Viet Nam! The one country in South-East Asia really everybody seems to have an opinion about. After so many varying stories I was told, there was much to be excited about and still I was surprised. In the end I really didn’t know what to expect anymore (especially after having seen most other countries in the region (except for China and, well, the Philippines). But for the better!
Some claimed the locals were a lot less friendly and even quite grumpy towards foreigners (in comparison), others weren’t quite as condemning. Many said the food would be noticeably more expensive, others put their focus of complaint on the transport. The latter, however, would be much more comfortable and straight-forward than say, in Thailand or Myanmar. Also, is it perhaps worth booking hostel beds (and rooms) in advance?
Clearing up the Basics
Now, so what actually proved to be true? I’ll come straight to the point in a little bulletin list before getting into spicy details plus explaining my little 16-day itinerary from south to north.
- Yes, I also found the food substantially more expensive than in, say, Indonesia, Myanmar or mainland Thailand and even more so than in Malaysia.
- Buses are very straightforward and they are also quite comfortable (and relatively fast). Most buses (especially when traveling overnight) are sleepers. Just make sure you get a lower bunk bed. Not only is it a lot shakier up there, it’s probably also better for your phones. (Never before have I seen smartphones raining down in that high a frequency. Some didn’t survive.) Price-wise, buses are not considerably more or less expensive than anywhere else in SE-Asia (imho). For a sleeper from e.g. Da Lat (in Southern Vietnam) to Hoi An (in the centre) I paid 300,000 d (around €12).
- Accomodation is possibly the cheapest I’ve ever came across. Like, seriously cheap. If you’d pay more than, say, 120,000 Dong for a night in a hostel bed (about €4,80) that would already count as luxury for some. Rather expect to pay between 60,000 and 100,000 for a comfortable bed (between €2 and 4).
- Yes, I did make the acquaintance of quite some real nasty and almost heinous individuals and definitely more so than anywhere else in Asia (so far – maybe they shoot travelers on arrival in Papua New Guinea?). However, those unpleasant encounters almost always occurred in areas that were more or less spoiled by tourism. Still, some behaviour left me quite speechless. Even if there are language barriers, there should always be a way to make yourself understood in a peaceful way, even if only with gestures or just a little patience (something many Vietnamese seem to lack in general). Still, I met so many wonderful locals, no-one can claim that there wouldn’t usually be a smooth way out of things if one wanted to.
The local currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND) and €1 buys you approx. 26,000 Dong (d) and a bit, hence I roughly calculated: 100,000 are about €4. Differently put: Multiply the price in dong by 4 and you get the right amount in Eurocents, e.g. 7 (thousand) Dong (d) times 4 would be 28 cents (and so on).
The prices for transportation, food, etc. in the graphic above are given in Euro, but I exclusively paid in VND (the exchange rate for Euro or U.S. $ would be worse for you virtually all the time. It also (always) feels a bit awkward to see them use price tags given in dollars even when it comes to a bowl of noodles or a fruit juice. Didn’t they fight yankee capitalism to the blood still some mere decades ago…. ah, yes, I know – money rules the world and likely always will. 🤑😲🤮
The Visa Situation
The major reason (apart from time) for not getting into Vietnam already back in 2013 when cK and I were already on the Pancake Trail was the more expensive visa of (I can’t remember precisely now) some € 50 or so. All this has changed: Most Westerners can now stay in the country
- for less then 15 days without a visa (for free!)
- for up to one month (via e-visa, $ U.S. 25 (to be paid by arrival – if you pay in euro it’s also 25, but you’ll get some U.S. dollars back)
- for up to 3 months (via e-visa, $ U.S.)
So I arrived at Saigon Airport on the evening of December 20, paid for the 1 month visa (since I’d stay slightly longer than 2 weeks) and made my way to the city centre with bus nr. 109 for a mere 20,000 d. First thing I noticed about accomodation: You’re usually better off booking a bed in advance at most places – you’d actually pay more when just walking up to a place. Also, the desired hostel or guesthouse might quickly fill up. I never paid more than that very first night in Saigon, however: 110,000 d for a bed in a room shared with 5 other lads.
So what is it about the name? Well, the communist North won the war and ever since they marched into Saigon in 1975 they decided to rename the country’s largest city to honour their great leader Ho Chi Minh (who was already dead by then). It remains questionable if he liked a city to be named after him (he also explicitly wanted to be buried, but the communist leaders thought differently and today you can stare at his decaying body in a mausoleum in Hanoi (the capital), Lenin-style (I didn’t actually do that).
In various ways: Saigon is intense! – and I didn’t mind it, but found it quite sympathetic even. However, it probably didn’t hurt to have expected the worst right from the start (generally not being a huge fan of motorcycles). So I arranged myself right from the start and, in fact, found it quite amusing how busy everyone appears while utterly frantically (and recklessly) rushing through the alleys, honking around like there would be no tomorrow, coughing and spitting, but never really yelling (at least not on the street) and often enough transforming the foot path into an additional biking lane, too.
You should indeed always be prepared for the worst. Nothing ever happened to me, but I repeatedly heard stories of travelers having their cell phones snatched by some sneaky prick riding his bike on the foot path just when one would be checking directions. So keep your eyes open!
Having said so much: Most locals are not only honest, of course, they’re real fun to communicate (and sometimes even hang out) with. Walking along Tôn Dúc Tháng (a big alley at Saigon River) I got enthusiastically welcomed by a friendly “Good morning, Vietnam!”, reminiscent of the occasional war movie.
Places you shouldn’t miss in town:
- Saigon’s (hyped-up) version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road: Bui Vien Street, an alleged “walking street” filled with everything the casual traveler would crave for (funky street food, dodgy massage offers, commie style T-shirts and LOTS of bars), just below 23/9 Park – obviously, “walking street” does not mean that you aren’t sharing the experience with your fair share of honking bikes and cars
- the Museum of Fine Arts (feat. a fine selection of local art in three buildings
- the Museum of Ho-Chi-Minh City (with some sweet views over the skyline)
- the War Remnants Museum (being the biggest and most popular museum in town: touching photo exhibitions with lots of explanation on 3 floors plus a wide selection of tanks and airplanes just outside
- Taking some time out at Tao Dan Park and Le Van Tam Park
- the historic Saigon Central Post Office plus the Notre Dame Cathedral (just opposite)
- feeling like a proper tourist inside Ben Tanh Tourist Market (I at least had a real lovely fruit shake inside)
- relaxing at the Botanical Gardens to the north of the city
- getting lost in some back street and randomly talking to some kids or making conversation with curious locals
Two full days in vibrant, lively Saigon were enough for me, but the city has surely more to offer, especially if you feel like hitting the dance floor or get seriously wasted in some bar late at night – just take care of your cash, it easily starts growing legs (as Lonely Planet would phrase it).
Next on for me was Da Lat, a hill station being built by the French colonial rulers in the 19th century. By bus it’s some 7 hours up to the north, conveniently located in the much fresher South Central Vietnamese Highlands. It features an abundance of old French villas, surrounded by nature and a bunch of waterfalls. A very likeable place! I spent most of my time here wandering around and can highly recommend the following things:
- walking to the old Train Station, passing by the city square (feat. funky buildings) and then surrounding Xuan Huong Lake, either checking out the Flower Park in the north or enjoying the tranquility of the island just below
- visiting the so-called Crazy House, a fairytale-like gem designed by a famous Vietnamase architect named Đặng Việt Nga, who happens to be the daughter of some Communist official (which saved her long-time project from being attacked by the rather backward-oriented party dictatorship). You can also book a night in of the extraordinarily designed rooms here as the place also serves as a guesthouse, then having the whole fantastic construction (almost) all to yourself at sunset or sunrise
- enjoying street food and being interviewed by excited locals and Asian visitors alike at the Night Market (around the city centre)
I stayed at a place called An Hostel and Café and ended up sharing a bottle of sparkling wine with a fellow traveler called Kate at Christmas Eve, a wonderful companion (and congenial converser) – the only problem being that she would be heading south towards Saigon while I was on my way up. (However, quite some travelers wouldn’t be deterred from Vietnam’s rather straight-forward geographic shape and instead travel up and down as the winds would carry them – provided they had the time.)
I sadly had to leave Kate (plus another like-minded traveler) behind already the following day. The two of them, though, would eventually team up and spend New Year’s Eve together in the big city (after having been to the coastal town of Mui Ne that I would have liked to see if it wasn’t for the limited schedule).
Next on was a night bus to Hoi An in Central Vietnam and I opted to stay somewhere rather off-centre in a place called Beautiful Moon Villa/Sky House (the owner is called Sky). Hoi An is basically most traveler’s darling since the city is so very approachable and charming at the same time. What people come here for is the Old Town (listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) consisting of Chinese-style shophouses, offering everything from postcards and posters to food and clothes mingled with a dozen interesting temples, art galleries and tailor shops.
The already likeable atmosphere almost turns over-the-top kitschy by sunset when hundreds of multi-coloured Chinese lanterns are being lit up, various small boats start shifting romance-seeking tourists around, bumping into one another from one shore to the other. It’s quite the spectacle to watch really!
Just some 4 hours north of Hoi An (hence still very much in the country’s centre) lies the former imperial capital city Hue. While the tourist area just east of the city’s centre (across the so-called Perfume River) is not exactly appealing, it’s not a long way for escaping the tourist trap shops and restaurants (which feature ludicrous price ranges).
Vietnam’s last emperor Bao Dai, who abdicated when Ho Chi Minh rose to power, was reigning right from the former Imperial City (basically a citadel within a citadel that was incorporating a third citadel called The Purple Forbidden City) which has been heavily bombarded by the U.S. Americans during the war (that officially only ended in 1975 when the last Marines left the country). The reconstruction is far from being finished, but the place is still very much worth visit.
Shortly after arriving in Hue I got to know a Polish traveler from Gdansk (who was sitting in the same bus coming from Hoi An) – she told me about an abandoned water/amusement park that she heard about and wanted to visit. I was completely down by the time she mentioned the word “abandoned”, so we agreed to team up with another traveler and share a Grab (basically Asia’s Uber) to the place which was well-signed in the offline map app maps.me. We were eventually joined by just another curious adventurer called Shalom, a Mexican girl who I shared a dorm with in Hoi An’s Sky House.
So the four of us showed up at the old park entrance which was guarded by a dude in uniform who told us somewhat firmly that the park would be closed. After we were (sort of) pressing him for an “exception” he rather unexpectedly blinked at us, indicating to walk around the former entrance and try it from another side. We understood, backed off and found our way through some village lanes until approaching the first indicators of the old water park, overgrown statues and some sort of platform.
In the distance we saw some other people climbing along the abandoned stadium part and just when we were setting off to join them we noticed another uniformed dude on a motorbike coming for us instead. After some wild discussing we bribed the dude (paying some 10,000 Dong each), promised not to climb anything, “just taking photos” and off we went to the see the famous dragon statue and, some time later, the water slides and pools.
I later learned that the park allegedly closed down only in 2004 after being an economic disaster – the locals claimed that the whole thing was doomed to fail from the start as it was erected on top of an ancient grave yard. Then there was a series of lethal incidents during the construction work and, finally, one newspaper article reported that the area was, in fact, plagued by crocodiles (having escaped from the aquariums and now attacking the local population of water buffaloes). We were joking around about that, of course, but finding the aquarium tanks beneath the massive dragon statue dismantled certainly helped to arouse an appropriate ambience. We loved the place and I have no difficulty imagining it as a setting for a fun (trash) horror film.
That same day I was leaving Hue behind already and almost missed to get out of the bus when arriving in Ninh Binh, some 90 km south of Hanoi. First thing noticeable was how very much colder everything was that far up in the country’s north. I was still wearing short trousers, sandals and a wifebeater shirt when jumping into a metered taxi taking me to neighbouring Tam Coc (some 9 km away), often being referred to as Vietnam’s inland version of Halong Bay: vast limestone cliffs being surrounded by numerous rice paddies and delightful water ways, much more accessible and also much less touristic; I was keen.
That night it was raining heavily and I already feared for the worst, but the clouds were clearing up in the morning and after a lovely breakfast with my 2 room mates from Japan (Michita) and Israel (Martin, who arrived at the home stay just minutes before me), Michita and I decided to rent out bikes and explore the area. I was certainly not to be disappointed, especially not after having been on top of Mua Cave, that allows fascinating panorama views of the surrounding area (despite a rather smacking 100,000 d entrance fee).
You can also rent out a boat in Tam Coc and make your way to Trang An (and return), but the weather wasn’t inviting enough plus I felt that being on the limestones was a much more rewarding experience. At night it was drinking beers and playing chess with Martin before heading to bed and getting up early the following morning in order to catch the bus to the island of Cat Ba.
Cat Ba is situated just south of world-famous Halong Bay (some 170 km east of Hanoi), popular for its sheer endless amount of limestone/karst rocks popping out of the sea. Beautiful, I’m sure – but also overfilled with Chinese tourists and frantic locals trying to suck out ever dong of every traveler approaching (this is at least how I imagined it to be), so I was opting for the largest of the 1,969 islands instead, Cat Ba.
The plan was to meet up with a friend I got to know on a roadtrip through Southern Europe in 2015 and who now happened to travel through South-East Asia as well – then somehow squeeze in a visit to the rice fields of Sapa (close to the Chinese boarder) before spending my last day of this trip in the country’s capital. Obviously everything turned out just slightly different (just what I love about traveling, though).
The friend I was looking forward to meet made it to Cat Ba Island (together with her travel companions), but they felt like spending New Year’s at a more urban (and not quite so fresh) place, so they left Cat Ba Town before we were able to meet up. However, Shalom, the Mexican girl I got to know in Hoi An (viva la Pancake Trail!), meanwhile made it into town and stayed at my otherwise vacant hostel dorm.
Also, while exploring the remnants of Fort Cannon (including some abandoned lookout points and paths) I met a bunch of traveling Brits whose company was quite… refreshing). We all ended up dancing and sipping happy hour cocktails in some bar just on the town’s main road when 2019 kicked in. And that was it! May the new year bring even more unexpected twists and turns and – especially so – exciting and stimulating new input in the shape of inspiring human beings…
On New Year’s Day, Shalom and I were renting bicycles and exploring the actual treasures of the big island, passing by apparently abandoned (but beautiful) guest houses, lots of view points over inland limestone hills and caves (e.g. a place called Hospital Cave that was used as such during the war against the Americans).
On January 2nd we finally headed off to Hanoi and I scratched all plans of going further north: January simply isn’t the right time to see blooming rice fields in sunshine on multiple-day treks, so I opted for spending all my remaining time in the capital – and as mental as the people behave in traffic: it’s clearly been a worthwhile visit! I recommend doing (or seeing) the following when in town:
- exploring the Temple of Literature – the country’s first university (est. in 1076)
- the Hoa Lo Prison (nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by U.S. American POWs), built by the French around 1900 to imprison and execute Vietnamese freedom fighters in a brutal colonial regime, later used for keeping American soldiers – the photos shown have a twisted aftertaste of Commie propaganda and should be taken with a large dose of scepticism
- the area around Truc Bach Lake, especially the Tran Quoc Pagoda – there is well-sorted, but quite expensive English boom shop called Bookworm
- reading a book in the tranquility of Bay Mau Lake (south of the Old Quarter) or inside the (small, but sufficiently charming) Botanical Gardens
- discovering the backstreets around the B52 Lake, a pond in which a U.S. American B52 bomber was downed and is now slowly decaying (there is also a museum further south, named accordingly)
- enjoying colonial architecture and more museums east of the Opera House
- strolling around Hô Hoàn Kiêm, shooting time lapses of the Red Bridge and getting lost in the mad market frenzy between there and the Dong Xuan Market hall
I stayed in Hanoi for 3 days and nights and finally met my old roadtrip companion from 2015 – she and her friends were renting an Air B’n’B close to the opera and I spent one night there at a game night. Beer is cheap in Vietnam (compared to predominantly Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia), so we enjoyed our fair share. On my last full day in the country I got fully absorbed in the tourist market hole, making myself a present for some rather sweet 15 days in the shape of brandnew purple-coloured shoes. On January 5 I jumped on a shuttle bus to the airport and left for Kuala Lumpur (where I spent one whole night writing and editing). The day after I finally reunited with my good old travel companion cK in Sulawesi, two full weeks of island and jungle adventures ahead of us – but that’s another chapter.