Seeking (and finding) the adventure of a lifetime in Vietnam

Some of the 2,000 islands in Ha Long and Bai Tu Long Bays

I’ve wanted to visit Vietnam ever since a couple friends of mine traveled there many years ago. I saw the jagged, mystical rocks of Ha Long Bay in their pictures and immediately added the Southeast Asian coastal country to my bucket list. Fast-forward a decade or so… the kids were now old enough to be left with grandma, we have the financial and professional ability to get away for a couple weeks, and my Vietnamese dream became a reality!

There are two ways to approach the country. The exchange rate is in America’s favor and the US dollar goes a long way. Once you’ve bought your flight, you can book very nice hotels for a fraction of what you’d pay “out west” and put together an extremely affordable trip. The other option is to spend the same amount you would in the US or Europe, and live the life of luxury. We opted for the latter! We’ve also learned from past vacations not to pack too much into our itinerary. We wanted to see as much of the country as possible, but made sure to spend enough time in each city, so it didn’t feel like we were constantly schlepping from one hotel to the next.

The flight is LOOOOONG… we traveled 21 hours up and over the North Pole, which was about as efficient as the trip can be. It’s also a brutal 12 hour time difference, once you arrive. We flew from Washington DC, through Beijing, and started the trip in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). It’s a modern, bustling city with our hotel, the Myst Dong Khoi, being one of the best of our stay. The decor is akin to a modern tiki bar, with a serene rooftop pool and stone jacuzzi on the balcony of every room! The exterior is stunning and modern, covered in lush bougainvillea.

We only stayed in Ho Chi Minh for two nights and one full day, but managed to pack in a short tour of the city, the War Remnants Museum, an afternoon at the pool and a late night stroll to see the neon city lights. Our hotel had one of the best breakfast buffets I’ve ever tasted and the stone soaking tub was pure bliss! Personally, I felt that one full day was enough for me to get a taste of the city.

The following day, we boarded a short flight to the small island of Phu Quoc, off the Southern coast, and checked into the uber-luxurious La Veranda Resort, where we stayed for three nights. The walkways of the French Colonial-inspired beachfront property are lined with such lush landscaping that you feel like you’re in a secret passageway. The beach is sparkling white, the balconies are grand, and the food and service are impeccable.

That being said, our scooter adventures around the island were the real highlight of our stay. We rented a scooter for $6 per day… no paperwork, no questions asked! The island is small enough to traverse, but long enough that you’ll want to allow 45 minutes or so to get up north or to the opposite shore. Our favorite beach on the island was Sao, which has a great mix of locals and tourists. We spent an entire afternoon sipping coconuts and beer, eating fresh fruit from the vendors, enjoying the rope swings and lounging in the shallow, sparkling water.

We got our first taste of real street food in Phu Quoc, but our favorite dining experience of the entire vacation was (you guessed it), a scooter ride away. We crossed the island to the remote Ham Ninh fishing village, which features a long pier and maybe a dozen floating restaurants. Each one has tubs of water filled with the catch of the day. Pick out what you want and they’ll cook it up! We gorged on mantis prawns dipped in kumquat juice, salt and pepper, along with lobster tail, crab fried rice and seafood hot pot.

Near our hotel was another lovely property called Cassia Cottage. Massages are incredibly affordable in Vietnam, so we booked a 90 minute couple’s massage in their luxurious outdoor spa. The white curtains were blowing in the wind as we listened to the sound of the ocean. I don’t think any massage will ever compare to that experience!

From Phu Quoc, we hopped another quick flight up north to Hanoi, then our tour company shuttled us to Ha Long and Bai Tu Long Bays, which are a UNESCO World Heritage site. This was THE REASON we came to Vietnam and it did not disappoint!

We splurged and booked a private cruise through the company Indochina Junk. It’s one of only two charter companies allowed in Bai Tu Long Bay, so you get a much more intimate experience. Our private sailboat, called “L’Amour,” had a spacious private cabin and bathroom, two sundecks with lounge chairs, two dining tables and a bar, along with a 5 man crew, including the captain, engineer, chef, waiter and tour guide. The boat was perfectly maintained and decked out in beautiful rich wood, with crisp white linens, fresh flowers and fluffy towels. No detail was overlooked!

The 3 day, 2 night cruise included all meals and excursions. We spent our days kayaking around the 2,000 rock formations in the bays, hiking through caves and eating SO MUCH FOOD. Every single meal was 5-8 courses. I barely fit in my bikini by the end of it!

Without a doubt, the highlight was our private BBQ lunch. The captain brought us to a remote island with a small strip of sandy beach. We kayaked into the shore, where a table was set up with white linens and our chef had built a small kitchen on the sand. For 4 hours, we ate grilled prawns, fresh fruit, local vegetables and some of the best seafood of my life. Then, we relaxed on the beach, read books, and dipped our toes in the chilly water, trying to savor every surreal second!

Our cruise ended with a tour of a floating fishing village, and more breathtaking scenery. Then, we watched a water puppet show in the small Yen Duc Village on the drive back to Hanoi. Those are three days of my life that I will never, ever forget.

For the grand finale, we wrapped up our tour of Vietnam in the wild streets of Hanoi. Honestly, I’ve never seen a crazier city! Crossing the street is even an adventure!

The street food stole our hearts. We tasted just about everything from BBQ to Pho to Bun Cha and Pho Cuon. We’re pretty experimental when it comes to eating. Even though it’s cooked on the street, I can say the food we ate in Hanoi was some the freshest and healthiest I’ve ever eaten. When we weren’t eating, we explored the vibrant markets, visited temples and drank beer to our hearts’ content. It’s 50 cents to a dollar per beer, so it’s pretty tough to turn down!

After eating all that delicious food, we desperately wanted to learn how to make it. We signed up for a cooking class through our beautiful hotel, La Siesta Central. One of the hotel chefs, named Anh, was our tour guide. She took us on a pedi-cab ride through Hanoi’s street markets, teaching us about and letting us taste the various delicacies. Then, we went back to one of the hotel’s properties, where we learned to make three different dishes from scratch! It blew my mind how much attention to detail goes into their cooking.

I learned a few lessons in Vietnam that I’ve been trying to incorporate into my own life. The biggest is mindfulness. The Vietnamese are not always stressed out and rushing around like we Americans, always worried about what we have to do next. Everything they do is carefully planned, punctual and executed with detail and care. You see it from their perfectly prepared food to their thoughtful service. They focus on task at hand. I’ve tried to be more mindful in my daily life and I’ve already noticed a difference.

There are too many stories, too much food and too many memories to recall in one post, but I hope this sheds some light on a nation that we as Americans have, for so long, only associated with war. Vietnam is a fascinating country with welcoming people. We enjoyed every minute of it!

Beau and Brooks in their matching pajamas from Vietnam. We sure missed these boys!

Beau and Brooks in their matching pajamas from Vietnam. We sure missed these boys!