One Month in Vietnam: Our Top 20 Experiences

Overall, Vietnam has probably been our favorite country so far: great food, lots of natural beauty, tons of culture, kind people, good tourism infrastructure, and… immense value. We were eating in sit-down restaurants for almost every meal, staying in plush hotel rooms nearly every night, and splurging on occasional adventure activities (kayaking in Ha Long, trekking in Dalat, speedboating up to Chu Chi Tunnels) and we still only spent $100/day combined, including our roundtrip airfare from Singapore. That is CHEAP, especially considering the quality.

You’d think 30 days in a country a little larger than New Mexico would be plenty of time to see all the top spots, but we managed to leave Vietnam without experiencing everything. We missed the rice paddies and mountain villages in Sapa, the pristine beaches of Pho Quoc and Con Dao islands, the world’s largest cave in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, the floating markets of the Mekong Delta… really, this list could go on and on. Which is to say, Vietnam just has a TON to offer.  We loved what we did see and experience, but need to return for more. To give you a taste of what we loved and why we loved it, here are our Top 20 Vietnam experiences in no particular order:

1. Kayaking beside and inside of karsts in Ha Long Bay

The picturesque emerald-green bay with its dramatic limestone karsts truly is a must on any visit to Vietnam, which means it’s overrun with tourists on expensive boat trips. Basic budget boats will cost you $300/couple for a two-night cruise; the luxury liners may set you back $1500/couple. Due to some good investigative work and a good day of planning, we like to think we hacked the Ha Long Bay experience.

The hack: Skip the formal boat trips, and head directly to Cat Ba Island. Find a decent hotel room for $13/night, and book a day-long trip with Cat Ba Ventures. (Our TripAdvisor review here). You’ll get to experience both the quieter Lan Ha Bay as well as the famous Ha Long Bay, enjoy an awesome lunch, kayak through karsts, and ride on a nice boat that you don’t have to sleep on. And… you’ll pay $100 for this experience for two vs. 4-5 times that.

The emerald waters and craggy karsts are beautiful even on a cloudy day

That’s us and the tiny little beach we visited in the kayak.

You’ll see fewer tourist boats and more local fisherman in the neighboring Lan Ha Bay

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2. Eating our way through Old Town Hanoi

The old quarter in Hanoi–with its French architecture, buzzing motorbikes, overflowing storefronts, and tucked-away temples–would be charming without the steaming street food. But once you put that first bite of bun cha in your mouth, you may claim aloud that you’ve finally the most wonderful city in the world. We were immediately taken with Hanoi and it had a lot to do with this with these four food experiences:

  • Bun Cha, a self-assembled meal of cold rice noodles, char-grilled pork patties and pork belly, fried spring rolls, fresh ginger, garlic, chilies, a jackfruit-infused, vinegary sauce, and a gigantic pile of Vietnamese lettuce and herbs.
    Where to get it: Bun Cha, 1 Hang Manh Street
  • Ca Cha, turmeric-marinated catfish fillets sauteed tableside with heaps of dill and scallions. (pictured below)
    Where to get it: Ca Cha Thang Long, 31 Duong Thanh Street
  • Banh Cuon, a delicate rice pancake stuffed with pork, onions, and mushrooms, then topped with crispy shallots and fish sauce.
    Where to get it: Banh Cuon Gia Truyen, 14 Pho Hang Ga Street
  • Bun Bo Nam Bo, chilled rice noodles topped with bean sprouts, stir-fried beef, toasted peanuts, crispy shallots, pickled carrots, green papaya, and herbs. Final ingredient: a salty sour hot beef broth poured over the top.
    Where to get it: Bun Bo Nam Bo, 67 Hang Dieu

Ca Cha (fish sauteed with green and peppers) from Ca Cha Thang Long, 31 Duong Thanh Street

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3. Hanging out with droves of Russians on the beaches of Nha Trang

Thanks to nonstop flights from Moscow, Nha Trang has become a Russian stronghold. But unlike Phuket, which seemed to attract the most boisterous of the bunch (Russia’s Cancun), Nha Trang seemed to welcome a lovely, sophisticated crew who came for the gorgeous beaches, the good food, and the accommodating Vietnamese, who have taught themselves to write and speak in Russian. Seriously, Cyrillic is everywhere. We’d read seedy things about Nha Trang, but we kind of liked it. The hotels were super cheap, it’s easy to access (flights, buses, trains, motorcycles), we could run each morning on the beach, and there were… tons of Russians.

We were the only non-Russians on Nha Trang’s main beach and it was kind of awesome.

The view from the top of Orchid Island, one of the small islands near Nha Trang

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4. Discovering the best fish taco in Southeast Asia, possibly the world

And in this Russian paradise of a beach town, who would ever expect to find the most delicious fish taco in the world? We were wowed by the tempura-fried whitefish taco with chipotle aioli and shaved cabbage at The Lil Shack in Nha Trang. We won’t tell you how many of these we ate, but we can assure you we still fantasize about these delights. I want, I want, I want again.

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5. Getting body scrubbed and kneaded for next to nothing in Saigon

Unfortunately, I didn’t snap a photo of Patten prostrate on a plastic sheet covered in coconut sugar scrub… but we still want to mention the fabulous therapeutic massage services we encountered while in the lovely city of Saigon. Our favorite? The $32/each we spent at Cat Moc Spa that got us 2.5 hours of steaming, scrubbing, and rubbing by two professional technicians. (Thanks for the tip, Ruben!) Sure, you can get decent $5 hour-long massages at various spots around town, but at these prices, you may as well go long and luxe.

6. Playing with creepy primates on Monkey Island and crawling through the Cu Chi tunnels.

Just kidding. We didn’t really like either of these experiences nor do I feel like writing about them. BUT, the pictures are fun:

A visit to the strange Monkey Island, where hundreds of these fellows chase you around and try to steal your food. Near Nha Trang, Vietnam.

Climbing into a Viet Cong tunnel is a requisite at the interesting, but disturbing Cu Chi tunnel complex.

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7. Experiencing the mystical magic of the Nihn Binh landscape

The scene: A countryside full of limestone karsts jutting out from vast rice paddies. Sounds odd, but it is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. If you go to Vietnam, please visit Ninh Binh. It’s just 1.5 hours south of Hanoi, or you can stop there via train on your way up to the city. The over-run tourist attraction is Tam Coc. We skipped that and headed instead to the Van Long Nature Preserve, where you’ll pay $5 to have a private guide row you through a shallow lake alongside the towering karsts. Absolutely magical. Follow your boat ride with a hike up Mua Caves for 360 views of the countryside.

View from the top of Mua Caves. One of the most incredible viewpoints we’ve had on our ZINK year.

If you have a few minutes, check out the whole set of pics on Flickr while listening to the sounds of Van Long. It was so, so wonderful.

The lovely lady who steered us in and around the karsts in Van Long Nature Preserve.

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8. Learning about and experiencing Tet

We penned a whole post on this one, but being in Vietnam during Tet, their Lunar New Year, was absolutely a highlight of our trip.

A silk display in Hoi An during Tet

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9. Drinking hot soy and sesame milk in Dalat

In the chilly mountain town of Dalat, the best night time treat is a steaming, creamy cup of soy milk, served by a kind woman out of a silver cart on Phan Đình Phùng road. (If you’re ever in Dalat, here are the coordinates: 11.94523,108.43479). After you’re served your hot milk, you sit down on a tiny plastic chair at a tiny plastic table and watch passersby shiver in the night cold. It’s surprisingly romantic.

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10. Meeting two awesome travelers who we bet will be longtime friends

As we’ve expressed before, one of our favorite events on our ZINK Year is meeting new friends on the road. We were lucky enough to meet Sen and Dipa in our hotel in Hoi An, and over the course of our travels in Hue and Hanoi, we kept meeting up for laughter-filled drinks, dinners, and bubble teas. Recently engaged, Sen and Dipa decided to ZINK-away from Sydney, spend a few months in Southeast Asia, then relocate to London, where they’ll start a business, get married, and become sophisticated Londoners. Sen and Dipa: We miss you two!

Sen and Dipa, our savvy and hilarious ZINK Year friends

Sen and Dipa, our savvy and hilarious ZINK Year friends. Here they are in Hue, which proves to make a lovely backdrop for photos but was one of our least favorite destinations. Where was that magical Hue we’d read about before visiting?

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11. Crossing the street with hundreds of motorbikes zooming towards you

It’s as frightening as you’d expect. This endless stream of motorbikes is what you see before you bravely step into the road and magically cross the street:

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12. Volunteering at an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City

Thanks to a friend who recently lived in HCMC, we had a laundry list of must-dos and a full itinerary from the day we arrived. (Thank you, Sarah!) One of our favorite activities was her recommendation to spend the day with adorable Vietnamese kids at Mai Tam Shelter. Run by the Catholic church, the orphanage is specifically catered towards kids with HIV, whose parents have either died of the disease or deliberately abandoned their sick kids. House “mothers” — women with HIV who have been shunned and thrown out by their families — also live in the orphanage and take care of the children. The stories here are tragic, and yet, it’s probably the happiest home we’ve ever been inside. We were wowed by how well run, clean, functional, and overwhelmingly positive this orphanage was for the kids, and left with an overwhelming sense of hope. There is a lot of “good” in this big world of ours.

13. Riding in a stinky sleeper bus that crashes into a construction truck

We tested out every form of transportation in Vietnam. The winner? Planes. You can fly on nice jets into small airports for very reasonable prices; if you book a month or so early, you may find $30 flights, sometimes cheaper than train tickets. The train is an experience; maybe one worth having for 2 hours, not 12. The bathrooms are super gross, the floors are filthy, and the soft-seat cars where we sat are teeming with boisterous locals (that’s the fun part; just not for 12 hours).

Buses are: 1) Cheap, 2) Smelly, 3) Frightening. The prices are tempting and probably make bus travel worth it for short-haul hops, but be prepared for discomfort and a distinctive stench. Sleeper buses are the worst smell culprits, since they require passengers to take off their shoes. While this probably does keep the bus cleaner, you smell a lot of feet. And if you’re an average sized American, you’ll be cramped in your “bed,” which feels like you’re sitting–definitely not lying–in a bumper car.

Yes, bumper cars are a good segue to the point of this top experience: our glass-shattering wreck during our bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat. An hour into the trip, our driver, who was driving way too fast through a construction zone, hit a ditch and tipped our bus into a dump truck, which shattered most of the glass on one side of the bus. Instead of calling for a new bus, the driver and his assistant taped up the windows with cardboard and made all the people on the left side of the bus sit in the aisle for the remainder of the trip, since there were chunks of glass falling into their seats with each ensuing road bump. Bottomline: Safety standards are quite different in this country, take plenty of Xanex, and fly when you can.

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Hoi-An style wontons

Hoi-An style wontons

14. Obsessing over the food at The Moon Restaurant in Hoi An

The most basic restaurant advice while traveling in foreign countries: Do not eat in restaurants with empty tables. We follow this rule religiously, but the few short reviews we’d read on TripAdvisor about The Moon Restaurant (“daring and traditional” and “best food in Vietnam”) had us riskily entering a completely deserted restaurant. Our meal was so good that we returned three nights in a row. We would have gone again, but were worried about creeping out the chef with our constant fawning.

In a city full of great restaurants, The Moon will soon be considered the very best. When we were there, their TripAdvisor ranking was #43 of 367 restaurants in Hoi An. In one short month, they’ve moved up to #7. And I bet they’ll top that list in another 30 days. Tangent: For those of you that may argue the opposite, this is why UGC sites like Yelp and TA are incredible for local businesses. In the past, it may have taken the chef/owner a year or two to receive proper recognition with a call out in a guidebook or a magazine. But now, great business owners dishing out phenomenal products can see success much sooner, and a guy like Nyugen (the chef at The Moon) will get to continue to fulfill his dream of running a restaurant vs. shutting down this summer for lack of cash. Go, TripAdvisor. Seriously — we’ve become big believers of your worth.

Inside lovely Moon Restaurant in Hoi-An. Our favorite dining experience of the trip.

Inside lovely Moon Restaurant in Hoi-An. Our favorite dining experience of the trip.

15. Trekking through the villages and jungles of Dalat

We’d heard abseiling, or canyoning, was the most exciting activity in Dalat, but I just couldn’t swallow dangling 75-feet over a rushing waterfall. Instead, we booked a jungle trek with Phat Tire Ventures, and spent the day hiking in the Dalat mountainside through villages, coffee plantations, and thick jungle. Our guide, Linh, was and has been to date the best tour guide we’ve had on the trip: great English, full of facts, and an all-around fun guy. The jungle was interesting and worth spending a day in its shade, but the more interesting part of the day was walking through a village and through the farmed fields in the valley. If we were to visit Dalat again, we’d/Emily would just ditch her fears and do the abseiling trip with Phat Tire, which really has seemed like one of the most trustworthy operators we’ve worked with.

Two village girls who took an instant liking to Patten and showed him around their digs.

We adored these two teenagers. Don’t worry: That’s our beer, not theirs. They assured they “do not like beer yet” even though it’s totally legal for them to drink.

16. Hanging out with two teenagers at a pizza parlor

You do get sick of spring rolls and pho. We’ve sneaked in a few slices of pizza on this ZINK Year–all in Asia–and most of it is terrible, save for the crispy, spicy jalapeno pie we got at Bingo Pizza in Dalat. But what made that night even better was the conversation we shared with two driven, adorable, young-and-in-love 17-year-olds, who told us about their own dreams of travel, their plans to become economists, and their excitement about moving and ultimately settling in a burgeoning Saigon: Two kids representing the hope and ambition we saw in the Vietnamese people, especially the youth.

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17. Splurging on a $20 hamburger at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel in Hanoi

Eek. This is turning into a post in which we publicly admit our deviation from local foods in the countries we visit. But this hamburger. This giant, juicy, all-beef (no filler– common in Asia), piled-high-with-bacon-and-egg-and-aged cheddar burger was one of the most wonderful delicacies we’ve found this year.  (Matt: This is the closest we’ve come to a proper PornBurger.) We’ve also come to realize that the only way to effectively enjoy a stuffy, colonial, overpriced-to-be-overpriced restaurant is… to eat a dripping burger over its white tablecloth. Nom.

Sometimes you just need a grease-leaking burger.

Sometimes you just need a grease-leaking burger.

18. Drinking Bia Hoi with the locals

The best way to drown your guilt for splurging on a $50 burger lunch in the cheapest food city in the world? Bia Hoi! This 40-cent beer is served from stainless-steel vats at local bars on nearly every street corner. Sure, the beer tastes like watered-down Natural Light, but it’s 40 cents!!!!

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19. Simply walking through the streets of Hoi An

For a strong dose of Colonial charm, head to Hoi An and aimlessly wander through the streets and alleyways of this old shipping port. Listed as a World Heritage Site, the town is full of hundreds of beautifully restored merchant houses and Chinese temples, now occupied by fancy silk shops, fashionable boutiques, and gourmet restaurants. We spent six days here during Tet, and we never got tired of walking through Old Town and gawking at the architecture. This city is an absolute must on your tour of Vietnam.

The famous Japanese covered bridge in Old Town Hoi An

You can spend hours walking through the streets filled with French-Colonial yellow merchant houses

20. Getting lost in the fascinating street markets throughout the country

Local markets are everywhere. Supermarkets are nowhere. It’s an Alice Waters’ paradise. Unfortunately, we didn’t ever have access to a kitchen, so we just looked at all the fresh fish, plump produce, bins of coffee beans, and baskets full of snails — and took way too many pictures. Our two favorite:

A produce vendor in Hoi An

Many of the markets open as early as 3 am, so this lunchtime nap seems essential. It’s also a sign for me to go to bed.

In case this wasn’t established in our gushing above… Our closing thought: Vietnam should be on the top of your travel list.