Motorbikes revving, construction pounding, horns blaring — Vietnam calling. Every single day, the symphony of sounds reminds me just how visceral life is here in Vietnam. Ever since I arrived here half a year ago, I have constantly been enamored with the possibility of discoveries hidden in each day. Vietnam is not the most-recognized destination in Southeast Asia, but it is poised to become the next “it” spot. Even in this generation, Vietnam remains cloaked in an air of mysticism. The country transcends timelines, stalling at various points in the millennia — historic sites show no signs of aging and time-honored cooking traditions are still practiced — the ways of the past echo into the future.
And more so, the people have truly charmed me. There is nothing more heartwarming than my local coffee barista answering my attempts at broken Vietnamese with a small word bank of English. Every afternoon, down the small alleyway I live on, I am greeted by a spunky three-year-old who runs to me and waits for me to pick her up and throw her in the air. The Vietnamese are genuinely gregarious and generous — it’s a special thing to witness, being surrounded by a people who live with a real gentleness of being. One thing I have come to learn about Vietnam is that there is always something new to capture your imagination.
Sailing Halong Bay
No visit to Vietnam is complete without a boat ride across Halong Bay. Ranked one of the seven new natural wonders of the world, the limestone towers that emerge from the sea are at once captivating, as they are silencing. While the rock formations astound, I just loved the tranquility. The lesser-known Bai Tu Long Bay, a neighboring inlet, is every much an equal to Halong Bay. Personally, if you’re not a fan of crowds and crave intimacy above all things, be a renegade and head to Bai Tu Long Bay. It may happen that you stumble upon the magic that was lost in the commercialization of Halong Bay.
Surrounded by everything from private yachts to traditional Chinese junk boats floating across the glistening emerald waters – you’ll sail past limestone islands, thick with lush forests and speckled with small sandy coves. The stopover of choice for many is Cat Ba island, where you can leisurely take in the surrounding natural glory from the comforts of a sandy shore. Anchors away!
Scooting for street food – Saigon on a Vespa
Motorbikes are the most popular mode of transportation in Vietnam. Compact, low-maintenance, inexpensive – you can zip around the city and explore its narrow alleyways on this fun ride. These alleyways, known as “hems” in Vietnamese, are lifelines to some of the most fascinating culinary feasting. Street food culture is very prevalent, you will see sidewalks littered with tiny stools and tables and locals chowing down on delicious food prepped in a mobile kitchen with nothing but a small burner and a tiny skillet to get the job done. Most street food joints actually have a very limited menu, serving one main dish and maybe four variations of it at most.
After dark, the city comes alive with a number of street food pop-ups. The restaurant’s capacity is determined by a need-to-feed mentality, ebbing and flowing over the course of the night depending on how many visitors arrive. Saigon Vespa Tours will open doors to places you would have never dreamed of looking. Street food comes to a climax in the form of a quán ốc, which literally is a snail restaurant. But the menu goes beyond snails — they serve anything that comes in a shell like oysters, clams, mussels, and shrimp. Even if snails may not be the most appetizing thing that comes to mind, trust me, learning how to pry a snail out of an itty bitty shell the size of a fingernail using only a sewing pin is pretty clutch.
Learn the art of lantern making in Hoi An
With beauty so resounding, it’s easy to understand why Hoi An was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. A window into the past, the coastal idyll is mainly praised for its well-preserved Ancient Town. Because of its history as a rich commercial port, the city is a sum of all the visitors it has hosted. Canals flank Chinese pagodas while canary yellow French colonial buildings are swallowed by bougainvillea. A pensive thought or two is best expressed while standing on the Japanese Covered Bridge, Hoi An’s most recognizable landmark. At night, take a quiet stroll down the pedestrian-friendly streets, basking in the light of the city’s signature colorful silk lanterns.
Aside from being visually pleasing, silk lanterns are symbolically significant. During the 16th and 17th century, the Japanese merchants who temporarily resided in the port city, hung tube lanterns in front of their homes. The ethereal glow from the lanterns caught the attention of the locals who decided to adopt the practice. The lanterns are said to invite luck and wealth into the home.
One of the most rewarding experiences on the road is learning a new skill. Try your hand at traditional painting and lantern making with the Lifestart Foundation, a local non-profit helping disadvantaged Vietnamese families become self-sufficient through vocational training. Not only will your project become a one-of-a-kind keepsake, but you’ll also be contributing to the local community in a deeply meaningful way.
Walk the Old Quarter in Hanoi
The Old Quarter in Hanoi is one of the biggest hotspots of tourist activity in the country. Almost every major attraction that is in Vietnam’s capital is within its parameters: Hanoi Opera House, Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, National Museum of Vietnamese History, Ba Dinh Square, One Pillar Pagoda, Bach Ma Temple, and Dong Xuan, Hanoi’s largest market. Established almost 1000 years ago, its history is etched into the French-colonial architecture. Cyclos, the three-wheeled bicycles, whirl around the bustling Old Quarter, a head-on journey into madness. Down little narrow alleyways, choose a cafe and ask for egg coffee, a famous drink topped with a dollop of frothy meringue goodness.
At the edge of the Old Quarter sits the unassuming Hoan Kiem Lake. In the eerie still of early morning, clouds of fog lift up over the little temple situated in the center of the lake, a sight unlike any other. At its periphery, the locals are out and about doing their morning aerobics routine. If you have the steel to get up at 5 AM, you can be privy to the unique energy of the Old Quarter.
Live like a local in a Mekong Delta homestay
The Mekong Delta is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. Dubbed the “rice bowl” of Vietnam, rivers and swamps crisscross across the lush and fertile land. The rivers double as highways with wooden long boats ferrying around local folk. One of the highlights of the region are the floating markets – the centerpiece of the haul is the local produce, fresh fruit and vegetables sourced from the nearby farm areas. The floating markets set up in the wee hours of the morning before the sun gets too hot. If you want to catch the enterprise at its most animated, come around 5-6 AM.
A homestay option is the most intimate way to experience the Mekong. The Vietnamese are one of the most hospitable and gracious people you will ever encounter. Throughout the delta, homes sit on picturesque islands surrounded by gorgeous orchards. Take a quiet canal ride through the bayous to arrive at your host’s house. Enjoy a local meal – the dinner will consist of the bounty found in the region — juicy fish, fresh herbs, and mountains of rice. There may even be a delicacy like the elephant ear fish. While the accommodations may be modest, there is nothing more heartwarming than experiencing the overwhelming generosity of people. It’s a very humbling opportunity.
Make a new friend – Learn the Vietnamese language
Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam. For natives, when a foreigner is equipped with basic Vietnamese, they are touched by the effort. When you try to learn Vietnamese, it shows an interest in not only the culture, but also a desire to communicate with the people. Travelers who want to experience the life of a local and make new friends would enjoy a lesson or two.
The Vietnamese language is quite fun to learn, especially for foreigners. For example, a “D” in English is pronounced like dog but a “D” in Vietnamese is pronounced like a “Z” as in zoo. Also, in Vietnamese, the end of words tend to be swallowed so you don’t carefully pronounce the entire word. Having a local guide close at hand to share some knowledge will enhance your trip greatly.
Say ‘cho tôi biết’ – thank you for these handy tips!
Whether you choose to sleep aboard a traditional junk boat, explore lantern-spangled streets, take a laid-back trip through the Mekong Delta or spend a night with a local family, Rickshaw Travel offers a range of authentic travel experiences to Vietnam. To journey into the heart of Vietnam, experience their unique culture, cuisine and accommodations, take a 14-day/ 13 night trip with the authentic travel experts, Rickshaw Travel.
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