jazzercise and tai chi, kids playing badminton on sidewalks, and older women playing volleyball in their backyard.
Some pictures from a local volleyball game (this was in Phone Nha National Park though, not Hanoi.)
We found two of our top rated dishes in Vietnam to be in Hanoi, which was our favorite food outside of the sandwich in Hoi An. One meal was during our first trip to the city while we waited for the water puppet show to start. We found a sidewalk restaurant (big surprise) and ordered the dried beef salad. It was small, but delicious and of course we ordered a second.
While we were eating we noticed that all of the workers started picking up all the extra tables and scurrying to stack tables and chairs. We spun around and observed this same scene at each eatery on the street. After the unoccupied tables were stacked, waiters grabbed customers’ plates and rushed to get them inside in their limited seating sections.
What on earth was happening?
We noticed an army green truck with 4 officers about the same time that we heard the loud speakers blaring something in Vietnamese from the truck. One officer was glaring intently down our sidewalk and hastily scribbling something on his note pad while taking photos of the sidewalk. This street must have been a no go zone for sidewalk restaurants because everyone was certainly in a hurry once they saw these officials take control of the street.
Our other favorite meal in Hanoi was a bun bo nam bo bowl with a tasty peanut hot sauce. The photograph of the bowl itself isn't great, but I promise it was TASTY.
These will both be dishes we bring home and add to our rotating meal prep catalog.
Some of our favorite photographs from Hanoi:
After Hanoi we originally planned to see both Sapa and Ha Giang in the far north of Vietnam, but we’d heard from many people that Sapa was extremely touristy and we weren’t drawn to the idea of paying someone to take us trekking. Ha Giang was a big question mark though. You need a motorcycle to really see this region of the country. We were thinking of renting one for 3 or 4 days, but weren’t sure if someone would rent us one without a license.
But like I said in the beginning, we REALLY wanted to see the north by bike, so we hopped on a bus and made our way to QT motorbikes once we arrived in the city of Ha Giang. They were much more expensive than many places, but they had rave reviews and an option to buy insurance for the bike which sounded good for us.
When we were looking at bikes and routes we told him we had plenty of time and he showed us an 8 day loop that drove through Ha Giang and the northeast of Vietnam, which would allow us to drive along the border with China most of the time and also see the famous Ban Gioc Waterfall.
We had the time, so we test drove (by we, I mean Jesse with me on the back) a few bikes, picked out our helmets, withheld the fact that we didn’t have a license, and hoped QT didn’t ask.
Playing it cool worked! We left my passport with them as insurance for the bike, they handed us the keys, and off we went. We spent the night at a little hostel in town and planned our route on the map. To read about our motorcycle trip in Northern Vietnam, stay tuned!