Vietnam gives a viable option for cheap travel in the South East region of Asia. Limited to currently traveling during Chinese holidays, it is slim pickings for my travel choices, as the Chinese love to travel, and do so all at once. This causes the immense crowds to move from mainland to all lands. I travelled here for Chinese New Year and spring festival this year from February 10th until March 1st.
My original plan for Vietnam was to travel for three weeks to the two biggest cities Ho Chi Minh (aka HCMC or Saigon), the island of Phu Quoc in the southwest, and the capital Hanoi; then make my way down the coast from Hue to Danang, Hoi An, Mui Ne, and Nah Trang, and finally back to HCMC to catch my return flight to Shanghai.
But this plan was dampened by a motorbike accident on night two.
Yes you heard right. On my birthday, as I climbed on the back of a bike on the island of Phu Quoc with the boy- our world turned topsy-turvy when we had a serious bike bump. All the time you read about these types of incidents, and think, “Yes, but that won’t happen to me.” Heed my warning when I say, it can and will happen to anyone.
In fact, a tour guide later told me in Hanoi that while the city has 8 million people, it has registered about 5 million motorbikes. The streets are crowded with cars, people, and above all else zooming, non-adhering to traffic laws, bikes. So unless you have great insurance, and a lot of experience on the back of a bike (or even if you do), do not travel by motorbike while venturing out in Vietnam.
It is a whole headache you can avoid, which in this case limited my trip to staying in HCMH and Hanoi for a large chunk of my time off. But let me move onto the fun stuff, and I can expand on the crazy accident later, or maybe it’s best as a bad memory I would rather forget.
Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
Phu Quoc provides the perfect holiday for a busy girl like me. After tons of working since May of last year, and no proper vacation time, I needed the R&R. Phu Quoc island life is perfect for doing nothing under the sun. I stayed at the mid-priced Coco Palm Resort, celebrated my birthday at a Spanish owned foodie haven called Itaca, and read some books, ignoring my phone buzzing while I switched sides to even out my tan.
After the terrible accident, the boy and I flew to HCMH where we unwittingly got suckered into overpriced healthcare, spent a great deal of time resting in the hotel due to a badly infected arm from the accident, and saw the measly “must-do’s” of HCMC. It’s like a cheaper version of Bangkok, but with more noisy traffic. I think two days is enough here to see some interesting sights like the War Remnants museum, and venture around the busy city as a whole. I will say, though, that the fireworks I witnessed from the top of the Hilton for Chinese New Years were pretty amazing.
Frankly, I liked Hanoi a lot better than HCMC for its beautiful French architecture and its less crowded feel, but not by much. I enjoyed more interesting attractions like the water puppet show, a Buddhist pagoda, and the most central parts of the city. Because the boy and I had to keep going to the local clinic for IV antibiotic treatments, we didn’t see Halong Bay until the end of a 5-day stay in Hanoi. Again, 2 days is enough time in the capital, one day for the city itself, and one day to see Halong Bay. Fortunately when tired of Vietnamese food, spending a night in the hotel with delicious pizza delivered right to the door and HBO on the television reminded me how globalized the world has become, and that I can find comfort in small things.
If you’ve already experienced the marvelous Koh Phi Phi in Thailand, Halong Bay will not impress you. This time of the year cast a very thick fog, and the 8-hour drive back and forth (4+4) is not worth the time spent there. Perhaps at a different time of the year Halong Bay could complete with Koh Phi Phi or Guilin, China’s water coves, but the gloomy weather meant my photographs didn’t so much resemble the beautiful post cards. After recovering from the motorbike disaster, the last place I had time to visit was Hoi An, and yay was it truly worth it.
Hoi An (BEAUTIFUL MUST DO!)
You cannot go to Vietnam and skip Hoi An. In this central area, close to all the coastal cities I unfortunately could not visit, Hoi An made up for all the bad luck at the beginning of the trip. It’s a quaint water town, with canals beautifully lit up by majestic looking traditional lamps everywhere. I splurged at the end to make up for all the fun I didn’t have beforehand. The high end, but not too pricey Victoria Hoi An provided perfect service, and a nice place to end the holiday. With a beautiful beach and swimming pool, I was right where I wanted to be. Nights were spent in the beautiful old town with amazing food and an aesthetic quality to match Venice. A pity there were only a few days left before the return to the every-day grind of being an over-worked professional in an oh-so-crowded global metropolis.
Vietnam as a whole, compared to the rest of South East Asia, is a cheaper option for travelling in style. I genuinely liked the overall service of every hotel, and even with the injury fiasco, enjoyed my time away. I recommend spending the majority of time on the coast, and agree that the beaches are as beautiful as those in Thailand. Well maybe not as beautiful, but definitely don’t pale in comparison. As you may know or have deduced, I love Thailand and in terms of food, it wins out again. I found Vietnamese fare to be less spicy and a bit more sweet than would be my preference (give me a larb gai salad and tom yum soup from Thailand any day). But alas, don’t get me started on food, or we could be here awhile. If I have to give a recommendation for a two week trip, I’d say skip HCMC (but hey you know I’m a beach bum at heart and the craziness of this city was not what I looking for in a vacation). Go to Hanoi no more than 2 days, giving Halong Bay one day, and then make your way down the coast, ending with Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam’s version of Phuket or Bali. Just don’t rent a bike, ooh, still so bitter.