Take me back to Vietnam!

Vietnam has been a very special destination for me since the very beginning of my trip because I knew that this is where I would meet up with my boyfriend, Dave. After three and a half months of long-distance relationship, Dave and I both couldn’t wait any longer for the big day to come. When the day finally arrived, I was both nervous and super excited. He flew into Hanoi two hours earlier than I did, but he waited for me. We hadn’t talked about this previously, but as it turned out later, we had both been worried that our reunion would be a bit awkward, at least at the beginning. However, it felt as if we’d never been apart. It really was the best reunion I could have imagined!

From the airport we took an Uber to the Sheraton Hanoi where we stayed for our first night. At the Sheraton, we were welcomed very warmly and led up to the SPG Lounge where we enjoyed welcome drinks and finalised the check-in process. We got an upgrade to a really nice and spacious suite and I could tell how excited Dave was. After staying in hostels for the past month, I was also happy to stay in a hotel again. I don’t mind hostels at all, but sometimes I’m craving for some privacy and space for myself, so the stay at the Sheraton Hanoi was great for me, too. As it was already late afternoon when we arrived at the hotel, we didn’t do much on our first day except going out for dinner. For dinner, we went just around the corner to Maison De Tết Decor. I really liked the atmosphere and the decor of this place and the food was super yummy!

The Sheraton Hanoi is definitely a nice hotel, but it is not very central. So we stayed the following two days in the old part of Hanoi, which is where pretty much all the major sights are. I’d booked a private room in the Nexy Hostel, which had been recommended to me by another backpacker. It declares itself as a luxury hostel. Even if I would definitely not go that far, our private room was nice (albeit pretty small) and the location is excellent. We were so close to everything that we could walk everywhere.

Unfortunately, it was pouring down in Hanoi during the whole three days that we were there. I expected rain as it was rain season, but in all the other countries I’ve travelled to, it usually stopped raining after an hour. Well, not in Hanoi where it rained almost all day long. Even the ponchos and rain jackets weren’t of much use in that kind of weather. Therefore, we decided to explore the pubs in Hanoi on our first full day in Hanoi. Dave loves craft beer, so I had done some research in advance in order to find some bars or pubs that serve craft beer. So we went to the New Gentry Pub and the Craft Beer Pub for some Vietnamese beer tasting. I don’t drink beer, but I love ciders, which is pretty hard to find in Asia. Thus, I was pretty excited when I saw that they had a local cider in the New Gentry Pub. I hardly understand a thing about beer as I don’t like it, but according to my boyfriend, the beer selection in the New Gentry Pub is vaster, yet his favourite beer of the night was served in the Craft Beer Pub. It was the IPA from the Pasteur Street Brewing Co Saigon, a brewery from Ho Chi Minh City. After the beer tasting, we went to New Day, a local restaurant, which had been recommended to us by the hostel. Dave’s eyes brightened up when he finally ate his first Pho Bo in Vietnam. Vietnamese food is one of my boyfriend’s favourite cuisines and it was one of the reasons why he chose Vietnam to meet up with me. I ordered a tofu / egg soup as the Phos are exclusively non-vegetarian unless you go to a vegetarian restaurant. This restaurant was absolutely packed and after having this delicious dinner, we knew why. It was the perfect finish to our first full day in Hanoi.

For our second full day in Hanoi I had arranged a cooking class with the Countryside Restaurant, which had been recommended to us by the Nexy Hostel. The Countryside Restaurant offers two cooking classes a day. They have different menu sets listed on their website and since I wasn’t sure whether I can cook the vegetarian menu while my boyfriend cooks one of the meat-based menu sets, I emailed them in advance. The manager responded very quickly and accommodated all my wishes. In the end, Dave and I had a private cooking class for the same price as a group class, which we didn’t expect at all. It was amazing and we enjoyed every bit of it! Before we started cooking, we went through every single dish and decided to shorten the number of dishes and combine some of the vegetarian and meat-based dishes so that we didn’t have to cook ten different dishes. We ended up cooking Hanoi spring rolls (both vegetarian and non-vegetarian) and eggplant as well as morning glory salad as starters. For the main course, Dave cooked Pho Bo and I prepared a tofu with tomato dish. Before we started our market tour with Tham, my boyfriend had the chance to observe and help the chef preparing the broth for the Pho. It takes hours for the broth to cook, so they started before we took off and bought the last ingredients at the market.

Tham was such a lovely tour guide and did an amazing job by giving us a great insight into Vietnamese culture and cuisine. She explained everything in detail and was happy to answer all our questions. Dave and I loved every single dish and were mighty proud of what we’ve accomplished in such a short time.

The next day, we were picked up pretty early by a shuttle that transferred us to Topas Ecolodge in the Vietnamese Highlands. The scenery during the ride left us already speechless, but the views we experienced at our destination were incomparable to anything I’ve ever seen before. Topas Ecologe is surrounded by hundreds of rice paddies and stunning mountain scenery and we instantly knew that we would love this place.

I’d booked a hiking package for the two of us, which included accommodation, breakfast, transfer to and from Hanoi and two half-day treks. On our first trek, which was more like a long walk, Dave and I were accompanied by a tour guide. In addition to the tour guide, we were followed by Red Dao women, a minority in Vietnam, during the whole trek. It was quite overwhelming as there were about six of them and they kept asking us so many questions: “Are you married?” “Is this ring from your husband?” “How many children do you have?” “Do you have sisters and brothers?” And so on and so forth. They were really nice and helpful until we almost reached Topas Ecolodge. Then, they turned from very kind women to aggressive sellers within seconds. They had already asked us during the trek if we would buy their handicrafts, but we always said that we would see at the end. I was already used to pushy sellers, but these women were really persistent and used every possible argumentation to convince us to buy. My boyfriend and I had agreed to buy one thing just for the sake of buying and supporting these women. However, after we bought a wallet from the least pushy woman, the other women were super upset and didn’t understand why we would not buy anything from them. It was quite an endeavour to walk away from them.

Our second trek the next day was much more relaxed as there were no sellers accompanying us at all. The trek was longer and more demanding but absolutely doable. We were joined by an Irish-English and a Norwegian couple, which was nice. We stopped at another eco-lodge for lunch before we were picked up again for the transfer to Hanoi.

In retrospect, our stay at Topas Ecolodge was definitely one of our highlights in Vietnam. We enjoyed it to the fullest! Staying at Topas Ecolodge was quite pricey, but this place had been recommended to us by a local and when I checked it out online, I fell in love completely! We also wanted to avoid the tourist crowds in Sa Pa. Whether you stay in this beautiful eco-lodge or in a home stay in Sa Pa, you should definitely not miss the beautiful scenery of the Vietnamese Highlands when travelling through Vietnam!

Back in Hanoi, we stayed another night at the Nexy Hostel before being picked up the next morning for a two-day trip to Halong Bay. I’d booked the Halong Bay Discovery 2-Day Tour by Topas Ecolodge (I got a discount for booking two packages with them). The transfer from Hanoi to the Tuan Chau International Marina where our boat, the Halong Phoenix Cruiser, was leaving from took about three hours. At that point, I was still convinced that we would have a good time in the bay. Yet, at the marina, we already got an idea of how busy the bay would be as there were boats lining up everywhere. We were told that there are about one hundred boats in the bay during low season and two hundred during peak season. We could only fully understand the extent of these numbers when we finally reached the bay. It was absolutely crowded. The worst thing about it was that every single Halong Bay tour operator offers the same program. You’d think that they would arrange different hours so that not all the tourists end up being at the attractions at the same time, but nope, all Halong Bay tour operators do exactly the same things (kayaking, cave visits, “secret” beach and view point) at exactly the same time.

The repercussions of the mass tourism in Halong Bay are manifold. Thus, for instance, floating villages had to be replaced in order to make room for cruises and the quality of the water has suffered a lot under plastic waste of tourists who cannot take their garbage to the designated bins. Sad story!

Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is undeniably beautiful, but Halong Bay is one of the best examples of what damage tourism can do to a place if it’s being overpopulated. Dave and I thus didn’t enjoy it and would also not recommend going there unless you want to support non-eco-friendly mass tourism. If you want to see Halong Bay by all means, do it in a more eco-friendly way. I know people who stayed on Cát Bà Island, which is close to Halong Bay and apparently equally beautiful.

After two days in Halong Bay, we transferred back to Hanoi where we had a few more hours before our night train to Huế departed. We went back to Aubergine Cafe & Restaurant where we had already eaten once before. The night train was quite an adventure but actually much better than expected. We even got a few hours of sleep. If you decide on booking train tickets online, be careful as there are some dubious websites. I first wanted to book on a website where a single ticket would have been over 50$, but after some investigation, I found an article that recommended 12Go Asia and the tickets on the latter site were only 30$. The booking process was super easy and we got the tickets almost immediately, so I can definitely recommend this site.

We arrived in Huế at around 11am the next morning and took a taxi from the train station to get to our hotel, the Huế Serene Palace Hotel. It was one of the best stays we’ve had in Vietnam as our room was really spacious and nice for as little as 20$ (includes breakfast). I didn’t feel very well during our time in Huế so we just walked around for a little bit around the old imperial city area, had delicious lunch at Nook Cafe & Bar and then relaxed back at the hotel. For dinner, we went to Elegant Restaurant, which had a nice selection of dishes and was also vegetarian friendly. We finished the night at the DMZ Bar, which is a popular place to have a drink or two.

If you’re planning on going to Hội An from Huế, you should definitely consider renting motorbikes and driving there on your own (vice versa also possible). Most rental stations offer transfer for your luggage so that you don’t have to worry about that. Our hotel organised everything for us and we ended up paying 30$/motorbike. We got one each as we’ve been told that the Vietnamese motorbikes were not built for Europeans, haha. I think you can find cheaper options, but we knew that the hotel would be the most reliable option.

The 120 km motorbike ride from Huế to Hội An was so much fun! It was the first time for both me and my boyfriend riding a motorbike and I have to say, we did quite well. We were very lucky with the weather as we’ve only got a little bit of rain during the whole journey. The Hải Vân Pass was definitely the highlight of our ride. The scenery was nice but not mind-blowing. However, riding a bike is definitely more adventurous than taking the bus. If the weather’s nice, you can also stop by at one of the beaches and relax for a bit.

When we reached Hải Vân Pass, we ran into Oliver, the father of the lovely family that I’d met during The Gibbon Experience in Laos. What a nice coincidence! Oliver said that they are also staying in Hội An and asked if we want to meet up for beer and dinner in the evening. No question that we were up for it! Dave was happy enough to have finally found somebody to have a beer with.

We arrived in Hội An at around 4 pm after stopping several times for pictures and lunch. After dropping our motorbikes and checking into Eden Homestay, we embarked to find Tap Tap House, a craft beer place that Dave had looked up to meet the Michell family. Our first attempt was unsuccessful and so we ended up in another place, The Hill Station. We fell in love with this place at first sight. We liked not only their drinks menu but also the atmosphere, the music and the interior design. We decided to come back for breakfast the next morning as it sounded really yummy!

The reunion with the Michell family was lovely. So nice to see them again and catch up! We ended up having a few drinks at The Hill Station before starting another attempt to find Tap Tap House. This time we found it. Later in the evening, we had dinner at the Morning Glory Restaurant, one of the most popular and busiest restaurants in Hội An. It was more expensive than most other restaurants we’ve been to, but the food was really nice. We finished this beautiful night by strolling through the illuminated streets of Hội An and having ice cream on the other side of the river at Vy’s Market Restaurant.

Hội An is definitely the most beautiful during night time when all the lanterns are lit. It’s an atmosphere that you can hardly describe in words.

On our last day in Hội An, we did some shopping as the weather was pretty miserable. We ended up buying some china bowls, spoons and chopsticks for our flat and some other small bits and pieces. Apart from shopping, we had drinks at Mango Mango and lunch at Nu Eatery. Around 5 pm, we took a taxi to Da Nang where we spent the following two days. Later in the evening, we went to the cinema – my first ever cinema visit in Asia! My boyfriend had noticed that Dunkirk, a movie by one of his favourite directors, Christopher Nolan, has just been released in Vietnam. At the cinema, we noticed that another movie we both wanted to watch had also just been released, namely Spider-Man: Homecoming. So, we went back the other day.

Da Nang was supposed to be a one-day stopover before flying to Ho Chi Minh City. However, as our flight had been postponed for several hours, we got two full days in Da Nang. The city is growing very quickly as resorts and skyscrapers are being built throughout the city. It felt as if every free green space will be occupied sooner rather than later, which is quite a shame. On our first day, we rented motorbikes to explore Son Tra Peninsula. Originally, we wanted to do a hike on the peninsula, but it turned out that there are no trails. In the end, we were actually glad we had rented motorbikes as it gave us the chance to see the whole peninsula. It was stunning! In fact, we liked the views from Son Tra Peninsula much better than the ones from Hải Vân Pass. After cruising around the whole peninsula, we went to Waterfront Restaurant & Bar for a delicious lunch and some refreshing drinks. In the afternoon, we wanted to check out a place that I’ve found on Tripadvisor, namely the Holy Pig Bar. I really liked the location as the restaurant / bar was set up in a few containers, which were all designed individually. Yet, even though it’s a hip place, it’s pretty far away from the centre of Da Nang and thus not really worth the way if you don’t have a motorbike.

On our last day in Da Nang, we went for breakfast at Retro Kitchen & Bar and spent some time at the beach before it started raining. We decided to go back to Waterfront Restaurant & Bar as they have a great selection of drinks, smoothies and coffees. For lunch, we went to Tamarind Tree Restaurant, which we loved and can highly recommend! They have a vegan and vegetarian friendly menu but also a lot of options for meat lovers such as Dave. He loved the Pho Bo so much that he ordered it twice! So much for his love for Pho Bo, haha!

Da Nang was nice, but there is not that much to do except going to the beach and exploring Son Tra Peninsula. So, two days were more than enough for us, especially as the weather wasn’t that great.

As our flight to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) had been postponed to late evening, we only arrived at our hotel in HCMC around midnight. We were so tired and just wanted to jump into bed. Yet, when the receptionist finally opened the gate, it turned out that our reservation had not come through. Even though I had received a booking confirmation, we were not registered in their system. Since they were fully booked, we had to stay at the hotel next door, which was definitely not as nice but equally expensive. As we didn’t really have any other choice, we took the room and didn’t argue any further.

The day that I didn’t want to come arrived way too fast, namely the day I had to say goodbye to my boyfriend. His flight was only at midnight, so we decided not to think and talk about it and instead enjoy the rest of our time together. I’m a brunch lover and Dave’s a beer lover, so we first went for brunch to L’Usine and then for some beers to the Heart of Darkness Craft Brewery. I loved L’Usine so much that we went back there for lunch and my boyfriend loved the Heart of Darkness Craft Brewery so much that we went back after lunch. As you might have noticed, we’re both creatures of habit, so when we really like something, we can’t help it and just need to go back. I really liked the cider at the Heart of Darkness Craft Brewery, so I didn’t mind going back there at all. We were lucky enough to meet the managers in person and talk to them about their achievement. Within just 11 months, they’ve come so far! You could really notice their passion and that was quite infectious! Dave was basically in beer heaven!

In between L’Usine and the Heart of Darkness Craft Brewery, we went to see Atomic Blonde in the cinema to mix it up a little.

HCMC has really positively surprised both of us as we’ve heard only negative things from people who’ve been there before. It’s definitely not the most picturesque place in Vietnam, but it has a lot offer!

Even though we’d decided not to think about it, I couldn’t help but constantly think about the imminent goodbye! Dave tried to calm me down, but it was hard to choke back my tears. Needless to say that I cried my eyes out when we finally had to say goodbye to each other. It was one of the hardest goodbyes I’ve ever experienced. Vietnam was our first big trip together and so we both didn’t know how it would turn out. In retrospect, I definitely couldn’t have imagined it any better and exactly for that reason, it was so extremely hard to let him go. If this trip has shown me one thing then that I want to be with this guy forever and that we can make it work despite our differences. We are completely different personalities, but as this trip has shown me, if you truly respect and love each other, the differences and trade-offs don’t matter.

I won’t deny it, long-distance has been anything but easy, but if you truly love each other, distance doesn’t matter! I would even go as far as to argue that it has made our relationship even stronger! I’ll be more than happy to have him in my arms again in four months though. Until then, whatsapp calls will have to do.

I’m beyond thankful for the precious memories we’ve made in Vietnam. I hold on to them whenever I miss him too much.

 

HANOI

Accommodation: Sheraton Hanoi, Nexy Hostel

Restaurants & Bars: Maison De Tết Decor, Aubergine, New Day, New Gentry Pub, Craft Beer Pub

Sights: Hanoi Old Quarter, Hoàn Kiếm Lake, Flag Tower of Hanoi, Temple of Literature, Điện Kính Thiên, Water Puppet Show

 

SAPA

Accommodation: Topas Ecolodge

Activities: Treks in the rice fields

 

HALONG BAY

Accommodation: Halong Phoenix Cruiser

Activities: Halong Bay Discovery 2-Day Tour by Topas Ecolodge

 

HUE

Accommodation: Huế Serene Palace Hotel

Restaurants & Bars: DMZ Bar, Elegant Restaurant, Nook Bar & Cafe

Sights: Ancient Imperial City, Day and Night Market

 

HOI AN

Accommodation: Eden Homestay

Restaurants & Bars: Tab Tab Bar, The Hill Station, Mango Mango, Nu Eatery, Morning Glory Restaurant

Sights: Old Town, Japanese Bridge Chùa Cầu

Activities: Night market

 

DA NANG

Accommodation: Hotel Robin

Restaurants & Bars: Waterfront, Tamarind Tree Restaurant, Retro Kitchen & Bar (brunch), Holy Pig Bar

Activities: Motorbiking on Son Tra Peninsula

 

HO CHI MINH CITY

Accommodation: Amigo Hotel (not recommended)

Restaurants & Bars: L’Usine, Heart of Darkness Craft Brewery

Activities: Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, War Remnants Museum


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