Ho Chi Minh City is the largest and most developed city in the country, with a population of over 8.5 million the city is as populous as it feels. One word that comes to mind when describing the city is ‘traffic’. Never in my life have I witnessed as many people on scooters in one place as in Ho Chi Minh. The city has a constant ceaseless flow of wave after wave of bikes. These bikes carry not just passengers but everything else a person could think of, from baskets to planks, to puppies and geese. The city is filled with winding alleys and side streets, each with their own hustle and bustle to them. At night the city lights up and the constant activity continues as beer halls and markets continue their business well into the night. Throughout the city, you will find markets and fantastic restaurants serving everything from world-class sushi and fantastic Italian food cooked in woodfire ovens to traditional pho houses. Ho Chi Minh is the one real place in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos where you will find luxury malls with state of the art cinemas, arcade, and bumper cart rinks. There are some amazing attractions well worth a visit throughout the city which will be discussed in the next few articles. Make sure to spend a few days in Ho CHi Minh to really get a feel for the city and take advantage of everything it has to offer. Food and shopping are two of the biggest activities to take part in, along with museums, galleries, waterparks, and zoos.
Da Nang is the third largest city in Vietnam and is located in the center of the country on the coast. While Da Nang is not the most touristy city in Vietnam it is an extremely pleasant city. I ended up spending a few days there just because of how nice the city was. Having said that there is plenty to do in the city, such as Marbel Mountain, Chùa Linh Ứng (a large temple complex with an enormous Buddhist statue), the Sun Wheel and beautiful beachfronts. The city is also filled with Communist monuments, propaganda billboards, stunning arty bridges and fantastic restaurants and bakeries. The city has a very livable feeling to it and if I were to live somewhere in Vietnam it would probably be Da Nang. In Da Nang you will also see Vietnamese daily life go on all around you, seeing sights such as scooters transporting massively oversized loads of planks, garden supplies fans and almost anything that you can think of. The city’s attractions will be covered in the following articles.
Cat Ba Island is, in my opinion, the highlight of Ha Long Bay. The island has one smallish port town with numerous hotels, hostels, bars, markets, and restaurants. I suggest spending at least two days on the island in order to really see what it has hidden. Staying in town is a fantastic base, where you can rest and relax, but also rent a motorbike or scooter to explore the inland areas of the island. The main town area houses some fantastic markets where a traveler can pick up a large amount of pearl based jewelry for a very small cost. You can also find numerous floating restaurants throughout the harbor serving fantastic food. Inland on the island, the first real item of note is a small hidden stairway just off of the main road, leading to a cave. Inside the cave, you will find a secret medical facility built beneath the earth during the Vietnam War. When I happened to visit, the cave was completely empty, so I was the only person there making it an extremely creepy experience. The atmosphere inside of the facility is haunting, especially knowing that numerous people died within its walls from their sustained wounds. The complete silence and dim lighting add even further to the already creepy atmosphere. I definitely suggest checking it out even if you find it a little unsettling. The next and probably main attraction on the island for me is Cat Ba National Park which you can find in the center of the island. Whether or not I took the correct route is unclear, but for me to get there I had to park my bike and walk through an abandoned village, whose only inhabitants were wild dogs and deer. This setting was also somewhat creepy, but after visiting the hospital cave, not so much. The hike to Ngu Lam Peak, an excellent observation point located in the park should not take more than an hour or so each way. The view from the peak was fantastic and looked over the landscape in every direction, showing nothing but jungle covered peaks for the most part. My only piece of advice would be to cover your body head to toe in insect repellant and to make sure that you are taking malaria tablets because mosquitos will eat you alive on this hike, more so than any other hike I have ever been on. Apart from the inland attractions, make sure to explore the town’s markets and bars for a very enjoyable experience. Also, make sure to try horse show crab and mantis shrimp if you have a chance, both are delicious. Cat Ba makes for a fantastic few days if you have the time.
Hanoi is possibly my favourite city in SE Asia and as such will need more than one article written about it. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the city’s history, it is now the capital city of Vietnam, where the country’s Communist government is based. During the Vietnam War, the city was the hub of the Communist North Vietnamese forces known as the DRV Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Initially, their leader was Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader who freed the nation from French colonial rule. It was, of course, the North that won the Vietnam War, unifying the nation under Communist rule. Today the city still stands as the nation’s capital despite being smaller and less wealthy than the southern capital Ho Chi Minh City. I personally much prefer Hanoi to its larger and wealthier counterpart as the city has a wealth of culture, character, and atmosphere that I have not experienced anywhere else. The city itself is a buzzing hive of ceaseless activity of all types. You will see people in expensive cars driving alongside men on bicycles and rickshaws, businessmen in suits passing women carrying baskets of ducks and chickens over their shoulders. The city is a mix of French, Chinese and Vietnamese culture, cuisine and architecture. Ensure that you stay in the Old Quarter or you will miss out on half of the experiences that the city has to offer. The hustle and bustle of the day continue into the night with a world famous beer house culture existing in the city accompanied by enormous night markets. The city is filled with museums, galleries, theaters and other cultural attractions, as well as bars, parks, clubs, restaurants and other activities. There really is something for everyone. The ceaseless noise from honking traffic and the people crowding the streets makes you feel a vibrancy, unlike many other places I have visited. The city also had the best coffee houses I have ever visited, with Vietnamese coffee being my favorite in the world. Make sure that if you visit the city you try Trung Nguyen Coffee, in my opinion, it blows Starbucks or any of its copycats out of the water. Make sure to visit a Loteria in order to experience one of the strangest fast food menus I have ever tried. Also try to have dinner or lunch at the City View Cafe, sitting atop the largest building in the Old City, it gives you a fantastic view of your surroundings. There is also a beautiful temple in the center of the lake in the Old District worth paying a visit to. Most of all just spend a few days exploring the city and try everything you are able to and you will not be disappointed. A final warning is that the city has some of the most aggressive hawkers I have ever encountered, so make sure to be firm with them if you are not interested or they will literally take money out of your wallet and hand you their goods. Hanoi was the only place in SE Asia that I almost got into an altercation with a hawker who pulled my shoes off my feet and began sewing them despite my protest and me trying to take them back from him, while his friend tried taking money out of my wallet as payment. This only happened once but was an unpleasant experience and had I not gotten aggressive with them, they would have simply taken my money from me against my will.
Phonsavan is the last major eastern town/city in Laos before reaching the Vietnamese border. The city is a rural hub, mostly consisting of farmers and those who sell to farmers. The city is also the closest location to the Plain of Jars which will be covered in my next article. I felt that Phonsavan deserved its own separate article. You can find stunning scenery, traditional culture and cuisine and amazing history in the part of Laos. Spread throughout the region are countless craters from US bombing rounds, as well as countless unexploded bombs and grenades. The locals have made an industry of converting this war era scrap metal into useful items and sellable wares through smelting. You should definitely try to visit one such workshop if you can and watch the locals meltdown bombs to create everything from keychains to silverware, to jewelry, all of which is available for purchase. The scenery alone should attract you, with rolling hills covered in and surrounded by rice fields and water buffalo. Make sure to spend at least a day here, especially if you are passing through on your way to North Western Vietnam. Prices here are also extremely low as it is not a tourism based town. The Plain of Jars is, in my opinion, an ancient wonder of the world and is not to be missed.
Luang Prabang is a famous temple town in the northern mountainous area of Laos. The city is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its historical and cultural importance. You will not find anywhere else quite like this city. The city is known not just for its temples, but also its large population of monks who can be seen streaming through the streets in the early morning to collect food from the town’s people. I highly suggest spending a few days relaxing in Luang Prabang, exploring the town, the surrounding areas, relaxing on the river, soaking in the culture and getting more of a vibe of what Laos historically has been. The small city is also famous for its night market, which takes place down the main street of town, in front of the highly iconic temple, Wat Xieng Thong. If you get a chance, I highly recommend trying the local rice wine or scorpion/snake/lizard infused whiskey. The city has a fantastic communal pool, with a built in bar, so on those hot days that is where you are going to want to relax and unwind. Make sure to climb the hill in the center of town for some stunning views, while there is a small cost to climb it, it is definitely worth paying. Also be sure to visit the towns ethnographic museum to be able to learn about local unique cultural and ethnic groups living in Northern Laos. Make sure to also wake up early enough to be able to buy and give food to the local monks as it is a crucial part of the whole experience and almost feels like something that you need to do.
Vientiane is the capital city of Laos and is definitely the largest in the country by far, but still does not feel like a capital city. The city and surrounding area has between 500,000 and 750,00 residents depending on which survey ou trust. The pace of the city is so slow for a metropolitan area, especially after visiting other such areas in neighbouring countries. The city has an interesting blend of Laotian and French culture, which an be found in its food, architecture, and way of life. Throughout the city, you will find Buddhist temples, located between French colonial buildings. The cuisine in the city is a very definite mix of French fine dining and bakeries and traditional Laotian cuisine serving restaurants and food carts. Located in the center of the city, at its heart is Pha That Luang, a grand historical monument, central to the identity of Laos itself. This is a large golden Buddhist tower, which sadly I couldn’t get close to during my visit for unknown security reasons. The city has some fantastic museums, mixing pre-European Laotian history with French colonial history, as well as Vietnam War and Indochinese War history. If you have a few days in the city make sure to enjoy the cuisine, visit the night markets and soak up the unique atmosphere found only in Vientiane. I still don’t believe that I’ve been anywhere with quite the same culture.