Today’s blog comes from Laura Jenkins, a Travel Expert in our London Goodge Street store.
Now I’m an STA Travel Expert and I spend my days advising people on their adventure plans, but last year I was another travel lover in desperate need of a quick getaway. I grabbed an STA Travel brochure and flicked through the pages. I knew I wanted Southeast Asia. I knew I only had two weeks to play with. I knew my funds had seen better days. What I needed was the perfect culture-time-budget combo…and suddenly it jumped out at me, Vietnam on a Shoestring. The small group trip seemed like the best way to see the most of Vietnam in a short time on a pretty small budget, and meet some great travel buddies as I was flying solo. I was not wrong…
Asian Adventure: Vietnam on a Shoestring
Ho Chi Minh
First stop was old Saigon, Vietnam’s booming cultural epicentre whose frenetic hum hit me as soon as I arrived. Having met the rest of the group it was time to take on the insatiable energy and endless clamour of the city. The culture shock was massive. The din of sensational street life and traffic provided a manic soundtrack to the day. Indeed, one of the most memorable things about Ho Chi Minh was simply trying to cross to road amongst the frantic mopeds – you truly do just have to run and hope for the best!
Although Ho Chi Minh is a big city it’s very manageable and we were able to visit lots of places on foot such as the War Museum, the Cathedral, or my personal favourite Ben Thanh market. You can spend hours browsing the labyrinth of stalls, perusing its bric-a-brac or, as I did, just roll from one food vendor to the next sampling amazing concoctions. From your Pho and your Bahn Mis to Vietnamese coffee and freshly whipped up fruit smoothies you’re sure to leave Ben Thanh a true expert on local cuisine. And massive.
From Ho Chi Minh there is also an optional trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which are definitely worth visiting if you’re interested in learning more about the Vietnam war. It’s a real eye opener and really important to understanding the recent history of the country.
Nha Trang – hello heaven
Next it was time to take on our first night train of the trip. Night trains always have a buzz about them and as we crammed into our booths and clambered up to our bunks an evening of hilarity quickly ensued. Around dawn we arrived somewhat bleary eyed into the coastal town of Nha Trang. The town has a good backpacker scene and consequently some great night life, but above all the area is home to some truly incredible beaches. We were given the opportunity to go on a trip to a beach an hour or so away from the resort itself and to our great surprise, we found ourselves in paradise. Literally. We had never seen sand so white, or sea so blue – and the best part was how warm the water was, like a turquoise, crystal clear bath… hello heaven!
Hoi An – looking fine
Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away and hop back on the night train up to Hoi An, which for me turned out to be the highlight of the trip. According to my guidebook, a ‘charming, colonial jewel’ was what I was supposedly heading to, and it indeed it was. A fairytale South East Asian town seemingly frozen in time, Hoi An is a picture perfect, mini city which has been beautifully preserved. Glowing lanterns hang from the trees, locals cycle by wearing conical hats, saffron coloured heritage buildings line the streets and a seemingly endless array of tailors tried to lure us inside their shops. Without fail, everyone in our group had something tailor made in Hoi An, and an impressive collection of suits and dresses were soon incorporated into the backpacker fashion scene!
Tailors in Hoi An
There was an option one afternoon to go on a bicycle tour of the outskirts of the town through rice paddies and lotus fields – definitely recommended as the scenery is spectacular. We could also choose to do a cookery class which again was brilliant as we got to discover some of the secrets behind the delicious flavours of Vietnamese cuisine.
Hue – moped selfies
Next stop was Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam. Visiting the old imperial palace was fascinating and also quite thought provoking since most of it was destroyed during the Vietnam war. A definite must in Hue, as well as a great way to see the city and the surrounding area, is a moped tour. The drivers were really good fun and they took the group to some fantastic locations such as the Perfume River, Thien Mu Pagoda and ancient royal tombs. It was great to get off the beaten track and to feel the wind whoosh by as we uncovered the history and landscapes of Hue… also perfect for taking a cheeky moped selfie!
Ha long Bay – call me Michael
Onwards and upwards we continued to stunning Ha Long Bay. It’s one of the most well known sights in Vietnam it is a must for any visitor. Although you may be familiar with images of the scenery, nothing can prepare you for seeing it up close. Going out on the boat and kayaking around the islands with the group was so much fun and made us feel like we were on some kind of Michael Palin expedition!
Stunning Ha Long Bay
Vietnam on a Shoestring comes to an end in the country’s capital Hanoi which, like many cities in Asia, is crazy, mesmerising and so, so exciting. Exploring the maze-like old town there’s something new to discover around every corner. Visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is fascinating and great for understanding the country. Hanoi was also home to some of the best street food we had ever tasted, so if you’re interested in really getting to know the country’s top tasty treats, this is a great place to try out some of Vietnam’s specialities. If you’re not still stuffed from the last meal.