-Ho Chi Minh City-Danang-Hoi An-Hue
6-20th June '16
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, also Saigon) was our first stop in Vietnam. Exiting the arrival hall to our far left, there's a unmarked station with green buses which offered rides directly to the well-known Ben Thanh market at 5K VND per person (additional 5K VND with all the extra baggage you may have). It was affordable, and a good way to take in the first vibe of the city. We realized that Vietnam was a right hand drive (driver drives on the left side of the vehicle) country.
After alighting at the Ben Thanh market bus station, the traffic madness began. We headed towards Ben Thanh market for food with our luggage. The traffic on the roundabout does not seem to stop. The strategy of crossing roads in HCMC will be walking at a steady pace and not hesitate. The motorbikes will most probably work around you.
Ben Thanh market
Our main reason for visiting Ben Thanh market was for food. We had an avocado milkshake, pho and banh mi there. The avocado milkshake was decent, and the pho had a good impression on me (SB had tried it before on his previous family trip to HCMC). The pho is noodle soup with a plate of abundant vegetables. There I realized one common ingredient of Vietnamese food. The basil leaves. Shie Boon enjoyed all kinds of vegetables and I liked it best when it's a small amount in banh mi, The Vietnamese styled baguette. The small amount of the acquired taste of basil leaves keeps the banh mi refreshing. Other than that, they can be too overwhelming. After the trip, we realized we've had the higher end pricing for the banh mi at Ben Thanh market for 40K VND. After our travel through HCMC and central Vietnam, we realized a decent and common price to pay was 15K VND, with the cheapest at 7K VND in central Vietnam. Ben Thanh market is huge, so prepare to navigate around. The food stalls In Ben Thanh generally charges a higher price than other parts of HCMC and since the prices are fixed, we'd recommend to walk down the streets and give the street side food stalls a try. If you'd like to shop, be prepared to bargain hard. Have an idea of what price you're willing to pay for the item you fancy and stick by it. Be firm. Ben Thanh market is still a nice place to visit, if not for the food and souvenirs, but the structure and history of the market. In Vietnam, the Chos are the central market of each place. So if you see that in front of a name, it's probably a market.
One the way to our accommodation, we chilled at a coffee cafe for Vietnamese coffee. SB loves only Vietnamese coffee. The flavor was special. It was strong, smooth, and don't leave an uncomfortable aftertaste in your taste buds after drinking. We'll agree HCMC offered the better coffee during our entire stay in Vietnam.
On places to visit, we'd highly recommend walking along the Saigon river before sunset, and along Nguyen Hue pedestrian street after. The street is lively, with lots of activity going on. There's a phenomenon of people hanging out in groups to do an activity. From singing, dancing, yo yo, random mascots saying hello and our favorite, hoverboarding. It was 25K VND for 15mins of good fun on the hoverboard up and down the street which connects the HCMC city hall and to the street beside Saigon river. Perching out of the alfresco restaurant at Mekong pizza restaurant, we had a nice time people watch while having dinner. Banh trang nuong from a random street stall (crispy grilled rice paper with shrimps, pork and other ingredients), matcha chocolate from lolitea and churros are some of the snacks we've enjoyed around the area. Check out the writing on street foods of Vietnam here.
Health and safety
It's a common sight to see locals with the face masks on. We'll advice on the purchasing of one to keep and wear in times of extreme bad air areas, whether you're walking or on a motorbike. We've decided it's healthier for our well-being. The face masks can be easily found in the convenience stores selling between 10-20K VND. Crossing the roads for the first time can be overwhelming. It did for me and it's uncommon to see traffic lights. As mentioned previously, the strategy of crossing roads in HCMC will be walking at a steady pace and not hesitate. Be respectful and practice good road sense. The motorbikes will most probably work around you.
Our commute was either by bus or walking. We walked daily from De Tham to the city hall area pretty frequently. Buses are available but it's difficult to understand the complexed map and Vietnamese so we'd recommend asking your receptionist at your accommodation for help if you don't understand Vietnamese.
HCMC was an interesting place to visit for it's vibe, pho, Nguyen Hue pedestrian street and history. We visited the war remnants museum but didn't complete it due the time of our arrival. If you like history, the information is rich at the museum. The tickets are at 15K VND per person.
We traced back Vietnam's history back to even before the war when we visited Hue, the past imperial capital of Vietnam. Do read about Hue in it's own section.
The next stop was beautiful Danang, where we found our space, nature, seafood, and the best burgers.
Danang city is our second stop of our Vietnam trip. After arriving at Danang international airport from a turbulent plane ride from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) Tan Son Nhat international airport, we took a taxi for the first time in Vietnam from the airport to our accommodation. It cost us 125K VND for a 6.4KM, 15 mins journey. Contrary to HCMC, which you can take a 15K VND (2 pax plus luggage) bus ride from the HCMC airport to Ben Thanh market (District 1) area.
Danang do not seem to have an extensive bus network system. The more common transport systems are via scooters or taxis. Our first and lasting impression of Danang was that it's a small cozy city. There are four bridges which connects the main island to the stretch of beaches. The dragon bridge being the most prominent and majestic. After settling down at our accommodation, I did a simple list of things we'd like to do in this city and SB did the more extensive research (like we should visit the dragon bridge on the weekends when there's a performance on the bridge at 9pm), and proposed an itinerary. We did well there as a team. We were more relaxed in Danang with the space and surrounding nature.
The dragon bridge show is held every weekend at 9PM. We gathered on the Happy Yacht to enjoy the show while having dinner. Initially we thought the Happy Yacht was a tourist trap, but it turns out affordable. The dragon's fire breathing was in intervals and will switch to water spraying after that. It was really special.
Son Tra mountain
Seafood is fresh and affordable in Danang. I believe the direct source are from the fishermen. At the seafood restaurants along the coastline, customers are free to choose their own live seafood from the many seafood tubs offered. Half a kilograms of clams will cost 60K VND with food preparation and cooking included. Sitting at the short table and stools, there were many locals selling us random food like fruits, fried crackers, and so on. We were surprised that on one occasion, a random traveling magician came into the restaurant to perform his tricks. Take note that it's a practice to throw the leftover shells and rubbish on the floor and the staffs of the restaurant will clear it afterwards. This is something I'm still not used to it.
My Khe beach was only crowded in the mornings after sunrise, and evenings before sunset. In between that, there were comfortable space for beach activities. There are designated areas for swimming and the lifeguards were strict on that as the waters of the My Khe beach was generally wavy. We think that the beach has a potential of a good place for surfing. Although swimming can be challenging on the wavy waters, jumping over the waves were as fun as well. We rented two sun loungers for 30K VND each for the whole day. There, we had the most comfortable beach nap.
Health and safety
Danang is a relatively clean and safe place. Face masks are recommended, but it's less of a necessity as compared to HCMC. Though safe, it's advisable to practice common sense by keeping your valuables out of sight to prevent inviting temptations for any thieves out there. Be respectful and practice good road sense as a pedestrian and as a motorcyclist.
If you've decided to ride a motorbike, we recommended you to get a helmet with a visor as there can be small stones flying up from the roads to your eye which can be a distraction to riding. We rented the motorbikes from our accommodation and were assigned manual motorbikes by their partnered rental shop. The manual motorbikes were common, and we rented for 120K VND per day. We only managed to get an auto motorbike at 150K VND on the last day. SB is comfortable with any, but I'd prefer riding an auto motorbike as it keeps me less busy in a new place. Finally, do check the speedometer, fuel meter, mirrors and the functionality of the motorbike before accepting it. Don't be surprised to see only one mirror on the bike as it's very common. Just make sure the rider feels comfortable, safe and confident while riding.
Our form of transport in Danang was the motorbike. Danang is easy to navigate and we enjoyed riding along the coastline from the Son Tra mountain to the Marble mountains. The views are fantastic.
Danang was our favourite place in Vietnam. As a visitor, I felt that this place located in central Vietnam is young and vibrant. For space, nature, seafood and the best burgers, Danang is an ideal city for a recharge and adventure.
Hoi An is approximately 28KM from central Danang, which can be reached with a 30minute motorbike ride. The old town of Hoi An is a UNESCO heritage site.
We'd recommend a half day trip to Hoi An from Danang. Although busy and touristy, it does have it's flavour from the olden days both in the day and at night.
We chanced upon Mrs Hat Mi Quang and Cao Lau during sunset at Hoi An while on the way back to old town to see the lights. The traditional Vietnamese dishes were memorable to us.
Though an unique experience, old town Hoi An was too touristy for our liking.
Hue (To be continued)
Ninh Binh is located in North Vietnam. It is known for it's beautiful limestone karst that is spread out throughout the city, it's villages, the home of the critically endangered Delacour's langur, and the location of the film set of Kong: Skull Island.
We recommend a visit to Trang An landscape complex in the morning to take a boat ride. Be prepared to duck your heads while the skillful boat lady navigate you through the breathtaking limestone karst caves. In the evening, climb up the 500 steps to Mua cave, to enjoy interesting views of mountain goats balancing on the challenging karst terrain as well as to enjoy a good sunset. On the next day, visit Van Long nature reserve to enjoy a peaceful cruise and hopefully encounter the Delacour's langurs which are critically endangered. The largest surviving population of the Delacour's langur is believed to be in Van Long nature reserve.
Consider staying at Ninh Binh family homestay with our host, Scott and family. The most memorable phrase of Scott's wife (Hung) is, 'Would you like lunch/dinner?'. For breakfast, great banana pancakes was served. Simple, warm, fresh, organic and holistic Vietnamese food was served for every meal (if opt in with a 5USD/person/meal) cooked by a great chef. Scott's expertise is in his hospitality, so planning of tours with him is a good idea. Places that he recommend are as local as it can get.
Health and safety
Your palate and diet will be well taken care of by Scott and his family.
On a note about safety: Please do not touch any livestock while exploring the villages as the villagers might view the act as stealing and turn aggressive. This happened to SB when he tried to rescue a baby duck stuck in the fence. The seemingly drunk owner of the livestock confronted SB, and tried to hit him with his shoes. SB defended himself, I shouted, Scott intervened, and it was settled.
I was considering a trip to a new destination in Vietnam to explore so that all 3 of us (SB and MH), can explore a new city together. I thought of Halong Bay initially. But after being not able to find a cruise that I was comfortable with in terms of operations, safety and financials, I set on a new plan to research for an alternative, and found Ninh Binh. This place remains close to our hearts due to the amazing sights we've seen, and the hospitality of our hosts. As village and laid-back that Ninh Binh can seem to be, they have the freshest produce for food. Their staple vegetable (Kang Kong), is in abundance and grown without pesticides. How nice is that.