Do I wish I'd spent more time in each? Of course I do. But do I wish I'd skipped either for the sake of seeing more of the other? Not a bit.
But there's still the issue of how to spend those precious 10 days in Vietnam. The stunning natural beauty of the Phong Nha Caves? The peacefulness of Dalat? The picturesque rice fields of Sapa? The hustle and bustle of Hanoi or Saigon? Some combination of the above? In the end, I decided to aim right for the center. There's no one right answer, of course, but it did teach me a lot of lessons about what's right for me.
I flew into Da Nang, then headed directly to Hoi An. I strolled around the busy streets, then happened upon the touristy pedestrian paths. I found the night market glowing with lanterns, and the river adorned with remnants of Tet, Vietnamese New Year. When I got hungry, I went with the old advice of choosing a place packed with locals. But I forgot to look at what they were eating. Or, more to the point, what they were cooking. Only after I’d ordered and received a personal grill did I realize this place was DIY. It was actually pretty awesome, and I’d go there again for sure, but I definitely wouldn’t order eggplant if I was hungry.
Lesson: The “look for a spot full of locals” advice holds, but don’t forget to also look at what they’re eating!
Visiting My Lai was a priority to me. In 1968, US troops invaded this village of peaceful civilians and slaughtered 504 innocent and unarmed men, women, and children. I knew this would not be a fun sightseeing trip, to say the least, but I find this type of thing incredibly important. I assumed that hostels and guest houses would be full of information about how to visit this historic site. Not so. Apparently My Lai is fairly unpopular on the backpacker circuit, so my only transit option was private car. Once I’d booked the car, a stop at the (more backpackery) My Son ruins would barely cost more. So I turned over my credit card and made the most of my ridiculous splurge.
Lesson: Research transit to my must-see destinations in advance. At the very least, I probably could have shared my private car with other interested tourists, and drastically reduced my cost.
I met a fun new travel blogger friend through Instagram, and she told me about a great local restaurant that offered cooking classes. We ate dinner there on my second day, and it really was delicious, but unfortunately the teacher's schedule did not align with mine. Luckily, I had seen a vegetarian place just across the street that offered classes of their own. I even got to choose whatever dishes I wanted to learn to cook! I chose Cau Lau, a dish I’d only just heard of because it was a local specialty, and Pho, the dish with which I was most familiar because of its ubiquity in the western world. What a feast! It was delicious, of course. But, much to my delight, it was also fairly simple. I think I might actually start making this at home!
Lesson: If you like to eat it, learn how to cook it from the people who really know.
With my must-see sites and must-do activities behind me, I had time for my other favorite activity: wandering around with no plans and no schedule. I visited the market, and wound up getting my eyebrows threaded by an old lady in her kitchen. I stumbled upon a restaurant whose profits benefit local children, and got two books at a house-turned-book-exchange. I took myself on a photo tour to try to finally capture the beautiful colors and lanterns and children filling the city in the aftermath of Tet. I enjoyed some cake, of all things, with my new friend. All in all, it was a picture perfect argument for giving myself one more day than I think I need.
Lesson: I never regret giving myself a buffer day.
On the advice of my Australia workaway host, I opted for the scenic train ride to Hue rather than the direct bus through a tunnel in the mountain. What a great decision! Once I arrived in Hue, the city struck me as bigger and busier than Hoi An by far, but also more authentic and just as fun. I was glad I’d have some buffer time here too.
Lesson: Listen to advice from people who’ve done it -- bonus if you know them well enough to know you’ll like the same types of things that they do.
I had allotted plenty of time for Hue because there were so many nearby war sites I wanted to see. Luckily enough, my homestay host told me about one tour that visited them all in one day! We checked out the demilitarized zone, one of many Ho Chi Minh trails, two historic bridges, and a partially reconstructed battlefield. While attempting to help an older couple, I got lost in the Vinh Moc tunnels, an underground hiding place for a civilian community escaping frequent bombings. Because the community had to hide for so long, 17 babies were born in the tunnels! Another emotionally exhausting but highly important day.
Lesson: Homestay hosts are a great source of local advice.
Because I had extra time in Hue, I also spent a day touring the emperors’ tombs, the forbidden city, and some extras like a giant pagoda. To be honest, this isn’t really my thing. I tend to find more recent history much more relatable and compelling. But it was beautiful, and my curiosity probably would have caused me to regret skipping it. I’m glad I did it, but if I’d only had a couple days in Hue, I would have happily passed.
Lesson: If the pros and cons basically balance out, just do it. Who knows when you'll be back!
Since I'd managed to squeeze all of my wish-list sites into Day 6, I ended up with a lot more free time in Hue that I’d expected. But when traveling long-term, downtime is never a bad thing. Another day free for wandering aimlessly! I discovered an awesome vegetarian restaurant. I ate more cake. I even got my hair washed (15 minute head massage FTW!) It was awesome.
Lesson: You probably won't meet anyone else staying four days in a two-day town. Doesn't mean it's not right for you.
As this was my last day, I actually had work to do. Well, travely work. I holed up in a cute little cafe for most of the day and figured out flights, hostels, and visas for the coming weeks. But before that, I finally made my way to a different vegetarian restaurant my homestay host had recommended. It. Was. Awesome. When I walked in, everyone else in the place was (as best I could tell) a local. Always a good sign. I ordered hot pot, then looked around to see if I could figure out the etiquette for tackling it. I was joined at the communal table by very forgiving new friends. I’m sure I made a fool of myself, but that’s part of it I guess. It was so good.
Lesson: See day 6. Homestay hosts are the best. Or maybe it was just Viet -- seriously, check out Hue Happy Homestay if you’re ever in Hue.
Since Banh Mi was the one big Vietnam to-eat that I'd left uneaten, I scrambled to find a good Banh Mi spot at the airport. I had low expectations for airport food, but it was so good. I almost ordered another for the plane.
Goodbye Vietnam, thank you for the delicious baguettes, the profound history, the beautiful landscapes, and the vibrant cities. You’re an amazing place, and even though my trip was so rushed, I’m so glad I squeezed it in!
Lesson: Trust what you know of yourself. Don’t arrange travel based on what’s convenient, or based on the routes most people take. We travel because it makes us happy -- so go to places that will make you happy!