When people ask me what I think of Vietnam, I always tell them that one day in your life, you must have spent time to travel there. Vietnam is worth to pay time visiting, it is one of the most incredible countries I have been to. I love Vietnam; I am always blown away by the vibrant chaos of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Somehow, Halong Bay with its stunning, stunning, stunning big limestone cliffs left a much stronger impression on me. Also, exploring a Vietnamese food market is arguably the unique experience and a fascinating place to explore.
Enjoy the hustle and bustle of the big cities
No other place in South-East Asia gave me a sense of wonder than Hanoi. Hanoi, the country’s capital, is pretty big as well with about 6.5 million people in its metropolitan area. There are so many scooters around that the city makes you feel more like you’re caught in a giant swarm of wasps. This is a city of lakes, shaded boulevards and leafy parks. French colonial architecture abounds in the city centre, so much so that some people refer to it as the Paris of the Orient. Hanoi locals seem to be living a more traditional style of life compared to those in Ho Chi Minh City, so you feel much more like you are in “old” Asia when you visit. And although it certainly has its share of traffic, it is easier and much more pleasant to walk around the city and take things in at your own pace.
I enjoyed walking around the Old Quarter while poking around the endless little shops, checking out Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and pay a visit to Quoc Tu Giam temple. Some stranger and unique things, much in Vietnam takes place on the street; people eat and drink there, get their haircut, read the newspaper and play games. Staying there, I enjoyed simply hanging out at the numerous street-side cafes and restaurants, just watching the locals in their daily routines.
The bottom line is choosing the city that best fits your tastes and interests. Those looking for a more relaxed atmosphere will prefer Hanoi while those who favor high-energy bustle should head to Ho Chi Minh City. In this city, the center has a large tourist district, centered on the streets of Dong Khoi, which is very upscale and features names like Burberry and Louis Vuitton, and Le Loi, home to the famous Ben Thanh market, which is teeming with trinkets and tourists alike. However, it’s worthwhile to get off the beaten track to escape the crowds and find a more authentic experience.
I arrived in Vietnam in the North, so for me Hanoi was the first major Vietnamese city she got introduced to. Those who start from the South will usually be more enthralled by Ho Chi Minh City instead, so it really depends on where you get your first exposure to the insanity of Vietnamese city life, whichever you choose, your visit will be a rewarding one.
Check out the local Vietnamese markets
In Vietnam, the stronger integration with the world economy gives rise to sprawling of modern commercial centers, luxurious shopping complex, and gigantic malls in big cities. However, the traditional consumption habit still prevails and steers most people to local markets. In those type of markets, all material are fresh, truly fresh; it means that an excessive amount of water is used daily to keep food, vegetables and fruits fresh, especially water-living creatures alive, till the moment of purchases. You will see other markets that can meet only a few hours in early mornings, at any central large ground, be it along the side of a temple or on the pavement, right in front of private stores whose owners have not opened for a new day yet. These fairs are often without official permission from authorities but a wonderful daily event without annoyances. That’s not what I typically see at my organic local produce market at home!
Indulge in Vietnam’s incredible food
Vietnamese food is simply amazing, including good food for health of people. And the best examples of Vietnamese cuisine you are not necessarily going to find in a restaurant. Be sure to try the street food. Order some Pho from a street cart, preferably from some old lady who’s no doubt been making this same dish on this same street corner for all my life and knows just how to make it perfectly.
Lots of local eateries where seating only consists of little plastic chairs offer some truly delicious stuff. Try the spring rolls, or the summer rolls which are not fried but fresh and come in many varieties. These are of course just the most famous dishes; all there are thousands kind of food that will make you fall in love at the first time you try.
Incidentally, try the coffee too. It’s usually served as a small but strong cup with a bunch of syrupy sweetened condensed milk. While not to everyone’s liking, it’s definitely different from anywhere else. Most drinks in Vietnam, including beer, are usually served over ice. While most guidebooks will tell you to always avoid ice when you travel in Southeast Asia, in Vietnam the ice tend to be safe. Large-scale ice production is one of legacies of French rule, and there are many sanitary ice factories throughout the country that use filtered water and package ice untouched by human hands. As a general rule, if the ice you're being served has a hole in it, it's been made by a machine and is likely to be safe.
Other things to see & do
In the north the main places to see are Hanoi, the UNESCO world heritage site of Ha Long Bay and the town of Sa Pa which is famed for its rice terraces. Of course, there is Ha Long Bay, the archipelago of karst islands that will make you feel like you’ve discovered a secret pirate cove. Ha Long bay with beautiful inlets, secret beaches, lagoons and caves, they are fascinating places to explore. I’ve heard excellent things about Tam Coc, which has a amazing landscape similar to Ha Long Bay except set among the rice fields and rivers.
In the middle and south land, you should pay a visit to the Mekong Delta and Hoi An, Hue, Da Nang etc. Last but not least, please be pretty open to anything, good eating, relaxing and adventure. It’s also very happy to consider a train trip to or from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh city as well.