Becs Dives into Vietnam

Join Rebecca Laker as she deep dives into vibrant Vietnam for her family vacation, steeped in history, rich culture and incredible landscapes. If it’s not on your bucket list, it should be!
18 January 2024
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I thought I would just share a wee snapshot of our family holiday to Vietnam, but it’s turned out to be quite long, and I still could add more.

As a destination, Vietnam is way more than just a holiday.  From the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) in the south where we started out adventure, to the quiet beauty of Ninh Binh in the north, Vietnam is a country steeped in history, rich culture and incredible landscapes and if it’s not on your bucket list, it should be!

I really wanted to be able to experience Vietnam at a slow pace, so for this reason, we chose to craft our own itinerary rather than join a tour.  I love doing the research (surprising!) so I spent many evening hours putting this 3.5-week adventure together.  By the time we left I never needed to refer to the itinerary – it was firmly embedded in my memory!

To get the most out of our visit we booked day tours to the main tourist attractions.  This turned out to be a great way to learn more about Vietnam; history, culture, religion and everything in between including why they are small in stature and that they grow pigs the size of horses that the Vietnamese people ride – yes, our tour guide did have a wonderful sense of humour!  Don’t believe everything you see on Google.

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For our first 5 nights in Ho Chi Minh, we stayed close to the Saigon Opera House, down a quiet tree lined street just far enough from the hustle and bustle.  It was a great base from which to explore the city.  We visited the War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace, Cu Chi Tunnels & the Mekong Delta; the "Rice Bowl" of Vietnam.  As well as lots of little back streets and hidden corners of Saigon we would have most certainly missed without the luxury of time.  I also highly recommend the Saigon Street food Tour, show up with an empty belly!  Ask Lucy about the quail egg…yuk.

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Our trip to the Mekong Delta was one of the highlights.  After a bus trip south, we took a boat to Cong Phung Island which is famous for making coconut candy.  Here we watched a family of about 8, frantically cutting and wrapping candies.  I wish I’d asked how many they can do each day but I’d wager 10’s of thousands judging by the speed at which they worked.

Our guide was really engaging and talked to us about some of the weird and wonderful beliefs of the Vietnamese people.  One of them being if they infuse whole snakes in rice wine and drink it, luck, fortune and longevity will be bestowed upon them!  Yes, we gave it a go and I can report that I will stick to G&Ts.

It was fascinating cruising along the waterways, quietly witnessing the daily life of locals who rely on this intricate network for their livelihoods.

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We were amazed in Saigon by the traffic, which is definitely a bit different to here in Wanaka.  We were told the city has over 9 million motorbikes, and I’m not sure how many road rules they have – not many!  Somehow though, despite the apparent chaos, the traffic moves in a synchrony of bikes, cars and buses, all weaving around each other and all seeming to get where they need to go.

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From Saigon we headed out on a domestic flight to Da Nang.  We flew VietJet, which has a reputation for lateness and reschedules.  Not to be disappointed, our flight was delayed a few hours, but we were notified in plenty of time so it wasn’t a problem.  Arriving in Da Nang we were met by our pre-booked driver and taken to Hoi An. 

During our days out we chatted with other travellers along the way, it became very apparent that Hoi An is a firm favourite for most visitors to Vietnam and it didn’t take us long to see why.

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Renowned for its well-preserved ancient town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hoi An boasts a tapestry of narrow, lantern-lit streets lined with vibrant yellow buildings adorned with wooden shutters.  You can wander the streets and uncover traditional tea houses, ancient temples, and quaint bridges. The Thu Bon River flows through Hoi An, so we took a scenic boat ride down river which included a basket boat ride which was lots of fun.  We paid an extra 20,000vnd for the girls to have a “crazy ride” which was entertaining.  There may also have been a basket boat race and we may have taken out 1st & 2nd place and won ourselves two bottles of local Vodka.  After our rice wine experience, we happily gifted these to a group of English backpackers.

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The town is a haven for artisans, with numerous tailor shops making custom-made clothing so we all got measured up for some new clothes which was lots of fun and were very pleased with our purchases.

We were also really fortunate to enjoy the city's monthly Full Moon Lantern Festival.  The streets transform with colourful lanterns illuminating the town and traditional performances of music and dance along the streets.

After 5 nights, we were still sad to be moving on from this beautiful place.

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Next stop was a drive from Hoi An to Hue, which was around 4 hours long.  A highlight of the journey is the Hi Van Pass, a coastal road with spectacular views.  Unfortunately, it was raining and low cloud the entire day, so I can’t comment on that!

The city of Hue is host to another UNESCO listed site – the Imperial City; a vast complex surrounded by protective walls and a moat.  Within it, the remains of the Forbidden Purple City, once reserved for the emperor and his concubines.  The Perfume River flows through the city and you can take a boat ride to the iconic Thien Mu Pagoda, a seven-story tower overlooking the water.  We enjoyed sampling the local Hue cuisine; "bun bo Hue" (spicy beef noodle soup) and "banh khoai" (savoury turmeric pancakes).

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Heading north from Hue was the part nobody was overly excited about – the overnight train.  But the consensus was that it was actually awesome and it was a refreshing change from hanging around in airport terminals.  I was feeling pretty smug about that as I had encountered a lot of push back insisting this should be on our itinerary.

Our train journey ended in Ninh Binh, also known as the ‘Halong Bay on Land’ for its stunning karst formations and limestone cliffs.  Shaking off the slightly cramped conditions on the train, our first stop was Hang Mua and over 500 stone steps to the top.  The view from the top is a stunning vista of the river winding lazily around the rice paddies and limestone cliffs and well worth the effort it took to reach the peak.

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Another highlight in this region was Tam Coc and Trang An where we rowed in a sampan among the waterways and through a series of caves, one being over a kilometre long was pretty impressive.  Our sampan was rowed by a lady who could have been in her 60’s although it was hard to tell.  She showed us her palms which were covered in large blisters from rowing the boat day after day.  We took over the job and let her rest for the couple of hours we spent discovering this remarkable area.  We shared the rowing between the four of us and were pretty tired by the end of it, so we really reflected on the sort of life our beautiful sampan captain must lead, but she was so kind and humble and when she talked about her life, she sounded happy & content.

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As a side note, we found the people of Vietnam really value tourism and tourists.  They are very eager to please and will do anything to show you the warmth of Vietnamese hospitality. 

Our most northern stop was in the capital city of Hanoi.

I was a bit worried the 5 nights we planned in Hanoi would be too long, but we never felt like we were at a loss for things to do.  The Old Quarter, with its narrow streets and ancient architecture invites exploration and we were grateful for the time we had to really delve into this.  A journey through markets, street food stalls, and traditional artisan shops turned up all sorts of surprises…and the shopping!  The girls really got into the art of bartering, which proved a lot of fun and we loved the theatre of it all.

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Another highlight in Hanoi was our motorbike tour.  Choosing to join the mayhem on the road (even worse that Saigon), it was a bit of an adrenaline buzz for me!  This tour included visits to many of the historical sites in the city such as the Temple of Literature and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, honouring the country's founding father.   We ventured down tiny back alleys, through the food market, and the black market (rows and rows of motorbike parts for sale), finishing up at the famous Train Street.  I was a bit ambivalent about Train Street but holy heck, it did not disappoint.  While we were there the Police decided to do a raid on the illegal street food traders, which we had been warned happens from time to time.  They confiscated all the chairs and the owners have to pay a bribe to the Police.  We were told the Police are very lowly paid but earn a lot. 

Hanoi has a diverse culinary scene with street vendors and local eateries serving up local specialty dishes like pho, bun cha, and egg coffee. 

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By Day 17, we were all ready for our final week, which we spent on the island of Phu Quoc (South), the largest island in the Gulf of Thailand.  We pretty much just swam and ate our way through our 7 nights here which was a really nice way to end a busy few weeks.  The beach here was fabulous, calm warm water, sunshine & blue skies, cocktails and great food…and I didn’t mention the fruit, ahh everywhere we went, the fruit was amazing! 


There is so much to reflect on and I am reminded of the importance of travel as a tool for education.  Experiencing the daily lives, customs, and traditions of the Vietnamese people broadened our perspectives and deepened our understanding of a culture so different from our own. It's through travel that we grasp the nuances of history, appreciate diversity, and cultivate a sense of empathy.

We couldn't help but reflect on the value of the place we call home. Traveling often serves as a mirror, reflecting not only the differences but also the shared human experiences that connect us all. For us, we felt a sense of gratitude for the comforts and familiarity waiting for us back home. 

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Our family holiday to Vietnam was more than just a collection of sightseeing adventures.  I absolutely adored travelling with our teenagers who I felt absorbed so much of this experience and travelled with open minds and a wonderful sense of adventure that I’m sure has deepened their understanding of the world.  Vietnam's beauty lies not only in its landscapes but in the warmth and resilience of its people.

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