As I finish up this blog post in Bali, it is bittersweet! On the one hand, we are excited to be visiting new countries, but on the other hand, we are sad to have left Vietnam. For anyone interested in Vietnam travel, what follows is an overview of our thoughts, opinions, and tips after having spent two months travelling through the country. [Nicole's notes are added in brackets throughout]
Vietnam Travel Route and Stops
Most tourists visiting Vietnam either head North to South, or South to North. We chose the former only because at the time it was slightly cheaper to get a flight into Hanoi vs. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). In hindsight, I would recommend the opposite, going South to North. Nicole and I both loved Saigon and, for anyone unaccustomed to travel in developing countries, Saigon featured by far the least amount of "culture shock" of anyplace we visited in Vietnam. It is the only place where we saw Starbucks, the Gap, etc. Moreover, most cities frequented by tourists are in the southern half of Vietnam, so the travel is definitely easier in that part of the county.
We found that spending two months in Vietnam was plenty of time to see the country. We saw everything we wanted to and were able to spend more than enough time at each travel stop. Nonetheless, if we return, we would like to visit Dalat, Phu Quoc, and the Mekong Delta which we did not see this time [Nicole's note: Don't forget Sapa and the Can Doa islands! We probably should just start planning our return trip now! :) ]. We would have had sufficient time to stop at these places had we wanted to, but we chose instead to travel at a more leisurely pace (which was also more cost effective because of less transportation costs). For a traveler looking to hit only the highlights, three weeks in Vietnam seems like sufficient time.
Below are Nicole's and I's specific thoughts on each place we visited.
- Hanoi -- We spent a few nights in Hanoi and that was enough. Nothing against Vietnam's largest northern city but it wasn't a highlight for us. Then again, having lived in NYC for the past seven years, I guess it takes a lot for a large city to impress us. The Old Quarter is the primary area to visit which we had fun doing for a day.
One travel tip is that Nicole and I found Hanoi's public bus system to be very efficient and easy to navigate. We downloaded an app to our phones with all of the bus routes and then could follow our progress en route using our phones' GPS so we knew where to get off.
[Nicole's Note: Hanoi wasn't all bad. We had some of the best pho soup of the trip and delicious egg coffee. Moreover, the Tay Ho neighborhood where we stayed had a decent lake-side walking path and a few fun restaurants]
- Halong Bay -- Vietnam's UNESCO World Heritage site in the north was definitely a highlight of our trip. Most everyone who visits Vietnam seems to take an overnight cruise through this area and, indeed, one of the reasons I think travelling south to north through Vietnam makes sense is that Halong Bay would make for an excellent finish to a trip.
The most popular Halong Bay cruise options are one or two night trips. We did a two night cruise and were happy we did just to have had some extra time to enjoy the scenery. But a one night cruise would still afford plenty of time to see the scenery and would cut down significantly on cost. [Nicole's Note: Make sure to research cruise boats fairly extensively. There seemed to be several rickety ships plying the Halong Bay waters that most people we know wouldn't want to be on. Our cruise was fantastic, but cost a bit than average. Also make sure to look at the cruise route, as well. Our ship (and some of the other nicer looking ones) were allowed to navigate less traveled waters, which made the whole experience that much more serene.]
- Phong Nha -- Most Vietnam travelers skip this small village in the Ka Bang-Phong Nha National Park. Nicole and I spent a week here and it was one of the gems of our trip. The Phong Nha village itself is a small, but rapidly growing, backpacker haven. We were happy that we stayed a short walk outside the village and would recommend that to others. I am sort of crusty and conservative, but the typical unkept backpacker in the village wearing his or her variation of elephant-print pajamas bottoms with a cutoff shirt and competing with the others at their hostel for who could be the most aloof drove me crazy! :)
Phong Nha also provided us the chance to stay somewhere other than a large city or beach town. It is the type of place where, by the end of our stay, the inn hosts where we stayed flipped us the key to their own motorbike one night so that we wouldn't have walk 15 minutes into the village for dinner. Moreover, the cave tour we took was spectacular and the village itself was a great place to learn to ride a motorbike. Having said all of that, if someone were only in Vietnam for a few weeks, I might recommend skipping it just because it is hard to get to and there are lots of other great places to visit. [Nicole's Note: If a traveler isn't going to make it to some of Vietnam's inland places such as Sapa, Dalat, or along the Mekong Delta, I would recommend making Phong Nha a stop for a few days just to get a glimpse of the green lush vegetation. It provides a nice varying perspective from the beaches and large cities.]
- Hoi An -- This smaller, historic town near the beach is a tourist favorite for good reason! We stayed almost two weeks and loved every minute. In our humble opinions, the best place to stay is a few miles outside of Hoi An on An Bang beach. To us, this was the Platonic ideal of what a beach town should be: great beaches, excellent swimming, inexpensive and fun restaurants, and friendly people. We couldn't get enough of it. [Nicole's Note: I couldn't agree more. Hoi An and An Bang beach are among my favorites.]
Moreover, An Bang beach seemed like a particularly awesome place for families with kids. We nicknamed (to ourselves) one of the tourist dads there "Captain Fantastic" because he had long hair, never wore a shirt, and was always carrying a kid around. It seemed like their family was having a blast.
- Da Nang -- Meh, Nicole and I agree that tourists could skip Vietnam's third largest city without missing out on too much or, at a minimum visit for a day while staying in Hoi An which is only a half hour away. Although we had fun and made the most of it, the nine nights we stayed was too long. It felt like a typical bigger city without a whole lot of character. Traveler tips: (1) After some trial and error, we found the best place to stay to be the area near Six on Six Coffee (we stayed in an Airbnb directly above the coffee shop) where there was a variety of good, cheaper restaurants and a great public beach within walking distance. (2) I would highly recommend renting a motorbike while in Da Nang, which we did for our entire stay, because the city is spread out and it is no fun having to take taxis everywhere.
[Nicole's Note: If resorts are more of a traveler's vibe, there are some very nice resorts along the beach that seemed like they could be well worth a stay. However, they seemed to come at a hefty price premium and, in order to eat outside of the resort, a taxi or motorbike would be necessary to get to restaurants.]
- Hue -- We can't really give Hue a fair review since we only passed through en route to Nha Trang and stopped at the famous Imperial City. Nonetheless, based on our impressions, we were fine having skipped it. Similar to Da Nang, Hue seemed like a larger city without a whole lot of character. [Nicole's Note: If a traveler is a history buff, it might be worth adding Hue to the itinerary. And, in one of his television episodes, Anthony Bourdain liked Hue for the food and road less traveled so it can't be all bad. However, I still agree with Travis that most travelers would be fine skipping Hue as my overall impressions were underwhelming.]
- Nha Trang -- Nicole doesn't completely agree with me on this, but if I were to move to Vietnam, this is where I would live [Nicole's Note: If we move to Vietnam, we are living on An Bang beach!]. To me, it was the perfect mix of being a slightly larger city but still feeling like a beach town. I loved wandering the streets, jogging along the ocean, and visiting different restaurants (like this BBQ spot run by a couple of American ex pats and the excellent Alpaca Cafe). Having said all of that, for tourists, I think think three or four nights here would be sufficient.
Traveler's tip: At approximately $38/night, our first hotel in Nha Trang was one of the best bangs for the buck we found and provided spectacular views like the one immediately below. [Nicole's Note: The only downside of this hotel was that it required a taxi/motorbike ride to access any good restaurants. Nonetheless, the food at the homestay itself was great. Also, the beach near this hotel was excellent, less crowded during the day, and cleaner than the main Nha Trang beach.]
- Quy Nhon -- We never actually went to Quy Nhon proper which is a city of approximately a half million people located on the oceanfront in central Vietnam. Instead, we stayed at a resort ten minutes south near the Bai Xep fishing village with our friends Kara and Leigh Anna. Although we had an awesome time with our friends, this would be an ok city for tourists to skip if not spending an extended amount of time in Vietnam. [Nicole's Note: I agree. The beach was fine, but I think there are better deals and beach locations elsewhere in Vietnam.]
- Mui Ne -- Mui Ne is resort town approximately four hours east of Saigon that is popular with Vietnamese, Chinese, and Russian tourists. Since the town is heavily geared towards resorts, we were glad we splurged a bit and booked a resort stay rather than trying to rent an Airbnb or hotel. The beach is long and well maintained, but the constant wind (which makes this place a kitesurfing hub) kept us from spending too much time in the ocean. Instead, we generally hung around the resort's pool which most other people seemed to do, too.
Although there are plenty of restaurants along Mui Ne's main drag, for the most part, we found them to be just ok (with the exception of this Indian restaurant). Overall, as beach towns go, Nicole and I liked Hoi An way better and think that most tourists could safely skip Mui Ne.
[Nicole's Note: I had such high expectations for all the beaches we went to in Vietnam, wrongly hoping they would be like those in the Philippines. What I didn't account for was all of the garbage that gets dumped into the South China Sea and washes ashore. The nicer places where we stayed cleaned up their portions of the beach and were more environmentally conscious, but overall the amount of litter washing ashore was off putting and sadly ruined a lot of the beaches for me. Mui Ne wasn't the worst of it, but it still made me sad for what these beautiful places in Vietnam have been/are being turned into because of all the litter that washes ashore.]
- Ho Chi Minh City -- We loved Saigon! Both Nicole and I found the city to be far more modern and fun to visit than Hanoi. We had a great time just walking around District 1, visiting Pasteur Street Brewing Co.'s Tap Room, cringing at the anti-U.S. rhetoric in the War Remnants Museum, and eating lots of street food, among other things. Having said all that, three days in Saigon was fine for us. [Nicole's Note: Aside from dodging (and wanting to punch out) the locals who insisted on driving their motorbikes on the sidewalks, I really enjoyed the city as well! Loads of great cafes, plenty of shopping, a wide diversity of restaurants, and a growing brewery scene.]
Transportation In Vietnam
Throughout our travels in Vietnam we used bicycles, motorbikes, taxis, Uber-type "Grabs", private cars, private vans, city buses, sleeper buses, and trains, along with a lot of walking. Overall, we found it mostly easy and inexpensive to get around in Vietnam. [Nicole's Note: Inexpensive yes, "easy" is debatable unless you like cramped sleeper buses, fellow passengers who Facetime/watch videos/etc. on their phones with the volume at full blast, or trains that sometimes smell of stinky feet. :) Most travelers with shorter stays tend to fly inter-country given the surprising long distances between cities, which I would recommend over some of the over-land travel options we chose.]
With respect to inter-country transportation planning and coordination, we found that it definitely made sense to do some research of our own, rather than blindly relying on the hotel staff who are used to booking travel for their guests. A few times we were able to come up with better options on our own. But having said that, we would almost always consult with the hotel staff before booking anything because we still needed their Vietnamese language skills to confirm the travel and pickup location via phone.
Separately, in the bigger cities, we had a lot luck using the "Grab" app on our phones, which is new in Vietnam and just like Uber.
Finally, I would encourage anyone visiting Vietnam to at least try renting a motorbike sometime near the start of the trip. As described in an earlier post, despite having no motorbike skills, I was able to do fine over the nearly two weeks we ended up renting a bike. Motorbikes are indisputably the most popular form of transportation in Vietnam and can typically be rented for $5-$7/day. The traffic here is no joke and seemingly unpredictable at first. I definitely didn't take driving the streets lightly and found that long rides on the bike would physically wear me down because I was constantly on such high alert. But it was great to know that we at least had the option to rent a set of wheels if need be. Although Nicole thinks it would be about the worst idea in the world, I think travelling Vietnam in its entirety via motorbike would be an awesome adventure and would encourage any really intrepid travelers to at least look into it as an option (according to some younger Canadian guys I spoke to, they were able to rent motorbikes in Saigon for $180 apiece and drop them off in Hanoi after they'd rode the entire country south to north; seemed like an awesome deal to me).
The People We Encountered
We have nothing but good things to say about the local people we encountered in Vietnam. Truthfully, prior to the trip, I was not sure if that would be the case. Popular articles on the internet such as "Why I Will Never Return To Vietnam" by Nomadic Matt paint a bleak picture of western tourists being "treated poorly ... constantly hassled, overcharged, ripped off, and treated badly by the locals."
Nicole and I did not find that to be the case. To the contrary, with few exceptions, we were always treated kindly, fairly, and respectfully by the people here. One note I will make is that, for much of our time, we weren't exactly roughing it and scrounging for the absolute best deals. If that had been the case, I could see getting frustrated over time by the Vietnamese culture of bargaining. As it was, there were many times where, if something I wanted wasn't labeled with a reasonable price, I would just skip it because I didn't want the headache of a negotiation.
Moreover, like any developing country we've been in, tourists do occasionally get hassled. Walk down the street in Mui Ne and you will be asked to look at menus in front of restaurants or sit on most any of the beaches and someone will try to sell you fresh coconut or sunglasses. However, the hawkers never seemed overly pushy. Admittedly, Nicole and I don't pay hawkers much heed and, indeed, if we are actually looking to purchase something, on principle we usually try to avoid buying from hawkers. Ignoring hawkers' questions such as "where are you from?" or "where are you going?" (for taxi drivers) saved us a lot of annoyance.
[Nicole's Note: I agree! For the most part, the Vietnamese people we encountered were wonderful, and hawkers just ignore the hawkers.]
Food In Vietnam
If there was one thing I was expecting to like more than I did, it was the food. I think I would have enjoyed the food fine had we stayed in Vietnam for a couple weeks, but near the end of our two months, I was almost always craving non-Vietnamese food with the exception of some of our favorites like pho soup or bahn mi sandwiches.
About a month into the trip, I came down with a food-related bug for about four days. Nothing horrible, but during that time I barely felt like eating. After that, I found myself craving foods other than the rice and noodle dishes that feature heavily in Vietnamese cooking. That really wasn't a problem, however, because there are plenty of great non-Vietnamese restaurants in Vietnam. We had solid burgers in Da Nang, Indian in Mui Ne, BBQ in Nha Trang, and Thai in Saigon, among other things. And in fairness, there probably isn't a cuisine in the world where, after two months, I wouldn't be tired of it.
With respect to Vietnamese food, we had great luck stopping at streetside places that looked popular among locals and also getting recommendations from local people where we stayed. At first, it can be intimidating to eat at some of the non-touristy streetside places in Vietnam. These places usually feature very small plastic tables and chairs that would be like a children's size dining set in the U.S. The key for us was to not worry too much about what we were getting or how much it cost. The prices at the non-tourist places always ended up being very reasonable (I don't think we ever paid more than $5 for our entire meal) and we generally got along fine by just pointing at the food we wanted. Moreover, without exception, the people working at these restaurants couldn't have been friendlier.
Also, we loved, loved, loved the abundant and diverse fruits of Vietnam. We ate tons of mango, papaya, pineapple, green coconut, watermelon, bananas, and passion fruit, along with some of the more exotic fruits like mangosteen and rambutan. I also tried the "king of Vietnamese fruits" -- durian -- for the first time (Nicole had had it before and wanted no part of it again) and I have to say, there is a reason most hotels in Vietnam ban durian, it's extremely smelly and unpleasant!
[Nicole's Note: With respect to Travis's hating on the Vietnamese food, admittedly, we could have done a better job here seeking out a larger variety of Vietnamese dishes and specialties. We dove head first into the food the first month, but by doing so I think we wore ourselves out too quickly. The food was generally great, but we just grew a bit tired of it over two months. Having said that, as Travis mentioned, the fresh fruit was wonderful, and I have never had so many avocado smoothies in my life. It was great! I would also note that, if you expect to cook a lot in Vietnam, temper those expectations. It isn't that you can't, but we found that the all our accommodations we stayed in with kitchens, basic utensils and ingredients necessary to cook with were not provided. And when I say basic, I mean down to not providing salt and pepper. Despite having the opportunity to buy fresh fruit, vegetables, and the morning catch easily enough, buying the other ingredients needed to prepare a dish would have been 10x the cost of just going out and eating it in a local restaurant. Lastly, aside from Ho Chi Minh, large grocery stores are hard to come by. Mini-marts, however, are a plentiful, but it is often hit or miss if you are looking for something other than beer, cookies, tea/coffee, etc.]
Adult Beverages In Vietnam
In general, we found that Vietnam is not really a drinking culture, which was just fine for us. The exception was lighter beers (similar to Coors or Budweiser) which were available most everywhere. Our favorites were Larue which I found to be most similar to Coors Light and Bia Saigon which seemed to be the most readily available. Nicole especially liked the Tiger beer that, admittedly, did have slightly more flavor than the others, but since it usually cost 1.5x as much as a Bia Saigon I would throw a fit if Nicole ordered it. Beers generally cost us 10 dong (50 cents) apiece at most markets, 15-20 dong at local, non-touristy restaurants, and 50-75 dong at fancier restaurants and resorts. Whenever we went to a new place, I would generally look at the price of beer to get a feel for the costliness of the place.
In general, we were disappointed with the drinks if we strayed away from beer. A few times we tried ordering a cocktail at a resort but, in each instance, they were prepared with so much less alcohol than we were accustomed to that we didn't enjoy them. Not that Nicole and I are booze-hounds always angling for generous pours, but it would have made more sense to just order straight fruit juice rather than a cocktail. Similarly, wine wasn't readily available in Vietnam and when it was, it was very expensive owing, I'm sure, to it having to be imported.
1. Karoake -- It should be banned! :) Similar to other Asian countries we have visited, Karoake joints are prevalent throughout Vietnam. Moreover, most places seem to have purchased the largest sound systems they could find rather than one that is suitable for the premises and neighborhood. On more than one occasion at our hotels, Nicole and I were treated to nightly serenades emanating from nearby singing spots. If there were a petition to ban karoake, Nicole and I would happily sign. [Nicole's Note: Luckily, like clockwork, the karoake music would always stop at 10pm. So even if we were being serenaded by the least desirable singers in the world, we always knew it wasn't going to last into the late hours of the night. Also, on more than one occasion, always to my surprise, younger women would randomly break out into song. Clearly karoake is a anytime, anywhere type event. :) ]
2. Cellphone speakers -- They also should be banned and a headphone ordinance enacted! :) When riding in buses, at restaurants, or in other public spaces, tourists should be ready to hear music, gaming noises, and phone conversations blaring from cell phones. Headphones appear not to have found their way to Vietnam yet. :) The only time I actually had an altercation with a local in Vietnam was on an overnight bus ride where a teenager seemed to think that the entire bus would be happy to fall asleep to the music blaring from his cell phone. After he ignored one passenger's request to turn down the music, I lost it and we got the music turned down. But it was ridiculous.
[Nicole's Note: I personally debated buying cheap pairs of headphones to have on hand to hand out to anyone with bad cell phone habits. :) I know this is my very western point of view, but the most obnoxious cell abuse always seemed to be in the most surprising situations, too... sitting down for a nice dinner and the adjoining table deciding to broadcast a Youtube video... or, as everyone is falling asleep on the sleeper bus, cue ridiculously loud Vietnamese pop music... or enjoying coffee in a cute cafe and then getting to hear someone Facetime their entire list of contacts. Generally speaking, local teenagers seemed to be the most guilty of assuming everyone would love to hear their entertainment choices, but a fair amount of Russian and Chinese tourists were just as guilty, too.]
A Note On Spending In Vietnam
For anyone interested, I wrote a post detailing our spending in Vietnam after one month so I won't repeat it here. That general level of spending held consistent in our second month of travel, as well.
One observations is that, prior to heading to Vietnam, we heard from several people that a tourist could "live like a king" for $30-$40 per day. We didn't find that to be the case. We found some great "homestays" (this just means that the owner lives at the premises) in the $30-$40 per night range like the Phong Nha Coco House and the Vivid Seaside Inn, but I wouldn't say we were living like royalty there, more that they were clean, comfortable, and very enjoyable. There are lots of Airbnbs and resorts in Vietnam that cost $70-$150 per night. We stayed in a few and those and they seemed more like places that afforded "royal treatment." On the flipside, hostels seemed to cost $5-$10 per night and there were lots of hotels with rooms for $10-$20, so I know that a great time could be had on a low budget.
Traveler's (do not) tip: Tipping isn't really a thing in Vietnam. (See what I did there :) ) Wherever we went, tips were neither asked for nor expected. The price was the price.
For the most part, there is no nightlife in Vietnam (which was fine with us). On the other hand, it is an extremely early rising country. Countless times, we would wake up between 5 and 6 a.m. and the beach would already be packed with locals taking an early morning swim. By 8 p.m. things seemed to be quiet.
Nicole and I were happy to have the beach, and occasionally pools, form a big part of our entertainment. If that weren't the case, and a traveler wanted to see and do different things each day, I think two months would be way too long for most people. In most of the places we visited, there just wasn't that much to do outside of the beach.
[Nicole's Note: If you are seeking nightlife beyond 9pm, it is available for tourists, but otherwise everyone locally seemed to sync their schedule with the rising and falling of the sun. Most of the touristy nightlife seemed to congregate at either hostels or large resorts.]
Most articles I've read seem to say things like, don't forget to pack sunscreen! No kidding, but I think anyone could figure that out for themselves.
I described our packing list here, and will say that, for the most part, we were very happy with how we packed. Heading into the trip, we weren't sure how "conservative" the dressing style would be. For instance, when we traveled for a month in India years ago, despite 100+ degree heat, we found that most people still dressed conservatively in pants and long sleeve shirts and so we generally did the same. In Vietnam, we found that we fit in just fine wearing shorts and tshirts. A lot of tourists wore predominately tank tops, but that seemed to be more of a tourist thing so I'm glad that wasn't all I packed.
Beyond that, the only other items we wished we had brought (and ended up purchasing here) were cooking supplies for breakfast. Since it got tiresome eating out three times per day, and most places don't serve typical western breakfasts, we made oatmeal most mornings. If I had it to do over, I would have packed a small set of bowls, spoons, and a knife for cutting fruit. As it was, we just bought that stuff here.
One Last Thing
In general, we loved our time in Vietnam and would recommend travelling here to anyone. If anyone reading this does eventually travel to Vietnam, make sure to wake up early at least one morning for the sunrise over the water. We did it multiple times and it never disappointed.
Like this post? Want to read more about Travis and Nicole's travel adventures? Check out What's This Trip Cost? How Much We Have Spent Travelling Through Vietnam For One Month.
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