I just love Vietnamese food! The more often, the better. To find out if what we get in Germany as so called “Vietnamese food” – and of course to learn about the country itself and its people – my friend and I travelled to Vietnam. Once arrived we found ourselves on a rollercoaster of emotions. This country is so special and diverse! On the one hand there is Hanoi, authentic but noisy, with romantic Hoi An you will fall in love after 1 second, and in Saigon you will sometimes feel like you’re in France due to the remains of the French colonial period. As you will read in this article there are lots of things to do in Vietnam.
Things to do in Vietnam on your 3 weeks trip – The best Off The Path tips and recommendations!
If you’re looking for the whole load of authentic Vietnamese big city life book an accomodation in the heart of Hanoi, the narrow alleys of the old quarter. We decided for the small boutique hotel Hanoi Glance where we stayed 4 nights. On the 45 minutes drive from the airport we already got a feeling of what it’s like if the drivers best friend is his horn and traffic rules are kind of non-existing. So if you dare to cross the road, walk slowly, without stops and giving attention to the honking vehicles and be happy everytime you survived.
Be prepared: The driver will try to cheat you. It’s just feels like an annoying Vietnamese habit. The price is about 220.000 VND. So make it clear right in the beginning to avoid price discussions once you’ve reached your destination.
Having arrived in Hanoi we directly entered the busy streets and strolled around in the old town and around Hoan Kiem lake. Already a few hours later our heads were pounding from all the honking, gas and hustle and bustle so we decided to treat ourselves with a 1 hour massage. For 19 Euros a very good investment.
Feeling totally relaxed we visited the typical water puppet theater in the evening that was accompanied by a talented Vietnamese orchestra. Really worth a visit!
When in Hanoi, just do at least a little bit of cultural programm such as we did. Our first stop was the prison museum Hoa Lo. It was built during the French colonial period and used for American soldiers during the Vietnam war. Terrifying instruments of torture, cramped death rows and dark music made us pacing along the corridors with a rather depressed feeling. What’s very interesting is the one-sided presentation of the prisioners’ treatment. The Americans were the bad guys, the Vietnamese the good guys without any exception.
Next we stopped by the temple of literature. It is supposed to be one of the oldest and most beautiful buildings of Hanoi. Afterwards we passed the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, ate dumplings called Banh Bo from a street vendor and afterwards a so called egg waffle with vanilla/matcha flavor.
A firework for taste buds
When on a Vietnam roundrtip a must on your list should be at least one streetfood tour. We had booked one for our last evening in Hanoi to get to know the culinary variety of Vietnam’s capital. Though we had already tried a lot on our own there was still a lot left to explore. Part of the dinner plan: 9 locations. We always shared one dish and were already stuffed after 2 spots but it was just too delicious to stop: Vietnamese pancakes with mushroom filling, summer rolls with fish, pho rolls with pork, fried eel with vermicelli, chicken salad and many more. To support our digestion we had „happy water“ (wine with different percentages of alcohol) out of a coconut and a canister. Last but not least we drank the typical and yummy egg coffee (sweet egg foam on warm coffee).
Eat & drink in Hanoi
Pho Gia Truyen
Just follow a long line with only locals and you will find the best traditional pho soup in town. Sorrounded by smacking, sipping and burping Vietnamese you can settle down and beat your jetlag with this nourishing soup.
Tip: The later you come, the better the soup simply because the broth is stronger!
If you also like slushy and doughy stuff these Japanese sweets that symbolize luck and wealth are the perfect desert for you. I’m sure you find your favourite easily out of flavours like chocolate mousse, matcha, red bean paste, blueberry or durian.
Cha Ca La Vong
This restaurant only offers one dish since more than 100 years: fish with rice noodels and a mix of dill and chives. Tourists as well as locals enjoy this Hanoi typical dish served by a slightly grumpy waitress.
If you want to treat yourself with a fine but noch expensive dining experience this is your spot. This restaurant serves Vietnamese classics but also fresh fish and seadfood in a quiet green backyard.
My favourite cafe. Although it’s a chain they serve my beloved cold Vietnamese coffee with joghurt or coconut. So good! You will mainly meet Vietnamese hipsters here and while having your coffee you can get your shoes cleaned for 42 cents. Don’t be afraid, the shoeshine boy will definitely come back even though cheap plastic flip flops for brand sneaker would be a good deal.
Halong Bay: Tourism all over the place
Since Halong Bay is a world heritage it’s top on the list for almost every Vietnam tourist. On site you will find yourself disillusionated. The Vietnamese have to fight with increasing water pollution, trash swims on the water surface, there is no atmosphere of an idyll. Vast amounts of boats daily enter the bay, the stops are always the same, you’re never alone and it just feels more like mass processing.
Nevertheless we had booked a 2 days tour including overnight stay on boat. Via mini van we drove to Halong City where the Galaxy Premium Cruise casts off. During the 4 hour drive we stopped at two selling points for tourists where we could buy needless junk for the use of their toilet. We denied. The boat itself and our twin room were very pretty though and made us feel like staying in a swimming hotel.
Kayaking & cooking class
After 1,5 hours of cruising we were served a delicious lunch with lots of seafood followed by a round of kayaking. We paddeled through tunnels into turquoise lakes and passed huge limestone rocks. In the middle of nature without the annoying honking in Hanoi we really appreciated the silence.
Back on board we took part in a cooking class making Vietnamese spring rolls accompanied by a glass of Vietnamese red wine. Always ensuring that the guests on board make new friends the staff served cool local beer and later on different Vietnamese fish and meat specialities for dinner. The squid fishing afterwards failed completely. We only catched one poor guy. Since we wanted to join the tai chi class the next morning we went to bed early and left the caraoke field to the other guests.
Early-morning exercise & cave visit
Around 6.30 it was time for our first tai chi lesson on sun deck. Unfortunately is was foggy and rainy, not unusual for Spring. The sea view and just the whole scenery was overwhelming though. Next we visited a limestone cave. After crawling into it and hiking up the mountain we enjoyed a breathtaking view over the mystic foggy bay. Back on board it was already time to leave for going back to Hanoi.
Since it was cold and foggy in the North at that time we skipped the trip to the rice terraces of Sapa. If you have a few days left and visit Vietnam during the best time i.e. in August you can take the night train from Hanoi and arrive in Sapa the next morning.
Central vietnam: An area full of contrasts
To get to the charming little town Hoi An you can either take the train to Da Nang (appr. 16 hours over night) or decide for the faster relaxed version and go by plane. Flights within the country can easily be booked via Skyscanner or Momondo and are only about 40 Euros. We decided to go for the plane since we wanted to safe time.
Eating seafood in Da Nang
Da Nang is quice nice to spend a couple of relaxed hours at the beach or walk the esplanade decorated with hundreds of laterns and cross the colourful dragon bridge. You will also find another Cong Café here.
For lunch and dinner I recommend to check out one of the many seafood restaurants which Da Nang is known for. Your favourite fish can be ordered directly out of a water tank. Try a lobster. It’s so cheap in comparison to European prices. If the communication with the waitress is too hard since they don’t speak good English find a picture of what you like to order on the internet and show it to her. In our case that turned out to be quite helpful.
In love with Hoi An
On the next we headed to my absolute favourite city Hoi An where we stayed 7 days. Already the first walk through the old town with its tubular houses captured us and made us fall in love immediately: narrow streets decorated with hundreds of laterns, busy tailors at every corner, the river reflecting all the lights and not to forget our refreshing infinity pool at the hotel.
Our accomodation Vinh Hung Emerald Resort on the other side of the river additionally offered a free boot trip and a daily smalll streetfood market next to the river. We felt like living like a bee in a clover.
If you’ve had enough of lazing around you can treat yourself with another massage or mani- or pedicure on every corner. If you wanna move your body though rent a bicycle for 1 dollar per day and drive to a beach at the South Chinese sea. We really liked Cam An. For sure the beaches are not comparable to the ones in Thailand but you can still have a good time enjoying the sun and sea while drinking a fresh coconut.
Tailoring in Hoi An
Another must do in Hoi An is to at least buy one tailored piece. In my case leather espandrillos for 23 €. For shoes go to Nhi Trung but don’t get uninhibited by the grumpy and permanently eating owner. She does a good job. For clothes Yaly is the perfect spot. Here you can get inspired by the samples and books or you just show a picture of the design you want and they tailor it for you.
Self-made Pho, pancakes & summer rolls
My personal highlight was the Vietnamese cooking class with Thuan Thin Island Cooking School on our second last day in Hoi An. I love to cook and bake and was curious to learn about the traditional Vietnamese recipes.
At 8.15 we were picked up and started with visiting the local market to buy the ingredients for our 4 typical Vietnamese dishes. Busy as you imagine it we squeezed through scooters, bicycles and vendors and were lucky once we had put everything together. Now the boat brought us to an island where everything was already prepared for us. After 3 ½ hours we had cut, fried and eaten more than we wanted and ever expected and drove back home with a round belly, a small recipe book and full of motivation to cook for our friends and family at home.
Eat & drink in Hoi An
Amazing smoothies, juices and light lunch make this cafe a perfect spot returning from the beach. You can easily get to know young people from around the world and take a time out of Vietnamese food.
You definitely have to make a reservation here because it’s always crowded. The food is very good and you can even sit outside in one of Hoi Ans charming narrow streets. They also offer a cooking a class.
Restaurant on a higher price level with a lovely quiet courtyard – a real oasis. They serve Vietnamese classics with an exclusive twist.
If you’re vegetarian definitely check out this place at least once. You will love it. Of course you will be surrounded mostly by Non-Asians but the meals are just really really good and special.
In Hoi An there are lots of local specialities you should all try. Don’t be afraid of street vendors. They are often the most clean and we never got food poisoning from any of them. Here is a helpful overview what you shouldn’t miss!
Since we skipped Ho Chi Minh in favor of 3 more days in Hoi An we had to get up at 3 in the morning to catch the first flight to Ho Chi Minh and from there to the island Phu Quoc in the South of Vietnam. We checked in at Famiana Resort & Spa for the next 6 days and chilled at the private beach for the couple of hours.
In the following days we explored the island with a scooter for 4 $ per day and just relaxed at the beach/pool with some cocktails. During our trip to the North we stopped at Duong Dong and Cuan Can and made our way through very sandy streets to Peppercorn Beach – passing pepper plantations and anchovis drying stations out of which the famous Phu Quoc fish sauce is made). On our way to the South we visited the small fishermen town An Thoi where we watched the hustle and bustle and countless colourful fishing boats.
At Bai Tam Khem beach we were the only tourists lying in the white sand. This spot would have been so perfect with its crystal clear turqoise water if there wouldn’t be a huge trash issue everywhere on Phu Quoc. Unfortunately the locals and of course also tourists are missing environmental awareness. All the little fireplaces burning trash do not yield any better.
After a side trip to Bai Tam Sao beach that was cleaner but also more busy we headed back to our hotel.
Eat & drink on Phu Quoc
My favourite. Cheap and so good that I’m still dreaming of it. Vietnamese cuisine with lots of fresh fish and special sauces like passion fruit or lemon grass.
Similar food to Nemo but a little bit more expensive. Nice courtyard.
Night Market Duong Dong
Go here for the biggest variety of seafood BBQ. Just choose a restaurant with lots of locals and point at the fish/mussle/shrimp you want and you get it grilled on your table.
Ho Chi Minh City: Vietnams secret capital
After a short 1 hour flight in a small shaky plane we arrived in Ho Chi Minh. A heat wave hit us when stepping out of the airport. Since our room wasn’t ready yet we strolled around and already passed our planned sightseeing highlights by accident: Notre Dame church, the imperial post office designed by Gustave Eiffel, the opera and Ben Thanh market, where we haggled coffee, ceramic bowls and typical Vietnamese two toe socks. Back at our hotel Liberty Central we moved into our room on the 9th floor and took a cooling dip into the rooftop pool.
Eat & drink in Ho Chi Minh
Café and store in one. There are two of them in Ho Chi Minh. Stop by for a traditional Vietnamese coffee and Western snacks.
Extraordinary Vietnamese cuisine overlooking Ho Chi Minh. You’re gonna eat on a roof top terrace between green plants and chicken under bell shaped cages. Very authentic.
Vegetarian cafe and restaurant with a big menu and chilly atmosphere. Don’t forget to order a delicious smoothie or fresh juice.
More Vietnam adventures for you!
Here are some activities we had to skip due to time lack:
Hue: The old emperor city impresses with its old citadel which is definitely worth a visit. If you’ve had enough of temples, citadels, etc. you can skip this.
Trip to Mekong Delta: You can book 1-2 day tours starting in Ho Chi Minh heading to floating villages
Streetfood tour through Ho Chi Minh: On a scooter that also takes you remote spots. You can book a tour here.
Cu Chi tunnels: Day tours departing in Ho Chi Minh to the former tunnel systems in which the Vietnamese hided during the Vietnam war. Their life completely took place underground. Very interesting, but nothing for you if you have claustrophobia.
Na Trang: Established resort, touristic, but offers nice beaches and good snorkeling and diving spots.
Almost all trips can be booked at all kinds of accommodations!
Have you been to Vietnam as well and some great stories for us? Share them in the comments below!