An Amazing Experience… If You Go Off The Beaten Track!
Itinerary And Time Of The Visit
We visited Vietnam twice: in 2003, we spent 4 weeks there, discovering the main highlights of a country that was already popular but not overrun: Ho Chi Minh City, Cu Chi Tunnels, the Mekong Delta, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, Halong Bay and last but not least SaPa.
In 2015, Gilles spent 5 weeks there alone, and tried to visit, along with the main “highlights”, some lesser known parts of the country: Can Tho, Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Danang, Hue, Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, Tam Coc, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Sapa & Bac Ha.
Why Travel To Vietnam?
- It is extremely cheap, actually one of the cheapest countries we ever traveled, and this has changed little between 2003 & 2015, except maybe the prices for organized tours: those have more than doubled.
- For food-lovers, Vietnam has one of the most diverse and tasty cuisines in Asia, served from mobile food stalls or in expensive restaurants set in beautiful colonial buildings. Again, a “Foodies” paradise.
- The country has quite a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites: Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, My Son, Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park…
- Those loving to explore traditional way of lives – That’s your place! Farmers tend their fields like centuries ago, old traditions and cultural peculiarities are held alive.
- The outdoor fans will find stunning landscapes, with great opportunities for hiking, caving, biking…
- Photographers as we are will find a number of rare opportunities to get some great shots.
- Last but not least, if you like riding a motorbike, whether it is an old Minsk or a brand new automatic scooter or an off-road machine, Vietnam is the place to test your skills. The options are numerous: windy dust roads in the north or in the crazy, bustling, congested traffic of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, for the ultimate kick of adrenaline …
All these great reasons have turned Vietnam into a country overrun by international tourists, Westerners and Asian alike. No, you won’t be alone!
Challenges Organizing The Trip – What Would We Have Wished To Know?
- Organizing a trip to Vietnam is easy, even though Visa-On-Arrival are still not available, which is surprising for such a popular destination (almost all countries in Southeast Asia do). But Visas are easy to get, either in your home country or in one of Vietnam’s neighboring countries (the cheapest way).
- Beware that you can only withdraw 2.000.000 VND at most ATMs (90 USD). This can be costly if your bank charges fixed fees for each withdrawal. A few ATMs allow withdrawals of 3, even 4.000.000, but these are the exception. So bring some cash in USD or Euros.
- The country is huge and has a lot to offer, so you might want to focus on one part of the country if you have less than 3 weeks at hand. Do not underestimate travel time, and consider flying some legs if time is an issue – You can find very cheap domestic flights.
- Last but not least, Vietnam is very, very touristy. Tours are funneled to a limited number of places, at the same time, all offering the same activities. If you want anything slightly genuine, AVOID THE CLASSIC TOURS ON OFFER AT MOST GUESTHOUSES AND TRAVEL AGENCIES AT ANY COST! More on that matter in “How To Go Off The Beaten Track” below…
Highlights Of The Trip
- Street Food – Vietnam’s Street Food is amazing, extremely diverse and cheap, the perfect way to experience the country in a more genuine way, among locals. Hanoi probably is the food-capital, with a wide choice of excellent small restaurants and food stalls specializing in one or two dishes. We must admit the Lonely Planet did a superb job pointing out a few great ones, like Pho Tin, Bun Cha Nem Be Dac Kim or Banh Cuon. We “only” tried those three, all absolutely delightful! Also a must-visit in Hanoi are the local restaurants and street stalls selling a light beer brewed daily, called Bia Hoi Ha Noi. A glass is as little as 8.000 or 9.000 VND or 0,4 USD! Best enjoyed outside the tourist ghetto of the Old Quarter. There, locals thrilled by our presence invited us for drinks. Having had a few beers themselves they were eager to make the most of their 3 English words…
- Quiet and laid-back villages, where visitors are warmly welcome and where the pushy “Buy from me” is completely unknown… Jump on a motorbike and get lost in the surroundings of the city where you stay. You will find a more genuine Vietnam, one of extremely friendly people, pleased to see foreigners that venture out of the tourist ghettos. We were invited for coffee, tea, even for lunch. This way we got to see a rooster fight. Although we understood very little of what was being said, we had a great time…
- Bac Ha & Luong Phin Sunday Markets – A photographer’s dream, a festival of bright colors! Locals come for their Sunday shopping dressed in their finest traditional garb. Be there before the masses arrive! That’s is usually around 9:30am: busloads from SaPa then spill into the market. Time to jump on a motorbike (or a motorbike taxi) and head to Luong Phin, a smaller but even more Off The Beaten Track Sunday Market. There are also Saturday Markets in other villages near Bac Ha – a fellow traveler raved about them…
- Phong Nha – Of course there are the caves! Soon a cable car will be built to the entrance of the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong. Then tourism will pick-up very, very quickly, so hurry! A trek in the nearby National Park is equally exciting: learn about the challenges of conservation from Hai, a guide who runs the BamBoo Café. Or ride a mountain bike or motorbike through the beautiful karst-landscape surrounding Phong Nha. Make your pick! Most probably you will stay longer in Phong Nha than planed!
- Danang – Yes, we loved Danang… First, most tourists ignore Vietnam’s third largest city, making of it a great retreat from the tourist ghettos. Besides, the Champa Sculpture Museum is reason enough for going there, one of the finest in Southeast Asia. There is also the “China Beach” for beach bums or for those enjoying long strolls along the ocean. Marble Mountains and the Monkey Mountains are easily reached on a rented scooter. Last but not least, bring your tripod for a stroll along the river at night: the lit bridges are spectacular.
- Tam Coc – This karst landscape is also known as “Halong Bay On Land”, near Ninh Binh. Ladies take you around the rivers and swamps in rowing boats, gliding through the karst landscapes, with only the sound of the paddles hitting the water is so captivating. You want to be completely on your own? Get lost on your motorbike or bike along the rice paddies. And there is most bizarre experience in Chua Bai Dinh…
- Halong Bay – Probably the most famous place in Vietnam, with 7.5 million visitors annually. There are no less than 1.000 cruise boats in Halong City and 100 on Cat Ba Island! Read our suggestions on how to discover Halong Bay differently!
- Ho Chi Minh City – We hated Ho Chi Minh City when visiting it for first time in 2003, and loved it when we returned in 2015. The tourist ghetto has turned into a wild place, but as soon as you leave this area, you find a city of contrasts, changing at the speed of light, bustling! It is a mix of wide avenues and generous parks, as well as a labyrinth of small streets and traditional houses. Modern shopping malls and vivid traditional markets, luxurious restaurants and food stalls, all in the same city… Ho Chi Minh City really invites for long walks. Take a few days and get lost, and simply enjoy the crazy atmosphere surrounding you!
- Hoi An’s Full Moon Festival – Yes, there is something special about Hoi An’s Old City. Nobody leaves without having some dress or shoes made at one of 300 tailors all pushing their services. Countless travel agencies, cyclos, touts also want your Dollars… Its new semi-pedestrian zone makes it the perfect place for breathing in the unique colonial charm of this ancient town. Stroll past lovely one-story buildings (most painted in dark yellow) with quaint pillars and balconies, and shiny roofs made of tiles. Try to be in Hoi An for the full moon. On these particular evenings, Hoi An switches off its lights, only colorful Chinese lanterns light up the city. Together with the small lantern gliding down the Hoai River, they turn Hoi An into a flickering magical place. A very special atmosphere and a great photo op!
- Can Tho – There again, do not book a tour in HCMC to go to the Mekong Delta! Head directly to Can Tho, a very pleasant city, where boat trips to the Floating Market and through the maze of small channels on the Mekong can easily be organized. Although the markets are still the touristic highlight, in reality they are dying. Too many roads and bridges have been built in the last decade. It is very likely that more tourist boats cross your way than local boats selling fruits & vegetables… Also stroll the streets in search for local food and pleasant streets café. Just leave the waterfront, and you will most likely be the only tourist there. You want to know more about Vietnamese Cuisine? Join the nightly food walk organized by Thoai (ask at the Hotel Xoai). This young gentleman, who speaks excellent English, takes tourists & travelers to various local restaurants and explains the diverse local cuisine. If you are the more adventurous type, Thoai can help you finding snake, frog, or mice…
How To Go Off The Beaten Track?
Yes, all those tours are very tempting. Most hostels, guesthouses and travel agencies advertise with the simple slogan: don’t worry about a thing, just tell us how much time you have at hand and we will take care of everything… Why travel independently then?
Our recommendation: Do not book or join these tours! Do something on your own, alone or together with people you meet. Do not get us wrong, some locally offered tours are great. Urban Tales is an entertaining way to discover Cholon in Ho Chi Minh City. Hai’s Eco Conservation Tour in Phong Nha is an eye opener on conservation and the challenges that come with it. You certainly need a boat to discover Halong Bay. Many museums are best enjoyed with knowledgeable guides!
We strongly believe a tour is best organized at the very place you want to explore. Let’s take Halong Bay: don’t book in Hanoi, travel to Cat Ba and shop around with the local businesses or boat owners. You are going to Sapa? Take the train / bus and hire a local guide in SaPa, not in Hanoi. Same goes for the Mekong Delta.
Booking local tours gives you a better chance to escape masses of tourists that arrive exactly at the same place, at the same time, for exactly the same activities. This is surely not what you want… And this is a much more sustainable way to travel!
Rent a motorbike, most are automatic scooters easy to ride and discover areas on your own. No need to be very experienced for that, except maybe in bigger cities like Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, where it might be suicidal. If you don’t feel comfortable driving a bike yourself, rent one with a driver. They are found at every corner. Rural areas are best to practice your driving skills. It is a great, flexible way to discover another Vietnam.
What Will We Especially Remember?
- Motorbikes / scooters – Vietnam is “motorbike-land”. You see millions of those bikes everywhere, especially in larger cities, racing every which way. Despite the significant economic growth, cars are rare…
- Street food – freshly prepared at the omnipresent stalls, locals sit on these tiny plastic chairs and gulp down their breakfast, lunch or especially dinner. The variety of food on offer is huge! In the evening, everyone seems to be eating outside…
- Modern life and tradition remain stark contrasts in Vietnam. The difference between highly modern cities like Ho Chi Minh and the traditional countryside, where subsidence farming and centuries old tradition remain, are striking.
- Pushy Vietnamese in touristy areas – friendly people elsewhere: with the massive influx of tourism an unpleasant change in the attitude has taken over. Outside the tourist ghettos, people are much more friendly and relaxed!
- Honking – Like almost anywhere in Asia, driving = honking. Even passing a person requires honking. Is it a common belief that people eagerly jump right in front of a vehicle? Multiplied by millions of motorbike, this results in a massive cacophony!
- Gut-wrenching street crossing – Yes, it works! In the first few days, your brain will refuse to walk straight into massive traffic. But it works! Ignore the zillions of motorbike around you, move straight into this mess, keep the same pace and the same direction when crossing the road. The flow of motorbikes will simply zigzag around you. Change the speed, stop abruptly, and you create chaos and most likely an accident!
- Animal Welfare – Vietnam is no place for animal lovers and those concerned about the feelings of chicken and pigs (live ones) tied to motorbikes, fish suffocating on a market stall, birds squashed into cages hardly bigger than they are. Try to ignore it, if you can!
What Would We Do Differently?
- Discover Halong Bay on our own!
- Visit the north (SaPa & Bac Ha) at another time of the year, for two reasons: it was really, really cold in January & February, and the rice terraces are barren.
- Plan more time for the north.
Is It Safe To Travel To Vietnam?
Vietnam is one of the safest countries to travel. Maybe you should be careful with 2 aspects:
- Beware of scams, they are ubiquitous in touristy areas, as many people try to get their share of the flowing tourist dollars, as fast as possible. We fell in a trap once in Lao Cai, nothing tragic, but it is frustrating…
- Keep in mind that Vietnam’s roads are among the most dangerous worldwide, with an underestimated death toll of 50.000 per year. Especially truck and bus drivers are ruthless and extremely dangerous: the road is theirs, so do not even think of being on their way. They won’t stop nor change course for you… Maybe worth knowing: in case of an accident, the responsible driver must pay for the hospital or for the funeral of potential victims. Funerals are much cheaper than hospital bills, and unfortunately the “preferred solution” for many bus and truck drivers. Sad but true, this rule has some influence on the way some people drive, and not in the sense of increasing safety!
Best Time To Visit Vietnam
Vietnam is a country that spreads thousands of kilometers from North to South, so the climate is very different in the various areas of the country…
Obviously the best time is when it is neither too hot (and humid) nor too cold. So July & August and December to February should be avoided. You best bet is around May & October.
Communication (Language Barrier?)
As long as you stay on the main tourist track, English is widely spoken. When you venture more Off The Beaten Track, communication can be slightly more challenging, but in many places at least one or two people will know some basics of English.
Getting Around In Vietnam
There are many possibilities to move around in Vietnam, and your best bet will be a good mix of them. Distances can be long, some roads are in really poor conditions, so traveling can be time consuming.
- Plane – many cheap domestic flights are available nowadays, and this is surely an option you should not rule out!
- Train – Trains are significantly more expensive than buses (approx. 3 times), but a very convenient way to cover some of the longer distances. On most main routes, trains run frequently. Tickets can be bought easily at Travel Agencies or Hostels, but those take a hefty commission, so if you are on a tight budget, consider going to the train station yourself.
- Bus – There is a huge network of sleeper buses that link almost all cities. Cheap and very convenient, as many of those buses include pick-up / drop off services at your hotel. Nevertheless, these buses are comfortable, for anyone smaller than 160 cm. If you are 180+, you will simply not fit into those seats and have quite a miserable time! Also the behavior of the drivers and their assistants can be extremely annoying: Request to turn down the music at night are often answered in a rude and aggressive way; Foreigners taking the lower berths, even though there are no assigned sits, being rudely asked to change to upper berths and by refusal at times threatened; Drivers permanently shouting in their mobile phones while driving like maniacs; Icy temperatures (AC)… The open bus ticket (5 to 7 stops between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi) seems very tempting, but is extremely inflexible. We met numerous travelers stuck on an itinerary due to this system. We strongly recommend not using it!
- Motorbike – It costs somewhere between 250 and 350 USD to buy a motorbike. Quite a few travelers choose that way of getting around and sell it after a long loop for about the same amount. An option only for the experienced bikers tough, as distances are huge!
There is no Visa-On-Arrival! Visas are easy to get though, either in your home country or in one of Vietnam’s neighboring countries (where it is actually much cheaper).
Photography – Vietnam: Landscapes, People & Cities!
- Key Factors For Taking Great Pictures?
- Polarization Filter – Too much light & a lack of contrasts are your major challenges while photographing outdoors in Vietnam. Hence, you should use one pretty much all the time to improve contrasts.
- Timing – The real challenge is to be at the right place for the perfect light, like for the “Blue Hour”, shortly after sunset. Getting up early enough for the soft morning light can even be harder…
- Tele-lens – Taking pictures of people is quite challenging, as most people then tend to pose. Each time we asked, the result was not what hoped for. Now a tele-lens does the trick, enabling us to take pictures from a certain distance. Once people don’t notice, the expressions / portraits are much more genuine…
- Best Opportunities For Great Pictures
- Landscapes – Vietnam is rich in spectacular landscapes, be it the Karst landscape of Tam Coc, Phong Nha & Halong bay; mountains covered with rain forest in Phong Nha; rice terraces in SaPa; the mighty Mekong River…
- People – Traditional dresses have more or less completely disappeared, except in the far North. You will have far fewer opportunities to get good shots than in neighboring countries, where people still wear their traditional costumes. Nevertheless, take the time to sit down at a street corner and to observe the every day life, might it be 4 people on a scooter with the driver talking into his phone, overloaded Tuk Tuks and trucks or other things with wheels…
- Cities – No matter whether it is the Old Quarter in Hoi An with its colonial buildings, the new Business District in Ho Chi Minh City, or the illuminated bridges of Danang, cities will provide you with incredible photo-ops, especially in the evening. A Tripod will be a must, though…
Best & Most Inspiring Travel Blogs For Vietnam
Conclusion About Vietnam…
Even though extremely touristy, Vietnam remains a great place to travel, with a lot to offer. But more than anywhere else in the world, Vietnam is the country where you will want to travel Off The Beaten Track to discover the more genuine faces of the country. This is not even challenging, stick to one rule: do not book tours, and if you do, only shop locally and only go with small organizations!