Back in April 2017, I left to Vietnam for two weeks having planned nearly nothing and packing my backpack and a duffel. With only a month notice, I wanted to share how I got ready to meet my other half across the world in Vietnam. This post is dedicated to getting ready and things to do on the trip with little notice.
Love travel guides like these? Become a patron today to help make them better!
Become a Patron!
First, a little about me...
I travel as much as I can (which isn't a lot) but when I do, my trips are sort of planned no more than 1 month in advance. In fact, my last 6 trips (Mexico City, Thailand, Portland, Denver, Japan, and Austin) were all booked with little notice. I tend to buy tickets based on flight deals. Part of this is because I don't have time to look. The other part is whenever someone asks me if I'm up to take a trip someplace I've never been, I say yes.
What I Packed
For the two week trip, I had a few essentials:
- Everlane Nylon Weekender Pack
- As much as I would love to opt for a carry-on with wheels, a softer bag means more flexibility and the ability for me to carry when running for the train or plane. This bag recently came out and it worked well for my needs.
- Thule Backpack
- Originally received as part of my swag pack from my old job, this backpack was perfect. Relatively small for traveling but because of size constraints, it made me be more conscious about what to pack. Be careful with larger bags as being able to stuff more doesn't mean you're able to lift it!
- Muji Garment Organization Packs (2 Large and 1 Small)
- Bought these on a whim and never looked back. While my folding skills are pretty terrible, they've helped me organize my clothes so instead of sifting through everything, I just pulled out the appropriate bag.
- Muji Toiletry Bag
- Who else digs through all their toiletries and finds spills every time they travel? Sure, TSA requires your liquids to be in a plastic bag, I still pack those in but I stuff everything else in its appropriate compartments in this bag. Also, the hook allows me to hang it up wherever I am without having to take everything out.
- Anti-Theft Waist Wallet aka the Fanny Pack
- Safety while traveling is crucial. My overly paranoid self decided on getting this waist wallet which became my favorite thing ever literally attached to my hip 24/7. It was perfect because the boiling hot heat meant clothes with no pockets. For my female identifying friends who find the same frustrations as I do with clothes with no pockets, this literally was the best in holding all little things without having to carry extra bags.
- Sample Sized Everything
- Shoutout to my roommate, Coffee & Cashmere, I totally stole this tip from her. The both of us are pretty much skincare and makeup junkies with an overwhelming amount of samples (thank you Sephora!). I've started saving them and using on my trips. I can simply throw out the packs after I'm done.
- I brought some energy bars which I always stash throughout my bags. Honestly, you never know where you might end up and where you might get stuck at mid-travel without access to food. On one of the nights, we were locked into a hotel room when we first arrived in Hanoi a little after midnight (the new bellhop accidentally locked the door the wrong way). We couldn't go out to get food and luckily I had a few bars stashed. Just remember international custom laws and pick and choose your snacks wisely!
- You can also all these products and more on my whole list on kit.com:
Planning: Experiences & History
My general rule of thumb is to have a loose schedule of things I'm interested in doing and how to do them. Unless it requires advance notice for tickets/admission or whatever, I like to do things on the go. It gives more flexibility to the trip.
Things I always want to know is set in stone: where I'm sleeping that night and how to get to where I need to get to. For example, when traveling to Vietnam, a Visa is required if you are from the US. We used this site and got through immigration fine.
For other in depth guides, I used:
Otherwise, everything else is fair game.
The following are some of the activities that my boyfriend and I planned around with most booked the day before. Many locations and activities are flexible and we tried to find reputable experiences to support locals.
Sapa Sisters Trekking & Homestay: 1, 2, or 3 Day Trek
In the mountainous, cooler regions up north near the Chinese-Vietnamese border are these incredible rolling hills where Hmong villagers live. Sapa Sisters is a 1, 2, or 3-day trekking, homestay, and Bac Ha Market experience where local Hmong women guide you through the region to show you the beautiful landscape. We did a 1-day trek and 1-night homestay. Essentially, we hiked an easy and hard trek through the mountain-side which meant going up and down through wet mud and rice paddies. Our guide, Pen, is an incredible woman who taught me how to make a friendship bracelet (though my skills were pretty poor), carefully guided us through the rice paddies, and ensured that we were healthy even through the rough experience.
We booked this a few nights before. We chose to go up by train to Lao Cai station in our own cabin (for 2). Just a heads up, when you're first greeted, you are introduced to only 1 official Sapa Sister guide. However, local villagers will tag along to walk with you. Lily came with us along the way and practically saved my life in multiple instances as I slipped through the wet mud. By mid-hike during the lunch, the ladies (not the official guide) will let you know that they are returning to their villages and would like to sell you some handmade goods. The crafts are beautifully handmade. Lily gifted me a bracelet that I still wear every day as well. If you can, do support these wonderful women.
Ha Long Bay Cruise: 2 Day, 1 Night Tour
Ha Long Bay is made up of these gorgeous rock formations that everyone should experience. There are a ton of cruises that operate and there's a wide variety to choose from. When we went, there was a ban on kayaking so unfortunately, we couldn't kayak through. I would say though, this is an incredibly touristy thing to do. Each hour is planned out for you down to your meals. However, it was a great way to bond with our cruise mates as we chose a cruise that fit only about 10 people. My favorite part was actually the late night squid fishing where I almost caught one! Our guide was pretty funny and since we were a small group, it was much easier to be attentive to our needs.
More Info: Carina Cruise Website | Ha Long Bay, Vietnam | You can find more cruises on Tripadvisor
Hoa Loa Prison: 2-3 Hour Visit
Located in the French Quarter in Hanoi next to Old City, Hoa Loa Prison was used during the French colonization to imprison Vietnamese peoples and then used to house American Prisoners of War (POW) during the Vietnam / American War. I would recommend reading this Wikipedia article to get another view of the information shared inside the museum.
During the French colonization, there were both men and women who were imprisoned. May of whom rose up and led much of the Northern Vietnamese revolution. It was very humbling to see the rooms and to feel the heat that the prisoners experienced in the prisons. To see the numbers, names, and faces of those who experience the prison are indescribable. To travel is to understand and open your mind to another person's culture. I think this is one of the places I highly recommend to visit.
More Info: TripAdvisor Info | Hanoi, Vietnam
Hai Van Pass & Marble Mountains: 3-4 Hour Drive Through
From Hoi An, we took a private car to the city of Hue. With the private car, we could stop wherever we wanted. Along the way, we first made a stop at Marble Mountains. It felt a bit touristy and the heat was a bit too much for high elevations for me. However, making it to the top (with good stops was helpful) meant a great and hot view of Da Nang. The Hai Van Pass is also this long winding road alongside the mountain between Da Nang and Hue. Before this pass, there was only one way to get through. The pass is not for the faint of heart and easier to go through by car than a motorbike.
More Info: Website | Da Nang, Vietnam
I Heart Hue Female Motorbike Tour: Half Day Tour
We went on the Hue City Tour which included a stop at a local village to see the markets. We, then, went to visit the tombs of previous kings. Hue is where the Imperial Palace is located where the dynasties once ruled. Hence, it was crucial for us to visit and learn about the history. We also had a stop at a pagoda and Vong Canh Hill which provided a beautiful panoramic view of the Perfume River. Lastly, since we finished quite early (we didn't have many questions as we were familiar with Vietnamese history and culture), our wonderful guides took us to the abandoned water park which is crazy eerie on its own. Typically, this isn't included in the city tour but they were wonderful enough to give us the best experience! We ended the at a vegetarian restaurant.
Motorbiking is the best way to get around Hue. Our tour guides were college students hoping to refine their English and I loved the mission is to empower women with the work they do on the tours.
Imperial City & Citadel, Hue: 2-3 Hours
Within the Imperial City in Hue, the Citadel still stands with some impressive architecture that was used during the era of the dynasties. Modeled closely after the Forbidden City in Beijing, it's worth a quick trip over to see and learn about the history. If you are a Vietnamese resident, you can get the Vietnamese pricing. Otherwise, everyone else has separate pricing. P.S., my favorite part was donating some change to feed the fishes inside the ponds in front.
Mekong Delta Motorbike Tour: 1 Full Day Tour
Get ready to get a sore butt! We went on the Mekong Delta tour on motorbike... about 75 miles each way on the biggest bikes (don't worry, they have the granny seat in the back so you don't fall off). Thanks to Tuan and Duc, our awesome tour guides, we were able to get the full experience. From Hu Tieu breakfast, seeing dragonfruit farms (and eating a giant red dragonfruit!), sugarcane juice, and a full Mekong Delta tour filled with so much food we could barely move. We saw how bricks were made, mats were weaved, coconut husked and used for a variety of things (most importantly, candy!), and more. We traveled by motorbike, boat, truck, rowboat, and back on a motorbike throughout the whole trip. It's a totally surreal experience with the funniest guides. We did 1 full day and while it's a bit pricey, it's worth it.
We were also lucky enough to hang out with the tour guides who scoped out Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi Tunnel tours. These guides are true veterans who made the entire journey super seamless and fun. By the way, watch their video, you will want to go right after seeing this.
More Info: Website | Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Saigon City Tour: Half Day tour
This is a very inexpensive tour as it's led by local college students who use this as a great way to practice English. Highly recommend giving a tip for the students for their time, our wonderful guides led us through a private tour of the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, Library Street, and the Post Office. I wanted to see more of what everyday life was so we got to see the Pagoda that Obama also visited. Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon is a busy place but having a guide on your side is always a helpful way to get oriented!
More Info: Website | Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
For both of these tours, we booked with the Airbnb that we stayed in which is all part of Christina's. It was an awesome concept where there is a coworking space in the lobby, Airbnb's (very comfortable!) and tours to all book together. I highly recommend Christina's to anyone in Saigon who can afford to spend a little more during their stay.
So where and what should I eat?
Great question! I have two full posts of food guides below:
Of course, huge thanks is in order to Andrew Hoang, my other half for planning 90% of this trip. He did the majority of the work contacting the tours and setting things up. Finding the best travel partner who you can work well with planning and be able to enjoy the trip is crucial.
There you have it! I hope this travel guide and series on Vietnam has been helpful to you. Let me know what you think in the comments below. Looking forward to hearing about your wonderful, enriching travels.