Whenever I write or talk about moving away from Texas 5 years ago and traveling full time ever since, people tend to envision this life of exotic daily adventures, trekking through dense jungles and stumbling upon uninhabited beaches and hopping from one foreign country to the next, our belongings strapped to our back and a slick coat of SPF slathered on our sweaty foreheads. And I’ll be the first to tell you, the past 5 years have included very little of that (barring the sweaty forehead). Most of the time, we move to a country for anywhere from 5 months to 2 years and do all the normal things you would do in any new place you move: find an apartment, get a job, meet new people, and take the occasional side trip like the long time locals who grew up there might, largely devoid of cross-country bus trips and spontaneous hitchhiking and the same kind of reckless, romantic travel tales Into the Wild and On the Road have inspired.
This year, however, is the flipping exception to the last 5 years, because the longest I have spent in any one spot over the last 7 months is about 3 weeks. And y’all, I am honestly a little tired. I would say it’s because I recently turned 30 and maybe my body just naturally wants me to take it down a notch, but screw that. 30 is the new 24, fools. Don’t test me.
In reality, I spent 3 weeks traveling to 5 countries in Europe, followed by 10 weeks living in a campervan in New Zealand, followed by a whirlwind 3 week trip to Texas, and finally, 2 weeks in my brand new foreign home of Koh Lanta, Thailand, all immediately preceding my very first trip to Vietnam. The point is, all of this nonstop travel was enough to make my first trip to Vietnam a non-ranking, completely absent member of Kelsey’s Well Planned Travel Good Time Adventures. Wait… did y’all really think the longest blog intro ever wasn’t going to make it full circle?! Patience, amigos. And hey, when glorious Texan gal pal Jenna Sabatini happens to be in Southeast Asia, and happens to be going to Vietnam, and happens to be going to Vietnam at a time when I have absolutely nothing else going on, I cannot and will not and shall not ever say no. Therefore, off we went.
Vietnam for Newbies
Vietnam requires all U.S. citizens to have a Tourist Visa upon entry, and in the spirit of saving precious time enjoying yourself – and thus not in a line attempting to fill out confusing paperwork at an airport – I recommend using Vietnam Visa, who help you prepare all of your paperwork before you arrive, with visa options for a 1 month single or multiple entry, 3 month single or multiple entry, or 1 year multiple entry visa into Vietnam for U.S. citizens.
After filling out a quick online application and paying a modest service fee, they send you a visa approval letter and Vietnamese visa application form via email to print out and bring with you. Once at the airport in Vietnam, all you have to do is turn in your paperwork, passport and pay the visa stamping fee in cash ($25 USD for a one month single entry visa), and your visa will be approved in no time. This process normally takes 2 business days to complete, though you can pay extra and have it done within as little as 2 hours if you are truly a last minute visa slacker (no judgment).
Vietnam Destination #1: HANOI
First off, I should mention that our first real experience in Vietnam was a beyond terrifying Grab taxi ride from the airport to our hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. After discovering that our driver was at least two days deep into a mystery pill, booze and general toxic substance binge and preferred to drive with his eyes closed, as any worst taxi driver alive would, we did our best impersonation of what we referred to as “stress dancing” – picture lots of appendage flailing, excessively loud hand clapping, fake nonsensical yelling and even some of the dreaded ‘backseat sexy eye’ we found necessary to keep our barely human driver awake, alive, and not plowing off a bridge into the nearest ditch – until we arrived, somehow, alive at our first hotel in Hanoi.
If you aren’t on a tight budget, the refreshingly gorgeous Light Hotel is well worth the splurge. The service was impeccable, and when we found ourselves too tired and lazy to venture out the next evening after a full day of exploring, the room service, wine from the mini fridge and Netflix were welcome perks.
Hanoi Travel Tips
I will say Hanoi took a hot second to grow on me. The first night we arrived, we didn’t get in until after 11pm and wandered around for half an hour looking for somewhere, anywhere, to eat, finally stumbling upon a weird basement restaurant with predictably below average pizza. Our second time around, however, I discovered that we had made the mistake of turning in entirely the wrong direction of the Old Quarter, missing the bustling section where locals and travelers hang out till the wee hours of the morning, eating cheap noodles and sipping cocktails on swank rooftops. My advice: get a map, seek out the night market, do at least a tiny bit of research, and if all else fails, ask a hungry-looking local for help.
Though we only spent 3 nights in Hanoi, I was pleasantly surprised at the whole attitude of the city, which thankfully sits well below the chaotic craziness of places like Ho Chi Minh and Bangkok while still preserving the same kind of cultural and aesthetic charm as somewhere like Chiang Mai. I recommend the following on a short trip (or not so much) to Hanoi:
- Have Coffee & Breakfast at Hanoi Social Club: Though they also have live music in the evenings, the third floor of this artsy, funky cafe was a glorious spot for morning eats and a ridiculously strong ass cup of coffee. Seriously… sip slowly and test the waters. And by ‘waters’ I mean your bowels.
- Eat Local at Bun Cha Huong Lien: Most noted as the restaurant where Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain once ate, this local bun cha eatery may not have the most charming atmosphere – or the hottest bun cha, actually – but it is worth checking out if you’re in the mood for some cheap local eats and love the idea of ordering something called the ‘Combo Obama.’
- Tour Hoa Lo Prison: While terribly disturbing and sad, I’m thankful we took the time to visit this former prison, where John McCain and other U.S. POWs were famously detained during the Vietnam War. The historical information presented in this prison compared to what I had previously learned in history class in the U.S., by the way, shed light on some serious differences in what I thought I knew and what actually happened during the Vietnam War, and well before it.
- Walk Around Hoan Kiem Lake: Ignore the pushy street salesmen and take a leisurely walk around the circumference of Hoan Kiem Lake, conveniently located in the heart of the Old Quarter. There are plenty of places to stop and have a cold beer or snack along the way, and plenty of people watching to be done in between.
- Have Rooftop Cocktails at Bar Betta: I’m a sucker for a rooftop bar, and especially a rooftop bar with $5 craft cocktails, a solid rotation of 90s hip hop hits, records on the wall, a friendly bartender and semi-attractive people enjoying themselves in a mildly rowdy manner. If this also sounds like your jam, head upstairs and snag a cozy couch spot before they’re all taken up by Brooklyn transplants competing for the worst ‘I was fired from my English teaching job for…’ story.
- Have Late Night Drinks at Ne Cocktail & Wine Bar: This place is a sexy little snack of a bar, y’all. Good lighting + Prosecco + talented, friendly bartenders = you want to go to here.
- Have Late(r) Night Pasta at Xofa Cafe & Bistro: Maybe it was the fact that I’d been drinking for 7 hours, or maybe it was the fact that this place is actually as delicious as I recall, but I had one of the best Carbonaras of my life, at 2:30am, on the adorable upstairs patio of this very restaurant. You’re welcome.
I’ll be back, Hanoi. You’re cute.