It’s been 5 days since I left behind Vietnam to return to grey, chilly, dismal England – which seems the perfect time to remind myself of why Vietnam might just be my favourite place in the world (disclaimer: according to TripAdvisor I have only travelled a meagre 12% of the world so this article is of course, purely subjective). I only spent 2 weeks in Vietnam, at the end of my 6 week South East Asian adventure. And what a way to end my travels. Here are some of my favourite things about Vietnam (in no particular order) and reasons why you should definitely, absolutely go there.
Food in general is a huge source of excitement for me. I’d loved sampling the spicy delights of Thailand and Cambodia and couldn’t wait to see what Vietnam had to offer. My findings were surprising for 3 reasons. 1: In Vietnam they eat noodles as a staple as opposed to rice. 2: Vietnamese food isn’t spicy by definition. Of course you can add chilli yourself should you so desire, but it’s not an essential part of the flavour. And finally 3: it is completely and utterly delicious, as well as mouth-wateringly cheap. I found a decent sized bowl of vegetable soup, full of tofu and other unknown meat substitutes for a mere 10,000 VND (around 35p or 50 cents if you’re operating in US currency). I set myself a mini-mission to find the best bowl of pho (noodle soup, usually with beef – although strangely enough in the north you can only get chicken pho, which I have to say was a little disappointing). Beef pho is incredible: full of flavour, warming and comforting. The best pho I found was at a cafe in Ho Chi Minh City called Pho Hai Thien on Bui Vien street; I honestly can’t remember the last time I had beef so tender. I challenge you to find better pho in the city.
South East Asians are, in general, some of the friendliest people you’ll meet. That’s pretty much a fact. I’d been to Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia, and the locals are welcoming and helpful, sometimes with the intention of selling you some kind of service, but quite often just for the sake of being friendly. The Vietnamese took this to a new level. They exude a warmth and genuine kindness that not many other nationalities I’ve come across seem to possess. Tour guides are genuinely grateful for you listening to them and appreciating them for what they do. Hostel owners go out of their way to accommodate you and make you feel welcome in their town. Even out amongst the general public, they are open and keen to chat; I even had a five year old girl (helped out a lot by her father I might add) beat me at a board game on the street in the centre of Hanoi. It makes such a difference, especially as a solo traveller, being greeted with such warmth. The people here feel like your friends after a day.
Before I arrived in Vietnam, I chatted to lots of people who spoke about it pretty much exclusively in superlatives. ‘Incredible’, ‘amazing’, ‘stunning’ etc. etc. were all part of my conception before I arrived, so I had high hopes. But at the same time, I was worried that it wasn’t going to live up to the hype, and I would end up feeling a little disappointed.
Thankfully, I was very, very wrong. Vietnam is without doubt the most beautiful place I have ever seen with my own human eyes.
The thing I love about Vietnam is the incredible (there it is again) variety that it has to offer. And all of it is mind blowing. Beaches: yes. Beautiful and clean. Rainforest: yes. Driving through the countryside on the back of a motorbike, staring up at metres and metres of dense and eerie jungle was one of the most spectacular highlights. Mountains: yes. The backdrop is persistently jaw dropping. In case you don’t believe me, have a look at these…
And those are just in the centre of the country. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to explore more of the south (saving that for next time), but what I saw here was enough to make me want to explore some of the northern landscapes. Time was limited, so the choice was between Sapa, a northern town in the mountains good for trekking and experiencing traditional village life; or Halong Bay, a world heritage site made up of 1969 islands. I went for Halong Bay in the end, including a stop over on Cat Ba Island, and have no regrets about the decision I made.
Halong Bay is perhaps Vietnam’s piece de resistance, the jewel in its opulent crown. I had expected a short boat journey through a couple of islands where I would stop and take a few pictures, maybe have a little swim and it would be perfectly pleasant. What I actually experienced was nothing short of sublime (without being too hyperbolic).
Firstly, Halong Bay is much bigger than I had anticipated. The boat journey navigating through the islands took a good couple of hours, and we barely scratched the surface. Mountainous rock looms out of the sea as far as the horizon, whilst small floating fishing villages rest sleepily in the islands’ imperious shadow. There’s one island with a small beach where you can swim, and a viewpoint you can climb up to (if you can stomach the 402 steps up!) The result is nothing short of breathtaking:
It’s hard to get much better than that if you ask me.
I could go into specific detail about some more of the places I saw here (and I probably will in subsequent posts). But for now, suffice to say that Vietnam is perhaps the only country I have visited so far that has genuinely never ceased to amaze me at every twist and turn. No doubt I will be seeing it again very, very soon.