10 Days in Vietnam

10 ngày ở Việt nam

In January we traveled to Vietnam. Below are our pictures, experiences and travel tips from the 3 places we visited.

1. Cruising Hạ Long Bay on a Dragon

On a 20 meter ship, we traveled through Ha Long Bay for 3D/2N on an all-inclusive cruise. There is a multitude of outfits offering tours. We would caution you to research and reserve your trip before you travel abroad. Ours was USD 700 for two adults. Dragon Legend, Indochina Junk Tour. Justin and I well-researched a lot of companies promoting tours because this was going to be the most expensive part of the trip, other than airfare..

Avoid promotions for Ha Long Bay cruises in the Backpacker Districts of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. A lot of companies are sketchy or overly-expensive — for example, some charge extra to include lifejackets in your cruise package. Dragon Legend felt more secure, fun, and had plenty of life jackets.

Ha, Long Bay is 3 hours from a major airport, but a shuttle will pick you up at your hotel in Old Quarter, Hanoi, then drive 2.5 hours to Hạ Long Bay. The shuttle stops at a picturesque sweatshop/gift shop:

These aren’t painted paintings, they’re made with a multitude of colored thread. Not only were artisans crafting paintings, there were also sculptors chiseling stone …With MFA precision, cutting life-size stone and marble sculptures evoking Romanesque sculptures and traditional Vietnamese reliefs and carvings.


That’s not the cruise boat…

Bai Tu Long, adjacent Ha Long Bay, is awe-inspiring / jaw-droppingly gorgeous. They call this region a “New wonder of the natural world.” It’s also a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the most relaxing places we’ve ever been. Not only that, the cruise itself is wonderful. The Vietnamese people really pride themselves on making you feel welcome and accommodated. I’ve never received great hospitality anywhere in the world. Save, a night at The Four Seasons in Chicago, and a family in Japan. …not that either of us expect to be treated like aristocracy or want to be around people who do.

We go on trips to experience culture shock, not to be pampered (much).

Boat Tied to a village of boats, afloat via discarded plastic bottles
Indigenous Woman and Her Grocery Boat. Docked. She even sells beer.

Kayaking through Hạ Long Bay / Bai Tu Long Bay redefined what the word, ‘tranquility’ meant for me. There are nearly 2000 of these islands (actually, limestone karsts) soaring out of the ocean. The karsts are known as the Descending Dragon, and symbolize a dragon’s scales submerging / remerging.

In addition to Dragon Cruises’ host, ‘Andy’ and his wonderful staff, only 20 tourists were on board. Only 2/20 were American, so we all had lots to share. The ship had a spa, sun-bathing, a bar in the mess, fresh caught meals, swimming, and night, squid fishing.

Bai Tu Long Bay
Boat afloat a sea of wood

The boat was …how should we put it. 19th century meets 21st century. Like a sailing vessel from the movie, “Mutiny” or t.v. shows like, “The Terror,” “Gentleman Jack,” or “Taboo” but with an engine, beer on tap, universal outlets and flatscreens. The craftsmanship of the woodwork was impeccable. Previous to this voyage, I didn’t think fine-woodwork was something I even appreciated outside an art gallery, or WPA lodge.

Without incident, we disembarked roughly where we arrived and a shuttle was there to accommodate us back to Hanoi via a countryside detour. [See 3].

2. Motorbiking in Hanoi:

Hanoi, is an ancient city with a young population. Peace has only existed in Vietnam since the late 1980’s. More and more people are moving to its cities making Hanoi ‘feel’ more-dense that Tokyo. Ho Chi Minh City is even more crowded than Hanoi. …Motorbikes interweave everywhere. Moms and Dads squish children on bikes and drive off. Vendors stack an over-burdening amount of produce on their backs for their daily routes. The sight is as inspiring as Ha Long Bay only louder. Traversing the city on motorbike is an incredible experience. …I’ll get footage next time when I have a real video camera.

Getting into the flow of how Hanoi ‘moved’ took us a couple days. —That’s not to say that we ‘saw’ and ‘did’ everything in a couple days. What I mean is, it took a couple days to learn how to navigate the roads. Cars and motorbikes don’t stop for pedestrians, they just swerve around like schools of fish and they’re damn good at it.

Waiting for Santa
School Pickup

NatGeo, you already owe me for the ‘art work,’ you should publish this one too

We stayed at an equivalent 5-star, American hotel. The Hotel Tirant, (Great name) breakfast is included. There was also an enclosed rooftop bar and dining room, an outside bar, pool and ornamented dead tree. Every night was cheaper than a night in my overpriced, bug-infested, Seattle apartment. ($50 USD or $1500 USD /Mt.) Every night was slightly more expensive than staying in a hostel ($33 USD) but you don’t have to share a bathroom or bedroom with 5 strangers.

I’ve been to hostels in 3… scratch that, Jessie and I have been to hostels on 4 continents, they’re all overpriced and smell awkward, Why?

Perk up fella’ almost time for Tết Fest.

Hotel Tirant, Hanoi

After our hotel massages [60 min. $17 each] why not watch 2 televisions side by side? We’ve already spent all fuckn’ day together?

“Justin, you turn on ‘Reuters News,’ I’ll turn on ‘Fox News.’ Let’s see if a black hole materializes in this French-constructed, then Vietnamese, Russian-communist, now Socialist Republic hotel room?”

^Jessie knows her stuff, she’s smarter than I am

Breakfast Buffet

Did we mention Vietnamese food?

It’s the best! as far as I’m concerned. Plus, novel atmospheres affect taste/experiences and you certainly get that in Hanoi. —Viet. Street food, Michelin-rated food, restaurant food, they are all terrific. Traditional Japanese dishes, Korean food, Chinese, Tibetan, those weird American places called, “Mongolian BBQ” all pale.

We found beer halls that offer unpasteurized draft, Bia hơi, for less than .50c a large glass. Fresh from kegs, +3% abv., okay stuff too.

We enjoyed several varieties of Bún Chả, Bánh mì on tasty French bread, and Bánh cuon rolls. Many varieties of Phở, that don’t cost $15 USD a bowl like they do in Seattle. Lots of vegan and veggie options are everywhere.

Street Market and Rogue
Night Market
Lunch Kitchen, Alley
This, ‘slice of life’ minus the crowd, is a typical street kitchen in Hanoi

Pasteur St. Brewing Co.

We also went to a hipster brewery which had several microbrews on tap and did charge Seattle prices. It had engineered craft beer as good as home, and better quality bread + fresh-fried chips.

Is that Vietnam? Sometimes the ambiance was complete with all the decor you’d find in every, “hip spot” in every Metropolis in every American State. …It’s getting very homogenous out there. Thanks: Facebook, blogs (guilty), Instagram and Pinterest.

CNG Cà Phê, a Communist- Chic coffee chain is also worth the visit. There are plenty of Starbucks too but who…

Our favorite spot was in a narrow alley in the Old Quarter. It had no name. No signage, just a couple stools, fresh coffee, bird cages and singing, trapped, birds which provided respite from the city.

Boy and Tank

We enjoyed the Old Quarter, Hồ Hoàn Kiếm and its myriad of shops selling authentic offs. $3 – $20 SuperDry, Northface and Jack Wolfskin bags and jackets.

Hoàn Kiếm Lake area (Hồ Hoàn Gươm) blocks traffic on weekends making shopping, riding a tank around, or watching V-pop teen musicians perform choreography, less taxing.

4 ‘places off the beaten-path,’ + 1:

Try to look ‘cool’ much?

1. Nhà Lưu niệm- Hồ Chí Minh Memorial House-Ho Chi Minh. December 19, 1946, President Ho Chi Minh wrote an appeal for “National Resistance” calling on the entire Vietnamese people to rise up against French rule. According to signage, Vietnam’s independence was born in this moment, in this modest building. It displays lots of historic photos, furniture and signage.

Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel

2. Sofitel Legend Hotel, Thong Nhat Hotel. French Colonial in design, Vietnamese in spirit. Charlie Chaplin honeymooned here. Joan Baez. Bob Dylan… Trump just met Kim here, not that Kim. It looks like somewhere Ernest Hemingway would have frequented.

This 1901 built Metropole is immaculately preserved and its photographs inside showcase a lot of Hanoi’s history from a white perspective. We were alone in the courtyard to skinny-dip in but the inside was bustling.

 Văn MiếuHán-Nôm: 文廟

3. Confucius School. Despite French reign, many traditional temples, citadels and Palaces were well-preserved and should be your first stop in Hanoi. Since 1071, The Confucius School, Temple of Literature, Imperial Academy and its gardens have inspired a nation of scholars and sages. This is N.Vietnam’s first National University. For less than $1 USD you can tour the school, grounds. Reflect, enjoy minimal tourists, pay homage to our vets in the United States, or jilt someone.

Hồ Bảy Mẫu
Hồ Bảy Mẫu

4. Hồ Bảy Mẫu is a large lake and park to boat, picnic, drink and people-watch. The community in the park was getting ready for Tết, Vietnam’s Lunar New Year Celebration. Like Haitian, shotgun houses turned sideways, these beautiful buildings shotgun Hanoi. (dad joke). Build up, when land is expensive but regulations aren’t.

We stayed in Hồ Bảy Mẫu until dark, abiding our, ‘no rushing around on vacation’ stipulation. Don’t try to, ‘see it all’. You won’t, nor will you enjoy yourself. Unless stress is your thing…

5. Night/Dawn Markets

Night Flower Markets / Night Shopping Markets / Morning Fish Markets
WTF USA?!? Somehow, we’re inadvertently to blame for this boutique!

3. Humping Villages: Yen Duc

Yen Duc

We enjoyed walking in this village, the adjacent rice paddies, and seeing the Vietnamese water puppet show at an anachronistic village called, Yen Duc. This was the element of our trip most-reminiscent of Coppola’s drama, “Apocalypse Now.” …though his amazing picture was mostly filmed in the Philippines, there’s an echo here.

Yen Duc
Yen Duc

This is a “nerf” village experience. I want that to come across… Regardless, it’s well worth visiting, especially if you’re on a tight timeline and don’t have suitable transport to take to the country. We explored the village by foot (bikes available, no Lime bikes yet thank God) with the help of a local guide. With a lot of help, we caught dinner. Then, just the two of us enjoyed the catch, sunset, and no one else around. No motorbikes, no tourists, just crickets and frogs. Then, like characters from an episode of, “Black Mirror” a car took us back to Hanoi. Did any of that happen?

Travel Tips and Final Thoughts:


Heed the advise of the basic white bitch and her fake-wood blocks …probably made in Vietnam, definitely sold on Zulily (my previous employer). Don’t try to see everything. If you’re traversing around a region, plan 1 major transition every 3 days.

Because of our limited work schedules, Jessie and I prefer 9-day trips (3 areas) within a country, assuming transportation is pre-planned.

In Vietnam we spent $3800 total: (2 airplane tickets, the cruise, eating-out a lot, 4 star hotels, taxis, shopping/alcohol/massages).

Budgeting $2500 USD total could have easily worked for 2 people: (Airfare, no Ha Long Bay (Hà Giang instead[appears gorgeous]), no private rooms, street food, grocery, Bia Hoi beer and free water instead of bottled water and mixed drinks).

You will need a visa if you’re American. -Did we fight a war in Vietnam or something?

I exchanged currency through Chase bank in the US ahead of time. $400USD = 9 million V.D. There are lots of official, bank ATMs in Vietnam and about 50% of places in the city took credit cards.

Early January was/is a great time to visit Vietnam. There are fewer tourists because of Christmas and New Years hangovers worldwide. Airfare is lower. There was little humidity; it was 65F/19C average.

Tết, Vietnamese New Year, is on January, 25.

Family Tree …Patriarch and His 4 Wives

Stay at places with wifi so you can map your itinerary before leaving the hotel.

We saw a lot without making the whole trip feel like one long commute and a bunch of stressful unknowns with lots of waiting around.

Beware! There are some sketchy cab companies (Lonely Planet has a list of good ones). Rickshaw drivers may try to scam you. Discuss prices up front.

The Vietnamese are very warm, kind people. Walking around with my camera strapped to my hand/belt, even in sketchy areas, was careless but I felt safe.

Vietnam has spent a great deal of its history at war. ..Because of its past and new prospects, hard work, ancestor-worship and optimism are pervasive. It’s inspiring to be among people who are focused on their cultures’ future as well as its past. What Vietnamese refer to as the, “American War” seems a part of their past. Nobody judged us; most were too young to remember.

Smile a lot and try to speak Vietnamese. I always write down 5 or 6 translations that I carry in my pocket:

  1. Hello: xin chào(sin chow)
  2. No thank you / thank you: Khong(kome) / cảm ơn(cam uhn)
  3. I’m sorry, I don’t speak Vietnamese: xin lỗi tôi không nói tiếng việt
  4. Bye / Goodnight: Tạm biệt(tarm beet) / chuc ngu ngon
  5. Toilet? (then point): nhà vệ sinh ở đâu
  6. Do you know where…: bạn có biết nơihello
  7. sorry: xin loi(seen loy)
  8. How much: bao nhieu(bouy yhew)

“Wow your hair looks great Jessie, mine is always ridiculous…. “

“Smile Justin”

Thanks for Viewing!

Stay-tuned for Italy!

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