Asia | Vietnam
After 11 months in Australia we flew to Ho Chi Minh City on 20/10/17. During our final weeks down under I had planned a detailed 4 week itinerary which was, in general, to go from south to north.
As we are UK residents we get 15 days entry to Vietnam for free and have to pay for any extensions. Obviously we needed one which we ended up doing through our hotel in Hoi An for $50 USD each for an extra 15 days. We also got sim cards for all of Vietnam from “Giodigiodong” which is the largest phone provider in the country. We got 12gb of data and small amount of minutes for about £7.
Having not worked since 5 months prior to this and doing a lot of travelling around Australia, we were conscious of our money situation which meant we didn’t want to blow it on too many tours etc. We still managed to get at-least one tour done in each place which is always a good way (if you use the right company) to learn about a country.
Saigon – Hoi An – Hue – Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park – Ninh Binh – Hanoi - Halong Bay – Sapa – Hanoi/Saigon
Where we went, how long for and what we did in each place is below:
Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon)
We landed from Kuala Lumpur at Ho Chi Minh airport and our first mistake was imminent. We had been informed by a friend not to pay more than 200,000 VND (£7) for a taxi to District 1 (the CBD). So first we agreed a price of 150,000 with a local driver but when we told him we only had 500,000 notes for some reason we had to get out. We were then approached by a taxi from the rank who claimed not to speak any English but I’m sure he knew exactly what I was saying. The taxi went by meter and a long story short it ended up costing us 800,000, partly due to our own stupidity but also because we got played by him. He even tried to get more from us! After a long flight and entering a new country, we just wanted to sleep.
When we checked into the Saigonese Boutique B&B the girl at reception was shocked at how much we paid and that’s when we found out Saigon has Uber. An uber ride from the airport would of cost only about £4 – very depressing.
Anyway, we spent 5 nights in Saigon exploring and taking it all in. Whilst there we visited:
Saigon skydeck: Awesome panoramic views over the city. We also had cocktails at the rooftop bar.
Jade Emperor and Nghiem pagodas: Two temples in the city – always an interesting wander.
Ben Thanh market: Famous for food, souvenirs and cheap clothes
War remnants museum: A fairly bias yet eye opening experience of the Vietnam war (or the “American War” as they call it in Vietnam) and war crimes.
Cu Chi tunnels tour: With TNK Travel and tour guide “Yen”. There was only 6 of us in the group. The tunnels are dark and narrow - not for the faint hearted. I am 6ft 3” and I was able to fit in all of them (see photos below). Really good value for money at 1,100,000vnd including a stop at Handicapped Handicrafts (click here for pictures). This is a place where people suffering from war-related illnesses/disabilities from Agent Orange make textiles and paintings and you can watch them work and buy some of it in the shop. Highly recommend!
Massages: Prices range from 100,000-200,000vnd. They’ll put you in strange, uncomfortable positions but you’ve just gotta trust them!
Modern Art Museum: Interesting but I’ve definitely been to more captivating art displays.
In Saigon we used Uber everywhere we went. We also found a Japanese restaurant called Sukiya which we visited frequently.
Due to only having 3-4 weeks in Vietnam we flew directly to Hoi An for just £20.
We spent 4 nights in this beautiful little place and stayed at River Palm Villas in a deluxe double villa. It was a very nice place with a concierge on hand and free bikes to borrow for the day. Hoi An is beautiful, especially at night with the river tours and vibrant lanterns everywhere. This hotel were also willing to help us extend our visas which was awesome!
An Bang beach: We had lunch and people watched on beach loungers. On the way home a farmer waved us over and let us get photos on top of his water buffalo - funny experience on the side of the road.
Lantern boat trip: For £3 we got in a small rowing boat and were given 2 small lanterns to place in the river. The whole thing lasted about 2 minutes and was kind of disappointing.
Myson Temple Tour: A gathering of ruined Hindu temples located 40km from Hoi An. We booked this at the reception of our Villa for 180,000vnd each. We were picked up the next day in a mini bus and shown around the temples.
Food markets: Wander through the markets. Be careful if anyone asks you to take a photo with them - they’ll charge you for it.
Tailors: Jenny designed a dress and collected it the next day for £18
Old Town: No bikes or cars are allowed in the old town so it makes for a really nice and quiet (depending where you go) walk around
From here we booked a bike trip with Easyriders up to Hue in order to get a TopGear type vibe and to drive the Hai Van Pass.
Easy Riders from Hoi An to Hue: From Hoi An we booked a bike tour up to Hoi An, viewing the Marble Mountains and Elephant Springs, as well as a local lunch stop on the way, which all took roughly 6 hours. We each had a bike and a driver, who both spoke terrible English but tried their best. This tour cost 1,600,000vnd - worth it if you ask me!
Hue was a disappointment and I would skip it out if I visited Vietnam again.. We stayed for 1 night and the service was unfriendly, the area we were in had nothing to eat at night time and just generally gave off bad vibes.
We booked a bus to Phong Nha Ke Bang national park for 180,000vnd each for the next day.
Phong Nha Ke Bang
Personally, Phong Nha was one of the highlights of Vietnam. It is home to one of the biggest caves in the world, Paradise cave, as well as a few others and has only had road access for 10 years meaning most Vietnamese probably haven’t even been there.
We stayed for 2 nights in the Mountain View Hotel in a double room after a 4hr bus from Hue. The town itself is small, with only one main street made up largely of hostels, travel agencies and restaurants. But the scenery is what makes it special.
One our first day we manned up and decided if there was ever a place to learn how to ride a bike, it was on the quiet roads of Phong Nha. The bike cost 100,000vnd (£3) for the day and about 50,000 for fuel. We drove to the botanic gardens and took the short walk to Gio waterfall which was very photogenic. The bike was actually such good fun, although I’m not sure Jenny would agree. On our 2nd day we took a boat tour of the Phong Nha cave for 400,000vnd. Overall it took about 2 hours and we got to walk around the inside of cave too.
The next day we caught the sleeper bus to Ninh Binh for 180,000 each and somehow managed to get the back row (a double bed!)
We arrived off the bus at 4am in what was certainly not where we were meant to be. Kindly, one of the guys from the bus gave us a lift to our hotel where we were allowed to sleep on the sofa in reception until check in time. We stayed for 2 nights at Chill House Homestay which was a quiet little family run place.
On day one we slept most of the day due to a bumpy overnight bus and then had a group dinner with the other guests and 2 workers. They made us tofu, rice, fish etc. After dinner myself and Jenny went out for drinks with Jori and Kim, two other backpackers, and we had been recommended a club to drink at down the road. We walked in, it was completely empty other than about 10 staff with music absolutely pumping and had no prices on the menu – bad sign. We literally couldn’t hear ourselves speak so we left and found a little local restaurant to sit down. We got some beers and a coconut full of rice wine for little over £1 and stayed there for the night with the locals.
The next day we rented a bike (120,000) and drive to Trang An. Similar to the popular Tam Coc, we decided it would be quieter and less expensive. We paid 400,000 for a boat and slowly traveled around the beautiful landscape. We stopped at a place where Kong Skull Island was filmed the previous year and looked around. After that we drove to Mua Cave just in time for sunset. We climbed the 500 uneven steps and were treated to an incredible panoramic view over the Ninh Binh province. It costed 100,000 each for entry.
On our final day here we again rented a bike and headed for Bich Dong pagoda about 30 minutes away. We were tricked into paying 50,000 for parking and entry only to find out that we didn’t need entry tickets. We then headed back to our homestay to catch the bus to Hanoi.
Our first of 3 visits to Hanoi. The bus from Ninh Binh was 120,000 each and lasted only 2 hours. We had 1 night at Funky Jungle hostel in an 8-man dorm which was simple but all you can expect for £2.50 for a bed!
We had dinner on the street just outside and had a brief wander round the old quarter before going to bed. Our first impressions of Hanoi weren’t that great and we both thought it was very like Bangkok in the sense that it was very “party party party”.
We were picked up from our hostel and travelled on a bus to Halong Bay. We booked a 2 day/1 night group tour called Golden Bay Party Cruise as the itinerary sounded good and there was a special offer on the price ($75).
Once we got to Halong, we took a speed boat to the main boat and had lunch. After lunch we checked out our ensuite cabin which was fairly nice and then went onto the deck and exchanged stories about Vietnam with some people.
We went kayaking for an hour or so and some people went swimming. Later we had a buffet dinner which was spot on. The food on this tour was actually surprisingly good! Later they gave us a 20L keg of beer and a jug of vodka - party time. There was happy hour all night on cocktails and later we watched people belt out some karaoke.
The next day, feeling rough, we were up at 7:30am to go bamboo rafting which was extremely similar to what we had done in Ninh Binh and Phong Nha. If it wasn’t so early I’d of probably been more into it. It was then that we all realised how polluted and dirty the waters were. We then began slowly heading back to Halong and had a cooking class on the way back. Our guides showed us what went into a spring roll, we rolled maybe 3 each and that was it… didn't even cook them?!
We took the 4hr bus back to Hanoi. Overall a really good trip and would definitely recommend to a friend. Good value for money, excellent food and okay activities. It's quite hard to find a trip in Halong Bay which suits all of your budget/interests etc, but I think this one did pretty well.
Back in Hanoi, we had one night at May De Ville. We got 2 beds in a 6 man dorm, again for about £3 for a bed, before catching the bus to Sapa the next day. We had dinner in the same place as last time except this time we sat on the floor upstairs - sometimes in Vietnam it's best to stick to what you know!
The bus to Sapa was more expensive than any other bus we took, even though it was only 4ish hours. It costed $10 each but was a good way to get a feel for the area, driving passed rice paddies and small villages as we ascended.
For 2 nights we stayed at Luong Thuy family hotel in a private double room. The staff were lovely but the room was a bit dirty and extremely noisy in the mornings as there was a lot of construction work going on in Sapa. We booked a guided hill trek via the hotel for $18 each for the next day. We had pizza and free mulled wine for dinner that night from a restaurant with a deal on.
During our trek the next day we visited 3/5 of the Sapa valley minorities and walked from Lao Chai – Ta Van – Giang Ta Chai. Towards the end of the walk we went through a bamboo forest for a short time which was so muddy and slippery – I think most people nearly went flying down the hill a few times.
Our guide was an informative local who told us how tourism had effectively ruined the area over the recent years and how all of the money made through tours goes to the government. We were followed throughout the trip by girls and women who originally tried to sell us things and then helped us in the bamboo forest before using this against us at the end. Jenny gave in and got a handmade purse type thing. We had a scenic lunch break of the standard tofu, rice and chicken combo before scaling the Rattan suspension bridge to catch the bus back to town. It had been a long, sweaty day!
The next day we really just killed time until our bus so we did some shopping
Sapa is a beautiful place but it really is a shame how Western culture is ruining the landscape. The locals have reacted to an influx of tourism by constantly constructing hotels and buildings meaning the visual and noise pollution is high, as well as all the other types of pollution. You'll find that the locals are a bit "in your face" when selling things too and will follow you and hassle you either until you raise your voice or give in. It's sort of like a guilt trip and they're very good at it.
Another $10 each bus took us back to Hanoi, this time for more than just a night. We had 2 nights at Hanoi City Backpackers with a double bed in a shared dorm. It was surprisingly nice and our roommates were exactly the type you would want.
Jenny got her cameras shutter fixed for free and then we walked to the famous train track street. A narrow residential street where, twice a day, a train flies though meaning locals have to gather their washing, motor bikes and children and hurry inside. Then there was Hoan Kiem lake where we walked around and took a few photos. From here we went back to the hostel and watched some movies as the next day we had an early flight to Saigon.
Comparing Hanoi to Saigon, I definitely prefer Saigon. They say the further North you go you more rude people get (which is war related) but we didn't find this. Hanoi is just lacking something but it was still an amazing experience.
We flew to Ho Chi Minh city for £50 each in order to later catch our flights to Istanbul. We had 3 nights in Saigon and the plan was to do some christmas shopping and chill out for a bit.
We stayed at Violet Star hotel and spa and this time got an uber from the airport, not making the same mistake again! It was located on the walking street which I had not realised when I booked it. The walking street is a pedestrianised (at night) street that hosts bars, clubs and restaurants. Luckily we were just off the street down a little alleyway so it was nice and quiet.
After dinner Jenny had become quite ill with food poisoning from what we think was probably raw chicken so we didn’t get to do that much shopping. It was still nice to not really do much and just prepare for 24 hours of travel the next day.
Upon leaving the country we flew to Kuala Lumpur and it was here that we discovered we needed a visa for Iran before boarding our flights. It was a nightmare and after hours of pondering what to do we had no other option to book a direct flight to Istanbul for £420. It was extremely demoralising but we made it none the less. It wouldn’t of been very fun getting to Iran and being told we weren’t allowed in!
That concludes our month in Vietnam. I believe a month is just about perfect to see and do everything important.
It’s a beautiful country with such a lovely culture and people and I am really glad we decided to go here!