Vietnam is one of the most exciting and tasty countries that I have visited. Yes, food is absolutely amazing. But that’s not all of it. There is so more to explore; however I wanted to give you a list of 5 absolute musts that you should do on your visit to this long- land country.
During the time I lived there, for about a year collectively, I have adopted the lifestyle of a local and thoroughly enjoyed every bit of Vietnamese culture there is- eating, drinking, partying.
Eat Like a Local
There is this saying that every man’s love goes through his stomach, oh I can tell you it is true! My passion for Vietnam started growing with the very first meal.
I remember my friend took me to a “shack” in what I would call a “suspicious” neighborhood. I was quite unsure about the whole situation, I felt unsafe and uncomfortable. It only lasted until the first bite. Then I felt like nothing else exists but the taste of delicious seafood.
We were in District 2 in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh), I can’t recall the name of the place, it was OC… something. (Oc means snail). The first thing that struck me is that it wasn’t really a restaurant, it was a massive tent-like construction with tables and chairs in what seemed like a huge parking lot. The chairs were short. 5 inch of the ground tall. I was confused but trusted my friend, so I stayed.
Even an adventurous eater like me, have never tried snails before, let alone stir-fried with peppercorn and chili flakes. OC HUONG is the small, tiger-like snails– a must try! Let me tell you, it was simple, like any dish in Vietnamese cuisine, and beautiful, rich in flavor on all ends.
Eating like a local in Vietnam means eating on the street out of a food cart, and very often for less than a dollar. In the western world that would sound ludicrous. Not only hard to imagine, but we would always associate with terrible food quality. I can’t agree with that notion for Vietnam.
One of my favorite dishes and quick snacks is the XOI MAN– sticky rice ball covered with dried pork and deep-fried onions, sometimes a shrimp too. The cost- 11 000 VND which is about 50 cents. Don’t let the price fool you- it is quick and delicious!
XOI CHIEN is another favorite, it is not very popular in South Vietnam, it is a deep fried plate of sticky rice covered with dried pork. Yummy! There is a restaurant called Pho Ha that serves it, if I remember correctly, on Ham Nghi street next to Bitexco tower in downtown Saigon ( the number… I believe 60-80 Ham Nghi) If you go during the day don’t be confused. The restaurant is open only at night, after 7pm.
Those are just to name of few of the fantastic dishes that you can try. Of course, the so popular Pho Bo/ Ga (Beef, Chicken Pho) is best to try in Hanoi, since the Pho noodle is native to the north. If you are in the south and want to experience something similar you can get the Mien Ga or Bo ( same as Pho Bo but different noodle). You can also get those dishes dry or stir-fried.
Your eating experience won’t be complete if you don’t try some of the French restaurants or cafes. My absolute favorite Coffee Shop/ Brunch place is called L’usine Cafe. They have a few locations. My favorite- the one next to the Opera House on Dong Khoi street. There is a terrace where you can enjoy a view of one of the busiest parts of the city from above.
If you are interested in trying a fusion of the traditional Vietnamese cuisine, french touch in a relaxing, friendly atmosphere, you can do all that in one place- QUAN BUI. The restaurant is owned by a friend of mine- Danh, but I’m not bragging about it because of that. The place is truly amazing, the food is delicious and of really high quality. The best location is the Ngo Van Nam street in District 1.
Mekong Delta Trip
One of the biggest rivers in South East Asia- The Mekong, flowing from… to offers a stunning day trip to its delta from Saigon.
Once you arrive, you will go take a small boat trip around the delta. You will observe the famous water market, where different merchants trade their goods- fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy, and some handmade goods.
Your next stop along the delta will be the house of a famous coconut candy company. They will take you in, explain about the process and even let you make your own coconut candies to take home.
About 4 hours later the trip will take a lunch break, in the middle of the jungle, you will have some time to relax before you take a small boat tour between the mangrove forest channels. Remember, don’t take your hands out of the boat, there might be a danger waiting patiently in the water. You know, those 6-7 feet, sharp-toothed “dangers.”
And the trip is over, 8h later we are back in the city, only the fresh fruits, coconut water taste, and the exciting small boat trips are left for us to remember.
Visit Halong Bay
The emerald green waters of the Tonkin Gulf give birth to more than a thousand islands that are looking a lot like forested popsicles. The view… those “to die for” especially at first and last light of the day.
I’ve been asked by friends what is the best time to visit and I didn’t really know because I’ve been there only once. Time to ask my Vietnamese friends. Here is what we got.
Basically, Halong has two main seasons: hot with rain appearing seemingly from nowhere from April to September and cool with some chilly wind from October to March. So it depends on your preference to decide the best month to visit Halong Bay.
Halong bay, thanks to its popularity, is very accessible by many different means. A favorite way to visit Ha Long Bay and experience all its beauty is with a cruise ship which docks in the international port Cai Lan.
The most popular way to get to Halong Bay is by car. If you are from Hanoi, fly from other parts of Vietnam, or neighboring countries take a road trip, its just 180km. An average trip without traffic will take at least 4 hours for one way.
Note: Keep in mind that, if you are making any cruise trip around the islands, in many cases, the transfer from Ha Noi to the port is arranged by the company.
If you are a stylish, thrill-seeking and deep-pocketed traveler, you can enjoy a heli ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay which takes about 1.5 hours and it is only possible from Hanoi. This service is exclusively run by Northern Vietnam Helicopter Company, and it is quite a costly option to reach Halong Bay.
Some of the best experiences in the Gulf are the cruise trips. They usually last about 2-3 days. After checking in on the boat, a typical itinerary starts with a Vietnamese lunch, while the boat is making its way to Sung Sot Cave.
This is one of the most magnificent and visited grottos in Halong Bay, where you are mesmerized by the spectacular beauty of limestone in different shapes. Titop beach seems to always be the next destination which will keep you entertained with endless possibilities like kayaking, swimming, snorkeling or just taking a nap.
The trip continues with a visit to other destinations in the bay like Trong Islands or floating villages before returning to the pier and heading back to Hanoi on a shuttle bus.
There are dozens of cruises in Halong Bay, which are designed differently to serve all types of tourist and group sizes. You can also select a cruise based on their level of superiority and quality of services which can be from under $100 (Bai Tu Long Cruise, Phoenix Cruise…) to more than $300 (like Au Co Cruise or Paradise Cruise). You can easily reserve your cruise trip at any online booking website or simply get in any agency in the Old Quarter.
In my opinion, the most exciting experience is the cave dining. Few cruises are offering this feature on their trips. The crew members will prepare a delightful dinner in a cave. In some cruises, this activity is already included. In some others, this is an optional extra-paid activity.
Every minute spent on the Bay was well worth it. We loved it.
Party on the Streets of Saigon
I used to live in Ho Chi Minh for about a year collectively. Learning all that the city has to offer was a blessing that I’m forever grateful for. One aspect of expat living is partying, and Saigon is known to be an amazing destination for such enjoyment.
In Vietnam, a lot of the best action happens on the streets. Food carts, hand height chair restaurants, and of course, the numerous bars. Street parties are the specialty of what locals call the “tourist district”. Just remember two streets- Bui Vien and Duong De Tham, and especially their intersection. The alcohol is cheap as you can imagine and chairs and tables on the curb make for a perfect “summer” outdoor experience.
If your friends are a little wild, like mine are, you can even close the street for cars with dance battles. The music is awesome, but even if you don’t like it, for $2-$3 you can change the Dj’s preference.
Our favorite bar is Thi cafe or Thi Bar. It is located on Duong De Tham closer to the street’s intersection with Bui Vien street. It is a tiny yet cozy place, with live music a few times a week, and the cocktails- amazing! Very reasonably priced as most of the places too.
Pro note: Never miss to grab a bite or fresh fruit from some of the bicycle carts. Always be aware of your belongings and never leave bags unattended- safety tip.
Go to Spa
Oh, come on. You deserve it! I was working as a professional dancer in Vietnam, and my body really needed recovery time. The first time I went to a spa in Saigon was by reference from a local friend.
Coming from Bulgaria, where massages and relaxation are not really a big thing, I was amazed. The place is called Anam Spa and its located in downtown on a small hidden alley, but don’t understand me wrong- it is not shady by any means.
Relaxation mode starts upon walking in. The spa was quite dark, takes some time for your eyes to adjust but once they do you start to see a lot of Zen elements and beautiful interior design. After checking in hot tea and candied ginger is served. The host told us that this is a purification of your body from the inside and its the best way to relax you for the message.
The place had an excellent steam bath and sauna with bamboo, fresh flowers, and candles everywhere.
Before that, I’ve only had a sports massage, but when we walked into the room, I knew that I am in for something different and going to have a great time. The bed was huge, queen size, perhaps king, thick and comfortable with a hole, where you can rest your face. Once I relaxed my body onto the bed I suddenly felt a refreshing scent touching my face. I opened my eyes just to see that underneath my face there was a bowl with fresh flowers. I was fascinated.
My massage therapist was a small Vietnamese lady with seemingly kids hands, I thought that I’m going to have a light relaxing massage, even though I was expecting a deep tissue. That thought was gone the minute she started. She was so strong that I had to ask for milder pressure. Ninety minutes later, I was begging for more time. It was the best massage I’ve ever had.
It’s needless to say that I was back almost every week. We have had a fantastic experience at Anam spa- outstanding and professional service with a relaxing atmosphere.
While you are on the same street- Ngo Van Nam, make sure you stop for lunch or dinner at Quan Bui, the restaurant I mentioned above.
Whatever you decide to do in Saigon, make it fun and enjoy yourself thoroughly. If relaxation is your thing- go to a spa. Partying will leave you entertained and perhaps give you some headache but totally worth it.
As far as nature exploration goes- there are numerous things you can do in Vietnam- including visiting Halong Bay and Mekong delta and some not as touristy areas like Da Lat in the middle of Vietnam. Don’t forget to indulge yourself in the local food, this is by far the best way to experience the country’s culture.