I recently got back from an 11-day trip (Apr. 27 — May 8) to Vietnam and The Philippines and thought I’d do a brain dump while it’s still fresh in memory. I went with 4 college friends, one of whom (Lisa) grew up in Vietnam and graciously showed us around her country.
I took a long, 15-hour evening Vietnam Airlines flight from SFO to Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). Thankfully I have the ability to knock out on flights, and spent a good 12 of these hours asleep. It was my first time flying Vietnam Airlines, and I was pleasantly surprised by the abundant lemon tea and warm hand towels they kept passing out — these help keep you fresh and energized. Lisa’s dad kindly picked me up from the airport early in the AM and we chatted during the 15–20 min drive to their home. Once we got there, her mom redirected me to Lisa’s room, which I immediately noticed was filled to the brim with books ❤. Lisa and I napped for a few hours to reset sleep schedules, got ready, and had a delicious lunch at home. After rejuvenating and looking more presentable, we headed out into the city for the day.
Our first stop was the Post Office, which was built in the late 1800’s when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. Since then, it’s turned into more of a tourist attraction, with many souvenir and trinket shops situated inside. Using cash and dealing with currency math at vendor stalls was a bit of a change for me since I’m so used to swiping my credit card everywhere. We also briefly walked by Notre Dame Cathedral on our way to a coffee shop, where I had my first (of many) authentic Vietnamese iced coffees. YUM.
We made our way to a cute pedestrian-only street nearby known as HCMC Book Street, filled with vendors selling Vietnamese and expat books and handmade trinkets and souvenirs. It was nice to see all the Viet books and even to recognize translations of some of my favorites (like On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous). After a while, we wandered over to a big shopping market building with many more vendor and food stalls, and got some refreshing fruit smoothies to revive us from the heat. Our friend Fiona landed that afternoon, so we scooped her and continued browsing around various clothing and perfume shops (Pedro, Morra, Charles & Keith, Nosbyn, and a handful of others). After fueling up with some bahn mi and another coffee, we got dinner at Laang — a modern Vietnamese fusion restaurant. This was SO GOOD and had a lot of creative and innovative dishes, especially vegetarian ones.
We met our other friends Sreeya & Olivia late that night at the hotel and promptly passed out.
The day started with a hearty breakfast at our hotel before heading to the airport for a 2-hour flight up to the Old Quarter of Hanoi, with Lisa’s family accompanying us. Our driver picked us all up in a van titled ‘VIP Lounge’ which totally set the mood for the next few days. Hanoi is full of an eclectic set of streets, neighborhoods, and districts. We enjoyed lunch at Quan An Ngon, and started sightseeing, making stops at Buddhist Tran Quoc Pagoda, the Confucian Temple of Literature, and the Ngoc Son Temple. I really liked the Temple of Literature; a large expanse divided into 5 lush courtyards containing a series of temples dedicated to Confucius, scholars, and education in general. Previously, students would come to stroke the head of certain turtle monuments to get lucky before exams, but this practice has stopped in an attempt to preserve these historical structures.
We drove east two hours to the beginning of Ha Long Bay, and snacked on some mangosteens, pomelos (grapefruit), and fresh coconut water. Mangosteens are a fun fruit — they look like garlic, peel apart like clementines, and have a distinctly subtle and sweet fleshy texture.
Our guide Nar greeted us shortly and took us on a speedboat to the overnight cruise boat we’d be staying at, named Elite of the Seas. Most of our ensuing time was actually spent in Lan Ha Bay, which is also made up of several small islands. It is a less frequented, geological extension of Ha Long Bay, giving it the extra appeal of being a more peaceful place to visit.
Once we got settled on the boat and devoured an 8-course meal for lunch, we reoriented and started the lineup of afternoon activities (kayaking through the Bay, swimming) and sunset happy hour and dinner.
In the evening, we forced ourselves to try karaoke before attempting squid fishing, which turned out to be surprisingly successful, since 2 squid were caught (and later prepared by the cruise kitchen staff as a reward).
The next morning, we went on a series of boat rides to some caves in Lan Ha, had to pack up and head back to mainland. In store for us was a 7-hour drive east to our next destination, Mai Châu. It was a long drive since some parts of the country are not equipped with optimal infrastructure for highly efficient cross-country transportation. Most of the government investment in such projects is localized to areas generating the most ROI and profitability, close to cities like Ha Noi, De Nang, HCMC, etc.
Mai Châu is a lush, rural district of the Hòa Bình province, nestled in the mountains and located in the Northwest part of Vietnam. We stayed in villas at Avana Retreat, which was such a dream — just outside our patio doors was a large expanse of greenery, rice paddies and rolling hills, and abundant collection of plants and wildlife. The resort was massive, and everyone had to order “buggies” aka glorified jeeps to drive us around the property.
The next morning, we took a guided nature walk through the surrounding villages. The Tai, Hmong, and other groups live in small neighboring towns, each with their own developed strategies for efficient farming and land utilization — including custom farming tools for collecting crab in wooden crevices, watering devices, etc. We came across several rice paddies pre-harvest season (June & October), corn, bitter melon, bananas, cucumbers, jackfruit, and mango plants. Our tour concluded with a visit to a local’s home, where we got to sit with our guide (Thu Huong) and enjoy fresh fruit as she continued to tell us anecdotes about the area. In some of the villages, apparently boys need to move into a girl’s home for up to 3 years to help with farming and familial duties, and if deemed worthy after this period, she moves in with him and they get married. Talk about commitment lol.
I always find it interesting to observe how locals live, and this was an honest and intimate way to get a sense for that. Locals of this area appreciate foreign tourism, since the industry creates an abundance of jobs — in fact all of the employees of the resort we stayed at live in a ~4–5km radius, some originally from the nearby villages we visited.
Our time in Mai Châu was a definite highlight of my trip. I think we all achieved peak relaxation state there, especially by enjoying the food, drinks, and chilling in the infinity pools (and even squeezing in a night swim). During our time here, I felt completely disconnected from my normal life in the best way and that we were there to simply exist and soak up the atmosphere.
On the morning we had to leave Mai Châu, we fit in a 7 AM yoga class in the middle of the mountains, which was a serene way to start the day.
We had a 3 hour drive back to Hanoi, and spent the evening browsing various local markets, shops, and grabbed dinner at a bistro called Ngoặm.
This was entirely a travel day: we took a flight from Hanoi to Manila, waited for our connection, and flew from Manila to Puerto Princesa, Palawan — where we would spend the next few days. Getting from the airport to our hotel took another 1.5 hour drive through a quite windy road. Days like this are exhausting, especially waiting around in airports and eating meals at odd hours.
Our main activity for the day was a boating experience at Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR), one of the UNESCO Heritage Sites of the Philippines. This involved a 1.5 hour car ride from our hotel, a 30 min hydroplane on a wooden boat to an inner dock/island, 45-min tour through the limestone caves on a super small boat, and another 30 min boat ride back, followed by the car ride back. The underground caves were unlike anything I’ve seen before, it’s wild that entire ecosystems thrive in complete darkness, with animals relying only on sound and echolocation for navigation. About 4.3km of the river is explored and navigable by boat, and we covered about half of that. Our guide pointed out various rock and mineral formations (stalactites and stalagmites), and all the bats perched up above.
This was our last sightseeing day, and we booked an island hopping tour of Port Barton, involving 3 snorkeling stops and 3 stops at small nearby islands. I was hesitatant but it didn’t take much convincing for our boat guides to get me to snorkel (which I’ve only done once before in the Florida Keys). I find being in the middle of the open ocean pretty scary, but super glad to have gone snorkeling in PH and to see all the corals and fish up close. There were also stops to see sea turtles and starfish.
Day 4 — Travel home
By this point I was feeling a bit sick from travel and exhaustion, and boy was it a long journey back home. We headed to the airport for a short flight back to Manila, got a nice dinner in the city at Wild Flour, and went back to the airport before our international flights home.
I had little to no preconceived notions going into this trip (barely knew the specifics of our itinerary more than 1–2 days out in advance at any given point), and so my expectations were completely exceeded. Vietnam is a beautiful country with a fascinating history, I felt like random facts from high school social studies classes were getting resurrected in my brain as we were visiting different areas.
HCMC had a chill, hip, and professional energy to it. It’s modern, vibrant, and feels like it has a lot of business professionals providing the beat to the city. Hanoi had more of a lively and bustling feel, and also more historical, traditional elements due to the architecture.
It is a huge privilege to visit a foreign country with a close friend who 1) eagerly shows you around and introduces you to their favorite spots 2) willingly takes care of all the logistics and 3) is native and speaks the language fluently. We relied on Lisa’s translations for many interactions with hotel service staff, tour guides, and street vendors. She gave us a unique experience and I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to visit her and family over the past week — especially at the level of hospitality and care that they created for us. On top of that, it’s always a lot of fun to travel with a group of close friends who gel super well together and learn more about each other other in new places.
Visiting SEA is infectious and culturally one of the most interesting parts of the world, with a ton to offer— there’s a lot more to do and see in Vietnam alone. I don’t think we had enough time to explore more of Philippines for me to accurately assess things there but it had an adventurous feel with so many water activities and islands to see. I also want to go visit more countries in the surrounding area like Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, and China.
Thanks for reading, and let me know if you’ve been to any of these areas or plan to in the future.