We were taking an overnight bus ride from Hoi An to Nha Trang, the most popular beach town in Vietnam. Whenever we take these buses, we never know what to do about our dinner situation. In Thailand, the buses always stop halfway through the trip (usually around midnight) and everyone gets off to eat a free meal (the price is included in your ticket). Dave and I typically always pick up food before we get on the bus so we’re never hungry for the free “midnight snack” but we’re always mad because we wish we were hungry (actually, I won’t lie… I’m usually hungry for it and even if not, I will typically try it just because it’s free/we already paid for it!).
We had no idea what the food situation would be on the overnight buses in Vietnam, so we decided that we’d get some snacks to eat and that way if we stopped, we’d be hungry for that meal too. We got to the place where the bus would pick us up from and the man working there told us that there wouldn’t be any stops along the way, so if we wanted dinner, we should get it before we got on the bus. Conveniently, he owned the restaurant at the bus pick-up point. So, Dave and I decided to get a pizza to go. We only had 15 minutes until our bus was supposed to leave, but the man told us not to worry, it would be ready in time.
Not surprisingly, the bus came to get us and the pizza wasn’t ready. Dave and I thought that dream was over and planned to just eat our snacks for dinner, but 10 minutes later, as we were pulling out of town, a man came on the bus to deliver our pizza to us. Everyone on the bus couldn’t believe that we were getting delivery! It was very funny and definitely a first. Of course, later that night though, we ended up making a stop for dinner. Oh well.
We arrived in Nha Trang at about 5:30am. As we were driving down the beach, there were tons of people out working out, swimming, eating, etc. It was similar to what we had seen in Danang at sunset, but this was even crazier because it was so early. More proof that the Vietnamese people really don’t like the sun and only come out to swim and hang on the beach for sunrise and sunset.
For the first time ever, we were dropped off right n the middle of town, just where we wanted to be staying. We picked a hotel ($10/night), got settled in and then headed out to explore. Right across the street from us was a little food street. We took a peek at a menu and when we saw steak and eggs for 40,000 VND ($2), we had to sit down and try it. It was amazing and we couldn’t believe how cheap it was.
There’s an island right off of Nha Trang, accessible by cable car, and we read that the whole island was a big amusement/water park. We had to check it out. After breakfast, we walked all along the beach toward the cable cars (about 3 km). We had been planning on going to Vinpearl (that’s what the park is called) the following day since we figured it would be less crowded on a Monday, but as we were walking, we decided to change up our plans a little.
The one place in Vietnam that we didn’t think we’d get to see is Dalat, which is a city in the Central Highlands. It’s about 4 hours from Nha Trang on the way to HCMC. Originally, we were thinking about taking an overnight trip there and then coming back to Nha Trang to catch the flight that we had booked to HCMC. We didn’t have enough time for that, but while we were walking, we decided that we were going to skip our flight to HCMH and spend a day in Dalat on our way busing down to HCMC. If we got to see Dalat, we’d feel like we really got to see everything in Vietnam that we wanted to see. So, it was settled.
That meant that we had to go to Vinpearl and explore all of Nha Trang in one day. We’d spent a lot of time on the beach lately and were a little bit sunned out, so we thought just a day in the beach town would be enough. We paid the 500,000 VND ($25) pp for entrance to the park and took the cable car over to the island.
This place was pretty awesome! It was a little more geared for kids, but we still had such a fun day riding some rides, playing games, and going down all of the water slides. Other than the fact that Dave stubbed his toe pretty badly about 2 minutes after we got into the park (he got really excited when he saw a big smurf, turned around to get me, and didn’t see the very sharp edge that he ran into) and the fact that the lady at the First Aid room we went to to get him some bandaids was very mean, it was an awesome day and something very different from what we usually do in beach towns. Plus, it was so cool that we had to take a cable car to this amusement park island (the longest cable car over water in the world)!
We didn’t finish up there until about 3pm and then we took a motor taxi to the other end of the beach that we hadn’t walked through earlier that morning. Nha Trang was much different from how I had imagined it. From how it had been described to me, I thought it would be very similar to Pattaya or even Patong Beach in Phuket (aka tons of bars all around and kind of seedy) but with a nicer beach. It really wasn’t seedy at all though. There were nice hotels and a couple of nice restaurants set up along the beach. The area we were staying in, a few blocks in-land had lots of bars and restaurants but still, that area didn’t seem seedy to me at all.
After the rest of our exploration, we went back to shower/change and then headed out for the night. Earlier in the day, we had seen a great-looking brewery and had decided we wanted to go back before dinner to try some of their beer. We got a tasting and then 3 big glasses of our favorites. It had been a long time since we’d had really good beer and this definitely qualified.
After eating Vietnamese food almost every night since we’ve been here, we were ready for some Western food for dinner (plus, there are always so many great food choices in beach towns, we can hardly ever resist). We ended up at this little Mexican food stand right around our hotel, which was amazing. We got chips and salsa, fish tacos and a carne asada and bean burrito. It was delicious and such a treat. And gelato for dessert.
In the morning, we took a 4 hour bus through the beautiful Central Highlands into Dalat. We arrived at around 12:30 and again we were lucky to be dropped off right in the center of town. We decided we’d actually stay at the guesthouse we were dropped off at because then we could easily book our bus to HCMC right from there and leave from there the next day. Plus it was raining which was another reason to stay put. The woman working there showed me a room and it told her it was ok. Then, Dave and I started talking to another man at the hotel about things to do around Dalat and when we were finally ready to check in, the woman told us that she had sold our room and now the hotel was sold out. UGH! Luckily, the other man we’d been speaking to told us that he could take us to the sister hotel about a mile away as soon as it stopped raining. Dave and I went down the street to grab lunch and were taken to our new place as soon as we got back.
We settled in for a bit and then headed out to explore a bit. Dalat is a really cute town that makes you feel like you’re not in Asia. It was also the coldest weather we’ve experienced since arriving in Thailand last September (around 50 F), which was actually kind of nice. It was still raining a little as we walked into town, but as soon as we got to the center, the weather cleared up and we were really able to see what Dalat was all about.
Just before we were ready to head back home, we found an awesome market with tons of food and immediately decided we’d come back for dinner. We also found some of our favorite new Vietnamese wine, made in Dalat, and bought a bottle (we have been very excited about the Vietnam wine situation as wine is the one thing that’s pretty expensive in Thailand – you can’t get a bottle for less than $10, whereas in Vietnam we were buying bottles for $3).
On the map we had, it looked like there was a shortcut back to our place, so we decided to try it out on the walk home. Well, the map we had was not very good and we ended up getting lost. What should have been a 15 minute walk (without the shortcut) ended up taking us an hour. Suffice to say, we were very happy to have our bottle of wine ready as soon as we got home.
We headed back to the market for dinner (we didn’t try any more shortcuts on the way back) and were really excited to try a new soup we had seen earlier in the day. We picked that up and a sizzling pancake and sat down at one of the many plastic tables/stools all around the market. The soup wasn’t great and after slathering our pancake with a new sauce we hadn’t tried, which ended up being pretty much inedible (we’ve never met a sauce we didn’t love since moving to Asia, so we didn’t even bother to try it before pouring it on – big mistake), this was one of the worst meals we’d had in a very long time (and you may know that there’s nothing I hate more than a bad meal). We were bummed but at least we had one more night still to try out the food in Dalat.
On our second day in Dalat, we rented a motorbike so that we’d be able to get around easily. Dalat is known to have some great waterfalls surrounding the city, so our first stop of the day was going to check out Datanla Falls, the waterfall closest to the city (about 7k away). Due to my poor map reading skills (though in my defense the map was not very easy to read), we got a little lost, but finally made it to the falls. We had contemplated doing a waterfall repelling tour, but then decided that we’d rather have the day to explore on our own. We actually ended up finding a tour going through the falls and following them through as best as we could. We were glad we didn’t do the repelling as it didn’t look that exciting, but we did find a great cliff/rock jump. I was hesitant at first, but as always, Dave convinced me to try it and it ended up being a lot of fun.
After the jump, we tried to keep following the tour, but as we were attempting to cross a river with them, the current pushed Dave over and he fell in with his shoes, bag, etc. and lost his sandals, so that was the end of the tour for us.
We stopped at home to dry off and grabbed a quick lunch by our place before heading out for stop 2, what they call the “Crazy House.” Again, my sub-par map reading skills made the ride longer than it should have been but we finally made it to this house that’s described as very Alice in Wonderlandesque. The whole house was a maze of staircases through tons of different rooms and sections, making you feel like you’re in a fun house. It was pretty cool!
Our last stop of the day was Bao Dai’s summer palace. As soon as we arrived, we saw a building that actually looked nothing like a palace, but more like a 60’s architecture/decorating job gone very wrong. There wasn’t really anything exciting to see in the palace and the whole thing was a bit underwhelming. Oh well!
After going back to our hotel to relax for a bit (and drink another bottle of wine), we headed back out to the market to give it another shot. This time, though, we went with one of the pop-up restaurants (instead of the street food stalls) and ordered some “safe” dishes from the menu (eg, fried beef with noodles, fried rice, stir fry). It was SUCH a better meal than we had had the night before (thank god!).
We got back to our hotel just in time to be picked up for our overnight bus to HCMC. Dalat was such a cute city and we were so happy we were able to make the time to check it out.
Ho Chi Minh City:
Our overnight bus arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) at 5am and once again, we were dropped off right in the main backpacker area, District 1. We hadn’t booked a hotel in advance so we started looking around for one. At 5am, there were still people out partying at all of the bars in the area. After a few tries, we found a place and paid an extra half-day to be able to check in early and get an hour of sleep before heading out for the day.
Our first day in HCMC was going to be a day of history. Our plan was to visit the Ho Chi Minh museum, the Reunification Palace (former presidential palace), and the War Remnants Museum. Our first stop though, was at the Ben Thanh Market.
When we first walked into the market, we were bombarded with women trying to sell us T-shirts. They were following us, touching us (who ever taught them that touching people is a good sales tactic??), and within about a minute we were looking for the quickest way out of there. Luckily, we kept walking a little past the t-shirt section and ended up actually really liking the market. After the waterfall incident in Dalat, Dave was in the market for a new pair of sneakers and a new pair of sandals, both of which he found for a steal. Half of the market was filled with clothes and shoes and the other half was all food from dried fruit to coffee to stalls to sit down and eat at. As soon as we saw this, we were regretting eating the free breakfast at our hotel, but we still bought some dried fruit to go.
After we were finished at the museum, we continued on our walk. We passed by the beautiful opera house and on our way to the HCM museum. I had thought the museum was going to be about HCM the person, but it was about the history of HCM city. I didn’t love this museum because I felt like it didn’t really paint a clear picture of the history of the city, instead just gave little tidbits and showed artifacts. As someone who doesn’t really have much background knowledge about the history of Vietnam, I left still confused.
By the time we left, we were starting to get a little hungry for lunch. We had read about a restaurant that had food stalls lined up all around the room and you could choose whatever you wanted to have brought back to your table. It was about a block away from where we were so we went to check it out. There were tons of options on the menu, including a few dishes we still wanted to try. It was a little fancy for our taste though, so we decided to keep walking and see if we could find anything better before settling. And 3 blocks later, we did. There’s a big park right next to the Notre Dame Cathedral (which was another place on our list to see) and as we walked through it, we saw tons of people sitting and eating. At the corner of the park, there were three women selling some great looking food and we decidedt hat would be our lunch spot. We got a banh mi, a noodle dish, and then another dish of different dumplings (though we weren’t sure exactly what any of them were). Across the street, there was a woman selling coffee and other drinks who had cardboard seats set up. We grabbed 2 ice coffees (every time we drink one we can’t get over how amazing the coffee is in Vietnam) and 2 cardboard seats and had our awesome lunch (the whole thing cost us the price of just one of the dishes we would have gotten in the other restaurant).
After lunch, we walked through the park to the Reunification Palace. This palace is where the president lived during the “American War” (as they call it in Vietnam). In 1975, at the end of the war, the North was beginning to overtake the South. They bombed the palace, and this is when the US completely pulled out of the war. Shortly after, the South surrendered to the North and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
The palace was really cool (much better than the palace we had visited in Dalat the previous day). It was 4 huge floors, the bottom of which was the bunker where they did a lot of their planning during the war. The top floor had a cinema, a gambling room, and a helicopter pad (our kind of floor!) and the middle two were all offices and meeting rooms. We really enjoyed walking through the palace.
Our last stop of the day was the War Remnants museum, which was extremely sad (to say the least). After spending a lot of time during our two weeks in Vietnam really trying to understand the war, it all really came together after this last museum. The bottom floor was a huge exhibit about the protests that took place all over the world about the US being involved in the war. The 2nd floor was all about Agent Orange and the effects that the chemical is still having today on the people of Vietnam. There were hundreds of pictures of Vietnamese people (mostly children) with defects you can’t even imagine or describe. Really really disturbing and disheartening. The exhibit ended with a very powerful letter written to Obama by a Vietnamese girl who was born without legs and one of her hands. She was asking Obama for help for all of the AO victims but it didn’t mention anything about a reply. She pointed out how the US has compensated the US veterans who were affected by AO, but not the innocent Vietnamese people. The letter used Obama’s own words to his daughters about wanting every child to have a chance to succeed in life. It was very powerful and the whole exhibit is something that I’ll never forget. The 3rd floor was a tribute to all of the war photographers, featuring the work of several photographers who died during the war. Again, very powerful.
We were a bit depressed after the museum, but left feeling like we had a much greater understanding of the War and the American’s role in it. Suffice to say, it was a terrible war and no one seemed to be the winner. The museum leaves you with a pretty dark view of America’s role in the war, as millions of innocent Vietnamese people are still suffering from its after effects. Remarkably, however, we’ve never felt anything but kindness from the Vietnamese people we’ve met while here.
We made it back to our hotel (after almost getting ripped off by a rickshaw – we agreed on the price of 50,000 VND, but when he dropped us off, he tried to say he wanted 50 per person. We gave him the 50 we had agreed upon and told him we wouldn’t pay anymore) and got ready to go our for the night. We really wanted to try Thit Cho (dog) again before leaving Vietnam and our hotel recommended a street nearby where they said we could get it. We walked over there, stopping along the way for a couple Bia Hoi’s (the cheapest beer in the world) and sat down at the most crowded Thit Cho restaurant on the block. Everyone there (the staff and diners) were all very eager to help us decide what dishes to order – unlike the first place we tried it at in Hanoi, this place had several different options on the menu. We decided on BBQ Thit Cho, which is the same dish we had before, and then also they convinced us to try dog brain, which they all said was arguably the most delicious. Both dishes were awesome. Once again, Thit Cho did not disappoint.
For our second day in HCMH, we had originally planned on taking a half-day trip to the Cu Chi tinnels, the famous tunnels used by the Vietnamese for fighting in the war, but after our full day of history the day before, and because we had already seen the Vinh Moc tunnel system on our way to Hue, we instead decided to take a day trip to the Mekong Delta.
It was a long ride there, but once we got there, the tour was fabulous (probably the best $11 tour ever). We got to the Delta and made several stops while cruising down it. We stopped at a place where they made caramels, popped rice (which they use to make a rice-krispie treat-like snack), and rice paper and then another place where they had a bee farm to make honey. We tried (and bought) the snacks at both places and even tried some of the famous Vietnamese snake wine (wine that they store in a huge jar with a snake in it. The one we tried also had a dead bird in it which was pretty gross). The wine is supposed to make you strong and live a long life. Typically, it’s only the men who drink it, but luckily (and unlike the pipe in Hanoi), they let me have a taste too. For lunch, we stopped at one of the islands in the Delta. After lunch, we got to go on a bike ride for about an hour through a very local Delta village, which was really cool. Between all of the stops to try different food (of course my favorite kind of tours are the ones where there’s a lot of food involved) and our great guide who gave us so much info about Vietnam throughout the day, our day on the Delta was great.
We got back just in time to go to dinner. For our last night in Vietnam, we headed back to the Ben Thanh Market. During the day, the market is inside and then at night they set up stalls outside the market, all around the perimeter. There are several restaurants around the market and we had our last meal at one of them (frog, wild boar and steak and pommes frites).
It was a great few days in HCMC, which was the most cosmopolitan city we’d seen in Vietnam and probably also the most livable and an awesome end to our trip. Next stop, Manila, and 2 weeks in the Philippines.
Loved reading about your travels in Vietnam. I hope to visit there sometime. A lot of my high school classmates fought in the war. I have a hard time thinking of Vietnam as a vacation destination.