This is the second successive year that I’ve returned to Vietnam. The first stint lasted nearly nine months that took me from the north to south; with my recently stay only lasting a quick two months. What can I say – I just love the place!
Vietnam is a popular destination for many tourists traveling throughout Southeast Asia, but I had my own personal reasons for visiting the land of my ancestry. My previous visits to Vietnam over thirteen years ago were only brief and for family reasons, but more recently I wanted to give myself the opportunity to have an immersive experience. This would include meeting relatives whom I haven’t hadn’t met or couldn’t remember, gain a better understanding of the history, slow down and observe for myself, what life in Vietnam is like.
During my time in Vietnam, I’ve made many friends, eaten more than my fair share of food and also answered many of my own questions about the culture that had plaguing me over the years. Overall though, it’s been one of the best experiences of my life that’s injected me with confidence, a clearer understanding of myself as well further my obsession with Vietnamese food.
Here are fourteen reasons as to why I love Vietnam and why many others who visit will so too.
Most responses from travelers as to what they love about a place is usually the people, right? I found that Vietnamese, are one of the most approachable people anywhere. Overall, the they are easy going, curious and genuinely want people to respectfully enjoy their country.
Meeting local people in Vietnam is pretty easy; despite their shyness, most young people who go to school can speak english. In order to get into some schools, it’s requirement of students to have a certain grasp of the English language, so it won’t be uncommon to run into students who will want to practice their English with you, especially when you’re walking around in the parks or lake. This is the perfect time to ask them questions about the city you’re in, as there are no better recommendations than those from a local.
I lose weight when eating Vietnamese street food
No, it’s not from food poisoning; in fact, I haven’t gotten sick off street food at all in Vietnam *touch wood*. Two things that contribute to the why I lose weight here.
Firstly, I walk everywhere; it’s the only way that new foods are discovered that aren’t in the guide books. I walk up to twenty kilometres a day and when I’m on my way to a food recommendation, I will usually spot two, three new places that I note down to return to and try.
Secondly, the portion sizes are small. Most of the food, condiments and cutlery are transported from a vendor’s home so everything needs to be precisely measured; from the stock, number of bowls and portions of salads and herbs. This means that you won’t see much food wastage as in the west. You won’t go away feeling stuffed, but you also won’t go away feeling hungry either.
The Noodle Soups
When you think of Vietnamese food, most people think of Pho. It’s the most popular Vietnamese soup around the world, but there are more soups in the Vietnamese noodle soup arsenal than you can possible imagine. Like a beautiful wine, there are various broths ranging from mild and porky, to pungent fermented fish flavours. Whenever friends arrive in Vietnam, I never take them to eat Pho, as there are too many other soups to introduce them to.
Common in the streets of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, drinking beer was one of my most favourite activities to enjoy at the end of the day. As the day turns into night, retail shops lay out small plastic stools and tables for customers as they transform themselves into beer houses. At around 25c for a cup of chilled keg beer, the number of local and foreign visitors spill out onto the streets to a point where police will divert traffic around the block.
For a few dollars, a great time can be had.
The Urban Parks and Lakes
Traffic congestion is an issue and a major turnoff from being in the city in Vietnam. If you like jogging as exercise, then you’re quite limited for routes to run; as pedestrian footpaths are either occupied by street vendors, motorbikes, or just aren’t in a shape where you can safely jog along. Running on the road is risky and not the best idea considering the number of motorbikes on the road.
A place where I liked to escape the heat and traffic are at the parks in Saigon and the Lakes in Hanoi. They not only provide much needed shade from the heat and have footpaths wide enough to cater for many and also have public exercise equipment. They also are a great place for people watching and photograph the daily life. The best times to visit are early mornings and afternoons around sunset; where you’ll see people of all ages exercising, fishing, tango dancing, drawing or just cooling off.
The Urban Explorations
With so much history dating back hundreds of years, Saigon is full of inconspicuous buildings that can be explored. Traditionally residential blocks, many are being converted into small businesses where residents and retailers co-exist. With an emerging generation that is embracing entrepreneurship, many are choosing to occupy spaces inside these buildings. Whether they are cat cafes, fashion stores or gift shops, each of them are unique in style and provide hours of exploration.
Many buildings have historical significance as well. It’s easy to just walk by them without thinking twice but when you learn about the their significance or role that they played in history.
The Charm of Hanoi and the energy of Saigon
When I made my first ever trip to Hanoi at the start of the nine months in Vietnam, I was captivated by the charm of the Old Quarter. Much of the French colonial architecture hasn’t been knocked down and despite there being a hell of a lot of motorbikes zipping through the narrow streets, there was a more subdued and calmer mood within the capital.
By the time that I arrived in Saigon, I felt as though I was back in the big city. With over eight million residents, there is a sense of progress, with increased foreign investment into infrastructure projects as well as many cool bars in the unlikeliest of places. There is also a creative energy with many locally owned boutique stores opening as well as networking events for local business owners, and startups.
The Cafe Culture
As I’ve spent more time in Vietnam, the more I’ve learnt to appreciate the cafe culture here. It seems as though with each passing week, new cafes are opening, as well as closing. The competitiveness forces each venue to provide a point of difference in product, service and styling. These cafes serve a plethora of uses, from casual meetups, to workspaces for the growing number of digital nomads who use the low cost of Vietnam, to work on their business and feed their caphe sua da (iced coffee with sweetened condense milk) addiction.
Cost of travel and living is low
Of the three years of travel, I haven’t come across an affordable country to stay in as Vietnam. At $23 a day, nothing comes close. From 50c Banh Mi and coconut, $9 for my own studio room and $1 for a 5km bike taxi ride, it’s no wonder it’s a favourite amongst long term travelers, and location independent entrepreneurs.
These costs are calculated based on slow travel, where the cost of living actually decreases; where over time, you understand the value of good and services and where to find the best deals.
The Traditional Ao Dai dress
Vietnam isn’t known for being the fashion capital of the world, but the traditional Ao Dai (pronounced: ow-ya-i) along with the straw hat would have to be the national icon. An ao dai is usually worn during the Tet (lunar New Year) weeks, and important events and celebrations.
Elegant and stylish, each silk Ao Dai is unique as every designed to accentuate the beauty and femininity of every individual Vietnamese women.
Vietnam has eight world heritage sites in total, but the most beautiful of them all would have to be Halong Bay. Set in the north eastern tip of the country, it’s hard pressed not to take an overnight tour by boat and gawk at the thousands of limestone karsts that rise out of the bay. If you have additional time, it’s well worth it to spend another day exploring Cat Ba Island and the various floating villages.
Despite being overcrowded now, it’s still well worth the experience.
The landscapes of the north
I spent three weeks volunteering in Sapa, north of Hanoi and was struck by the beauty of the area. Primarily occupied by various ethnic communities, it’s a hot destination for tourism. If you’re there for the trekking, be sure to stay back for at least a few days to explore more of region by motorbike as you will only see a tiny fraction by an organised trek.
If you only have a day or two to spare, consider heading south of Hanoi to Tam Coc, where the region is best described as Halong Bay on Rice Paddies and rightly so. Translated as ‘three caves’, a tour around the river system will take you under the three natural caves.
Phong Nha–Kẻ Bàng national park is home over 300 caves, and also the biggest caves in the world. They are so deep that not all of the systems have been fully explored. Discovered in 2009, Son Doong Cave takes the crown as the largest cave in the world, but the privilege of exploring it will set you back over $4,000. The next best options in the area are Paradise Cave, Phong Nha Cave as well as Hang En which is th third largest cave in the world and requires an overnight trek to reach it.
Every now and then, something happens that make you stop in your tracks, and think, WTF! These moments takes a few seconds of observation in order double check that your eyes aren’t deceiving you. The standard WTF moments for me were: Crossing the street while a steady stream of traffic weave their way around you and witnessing what on earth could fit onto a motorcycle. These were a few of many everyday occurrences that seem to become normal to me after a while.