Located on the eastern most side of the Indo-China Peninsular of South-East Asia, Vietnam is a country filled with stunning landscapes, exotic natural wonders, rich cultural heritage and monumental history. This time our trip to Vietnam was very different. Because we took a detour this time, through the rough roads, away from the touristy hustle-bustles. We travelled from the south to north Vietnam, motorbiking through the rural areas and interacted with the real country and its people – so loving and always smiling, so interested in foreigners yet so autonomous and self-esteemed. This country has risen from the ashes of a horrific warfare and political devastation, yet is standing wise and strong, greeting the world with open arms. Surely, one cannot stop falling in love with Vietnam!
- Local Language – Vietnamese. In most of the prime tourist spots around the cities, locals understand and speak English but a voice translator on your smartphone is a must have as you travel to the small towns and remote areas, otherwise communication would become a challenge.
- Local Currency – Vietnamese Dong. Cards are accepted in most of the hotels, but maximum restaurants, public transportation, street foods, local shopping are all cash based. So keep cash with you always. In the cities like Hanoi or Ho Chi Min, US Dollars can be easily converted in cash with a better rate of exchange from the small jewellery stores rather than the banks. It is completely safe!
- Best time to Visit – Spring (February to April) or Autumn (September to October). Weather in the northern and southern parts of Vietnam are completely different. Spring time in the south arrives by mid-February. However, February and March in the the north can still be slightly cold and rainy while southern Vietnam can be already hot and humid by then.
Our Itinerary: When travelling within Vietnam, it is always better to start either from north to south (land in Hanoi and return from Ho Chi Min city) or, south to north (land in Ho Chi Min and return from Hanoi). We have done it from south to north this time. We landed in Ho Chi Min city and from there we travelled upwards covering Da Nang, Hoi An, My Son Sanctuary in the middle, and then moving to Hai Phong towards the north-eastern coastline, cruising through Cat Ba island, Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay next, and then moving to the capital city of Hanoi in the north, and afterwards to Sa Pa town and Lao Cai city in the northern most part. Our return flight was from Hanoi.
If you plan to visit Sa Pa (in my opinion, this is a must visit) remember that you would need some extra time on hand, as travelling to Sa Pa from Hanoi and back, needs overnight train or full-day bus journey time (8 to 10 hours each way), no other ways to reach there! Since we didn’t want to miss Sa Pa, we had to cancel Meckong Delta, Nha Trang, Hue and Son-My Memorials, as we had only 10 days and other priorities (like spending more time in Hoi An, cruising at a much deserted Lan Ha Bay, Trekking at Sa Pa etc). Also, we had to let go of the amazing Hang Son Doong cave trek, as it would have taken at least 5 extra days. But, the good thing about missing some places as you travel is, you always get a chance to add a “next time” in you bucket list 🙂
Within Vietnam, travelling from one place to another is easily supported by bus or train (only if you have more time) or more efficiently internal flights (really quicker option). Honestly domestic flight tickets are very cheap and easily available online if you want to save your travel time. Go for Vietnam Airlines always for domestic flight transfers, they are almost always on time. You may find other low cost airlines in cheaper price, but with those you may also expect arrival delays. However, if you have a bit more time on hand, and want to experience the real essence of Vietnam, take a road trip from one city to another.
In this blog, I would write only about the 5 basic travel tips and tricks that you would need to know before travelling to Vietnam. I am planning for a few more detailed blogs on each and every places we visited because there’s so much to say about them, and one blog isn’t really enough to explain how rich in mind and spirit we have become after this trip!
Tip #1 – Don’t fall for a Taxi Scam:
Well, we found out that Vietnamese people are very friendly and polite. Vietnam is a very very safe place to travel, even for solo travellers. The only area that you need to be careful about is – the over-charging taxi drivers. Again, not all of them would scam you, but mostly while taking a taxi from the airports, please research about the distance on Google map prior to your travel, otherwise your driver may charge you double, triple or sometimes (not joking) 4 times more! I would suggest, before you land check the map of the place and find out the distance between the airport and your destination. If it is a 20 to 30 minute’s travel time, then the taxi cost should not be more than 130,000 to 150,000 VND (about 6.4 USD) in average. Rates may change a bit depending on the place, rush etc but shouldn’t ever be double. You may call up your hotel before reaching and they would happily book a taxi for your airport transfers in a much competitive rate. In Vietnam, you can always trust your hotel staffs for getting local authentic information.
After you reach, travelling from one point of the city/town to another is easily achievable by local taxis. Always book a metered taxi like Mai Linh Taxi (Green taxi) or Vinasun Taxi (White Taxi) for they are most genuine. If you have a local Vietnamese SIM card, then download the “Grab car” application, and you are good to go! There is no Uber in Vietnam yet.
Tip #2 – Hacks for Driving and crossing the roads :
If you are more inclined towards free driving, then just take a motorbike for a whole day. Motorbike rentals are extremely cost efficient (about 150,000 VND per day + about 25,000 VND for petrol per litre), but you need to know a few road rules, and be extra careful as you drive within the city. Vietnamese folks drive on the right side of the road, and to be true the busy city roads follow only one rule that is – Jungle Rule! So, don’t panic if someone next to you keeps changing their lanes, or beeps the horn too much or doesn’t indicate a sudden left or right turn. They do all that because it is the need of the day 🙂 and you’d get used to it in no time.
Crossing a busy city road as a pedestrian in Hanoi or Ho Chi Min city, might at first be a challenge! Not to worry, you would get used to that too. Stopping at the sight of a red signal is a personal choice here in Vietnam 🙂 . Just let the larger vehicles pass first, you don’t want to mess with them, and then cross the road smartly and steadily and let the smaller cars and motorbikes move around you by changing their lanes! It sounds crazy, but believe me, that’s how it should be done! The trick is to be “confident”.
Tip #3 – Eat, eat and keep eating:
Vietnam is a food heaven! A posh restaurant, a small food joint or a miniature road-side food stall – all of them would offer you mouthwatering delicacies. You can never ever complain about the taste of your food here in Vietnam. Try Vietnamese local delicacies in the street joints at Ben Tanh market, Bui Vien walking street (Ho Chi Min), the Ta Hien (Beer Street of Hanoi) and the Old Quarter of Hoi-An town. These are the most vibrant and happy places to be at – with live music, good food and a vibrant crowd.
Vietnamese Pho (the rice noodle soup) is a must have. You can have Pho in breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner! It is available at any time of the day. There are hundreds of other options to choose from and there is no limit of good food in Vietnam. Try Cao Lau salad bowls, Vietnamese Spring Rolls, Bot Chien (wok fried rice with choice of toppings) and when you have time, try the table top Hot-Pots (cook your own food on your table).
However, if you are not much of a meat eater or if you are a vegan, you may find it hard to find your perfect food in few of the places in Vietnam. I found it hard to communicate my food preferences in Hai Phong city, as that is not much of a tourist spot, but still people were extremely helpful and supportive and they did their best to make sure that I eat well before I go to bed. After which I decided to be flexible as much as possible. Good thing is that, you can get really fresh vegetables and a great number of tofu dishes everywhere. And in the busy tourist spots you can instruct the food vendors or restaurants to custom-prepare your food according to your choice. A mobile voice translation app would greatly help you in these cases.
Tip #4 – Keep your Beer-Tasting mode on:
Well, If you are a beer lover, Vietnam would make you happy! Drink-up all the local specialities like a fish. In Vietnam the local beers are named after the places. Try Bia Saigon Special – Green & Red, Bia Hanoi and Bia Ha-Long. Our personal favourite was Saigon Special Green. Apart from the local beers Heineken, Larue, Desperados and Tiger beers are pretty famous over there.
Tip #5 – Be a Crackerjack of Money-exchange:
Best way to control your expenses in Vietnam, is to take half of your total travel funds in cash (preferably US dollars) and the rest of the half in your international travel/debit cards. You can use credit cards as well, and most of the hotels in the cities accept visa and master cards, but mind it, 3-4% of transaction charges would be implied. In Vietnam most of the city hotels and bigger restaurants accept cards, but almost everything else is cash based. Vietnamese Dong is the local currency here, and in the beginning of your trip you may feel a bit confused by the sight of 100,000; 200,000 or 500,000 denominations, but it just takes a day to understand the money rules. The most common denominations come in 500, 200, 100, 50, 20 and 10 thousand notes. Lesser denominations than those are 5000, 2000 and 1000 VND. Mind it – a 500,000 VND is equivalent to 21 USD (as of March 2019) so you can understand how much cash you would get if you want to exchange USD 100? So it is always better to keep USD in cash with you, and exchange as and when needed.
Vietcom Bank or Vietin Bank are the most popular banks from where you can exchange your foreign currencies into VND. However, if you are in Ho Chi Min city or Hanoi go for the small jewellery shops around the Ben Tanh market area in Ho Chi Min and Old Quarter area in Hanoi, and exchange your cash in a much much cheaper price. They are completely safe! When in the small towns, better go for the banks or exchange enough cash before leaving the city. I would suggest, never exchange from the airports. They would charge a much higher rate of exchange almost always.
Another option is, ATM cash withdrawals. You would find many ATM counters located in the cities and even in the small towns. However, there would be transaction fees applied every time you withdraw money, and the rate depends on the banks. So, withdraw funds for 2-3 days at a time if it works for you.
Few other essentials:
A few other things to remember as you travel to Vietnam are:
- Buy a local SIM card with internet access. Vinaphone has good network allover in Vietnam and they have many cost effective plans.
- Keep your own first aid box with all medical essentials. As you travel, eat and drink in the humid tropical weather, consider the chance of being sick once or twice. Keep hydrating yourself continuously and be safe!
- Drink bottled waters only or fill your bottles from your hotel before you leave for a long day. Don’t refill your bottles from anywhere else outside and avoid drinking tap waters.
- Price negotiation is a common practice in Vietnam. Not everywhere, but for taxis and local shoppings. In the beginning, we did not negotiate but later found out from Duc, the owner of hotel D&D Eco Sa Pa and now a friend , that local vendors expect that the tourists would negotiate a bit before purchasing from them. So they ask for a higher price always. Sometimes they double the price! So keep that in mind.
- Carry your own shopping bags. It is hard to control your shopping spree as you walk around the vibrant market areas of Hanoi Old Quarter, Saigon Ben Tanh, Sa Pa town or Hoi-An historic town, and it is obvious that you would keep collecting loads of souvenirs. Avoid taking plastic bags from the local vendors as much as possible. Vietnam, along with a few other countries in South-East Asia suffer from a huge level of plastic pollution and each year the coastal area around Vietnam intakes about 70 million tons of plastic wastes. We didn’t want to be a part of that horror, so we carried our own travel friendly shopping bags from RefreshBag. The RefreshBag team is doing a marvellous job by producing eco friendly, reusable, foldable shopping bags, perfect for carrying along on your trips.
You can check my FB page lifeofhoi if you want to be a part of our “Cleanup the World” challenge”. Find more about it from our recent Earth Day campaign video below: