A first-timer’s guide to Vietnam

Taking advantage of VietJet’s brilliant direct fares from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh, Aleney de Winter swings in to soak up the colour, culture and charm of Vietnam.

Stepping out of the New World Saigon Hotel at sunrise, I’m expecting quiet. Instead – wham! I’m swept straight into the noisy, beating heart of Ho Chi Minh City – arteries of motorcycles and mopeds throbbing in every direction. Turns out that rush hour starts early here. Diving into the traffic, I cross the road into the lush green lungs of 23 September Park, where the sweeping symphony of beeping horns is suddenly drowned out by the sultry beat of a cha-cha. Wait, what? It’s 6am! Despite the small hour, a troupe of mature ballroom dancers are swinging their hips rhythmically in a rotunda.

“Honk, honk, cha, cha, cha.”

I move closer, delighted by the early morning scene.

“Honk, honk, cha, cha, cha.”

Waved closer by a smiling senior, in what I assume is an invitation to snap a photograph, I instead find myself being swung around the rotunda by my nimble-footed new friend. So much for a quiet stroll.

Nightlife in Saigon
Saigon as photographed by Aleney de Winter.

I laughingly swing back out into the park, still swaying to the beat, before coming to a stop at a busy thoroughfare heaving with traffic, and a row of food carts on wheels that double as the local drive-through. I’m on foot but grab myself a Vietnamese coffee from one and from another I order what may just be my new favourite breakfast, banh cuon. It’s fermented rice rolls filled with pork and wood ear mushrooms, served with fresh mint and Thai basil, cha lua (sausage), fresh chillies and nuoc chom (dressing). The whole meal comes in at a tiny $2. 

More bargains are in store at the Ben Thanh Market where I stock up on souvenirs. On my way back to the hotel I pop into Pho Hung for my second favourite breakfast, a steaming bowl of Pho Bo (beef noodle soup). Fragrant and soul-soothing, with its aromatic beef broth, soft and slippery rice noodles, crunchy bean sprouts and fresh herbs, my breakfast double header provides a perfect start to what turns out to be an extraordinary day as I explore this high-octane city.

old post office in Saigon
Saigon Central Post Office as photographed by Aleney de Winter.

The best sights in Saigon

I’ve flown in courtesy of new-to-Australia carrier, VietJet, a new-age airline offering top-notch service and fantastic deals between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Ho Chi Minh City (still commonly known as Saigon), and I’m excited to get out and about to explore.

At the rather grand Saigon Central Post Office, located in the downtown area of Ho Chi Minh City, near the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, I admire the blend of Gothic, Renaissance, and French colonial architectural styles. The landmark building was established in the late 19th century, during French colonial rule, by Gustave Eiffel, better known for a little landmark called the Eiffel Tower. Right next door is the delightful Nguyen Van Binh Book Street, a pretty pedestrian-only street dedicated to books and literature that proves a rabbit hole for this literary lover.

book street in vietnam
Nguyen Van Binh Book Street as photographed by Aleney de Winter.

Tears are shed at the War Remnants Museum, where artifacts and photographs documenting the Vietnam War provide a sombre education on the appalling consequences of conflict. The Cu Chi Tunnels, a series of extensive underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, tell a similar story. While a combination of claustrophobia and girth hinder my ability to crawl through the narrow tunnels that visitors are invited to explore, I still gain an insight into the resilience and resourcefulness of the Vietnamese fighters above ground. It’s a historically significant site that offers a unique opportunity to learn about the war and the incredible feats accomplished by those who lived and fought in the tunnels.

The beach and ocean viewed from above in danang
A beach in Danang as photographed by Aleney de Winter.

Things to do in Da Nang

It’s an effortless hop on a very comfortable VietJet flight to DaNang, the gateway to Central Vietnam. Strewn with seafood markets and swathes of golden sand beaches littered with traditional basket boats, this hip and thriving city is home to some of Vietnam’s best beachfront resorts.

I’m drawn to the Linh Ung Temple on Son Tra Peninsula, where a magnificent 67-metre-high statue of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, looks out over the sea and Da Nang city with gentle eyes. I’m happily cocooned in the serenity of this sacred site until a bolshy pig casually saunters by, snorting and snuffling me out of my quiet reverie.

boats on the river in danang
Fishing boats on the water in Danang as photographed by Aleney de Winter.

But it is in the Marble Mountains, a cluster of marble and limestone hills located just seven kilometres from the city, where Da Nang’s most intriguing treasures await. The mountains hide a secret network of caves, tunnels, towers and pagodas built by Mahayana Buddhists and the Nguyen Dynasty Kings. I climb up the stone stairs and along blossom-strewn paths to the stunning Huyen Khong cave where the collapsed ceiling invites in shafts of ethereal light and explore Tang Chon cave’s many sacred nooks and crannies dotted with marble statues. Then it’s off to hell, or Am Pho Cave, where a recreation of the Buddhist Underworld, where sinners are punished for their crimes and work themselves upward towards heaven, awaits. It’s delightfully macabre and I make a mental note to behave myself.

boats and caves in danang
Basket boats in Danang, and Huyen Khong cave, as photographed by Aleney de Winter.

When darkness falls, the city is radiant. With a belly full of cua rang me (crab sautéed with tamarind) and muc nhoi thit (Vietnamese stuffed calamari), I explore. Waterfront and rooftop bars are buzzing, and the city’s bridges light up in neon shades. The impressive Dragon Bridge, spanning the mighty Han River, is particularly dazzling. A rainbow of changing colours, the head of the bridge spews fire and water as we cruise close by, accompanied by traditional Vietnamese singers and cans of Huda beer.

Cultural experiences in Hoi An

It’s just an hour by car from the razzle-dazzle of Da Nang to the ancient city of Hoi An. Small and provincial, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town is awash with kaleidoscopic Chinese temples, butter-yellow French colonial houses entangled with hot pink bougainvillea, temples dripping with spirals of red incense, and timber shopfronts strung with colourful lanterns. Famous for its mannequin-stacked tailors and lantern-lit vessels on the Thu Bon River, it’s the town’s food that floats my boat.

boats on the river in Hoi An at night
Boats on the river in Hoi An as photographed by Aleney de Winter.

From icy coconut coffee (a beverage to which I form an addiction that requires intervention) and cau lau, a delightful dish of pork, greens and thick and chewy rice noodles that we see drying on large, shallow rattan baskets that line the footpaths to goi buoi (prawn and pomelo salad), I can’t get enough of the fresh and clean flavours. Don’t even get me started on the addictive banh bao banh vac (dumplings made from sticky translucent dough stuffed with ground pork, shrimp, and mushrooms) and, of course, the ubiquitous banh mi (a crispy baguette stuffed with pâte, meat and fresh herbs), the best of which, according to both Anthony Bourdain and myself, can be found at Hoi An’s Banh Mi Phuong.

colourful boast on the river in Hoi An
Hoi An as photographed by Aleney de Winter.

It’s a good job I have a strong stomach, as 15 minutes after devouring a crispy roll smothered with pork liver pâte, mayonnaise and packed with wads of grilled pork, I’m in Cam Thanh, spinning down a river through the Mau Coconut Forest in a basket boat. These traditional Vietnamese vessels, made from bamboo and coconut leaves, are known as thung chai and resemble oversized round picnic baskets. After rocking and rolling through a series of narrow canals, I reach open water and the surreal site of basket boat dancers attempting a synchronised performance of Gangnam Style, and a giant floating karaoke party.

old yellow building in Hoi An city
Old Town Hoi An as photographed by Aleney de Winter.

After the riotous ride, I hit the road for the ancient imperial city of Hue, where things take a calmer turn. The highlight of my visit is the Imperial Citadel, which served as the majestic residence of the Nguyen Dynasty’s royal family in Vietnam. This architectural marvel, built in the early 19th century, showcases a blend of traditional Vietnamese and French colonial influences. Its intricate palaces, shrines, temples and gardens encapsulate the rich history and cultural heritage of Vietnam’s monarchy.

Old buildings in Hue
Hue as photographed by Aleney de Winter.

Back in Ho Chi Minh City, after my short but sweet, salty and spicy adventures in Central Vietnam, I find myself dancing again, only this time it’s a two-minute solo waltz from my hotel to join the queue at Banh Mi Huynh Hoa (said to make the city’s best Banh Mi) for one last pork and pate-packed baguette before my flight home.

old buildings in Hue
Imperial Citadel in Hue as photographed by Aleney de Winter.

How to get to Vietnam

VietJet offers affordable non-stop flights between Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Ho Chi Minh City, with connecting flights to Da Nang and a network of airports across Asia.

Read more:
10 of the most unique experiences in Vietnam|
A guide to markets in Vietnam
The newest wellness retreat in Vietnam

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