Vietnam had been at the top of my travel wish list since I first started watching Anthony Bourdain's travel shows about six years ago. Anthony's love for the Vietnamese people, food and history made me fall in love with it all as well. I knew that I had to go there one day.
That day came when my husband and I were at our friends' baby shower. All of the attendees who had children were asked to give the new parents advice. One of the dads advised that our friends do things now that they can't do once their baby was born, like seeing a movie at midnight. As my husband and I walked to our car after the shower, I turned to him and said excitedly, "we need to travel and go to movies at midnight and live wild lives while we can!" He agreed and we went home and booked a trip to my dream destination: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).
Visiting Saigon and the Mekong Delta was truly one of my favorite trips I've done. It was also country number 30 for me, which was a goal that I wanted to meet before I turn 30 this year. The people were so lovely and welcoming, even if we couldn't always communicate with words. The food was absolutely delicious and the traffic was ridiculous. I hope you'll consider visiting Vietnam. If you do, here are a few suggestions I have for your trip.
Watch THE VIETNAM WAR documentary before you go.
Yes, this film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is in 10 parts and 18 hours long, but it taught me so much about the long history of Vietnam and its war with the U.S. The film does an amazing job of explaining all of the complexities of the war, as well as give you both American and Northern Vietnamese soldiers' perspectives. The film is available on Netflix.
In Saigon, we visited the War Remnants Museum. If you watch the documentary before going to this museum, a lot of the images will look familiar to you, except for the entire room dedicated to photos of people disfigured from Agent Orange. What you will notice is that the text beneath some photos in the museum say that things happened differently than what you learn in the documentary. For example, the Vietnamese government has told their citizens that the Tet Offensive (a series of surprise attacks by the Vietcong) was a huge success. But it wasn't. Many, many Vietcong died and they did not gain much territory. Our tour guide told us that she grew up believing what her teachers had told her about the Tet Offensive, but then she watched THE VIETNAM WAR documentary and discovered it was a lie. It was such a thought-provoking experience to see history being told by the winner, who wasn't the U.S. this time.
Leave the city and tour the Mekong Delta.
I've learned from past trips that some of the best experiences come from leaving the big cities and venturing to smaller, less traveled towns. We booked a 2-day Mekong Trails & Tales tour for about $180 per person. This included pickup from our AirBnB, transportation in a comfy van, all of our food, lodging with a local family, a boat tour of the floating markets, fruit platters at a fruit plantation, and a sunset bike ride through a local neighborhood. It was an absolutely magical experience. As we biked through these small winding streets, children would run out to us and scream "hello!" and give us high-fives. The sunset through the tall grasses was breathtaking. And when we returned back to our home-stay, the family taught us how to cook seafood pancakes and grilled chicken. I got to try durian and a duck fetus at dinner, which was an interesting experience. All of the food cooked for us was SO GOOD! I also really enjoyed being able to ask our guide and host family all of the questions I have about living in Vietnam.
Here is a very thorough blog written by The Well Traveled Family about this tour. We did all of the same things.
Use Grab to get around.
Grab is just like Uber. Download the app, set a pick-up point, the car picks you up and drops you off at set destination. The app will also translate your chats, so you can text the driver in English and they'll see it in Vietnamese. If you're feeling adventurous, you can request a motorbike, but I recommend a car. If you're not familiar with the infamous traffic of Saigon, be prepared to see some crazy and mind-blowing traffic maneuvers. At one point, I had to just close my eyes because it scared me to watch the bikes and cars weaving around each other. It's pretty cheap to use Grab and is way less stressful than trying to figure out the buses or walking long-distances.
You can also use Grab to order food delivery. I used this service a lot, but had a bit of difficulty. Our AirBnB was located in a really nice complex with lots of buildings. The drivers had a difficult time finding our building. They would call me to clarify the location, but I don't speak Vietnamese so it ended up being a bit of a mess. They all eventually founds us, but I would caution against using this feature, unless you're in a very obvious location.
Do not stay in District 1
District 1 of Saigon is the downtown, touristy part. If you want to be in an area that caters to tourists and is very busy, then go for it. If you want to have a more authentic, calmer experience, stay farther away. This was my least favorite district because the food was geared toward foreigners, it was crowded, and lots of people are trying to sell you cheap souvenirs. We stayed in a super nice AirBnB in the Binh Thanh district, just north of district 1. I chose a nicer AirBnB with a pool because I wanted to have a relaxing escape after a day in the chaotic traffic and markets. Thanks to Grab, we were able to get to night markets farther away. If I go back to Saigon, I'll try staying in District 4 because of the street food there.
I recommend reading more reviews and blogs about the districts and seeing which fits your style best.