The Very Best Of Viet Nam: Hoi An, Hanoi And Halong Bay

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To truly enjoy Viet Nam is to embrace it, entirely. The country is as chaotic as it is captivating and has slowly started to open its arms to the influx of tourists in recent years.

Roughly half the size of Texas and with an estimated population of around 94,000,000, Viet Nam boasts a fusion of customs, cultures and styles like no other Asian location.

Of course, you could spend several weeks uncovering its beauty. But if you only have two, make Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong Bay your priorities. They’re three very different – but equally mind-blowing spots that will make your Vietnamese vacation unforgettable. These are destinations which will command your attention whilst there and linger in your mind, long after you’ve left.

Hoi An (Credit: Georgina Lawton)
Hoi An (Credit: Georgina Lawton)

Here’s how to uncover the very best of Viet Nam.

Viet Nam, Need To Know

Viet Nam is both a dream location for backpackers and luxury travellers alike with hotels and hostels to suit every budget, stunning natural landscapes and cities that are full of double-take moments. The decent transport links make traversing through this country pretty easy and flights from the US and Canada won’t break the bank. Start in Hoian (in the central Viet Nam) and work your way down via bus or plane to see some of what this country has to offer.

Hoi An

When you arrive in Hoi An, hold off exploring until dusk. A walk around the impossibly atmospheric Ancient Town (or Old Quarter), is where canals serve as the city’s main arteries and shopping is practically mandatory.

Do

Walking around is best done in the evening when the town pulls the plug on its street power and hundreds of paper lanterns (both hanging and floating) bathe the place in a warm, soporific glow. You’re almost guaranteed at least one picture-perfect opportunity.

Hoi An at night (Credit: Georgina Lawton)
Hoi An at night (Credit: Pexels)

The main entrance into the Old Quarter is opposite the “Japanese Covered Bridge,” constructed by – you guessed it – the Japanese in the 1590s. This is your first big photo op, so don’t miss it. But if you can’t find it, the fire-truck red Fujian Assembly Hall is worth a picture, too.

Built by the Chinese and later turned into a temple, today the temple is both touristy and tranquil. If you can’t find these spots – ask some locals or just follow the crowds. And if that fails, simply walk around and marvel at the mix of well-preserved architecture; colourful French colonial buildings, wooden 17-century Chinese houses and ornate Japanese pagodas.

When you’re done there, a visit to the frenetic Hoi An Central Market, resting on the banks of the Thu Bon River, will give you a taste of authentic Vietnamese life. Famed for its fine tailoring as well as delicious street food, you may be tempted by the all the offers of full suits, dresses or hand-made buffalo-skin bags. Beware though: haggling, although common, has got more difficult in recent years and it’s harder to find a bargain now.

Hoi An markets (Credit: Georgina Lawton)
Hoi An markets (Credit: Georgina Lawton)

Eat

And if you’re curious to learn the art of Vietnamese cooking, Red Bridge Cooking School offers full and half day lessons with local experts using fresh ingredients from the local market and the kitchen’s garden. I created Gỏi cuốn from scratch; a light Vietnamese spring roll made from rice paper and filled with prawn, pork, chicken, spring onions and fresh lemongrass.

Stay

For accommodation, check into the gorgeous Emm Hotel where you can get a lot for a little. A spacious double room (scattered with rose-petals) and complete with ensuite, comes in just under $45 a night in September. And for that price, you’ll also get access to the hotel’s large pool and delicious breakfast.

Hoi An’s ambience is pretty unbeatable, but when you’re ready for a change of pace, Hanoi boasts a completely different vibe altogether and is just one hour away by plane.

Hanoi

Viet Nam’s capital, Hanoi is known for it’s meandering, bustling streets, the busiest of which lead in and around its Old Quarter. The real heart of the city, this is where cafes, shops and markets collide with motorbikes and people, spilling out onto the narrow streets as if Hanoi imploded from within.

Hanoi city (Credit: Georgina Lawton)
Hanoi city (Credit: Georgina Lawton)

Do

If you’ve got nerves of steel for the traffic, a trip via the Xe Xích Lô (on-road, open push buggies) is a great way to get around the Old Quarter. Note that each street is named after the goods that were once sold there (i.e. Hang Bac – which translates as “silver products”) and remember to stop-off in the Dong Xuan Market if you want to stock up on  souvenirs, handicrafts (or anything else you can think of).

Hoam Kien lake (Credit: Georgina Lawton)
Hoam Kien lake (Credit: Georgina Lawton)

Be sure to finish your tour at the spectacular lake in Hanoi’s historic centre; it’s here where you can find the city’s most famous temple; Ngoc Son. Nestled on a small island in the Northern part of the lake, Ngoc Son (which translates as “temple of the jade mountain”) is connected to civilisation via an ornate bridge.

Eat

Hanoi’s known for its weird and wacky culinary delights (perhaps the most notorious of which is roasted dog), but if you want something a little tastier, try one of the city’s best restaurants, Quan An Ngon. Boasting an extensive menu with foods from across Viet Nam, I tried the fried noodles, crab cakes, steamed greens and grilled fish and only regret that I hadn’t ordered more.

If it’s street food you’re after, opt for Banh Mi first. Often billed as the “world’s best sandwich,” Banh Mi is a French-influenced Vietnamese classic that’s available on practically every street corner. It’s basically a toasted baguette, filled with chicken or pork, pickled vegetables, and drizzled in sweet chilli dressing – and the best of its kind is available at Bahn Mi 25.

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Also worth a taste (and which are available basically everywhere) is Bánh Bao, steamed pork buns, which originated from China. And of course, a trip to Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without sampling a bowl of steaming hot pho.

Stay

There’s no shortage of hotels and hotels in Hanoi but one of the best  has to be O’Gallery Premier Hotel. Luxurious, spacious and staffed by possibly some of the  friendliest people in the city, a short stay here was rewarded with a parting goodie bag from the management, equipped with thank-you note and Vietnamese coffee.

Halong Bay

From Hanoi, it’s a tedious four-hour drive to Halong Bay – but don’t stress because the best has been saved until last. A World Heritage Centre since 1994, this area of ethereal beauty, in the Gulf of Tonkin, is characterised by towering limestone pillars which emerge from emerald waters like giant, jagged, Jenga blocks. Amazingly, the formations only get more mind-blowing, the further into the bay you travel.

Halong Bay (Credit: Pexels)
Halong Bay (Credit: Pexels)

To really appreciate this spot, you’ll want to book a cruise; two days and one night can cost anything from $200-$500 depending on how much luxury you’re after. Remember though, nature doesn’t discriminate and the sights are the same for everyone. The views really start from the moment you set sail, so grab a good seat and drink it all in, whichever boat you choose.

Halong Bay is dotted with grottoes and beaches that are made for exploring and most boat tours will include stop-offs where you can go kayaking, sunbathing or cave-hopping. But of course, all that is secondary to the view; tranquil, dramatic and full of surprises – much like Viet Nam itself.

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About the Author: Georgina Lawton

Georgina Lawton is a travel-addict and professional travel and lifestyle writer from London, currently exploring Nicaragua, Mexico and Cuba. She blogs about the link between identity and travel at: www.girlunfurled.com and also posts far too many photos of Latin food and beaches on her Instagram page: @girlunfurled. Engage her services or say hi: georgina@girlunfurled.com

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