Vietnam’s unique mix of blockbuster natural wonders, big but not too big cities, excellent coastline, cultural hotspots and history is an allure for millions of tourists every year. The route from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is a backpacker pilgrimage for good reason, and there’s something to entice everyone along the 2000km of Vietnam’s coast.
I’ve been to Vietnam before, but only stopped in Ho Chi Minh City to kick off a 4 week-4 country trip around South East Asia.
My partner and I had booked the trip five months in advance, so we had plenty of time to plan, un-plan and mull over where we’d like to visit (the internet is a blessing and a curse). When I told friends who’d moved to Vietnam that we’d be travelling there in November, they were a little worried that the weather would be awful (particularly in central Vietnam, where recent years have been very wet), and research seemed to back them up. Still, the potential for rain didn’t really dampen our spirits, and the last few weeks of waiting to get on a plane were typically excruciating.
We booked our flights with Thai Airways as their price for flying into Ho Chi Minh and back from Hanoi was great (£560 with only a short stop in Bangkok each way). The flights themselves went by relatively quickly, and we were landing in Vietnam before we knew it.
Welcome To Ho Chi Minh City
We landed in Ho Chi Minh City at the very start of a Saturday night, and a quick Grab taxi to District 1 later, we were at our home for the next few nights. Toi’s Travel Home Central is a great little hostel that’s close enough to the main sights of the city to by foot, and has a mixture of private and 4-6 person shared rooms.
Not wanting to settle down for too long, we headed out as soon as possible to stave off the jet-lag with a few drinks in the now-awoken night. After some deliberation, we plonked ourselves down at Benh Thanh Street Food Market.
Benh Thanh Street Food Market is a fairly new addition to Ho Chi MInh City that has a Western style food hall vibe with just about any food you could want (and some local beers & cocktails) from the plethora of different stalls under its roof. Not really authentic Vietnamese style street food eating by any means, but a fantastic spot to kick off a holiday nonetheless.
Not quite content with a midnight bedtime once the market closed, we took ourselves to Bui Vien Street to indulge in people (and football) watching at Champion Sports Bar, and finished the evening off with some great noodles at about 3am (as every good Saturday night in Ho Chi Minh should).
Ho Chi Minh City In Context
Our first day proper kicked off with a lie in to shake off the last of the jet lag, and a zip around a couple of the city’s main sights – beginning with The War Remnants Museum. The War Remnants Museum is, in short, a museum documenting the French and American occupations of Vietnam, with a particularly in-depth record of the recent Vietnamese war. The building is a context in which to place yourself in the country, and a stark reminder of the brutal, devastating conflict that was only a generation ago.
The inside of the museum ranges from heartbreaking to uncomfortable, but it’s an essential place to visit in Ho Chi Minh City, especially if it’s your first time in Vietnam. The photography exhibitions and history have a distinctly pro-Vietnamese lean (as you’d expect), but it’s fully understandable when those remnants of war still have a wide effect across Vietnam til this day.
After the museum, we took a stroll past the “Notre Dame” – a replica of the Paris cathedral – and went to see Ho Chi Minh himself adorning the back wall of the impressive central post office in gigantic paining form. As we’d slept in a bit too long, we had to settle for the whistle stop versions of these couple Ho Chi Minh City must-sees, and then resolved to track down some food. Our search eventually led us down a slightly ominous alley and up some stairs to the quaint and cosy Secret Garden.
Though it’s absolutely not the cheapest spot you can pick to eat in Ho Chi Minh City, Secret Garden was a great find, and the sort of place you can lose a few hours and gain a few pounds in.
The lemongrass tofu and mushroom ramen were excellent, and we both agreed we would go back and rattle through the rest of the menu given the chance.
To walk off the food, we took a stroll down Dong Khoi street (a must do in the evenings in Vietnam if you fancy some people watching) and soaked in a few Ho Chi Minh City’s charms. This area of the city really feels like a modern, vibrant place and, if we hadn’t already eaten, you’d have had to drag us away from trying one of the micro-restaurants along the strip.
A Day Out On The Meekong Delta
I don’t particular enjoy group trips. They usually feel a bit rushed and inflexible, and I’d much rather do things myself – both for money and sanity. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get to the Meekong Delta without being on a group trip. We booked a trip to the Meekong Delta through our hostel because it was much cheaper than it was online, and were excited to start seeing Vietnam outside of the city.
The first time you step away from a bigger city in Vietnam, you’re immediately reminded that Vietnam is still a very poor country, and it’s particular noticeable in the steel houses along the river.
The trip gave us some opportunity to see how some excellent Vietnamese food loved the world over comes together. We saw rice being popped and made into wraps, and picked up some tasty souvenirs from the first stop on the trip.
This trip was advertised primarily as a trip to Cai Be floating market, but you need to be there very early to see it properly. By the time we arrived there wasn’t too much to see in the way of a bustling market anymore, which was definitely a little frustrating. If you’re keen to go, I’d definitely recommend heading down the night before to stay nearby and getting up early. Still, we did manage to get hold of some great fresh fruit, and it was great to see Cai Be up close.
Our last stop was Tân Phong island. After a a short row boat ride and lunch (included with the trip), we enjoyed an opportunity to cycle around the island and enjoy some musical storytelling (which our tour guide was inexplicably involved in).
We then left for the city and, as a few of the people on the trip had taken the hint that the tour company wouldn’t pay the driver for the return toll on the fast road, we ended up back in Ho Chi Minh City early enough to go to Ben Thanh Market.
Ben Thanh Market is one of the biggest tourist markets in Vietnam and, being right in the middle of the city, it’s a must-see – it’s full of stuff you don’t want that you’ll probably pay too much for, but it’s a total nose dive head first into chaos, and a great place to spent an hour.
After we left the market, we met up with our friends Miz and Jayne (who were travelling and working in South East Asia), and Tom and Yvonne (who were on their way to Cambodia) at Ben Thanh Street Food Market for food, and drinks on our last night in Ho Chi Minh City. It was a great way to conclude our stay in the city, and we also made plans to meet up with Miz and Jayne a bit later on in our trip as well.
Onwards to Nha Trang
After a good sleep, we got up and got a Grab to the airport for a short flight across to Nha Trang for our second stop.
Sometimes, the small mistakes you make on planning trips can feel a bit stressful and, sat in the airport, I realised that the flights we’d booked to Nha Trang actually landed at Cam Ranh Airport, which is about 45 minutes away from Nha Trang, and wasn’t actually to the disused military airport in Nha Trang itself.
Fortunately, we found some Italians to split a taxi into Nha Trang with, and arrived at our accommodation just after lunch. Thap Ba Hana Apartment is a cheap and cheerful place to stay not too far from the city center, and a great place to stay if you’re on a budget.
We visited Nha Trang to snorkel, see the Cham temples and visit Diep Son island, but the weather was starting to look like it had other ideas. It was an overcast afternoon when we arrived, so we settled for a wander around the town and eventually found ourselves in the main restaurant / bar area.
We grabbed a large stack of food at Senta Vegetarian – which split opinions between the two of us – and grabbed a cocktail at Alice Lounge to think about what we’d like to do the next day.
We made the decision to head on from Nha Trang a day early and go to Quy Nhon the next day instead. I’d heard some great things about it as an “alternative” destination, and it seemed like a great choice.
There’s nothing wrong with Nha Trang at all, I just got the impression that it wasn’t the right time of year to be there, and sometimes it makes sense to move on if you’re not clicking with a place when you’ve only got a couple weeks away.
The Rains in Nha Trang
Our accommodation in Nha Trang was picked because it’s a short walk to the Cham towers at Po Nagar temple from there, so we headed there first thing in the morning.
The sky was ominous as we left and, sure enough, our first experience of ‘proper’ Vietnamese rain arrived while we were at the temple.
In normal circumstances this probably would have been a bit of a day ruiner, but seeing tour groups doing panicked running away from the rain was entertaining enough to stick around for a bit. Po Nagar is a really beautiful place to go and see, and we were both glad we went.
As well as the rain, it was also our first experience with a place you need to dress / behave in a particular way, and it’s pretty amazing how many people don’t really have much care for respecting that. There’s extremely inconsistent rules for do/don’ts in temples across Vietnam, but some people absolutely were not paying any attention to it.
That said, it’s well worth a visit, and it’s a really short hop from the city anyway, so you’d be silly not to go if you’re in the area.
At this point, we were soaked and totally sure we wanted to stick with our plan, so our next task was checking out of our apartment a day early.
Unfortunately for me, this involved finding a cash machine in the rain. This proved far more difficult than I anticipated as the road where the banks are happened to be prone to collecting water.
Up to my ankles in rain water, I was starting to think the warning about November might have been quite accurate.
Once we’d tracked him down, the owner of the apartment very kindly offered us a refund on the second night (which we weren’t expecting), so our our spirits were brightening up a bit in the Grab taxi to the train station.
After some issues explaining our plan, we had our tickets to Quy Nhon. Our original train tickets were valid from there onwards, and it was at that point that we realised buying train tickets online is both expensive and pointless (unless you’re in Vietnam at a very busy time of year).
We still wanted to head to a pagoda before we left to feel like we’d really “done” Nha Trang as best we could, so we set off on a soggy walk up to Long Son Pagoda.
Long Son Pagoda is worth a visit even if you’re temple weary. The main pagoda building is ornate in a lush green surrounding, and behind it on the hill is a brilliant reclining Buddha that is really quite amazing.
At the top of the hill, you’re greeted by an absolutely huge Buddha, which is very tricky to fit in a photograph or explain the scale of properly. It’s visible throughout Nha Trang, and well worth getting across the pagoda to see up close.
Long Son Pagoda is a Nha Trang essential. We were lucky enough to visit when it was completely empty, but it’ll be lovely even if you’re there when it’s busy and hot.
After we’d finished at the pagoda, we still had a little time before our train. Unfortunately, Our mission to find proper food ahead of the four hour journey was a complete strike out. We were being a little too picky on food and ran out of time, but we did manage to see the outside of Stone Church and tracked down some Pringles and beer for the train before we left.
For some reason, I’ve always found the idea of travelling on a train through Vietnam fairly romantic, and I was unduly excited about seeing the sight of one of the massive inter-city services pull up.
We were a little sad to leave Nha Trang as there’s so much there we didn’t get to do, but the allure of Quy Nhon was strong, so we eagerly hopped aboard the train.
The train tickets for the journey had set us back about £4 each at the station for a second class seat. I’d expected something fairly basic for the price but it was a very comfortable, roomy train journey, and we were arriving at our destination before we knew it.
The Quy Nhon Bonus
Once we’d been harangued into getting a private taxi into the city from the train station (half an hour away by car), it didn’t take long to get to our room for the night in Quy Nhon.
We booked Wow Hotel earlier that day. It’s a small, family run hotel near the centre of Quy Nhon, and if you’re ever there, I’d absolutely recommend it. The rooms are decent sized and clean, and the staff are really friendly and helpful.
After we avoided the local street food places near our hotel through fear of a lack of vegetarian food and struggled to find a restaurant open past 10, we resigned ourselves to some crisps in our room and resolved to get a good night’s sleep. It had been a long, soggy day but we were looking forward to exploring in the daytime the day after.
Making Friends In Quy Nhon
Because it was such a late addition to the trip, we didn’t know much about Quy Nhon. As it turned out, it was one of our favourite places of of the whole trip.
Relatively unknown compared to Nha Trang, Quy Nhon is a seaside city that has less tall buildings and more charm than its southern neighbour.
We didn’t have much of an aim for the day, so we exchanged some money before wolfing down a great lunch at a local place called Tám Nam on the seafront.
Our stroll around Quy Nhon took us past communist party posters on the seafront and hammer and sickle flags near the municipal buildings – it’s something that seems to vary across Vietnam, but Quy Nhon was wearing its identity loud proud.
At the end of the avenue of government buildings, we found an outside bar. We were getting some stares and felt like we were invading a locals-only space at first, but eventually made friends with some friendly, slightly out-of-it older gentlemen who wanted to know lots about where we were visiting on our trip.
Our walking tour of Quy Nhon was eventually scuppered by afternoon rain, but we found some cafes and a pizza place to keep us entertained, and managed to watch the second half of Vietnam playing in the Suzuki cup at one of the main strip’s wildly overstated karaoke bars.
As our train that night was at just past midnight, we parked ourselves at one of the local street food places we’d missed out on the night before, attracting the attention of some Vietnamese lads around our age that were enjoying a meal. They invited us over to their table and proceeded to pay for our drinks, despite our protests, and we were gutted when we had to say our goodbyes.
The adage about how friendly Vietnamese people are was alive and well in Quy Nhon, and we had a brilliant day in a place we knew barely anything about.
Quy Nhon is a great town to visit if you fancy something a little different while you’re in Vietnam, and I’d absolutely love to go again and check out more of the coast.
That night marked the first of two overnight trains on our trip, and our 1am crawl up to a top bunk left us ready to pass out on the way to Da Nang – our first stop in central Vietnam.
Part two of this series on Vietnam is available here.