I’ve been meaning to blog about some of the more entertaining experiences that we had in Vietnam and Cambodia. But in the meantime it turns out that my cousin is heading to southeast Asia tonight! I just finished the past hour composing the following email to him:
All our time in Cambodia was for the Temples of Angkor, so we can help a little with that (I assume you’re going there from Phnom Penh? If not you should rearrange your itinerary, it’s a must-see). We spent just over 2 weeks in Vietnam; it was enough time to hit all the main sights in a pretty relaxed fashion.
Vietnam is a very long country, and there are a lot of "dead zones" as far as attractions go. Fortunately there are ample 1 hour domestic flights that are very cheap (when booked in Vietnam). Ours were all between $45 and $60 one-way. We started in the North and ended in the South (with our side-trip to Cambodia in the middle), but you could also reverse it, or bypass sections entirely depending on weather.
Here’s what we did:
Hanoi — very interesting city from a cultural level. In general the further south in Vietnam you go, the more "Western" the places feel (and the more expensive they get), culminating in Saigon. 2-3 days is plenty to take in what the city has to offer, with highlights including a water puppet show (right near Hoan Kiem Lake), the Old Market, the Mausoleum area, and the Temple of Literature. A lot of thing in Hanoi are closed on Monday, so you should check schedules (especially for the Mausoleum). Hanoi has the largest variety of street food (and better quality) in Vietnam. One great street kitchen that is worth seeking out is Cua Hang Bun Cha (1 Pho Hue). They serve crab spring rolls and fabulous bun cha. The best restaurant we ate at in Hanoi was "Little Hanoi" (14 Ta Hien). Quan an Ngon (18 Phan Boi Chau) was also fun, it’s an outdoor food court atmosphere (they also have a branch in Saigon called Ngon). 69 Restaurant was overrated. Tandoor (24 Hang Be) had good Indian food. The Old Market in Hanoi is the best area for shopping we found in Vietnam (Hoi An would be a close second).
Halong Bay — we took an overnight side-trip to Halong Bay when we were in Hanoi. This was the highlight of our time in North Vietnam. It’s a beautiful area with limestone outcroppings. You kayak on the bay, swim if it’s warm enough, and check out some caves. The boat we used is the Santa Maria Cruiser, and you can contact them through www.columbuscruise.com The food on the boat is great, plentiful, and there are very good guides. There are a bunch of 1-day trips available, but it’s well worth spending the night (otherwise you’re on a bus for more time then you’re on the bay). It is winter time in the north though, so definitely check the weather.
Hue — we flew from Hanoi to Hue ($60), the old imperial capital of Vietnam. We spent 3 days there, though realistically 2 would suffice. 1 day for the citadel and the items in town, and another day to take a boat ride on the Perfume River to all the Royal Mausoleums. The imperial kings had palaces built in their own honor (a la the pyramids), and in general are the size of a small village. The "shared boat" is $2pp, don’t let yourself be ripped off by higher offers. The Mausoleum of Khai Dinh was my favorite. We stayed at Canh Tien Guesthouse (email@example.com; $15/night). Nice rooms in a place owned by the professor of foreign languages. Fantastic location in an alley that has everything you could need. Supposedly Halo hotel across the street is great as well. . Next door to Canh Tien is a tasty vegetarian Buddhist restaurant called Dong Tam. Our favorite meal in Hue was at Lac Thien (6 Dien Tien Hoang). It’s run by a deaf-mute man (as is the place next door with a _very_ similar name). Be sure to order a beer (the best is Huda, the local Hue beer), and you’ll receive a wooden bottle opener along with a photobook showing people around the world with their openers.
Hoi An — from Hue we took a 3 hour bus to Hoi An, which we used primarily as a transit stop (we had a flight the next day out of Danang). They lied and told us that our bus was going to stop at the Marble Mountains (which is on the highland road and is supposed to be a very scenic ride). Instead we went through the tunnel. Not a big deal, but possibly something to watch out for. You can also rent a private car for like $10. 1 day felt like the perfect amount of time to spend in Hoi An. It’s a small, cute, very touristy town. This is where people go to get hand tailored silk suits (and other clothing). We mostly hung out at the Cargo Club eating tasty pastries, ice cream (try the lemongrass ice cream, it’s fantastic), and people-watching. Hoi An is a great place to go shopping, and people are generally very friendly. We had a good lunch of grilled fish in banana leaf at Hong Phuc (86 Bach Dang on the water). There’s a little plaza just off the water near the market which has a bunch of friendly street food vendors, unfortunately we didn’t discover them until after dinner. Make sure your hotel is in the main drag. Ours wasn’t, and that kinda sucked. The hotel maps can be deceptive it turns out.
Nha Trang — We took a short flight ($45) from Danang to Nha Trang. Nha Trang is a great beach town, with a solid amount of tourist infrastructure. Grab yourself a beach chair and umbrella for 20,000 dong ($1.25), and all your needs will be attended to. Women will arrive with offers of fresh fruit, grilled to order crabs and lobsters, massages, Vietnamese donuts, and more. Make sure to haggle a bit for a reasonable price. The mangoes, pineapples, and dragonfruit were amazing. La Louisiane (near the south of the beach) offers great $6 massages in their pool area. Our best meal in Nha Trang was at Truc Linh 3 (they own 3 similar restaurants in a 2 block radius). Many restaurants have fresh seafood on order that they will grill up in various preparations. Cyclo Cafe was also pretty good. The big tour that gets touted in Nha Trang is a boat trip "to the islands". We did this and it was a complete bust. We felt like our time would have been much better spent hanging out on the beach. For lodging we stayed at La Suisse (firstname.lastname@example.org; $23/night), which was very well located (2 blocks from the beach, close to restaurants and nightlife) and had nice rooms.
Siem Reap — we flew from Nha Trang to Siem Reap (via Saigon). I’m sure your guidebook has tons of info about Angkor, but here are some notes from our experience:
- Food – Loved Khmer Kitchen (best amok curry that we had, recommend getting it with fish as is classic). Blue Pumpkin has great ice cream and pastries. Best ice cream there was ginger with black sesame. The coconut, pineapple, and dark chocolate were also great. Soup Dragon was mixed (if you do go, get the spicy fish in claypot which was awesome). Dead Fish Tower was a fun experience with decent food. Amok Restaurant was mediocore and overpriced. Other good things to know is that Blue Pumpkin has 50% off their pastries/bread after 7pm and the Hotel de la Paix Cafe is 50% off after 8PM.
- Temples – Sunrise at Angkor Wat is busy but not too crazy and well worth the early wakeup. We got a guide + driver for the first day (
total cost $50) to cover Angkor Wat, Ta Phrom, Angkor Thom, with side stops at Kravan and Ta Keo. One day we got a (car) driver to go to Banteay Srei and Banteay Samre. Banteay Srei is far away but worth the drive (leave Siem Reap no later than 7am if you want to beat the crowds). We had a fantastic driver named Sun Same (email@example.com). He also took us on a boat in Tonle Sap lake and acted as our guide there as well. Smaller temples that often get missed but are worth checking out include Pre Rup, Ta Som, Neak Pean, and Banteay Kdei/Srah Srang.
- Lodging — it’s high high season in Siem Reap right now, so book in advance if you can. We stayed at "The Villa Siem Reap" (thevillasiemreap.com; $35/night) which was well located and had very nice staff. Great fresh fruit plates and omelettes in the AM as well.
Saigon – Last stop for us in Vietnam was Saigon. Saigon is a big city. There aren’t that many sites (the one to make sure you see is the Reunification Palace). The Botanical Gardens were a bust. In general Saigon is about twice as expensive as Hanoi (hotels, food, etc). Still very cheap by US standards of course. Blue Ginger (37 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia) was the best restaurant we went to (and arguably the best food we had in all of Vietnam). Vietnam House was good, as was Temple Club (29 Tom That Thiep) which had an amazing tamarind fish. Right next to Temple Club is Fanny’s, which is a great ice cream cafe. Check out sunset from the rooftop lounge at the Rex Hotel. Pho 2000 (1-3 Phan Chu Trinhnear Ben Thanh Market) has great Pho and fruit shakes (try the soursop), as well as pictures of the staff with Bill Clinton 🙂
Mekong Delta – we took an overnight trip to the Mekong from Saigon. This was an adventure in an of itself (we’ll blog about it eventually). The short version is that you can get a bus from Saigon->Vinh Long (from Cong Ty Cp Van Tai Sai Gon) for 53,000 dong (I can send you the address tomorrow), and from Vinh Long you should get a moto to Mekong Travel (No 8 – 1/5 Street, firstname.lastname@example.org). Mekong Travel can then take care of you with some great itineraries that include boat trips and a homestay plus an English speaking guide for $20-$30pp depending on how many ppl you are (we paid $26pp for what turned out to be a 24hr private tour). You can also arrange for a 1 or 2 day tour out of Saigon, but we did it this way to get a little further into the delta and because the tours seemed pretty cheesy.