While living in the big cities of Vietnam promises a wide range of exciting experiences, memories about your way of life abroad must hit from time to time. Being a local Vietnamese with several years of living and studying abroad, I sometimes find myself daydreaming about certain amenities and ways of life from my time abroad that my hometown of Ho Chi Minh City cannot offer.
Here are the top three things I have missed about my life outside of Vietnam, and how I’m constantly figuring out some options to fill in those cravings.
Fresh Air and Greenery
Fresh air in big cities like Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi is a true luxury. The overwhelming pace of urbanization pollutes the air with never-ending construction and hectic traffic from dawn to dusk. Unless you’re driving a car, it’s almost impossible to go out on the streets without a mask these days.
To make matters worse, lack of environmental considerations in urban planning adds to the suffocating air. The city landscape is too crowded with houses, shops and skyscrapers to provide enough ample space for trees and parks.
What to do?
While greenery is rare in the cities, escaping to nature is possible. For those based in Ho Chi Minh City, some popular ecological tourist spots include Nam Cat Tien Park in Dong Nai province or Tan Lap Floating Village in Long An Province. If you are ready to wander further, Da Lat or Bao Loc in Lam Dong province are 5-7 hours by bus or motorbike ride away. Located in the highlands of Vietnam, these places offer breathtaking natural landscapes, from beautiful valleys, waterfalls, pine forests to tea hills.
For those living in Hanoi, Ha Long Bay might be the first name that pops up in everyone’s mind. A 4-hour bus away from Hanoi, this UNESCO World Heritage promises to embrace you in natural wonders of towering limestone islands and emerald waters. The only minus point is possibly its increasingly touristy atmosphere. If you are keen on more local vibe, Tam Dao (only 2 hours by bus from Hanoi) offers a feast of magnificent cloud-capped mountains, bamboo forests and curving streams.
Another hidden gem in North Vietnam is Ninh Binh, whose natural beauty is drawing more attention recently for being featured in popular Vietnamese movies and music videos. Within Ninh Binh, Trang An Grottoes, Tam Coc (also known as “Ha Long Bay on land”) and Cuc Phuong National Park will put you in awe of their mesmerizing greenery.
Places For Outdoor Activities
Outdoor activities are definitely not (yet) a part of Vietnamese lifestyle, though interest among young urban residents is on the rise, along with the growth of gym culture. The closest outdoor exercises we can get are probably morning runners, badminton players or elderly people’s Tai Chi group exercises that crowd city parks at dawn.
What to do?
The best bet for outdoor adventures lies in tourist spots, mostly for the sake of attracting foreign (Western) visitors. In fact, most of the natural landscapes mentioned above will offer some forms of outdoor activities, from hiking, biking to rock climbing (e.g. Ta Nang trekking in Lam Dong, Cat Ba rock climbing in Ha Long Bay or Tam Dao hiking) . Check out our articles on the most adventurous things you can do in Vietnam for some suggestions, or more specifically, rocking climbing advice for avid climbers.
For cycling lovers, I would recommend checking out Phong Nha and especially if you are keen for a guide, go for “Cycling Phong Nha with Private Shi”. I know Shi personally and I promise you can’t find a more passionate and experienced biker, nor a more joyful companion than him in Vietnam!
For mountain enthusiasts, I would suggest Chua Chan mountain and Ba Den mountain – both located about 110 km away from HCMC – for anyone looking for casual hike over the weekend.
Alone Space And Time
In such a collective culture as Vietnam (and probably other Asian countries as well), alone time is usually underestimated, if not even socially stigmatized to some extent. While I was totally fine with grabbing a coffee with a book or dinner by myself back in the States, I felt a little bit weird doing so when I first came back to Saigon. Sometimes I would receive stares that seem hungry to ask “What’s wrong with you? Why go by yourself?”, or confusing eyes when I asked for a table for one. Though unspoken, the peer pressure to be with someone when going out is real! (One of my colleagues even skipped his lunch because he couldn’t find anyone to join him for lunch one time!).
What’s more, physical space does not seem to help much, as public libraries are completely underdeveloped in Vietnam, while a typical cafe or dining space will be too crowded with noise from loud music or group chattering to focus on ourselves.
What to do?
Thankfully, awareness about a serene, personal space (besides your own room) is picking up, such that more and more spaces are created based on this need – to simply chill, work or reflect by yourself. Head for some book cafes if you want a safe bet on solitude. Some recommendations from our article about the book cafe scene in Saigon include Read & Drink and Boa Books. I would also add FYI Book Cafe, Book Nest and Ciao Cafe.
Work cafe is another popular concept suited for loners. Nest by AIA and Work Cafe Saigon is a prime example. Check out our article about this favorite space here. WORK Saigon has another space on Dien Bien Phu street that’s worth checking out as well. Besides, Workshop Cafe is highly recommended among my friends, albeit a frequent complaint that its chairs can get a little uncomfortable. Another must-check speciality coffee space is Shin Coffee, which will charm your mind instantly with an overwhelming fragrance of roasted coffee and a serene ambiance.
And of course, last but not least, our very own Vietcetera Cafe is always there for your self-reflective moments!
How about you?
Does my list resonate with you to any extent? What else you might miss about life outside of Vietnam? Please comment with your thoughts and/or share recommendations about ways to fulfill any of your cravings right in Vietnam. We’d love to hear from you (and maybe even do a follow-up article featuring your own responses to us)!