Vietnam was my first experience with Southeast Asia. It’s crazy, noisy and polluted and yet, has so much character and allows for so much personal growth because of how different it is.
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- What to pack
- How to make friends
- What to do and see
- Where to stay
The various wildlife you’ll see in Vietnam…..(not a typo, the motorcyles are part of the wild life in Vietnam!)
Very good. Unlike, say, Costa Rica, Vietnam is noisy. There are so many motorbikes, everywhere, at all hours. To ensure they don’t crash, they honk repeatedly, usually 3 times when they are behind you, to let them know. That honking can really mess with your natural inner peace desire. Even in the quietest of towns, those motorbikes are still honking at every opportunity. That being said, Vietnam is SOOOO different from any place in the Western world, and, I think, quite different than the rest of Asia. You might find yourself at a cooking class, or, because of limited English, especially if you venture to places like Sa Pa and Ninh Binh, you will be challenged to see what you’re made of to get around. I also found that the over-selling culture in many areas of Vietnam set me up to discover what I thought was respectuful, and disrespectful, behavior that became the theme of my Asian adventure. Because things are so different and even value systems are different, you are likely to have an easy time discovering yourself. It just might not be via meditation because it’s too noisy. BUT – it’s so cheap you can get a massage every day, and let me tell you, that’s a wonderful way to soothe yourself into inner reflection!
Excellent. I never felt in danger, apart from when I tried riding a bicycle! I even ate out fairly late in some places because I knew I could get a Grab (the Asian version of Uber) and get home safely from anyplace. I didn’t crazy party, but I genuinely felt safe as a woman and the most dangerous day or night, was trying to cross the streets, especially in Ho Chi Minh! I did note, however, that eating dinner alone seemed frowned upon as a woman. I frequently eat alone and it doesn’t bother me. However, Vietnam, in many restaurants, I felt like at dinner time, some of the waitresses sort of looked at me funny and gave me the feeling they did not like me being alone. I was told, only in Ho Chi Minh, not to flash my cell phone around as sometimes mororcycles drive by and swipe them right out of your hand. Apart from that, very safe!
Authentic. There are a lot of tourists in Vietnam, however, I did not feel that they lived their lives differently for us. The only two exceptions I think are Fansipan and Ba Na Hills. These two areas were built for tourists. They are like Disney World, costing roughly $30 to visit for the day (expensive for Asia) and full of touristy sites and attractions. I only went to Ba Na Hills and though touristy, I loved it! For the rest of Asia, it felt like though life was crazy, often fast-paced, street meat everywhere, more massage parlors than Starbucks in New York City, it always felt like that’s how they lived, as opposed to creating some perception of life or changing their life to cater to tourists.
Buses and trains. Because it’s so safe, inexpensive, and, as a long-term traveler you have nothing but time, I highly recommend the sleeper buses and trains. Actually, for longer distances, I preferred the sleeper bus. I heard the trains were really noisy. Also, in a train, you have to share a room with at least 3 other people and don’t know what gender they will be. In a bus you get the top or bottom bunk and though the bus rocks about, you somehow manage to sleep! Ask your hotel to book the buses for you for the easiest experience. I would not be brave enough to rent a car in Vietnam because the driving is so nuts, and I don’t understand the rhythm. So public transportation was the way to go! I didn’t see any local city buses but in many cities, Grab is easily available and ensures you will not be ripped off. In Hanoi a 20-minute ride outside the city cost roughly $3! I recommend downloading the app before you go, and adding your credit card so you can start using it from the airport. Note that in some cases, drivers who are far away will reply to your request for a taxi, especially, I noticed, for airport drop-offs because the fare is really good for them. You can handle this by booking in advance. Otherwise, if they are busy, you may also find that your driver is in progress of dropping off another customer before they pick you up. That’s how they roll. All this being said, if you decide to fly instead, there are many cheap flights, though when you add in a checked bag they can go up to roughly $200. This is where your airline miles can save you a bunch! I thought Vietnam Airlines was a pretty good airline, though you may find cheaper fares with Air Asia.
It’s really cheap! Vietnam was the least expensive country in Southeast Asia. Prices are so cheap that you could easily exist for under $20 day with little effort if you stayed in a super cheap hotel or hostel. A 3-course gourmet dinner with a glass of wine was less than $15 in Hanoi. Most meals I ate were around $3 and delicious. You could save money by staying in hostels, but I found some hotels with private rooms that were decent for only $12/night in smaller cities.
Strategic bargaining. If you’re a tourist in Vietnam you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. That means people will try to get more money out of you if you try to buy much of anything. I learned that I should pay roughly 1/3 whatever price I was told something cost. I found it much better to negotiate with women than men. I think the men didn’t like bargaining with a woman. My strategy worked most of the time – whatever price I was given, I offered about 1/3 the amount. They would come down a bit, I would go up a bit, and we would meet someplace in the middle, and that’s the price I paid. While you are negotiating away 20,000 or 200,000 dong, and that seems like a lot, in the end you are really talking about 50 cents or $2. Sometimes it can feel like you’re cheating them of a better life, so there’s a bit of an inner value conflict that can arise.
Not required. Tipping was not necessary anywhere in Vietnam. There is a fine dance because the more tourists tip, of course, the more we cause other cultures to cater to us by raising prices and expecting something that is not part of their culture. Again, an inner values conflict can arise here (all very powerful for self growth!) Just know that it is not expected and as a long-term traveler if you’re watching your budget, this can help a lot. That being said, sometimes you are going to run into a person that goes out of their way for you and you will of course want to tip them, like an outstanding tour guide. But, be mindful that others are out for a dollar. One of the worst experiences I had was a Vietnamese woman carrying baskets that asked if I’d like to take her photo. Without thinking, I did. I thanked her and walked away. She came after me, irate that I did not buy something in exchange. So, the aggressive selling culture you will experience kind of makes up for the no tipping!
Very Good ….I was pleasantly surprised how WiFi was easily available just about everywhere, and usually pretty good. In hotels with multiple floors, each floor had a separate WiFi network to connect to, so that you didn’t have to be close to the lobby to get the best service. Coffee shops and restaurants all had WiFi networks as well, and I frequently brought my laptop and did blog posts in various coffee shops.
SIM Card / Cell Phone Service
Difficult process to obtain Your hotel can probably assist you, but I got my SIM card from a local mobile phone store. Though I did feel they were more skilled at setting up my phone number correctly it is fairly time consuming because, among other things, they have to photograph your passport (you can’t get a SIM card without your passport) and make you sign 2 receipts since one goes to the store, and the other goes to the government. All the while, I wasn’t sure exactly who was helping me and what was happening. However, I did get a number, it worked with no issues and I do recommend it for those times you might be lost in the middle of nowhere or need to make local calls. Note, because of language difficulties, I never did quite understand how much local calls cost, per minute, but the amount I started with lasted me for 3 weeks, and it was roughly 200,000 dong/$8 USD.
Disgusting. Of all my travels so far, Vietnam had the most disgusting toilets. It’s one thing to get used to a hole in the ground. It’s another to deal with the condition of the bathrooms. The rest stops during bus travel were the absolute worst, as was one toilet during my trek in Sa Pa where there was a room with no ventillation and no toilet paper and you had to somehow pinch your nose and squat and hold up your pants so they didn’t touch the floor, truly the worst. Many public restrooms were just filthy, as if they had not been cleaned for ages. There was usually no toilet paper, or you had to pay for it, and no soap to wash your hands. One restroom I used had a side of rooms with doors (which I used) and across from it sort of open cubes with holes where women would crouch down, with their butt hanging out. Happily the places I slept had Western toilets, toilet paper, and good soap.
Insects, Rodents and Reptiles
Minimum. I happily did not encounter a lot of unpleasant bugs. There were lots of frogs outside my door at my hotel in Ninh Binh and some geckos, none of which bother me. Mosquitos were not too bad, but I was also there in October, which is after the rainy season. The place you might see them is cooked and available for food. I did not brave it, but one tour guide took us to a small village where you could eat rat. There’s a lot of street meat in Vietnam and I’m sure you’ll find an insect or rodent here or there.
Passport, Visa and Entry/Exit Rules
Straightforward, but can be expensive. It’s always a good idea to check the US government website (or your country’s local government if not the US) for in-depth information as well as the Vietnam embassy website. Vietnam allows tourists varying periods of stay depending whether you are on a tourist visa or something else. The thing to consider is that if you plan to be traveling in Vietnam for more than 4 weeks, and you may want to exit and return to it you have to buy a multiple entry Visa. If longer than one month you have tobuy a 3-month visa. This can be very costly. I purchased mine in advance because I understood some airlines don’t let you board without the visa. Also remember the golden rule to never travel with a passport that will expire within 6 months of your traveling.
Health, Water, etc.
Moderate. Don’t drink the water. I used bottled water every day including to brush my teeth. The good news is that just about every place you stay gives you free water bottles every day. The bad news is you can see how we are destroying the environment. Vietnam has high air pollution. As a visitor over six weeks I did not notice it too badly but there were days where the air felt heavy and unpleasant. Be careful with street meat, make sure the food is being cooked in front of you as opposed to sitting around for who knows how long. It’s also very, very hot, sometimes high humidity especially in the middle of the country. I easily went through several bottles drinking water a day just to keep hydrated, and carried chewable Gatorade gels because the electrolytes can be really important in that heat. I fell off my bicycle one day and went to a pharmacy for the various scrapes and cuts. The pharmacist used some sort of saline solution to wipe off all the dirt and ensure I didn’t get an infection. It cost a whopping $2. Check the CDC website for recommended vaccinations. I received the Hep A, Hep B, Typhoid and Japanese Encephalitis vaccinations. (The latter because I was planning to be in rural areas and in the country for more than four weeks.)
Hot, Rainy, Dry. Weather is in regions. Instead of four seasons, there is the rainy season and the dry season. The regions are north, middle and South and each has different months that are rainy and dry. The north will be cooler than the South, especially places like Sa Pa which, even in the summer, can be cool enough for a jacket. The middle of Vietnam is HOT and humid even when it’s not the rainy season.
Essentials to Pack
A hat and sunblock are a must to deal with the intense sun. Even though days were shorter in October, it was hot as hell and too easy to burn your skin if not properly covered. While in Asia I even bought a sun umbrella – they have a black inner lining which works wonders to create a bit of shade and keep the sun off of you. Much better than a conventional umbrella. Ear plugs because most likely, no matter where you sleep, it will be noisy. I’d recommend one of those cooling bandanas because yup it’s that hot. For anyplace in Asia, you’ll want to make sure you have a skirt or pants that cover your knees and soem sort of scarf you can use to cover bare shoulders in case you go to a temple. You will not be allowed inside without proper attire.
How to Make Friends
I found tours to be a fabulous way to meet people. I often made friends with the tour guides and connected on Facebook, and met some great people on my boat in Halong Bay. The overnight bus experience is also very bonding! I spent three days in Hoi An with a lovely man I met on my overnight bus bonding over how absolutely disorganized the whole thing was. I also met an amazing Swedish family on my crazy 3-day bus and boat tour from Vietnam to Cambodia as well as several other amazing people from around the world. Tours are super cheap!
What to Do and See
For self discovery in a quieter way, I highly recommend a homestay someplace in Sa Pa. Maybe spend a couple of weeks in the area as there are several small villages to trek to. After you do the trekking, it’s easy to walk around and admire the beautiful scenery and you may even encounter a herd of water buffalo walking along the road! You will have to fend off the local ladies that will ask you “shopping?” at every turn but either enjoy the scenery or a quiet local cafe. Indulge in as many massages as possible. They are amazing and roughly $10 each. A two hour massage is roughly $15, and I had a 90 minute 2-person massage for less than $30! Ninh Binh is also exceptional. If you stay outside the main city you can find amazing panoramas, cows at the side of the road, monuments to hike up, small temples, and bike everywhere. I loved Ba Na Hills which is where the bridge over the two hands is located, near Da Nang. For stepping outside your comfort zone and just wining it, Hanoi is fairly large with many districts. Walk around and see where you lose yourself.
Where to Stay
Here are a few of the places I liked:
Oriental Central Hotel – located in Hanoi the staff is lovely, very helpful, and the rooms are clean, bright and have a hot shower. They are also off the noise of the street which is great. I found their travel agent, Mary, made excellent recommendations and took care of me when a mishap occured on one of my ventures.
The Ninh Binh Panorama – this was probably my favorite hotel in all of Vietnam. It was plunk in the middle of nowhere but a beautiful panoramic view. There is nothing there but you, the few rooms, the still lake, and the sky. The perfect place to lose yoruself, whether you stay on the property all day or borrow a bike to see the nearby sites. The small room for $12/night was ample – you had to walk outside to use the toilet which, if it was the wee hours, meant use of a flashlight and really waking up, but bed was comfortable and sleepign in silence was wonderful. The bungalows are unbelievable. The family that runs the place is lovely, they are decent cooks, too! I’d love to know if the tiny, skinny baby kitten I met is doing ok….
Dat Cam Homestay – in Hoi An I had my own room, on the top floor, with private bathroom, nice view, for $12/night! The owners are sweet and have a cute baby daughter. For breakfast you can have eggs or the most amazing cut up fruit in yogurt which I highly recommend. The only thing I did not like was they will try to bring you to the market so you buy tailored clothes. I had a horrible experience at the market and strongly suggest if you want to get something tailored, refuse their offer and go instead to Peace Tailors.
GET THE BOOK
The perfect guide to help you see Vietnam and discover yourself in the process.
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After roaming around this wonderful country I’ve put together a guide to help you with some basic information (when to go, why Vietnam is great for long term travel, etc.) and more in-depth information on the culture, how to get around, and most importantly, some tips to help you choose the right destinations for you. It’s not about seeing all the touristy stuff, it’s about choosing locations that sing to you and make you feel found.
Finally, I give you some ways to make the trip about self discovery instead of feeling like it’s just a long vacation.
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