XO Tours takes travelers to try authentic street food in Ho Chi Minh City. // © 2015 Meagan Drillinger
Feature image (above): The Nam Hai hotel in Hoi An features 100 villas. // © 2015 Meagan Drillinger
For Vietnam first-timers, it’s all about the five Hs: Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City. Each of these cities is important for a first trip to Vietnam, but an itinerary through these destinations does not have to be generic. Following are a few ways to jazz up a first timer’s itinerary to Vietnam.
Secure a Reservation at Home in Hanoi
One of the newest restaurants to hit the scene in Hanoi is Home, a new take on Vietnamese classics. The menu at Home features 100 percent Vietnamese street food, with its ingredients and style of preparation remaining true to anything typically found in an open flame on the side of the road.
But the design is far from low-to-the-ground plastic tables and chairs. Housed in a colonial-style building painted bright yellow, rustic wooden tables are decorated with elegant china and long-stemmed wine glasses, which go well with Home’s lengthy wine list. Try the spring rolls with pork and prawn, the grilled Lang fish with local spices and the sweet-and-sour morning glory salad with seafood.
Visit One of Hanoi’s “Secret” Cafes
After dinner, head over to Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where you will find the Lakeview Cafe (not to be confused with the Lake View Cafe). At the end of an alleyway tucked between two souvenir shops is a small coffee shop. Order a traditional egg coffee and then make your way up three flights of stairs. At the top of a spiral staircase, the cafe opens into a small patio with views across the entire lake and skyline of Hanoi.
Lakeview Cafe is located at 11 Hang Gai.
Your next stop after Hanoi will be Halong Bay, where it is typical for travelers to hop onboard a “junk” boat. A junk is a type of ancient Chinese sailing ship design, which is predominantly used in Halong Bay. But for your first trip to Vietnam, consider springing for Paradise Cruises, arguably one of the more high-end junks that sail the bay.
Travelers can book either a one- or two-night cruise, though opting for a two-night cruise leaves more time to relax and more opportunity for off-the-beaten-path exploration. Electing relatively secluded parts of Halong Bay, away from the dozens of other ships and thousands of other travelers, Paradise Cruises takes cruisers to pristine sections of Halong Bay, with equally impressive limestone cliffs that tower from every angle.
Roundtrip transfers to and from Hanoi are also provided.
Hue by Bike
There are several important and historic sites to see on a first visit to Hue. Unfortunately, many of these sites are located far apart, so the only way to see all of them is to join a slow-moving tour or hire a taxi for the day — which can be pricey.
Instead, consider seeing Hue’s sites on the back of a motorbike with Hue Rider. Owner Mr. Hieu has assembled a team of 10 motorbike guides, all born and raised in Hue, with a deep passion and knowledge of the area. Scoot from site to site with Hue Rider to see important sites such as the tomb of Tu Duc, the Hue Citadel, French and American war bunkers, the Tomb of Khai Dinh and the Tu Hieu Temple, among other sites depending on how much time you wish to spend at each.
The tour moves at your own pace, and no motorbike experience is necessary. It costs roughly $15 per person.
Note: Hue Rider also has day tours to the DMZ, as well as a tour from Hue down to Hoi An. This 70-mile tour is highly recommended, as it hits sites such as Marble Mountain and China Beach. Drop-off at your hotel and transportation of your luggage is included.
Splurge in Hoi An
Since you’ve saved so much money on street food and touring, you now have a little extra cash to burn. Wash off the grease and grime from your motorbike road trip with a stay at one of the best hotels in Vietnam, The Nam Hai.
One-hundred villas dot the 85 acres of beachfront property with a view of the East Sea, many with outdoor showers and private pools. Indulge in The Nam Hai’s restaurants serving Vietnamese or Western cuisine, and be sure to book a spa treatment at the Spa, with its eight overwater Spa Villas overlooking a lotus pond.
Ho Chi Minh City’s After-Hours Eating
Now that you’re a pro with the motorbike, book a nighttime street food tour in Ho Chi Minh City with XO Tours. This all-female team of motorbikers takes travelers into parts of the city to sample Vietnamese dishes that are not covered by most bloggers. Translation: No pho and no spring rolls.
The Foodie tour is available in the evenings when most street food vendors are open for business. Be prepared to try at least eight entrees, dessert and drinks, including beer. In addition to a gastronomic tour, XO Tours takes visitors to parts of the city not usually visited by tourists outside of District 1, including five other districts that will give travelers a taste of how the locals live.