Vietnam: Land of Layers

Words by Ben Walker
Photos by Ben Walker

The typical U.S. passport holder will opt for a 30-day visa when traveling to Vietnam for the first time. We initially planned to stay in the country for about half that time, or two weeks, but we actually ended up leaving for Cambodia just a couple days before our visas would have expired. The reason behind almost doubling our proposed time in Vietnam was a combination of items, although the first and foremost reason is: Vietnam is pretty awesome, but it can take some time to figure that out.

 

Expectations

Vietnam was our third country on our globe-spanning, six-month travels. It was also about one month into the trip, so we had already been on the road for a bit before making our first stop in Southeast Asia.

Honestly, I didn’t get a lot of research done on places to go or things to see before we landed in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Excitement was still at a good level in general, but I don’t think we really knew what to expect so, unfortunately, we probably still had Hong Kong on our minds.

Hong Kong was orderly, relatively clean, and there were plenty of options of food to appease many different palettes. Hanoi, on the other hand, was seemingly chaotic and dirty and the food didn’t immediately fulfill our Anthony-Bourdain-inspired dreams of Bun Cha and Banh Mi.

 

Delving Deeper: From North to South

Hanoi

I don’t recommend having an absolute planned itinerary when you’re traveling, but I also think there should be something for you to grab onto instead of just winging it. Somewhere in the middle has been the sweet spot for us, but for one reason or another we arrived in Hanoi with very little on our radar. This led to a few days of doing next to nothing before we decided to get out and explore a bit.

We started trying more and more food items and did a lot of walking in and around the Old Quarter. We checked out lakes, markets, food stalls, water puppet theater, and more and started to get used to the rhythm of Vietnam, or at least Hanoi. If nothing else, we at least learned how to cross the street without getting run over by 50 scooters (just start going and put your hand up and hope for the best).

Upon leaving the capital we had definitely begun to see some of the charm of the country, but by then I had done more research and I was ready for something a bit more rural.

 

Halong Bay

From Hanoi we traveled to Halong Bay, which is famously known as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is visited by millions of people every year. The area is very touristy, but there aren’t even close to as many people living there as you’ll find in Hanoi just a few hours away. Overall, it’s a much quieter atmosphere.

Basically, the only reason to come here is to go out on a boat and see the bay. There really isn’t a whole lot to do in the area and most people don’t stay more than 2-3 nights total.

However, making the trip out to see the bay is well worth it. Getting out early on a misty morning and seeing the mysterious karst formations come looming into view is a memory you won’t soon forget. We ended up just doing a day tour around the bay, but there are plenty of options to actually sleep overnight on boats as well, which I think could be an amazing experience.

 

Ninh Binh

From Halong we traveled 3-4 hours south to the rural area of Ninh Binh, which just happened to be our favorite experience in all of Vietnam.

Ninh Binh is kind of like Halong Bay in that there are karst formations all over the place, except here they’re on land instead of in the water and people are living right next to them. It’s quite something to get up close to these formations (and even climb a few of them) in comparison to seeing them from a boat.

The idyllic scenery and pace of life around Ninh Binh really suited what we were looking for at the time. It’s a slower lifestyle than you’d find in the cities because there are a lot of farms and fields and plenty of open space. Also, just about everyone we came into contact with was extremely nice and pleasant.

Complimentary use of bicycles from our accommodation really cemented this as our favorite stop. We could go out whenever and wherever we pleased and explore the area as we desired. Most popular locations were within riding distance, especially because the whole area is flat, making it very easy to ride a bicycle.

 

Hoi An & Danang

Our original plan for Vietnam was to start in Hanoi and end in Ho Chi Minh. Everything looks relatively close on a map, but places tend to get a lot farther apart once you’re actually there on the ground.

From Ninh Binh, we decided to take a 14-hour overnight train ride to Danang where we then took a taxi to Hoi An so we could spend a few nights there before returning to Danang for the same amount of time.

The trains in Vietnam are not new, which means rail journey is not the most comfortable. Being a passenger on a machine apparently stuck on spin cycle for such a long period of time is an unforgettable experience. Still, it’s surprisingly not something I regret!

We didn’t actually do a few of the more popular activities while we were in the area (like visit the BaNa hills), but we enjoyed ourselves all the same. Hoi An Old Town is a great place to walk around in the evening and find some cheap, delicious food to eat. The beaches in both cities can be great places to relax and catch some rays, although I particularly enjoyed watching the sunset two days in a row at the beach in Danang.

 

Ho Chi Minh

Truth be told, I probably shouldn’t include Ho Chi Minh here because we literally did little more than walk a few blocks away from where we were staying, usually to get food. There actually were some things we had in the works, but everything fell into a shambles when my phone was stolen right out of my hand in front of our Airbnb. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to run fast enough to catch the guy on the scooter and get my phone back. Needless to say, this made us slightly wary of doing anything at all.

It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is and it hasn’t ruined our perspective of Vietnam or its people. Honestly, something like that could happen in most places around the world, including around where we live in the States.

 

A Real Dose of Travel

Vietnam wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies for us, but there were still some unicorns in there. We started off a bit slow and had a few hiccups along the way, but overall it was an eyeopening experience.

Like most good things, it took an effort on our end to look past the gritty, outside layers and see the real beauty within. We fell in love with Banh Mi at Banh Mi 25 in Hanoi. We laughed as we held up a 200.000 VND note next to its inspiration in Halong Bay. We smiled and waved to children as we rode our bicycles around Ninh Binh. We felt frustrated when my phone was stolen and whenever we tried unsuccessfully to bridge the gap of the language barrier.

Our almost month long stay in Vietnam had us experiencing just a few of the layers of this country and we hope to experience more in the future.

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