Vietnam Surprise

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My boyfriend’s 30th birthday was looming and I saw an opportunity to surprise him with 3 weeks away in Vietnam. He had spent months in Thailand and Cambodia a few years before but always regretted not seeing Vietnam - this was my chance to change that.

He booked 3 weeks off in February without a clue where we were going and so began my planning phase! I’d heard Vietnam in February was beautiful - a crisp 15 degrees in the north and a summery 30 degrees in the south. I was also keen we experienced Tet which is the Vietnamese new year (round about the 4th of February). Tet is a season to invite strangers in for warm food, share everything you have with people you don’t know and spend time with family. We definitely experienced this throughout the whole trip and whilst the national holiday made it more difficult to travel around, it was a wonderful experience.


Getting there

Firstly, the flights... I’d definitely recommend going via Hong Kong. I have experienced the pain of connecting in American airports before so I was very pleasantly surprised with how hassle-free changing in Hong Kong was. We flew to Hanoi with Thai Airways and planned to make our way down to the southern islands over three weeks.

Hanoi

Before we left home, someone told me to ‘watch out for the motorbikes’. That phrase did not prepare me for the mayhem. We arrived a few days before chinese new year meaning the streets were full of people carrying ‘Vietnamese christmas trees’ on the back of their bikes. We learned to hide behind locals when crossing roads and reached a peak level of pride when some locals followed our shadow across the road on the second day.

What to do

Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi is an absolute must. As is a walk around the Ho Chi Minh Memorial. You get a sense of the history from the first day.

Halong Bay overnight cruise: You can’t go to Vietnam without seeing the beautiful islands at Halong Bay. We booked an overnight luxury cruise across the new years eve with Paradise Cruises (who thankfully picked us up from and to Hanoi) and stayed on the boat Tom Cruise was hiring out the week after!

Whilst expensive, we stayed in hostels the rest of our stay so thought if we were going round the bay, we’d do it in style - best decision, you will miss out if you try and do it cheaply.

Definitely go kayaking off the boat. Your arms will hurt but you get to kayak through tunnel to an un-touched bay. Matt was pretty proud of his Kayaking photos!

Eating

Cafe Pho Co: Hanoi’s secret cafe looking over the city lake was a highlight, mainly because of the egg white coffee (sounds horrible but tastes like marshmallow!). Accessed through a secret shop, this is a must.


Phong Nha

Our favourite part of the trip - staying for 2 days in a homestay right on the river which opened just for us in the middle of the mountainous national park. After booking an overnight bus through our hotel in Hanoi, we arrived in Phong Nha at 2am.

Sleeping

Whilst the homestay we hoped to stay in was closed for the new year, their friends down the road decided they’d be happy to open up theirs (due to be opened in a few months) just for us! We were their first ever guests. We experienced Tet first hand here as we were invited to family meals every night and asked to share in the hosts’ happiness that we were staying with them.

What to do

Explore by scooter: We hired a scooter and spent the 2 days exploring the mountains, caves and unconceivable views - the best two days I have ever had. Don’t bother with the black caves but take a walk around the Botanical Garden and you’ll find you’re climbing waterfalls.


De Nang

After two days, we regrettably had to leave Phong Nha and we made another over night bus trip to De Nang. Usually a place missed out by travellers, it is the town on the edge of the de-militarised zone with an eerie post-war feel created by the government propaganda broadcasts in the streets from 5am till midday every day of the week.

What to do

Day's tour with a war veteran: We booked a full day tour with a war veteran who showed us where he fought, where tanks were still hidden under grassland, took us down a huge network of tunnels and showed us round the whole region in about 10 hours.

Exhausting but if you love history like Matt does, don’t dismiss De Nang.

Hue and Hoi An: Two towns on the east coast with a very different feel but worth seeing. Hue is the old french capital and has the old walled city which is beautiful. It had an awesome party vibe - but by this point with all the overnight buses, we were essentially grumpy and old and just wanted to sleep.

Hoi An was a highlight and only an hour away. Essentially an old fishing village, it is full of market stalls, world famous tailors and quaint bridges. You can even get yourself drawn for a tenner... Hire a bike and cycle to the beach via the country side - you will see rice fields, bulls, bamboo bikes, local farmers and no tourists.

We’d now experienced the north and it was time to fly south for some heat...


Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

More often than not still called Saigon by locals, Ho Chi Minh City was a shock back into western culture. Another shock was the heat!

Sleeping

We stayed in a beautiful hotel just to say we’d had a rooftop swimming pool on our holiday.

Nikko Saigon
Nikko Saigon

What to do

City walk: Lonely Planet suggested a four hour walk of the city which was good but my god we got through about 8 litres of water!

Cu Chi Tunnels: These tunnels have been doubled in size for tourists. I cannot describe how it feels walking round as guns fire in the background amongst the relic traps set in the heart of the jungle..

I don’t want to spoil any of the tour as it completely changed our perspective of the war but please do this. It is a day trip you will never forget.

Cat Tien National Park: If you fancy a jungle trek, stop off at Cat Tien and stay at Hope Lodge - they are the front runners in the preservation of wildlife in the area so you will be helping out the park.

Book a day’s walking trek with an expert to see the gibbons and siamese crocodiles (the only place they still exist in the wild so a once in a lifetime opportunity).


Phu Quoc Island

My one requirement for this holiday was that we would get some beach time at the end so, with just three days to go, we flew from Ho Chi Minh to Phu Quoc island.

Sleeping

We stayed near the beach in a cottage village..

It was everything I thought it would be, sun, sand, relaxation and just beautiful.

Drinking

Rory's Beach Bar: We spent most evenings here, voted the best bar on the island probably because of the amazing White Russians and the most perfect sunsets.

Final thought

Regrettably we had to fly home after three weeks of creating awesome memories together. The trip confirmed that we wanted to start living together and in a few months will have a house. So the trip cheesily changed our lives and hopefully it will be a 30th he will never forget...

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Questions? Feel free to ask me anything in the comments below!

Kathryn Hopwood

Young professional working between London and Surrey. Passionate about friends and family, teaching, cooking and country walks. I love travelling and seeing the world!

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