As a Midwestern boy, I wasn’t exposed to much Vietnamese culture. Missouri isn’t the most diverse part of the country and my parents had a hard enough time finding Peruvian and Hispanic events for us growing up. Even after moving to San Diego, I didn’t explore much around Convoy Street (the Asian area of San Diego) until I met my beautiful wife. There are many reasons why I’m so lucky to have married Diem, but good Vietnamese food is definitely up there.
She left Vietnam with her family when she was two and she hasn’t been back to visit her motherland. Personally, I didn’t know much about Vietnam other than learning about the Vietnam War in history class. Despite its size, Vietnam has almost 93 million people and is the world’s 14th most populous nation. A former French colony, Vietnam gained independence in 1954. Thereafter, Vietnam was divided politically into two rival states, North Vietnam (officially the Democratic Republic of Vietnam), and South Vietnam (officially the Republic of Vietnam). Conflict between the two sides intensified and became what we know as the Vietnam War. Even with the United States on the side of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1973, the war ended with a North Vietnamese victory in 1975.
Vietnam was then unified under a communist government but remained impoverished and politically isolated. The government continued its prosecution of South Vietnamese people and led to a mass exodus of South Vietnamese (including Diem’s family) almost 800,000 between 1975 and 1995. In 1986, the government initiated a series of economic and political reforms which began Vietnam's path towards integration into the world economy. By 2000, it had established diplomatic relations with all nations. Since 2000, Vietnam's economic growth rate has been among the highest in the world, and, in 2011, it had the highest Global Growth Generators Index among 11 major economies. Vietnam remains one of the world's four remaining one-party socialist states officially espousing communism.
Day 1 – Phnom Penh > Ho Chi Minh (HCM). Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon to many, can be a bit overwhelming to novice and experienced travelers alike. The city itself is huge, the largest by population in Vietnam. Additionally, like the rest of Vietnam, there aren’t too many people that actually speak English. But the amount of people and the language barrier isn’t what makes Saigon daunting, it’s the streets filled with streams upon streams of motorcycles and cars. Unlike other vastly populated cities like New Dehli and Manila, the flow of traffic never stops on the streets of Saigon. If you don’t plow ahead like the locals you will never be able to cross the streets during any time of day.
However, I had an ace up my sleeve. My lovely wife Diem speaks Vietnamese and most of her family has either lived in or visited Vietnam so we had a lot of good tips. She also did a lot of research on where to eat and stay while we were in Saigon. However, even she wasn’t ready for the frequent near-death street crossings.
On our first day, we took a tuk tuk to the Phnom Penh bus station and caught our 8:30 AM bus to Ho Chi Minh. We got to the city a little before 4 PM and walked to our hotel. Luckily it was a short walk and we only had one street crossing with our luggage. We checked in and were getting hungry so we walked to find an ATM on our way to grab dinner. At our first major intersection we probably waited 10 minutes before we realized that the motorcycles were not going to stop at any point. In fact, many of the scooters and motorcycles overflowed onto the sidewalks so we just followed one of the locals crossing the street and let Jesus take the wheel. Luckily we made it safely to the other side and as the trip went on, we got more and more acclimated to the street crossings but never felt truly comfortable.
During our time in Vietnam, the exchange rate was almost 23,000 Vietnamese Dong to 1 USD. Many ATMs will only let you pull out 2 million dong while some will let you pull as much as 4 million (~200 USD). Since we booked some tours already that only took cash, it was a bit of a pain to have try and find a high limit ATM. We had an early dinner at Banh Cuon Hai Nam where we ate Banh cuon tom thit (38,000 vnd each) & cha lua (12,000 vnd each) and then back to hotel to rest. You’ll have to ask Diem about what those are. All I can tell you is that they were delicious and cheap, a great combo.
Day 2 – HCM. On our first full day, we had breakfast of pho & iced coffee at our hotel. Breakfast included and actually really good. We took a lot at some of the tours the hotel offered around Saigon and they were actually cheaper than what we had researched so we booked tours for the next two days and then chilled in the room for a bit. After a little break, we walked to get banh mi for lunch. We got our sandwiches from Banh Mi Hong Hoa and paid 20,000 vnd each for banh mi thit nguoi (cold cuts), banh mi thit nuong (grilled pork), banh mi ga (bbq chicken). That’s less than $3 USD for 3 awesome sandwiches!. We ate lunch in the park outside of the palace. It was pretty hot out but the sandwiches were delicious. The baguette was crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. The sauces and meats worked perfectly together, and did I mention they were less than a buck each?! With our new diet, I don’t get to each bread or sandwiches much. I don’t really miss them that much but writing this post makes me really miss these sandwiches.
Afterwards, we walked to the War Remnant Museum (15,000 vnd pp entrance fee but we got charged extra 20,000 vnd for guidebook that we thought was free)). There were 3 floors of stories and war pictures. Some were pretty gruesome and definitely one sided but interesting to see the Vietnamese perspective. What affected me most were the pictures of the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people. The devastation to the forests and the lingering consequences are readily apparent throughout the country. Diem was feeling a little weak from Cambodia so we left and headed back to the hotel. We freshened up and relaxed for a bit, then walked to get bun thit nuong (grilled pork and rice noodles) for dinner.
Day 3 – HCM. Today we ate pho for breakfast at the hotel again and waited for our tour. We booked a full day tour to see a temple and visit Viet Cong tunnels. The tour started at 8 AM and we got on a bus with other guests. We drove for almost 3 hours to the Cao Dai Temple with a break half way for coffee. It was large, colorful, and beautiful but definitely not worth the 3 hour drive to see it. Cao Dai is a new religious movement in Vietnam that blends Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Service occurs every day at noon so we took our shoes off and entered the temple. We were only allowed in the back but the interior was very colorful and everyone inside was in white clothes which reminded me of our meditation retreat in Chiang Mai.
Next, our tour drove us to our lunch stop. We don’t take a lot of tours but we’ve taken enough to know that if the tour includes a paid lunch option, you don’t take it. This stop was no exception, we walked into the restaurant, looked at the menu, and everything was 75,000-80,000 vnd (~$4 USD) each so we left to find a cheaper option. We found a local stall that had banh canh (thick noodle soup) and we were sold. It was very cheap and delicious! It was pretty hilarious because the lady at the stall was completely dumbfounded that Diem spoke Vietnamese. I guess, they don’t get many Vietnamese-American tourists. I was a little worried about eating street food but the dish was really tasty and our entire meal cost 30,000 vnd (~$1.50 USD). After we ate, we went back to the restaurant where everyone else was eating and we ordered some iced coffee to go.
Back on the bus, we drove another 1.5 hours to the Cu Chi Tunnel. The 110,000 vnd entrance fee was not included with our tour price ($12 USD pp). Our tour guide took us around the park through the tunnels and telling us history of the tunnels and the war for about 1.5 hours. We crawled through one very small underground tunnel. Our tour guide told us that the park widened the tunnels so that they could fit Westerners but it was still really tight. It’s hard to believe people lived down in the tunnels for months on end. When I got out of the tunnel, I was already hot and sore from crouching down. The park had a shooting range where you can fire some gigantic guns, if that’s your thing. Diem and I got some ice cream and tea while some people went to the shooting range. After waiting a bit, we left the park and drove for another 2 hours to get back to the city. We were dropped off near Ben Thanh market and walked to get dinner at the banh mi shop we had for lunch the day before (I had to get seconds!). Then we walked back to hotel. We actually forgot our room key on the breakfast table that morning but luckily the staff picked it up and was waiting for us when we got in.
Day 5 – HCM. We ate another tasty bowl of pho for breakfast at the hotel at 7:00 AM. Our tour guide picked us up at 8 AM. Today we booked a full day Mekong Delta tour and our bus drove almost 2 hours from the city to the Mekong Delta. The tour started and we got on a boat and cruised to first island where we got to taste local honey tea with calamansi & sweets. Then we got back on the boat to visit the next island to try some handmade coconut candy and I got to put a giant snake on my shoulders. The coconut candy was pretty delicious and I took quite a few samples to verify the quality. Next we cruised along to the third island to try some local seasonal fruits and took a short canoe ride through the narrow canals.
Finally, the cruise stopped at the Coconut Religion island for lunch and some relaxation time on hammocks. For some reason, they had quite a few alligators on the island and they had some bins where you could feed them with a string. Diem and I tried water coconut juice (which is different from coconut water) for the first time, it’s delicious and hit the spot on the hot day. Our break lasted an hour on the island and then we got back on the boat to ride back to the harbor then we took a bus ride back into town.
Day 6 – HCM > Hoi An. Vietnam is a surprisingly big country. While you could travel much of the country by train or bus, the flights are so cheap and it’s a really big time saver to fly to different spots. From Ho Chi Minh we were heading to Central Vietnam along the east coast. We took an Uber to the airport and then flew to Da Nang. At the Da Nang airport, we got picked up by a driver that we arranged with our hotel in Hoi An. It’s only a 45 minute drive between the two cities so it was a quick trip. In Hoi An, we stayed at Golden Bell Boutique Hotel which was just a 15 minute walk to Old Town Hoi An. We checked in and then walked to grab dinner in old town near the Well at a market with food stalls. We just picked one that looked good and sat down. We ordered banh xeo and the traditional dish of Hoi An, Cai Lao which is a semi dry noodle dish with boiled pork and pork rinds on top. The dishes were tasty and cheap and we had a nice walk back to the hotel.
Day 7 – Hoi An. Breakfast was included at the hotel and they had a mix of American and Vietnamese cuisine. The hotel actually runs a cooking school and the food was pretty good. Hoi An is famous for being one of the best places to get quality tailor made clothes for cheap. I don’t wear suits often but I thought when in Rome… I originally was going to get a suit made in Thailand because I heard that it was the best/cheapest place to get tailored suits. However, I came across an article saying that Hoi An was the cheapest place in the world to get custom suits so I decided to wait till we were in Vietnam. After breakfast, we walked to Old Town to find a tailor. I had researched some tailors from blog posts and other reviews but there is no dearth of tailor shops in Hoi An. Our hotel warned us that some of the shops can be pretty aggressive in trying to sell you clothes but we didn’t have that problem. We went to two shops (Truong Tailors and Ha Na Tailor) and talked to the owners. We finally settled on Truong Tailors since it was #1 on Tripadvisor and the quality looked really good. I used my ace and got Diem to negotiate with them in Vietnamese. She got them down to $380 for 2 suits, 1 vest, 1 fitted shirt, and 2 ties. I got measured and did an initial fitting and we choose the materials. We were told to come back the next day at 2 PM for the next fitting. It was another hot day so we walked back to the hotel to chill by the pool. The pool felt really nice and we had a nice time relaxing on the reclining chairs. Later, we freshened up and walked to grab dinner at a local spot. We ordered grilled pork belly and duck congee. I really liked the pork belly and Diem was a bigger fan of the congee but both were really amazing. We walked back and rested for the night.
Day 8 – Hoi An. We had another nice breakfast at the hotel and then we walked into old town to check out the sights. Hoi An’s old town is recognized as an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Prominent in the city's old town, is its covered "Japanese Bridge," dating to the 16th-17th century. We walked through a lot of streets and they all were blooming with beautiful artwork, architecture, brightly colored lanterns and pretty flowers. It’s not a huge area so we walked all the way around and then grabbed lunch near the market at a local cafe since it was so hot. We ordered ice coffee, com tam suon nuong, and banh cuon. It wasn't that good but it was a break from the heat.
We walked through the market towards the tailor shop for our fitting time. Diem got some green mangoes and guavas from the market for later. The second fitting went well but there were a few more alterations and they told us to return at 6 PM for the final fitting. We walked back to the hotel to rest and get away from the heat. Once we got back, we chilled at the pool again. When we went back for the final fitting we also walked to a cell phone shop in old town to see if we could repair the water damaged iPhone from Cambodia. They told us to come back next morning around 11 AM and we crossed our fingers that they could fix it. Diem found a store next to the cell phone shop and bought a dress. Later we walked back to the tailor shop and then walked to grab dinner at a famous chicken and rice shop. The rice was a bit dry but the broth that was served with it was delicious.
Day 9 – Hoi An. Today, after breakfast, we rented a bike from the hotel and decided to go to the beach. I pedaled and Diem sat in the back. It was like a 15 minute ride to the beach (10,000 vnd for parking the bike). The beach was pretty empty and windy as well. We stayed for just a little bit because we couldn’t find shade. We biked back to the hotel to shower before the fitting. After the shower, we biked to the tailor shop for the last fitting and pickup of the suits. We choose to ship via air and it came out to around $74 USD with an estimated 3 week ship time. For lunch, we grabbed food at a restaurant recommended by the tailor. We ordered the white lotus dumpling, morning glory, and banh xeo with iced coffee. After lunch we just biked back to hotel and chilled for the day.
Day 10 – Hoi An > Da Nang. Today we had a short trip to Da Nang and we walked to arrange a taxi take us there and then went to the iPhone store to pickup the phone. Unfortunately, they couldn't fix the phone but at least they didn't charge us. We walked back to hotel to catch our taxi to Da Nang. It took about an hour to get to our hotel. We checked in and walked to a food stall near the hotel for a late lunch. We ordered bun bo hue (beef and vermicelli soup) and thit kho (caramelized pork and eggs) with rice. After lunch, we walked back to the hotel to chill. For dinner, we ate at another local spot. We ordered bo luc lac (shaking beef) and canh chua ca (sweet and sour fish soup). Both were delicious but pricier than we've been used to about $5 each.
Day 11 – Da Nang. We’ve been on a pretty hectic pace since we’ve been in Vietnam so we decided to make today a rest day. It was pretty cloudy out and we used it as an excuse to avoid going outside. We got a lot of work done though. Diem setup Quickbooks for our investment properties and I took care of some blog posts. We grabbed lunch at a local spot and ordered beef pho which we hadn’t had in a while. It was tasty but not as good as what we had in Saigon.
Day 12 – Da Nang. Today we managed to make it outside the hotel and walked to the beach about 10 minutes away. We grabbed some banh mi sandwiches for lunch and some fruit. I was a huge fan of the sandwiches. Diem doesn’t eat sandwiches often but she liked them as well. It was getting cold and windy at the beach so we didn't stay long. Walked back to the hotel to chill and I grabbed a few more sandwiches to keep for dinner. Da Nang is the 3rd largest city in Vietnam but we didn’t explore much besides the beach. On the drive up from Hoi An you could see a lot of development along the coast. Major hotel chains were putting in new locations and new high-rises were going up.
Day 13 – Da Nang > Hue. Today we arranged a driver to take us to Hue through the scenic route via the Hai Van Pass (1,400,000 vnd for car). It took us about 4 hours to arrive in Hue. Along the way we stopped several times for photos including a Lang Co and Hai Van Quan view point where there were a few engagement photos happening. We arrived in Hue and checked into our Jade Hotel. We were tired so we just ordered room service and called it a night.
See the full gallery of our first week and a half in Vietnam here: Vietnam Part 1.