Vietnam is such a culturally rich and vibrant country, and to say that it has my heart is an understatement. It was my birthplace before my family fled the war when I was a baby during the Fall of Saigon, seeking refuge in a Thai camp. (You can read more about my story here.) Recently, my family and I, including my parents, spent three weeks exploring Vietnam–seven flights total, three cities, and we’re now back on U.S. soil. We strolled the bustling markets, hopped on a few mopeds (the city’s main mode of transportation), and I even went prawn fishing at Câu Cá Kỳ Anh with famous food blogger, Kyle Le.
Already I miss Vietnam and am itching to go back. This trip is the second time for The Giant and me, but the first with our children. I strongly urge everyone to visit this humble yet boldly colorful country at least once in your lifetime, and if you’re considering taking a trip there, I hope this Vietnam travel guide will be helpful!
Pro tips: I recommend hiring a private tour guide for the duration of your stay. My friend recommended a local named Cường, and while we didn’t hire him to show us around, he did help me plan this trip in advance. I couldn’t have done it without him. Turns out, he’s also a photographer! We hired him to follow us around for two days of our trip and I love how the photos turned out! Also, Uber everywhere in Vietnam! It’s cheaper than calling a cab. For an example, we drove around for over 20 mins one time (long story) and our bill was $2!
When to Go:
If you have a choice, definitely go to Vietnam during the Lunar New Year! It’s such a special time to experience Asia. About 95% of businesses close to celebrate. And celebrate they do! We were treated to an hour-long street performance, which was put on by a local business and cost over $1,000 to make happen. Chinese dragons are believed to chase away bad spirits so people often have them perform on special days like the Lunar New Year and weddings (The Giant and I did!). It is believed these dragons have special powers to bring luck. Needless to say, the kids LOVED it!
Where to Stay:
We stayed at this Airbnb rental. It was in a high-rise building with a doorman. And the pool, oh the pool with those gorgeous rooftop views. Best part, it also had a kiddie pool and was just a five minute drive from the popular Ben Thanh market.
What to Eat:
Banh Mi Sandwich at Banh Mi Huynh Hoa
Not just any banh mi, but the one at Banh Mi Huynh Hoa restaurant. It is hands down the best I’ve ever had, totally living up to its reputation. There was a huge line out the door. What made this so exceptional was that it contained 4 or 5 different types of meat, especially the pate which sealed the deal. Many locals whom we spoke to said they’ve never eaten at this restaurant because it’s “too expensive.” $1.55 USD a sandwich!! My mom and I gave sandwiches to two of our doormen from another popular sandwich shop and they thanked us for days. They were so happy because it was their first time trying that sandwich, which was about $1.30 each.
Bun Rieu Soup at Bun Rieu Ben Thanh
The Bun Rieu soup at Bun Rieu Ben Thanh, across the Ben Thanh market, is incredible. We tried to eat here three times prior to actually making it in. That’s how popular it is! Twice it was closed and the third time it was sold out at 6pm.
Snails at Oc Quanh Q4
Our first meal in Saigon in the Backpacking District with my parents and other family members. It was a seafood feast! The snails were crazy good and are prepared in different sauces. Pro tip? Just ask the chef to pick whatever is most popular.
Dining in the Dark at Noir
Most of the staff are deaf, mute, or blind. It was hands down THE best dining experience, ever. Because you’re eating in the dark and you don’t know what you’re eating, you have to slowly savor your food and guess. I appreciated what I was eating so much more because I was forced to slow down down and taste, rather than scarfing down food like I normally would. There were so many memorable dishes I can’t even remember. Pure perfection. I exited the dining room, in pitch black of course, with a jasmine flower bracelet.
What Not To Eat:
Jollibee is a Filipino chain similar to McDonalds. They have one in Chicago that is wildly popular with a typical hour long wait, for some reason. I figured it’s worth a shot to try it out in Vietnam. Verdict: Kids loved it. I felt like we wasted a precious meal eating there. The sacrifices we make for our kids!
What to Do/Where to Go:
Ho Chi Minh City (commonly known as Saigon)
Visit the Mekong Delta floating market from Saigon. You can buy fruits and vegetables from local production, directly off the boats. It’s an incredible experience, not to be missed.
This trip to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Halong Bay, has been beyond majestic. Go kayaking in the bay and also take a vintage boat through the floating homes and see how the locals live. We booked our excursions through this company. They’re one of the few that sail the furthest away from all the boat traffic (there are over 600 boats in around Halong Bay on any given day!) Definitely stay at least two nights to REALLY soak in the quiet beauty of this place.
We basically ate our way through Hanoi and the most memorable is the Old Quarters where street vendors sell nitrous oxide balloons by the hundreds. Just your average night in Hanoi.
This place is like a combination of Maui and Honolulu. Go to Vinpearland Nhatrang, the “Disneyland” of Vietnam. Go when the park first opens. Most hotels will give you a coupon to this place, even some Airbnbs. The line for the cable car is about an hour long, so expect a wait time. Don’t bring a stroller. The park has many stairs there and it’s quite steep. Bring swimwear! I wasn’t prepared so the kids all went swimming in what they wore to the park. The water show at 9pm was spectacular. Pro tip: Leave halfway into the show, so you can beat the 1.5 hour long line for the cable car going home.
Get a mud bath at I Resort. Don’t worry, they fill your empty tub with new mud when you get there. I had no idea this place is like a water park. I went there with my parents thinking it’s just for the 20 min mud bath, but people spend all day there because there’s so much for kids to do.
Enjoy the photos from our trip!