10 Simple Pleasures of Travelling in Vietnam

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Flower arrangement
Flower arrangement

There’s no shortage of reasons to travel to Vietnam: it has a wonderful culinary tradition, beautiful resorts and hotels, its great value for money, has loads of natural beauty, warm weather and fascinating history. Yet sometimes it’s the little things that truly make a trip special. I chose 10 pictures from my recent trip to Vietnam that embody some of my favorite experiences in a country with an endless number to choose from.

Morning tai chi in Ha Long Bay
Morning tai chi in Ha Long Bay

Surely no trip to Vietnam is complete without a visit to the towering karst rock formations of Ha Long Bay. Immortalized in movies and Southeast Asia travel brochures, there are few places on earth that are more visually stunning. But what really stuck with my this time around was a half hour session of early morning tai chi with a member of our boat’s all purpose staff. Whether it be waiting tables or leading us in ancient martial arts techniques as we were gliding through the bay’s morning mist, Vu (picture above) was an absolute joy and made my trip!

Lac Thien
Lac Thien

I’ve been visiting this restaurant intermittently for over a decade and it is still one of my favorite places to eat in Vietnam. Yes, the food is decent but that’s not what has kept me coming back over the years. The family that owns and runs this restaurant is a very special one and when you come to eat here you are truly entering their home. There is little chance that you will leave here without seeing a grandchild walking between the tables or perhaps you’ll have the grandmother serve you spring rolls with a baby strapped to her back. And the real highlight will be the father and his homemade bottle openers (pictured above opening 5 bottles of beer at once). Although deaf and mute, his personality comes through in spades and you can be sure that you’ll leave with great memories of a great meal.

Hopping on a local ferry
Hopping on a local ferry

Hoi An ferry is well and truly on the beaten path of tourists these days. And for good reason. This town has fantastic resorts and some of the best food in the world. Not to mention good shopping and a nearby beach. But for me, a trip to Hoi An is always combined with a trip to the lesser visited nearby villages via a local ferry. Sure, I always pay around 5 to 10 times what the locals do but that’s still only one US dollar! And never a trip goes by without a curious local starting a conversation with me mid-journey. When the locals riding the ferry get to Hoi An they have a job to do but when they are on the ferry they are just happy go lucky and thrilled at a chance to practice their English. Which is always better than my Vietnamese!

Visiting a local market (with an open mind... and open wallet)
Visiting a local market (with an open mind… and open wallet)

In Vietnam it is easy to develop thick skin and become dubious when visiting local markets. The locals are, after all, trying to make a living by selling their wares and they will do so at as high a price as possible. And who can blame them? But I’ve always found that shedding my armor and walking into a market with an open mind and a smile on my face opens up a world of experiences. On one of my latest trips, my friends and I were visiting a rural market in the far north of the country. I stopped to look at a little woodcarver’s stall and by the time I turned around my good friend Alison was fully dressed in some of the local gear! The pictures will last a lifetime and so will the memory of all the locals who gathered to see this “giant” woman trying on the traditional garb. Smiles and good times all around.

Juice, juice and more juice
Juice, juice and more juice

Vietnam’s food is more than just Vietnamese cuisine. Whether you love your local pho shop and indulge on spring rolls regularly or have never tasted a Vietnamese dish in your life, the food in Vietnam is amazing not just because of great recipes and a long culinary tradition, the real difference maker is the freshness of the ingredients. In much of Vietnam, restauranteurs and even housewives will go to the market twice a day to get the best ingredients. Sometimes this is for vegetables that have just been picked and other times it’s to get fish from the boat that just came in. Whatever the case, good food is always close at hand. But it’s not just the food, the fruits and especially the fruit juices are simply divine. On my last visit I went to a restaurant where multiple bottles of fruit juice were brought out and we mixed our own blends right at the table! (pictured above)

Riding in a sampan
Riding in a sampan

If you visit the Mekong Delta, the massive central waterways are sure to impress. The amount of flowing water, boat traffic and sheer scale of it all are humbling. But getting away from the main thoroughfares and into the tiny web of canals can is an intimate and memorable experience in its own right. When traveling through these narrow water alleyways on a sampan (pictured above) the noisy modern engines drift away and you feel like you have gone back in time. At least until one of the rowers gets a call on her mobile phone! 😉

Visiting a home
Visiting a home

On one of my favorite bike rides in Vietnam, there is a little home where the family makes noodles and rice paper daily. They have both semi-modern machines and traditional instruments as well and to my astonishment they continue to use both. The whole process is visible and done right in front of your very eyes. To make the rice paper, the rice is ground into a fine powder and mixed with water and then ladled out of an old bucket with a coconut spoon and spread out over moist cloth that is stretched over an open flame that is fueled by rice husks. The liquid is spread out into the shape of a thin pancake and then steamed under an old conical hat before it’s lifted off with a stick the size of a ruler and spread out on a rack of woven leaves and taken outside to dry in the sun. It’s a process that is very simple in some ways and yet so magical to watch. On my last visit I caught one of the four generation of women living here cutting noodles by hand and she was kind enough to stop for a photo (above).

Hopping a ride on the back of a motorbike
Hopping a ride on the back of a motorbike

There’s no question that the national mode of transportation in Vietnam is the motorbike. Literally millions of motorbikes take to the streets each day and watching the chaotic traffic is a quintessential sightseeing activity in it’s own right. Although it’s certainly not the safest mode of transportation and you should only ride at your own risk, there are few things more exciting than cruising around Vietnam’s streets like a local. My favorite place to do this is Hue. The wide boulevards and surrounding countryside make motorbike tours in this city a very different experience than cruising around in the more urban environs of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Just be sure to hold on tight!

Even the bad is good
Even the bad is good

I love wine. In fact I love almost all alcohol and I’m rarely snobbish when it comes to my end-of-the-day-drink. So when I saw the option for some homegrown wine on the menu I jumped at the chance to try it again and see if it had progressed in the 6 years since I had last drank a glass of the stuff. Admittedly, it wasn’t the best glass of wine I’ve ever tasted I’m but I’m still glad that I didn’t opt for something I could have back home. Trying something new is what travel is all about, even when it isn’t great. And, as the picture above attests to, with scenery like this it doesn’t really matter what the wine tastes like.

The unexpected surprises are always the best
The unexpected surprises are always the best

As much as I love all of the above experiences, what really made most of them special for me was that I wasn’t expecting them. And nothing could sum up that feeling of surprise more than the above. When walking in Sapa in northern Vietnam, this little boy came past us going the opposite direction on the back of a water buffalo. Whether he was riding home from school or just off to visit a friend I will never know but it certainly put a smile on my face and made me happy that I was here and nowhere else.

There are so many great experiences awaiting travelers in Vietnam but nobody will be able to tell you what they are because the best ones still haven’t happened!

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