Vietnam North to South

First-time Asia travellers, myself, my wife Ilse and two teenage daughters Julie and Charlotte have travelled from Hanoi in the north to Phu Quoc Island in the south over a period of 2 weeks. We’ve spent two days in Hanoi, two days in Halong Bay, three days in Hoi An, five days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and three days on Phu Quoc island, moving around by airplane and taxi and staying in mid-range hotels, an AirBnB flat and a beach resort.

The colourful light show on the bridge over the Red River into Hanoi

Red River Bridge, Hanoi, Vietnam

Abruptly sucked into the frantic madness of Vietnam’s legendary motorised traffic, there is no gentle introduction to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and the first stop on our 2 week’s tour of the country. We should have seen it coming. No doubt, the colourful, triangular light show on the bridge over the Red River on our way from the airport is there to impress international visitors. Vietnam is open for business. This country has been torn apart by war, ideology and imperialism for many years, and is now confident to resurrect, selectively embrace capitalism and take on the world.


Our flight from Cape Town to Hanoi, via Doha and Bangkok, takes a total of about 30 hours. We all arrive with a heavy head due to lack of sleep and stuffy airplane cabin air. After handing in our health certificates to plainly uninterested officials – nope, no diarrhoea in the last two weeks, thank you very much – we and a diverse crowd of international visitors start the visa application procedure in long queues, passport pictures and US$100 fee in hand. When a visa has been approved – read: looked at by an official, and physically transported from one desk to another – a passport picture and name appear on a widescreen TV, read out aloud by a computer voice. One by one. In a frustratingly random order. Almost hilarious, but after travelling for 30 hours, not quite. Most travellers just hover, staring at the screen, baffled, or chuckling, or complaining out loud. After a couple of impatient hours we get out of there, find our luggage and driver, and head for Hanoi.

1. Hanoi

It is 18:00 and night has fallen over Hanoi. Rain is pouring down, and will be for the next two days. We arrive in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, together with 100s of slow-moving and permanently hooting motorcycles swarming around us on potholed roads lined with a seemingly endless array of narrow, small shops and eateries, modern and bright high towers in the background.

The Old Quarter in Hanoi

After checking in at the quiet oasis that is our hotel in central Hanoi, we go out in search of dinner in the Old Quarter – with its streets full of perfectly fake branded shoes, clothes, bags, shirts, jackets, more mad traffic and incessant hooting and friendly crowds and odours of grilled meat, fresh greens and boiling broth prepared in mobile roadside restaurants. With dropped jaws and restless eyes, we move along muddy, broken pavements, blocked by long lines of parked motorcycles and various pavement-made food offerings – the salty and sweet smell of fish sauce everywhere.

Food everywhere

People on motorcycles stop to order food from a lady on the pavement. A man walks in the middle of the road, and sings a melodramatic tune while pulling a humongous loudspeaker on wheels. A boy grills oysters on the pavement on an open fire. Handbags, shoes and shirts shout for my attention. People sell anything you can think of on the side of the road, while other people hang out in local, improvised corner cafés and sit on plastic kiddies chairs. It is a lot to take in. No one minds us, nobody hackles, nobody stares. Locals hardly seem to notice us, and the occasional fellow Western tourist looks away.

One of the many shops in the Old Quarter in Hanoi

Shop at Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi is a friendly city, with down-to-earth people, and a more historical and cultural vibe than the whirlwind that is Saigon. The Old Quarter is an authentically Vietnamese experience in its own league, while upmarket hotels and shops can be found in other parts of Hanoi. We visit the Mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh is burried, and the One Pillar Pagoda, the Red Bridge over the lake and the temple at the lake. Hanoi is also our introduction to genuine Vietnamese food – from a trendy fusion restaurant and a very popular pho restaurant to a little local garage with freshly made pho and grilled pork on a stick from a lady in the street.

Grilled pork on a stick, in Hanoi

Street food, Vietnam

The people that deliver services to international visitors (shops, hotels) generally are very friendly, with a grateful, genuine, almost apologetic obedience. English is often a bit of a problem.

Taxi drivers, restaurant waiters, hotel staff –  none of them appear fluent in English, while some of them don’t even speak one word of English. When bargaining at markets, prices are shown on a calculator or mobile phone. When taking a taxi, I always have the address written out on my phone.

Motorcycles are the default transport option for Vietnamese, because steep import taxes make owning a car almost impossible.

For a couple of days, Charlotte makes a real effort to learn Vietnamese. Our hotel room is filled with computer voices prescribing the correct pronunciation for “Yes”, “No” and “Thank You”. With Julie, she makes a list of handy phrases, but none of them seem keen to try them out on real people. I test it on a waitress in Hanoi, and we all learn that the emphasis for “Kamoon” (Thank You)  should be on “oon” while producing a sound that comes close to “whoop”. This, we learn later, is an essential aspect of the Vietnamese language – the many different intonations, indicated by little squirls above and below the vowels.

Old and new, side by side

If my knowledge of Vietnam were to depend on Cape Town airport’s customs official’s war movie expertise, I would believe that Vietnam is still the war-torn country it was 60 years ago. He shares his ignorance with us with a big smile. But it makes me think. In the planning of our trip, we have decided to ignore the war museums and monuments, and successfully manage to stay blissfully unaware of Vietnam’s violent and painful past during our entire trip.

It has crossed my mind, though, the hatred-filled scars the war no doubt must have left on the Vietnamese. Hatred for the French and Chinese colonisers. The American and Russian warmongers. Later on our trip, I ask one of our guides. I tell him that I am baffled by how Vietnamese, by the looks of it, seem to have moved on from the war terror and destruction, while countries like South Africa have not fully processed the terror of apartheid, and Europe has not fully processed the terror of the world wars. The guide turns silent, and looks down. He nods when I ask if this is difficult to talk about. He says that tourists are being kept away from the places that still remind of the war, regions in Vietnam where war chemicals still cause handicapped babies and where no plants grow.

A shopping street in downtown Hanoi

2. Catba Island & Halong Bay

The road from Hanoi to Haiphong is boring – an industrial route from the capital to the coast. The rain hasn’t stopped since last night. Now monstrous trucks have been added to the mad traffic mix. When we arrive at Haiphong, we are given tickets for the ferry (“hydrofoil”) to Catba Island, and our driver leaves, without speaking one word since we left two hours ago in Hanoi.
Halong Bay, Vietnam
A noisy Russian-made ferry takes us to Catba Island – an allegedly less crowded, less touristic alternative starting point to visit Halong Bay. Our guide tells us that Catba has about 20 cruise boats, while Halong City has about 600, frequented by large groups of Chinese (the border to China is only 180 km away). Still, Catba Island pretty much thrives on tourism, as is visible from the many restaurants and pubs along the waterfront. We fail to be impressed with the town’s bland tourist offerings.

Halong Bay private cruise

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Once we sail into the bay with our captain, chef and guide, we see villages built on the water, with small fish farms and dogs to scare the birds away. We kayak into dark caves to deserted lagoons. We eat freshly prepared seafood, and see expensive looking cruise ships with Christmas decorations and large dining rooms floating by. We’re all very impressed with the massive outcrops sticking out of the water – legend says that the lime rocks are remnants of a dragon’s defence against an intruder. Once we get in the kayaks, we get a real sense of the size of these magical rocks.

Impressive, massive rocky outcrops in Halong Bay

Halong Bay
After lunch, we go out on the kayaks on our own, and get out at a beach with a small yellow temple. We spot a little black monkey with a yellow face in the trees, and our guide later tells me that only 90 of these Catba Langur monkeys are still alive – we were very lucky to see one. Later that day, following our guide with headlights strapped to our heads, we paddle in a dark cave that says “Stay Out. Danger”, which after 5 minutes of paddling takes us to a lagoon. We also come across a squid fisher, who paddles with his feet and sings along to Asian sounding music blaring out of a small speaker, and we see a jelly fish right next to our kayaks. Fresh seafood dinner with boiled oysters, fish and prawns is delicious. We go to bed on the boat, ankered in a quiet bay, at 7:30.

Catba Island harbour

Catba Island

It is on the way back from Catba that a culture shock first dawns on me, and temporarily replaces the initial euphoria of being in a country I know nothing about.

More and more, I seem disconcerted and disoriented to be among people that I cannot communicate with and have different habits, histories and worldviews. I look around on the ferry, and don’t understand a word of what’s written in the safety instructions on the wall. The ferry had taken off with the doors open, the doorman hanging out of the doorway. The coffee we had at the harbour was served in a glass, and tasted nothing like coffee. Once at Haiphong harbour, we will need to find a taxi to our hotel, with hand gestures and some amateurish bargaining, while it’s getting dark and we have no idea where we are or where we are going. It all ends well – we avoid paying 350.000 VND and end up paying 120.000 VND for the taxi – and my anxiousness disappears together with the cold Hanoi Bia at the hotel.

3. Hội An

Hoi An, Vietnam
We fly from the brightly new Haiphong airport to Danang, and are collected by the hotel’s luxurious shuttle. Hội An is hot and humid and very crowded. A well preserved and very lively old town, Hội An is very popular among local and international tourists. Visiting the town a day before New Year’s Eve probably does not help …

Hội An

Hoi An
Narrow streets are populated with strolling crowds and swerving motorcycles and shops and restaurants and pubs and coffee roasters and more shops. We eat some of the best food we will have during our entire trip at Mango Mango and Mango Rooms, and eat at the Red Bridge Cooking School twice.

TIP : Order all the starters on the menu, and share with friends at Mango Mango

Mango Mango, Hoi An, Vietnam
We visit the Japanese Bridge and a couple of preserved old houses and temples, and stroll through Hoi An’s many narrow streets. We cycle all the way to the beach through beautiful and very wet agricultural lands. Because we’re tourists, we stop to look at a cow. We stop to look at ducks. We come across a snake in a ditch. We visit the vegetable village, and are amazed by the amount of water this area of Vietnam has available, while our home country South Africa currently struggles with a drought.

Cycling in Hoi An. Remember to give way to just about anything that moves.

Cycling in Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An is a well preserved and very lively old town

Hoi An

Vietnamese food is complex and very flavourful. Salty and sweet, bitter and sour, crunchy and squishy … almost all the dishes we ate had a wonderfully balanced complexity and strong bold flavours. Healthy, too, with veg and noodles or rice on the main stage, and meat (beef, pork, chicken or seafood) in the background.

Cao lầu with noodles, pork, and local greens, only found in Hội An

Cao Lao in Hoi An, Vietnam
We eat at roadside improvised eateries (Pho and Bánh mì and pork on a stick) and at very classy restaurants (Mango Mango, Mango Rooms in Hoi An, Quan and Hum in HCMC) We try egg coffee – a kind of liquid tiramisu made from egg yolks and condensed milk and coffee – hotpot and hot and cold local herbal teas. We decide not to try the new Vietnamese wines …

We love the smoked beef brisket Bánh mì and pork belly Cao lầu at the Red Bridge Cooking School in Hoi An

Red Bridge Cooking School, Hoi An

4. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC) is the beating economic and financial heart of Vietnam and a blast for the senses. We take a taxi from the airport to our AirBnB flat on the eighth floor at Ben Thanh Tower (now The One Saigon, famous for the Air 360 rooftop bar). My favourite way to immerse myself in a city, is to grab my camera and walk and watch and greet people and worm myself through traffic and peep into buildings and doorways and alleyways.

Ho Chi Minh City, like every big city in the world, is a melting pot of cultures, flavours, colours, textures, sounds and smells. A boiling concoction of parallel dimensions, all moving alongside and criss-cross one another. New millionaires in posh SUVs race passed grandmothers that live from the homemade food they will sell that day. I’m told that “walking” is a sign of poverty for a Vietnamese. I see babies fast asleep on motorcycles. Whole families, whole households, whole shops being transported. Motorised traffic flashes, zooms and gurgles passed in every direction. Ahead of me, behind me – left right and centre. In streets, on pavements, in the middle of a market. People, too, are everywhere, sitting, walking, waiting, talking.

A very common occurrence in Vietnam: the pavement restaurant

Pavement restaurant, HCMC
Neon adverts are shouting for attention. Shops are blasting upbeat music through bombastic loudspeakers. Grilled meat and boiling broth odours mix with exhaust fumes and rotting garbage before they batter my nostrils. People in Ho Chi Minh City seem friendly, occupied with business of their own, be it unaware of my presence. I never feel unsafe. Occasionally I get invited to try a massage, but nobody harasses me. Some people look inquisitively at me, some smile a little uncertain. I wish I could spend more time in this city …

HCMC is a melting pot of cultures, flavours, noise and smells

I have once made a point of sharing my driving experience around the Arc du Triomph in Paris with friends. I thought that was a thing. But that was organised line dancing compared to traffic in Vietnam.

After two days in Vietnam, the regional rules of traffic begin to dawn on me. (1) Rule one: never stop. Whether you walk, drive or cycle, you keep going. Are you coming out of a sideway? You don’t stop, don’t look, just let yourself be absorbed by the traffic flow. Are you trying to cross a street? Don’t stop, don’t wait, just head for the other side of the road, and traffic will miraculously worm itself around you. (2) Always give way to whatever or whoever is coming onto your path. Whatever or whoever is coming onto your path is not looking, and is assuming that you will give way. (3) Hoot incessantly, just for the fun of it. Hooting and flashing is simply saying “I’m here, hello.” Which is why motorists hoot and flash all the time. All the bloody time.
This leads me to a compelling thought. This seemingly nonchalant absence of traffic rules does not lead to any frustration or aggression. People cut each other off, make sudden breaks, force each other off the road, and no one seems to mind. No road rage. No irritation. While people in traffic in countries that are highly regulated wave fists, curses, middle fingers and baseball bats at one another. Do more rules lead to more anxiety? Does chaos automatically, organically find a way to organise itself?

Traffic in Paris is organised line dancing compared to traffic in Vietnam

Traffic in Saigon, Vietnam
I love exploring Ho Chi Minh City. After three days’ walking and a total of 60 kilometers on flipflops I still had no idea how to find my way around HCMC. The place is quite a labyrinth. Trendy shops with international fashion and electronic brands hug shoulders with improvised eateries and massage salons, that in turn hug shoulders with shiny skyscrapers, glitzy office buildings and green city parks. Third world and first world, old world and future world side by side.

We read in travel guides that great deals can be done at local markets, but I would disagree.

Most of the markets felt like a bit of a rip-off, especially in HCMC. With the prospect of bargaining, prices are blown up ridiculously, and even if you have the feeling that you managed to bargain 50% off the initial price, you still end up paying too much.

Most of the markets we visit feel like a rip-off

Traffic in Vietnam: beware, motorcycles everywhere

Saigon is an energetic, almost spastic city, with currently a number of construction sites, including a new underground station

5. Mekong Delta

Mekong Delta
Being told by a travel agent in HCMC that the tour to My Tho – the closest Mekong River Delta tour from HCMC – is rather crowded, bland and superficial, we set off on a more expensive and private trip to Ben Tre, two hours’ driving from HCMC with a driver and a private guide. By boat, and later on foot, we visit a traditional brick-baking facility, coconut candy and mat makers, and have barracuda for lunch.

Our private tour to Ben Tre included food tastings, boat trips and a walk in the Mekong River Delta

6. Phu Quoc Island

Beach resort at Phu Quoc
Phu Quoc is only half an hour flight from HCMC, and a very popular holiday island for Vietnamese and international tourists. We decided to end off our trip at a resort, to recover from our adventures and prepare for work and school that will be awaiting us back home. Just 2 weeks earlier, a typhoon had skirted the island, coming from the Philippines where it had caused lethal havoc. We had the most beautiful weather, be it hot and humid like everywhere else in Vietnam. We took taxis between the airport and the resort, and between the resort and VinPearl Park – an entertainment park and a little present for our daughters to put up with their parents’ travel explorations for 2 weeks. Along the way, we see a lot of tourists on motorcycles, something we had not really come across in the cities, presumably because traffic on Phu Quoc is a lot calmer. The little harbour town of Phu Quoc is pleasant, not much different from other towns we have visited, be it a lot more touristic. The resort was a great idea, and included two pools, a pool bar, a beach with loungers and beach bar, kayaks and an average restaurant with live music – I suppose it could have been a resort anywhere in the world.

We end the trip at VinPearl Park, an entertainment theme park

Vietnam was more an experience than a scenic tour of beauty. Spending most of our time in cities means that we have not truly experienced rural Vietnam, and hence may have skipped Vietnam’s more aesthetic, natural scenery. Vietnam’s main cities are not particularly beautiful, with their haphazard architecture and haphazard town planning and potholed pavements and derelict buildings and incessant and polluting traffic. Having said that … the experience we had, was sensational. The food, of course, is legendary, and was an absolute highlight. The people we met were either very friendly and helpful, or ignoring our presence and minding their own business. But the overall highlight, the experience, is a powerful one. It is the vibe, the thrill of walking in Saigon and Hanoi and absorbing the excitement of these cities and their people and being absorbed in their energy. To see how other people go about their lives, and realise that the way I go about my life is entirely relative and open to alternatives. I feel richer now. I understand more about the world than before …