I ended up spending quite a bit of time in Vietnam and I figured I would just write up what was cool and what I learned on my travels throughout the country.
When to travel: Seasons of Vietnam
I think people lump Vietnam in with Thailand and Cambodia: warm winters, tropical climate, etc. But the country spans a large vertical distance and has very different environments. The north is cold and rainy in the winter, the central regions just finished their rainy reason, and the south is what you envision when you think of Thailand. This is all in the month of December. Traveling during the rainy seasons is also rice picking season so it’s supposedly very beautiful. I only traveled during winter which is the low season for travels. One important consideration is that Tet (Lunar New Year) is when everyone goes back home to their village. So the major cities are empty and businesses are mostly shut down.
The Vietnamese currency is
dong. It’s mostly bills and comes in increments of 1000s. As of January 2019, it’s about 23,000 dong to the US dollar. The nice thing is in Vietnam ATMs are easy to find and cash is easy to use. You can probably get any major unit broken into smaller units. Everything is done in bills. The only tip for ATMs is that many charge a % unit versus a fixed cost for using them. So be warned that you can get a fixed withdrawal cost if you’re looking for something cheaper. Most hostels accept credit cards but change a 3% fee to use it.
Food in Vietnam is delicious. It’s less about flavors but more about textures. The flavor profile is vegetables, herbs, and meat. But more importantly, it’s the same vegetables and meats combinations though the meat is usually cooked differently (grilled, roasted, bbq, etc.). This is different than say Thailand or India with a lot of spices. There are meat broths, sea food broths, and etc. The Vietnamese food I liked the most was a mix of textures: soft wraps or breads, hard peanuts or other crispy things, and warm and savory meats.
I learned that the water in Vietnam is not as bad and you can actually trust getting smoothies here. So getting fresh mango smoothies is the best.
Honestly, the thing that I like about Vietnam the most is that they’re not always out to get you. The charges you get are mostly the charges you’ll see. You’re getting over charged obviously but it’s a flat and reasonable overcharge. Taxis are obviously the worst but you can remedy that by using Grab or making sure that you get into taxis with proper meters. Even hostels who will book a private car from you are reasonable, they’re basically the same price as Grab which is surprising. Restaurants don’t charge you differently. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh you have to watch more more and count your change but outside of those places it’s pretty reasonable.
When buying goods from store fronts, always negotiate at least 50% down if not more. Learn to walk away a lot.
The preferred mode of transport in Vietnam is scooters. They’re easy to travel around in and easy to rent. I ended up not scootering in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh because of the amount of traffic but motorbiking around Hoi An or even Da Nang wasn’t that bad. There’s lots of beautiful tracks and routes you can do. If you’re going during rainy seasons, I recommend getting a nice poncho that can hook into your scooter which will be useful.
If you want to rent one from your hostel or home stay, they’ll probably charge you around $4-6 but more importantly they will always have an empty gas tank. They’ll direct you to fill up the tank nearby, you can get about a full tank for about 80,000 dong. A full tank will cover excellent distance. I was able to travel about 60km on a half a tank so you don’t have to fill that much especially if you’re traveling very short distances. Almost all the scooters are going to be cheaper Chinese knock offs though. Always get the # of your hostel in case something goes wrong.
There are real petrol stations around Vietnam but there are people who sell them in liter bottles. You can ask but it was about 20,000 a liter when I was there.
If you want to do the full trip with only a motorcycle I highly recommend doing it during a nicer season. I met many travelers during winter and they said how miserable it is to have to bike for hours in the rain and cold. You can take your bike in the storage compartment of the train in the worse case.
Buses and Trains
The train system is simple, there are multiple trains that run from the north to the south that run all throughout the day. You can either buy soft seats or sleepers seats depending on when you’re traveling. Everything is a little cramped but not too bad. It’s not luxurious but it works. You might want to book overnight trains more than a week in advance too.
Buses are more complex. Depending on how far you’re going, you might get a mini bus (< 2 hours) or a big bus. I traveled during a low travel season so it was easy to get seats and I didn’t have much trouble. I’ve heard horror stories about bus travel so I recommend looking up bus companies for reviews before you book anything. The travel companies in the area all book through the same bus companies, so if a bus travels at specific time it’s probably the same bus that your hostel is doing that the travel company down the street is doing.
Using Grab is great. It’s a fixed price car ride and Grab Scooter is super cheap to get around. The scooter thing is great if you’re willing to sit on the back of a scooter of an experienced rider.
Where I went
Hanoi & Ninh Binh
The first two places I ended up visiting are Hanoi and Ninh Binh. Hanoi is a giant city: it’s full of delicious food and difficult to navigate around. I don’t remember if this was true in China but the vendors all use the sidewalk for their storefronts and parking, so navigating and walking from place to place in Hanoi was difficult. I think other cities I like exploring and walking around but in Hanoi with traffic it was cumbersome and difficult. The lake in the area is probably one of the nicest parts of Hanoi and becomes walking only during the evening on weekends.
Ninh Binh is a little tourist spot south of Hanoi. It has a few remarkable spots but it’s mostly known as being Ha Long Bay but through rivers. You can see the lovely karst and take a boat cruise either in Tam Coc or Trang An area. Biking around is pretty nice and it’s full of rice fields. I ended up motorbiking around the area and visiting other places. It’s a nice place to visit but the food is awful. The entire restaurant scene in the area is pretty awful, the food is almost all instant noodles and crappy tastes. It was probably some of the worst food I’ve had in Vietnam.
Hoi An is a beautiful city. I was there during off season and it was still too crowded for me to visit. The prize thing in Hoi An is that you can get custom tailored clothing a lot cheaper than the states. I ended up using (Bao Diep tailor)[https://www.google.com/maps/place/Bao+Diep+Tailorfirstname.lastname@example.org,108.3260829,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m9!1m3!8m2!1e1!2s107393310523482728977!3m4!1s0x31420e794a1c02b1:0xcb28718a9b1fa077!8m2!3d15.8799128!4d108.3282716]. They will literally go through Pinterest and pick out any design you want. If you have a specific idea of what you want they’ll make it for you. It’s a pretty good deal, the only thing is that you should make sure to negotiate whatever they offer you down to at least 60%.
The Bahn Mi in the area is delicious. Better than Hanoi or other places I’ve eaten in Vietnam. The city though is the same stalls over and over again. It’s pretty boring in terms of wandering around since almost everything is a store.
Hue is a nice city. The imperial citadel is pretty and one of the few places I’ve been with peace and quiet. You can get pretty delicious food including Nem Lui which is a pork kebab that you make into a spring roll. It’s quite good. There’s also an abandoned water park in the area that you can easily get to. I would try to get to the northern part of the park to sneak in. If the guard catches you, just do the simple game where you say I’ll leave but then offer him like 5,000 – 10,000 dong. No more than that and you’ll be good for an hour or two.
Phong Nha is a quiet little town that over the past 10 years has grown into a tourism hub. Oxalis is the main tour group that has a monopoly over some of the largest cave systems. These caves are amazing, not only are the smaller ones gigantic they have some of the craziest formations I’ve seen. Columns hundreds of feet high. The town itself is pretty chill and all the food is kind of generic though of a higher quality and bar than Ninh Binh was. The best place to stay was Village House and you get a dinner with them for like 70,000 dong which was probably one of the best deals in Vietnam. The cave tours are expensive but you get porters and probably a delicious meal. The spread on these tours is intense and you basically don’t lose weight on these trips because of the amount and quality of the food.
Oxalis though must be making a killing on these tours since the cost of paying for these people is pretty low.
Ho Chi Minh
It’s… okay. Hanoi feels like a Vietnamese city, Ho Chi Minh City is just a giant city. The food is good and Biu Vien street is like the Bourbon Street of New Orleans. Even on a Sunday night it was packed and full of bars, dancing, and hot women inviting you into their massage parlors. It’s insane. The place is packed. I was only there one night so I can’t talk much about it.