Vietnam: Beyond the Hostel
Maybe you went to Europe after college. Maybe you had that experience of staying in a hostel and getting by on $10 a day. Maybe you’re totally and completely (said with love for having had the adventure) over the idea of ever doing that again.
In your 30s, you hit a travel sweet spot. While you may not be flying first class, you don’t have to change planes four times and leave at 4am to save $100 or share a bathroom with 9 strangers. Welcome to traveling like a grownup!
Vietnam is a great destination to test out traveling like an adult because you can create an experience that affords you a little bit of luxury for not a lot of money — and hang on to that feeling that you’re really traveling, not just hanging out at an all-inclusive resort and never leaving the property.
Let’s start in the north (because grownup trips usually have at least a loose plan), and take a trip to Vietnam.
Hanging in Hanoi
Of the larger cities in Vietnam, Hanoi definitely feels the oldest, least westernized and most traditional. If this is the first city on your tour, get a decent hotel room. This isn’t the time to shell out — it’s the beginning of the trip and you will be out and about a lot — but it is the time to make sure you have a private bath and a quiet place to sleep.
Most hotels offer free breakfast, and this is a time to cheap out. While there are often options like eggs or pancakes, eat like a local and fill up on pho. Soup for breakfast? Yes!
Once you’re ready to hit the streets, a walk through the city is a great way to explore—but tread carefully, traffic in Vietnam is terrifying. Understand this: You just have to go. The traffic lights don’t matter and no one is going to stop for you. Keep an even pace and find a local and walk as close behind them as possible. This will make you seem creepy. Do it anyway.
To meet some locals and see the city’s main tourist attractions, like the Hoan Kiem Lake, Ho Chi Minh‘s residence and mausoleum, sign up for a tour with Hanoi Kids. Not only will you get knowledgeable guides, they will take you to hard-to-locate places like Ca Phe Trung where you can have a legendary egg coffee.
Do Not Miss Halong Bay
Arrange for an overnight trip to Halong Bay, a two-hour bus ride from Hanoi. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and if you are that close and don’t go, you kind of messed up. An overnight in a non-fancy room on the fancy New York Times-recommended boat, Emeraude Classic Cruises, will run you about $300, which includes transfer to and from the city. You’re going to be spending the night on a boat—now is not the time to go bare bones.
While out to sea, be sure to tour Hang Sung Sot, an amazingly cool cave that will not make you claustrophobic—it’s that big.
Get All Touristy in Hoi An
Now! Now is the time to shell out for the fancy beach resort hotel. You’ve been traveling a while and probably need a break. Many of the hotels have free shuttles to and from the center of town (and cabs are cheap). Here’s the awesome thing about Vietnam: A fancy beach resort can cost as little as $200 a night depending on the season.
Hoi An itself has amazing food (so aside from breakfast which might be included with your room rate) don’t eat at your fancy hotel. When you get to town, be sure to try the local dish, Cao Lau (pictured above).
Plan to stay at least a few days so you can have clothes custom made. Hoi An is known for amazing tailoring—bring photos from websites or magazines to have dresses or suits replicated. Typically, turnaround is 24-hours.
Glimpse the Future, and Visit the Past, in Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City (still referred to as Saigon by many) is a fascinating mix of new and old, East and West. There’s a large backpacking district with really affordable good food, but, remember, it’s loud and crowded and as a grownup, you can eat there but you don’t have to sleep there.
If you are a history buff, check into The Rex Hotel. During the Vietnam War (or the American War depending where you are) the rooftop bar at The Rex was the place to hangout as a reporter. It was home to the American military command’s daily briefing, nicknamed The Five O’Clock Follies.
Also, be sure to take a trip to The War Remnants Museum. It opened in 1975 as the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes and, in 1990, became the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression. As tourism in the country increased, the name softened—but the contents didn’t. This is a tough visit for many Americans, but an important one and a good reminder of just how recent the war was and just how lasting its effects have been.
Detour Down the Mekong
From Ho Chi Minh City, take a bus out to the Mekong Delta and spend a day (or an overnight) on the river. There are a number of bus trips that depart from the center of the city. The ride is about 2.5 hours and once you’re off the bus, you’ll get on a boat. Be prepared for a day of multiple kinds of transport.
On the Delta, depending on what tour you choose, you may see rice paper and coconut candy being made, listen to local music or eat lunch with a python. This is also a good opportunity for a hat montage to round out your adventure.
Pro Tips for Your Multi-City Trip to Vietnam:
– Pack layers, but don’t overpack — in February, for example, there can be a 50 degree difference between the temperature in Hanoi and the temperature in Ho Chi Minh City.
– If you travel through Seoul, which many flights do, but don’t have time to explore, visit the in-airport cultural center. It’s fun to try on traditional Korean clothes when you’re totally jetlagged and confused.
-The locals are nice. Talk to them—you never know what adventure you will find.
– When traveling between cities in Vietnam, you can take a train or a plane. The internet will tell you that the train is “not luxurious but okay.” You are on an adult vacation. Take a plane if the train ride will be more than a few hours, unless you’re into standing in pee.
– Eat the street food. You’ll (probably) be fine.