I wanted to write about my trip to SE Asia in a way that would be more helpful to anyone who wanted to go there as well. But because I also wanted to share some of the hilarity that ensued whilst we were traveling, and without making these posts even more obnoxiously long, I decided to split my vacation posts up into two. The first will be the helpful, more direct, ‘beginners guides for beginners’ and the others will be more like story time. I promise they will be good, juicy stories!
So this is the start of my new series called ‘A beginners guide for beginners’. I thought that I could offer some insight into what to do and what not to do when traveling in these countries. However, I do not fancy myself an expert so that is why these guides are for a beginner by a beginner. I figure, if you are a wanderer like me some tips from a like minded roamer will be just what the doctor ordered. And with that! Onward to Vietnam!
Some quick and dirty tips for places to go and those you can skip:
Cities/places to visit:
Ha Long Bay
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Cities you can skip:
Nha Trang (Unless you really want a beach)
1.) Hanoi – The Capital
Don’t miss the: Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hoàn Kiếm Lake (also called the West Lake, but just look for the big lake in the middle of the city. It is kinda hard to miss.), and Hỏa Lò Prison.
Try the: 24 hour food street, Vietnamese meats and local Bia hơi.
Look For: The evidence of communism like traffic stops and curfews (albeit loosely enforced ones), and the massive amounts of motorbikes. No seriously… look for them so you don’t die crossing the road in your own private human Frogger game from Hell.
2.) Ha Long Bay – Waterworld come to life
You can get to it easiest from Hanoi, although it is still a three hour drive. Only do the one day tour of Ha Long Bay. From mine and others experiences, the two day just isn’t worth it.
3.) Hội An – A Cultural Experience
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to this city for more than an hour of stress-fully trying to get new bus tickets to make it down to Nha Trang by the next day after we got kicked off our bus (see the transportation section below). However, I have heard and read great things about it and I would have really liked to have been able to actually visit it. It is supposed to be a very well preserved ancient city and a nice place for a cultural and historical visit.
4.) Saigon – Modern Vietnam
Don’t miss the: Cu Chi Tunnels (about a two hour journey outside of the city) and War Remnants Museum.
Try the: ‘drinking street’ called Pham Ngu Lao Street and this small Greek restaurant called Zeus Greek Souvlaki on that same street. I know, I know when in Vietnam you should eat Vietnamese food, but the Greek food here was really good and the fresh milk was phenomenal.
Look for: the differences between the North and the South of Vietnam. The lack of hammer & sickles in the South is pretty clear.
Now for a more in depth look:
- Most countries need a visa for Vietnam. United States citizens definitely need one, but they aren’t terribly hard to get. After a quick Google search we found a reputable travel agency that will give you an approval/invitation letter (for about a $15/person fee, of course) that will enable you to get your visa when you arrive. Don’t buy your visa online. A man in line ahead of us at the Hanoi airport got upset because he paid $90 for an ‘online visa’, but still had to pay the $45 for the visa on arrival. That is a scam, you should only pay for the actual visa when you arrive in Vietnam. You also need passport sized photos for the visa. You can bring them with you and it will be easier, but if you simply cannot get pictures anywhere they will take them for you at the airport. I don’t think they are entirely pleased to do this, and they may charge you more, but if worse comes to worst you can get by without them.
- Vietnam uses the Vietnamese Dong, but at the airport they will accept US Dollars for the visa. The Vietnamese Dong is about 20,000VND = $1. I didn’t have any problems using my Chinese bank card with Union Pay in Vietnam, and most ATMs accepted VISA, Mastercard and a whole slew of other cards. However, you should take some cash with you just in case. There are no shortage of banks and exchange places in most cities, but asking your hostel or hotel where they normally send people might be your best bet.
- Haggle. Nearly anyplace you go in Vietnam, or all of SE Asia for that matter, you can haggle for better prices. The shopkeepers expect you to. Which is why the first prices they give you are usually so high (also because they know they will get some people who wont haggle and they get loads more money). I love haggling with shop keepers because they are probably the most fun locals you will encounter. If you can have a good laugh and mess with them they will mess right back. The key is to know how much you will pay before you start. That way you can ‘walk away’ if the price doesn’t fit. Nine times out of ten when you ‘walk away’ they will bring down the price again. You can haggle with some food venders too. When we were in Hanoi, we bought some doughnuts from the ‘doughnuts ladies’ walking around everywhere with basket full of small doughnuts which were kinda like Tim Hortan’s TimBits, but not quite as good. Definitely try some of the doughnuts though, and definitely haggle. The first price our doughnut lady gave us was VD150,000. That is about $7.50! Ha! Doubt it, doughnut lady! I could buy a box of Krispy Kremes for half that in the states and get more in it as well! Probably also clog a few more arteries, but damn would it be delicious! What I seriously wouldn’t give for just one Krispy Kreme here in China… Doughnut lady! Where are you when I need you!
As in most big cities the Hanoi airport is fairly far away from the center of the city. There is a shuttle bus that takes you into town from the airport, but it doesn’t run at all hours. If you arrive very early or very late I would advise having your hostel or hotel pick you up. You are less likely to get scammed that way. Our hostel picked us up at midnight for about $15.
Hanoi is a fairly small city and it is pretty easy to get to many of the tourist destinations on foot. Start your day off early with a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and prepare yourself to leave most of your belongings at the beginning of your long, heavily guarded walk to the actual building where Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body waits for Prince Charming to wake him with true loves kiss. Sorry, that was Snow White. He is just in a similar glass coffin/sarcophagus as she was which I was entirely not expecting. I would have been more surprised if I wasn’t so terrified that the half dozen guards with bayonets would decide they disliked the position of my hands (i’m not kidding here) and run me through. But in all seriousness, it is a really cool place to visit and I definitely recommend it. Admission is free, but you need to get there early because it is only open 8am – 11am Tuesday – Thursday and Saturday & Sunday, also closed during the months of October & November.
After the mausoleum you can skip the One-Pillar Pagoda. It is about 20 feet tall, and pretty unimpressive.
Go instead to the Temple of Literature. It is 20,000 VND to get it (so one dollar) and it is a pretty neat temple.
Stop at one of the many coffee shops for a cup of sweet coffee and Vietnamese hospitality, and then continue to the Hỏa Lò Prison. This was the “Hanoi Hilton” prison where John McCain was held during the Vietnam War. I’m not even a big war history buff, but that is pretty damn interesting. It is also 20,000 VND to get into the prison, and it is a dollar well spent. It is pretty sobering to learn how the American prisoners were treated compared to the Vietnamese prisoners. You think i’m about to say that the Americans were treated horribly, but it is really the other way around. If you are to believe everything you see and hear at the prison (which these things should always be taken with a grain of salt) then the Americans had a walk in the park compared to the terrible treatment of the Vietnamese prisoners.
As you leave the prison, notice the “barbed wire” (read: shards of broken glass stuck into the concrete top of the high outside walls) that they have surrounding the prison and head to the center of the city and the Hoàn Kiếm Lake.
After you have seen all you can of Hanoi, book a (one day) tour with your hostel or hotel for Ha Long Bay. There are more travel agencies dotting the streets in Hanoi then Starbucks in America, but you might have a hard time knowing which ones are totally legitimate. You can do a two day sort of booze cruise around Ha Long Bay, but I really, really would just do the one day. Unless you are 100% positive that you will be on the right cruise. Also, be aware that the cruise boats charge you fairly heavily for bringing aboard your own alcohol, and like on any cruise, buying alcohol on the boat is expensive. We booked a two day tour with our hostel and instead of being aboard the ship with all the other people from our hostel (the one we were told we would be on), we were booked with a different cruise company (of this fact we had no knowledge) and ended up being the two youngest people on the boat by, oh .. round about 30 years. When we complained to our hostel about this mix-up when we returned to Hanoi, their English was surprisingly suddenly much worse than it had been just a minute before, and we ended up getting no where after an hour of trying. Doesn’t matter than when we went to board the buses to take us to Ha Long Bay we asked the hostel straight-up if we would be on the same boat as the others in the hostel and they said yes. Can you tell i’m still annoyed about this? We weren’t the only ones to have a problem like this either. I have heard that the right cruises can be awesome, but bottom line just make sure you are actually getting on a good one.
Like I said before, I was only in Hoi An for a hot second. I can’t give any experienced information on this city, but I would still count it as a place you should visit. You can get to Hoi An by bus from most of the major cities like Hanoi or Hue (see the transportation section below) or get there from Da Nang about an hour away. If you want to have clothes tailored or specially made, i’m told this is the place to do it. I’m sorry that say that I don’t have more to say about Hoi An, but this city will have to wait until I can return to Vietnam for visit #2.
Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City:
This city is not only bigger than Hanoi, but it has a much different feel to it; a different energy. This may be due to the definite decrease of visible communism in the south, or the youthful feeling of the city itself. There are two pretty significant sights to see in Saigon, both pertaining to the Vietnam War. The first is the War Remnants Museum. From our hostel in the main toursity area of Saigon we were able to walk to the museum in less than half an hour. The admission fee is 15,000 VND, and the guilt is free! I braced myself for what I knew was going to be a less than pleasant walk through the museum, and I was still not ready for it. That being said, if I could go back and do it over again, I would. There is no sense hiding from what happened, even if that thing was gruesome and horrible. The walk back to our hostel from the museum was one that was made in silence. The war museum, with its Agent Orange room and grisly photographs, will do that to you. It is sad and sobering, but worth a visit.
I would use your hostel or hotel to book a tour/transportation to the Cu Chi Tunnels and go in the afternoon, perhaps after your visit to the museum. We paid 110,000 VND per person ($5.50) for transportation to the tunnels and back and a guided tour. The afternoons trips were 10,000 VND more expensive than the morning tours (ouch 50 cents!), but it is less crowded then. That price didn’t include the admission into the tunnels which was 90,000 VND. The tour will probably stop at a little rest area/gift shop/craft workshop run by Project Agent Orange. This is not uncommon at all, in fact every tour I went on in Vietnam that included transportation stopped at something similar. If you can stomach the oppressive and gut clenching pressure of being enclosed all around you by walls of stone (homey!) then go down into the tunnels when your come it it on your tour. You don’t have to crawl all the way, there are exits about every 20 feet or so, but just going down there for a few minutes gives you a terrible insight into what it had to have been like for the Vietnamese soldiers who lived down there for months.
If you are American prepare yourself for the video you watch at the end of the tour. The first few sentences involved something along the lines of “those bloody American pigs… etc. etc.”. It isn’t an easy film to watch, but it was also clearly made right after or during the war and you can’t say that there weren’t something terrible things going around America about the Vietnamese at that time.
When you arrive back in Saigon in the evening, head to the night market to get whatever trinkets you desire, but don’t leave without dinner. The little outside restaurants that set up all along the side of the market are fairly inexpensive, but delicious. We had a veritable feast before heading to Pham Ngu Lao, the “drinking street”, for some much needed beers.
Skip the bars on this street in favor of a more unique drinking experience. Several guesthouses/shops on this road will set out massive amounts of plastic kiddie chairs and tables on the sides of the street when the sun goes down. Here they serve cheap beers, like 12,000 VND cheap, and you are forced to make new friends when they continue to add more chairs into the street to accommodate more people. It is hectic, crowded and absolutely wonderful.
Where to Stay:
I will always stay in hostels if I can. Of course, I say this now because I’m poor and like to socialize. Maybe in a few years i’ll not want to sleep in a dorm full of fun loving party people…. doubtful but maybe. I love hostels so much because they do everything they can to make you socialize and meet new people!
When I look for hostels to stay in I always use http://www.hostelworld.com or http://www.hostelbookers.com. No, neither of these websites paid me to advertise for them. I just really like using them! I have found all of my hostels through them and I have never (well almost never) stayed in a bad one. The key things to look out for on these websites is:
1.) Location – nothing is worse then finding a cheap hostel only to find out when you arrive that is it out in the middle of nowhere.
2.) Price (duh) – especially in SE Asia if you are paying more than $15 a night (and that is on the very high end) for a hostel room you might as well just pick up a pile of bills and burn it.
3.) Facilities – What do they offer? If you don’t want to bother packing a towel make sure the hostels you are booking come with a towel. Most do, but some you have to pay for.
4.) Look at the reviews, but take them with a grain of salt. I always check the reviews before I book because that is where you find the best information about the hostel. Is the breakfast they offer good? Will the owner talk your ear off? Does it not really offer the things it says it does? However, not everyone’s standards will be the same. I have been in some hostels where one or two people commented that is was filthy and when I stayed It was spotless. Even so, checking the comments is the best way to find out information about the hostel they might not have put on the information page.
Where I Stayed:
Hanoi – Central Backpackers II
I wanted to give this hostel a good review because it was clean, the breakfast was good (an egg, bread and a banana) and you gain a lot of points with me when you offer free beer. What can I say? I’m easy to please! But it was here that we booked the tour for Ha Long Bay that turned out so horribly. It was also through this hostel that we booked open bus tickets for our journey down through Vietnam which also turned out to be not so great (see the transportation section below). When both of the things I purchase from you go right to hell it tends to leave a sour taste in my mouth. But i’ll be fair and say that there really wasn’t anything wrong with the hostel itself, they just need to either hire new workers at the front desk or educate their staff better on what they are selling.
Nha Trang – Mojzo Inn
I know I said that you can skip this city unless you wanted a beach, but this hostel was the best hostel I have ever stayed in so it warranted a mention. This hostel was a 3 minute walk to the beach and less to most of the bars in the touristy area of Nha Trang. It was clean, the rooms were pretty standard dorms and there was a little common room downstairs. The thing that made this hostel so amazing was the staff. The women working the front desk may or may not be angels. I’m leaning towards may. No joke. They learned and remembered every single persons name, and helped you sincerely with anything you needed. They even left a note on my friends pillow reminding us what time our train left the next day. When we went downstairs to check out, they had an alarm set for us in case we didn’t wake up in time. It was just amazing service going above and beyond. I had to fight the urge to ask one of them if she would come live with me to tell me nice things when I was sad.
Saigon – Khoi Hostel
This hostel had a good location and apparently has really good pancakes! Unfortunately, they weren’t making the pancakes the days we stayed there, but according to the reviews they are amazing. Other than that, it was clean and comfortable which is really all you need. I would stay there again, but it won’t ever stick out in my mind as the best hostel. Clearly that spot is taken by the Mojzo Inn. I miss you….
The “Reunification Express” train runs all the way through Vietnam connecting Hanoi to Saigon. There are also loads of charter bus companies that go from city to city.
Basically if money isn’t really an issue than I would go for the trains. They are more expensive, but much comfier than the sleeper buses and will have more convenient times. However them beings trains and all, you will arrive at the train station in each city and those can sometimes be as inconvenient as airports. But if money isn’t a concern than you can just hire taxis to take you wherever you need to go.
If you are on a budget, go with the buses like I did. They have less convenient times, but will usually drop you off right by the main tourist areas, plus they are much cheaper. We paid about $33 for an open bus ticket that would take us all the way from Hanoi to Saigon. If you need lots of sleep every night though like most normal humans (I have trained my body via college to accept the measly amounts of sleep it is given) then for goodness sake take the trains. Sleeper buses are definitely not for sleeping. The bed like chairs are comfortable enough, but it is the constant honking and slamming on the brakes that keeps you from sleeping. Also if you get the buses with upper and lower bed seats, take the lower ones! I made the mistake of climbing into an upper bunk and then realized my seat belt was tied around the arm of the chair so it wouldn’t buckle. I had to hold on for dear life more than once.
Lastly, and this is probably the most important, if you decide on the open bus tickets make sure you confirm your seat on the bus to every city. The open buses stop in multiple cities and are not direct, so if you are going to Nha Trang from Hue the bus still stops in Hoi An in between the two. This means you need to go to the bus company and tell them which bus or buses you are taking to which cities and what times or day. Your hostel or hotel should be able and willing to do this for you as well. This was not explained to us at all by our hostel (Central Backpackers II in Hanoi), and we ended up getting kicked off the bus in Hoi An because our seats were not reserved for the Hoi An to Nha Trang part of the journey. We had to buy another bus ticket to avoid getting stranded for the night and missing our reservations in Nha Trang. To say that I was angry would be a gross understatement. I only hope that our struggle helps you avoid the same mistake!
I hope that this guide helps you out on your travels. Like I said before, I am not an expert nor have I been to every city in Vietnam, but if you need some honest tips from one traveler to another you know where to come!
I feel like I’m in my classroom when I say this, but if you have any questions about anything feel free to ask away! Also, keep on the lookout for my next post about Vietnam. It will be less helpful, but will (probably) be funnier with more sarcasm and maybe a tad more swearing as I happily make fun of and depict our adventures through Vietnam!
Until next time explorers never forget:
Adventure is out there, so never stop exploring!