Something about Asian culture sparks a curiosity in me. From the people to the history, to the food I want to learn as much as I can about these beautiful countries. I’ve been to lots of places in Europe, Central America, and the Caribbean, but Asia seemed so exotic and unattainable to me for some reason. It wasn’t until my husband, and I got into cooking different Asian cuisines and visiting the local Asian markets that I knew I HAD to get to the Far East. I would leave no dumpling unturned or bowl of noodles on the table. I’ll be honest; for me, this trip was all about the food. Most vacations for me are about hitting up the local restaurant scenes, but my two weeks in Vietnam and Thailand especially focused around how much pho, curry and pad thai I could consume while attempting to still fit into my jeans when I returned. I’m saving all of the details on food for a follow-up post! There is just too much culinary goodness happening in Thailand and Vietnam that it deserves a dedicated blog. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!
My husband and I booked this trip on a whim one Saturday morning last fall. I was messing around on the Delta app dreaming about far off destinations when I stumbled on reward travel destinations to South East Asia for February and March. This time of year is great to visit South East Asia because the weather is hot, sunny and dry. With the summer months come the rainy season so keep that in mind when planning your trip. I found our round-trip flights to Ho Chih Minh City, Vietnam for 70,000 miles. Use Hopper, Google Flights or Sky Scanner to track your flight prices before booking. That will be the most expensive part of your trip because once you’re there, everything is very affordable.
Although our round-trip flights were in and out of Vietnam, we decided if we were flying across the world, we wanted to try and hit one other country while we were over to make the most of our two weeks. We settled on Thailand as our second destination. Initially, we were going to try and squeeze in a few days in Cambodia but ultimately decided that would too much to fit into such a short amount of time.
Day 1: Ho Chih Minh City
We landed in Vietnam at 1:30 AM after roughly 24 hours of travel. We were exhausted, which was perfect because we were able to at least squeeze a few hours of uninterrupted sleep in when we got to our Air BNB. When booking lodging in Ho Chih Minh, I would recommend staying in district 1. I know that sounds like some Hunger Games shit, but I assure you it’s not. District 1 is the central hub for most of what you want to see within the city. There are not a ton of hotel chains with properties in Ho Chih Minh, so we opted for an Air BNB because it was affordable and we knew we wouldn’t be there much. If you’re not into Air BNBs, I’ve heard the Intercontinental is a great place to stay.
We were up really early thanks to jet lag, so we walked around the city a bit to grab a coffee and some breakfast. Vietnamese people love their coffee, and they like it strong! Get up early and grab a seat on the sidewalk at a local cafe for some great people watching. The chaos of the motorbikes, pedal bikes, cars, and pedestrians is genuinely fascinating. See Tips & Tricks for how to successfully cross the street. No really, it’s an art that is needed if you’re going to visit Vietnam.
For our first full day, we booked a 1/2 day tour of the Mekong river delta. It was great to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city and see the countryside. We visited local markets and got to explore the lush tributaries of the Mekong via traditional sampan boats. I’d highly recommend doing a Mekong Delta tour if you’ll be in the city for at least two days. You can book through Viator (a partner of Lonely Planet) for some great options in all prices ranges.
When we got back to the city, we were SWEATY! It is a jungle, so expect for a hot and steamy trip. We showered and then headed out for the evening to grab some food, drinks and visit Binh Tran Night Market. At night this market comes alive with food vendors and all of the usual market trinkets.
Day2: Travel to Hoi An
We were up early again because of jet lag, so we grabbed our morning coffee and then packed up our stuff, so we were ready for our flight at noon. After we packed, we grabbed a traditional Vietnamese breakfast: Pho. Typically westerners associate noodles with a dinner meal, but not in South East Asia. You can find places serving Pho at all hours of the day, including the early morning hours.
We headed to the airport which is a quick 15 ride from district 1. All of our Vietnam domestic travel was with Vietnam Airways. Vietnam Airways is a Delta sky team partner, and because I am a nervous flyer, it made me feel safer for some reason. We booked all of our flights ahead of time using, you guessed it, Google flights. Some of our one-way flights were $60. Not. Joking. The airports in Vietnam were also extremely nice and clean, and I was very impressed.
We landed in Da Nang about 1:15 PM. That’s another thing. Flights don’t tend to take off on schedule within these countries. If you have a connection, I’d plan for extra time to be safe. Worst case you grab a Tiger and some airport Pho. Da Nang is an up and coming beach town in central Vietnam that is trying to be the next Miami. Nearly every major hotel chain is building a resort there, from Le Meridien to the Sheraton, you can expect to hear more about Da Nang as the town expands.
Although Da Nang is booming, we opted to stay in the ancient town of Hoi An, and I am so glad we did. It was the most charming, magical city filled with French-inspired architecture and glowy light from the thousands of hanging lanterns. We got to our hotel and changed just in time for the golden sunset hour. When the sun starts to set, the colorful lanterns stand out against the river that runs through the city. If you’re spending a night in Hoi An, walk around and enjoy the magic of this ancient town. There are lots of cute little bars and restaurants with rooftop views that provide a unique vantage point of the famous lanterns.
Hoi An is one of the top spots in the world to have custom clothing made. There is a custom clothier on every street corner. A lot of the shops are the same, but there was one in particular that stood out to us as we were walking past during the evening hours called Phuong Na. They had samples of cute patterns and styles out front. I stopped to admire one pattern that almost looked like something Free People would sell and one of the ladies running the shop approached us. We asked some questions about the process and ultimately decided to each get something custom made. I am SO glad we did. We were skeptical of the quality and style at first, but they completely delivered and were some of the sweetest women I have ever met. We came back the next morning to pick up our stuff and loved it so much that we had more pieces made before we left that evening. Their shop is one of the few that is wholly family owned and operated. A lot of the others will charge you more, and all of their items are made in a factory setting vs. Phuong Na’s clothes are all handmade by her family. She was so appreciative of us supporting her family too! They can make anything you want. Completely. Custom. They have hundreds of patterns to choose from and tons of different styles. My husband even ended up getting two cashmere-wool blend custom suits for $150 TOTAL. Moral of the story? Go to this place. Buy as much as you can fit in your suitcase because the quality is fantastic and it’s so affordable. I even snagged their email address, and they said they ship worldwide and store all of our measurements on file. Do you know what I’m thinking? Wedding SZN.
Day 3: Da Nang & Hanoi
We got up early in the morning on a quest for one of the famous Banh Mi shops in Hoi An. The hotel had bikes that we were able to use to ride around the city. Biking is a great way to get around Hoi An, but be cautious of the motorbikes. From the ancient part of Hoi An, it’s about a 15-minute ride to the beach. It was a gorgeous ride through some of the rice fields once you get out of the central part of the city. Bike if you’re up for it! The views were worth it. Once you get to the beach, you have to pay $2 or so to park your bikes. People are patrolling so don’t skip on this because you don’t want to have your bikes taken. Once you get to the beach, there are lots of little bars and restaurants with lounge chairs. Most of them will let you sit for free if you order a drink – totally worth it. We hung out at the beach for a few hours and rode back into town to grab some lunch and pick up our clothes at Phuong Na.
I was really sad to leave Hoi An because we only had about 24 hours in this magical city. I’d love to go back and spend some more time here if I could. We had a late evening flight to Hanoi to get on our Halong Bay cruise the following day. Again, we flew Vietnam Airways.
We arrived in Hanoi late and got to our hotel in the old quarter. Immediately I noticed how much different this city was from Ho Chih Minh. It still had a lot of the hustle and bustle, but the buildings were a lot older and had much more character. Hanoi is another place that I’d like to spend more time when I go back. We barely got to see any part of the city since we arrived so late and got picked up so early the following morning. We stayed at La Siesta Trendy Hotel, and I could not recommend it more! I think we paid $63 per night for our room and it was one of the most beautiful hotels we stayed on our entire trip. The staff was incredibly attentive and friendly. They even upgraded us to a room with a beautiful view since we were only there for one night.
Day 4: Halong Bay River Cruise
One of the things I had read was a must see in Vietnam is visiting Halong Bay. Halong Bay has recently been named a UNESCO world heritage site, and it truly is a fantastic place to visit. The only right way to see the bay is to do a boat tour of some sort. We opted to do a one-night luxury cruise with Alisa Premier Cruises. It was amazing! I am not a fan of the big commercial type cruises that hit up all of the Carribean islands, but the Alisa cruise was my kind of cruise. It was a smaller cruise with 25 rooms which we loved. The cruise takes you to some cool spots in the bay that you can only get to by boat. Honestly, the best part was having happy hour on the top deck of the ship and taking in awe of the 2,000+ islands surrounding us. If you’re going to be in Hanoi book at least a day trip to see Halong Bay!
Day 5: Halong Bay & Flight to Bangkok
Halong Bay is about a three-hour drive from Hanoi, so plan accordingly with flights and drive times. Our flight was one of the last of the evening, so we didn’t have to worry about rushing back to the airport.
I have to address one thing that I noticed while in northern Vietnam. I hate even to bring this up because I LOVED this country and I don’t want to deter anyone from going there, but I had researched this before I left so I would be doing you an injustice if I didn’t educate you all on this too. Okay, just going to say it, they eat cat and dog in parts of Northern Vietnam. I honestly didn’t think we’d encounter it, and we didn’t really, but I saw signs that advertised both cat and dog at many restaurants along our drive to Halong Bay. We didn’t go in any of these places, but from what I had read before I left they know not to serve it to westerners. And you probably won’t encounter this, but I wanted to tell you just in case. Avoid any places or dishes that have “Thit Cho” (dog) or “Thit Meo” (cat). “Thit” is essentially their word for meat. For example, “Thit Bo” is beef. Catch my drift? Because we didn’t spend a lot of time in Hanoi, I don’t know if there are places that have these dishes in the city that you’d want to avoid. I noticed this mainly while driving from Hanoi to Halong Bay in some of the smaller towns that you probably won’t find yourself visiting. I’d write down those two phrases just in case if you’re planning to visit northern Vietnam. It’s not nearly as common in the south of Vietnam.
Sorry for that awful side note. Switching back to our itinerary while I squeeze my cat so tight which has been sitting on my lap for most of this blog post. After getting back to Hanoi, we dropped our stuff at the hotel we stayed at the previous night and explored the city for a few hours. I wish we had more time to explore here! We grabbed drinks and traditional Vietnamese egg coffee at the cutest little cafe! I know what you’re thinking, “I don’t want scrambled eggs in my coffee.” Trust me; you want egg in your coffee. They use the egg white to create a frothy, creamy texture. Think latte without the milk, or one of those fancy craft cocktails with egg white in it that you probably thought would be gross, but you love it.
Our time in Vietnam went by so quickly! It was a bittersweet feeling to have a new country full of adventure in front of us, but I fell in love with Vietnam, and I was sad to be leaving it behind. The people in Vietnam were some of the warmest and most welcoming people that I’ve ever met. They are genuinely thrilled to welcome tourists into their country and show them what Vietnam is all about. I’m not going to lie, I was a little nervous about visiting Vietnam as an American due to all of the sad history between the two nations., but my experience could not have been more positive. Both countries have a new generation that is living in the present and looking forward to the future, not into the past and the mistakes of those who came before us. Vietnam is rich with culture, and endless experiences are waiting for those who visit.
We landed late in Bangkok, but our drive to our hotel was fascinating to see the stark difference from the big cities in Vietnam. Unlike Vietnam, Thailand has been welcoming tourists from all over the world for quite a while. Bangkok is situated on the river, and modern skyscrapers provide the feeling like you’re in NYC. But then the sun comes up and with it comes the intense heat of the jungle and a Tuk Tuk with its flashing lights zoom by, and you’re reminded that this is not New York.
Bangkok is massive, and there is so much to see and do. We stayed at the brand new Marriott in the Surawongese neighborhood, which borders the more residential area but still provides easy access to everything you’ll want to see and do. This Marriott property was STUNNING. It was one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever stayed seen. The rooms were massive and modern, and it has the best rooftop pool on the 32nd floor.
Day 6: Elephant Haven Thailand
If you’re planning a trip to Thailand, the chances are that you’ve seen something related to elephant tourism. Many places still offer trekking programs. That means that you can ride the elephants and they often have the elephants put on a show for the tourists. I encourage everyone to interact with wildlife and nature while visiting a place, but please don’t support any companies that allow trekking with the elephants. Thankfully, there is a lot more awareness today about this, but still, I see people riding elephants.
Elephant Haven Thailand, three hours outside of Bangkok, offers an amazing full day program interacting with these magical creatures. This particular location used to provide elephant trekking and shows and I appreciated their honesty about their past and taking ownership for a change. They joked that they were a retirement facility for the elephants.
When we first arrived, seven elephants greeted us and were anxiously awaiting our arrival because that meant feeding time! If you read my previous post, then you know I saw lots of elephants in Africa, but this was a completely different experience. We were so close to these gentle giants and to be able to look into their eyes, and pet them and feed them was an incredible feeling. They have such big personalities that were shining through because they are free to be themselves, not perform for tourists. One of the elephants was very food driven, and there was a stalk of bananas that someone left unattended. Next thing you know, she’s climbing over the fence to grab the bananas with her trunk. She grabbed the stalk and then slowly stepped back to her place behind the small wooden fence. It was so cute!
After they briefed us on the safety of the elephants and the history of the sanctuary, we made breakfast for our elephant friends. We chopped up watermelon and made rice protein balls with banana, rice, and rice flour. You have to feed them the rice balls first because they are their source of protein, if you start with the melon they won’t eat the rice – sounds just like a two-year-old. We fed them their breakfast and then went on a walk with them through the jungle. It’s hard to describe in words the feeling you have walking next to these majestic creatures. After we spent some time in the forest, we headed back for a homemade Thai lunch. Then came the best part of the day – Swimming with the elephants!
I had no idea this was a part of the itinerary since my friend I was traveling with had booked it. It was a little scary at first since you’re in the water where you can barely touch next to these giant animals, but they plop down in the water and let you swim around them, splash them and even hang onto them for some support. The played in the water the way any normal toddler would. They splashed each other, went under water and rolled around.
After having such an authentic experience with the elephants where they are allowed to be free and just be elephants, I can’t imagine even doing a trekking tour. After all, why would you want to sit on an elephant when you can walk and swim beside them?
Day 7: Exploring Bangkok
We were exhausted because we had to get up early to meet the elephants the day before, but we forced ourselves out of bed to make it to Wat Arun (The Marble Temple) around sunrise. If you want to visit any of the temples, I would suggest getting up early to beat the crowds. Does it suck getting up before dawn on vacation? Yes. Is it worth to explore these masterpieces with little to no people? Absolutely.
In all honesty, we only visited the one temple because it was so hot in Bangkok and by the time we left Wat Arun the crowds were starting to funnel into the place. When you’re visiting any of the temples, be advised that you need to have long pants and covered shoulders. I wore a cropped jumpsuit and threw on a short sleeve wrap top while we were there. One of the other rules at the temples we learned the hard way. There is absolutely no PDA. I had done a bit of research about the temples before we went, but I didn’t run into anything that said no kissing, holding hands, etc. I should have known better, and I honestly felt awful for being ignorant, and the last thing I wanted was to be disrespectful in such a sacred place. Let me be clear that our PDA was a simple peck on the lips; we weren’t getting hot and heavy at the temple. For a second, I thought we were going to get arrested. That’s how serious this guy was. I immediately envisioned myself in a Thai prison. I don’t think I would do well. I was terrified. He came running over and was blowing his whistle at us and yelling at us in broken English. He made some snarky comments and made me show him all of the pictures on my camera I had taken that morning and delete any picture that had Andrew and I in it (we were holding hands in one photo, the others we weren’t even touching at all). I’m not sure if anyone else has experienced anything like this at the temples or palace, but I wanted to share my ignorance with others so that you don’t make the same mistake that I did.
After I calmed down from the fact I was going to spend the rest of our vacation in a Thai prison, I was ready for food and a chang (or 3). We walked down the backpacker street during the day, which brought with it an eerie calm that you knew wouldn’t last when everyone would awake from the previous evening’s antics. We found a cute little spot that served some fantastic curry and then headed back to our hotel. During the day in Bangkok, it is miserable with the heat. I felt terrible that we didn’t sightsee more, but we were exhausted from being on the move for seven days. We parked it at our hotel’s rooftop pool, and it was exactly what we needed.
For our last evening in Bangkok, we attempted to grab drinks at the famous rooftop bar at the Lebua Hotel. Sadly, we were not allowed because the boys were wearing shorts. It was 100 degrees, so they weren’t not going to wear shorts. We would not have had time to run back to our hotel to change and make it back by sunset, so we passed. I was bummed because I had read the views were some of the best in the city, but there is always next time. We ended up grabbing a quick drink at the Mandarin Oriental because at 6 PM all of the bars and restaurants were unable to serve alcohol for 24 hours. Thailand was holding its first general election in eight years, and the military banned alcohol sales so that it wouldn’t affect anyone’s voting decision. It was a bummer because as tourists we could not have voted anyway.
We had the most horrendous service at the Mandarin Oriental. I’m not sure if it was because we weren’t staying there, or we didn’t look the part of their clientele, but the staff treated us so poorly. When we first walked down to the bar that was situated on the river, there were only two tables taken, and the staff made this big deal about seating us and essentially would not let us sit at a table and placed us at the bar. Weird, but okay, fine. We proceeded to order nearly $150 worth of food and drinks only to be treated like we were a nuisance to be there. The Manager of the bar came over and was pouring our bottle of wine in our glasses that were mostly full, clearly a ploy to get us to leave as quickly as possible. We were not given a server, and the food runner was the one taking our drinks. All-in-all, the food, and drinks were fine, but not worth the poor service and bad attitudes we received. Unless you’re staying there, I’d recommend not visiting any of their bars.
We ended our last night with some amazing Thai food sans cocktails, which was a blessing in disguise because we had a 6 AM flight to Koh Tao the next morning.
Day 8 & 9: Koh Tao
I am going to summarize each island that we visited at the end of our trip because, to be honest, we did a lot of relaxing for the last few days. From Bangkok, we flew to Koh Samui and jumped on a ferry to Koh Tao. If you’re planning to visit Koh Tao or Koh Phangan, you will need to take a ferry. We booked through Seatran, and it was perfect because they picked us up from the airport for an extra $4 per person. The ferry terminal is about 10 minutes from the airport which is nice because there is either an 8 AM ferry or a 1 PM. Our flight landed in Koh Samui at 7 AM, and I was nervous we’d miss the 8 AM ferry, but everything was so close that we had plenty of time.
When we arrived in Koh Tao, we were picked up by via a shuttle from our villa property. I found most of our hotels (aside from the Marriott properties) on Agoda. This was one of the best places I’ve ever stayed! Koh Tao is a tiny island at about eight square miles total and its very hilly. Villas del Sol is situated in a cove off of Shark Bay. The views of the beach below were some of the best of the entire trip. We had a two bedroom, two bath villa with a private pool for $372 per night. Can’t beat that. Villas del Sol offers a quick walk down to the beach, but it’s hilly so be prepared, and there is a fantastic restaurant up the road that had fresh seafood and amazing Thai cuisine. We felt like we had a private chef considering we were the only four people in the restaurant and we hand-picked the fish that the chef cooked for us.
Koh Tao, literally translating to “turtle island” in Thai, is a cute little island and everything is accessible and within about 10-15 minutes. What makes it so inviting is that there are no major hotel chains or resorts on the island. We went into town both nights for dinner. It’s a younger crowd that likes to party, but not as rowdy as Koh Phangan from what I’ve heard. It’s a huge diving spot if you’re certified. I’d also recommend taking a boat tour to the three islands if you’re going to be there for a few days.
Day 10 – 13: Koh Samui
We took the ferry back to Koh Samui to finish out the last leg of our trip. Koh Samui is much more developed than Koh Tao. Nearly every major hotel chain has a property here, but the island is still very accessible, and you don’t have to feel like you’re trapped in the resort. Since most of our other lodging expenses were cheap, we decided to go big in Koh Samui. We stayed at Vana Belle Luxury Collection, and it was an incredible property. The theme of the property is centered around the idea of the enchanted Thai forest. With its simple and contemporary style, your eye is drawn to the natural beauty around you instead of an overly designed hotel room. The service was out of this world, and I was blown away by the food and drink prices at the resort. We expected to pay more to eat and drink at the pool, and while it was pricier than what you’d get outside in town, it was affordable. They even have a buy one get one deal for happy hour – win!
The last few days we were so beat and just focused on relaxing and making the most of the Thai beaches. There was an excellent little massage place right across from the resort so one morning we got massages for $12. No really, $12. I am not going to lie, I am boujie about massages so at first, it was a bit weird to me, but this place was so clean, and I had one of the best massages of my life at this place. My advice? Get as many massages as you can while you’re in Thailand!
For our last full day, we chartered a private boat to see the other side of the island. That sounds like it would be super pricey, but we paid $500 for 4 hours, and we had the entire boat to ourselves and were able to bring our beer. It was a refreshing change of pace to be out on the water and see some of the smaller islands in the area. We got off on this one island that had a tiny beach bar and one little house – it was so serene to be on this island that we had all to ourselves.
I was so sad that we had to leave the jungle paradise and head back home. Mostly because it was still snowing here, but also because I knew I would never find a bowl of pho or curry noodles that would compare back in Michigan. If you have a chance to visit either of these amazing countries, I hope I’ve convinced you to do it! I wish I could have spent more time in both places, but I know I’ll be back. There are more trips ahead and vacation days to use.
Vietnam Visa: If you saw my Instagram story or my #traveltiptuesday post then you may already know this, but you need a visa to visit Vietnam. Apply online HERE after booking your flights and at least 72 hours before your trip. We did the fast track upon arrival, and this helped a ton because we didn’t have to take a number and wait in line to be helped. It was a little extra up front but worth it in my opinion. If you will be leaving Vietnam and reentering at any point during your 30-day visa you need to select the option for multiple entries, that is where we went wrong. If you don’t do this, you may need an emergency visa (if it’s on the weekend), and that will cost you $210 per person.
Crossing the street in Vietnam: The traffic in the cities in Vietnam is unlike anything I’ve seen in my life. It is a lawless place when it comes to traffic rules and regulations. That can make crossing the street treacherous. My advice? You have to just go. If you waited for the road to be clear of all of the motorbikes you would be standing on the same street corner for two days. Despite the chaos, they are very aware drivers. After all, you can’t text on a motorbike (Okay, I may have seen one or two people texting while driving a scooter). Take the first step into the street and start walking. There will be scooters whizzing by you, but keep your eye on the other side.
Grab: In Asia, Uber owns the majority share of a ride-sharing service called Grab. Download the app and use it to get around the cities when going long distances. It works just like Uber and has excellent prices on fares. While you’re in Bangkok, you have to ride at least one tuk-tuk though. At night. With a beer. And all of the crazy lights flashing. It’s worth doing once in your life.
Eating at the Night Markets: Go to the places with a line. There is a reason all of the people are assembled in one spot. Also when eating at the street vendors, a good rule of thumb is only to eat cooked vegetables and try to stay away from meat if you can. Fresh vegetables have a higher likelihood of carrying bacteria that can make you sick.
Vaccinations: There are not a ton of vaccinations needed for these regions, but make sure you’re up to date on all of your necessary shots. There has been a measles outbreak in Thailand, not an epidemic, but still just something to be aware of. Make sure you’ve been vaccinated for MMR and tetanus. My husband and I also got typhoid fever and hepatitis A vaccines. These are food and water-borne illnesses and good ones to have if you are an adventurous eater! If you are in western Thailand or Northern Thailand for an extended period, you may need to take malaria pills. As always, visit CDC.gov to get the latest details for travel vaccinations