What it's really like to go on tour in Vietnam
After hours spent trawling (procrastinating) on Instagram and Pinterest, I had finally figured it out. Vietnam was going to be it: my first ever South East Asia travel adventure as a uni student. I would see the beautiful sights and drink cheap beer and come back with a totally new perspective on life, just like all my well-travelled friends brag about.
I booked a spot on a Geckos Adventures Vietnam tour and arranged to meet my mate Maddy over there. Before I knew it I was on my dirt cheap Student Flights Black Market flight to Ho Chi Minh, frothing at the thought of all the new experiences (and brewskis) I was going to have.
After two flights and a 12-hour layover in Malaysia I arrived in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam donned in my first-time traveller starter kit of sandals, temple pants and $2 ‘Raybans’. I was ready to explore.
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Ho Chi Minh city comin' at ya
Ho Chi Minh - or Saigon as it was formerly known - is cram packed with intense smells, sights, and traffic. It was a little overwhelming at first, but after our first bowl of Pho – Vietnamese soup - and avoiding crossing the road at all costs we got into the groove of the city.
After a day of wandering around, taking pictures, visiting museums, being conned into getting our thongs shined and confusing the 10,000 dong note with 100,000 (I entirely blame going over budget, on that first day), Maddy and I went to our hotel to meet our tour group. Our Geckos tour leader Jay took us through the itinerary and the next day we were off!
Fried rat - Mekong Delta style
Our first stop was to hit the Mekong Delta. We cruised the river in a tiny fisherman’s boat that had eyes painted on the front – Jay told us that the eyes were there to look like a fish so the real fish didn’t get scared and swim away. The river was banked by islands lush with green. We stopped at one little island to taste some local delicacies. Jay scored us a fried rat which only one other tour member Jacob and I were game enough to try. Tasted like chicken.
We reached our accommodation which was a homestay that kind of reminded me of school camp with the rows of rooms and a communal kitchen. We then went on a scenic bike ride (I’d recommend bringing bum pads for this), dodging the local dogs and children that ran beside us. One of the bridges had unnervingly ‘disappeared’ as Jay put it, which sent us on a two-hour detour on a dirt path (seriously – BUM PADS NEEDED) but it was a great way to truly see authentic village life up close and personally. We returned to the homestay to eat spring rolls and drink rice wine well into the night.
That evening gave our tour group a chance to really bond, setting a vibe of camaraderie and fun times for the rest of the tour. The next morning we woke up a little hungover but happy, to the soft sounds of the Vietnamese jungle, and hopped on an overnight train to Nha Trang. Don’t let the sleeper train scare you, the toilets were in better condition that you would expect and the cots were surprisingly comfy.
Luxury mud in Nha Trang
When we arrived in Nha Trang we toured a local fishing village and went snorkelling. The village was cool, there were some really cute puppies and the locals showed us how they made the nets and boats used to fish. Snorkelling was amazing. We saw the colourful local marine life and had lunch on the boat, drinking cocktails out of an esky while eating from a fresh seafood platter.
The next day we visited the Buddhist temples and admired the architecture. A few of our tour members were convinced into paying a ‘spiritual guide’ to essentially ash on them with incense and leaves, which we found quite funny.
Our next dose of culture was bathing in the mud baths that Nha Trang is famous for. Geckos hooked us up with the flash spa that uses the actual ‘age-defying’ mud rather than the normal stuff. Not sure if there is a difference, but the girls donned their tiny ‘one size fits all’ tankinis the spa provided and sank into lukewarm sludge in the name of beauty. It was slimy but relaxing and they had fancy showers with FREE natural soap and hair care for after - props to Nha Trang for providing dank backpackers with an excuse to scrub themselves.
Hoi An, I love you
Next up was Hoi An, my favourite city we visited. With its rich Chinese, Japanese, and French heritage the town is a mismatch of cuisine, architectural styles, and traditions. I loved the trendy vibe and clash of culture, plus the shopping was amazing.
Jay hooked us up with where to get high-quality clothes tailored for cheap and set up an authentic Vietnamese cooking class. The cooking class was definitely worth the time, we learned how to make pho and the chef laughed at our malformed attempts at spring rolls – a touching cultural experience.
Maddy and I later found a place where they sold $2 cocktails by the river. We watched the floating lanterns drift by as we sipped our (fifth?) exotically named drink. It was bliss.
The saucy kings of Hue
We spent a couple of days in Hoi An before bussing it to Hue through the breathtaking Hai Van Mountain Pass.
Jay gave us a tour of the Citadel, otherwise known as the ‘forbidden city’ where all the old kings once lived. It was actually really interesting, Jay told us all of the saucy rumours about each of the 13 Kings that once lived there. It was also stunning. Most of the Citadel has been rebuilt over time, but some original elements still remain. One of those is the solid gold throne, and no you can’t sit on it, we asked.
We roamed the city and ended the night with karaoke where we could show off our Aussie rapping skills with pride (at least I think it was pride?).
Hanoi, the Melbourne of Vietnam
Hanoi was next, and I think the best way to describe it is as the Vietnam equivalent of Melbourne – it is colder, trendier, and the people are a touch more cosmopolitan..
Jay told us the local history and showed us a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show. It was basically puppets splashing in a pool of water yelling in Vietnamese – a confusing but culturally rich experience.
Hanoi’s hectic night life catered to the Aussies well. With everywhere open until the last person leaves, buy-one-get-one-free deals and food available for inebriated travellers on every street corner, your Saturday night in Hanoi is guaranteed to be lit.
Ha Long Bay beauty queen
Now for the most beautiful place in the world. Our final item on the itinerary was an overnight stay on a private boat floating on Ha Long Bay. We enjoyed the luxury of five course meals prepared fresh for us against the breathtaking backdrop of over 2000 islands. I would like to take just a moment to brag about the food – it was the most lavish spread you have ever seen. The vegetables were carved into flowers, every Vietnamese staple was spread out for us, from stews to soups to bahn mi – a Vietnamese baguette sandwich.
The cruise was amazing. The water was crystal blue, the stone islands, adorned with lush greenery, rose from the water like statues. Lying on the deck, cocktail in hand, staring at the gorgeous scenery that surrounded me, I knew that this was it. My ‘had-to-be-there’, life-changing moment that I had been waiting for.
On our last night in Vietnam Jay took us out to dinner and gave a speech of his own highlights of our tour, and I thanked him from the bottom of my heart. My Vietnam trip was more than I ever expected it to be but in a totally unexpected way. I didn’t get a completely new world view like I was expecting. I did get a wonderful, magical experience that I will always remember, and I can’t wait to go back.
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