Vietnam: Feb 2019
To avoid running the high risk of ending up in either Mexico or Japan yet again, we booked a winter-busting trip to Vietnam at the start of the year. We flew into Ho Chi Minh City and had a long weekend there before taking a short internal flight to Da Nang and spending the rest of the week in Hoi An, before spending the last day back in HCM before our flight home.
In Ho Chi Minh City
Bustling with mopeds, skinny high-rise buildings and kerbside plastic stools for street dining, Saigon (as it’s interchangeably still referred to) was hot and humid but easy to navigate via walking or Grab – once you get used to dodging those scooters and learn that all the cafes and restaurants are tucked away down side alleys or up staircases behind the shopfronts.
As you might expect from the world’s second biggest bean exporting country coffee is everywhere, especially of the delicious iced and laced with condensed milk variety. I think every second building in each street is a coffee shop. Our favourites were Saigon Roastery, Shin, Workshop, and the Marou chocolate factory (stock up on bars to bring home, too).
There’s a small but good craft beer scene. We liked Pasteur Street (great bar food too), Heart of Darkness and Biercraft.
For non-beery drinks, Heritage is an uber-cool Chinatown neon diner kinda vibe, and Firkin is a classy whiskey and cocktail bar (who do a great cheeseboard and garlic chips).
We had good Vietnamese food at Secret Garden, Nhà Hàng Chay and The Old Compass, but maybe the most fun was the moped street food tour we booked through Airbnb on the second to last night. This took us from veggie bún and cassava spring rolls, to roadside egg banh mis and the besssst coconut ice cream. We also darted down the Ho Thi Ky flower market where we toasted our own sesame rice crackers, and wandered the above-street walkways of the oldest apartment block in the city’s District 3.
We stayed at the Myst, which was perfectly smart and comfortable with a particularly nice rooftop pool and bar, ideal for sunset heat recovery.
In & Around Hoi An
We stayed at the Silk Sense River Resort, expecting we’d want more pool-and-beach than city time after leaving HCM, but actually found ourselves spending more time in the surrounding countryside and Hoi An itself than at the hotel. The beach was a fairly annoying 5-10 minute cycle away over a busy main road too. If I was to go again I would choose to stay in one of the many sweet-looking homestay b’n’bs positioned either on the coast proper, nestled amongst the rolling rice fields inland, or on the quiet outskirts towards the north of Hoi An town.
The beach, despite this quite idyllic looking picture, is kind of a bit grotty and littered, and none of the bars and restaurants that run its length are very interesting. I’m comparing it somewhat harshly to somewhere like Tulum perhaps; it was perfectly nice to lay about on (there are tons of sun-loungers which anyone is free to use, unusually) and the water was calm and clear enough to have a swim.
But Hoi An town itself was a charming little treat. After being granted UNESCO world heritage status and getting a cash injection in the last decade, it’s apparently had a big spruce-up with large-scale initiatives put in place to preserve the network of 15th to 19th century buildings and keep local businesses and industries running while gearing up for a large uptick in tourist numbers, especially from neighbouring Asian countries like China, Korea and Japan.
At night the place really came alive into a sort of Disneyland of lanterns and light-bedecked boats on the river. Cross the river via a pedestrian bridge and you’re in a bustling night market where you can buy street food, souvenirs and even your own lantern to take home.
The food here was fantastic. Hoi An is known for a number of unique regional specialities and for doing some of the best bahn mi in Vietnam. We loved Streets, Madame Khahn’s, Mai Fish and Nu Eatery. Birdcage was good for riverfront cocktails and we had local bia hoi (fresh beer) at Tea Garden. Everything is so cheap: we barely paid more than £18 for a large meal for two with beers the entire time.
The outskirts of town has a lovely vibe as well and is well worth taking a walk or cycle through.
We rented bikes from our hotel to ride through the rice fields on several days. We also took some more good Airbnb experiences: a pillion motorbike ride out to the 4th century mountainside Hindu template complex of My Son, and a bicycle tour to a local organic farm with a pleasant cooking class using its produce. Bánh xèo – lacy, crispy pancakes made from rice flour and turmeric – are my new favourite, and I bought back the recipe and flour to make them at home.
Bonus, there is an adorable sanctuary housing over 70 cosy and contented rescue cats on the outskirts of town. Any holiday is better with kitties. You can donate to them to continue their great work here.
Here’s a Google map, containing all these places plus more we didn’t get to: https://goo.gl/maps/h2a9rRue7fx