‘Nam, ‘Nam, ‘Nam, ‘Nam.
Since I left Vietnam last month I’ve been asking myself one question: WHY DID I LEAVE? What was I thinking? All day food. All day drink. All day sun. All day cheap. No work. Just play. All day. All day.
Thinking of going into the poetry biz, if you couldn’t tell.
Aside from the men, women, and children constantly trying to sell me Rayban knock-offs (I bought four pairs) and outlandishly patterned parachute pants (I bought 3 pairs), Vietnam was by far one of, if not, the greatest traveling experience I’ve ever had.
Here’s a guide on what to do, what to eat, and how to go through the visa process when you’re arriving.
The Visa Situation
Compared to China, this was a breeze. We used this service. You’ll need to pay for a small application fee, fill out the form, attach two passport photos, and pay for your visa on arrival in USD. Boom.
The City Hostel Situation
Saigon is the only Asian city I’ve been to where you don’t have to travel 45 minutes by taxi just to get into the city center from the airport. We left a miserable layover in polluted Shanghai at around 40 degrees fahrenheit with an arrival in Ho Chi Minh City at about 80 degrees and clear. Getting in at 2am was a doozy because of Chinese New Year travelers taking up all the good flights, but even with the streets of Saigon completely empty and calm, it was a victory.
Picture Miami-inspired architecture in the 80’s.
But seriously, I would do terrible things to feel that humid, warm air blowing through my hair while I was backseatin’ it in the taxi on the way to our hostel.
Picture a dog with its head and tongue out of the window.
Ngoc Thao Guesthouse was our hostel of choice for the first round of Ho Chi Minh City. Even with us getting in super late, they were extremely accommodating and welcomed us in proper.
We’ve stepped up our travel game and have learned not to stay at hostels with bars or restaurants for one simple reason: you get too comfortable.
Ngoc Thao offered breakfast and in-between-touristy-things Saigon, my new favorite lager, which was more than enough for us. Stay there. Or don’t. Whatever.
We were situated in a little nook in District 1 — The backpackers district. Everything is slightly more expensive here, which isn’t saying much. A meal fit for kings, with what seemed to be bottomless drinks maxed us at out maybe $7. I’ll talk food later, because I ate a lot. I’m talking a seven deadly sins kind of thing.
The City To-Do Situation
Walk around the district for the first couple of hours you arrive. Snap some photos of vibrant Ho Chi Minh and drink an unapologetic amount of coffee that’s sold on every corner.
I learned the trick to the coffee: They brew an extremely strong concentrate and pour just a tiny bit of it into a cup filled with ice. I went with the condensed milk version, the boyfriend kept it black. Let the ice melt for a few minutes to dilute the concentrate. Don’t fret, you’ll be sitting in 90 degrees of humidity during the day time, meaning your coffee will be ready to drink in just a few minutes.
Rehydrate with a freshly cracked coconut.
Eat two breakfasts.
Sneak in a beer.
Repeat every morning.
Once you’ve become familiar with your temporary ‘hood, get in on the touristy action:
The War Museum
Just thinking of this gives me goosebumps. I am not a history buff, but this was one of the most comprehensive and culturally sensitive experiences I’ve endured. I cried in the museum. No joke. This is an eye-opening experience that should not be missed out on. The photos I’m sharing from the museum are some of the only suitable ones for our blog.
Being born and bred in the states, it’s safe to say we were the elephants in the room. To my fellow Americans, try not to hate yourselves. Just kidding.
The Notre-Dame Cathedral
The Majestic Dome
Next to the cathedral you’ll likely be captivated by the French-colonial-meets-Vietnamese architectural structure known as the the Majestic Dome. It’s purpose is merely just a central post office, but it’s certainly much more than that, visually speaking. Peak at the interior design, buy something from the gift shop, or just cool off. Either way, it’s worth quick a visit.
Bitexco Financial Tower
Views, views, views. This is a MUST do if you want to soak up Saigon in full. Just a 15-minute walk from our hostel and easily spotted anywhere in the city without a map.
Pay on the ground floor. Something like 200K Dong ($10) and shoot up to the 49th floor. Take in the panoramic views of the Saigon river, people watch with complimentary spotting scopes at every angle, and snag as many free bottles of water as possible. Get dat money’s worth.
Ben Than Market
Okay. I don’t have any photos of inside of the market or the market during daylight because I was almost dead from the heat + humidity, likely hungover, probably hungry, and certainly overwhelmed by the amount of products in the market. Whew.
The neon blue lined white building to the left in this photo is Ben Than. If you’re not a good haggler, don’t go in. Me on the other hand, well, I’m a professional. Start low and stay low. If the seller isn’t willing to go low for you, walk away because another seller there is. And believe me, once you start to inch away from the vender, you’re going to get the price you’re asking for.
Ben Than has everything. Clothes, sunglasses, shoes, hats, electronics, coffee, produce, jewelry, food, etc. All of these items will be available to you on the street, but it’s good to just get them as cheap as possible here.
The City Food Situation
Oh Vietnam, why are you so delicious?
I feel like the locals just ate all day in Vietnam. Or maybe that’s my own personal excuse for eating all day.
In the west, banh mi and pho have dominated the Vietnamese food market. But there is so much more. Not that I didn’t eat a banh mi every chance I got, but the seafood, pan-fried noodles, and and rice dishes knocked my socks off.
The Vietnamese don’t skimp on food. The aromas of chili, lime, cilantro and garlic scream year-round summer.
We loved you, Saigon. But it was time to ramble.
The Island Situation
After painstakingly researching islands, I decided on Phu Quoc. Road-tripping eight hours through the country could have been cool, but time was of the essence. I read that Phu Quoc had some of the most beautiful beaches, and was about 45 minutes away by plane. Flights were less than $50 round-trip from the city. Bingo.
The Island Hostel Situation
Options were limited, but we lucked out. The owners of the hostel were awesome. Our rooms were awesome, (we had an insect net over our bed), the beach was a 60-second walk from the lobby. EVERYTHING WAS GREAT. Seriously, stay at Langchia. Or don’t. Whatever.
The Island To-Do Situation
Island life is what dreams are made of. Zero obligations. Tans. Sleeping in. Bike rides. Fresh, cheap seafood. Saigon sippin’ all day. Bottomless fruit. And the occasional burger.
Sorry, guys. Gotta stick to my roots.
We did a couple of tours back to back over two days. The first was with a tour company called “John’s Tours” or something generic like that. The other was with our hostel.
The first tour took us to a pearl farm (boring), the Coconut Prison (heart breaking), a fish sauce factory (semi-cool), Sao beach (gorgeous), a newly built temple with, by far, the most gorgeous view of my whole trip, an organic winery, and an organic peppercorn farm.
To lighten the mood, our tour guide took us to the beach that has restored my faith in humanity.
We hung there for a couple of hours and then were rounded up to go check out some other sites.
Cao Dai Temple
Unfortunately, me and some other tourists weren’t allowed to enter because we weren’t properly dressed. No vaycay shorts and shirt here. Sorry, dudes! But, the outside was breathtaking.
The temple was built in just 2008 and was situated on a hill overlooking the beach. Dreams do come true, guys.
This was one of those touristy tours, where the guide tries to prompt (not pressure) you in to buying something. Here’s the wine fermenting. It was really sweet, almost like honey.
Organic Peppercorn Farm
This place was one of my favorites. Probably because it was food-related.
The peppercorns could be eaten once they turned red. I tried a couple, and being that pepper is one of my favorite seasonings, I almost died. It was so fresh and spicy!
Langchia Hostel Tour
The second wasn’t so much of a tour as it was just taking a nice boat ride to a tiny private island about two hours outside of Phu Quoc.
Until I saw this beach and Sao Beach, there was a point where I started feeling that I had picked up traveling too late in my life and that humans had destroyed all beaches.
Waters were murky and polluted with plastic bags. There were actually so many of them that I could no longer tell the difference (damn you, alcohol) between bags and jelly fish, which later resulted in me getting stung. Necessary measures were taken. Thanks, Brendan!
None of my photos in this post are edited, but I feel I need to particularly stress that here. These cerulean waters are 100% natural. THIS is what an ocean should look like. Let’s all take a vow to never pollute again. Capisce?
These were taken after leaping out of our boat, about 3 meters below sea level. Crystal clear!!
We arrived at a private island with our hostel patrons. Beer was provided. Homemade (disgusting) vodka was provided. We played volleyball, we barbecued, we tanned, we did nothing. It was perfect.
The Island To Eat Situation
Oh, lordy. It was epic.
We didn’t eat all day after our first tour. For whatever reason, I don’t know. I’m still mad at myself. But once we got back to our hostel we found this guy cookin’ up a lil’ sum sum.
He slow roasted pork shoulder and pork belly and would either put it into either a banh mi or fried it with rice. One of each, please!
He also grilled these grape leaves stuffed with ground pork. Ho-ly Eff.
This was a meal from the hostel tour. BBQ’d lime-basil freshly caught fish.
If you couldn’t tell, I loved it.
Santa Maria!! This outdoor seafood barbecue was our go-to for three nights in a row. On the island you’re prompted to go to the night market, which has pretty bad reviews. People still go anyway. And boy, do I feel bad for those suckers. This restaurant was everything. And our bill never came to more than $15 a night.
Fresh as ever seafood, endless Saigon, and love.
PRO TIP: Squeeze lime & salt into your Saigon. Vacation for days.
With a week on the island complete, it was time to head back to Ho Chi Minh for a couple days. We we able to meet up with some of New Life’s very first teachers, Niki and Jason! Probably the coolest travelin’ couple ever.
We ended our trip by promising ourselves we wouldn’t get too torn up before heading to the airport. It was a fail.
Is there anything we would have done differently? Perhaps not only have stayed in District 1, but also have traveled to smaller cities in the south and lived the local life, not the traveler one.
Don’t worry though, dudes. We’re going to Bourdain this one and bang up Vietnam several more times to come. Want to check out more of my photos and journeys across the world? Check out my new site here!