My brother Alan Michael was a Vietnam vet, and although he passed in 1997 he had such horrific memories that he could not imagine ever going back. The agony of combat was not his pain, but the loss of his Thai/Vietnamese wife was. When Saigon fell he had to leave her behind, and the U.S. government would not allow her in but that is a long story for another time. The only woman he ever loved was gone, and the last time he saw her she was handing him a silver necklace with her name on it, Daeng, to give to his little sister. You see, my brother was 12 years older than me but we were very close. He was my hero in uniform, and I was his little baby sis. So when I decided to go to Vietnam it was for several reasons. To see where he had been and to meet the people he loved. Daeng was long lost to history, but her countrymen were there with open arms...or at least I hoped.
First stop Hanoi! I purposely chose northern Vietnam as my jumping off point because it holds the most allure for my adventurous soul, and it did not disappoint. I don't quite know what I was expecting, but I was fully prepared to say I was Canadian if anyone asked. Needless to say, that was not necessary. The people were indeed there with open arms, and that was perhaps the most shocking thing of all. This was a country we invaded, but they had long forgiven and forgotten. In fact, it was perhaps the most welcoming country I have ever been in, and I have been a lot of places!
So my first bit of advice to you is Do Not go on a tour to Vietnam if you can help it. Granted I like traveling on my own, but it is a country that is easy enough to navigate. For example, you could take an 18 hour train from Hanoi to Danang or you could fly for about $27! What you would like to experience is entirely up to you so both choices are there. If you are short of time definitely use Vietnam Airways as they do not charge for baggage.
There is so much to see and do in the north alone that I do not recommend trying to combine both the north and south in one trip unless you have at least a month. My best advice is just get out in the streets and wander, which brings me to crossing the street. I know, you live in New York or Chicago or Paris or Cairo or... You KNOW how to cross a street! Well, unless you have been to Vietnam, you do not. No one is going to stop for you but they will drive around you while honking. Just carefully take the leap of faith and slowly walk into the street (LOOKING of course) and you will see the traffic flow around you like a dense fog around San Francisco bay. Don't think of it as the Red Sea parting because that is a bit more like wishful thinking, but you will get to the other side safely. It is a delightful cacophony of chaos that you cannot fight so go with the flow.
Do not rent a car! Do use the Hop on Hop off buses to get the feel of the place. Do walk! Do use the taxis and rickshaws. It is an easy city to get around and you should not have any trouble navigating. Walk down the small streets and alleys and do not be afraid to get a little lost. Grab a bowl of noodles, pho, or other delicacy from a sidewalk cafe by grabbing a plastic stool and a pair of chopsticks. You will be glad you did. Beer, did I mention beer?! On average it is less than a dollar a glass. Yep, you read that right! Although I tried beer from each region and city I was in, my favorite was still Hanoi Beer. If you need to have an IPA you can get it but it won't be local and that kind of defeats the point. One of my favorite meals was hotpot in the Hanoi old quarter. Fun, inexpensive, and delicious!
Now, I mentioned that you should just get out and walk the streets because you never know what you may come across. My traveling companion and I were walking down the narrow railway through a Hanoi neighborhood when we were stopped by a group of people standing on the tracks. It was a culinary school and it was exam day so they asked if we would kindly be their judges. What a treat! Their creations were delicious, but more importantly we had a real experience with the people. Young Vietnamese kids and their instructors laughing and enjoying the afternoon with us. These are the kinds of experiences you do not get unless you jump in with both feet, and in Vietnam you will land safely.
So far, I think my brother is okay with my choice to go to Vietnam. Daeng is not there, but her essence is and that's what counts.
Pro tip: if you like to travel you should have a T-Mobile account because data and texting is free when you travel. This lets you have your GPS while traveling!!