North to South in Vietnam

Vietnam was the first country that we spent more than 2 weeks visiting together, so Vietnam will always hold a special place in our hearts. We spent many, many (many) hours working at cafes, but also many hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the country. We’d already visited Thailand, but instead of seeing only the tourist attractions, we were able to actually get to know the people of Vietnam and we are so grateful.

We first landed in Hồ Chí Minh City (formerly Saigon) – a huge, sprawling metropolis that is the largest city in Vietnam. It’s filled with skyscrapers and the most motorbikes I’ve ever seen in one place.

After spending some time in such a large city, we took an overnight train to Da Nang. The train was one of the most memorable experiences of the whole trip. We booked a shared cabin with two sets of bunk beds (so, we were expecting two extra people in our cabin). When we boarded, there were about 8-10 extra people in our cabin who rode along for about 30 minutes to the next stop. Finally, a middle aged man and his mother were the two who had actually booked into the cabin, and, while they didn’t speak much English and we didn’t speak much Vietnamese, they welcomed us and befriended us.

Da Nang is also a large city but on the coast, so we opted to take a mini-vacation and stay at a beachside resort for a few days.

After Da Nang, we headed to Hoi An, which is located in central Vietnam and known for its well-preserved historical center. While it certainly wasn’t a hidden gem and seems to now be built around tourism, it was a beautiful town – much smaller than what we’d seen so far. We stayed in a family’s home on the outskirts of town and rode bikes into the center each day, and even got a suit and pair of shoes custom made for Jeffrey!

From Hoi An, we had a domestic flight in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. Although Hồ Chí Minh City/Saigon feels much larger and built up and Hanoi seems a bit more untouched and undisturbed from the recent-enough war. While HCMC seems like an international city with a variety of food options and types of hotels, Hanoi has much of a smaller, more traditional feel. We honestly preferred Hanoi over the larger city because, to us, it felt less Westernized and more traditional.

But, the best part of Hanoi was its surroundings. A taxi driver off-handedly told us about a place called Ninh Binh and even told us where to stay once we got there. We took a spontaneous, one-night trip and saw the most beautiful landscape. When asked about the most beautiful place on earth, this is what comes to my mind. We took a boat ride and otherwise just used bikes to explore the area. It is so vast that we felt it was off the beaten path for tourists and just had the most wonderful time.

From Ninh Binh, we went back to Hanoi only to leave again for a 3-day cruise in Halong Bay. We hopped aboard a boat with Indochina Sails and set sail for a 3-day tour of the bay. Our boat had about 10 cabins and we ate our meals on board and then stopped for tours or to kayak around the waters. We made friends with another couple on board and still are friends to this day.

Our last stop in Vietnam was Sapa, located in the hills of Vietnam right near the border with China. We trekked through terraced rice fields of the Muong Hoa Valley and got to take in more natural beauty. The hillside villages are home to several hill tribes, such as the Hmong, Tay and Dao.