Life doesn’t always turn out the way you want it to. My original plan was to remain in New Zealand until September 2019, but instead I ran away to Asia, to meet up with a friend from back home. I owe you one, Eliska!
Traveling to a New Continent
My friend Eliska had been living in Thailand for 6 weeks, and was in the process of moving to Vietnam to teach English. We decided to meet up and travel together for a few weeks before she found a teaching job.
Since it was my first time in Asia, I knew there would be a lot of adjustments. So I flew into Ho Chi Minh (also known as Saigon), but only stayed the night. The next day I flew to Da Nang, then took a shuttle to my hotel in Hoi An. Flashpacking at its finest!
Here are some highlights of my time in central Vietnam.
When speaking with other backpackers about visiting Asia, multiple people I spoke with mentioned Hoi An. Since this tourist destination was a lot smaller and had less people, I thought it would be a great place to learn how to cross the road (harder than you might think, look it up on YouTube), order food, and adjust to the culture shock of an entirely new continent. During the 40 minute drive from the Da Nang airport, I had my eyes glued to the window. So many new sights and sounds! It was an off time so traffic wasn’t too bad, but there were scooters racing everywhere. My favorite first sights were one scooter carrying 2 men and 2 ladders, and a water buffalo with a dog sitting on it. Sorry, wasn’t fast enough to grab pics!
After recovering from my jet lag, I ventured out to explore a Buddhist temple close to my hotel. This place was an oasis in the middle of a busy city, and I was lucky enough to hear a monk chanting and ringing a gong inside one of the temples. This was my first taste of the ancient cultures that have influenced Vietnam, as Buddhism was introduced from China or India as early as the 2nd century BCE.
I wandered a bit further for food at a place my friend Nina had recommended. It was hard to stay focused on the sights, since I was more worried about getting run over! In Vietnam the sidewalks aren’t for walking, they’re for parking scooters. So you have to walk in the road, getting honked at by scooters and cars while avoiding bicycles, pedestrians, and the occasional dog. Gotta be on your game, no spacing off here! I was extremely entertained by the motorbikes carrying trees (which I later learned were for Tet, the Lunar New Year).
After eating, I wandered into the Ancient Town, a UNESCO Heritage Site. The lanterns hung across the road and in shops and restaurants, and I couldn’t wait to see the city lit up at night.
Top sights in the Ancient Town include the Japanese Covered Bridge, a few pagodas, and some historic houses. Instead of paying to enter these, I just wandered the streets, stopping for an occasional photo.
The fruit market was worth a walk-through just to see all the strange and exotic fruit! My favorite was the dragonfruit (the crazy-looking pink one).
The lanterns were just as cool as expected! At about 9:30pm most of the tourists went back to their hotels and the streets were empty enough to take photos. Wander over to the river and you’ll see the boats all lit up, too.
Once Eliska was due to arrive, I moved to a hostel. Our hostel was part of a chain called Tribee. They do some free activities, including a bike ride through the rice paddies. It was slightly terrifying when we had to cross a narrow bridge over the river with motorbikes whizzing by, but the rice paddy section was lovely.
We also visited a family temple, where our guide explained some Vietnamese traditions. We learned that they burn incense at the altar to call the ancestors, sort of creating a portal between worlds. The incense sticks are always lit in uneven numbers for offerings, and even for funerals. The altars we saw most often had beer (they really love Heineken for some reason), cakes or cookies, and apples. When the incense is done burning, the offerings are consumed by the living. To wrap up the tour, we stopped by the home of a rice paper maker, and we learned how to cook this simple yet surprisingly tricky staple of Vietnamese food.
We spent our days wandering through the streets, having custom dresses made (see below), shopping for leather goods (abundant here if you’re looking for a new purse or sandals), and trying egg coffee (we weren’t really fans, too sweet!). The Night Market is across the river each evening from 7-11pm. We walked over to check it out and got some street food. Learn from our mistake and always ask for the price before buying or they’ll charge waaaaay too much! We skipped the touristy boat ride, but they’re available if that’s your kind of thing.
Food in Hoi An
I was lucky enough to get some food recommendations from a friend before visiting Hoi An. I also looked up the different types of dishes so I could have a base of knowledge when ordering.
- Bún chả – Bún means rice vermicelli noodles. Usually you add grilled pork, fried spring rolls, herbs, and pickled veggies. If they give you the herbs in a bowl, note that you’re not supposed to eat the stems.
- Phở – We’ve all heard of this one, and I can confirm it’s pronounced FUH. Phở bò is beef, phở gà is chicken.
- Gỏi cuốn – Aka Spring Rolls. Rice paper filled with veggies and meat. Usually there’s a sauce to dip. Sometimes they’ll give you the ingredients and you’ll wrap them yourself, or add a second layer of fillings and rice paper.
- Bánh mì – The most famous Vietnamese/French combo. These are small, thin sandwiches. They’re very cheap, but hit or miss in terms of flavor.
- Mien – Aka Glass Noodles. If you’re tired of rice, these are made of mung beans, tapioca, or other starches.
Food/Drinks in Hoi An
Please note that I’m not a huge fan of TripAdvisor, but most places in Vietnam don’t have websites or the websites they do have are terrible. So I’m linking to the TA sites!
- Rosie’s Cafe – Cute cafe down a quiet back alley. They have an excellent selection of breakfast food and smoothie bowls. Great way to escape the heat!
- Phin Coffee – Lovely back garden. They’ll show you how to brew traditional Vietnamese coffee. A little hard to find, just look for signs on the wall.
- Well Coffee – Sit upstairs! This would be a nice spot to write or work.
- Com Linh – Cheap and delicious. Everything is around 50,000VND (about 2 dollars).
- Night Market – Street food! Always ask how much before accepting any food or you’ll be paying a lot more than you should be. There’s a huge variety here, from grilled frogs on sticks to crepes to Vietnamese pizza. Everything should cost between 20,000-40,000VND (around 1-2USD).
Other Suggestions for Hoi An
If you’re looking for a massage, check out White Orchids Spa. The lemongrass hot stone massage was amazing. But skip the nails, really not their specialty.
The hostel we stayed at here was ok, but not great. If you’re solo traveling, many of the hostels have tiny common areas. Tribee Edee has a pool and a bar, so that might be better for meeting people. If you’re traveling with someone, hotels are not that much more than hostels. Homestays are also popular, sort of a cross between a hostel and a hotel.
It’s also popular to get custom-tailored clothing made here. Our hostel recommended the highest quality place, which charged 70-120 USD per dress. That was a bit steep for us, so we found a place that only charged 35. The dresses were made in about 4 hours, and we went back for a fitting. After final adjustments, we had our dresses in hand in about 8 hours. Impressive! If you want something more complex like a suit, you’ll need to go in with at least one day to spare. If you like, they’ll ship the clothing home for you. Pro Tips: After we had our dresses made, we learned they always ask you to pay up front, but you can pay a deposit in case you don’t like the final product. It’s also much easier to go in with photos of what you want, and an idea of which fabric pattern you’d like.
Hoi An was very touristy but for me, it had a certain charm. If you’re able to visit at night instead of just doing a day trip, it will be a much better experience.
We were lucky enough to meet some really cool people in Da Nang. We went up to see the Dragon Bridge shoot fire (sadly not as impressive as it sounds), and met up with a group from Canada and Britain. We decided to bump up our itinerary, and joined them at the AWESOME brand spankin’ new Seahorse Hostel. This hostel was more like a hotel. Rooftop bar, fresh towels every day, a cafe downstairs, amazing staff, super clean, and really affordable… A backpacker’s dream! This hostel also put on a small Tet (Lunar New Year) celebration for us, which was a great way to gain a little cultural knowledge. More about that later. I can’t recommend this hostel enough!
Anywho, Eliska and I went to explore the river walk. It was full of flowers for Tet, and there was a miniature replica of the bridge we were going to see later in the day.
The Kimono Krew (yeah, I just made that up now) rented motorbikes and hit the road!
We rode to the Golden Bridge and attempted to take a road up to the top. We were stopped by security guards and told there’s no way to drive up. We know there is a way, because there’s an abandoned hotel up there, but we listened to reason and paid the 700,000VND to take the gondola to the top. For Vietnam this is exorbitantly expensive, but we were really glad we went. The gondola ride was beautiful, high above seemingly endless jungle, climbing through a thick layer of fog in the middle.
We reached the top and raced to the highlight, the giant hands. We were right on time, as we got all of our photos and then the fog started rolling back in.
None of us had done any research on this place, so we were amazed at how big the place was. There are multiple gardens, a hedge maze, temple…
And there’s another gondola over to a different section with arcades, buffets, and a lot of really random architecture. It’s kind of like Vegas. If you’re short on time, skip the tourist trap over there and just enjoy the gardens! For more info, check out Sun World Ba Na Hills.
We raced back to Da Nang (literally, haha!) and had a fun night at the hostel. The next day we said goodbye to our kimono-wearing friends as they headed off to another destination. Thanks to the Canadians and Jason for the photos!
For our final day in Da Nang, we had a small Tet (Lunar New Year) celebration put on by the hostel staff. Our awesome bartender explained the traditional dishes (of course sticky rice, rice with pork, and rice with beans) and how during Tet families hang out, eat, play games, and give these red envelopes of lucky money to the children and young adults.
To walk off our food comas (rice is so filling!) we visited Marble Mountain. After paying a small fee, we climbed a steep set of stairs to start exploring this hilltop complex of temples, pagodas, and cool sculptures.
After a much-needed nap, we enjoyed another night at the rooftop bar and tried to get some rest before our 3 am departure.
Overall, I enjoyed my time in Hoi An and Da Nang. I really liked the food, although I needed a burger after eating so much rice! I was getting more comfortable with crossing the road, and I felt very safe, even walking around at night.