I just returned from Vietnam about a week ago and had an amazing journey! My husband and I visited Hanoi, Halong Bay and Ho Chi Min City (still sometimes referred to as Saigon). The plane journey is far from the States, but the experience is well worth it!
The older I have gotten, the less I seem to like cities, so I thought I would enjoy Hanoi more than HCMC (abbreviation used all the time so you don't have to spell out the whole city name). Hanoi does have a smaller town feel, but I wasn't sure that was a benefit. The smaller town feel meant the old city the streets were quite narrow....however, there will still millions (I may not even be exaggerating...) of people on the road. The motorbike is the preferred method of transportation in Vietnam and they are everywhere. The sidewalks are narrow (if there are sidewalks at all) so many times when we were walking, we were trying to step out into traffic to get by and that was a little perilous. However, there seems to be an unwritten system and although people are driving in all sorts of directions, it somehow works. If you were to wait for a break in traffic, you would wait for days, so you just slowly start to make your way across and walk slowly and calmly and everyone just drives around you. Not for the faint of heart, but not that different from the rest of South East Asia.
This was us stopped in traffic approaching an intersection (not a parking lot like it appears). We walked to the Temple of Literature which is a Confusion Temple and site of the first university. It is very old and a peaceful refuge from the city--the location is right in the old town, but the gardens give the area a sense of tranquility.
After a couple of days in Hanoi, we headed to Halong Bay in the Northern part of Vietnam (the first picture is from Halong Bay). It is about 3.5 to 4 hours by car from Hanoi to the dock. I knew there were lots of options for boats in Halong Bay---from day boats to boats where you travel the surrounding area for a week or more. I also knew the area had become very touristy and that some of the boats were quite large....and filled with shall we say more exuberant travelers (meaning drunk and loud). As a travel agent, I have a network of what are called Destination Management Companies---essentially local agencies in countries around the world---that work only with travel agents. These DMC's know their local area better than anyone else and have the resources to make really exceptional events happen (think behind the scenes tours, meeting local chefs, etc). I reached out to my contact in Vietnam and asked for advice. I told her what we wanted (a smaller boat, local food, the opportunity to visit places off the tourist path) and within hours, she had narrowed down 100+ boat options down to 2. Talk about saving some time and getting an expert recommendation from someone who knows the area well! I looked at the two options she suggested and booked a 3 day/2 night cruise. I knew going in September there was a chance of a cyclone, but it wasn't a very high chance. Flash forward to an e-mail popping up while we were in Hanoi saying a cyclone was on its way to Vietnam. We were able to go for one night of our cruise, but then everyone on Halong Bay was forced to evacuate. Halong Bay was gorgeous and the scenery very peaceful. I'm grateful we got to spend some time there before having to move on to another area.
We found ourselves with some time and no plan. Thankfully we had travel insurance and knew some of our change fees would be covered (along with getting a refund of our unused time on the boat). So, my husband and I decided to head back to Hanoi and go to the airport and see where we could go. It was fun not knowing where exactly we were going to end up....just stepping up to the desk saying we are supposed to fly in a couple of days, but we want to go today instead. The place that was top of our list---Hoi An---was also under threat of the cyclone, so we headed to HCMC. There were 3 flights sold out before the flight we got on (we weren't the only ones trying to get away from the cyclone) but by evening we were relaxing at the Park Hyatt. We were lucky to have amassed lots of points and ended up using them on a 4 night stay at this amazing property! We started the next day off with the "must see" attractions---the War Remnants Museum and Independence Palace (also called Reunification Palace). I knew I didn't know that much about the Vietnam War, but I didn't realize how little I knew. I usually am not a museum person---I stay maybe an hour or two---but the exhibits at the the War Museum held my interest and churned my stomach all at the same time. To see the horrors of war...even all these years later....were impactful and told a story. There were certainly areas of the exhibits that were biased towards the Vietnamese (I think it is human nature....don't we have a US bias in our museums??), but a lot of it was neutral...more than I was expecting. Particularly an exhibit on loan from Kentucky which looked at the last photos taken from photojournalists that died in the war. There were journalists from many nationalities and all had a very powerful story to tell. We spent probably 4 hours here and left feeling a little shell-shocked. The walked to Independence Palace seemed to just continue the journey as this was the seat of the government for the South until the war was over and the country unified. The building is much as it was left in the 1970's and the exhibits tell of how the president handled politics during the war.
After such a emotional day, we headed for the spa. There are spas across Vietnam (and South East Asia) that provide an hour long foot massage for something around $10. The massage tends to focus on accupressure points which can be painful, but at the end, you feel like you have new feet....even after walking the entire day! The next few days we explored different areas of HCMC and saw some amazing temples, ate some wonderful food, braved the local market, and hit the spa on several more occasions :) I was surprised to see how much I enjoyed HCMC and felt it was easier to walk and get around than in Hanoi. Our time there went by very quickly. I'll leave this very long blog post with some photos of the markets and foods we enjoyed....because those of you that know me, know that is my favorite part of travel!