When: March 17th – March 25th (9 days, 8 nights)
Where: Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Sapa, Hanoi
Hostels: Sigoong Hostel, Tribee Kinh, Sapa Odyssey, Vietnam Backpackers – the original
Budget: $500 (including flights & accommodation, not including tailor made clothing from Hoi An)
Warning: very long blog post ahead! Proceed forward to read about my day by day trip to Vietnam along with some of my favorite photos from the trip!
Day 1: On Friday at 11:00AM, mid-rain storm, I caught the bus for the airport along side 5 other travel friends: MC, Ally, Darian, Amanda and Erin. To be honest, heading off for 9 days in Vietnam with a group of 6 made me a little nervous. I have done group travel before but I have become exponentially more grandma-y in the last year so I wasn’t sure how I would feel with so many people, on top of the fact that we all hadn’t traveled together before and traveling outside of the country for a week is a little different than going to the beach for the weekend. I’ll skip to the end and just say that traveling with my teacher friends was so fun and amazing and I know and love them so much more now 🙂
After waiting over an hour for our visas, we made our way out of the airport, exchanged our money and got a taxi to our hostel. Out on the streets of HCMC, we were hit in the face with the LOUD sound of the honking in Vietnam. I never had really realized how quiet Thailand was until we were amid the blaring beeping on the streets of Saigon. One of the locals told my friend that they honk just to say hi, I’m here because people aren’t always paying attention when they drive. They also honk to signal, merge, pull over, etc.
Our hostel was located in District 1, one street over from the crazy backpacker area. After checking in, we set out for dinner and found a nice, Vegetarian-friendly (the dietary makeup of my travel group: 3 everything eaters, 2 vegetarians and 1 vegan) Vietnamese restaurant. First meal in Vietnam: pho!
Afterwards, we explored the area a little, taking in the street food, bar/club noise and just night life of District 1. About 5 minutes from our hostel, we were walking along the street when a motorcycle came up, reached across Ally, ripped her bag off of her and sped away before any of us even knew what happened. Thankfully, the hostel had kept her passport but she did still start off the trip by losing her money, phone, sunglasses, head band, compact mirror and chap stick (she was really sad about the chap stick…). Basically, Ally is the VIP because she 1) did not completely freak out and have a melt down after this and 2) she made it through the entire 9 days with basically zero complaining.
Day 2: Today was our sightseeing day in HCMC – we made our way to the market, got lunch (first Banh Mi: check!), headed to see the Independence Palace, Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon and the Saigon Central Post Office, then went to the 3A Alternative Art Scene. We saw some really cool art, stopped for refreshments and to rest after a long day of walking.
I wanted to check out the mosque for Azzeddine so we headed that way, then wandered around checking out happy hours and seeing the city before we split up for dinner. While most of the group went to a really well known vegetarian/vegan restaurant called Hum Vegetarian Restaurant and Lounge, MC and I headed to Ngoc Chau Garden, which honestly probably had the best food & service I have had since being in SE Asia. If you ever go there, please have the morning glory salad. It might not look like much, but it was out of this world delicious.
This was pretty much the end of our night but I think it’s worth mentioning that while MC and I were walking home, we had to cross a very large street. We hadn’t quite gotten the confidence down, required in Vietnam to walk on the streets, so we were both a little deer-in-head-lights-y. This man, probably sensing our fear, came and helped us cross the street. He basically saved us what was going to end up being a very stressful walk home and we are both forever grateful for this stranger.
Day 3: We checked out and got a taxi at about 9:00AM to make our way back to the airport, we were on our way to Hoi An! Everyone we had talked to only had good things to say about Hoi An, so we were all really excited to be on our way. The nearest airport is in Da Nang, which is an hour away, so after landing, getting a taxi and driving to Hoi An, it was definitely lunch time. MC and I split up from the Vegetarians and went to a kebab place that got good reviews. A really popular thing to do in Hoi An is to get clothes tailor made for you so after eating lunch, MC and I headed to a tailor that had been recommended to us.
Piece of advice for anyone who wants to get clothing tailor made: do some thinking beforehand about what you want to get made. Or, you could either end up leaving with nothing because it is overwhelming (Erin) or buying more than you wanted (me) because you can get talked into anything.
The process goes something like this: go in, tell them what you want, find a picture of something similar to what you’re thinking, pick your fabric, get measured and then come back for fittings the next day. The whole process took about 36 hours and I got 2 dresses, 1 top and 1 skirt made. My total: $213.
Afterwards, we found this super cute coffee shop down an alley by the tailor: The Espresso Station. Definitely would recommend you stopping by, their egg coffee & coconut coffee were delicious.
Next, we walked into Old Town and were immediately hypnotized by the yellow buildings, winding alleys, cute stores and lack of annoying honking everywhere. As the sunset, the lanterns were lit which turned this evening into a borderline magical site. It was picture perfect, postcard-esque, etc. After an hour or so of wandering, shopping and photo taking, the group split up and Darian, Ally, MC and I went on to explore. We crossed the bridge and stumbled upon the night market where we all consumed the best banh mi we ate on the entire trip. It was 30,000 dong and life changing. We also tried this fried banana pancake which was sooo good.
Day 4: Amanda and Erin were off for a day motorcycle tour of the surrounding Hoi An area while the rest of us stayed in town for our fittings and to have a relaxing day. We went back to the coffee shop again, shopped and walked around Old City again, ate lunch at a Vietnamese place by the hostel (where I tried cao lau for the first time) and just wandered around the city.
We ended the night with happy hour, a reggae bar and some more banh mi.
Day 5: After packing, checking out, picking up our clothes from the tailor and eating lunch, we headed for the airport! While MC headed to Hanoi before going to meet her sister back in Thailand, the rest of us were continuing on to Sapa.
An hour flight and taxi ride later, we were at the train station in Hanoi. We had a few hours until our overnight train left for Sapa, so I got my last banh mi of the trip (I was banh mi’d out for sure) and we waited for the next leg of our adventure. Around 9:30pm, we headed to our Harry Pottter-esque overnight train. While I couldn’t quite stretch out my legs and saw one (only one!) roach, it was actually a pretty good nights sleep.
Day 6: At about 4:30AM, we rolled up to Lao Cai where we were immediately bombarded with men trying to get us to take their van into Sapa, about an hour trip. The van ride itself might have been the hardest part of the trip, just due to the winding roads, aggressive men and lack of sleep. It was all worth it though when we pulled up and saw the breathtaking hills and fields displayed across from us.
While check in wasn’t until 1:00pm, the hostel had coffee, let us use the bathroom to shower and held our bags for us. After a late breakfast, we headed to the Cat Cat Village as we had read that it was a walkable distance from us and was moderately challenging. It costs 50,000 dong ($2.20) to go into the village, which felt very touristy but you have to go through it to see the waterfall. After trekking in and resting for a bit, I thought I would get a head start since there was still a ways left to go. My plan was to slowly make my way and wait for the group along the way. Well, I went one way and the rest of the group went the other so the plan kind of failed. After over an hour of waiting, I decided to take a motor cycle taxi back to the hostel to text everyone (there was no wifi to communicate). Turns out, Darian and Ally were searching for me still (bless their hearts, they even showed my photo around seeing if anyone had seen me).
Note to self: practice better communication when group traveling internationally to avoid being left/lost. (He he. Sorry mom!)
After what felt like the longest day ever, we headed for dinner and then all turned in pretty early.
Side note: Definitely would recommend this hostel (Sapa Odyssey)! The beds were so comfortable, there was an amazing view, the staff were really sweet and everything was clean.
Day 7: Slept in, packed our bags up, checked out. Did some outdoor yoga/exercise. Got lunch. Walked down to snap our last photos of the amazing landscape. Read/journaled. Van picked us up, headed back to the train station in Lao Cai. Got dinner and boarded for another night trip back to Hanoi. We were all placed on the last, and worst cabin, on the train and most of us didn’t get much sleep.
Day 8: Woke up in Hanoi! We were told by our hostel to only trust certain taxi companies and to agree on a price beforehand (don’t use the meter) to avoid getting ripped off so after walking out of the train, we parted the sea of eager taxi drivers and found one of the trusted taxi companies.
Erin and Amanda went on to Tam Cốc-Bích Động (a lake 100km from Hanoi), Darian and I were taking a cooking class later that day and Ally and Rachel were going to Halong Bay.
While everyone else went on to their day adventures, Darian and I passed out at the hostel for a few hours. We woke up feeling and resembling human beings and then went on the cooking class. We learned how to make pho, spring rolls, papaya salad and egg coffee. It was delicious. After walking around and exploring Hanoi, we headed back to the hostel. I was feeling particularly tired so I had dinner there, stayed in and wrote some post cards.
Day 9: After breakfast, we joined the Free Walking Tour that the hostel puts on every day. We ended the tour at Cafe Pho Co, a really cute cafe with great views of the lake. I was able to try yogurt coffee here, which was pretty delicious. After that, we wondered around for a bit before Darian, Ally and I went into a coffee shop for a little afternoon pick-me-up (ie. egg coffee, tiramisu, red velvet cheesecake). We then went to the post office to mail some post cards before making our way back to the hostel. We were leaving at 6:00pm for the airport so we all just hung out at the hostel for a few hours, resting and eating our last meal there.
While on our way to the airport, in the taxi, Darian asked “everyone have their passports?”. Well, in this moment, I did the normal check in wallet (no passport), check purse (no passport), check wallet and purse again (still no passport), repeat this 5 times before saying out loud, “guys, I don’t have my passport…”. We got the taxi driver to pull over where I searched through my entire back pack, although I knew that it wasn’t there. Then our taxi driver called the hostel when they confirmed that they had an American passport at the hostel. After agreeing to pay more, the taxi driver took us back to the hostel so I could get my passport and start breathing again.
After that scare, we were a little short on time but we made it to the airport with plenty of time and were all happy to be heading home!
Thanks for reading! Next blog post: Sawadee pee mai Thai ka! (Happy Thai New Years!)