A trip that started as a spontaneous visit to see a friend turned into a new awareness for the world around me. For the first time in my 23 years, I learned that history comes with bias—and by exploring the world around us, we can temper our biases and become more thoughtful about our own place in the world.
And, of course, I came away with a new passion for Vietnamese cuisine! I’m grateful to live in Vancouver where it is plentiful—and I can’t wait to visit Vietnam again soon for pho and bánh xèo.
When I visited Vietnam (my first-ever overseas trip to the east!), it was because a friend had moved there. I had been working for a year in my first job out of university, and was ready to spend some of my hard-earned cash on a getaway. My sister and I booked the flights, packed our bags, and headed to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), with plans to visit our friend in Hội An, work our way to the north, and return to HCMC for the final few days of our trip.
We ended up adoring Hội An and extended our time there (with an added bonus of staying with our friend for free). We only had time to do a small amount of exploring in HCMC at the end of our trip, but we did visit the War Remnants Museum. This is where my sheltered worldview was challenged—the museum serves an essential education on the American War (as they obviously call it) and its lasting impacts on the country. The museum paints the Americans in a not-so-flattering light, and we saw the “improved” version, which was adjusted in an effort to appease the US and encourage them to remove trade sanctions which crippled Vietnam’s economy in 90s.
Tourism is a massive part of Vietnam’s economy, reaching an estimated 33 billion USD in 2019 with over 18 million visitors recorded. In spite of the obvious impact of COVID-19 on travel, Vietnam has been heralded as an economic success in 2020, weathering the pandemic with low cases and substantial economic growth.
With tourism in mind, here are my steals, deals, and splurges for your next trip to Vietnam.
STEAL: Moon Hotel & Apartment
A private double room, with a private bathroom, plus a living area… for $45 CAD per night. And that’s still triple what you need to spend on accommodations in Danang.
DEAL: Hyatt Regency Danang Resort and Spa
If you want a little beach luxury without a huge splurge, check out Danang’s Hyatt Regency. Vietnam is so affordable for North American visitors—you can get a serene, modern king room, with an ocean view, for only $150 CAD. This five-star beach resort has a gorgeous beachfront patio, a premium spa, and is walking distance to both the beach and Danang’s vibrant food scene.
More into a splurge? Wait until you hear about the Intercontinental.
SPLURGE: Intercontinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort
This resort, “where myth meets luxury”, is a five-star, four-level resort, nestled into the mountainside and suspended above the South China Sea. Each level represents one of four characteristics: Heaven, Sky, Earth, and Sea. The levels are connected by a funicular train which transports guests to their chosen destinations.
What drew me to the resort (ahem, not to stay, just to visit) was the restaurant, Citron, which features pod-like dining booths that extend beyond the edge of the building—creating a balcony effect that also offers privacy from other diners (before social distancing was cool). But the resort as a whole is a dream. Restaurants, pools, spas, and of course, the beach.
It’s the ideal combination for a luxury beach getaway—elevated views and a private beach—with no trek in between.
STEAL: Bia hoi
What draws many travellers to Southeast Asia is the affordability, so the steals are real. I travelled to Vietnam in 2013, so it’s inevitable that prices have gone up since then, but anywhere I can get a beer on the street for less than 50 cents is good value for me!
While French colonists introduced beer to Vietnam in the 1800s (as well as the baguettes used in banh mi), bia hoi (fresh beer) is now a mainstay, both for locals and for tourists.
But bia hoi isn’t about the beer (though of course, that’s an essential part of the experience). The fun is sitting down in a tiny plastic chair on a busy street and watching the city go by. Ideally, you’ll have your bia hoi not on a backpacker’s street, but somewhere where the locals mingle with the travellers. Think of it as a happy hour where you can rub shoulders with the community.
DEAL: The famous Banh Mi Phuong
A favourite of Anthony Bourdain, Madam Phuong’s banh mi stand is considered the best in the world. A perfectly crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside baguette, packed with sauce and herbs and your choice of filling (meat, veggies, or egg) and topped with pickled carrots and daikon. Grab a vietnamese coffee too, while you’re at it!
SPLURGE: A set menu at Bale Well
In my experience, it’s extremely difficult to splurge on food in Vietnam, and while we did enjoy a few meals that veered towards North American prices, they didn’t stand out to me. What stood out was the street food.
So my splurge is Bale Well’s all-you-can-eat set menu, which costs about $7 CAD (plus beer, which is essential). This alleyway patio restaurant is a local haunt, and it’s a bit off the beaten track—you need to know to go. Luckily, our friend had already scoped out all the best food in the city, so we met her there on her lunch break on our first day. Since it’s a set menu, as soon as you sit down, food appears on your table. Perfect when you’re starving from a day of travel!
The menu includes nem nương (grilled pork satay), bánh xèo (rice pancakes that you roll yourself with herbs, meat, and sauce, and Hội An’s specialty dish), and bánh cuốn (spring rolls). You eat until you’re happy, drink until you’re really happy, and walk away stuffed.
STEAL: Cooking class with Gioan Restaurant
As food lovers, we knew we had to do a cooking class on our visit. Our friend, living in Vietnam and hosting lots of visitors, had established Gioan Restaurant was the best in Hội An, so off we went!
The food was exceptional—we cooked pho, cao lau (which is a noodle dish), a whole fish in a banana leaf, and of course, bánh xèo, and yes, we ate it all.
But the fun was in the experience. Amid a sweltering level of heat (and with fans pointed directly at us while we worked), we laughed throughout the class. Vina was an absolute star—an expert chef, thoughtful storyteller, and comedic genius. Fifteen minutes into the private lesson, we each had been assigned a nickname: Stirring Girl, Soup Girl, and Beef Girl. She would bellow the nicknames and guide us kindly but assertively.
And yes, the nicknames stuck! Years later, my sister still references Beef Girl when talking about my friend.
DEAL: A multi-day trek in Sapa
One of my biggest regrets from my trip to Vietnam is that I didn’t visit Sapa, a small northwestern town that overlooks terraced rice fields. People usually visit to hike the Phang Xi Pang peak. I wasn’t a hiker then like I am now, so I opted out. Today, I’d love to go.
My suggested tour group, Sapa Sisters, is a social enterprise and the only Hmong trekking group run entirely by women. Their website outlines all the ways they’re providing fair working wages and benefits to their workers, including health insurance and parental leave.
Sapa Sisters’ services page features personalized tours based on your interests and availability where their team of guides will coordinate homestays, cooking classes, and market tours along the way. Plus, it’s kid-friendly! A three-day, two-night trek costs around $200 CAD, including your accommodations and meals.
SPLURGE: A chartered yacht tour of Hạ Long Bay
Our overnight boat cruise of UNESCO Heritage Site Hạ Long Bay was a lovely experience, including kayaking into caves, cooking delicious on-board meals, and relaxing on the boat deck. But if I were to splurge on something… it’d be a luxury experience. As someone who gets carsick, the bus ride from Hanoi, while manageable, was not my favourite experience of the trip.
With Hạ Long Yacht Tours, you skip the drive and travel from Hanoi to Hạ Long Bay via helicopter. This combination will cost around $2100 CAD for a one-day tour, including hotel pickup, a private four-hour cruise where you can explore the bay, lunch and snacks, and of course, helicopter transportation both ways.