Trip recaps are one of the most difficult posts I write. That is strange for someone who enjoys travel as much as I do. Perhaps it is because I have so many thoughts to share about travel, especially big travel, that it is difficult to collect those thoughts into a single article. Are there any other bloggers who struggle with this?
The first thing to say about Vietnam is that this trip was unusual in that our group became fairly large. We were fortunate to travel with five friends, which made for a group of seven. It was such a delight that all of us were able to absorb the time and expense of an international trip together. But, accommodating the needs and wants of seven distinct people is no easy task. As you read this post, keep in mind that we were trying to make everything as simple as possible and give everyone in the group something he or she wanted.
Our time was focused in the southern part of the country, with round trip flights from the midwest to Ho Chi Minh City. We were away for ten days, but with travel time and a long layover in Tokyo, we had about seven days on the ground in Vietnam. We had been warned that this wasn’t enough time to see the country. Having twice traveled to Japan with the same or fewer amount of days, and routinely traveling to Europe for weeklong trips, we disregarded these warnings. Although we have no regrets, knowing what we know now, we both understand why we were told this and might do a future trip differently.
The trip kicked off with a ten hour layover in Tokyo. We had to change from Narita to Haneda airport, which made for the perfect excuse to get out of the airport and run around Tokyo for a bit. Five of us were on the same flight, and four of that five had all previously visited Tokyo. We decided to revisit a few of our favorite spots near Shibuya Station during the layover. One of us had the brilliant idea to book the cheapest hotel room we could find to shower and drop our bags. The major train stations do have lockers that will accommodate luggage, but availability can be hit or miss. Airport lounges often have showers, but considering that there were five of us, we probably saved money going the hotel route. We found a hotel near Shibuya Station for under $150. It was small–barely larger than a closet. But, it had enough room to accommodate our bags and we were all able to freshen up after the long flight. We were jet lagged, but it was worth it to have the amazing Nagoya-style chicken wings at our favorite izakaya, try some fancy coffee, and explore the insanity that is BIC Camera (that link isn’t official, but will give you an idea of what BIC is all about). I’ve previously written about Japan here and here, and also talked about another layover in Tokyo.
We had a redeye flight from Tokyo to Ho Chi Minh City, where we planned to meet the other couple from our group in the morning. Immediately upon landing, we headed out of the city with a private driver who took us to a riverboat so we could take an overnight cruise on the Mekong River. This was the portion of the trip that I was most nervous about, but it turned out amazing. Knowing that we would be jet lagged and tired, I wanted the first part of the trip to be as low-impact as possible, with no decisions necessary. The Mekong Eyes cruise accomplished that perfectly. In hindsight, I wish we had booked a longer than one night cruise. We had a long drive to catch up with our boat, but we were able to see some of the countryside. Once we got of the city, the roadways were peppered with small cafes at frequent intervals. These cafes have refreshments like coffee, whole, fresh coconuts, tea, sometimes ice cream. The coffee! These coffee lovers are all still dreaming of Vietnamese coffee–with its sweet, condensed milk contrasted with the bitter coffee concentrate. There is also some sort of bathroom facility at these cafes. Bathroom facilities definitely vary in Vietnam and in any event, aren’t what you’ll find in Japan. My favorite part of these roadside stops is the hammocks. There is a mix of traditional seating, but always plenty of hammocks. These stops invariably have wifi, too!
To board our boat, we had to take a tender from a small access point. This is not like boarding a cruise ship and at first we were apprehensive about what was happening when we drove down a narrow dirt road and only small boats were tied up there. But we are adventurous and felt confident in our numbers. The boat itself was beautiful and held 27 guests. We immediately got some local beer to toast our trip and settled in after the very long journey. The Mekong River was brilliant and the sky was bright blue (as it would be for our entire trip). We were stunned by how peaceful it felt and how sweet the air smelled. Stepping off the plane in Ho Chi Minh City, the heat was oppressive. On the river, a breeze kept us perfectly comfortable. Later that afternoon, we took a short hike through a nearby river village. Agriculture is big in this region and Vietnam is transitioning its crops from rice to more tropical fruits. The watermelon there was otherworldly. It seems crazy to rave about watermelon, but this fruit was about as red as a perfectly ripe strawberry and full of flavor. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to enjoy watermelon at home again. We also had guava and jack fruit dipped in a chili powder. The food on the cruise ship turned out to be my favorite of the entire trip. All of the ingredients were so fresh and delicious. I’m convinced the best produce in the world is grown along the Mekong River.
It was on the river that we got our first taste of Vietnamese hospitality. The cruise company arranges an English speaking concierge who guided our tours and would tell us about each day’s activities and schedule. At first I assumed that his warm, outgoing personality came with his job. But over the course of the trip, from the school children who would call out “Hello!” to anyone else who spoke English, we were greeted and engaged in conversation. I was surprised how many people talked openly to us about the war on learning that we were American. My first reaction was to be uncomfortable, but the topic was brought up sensitively, in a matter of fact way, without hostility. I came to feel that visiting Vietnam, appreciating its people, food and the jaw-dropping beauty of the country was one of the best ways to make peace–both to veterans of the war here in my own country, and to the people of Vietnam. This is why I travel: to find our human commonality.
The river cruise ended with a tour of the Cai Rang floating market in Can Tho. This market is not a tourist creation and is one of, if not the last of its kind. If you do nothing else in Vietnam, this should be it. Although we visited the market from a river cruise, one could stay in Can Tho and pick up a long boat from the docks for a morning tour. It was on our must-do list and I am so glad we were able to see it. We also bought a Vietnamese coffee from a floating vendor. Highly recommend! Along the banks of the river, there is a a retail market (the floating market is wholesale). Vietnamese markets are a cacophony of smells, sights and sounds.
From the city of Can Tho, we drove several hours to the ferry port at Rach Gia. I enjoyed a fresh coconut along the way. The vistas along the drive featured rice paddy after rice paddy and the occasional ox. So much brilliant green!
At Rach Gia we boarded a ferry to Phu Quoc island with boxed lunches provided by the cruise (such a thoughtful and perfect treat to eat on the ferry). The ferry ride was long and across open ocean. Most of us napped for at least part of it. Seeing the countryside and taking the ferry was fun, but it made for a long travel day. We were grateful that we were returning to Ho Chi Minh City via a short, domestic flight instead of by ferry!
Thrilled as we had been with our cruise, Phu Quoc rendered us speechless. We stayed in a three bedroom villa with a private infinity pool and views for days. We never wanted to leave! The location of our villa, on a narrow peninsula off an island, provided spectacular views of water on both sides. Phu Quoc is a resort-y island that Vietnam is developing for tourism. New hotels are going up all the time and most of the attractions are geared toward tourists. On our second day there, we rented a boat to take us to several uninhabited islands in the archipelago. We swam and snorkeled and drank beer all day. Our time in Phu Quoc was all too short–after three nights, it was time to move on to Ho Chi Minh City, the last phase of our trip.
Some travelers fall in love with Ho Chi Minh City at first sight. For me, it took a minute. Ho Chi Minh City is hot. It is loud. It is chaotic in every sense. Crossing the street felt like an ordeal at first and it wasn’t until our last day that I began to feel accustomed to the balance of confidence and trust required to step into the roadway, while the cars and scooters zoomed around me. We spent a lot of time during the days shopping. It wasn’t until our last day that we realized the city came alive at night. The sun went down and the heat dissipated. Street vendors would bring out carts with all sorts of foods and coffee. Everything we ate in Ho Chi Minh City was tasty, but by the time we arrived there, the effects of jet lag caught up to me and my appetite wasn’t as hearty as normal. Travel weary, we were waking up early and going to sleep early. This is perfect for the river, but not how to experience Ho Chi Minh City. Three nights in Ho Chi Minh City was just enough to scratch the surface and to want to go back, to go deeper.
To finish where I started, if we had this trip to do over again, we would have spent more time on the river and more time on Phu Quoc, making Ho Chi Minh City simply our arrival and departure point. Ho Chi Minh City needs more time–a week, a month, a lifetime perhaps. We also want to see Danang and the northern parts of the country including Halong Bay and Hanoi. Vietnam did not feel effortless, but it did feel worth it.
Have you visited Vietnam? Is it on your list? Share your thoughts in the comments!