We took it slow in Vietnam, spreading our time out over more than a fortnight. I actually wish we’d returned to Thailand earlier and perhaps fitted in a visit to Chiang Mai, but flights were cheapest early in the week, and I wanted to book well in advance in order to lock in good rates.
I’m also going to include spending for our last couple of days in Asia, which were spent back in Bangkok.
June 19 – $46.22 (including shared taxis and meals out with our CS hosts; again, free accommodation)
June 18 – $57.28 (including transport to and from airports. Free accommodation through Couchsurfing)
June 17 – $56.64
June 16 – $15.72 (drinks, etc, aboard the Halong Bay tour, the only exclusions in the price)
June 15 – $40.55
June 14 – $273.33 (including tickets for overnight Halong Bay cruise)
June 13 – $44.94
June 12 – $34.49
June 11 – $31.42
June 10 – $77.05 (including sleeper bus tickets from Hue to Hanoi)
June 9 – $71.92 (including motorbike and fuel)
June 8 – $73.96 (including motorbike rental and fuel)
June 7 – $77.95 (including transport from Hoi An back to Danang)
June 6 – $44.55
June 5 – $38.73
June 4 – $65.34 (including transport to Hoi An from Danang)
June 3 – $184.93 (including sleeper train tickets up to Danang)
June 2 – $97.51
June 1 – $64.29
May 31 – $48.11
May 30 – $40.92
May 29 – $33.12
There were some expensive days (e.g. Halong Bay tour and restaurant splurges, especially in the very internationalised Ho Chi Minh) and some cheap ones (particularly while T was sick and not eating much). Overall, though, Vietnam was still a very frugal destination – especially now that we look back on it through a European lens…
Vietnam is a polarising destination. Without exception, I’ve found friends, couchsurfers, and bloggers either adore the country (rare), or found it a disappointment (the majority).
I get it. It’s understandable why some find Vietnam underwhelming.
Getting sick at some point seems par for the course. That can easily sour your experience, logical or not.
Getting ripped off is also part of the deal. Be it paying twice the highest amount listed on the side of the food cart (while the tourist couple ahead of you were only charged a 50% premium) … or getting charged a different price for the exact same item at the exact same shop by the exact same person on different days … or that pause when a random stallholder throws out a price no doubt conjured out of thin air – probably the highest number they think they can extract from you. But hey, are you really going to quibble over a few cents here, a dollar there?
For all that, though, I’m in the first camp.
Scenes from the Reunification Palace
I’d decided I liked Vietnam already by the time we got off the bus.
The drivers seemed to stick to their side of the road most of the time. The heat in Ho Chi Minh seemed downright mild after Cambodia. And our bus stopped exactly where it was supposed to stop, just a few doors down from our hostel.
I don’t know if that’s because we travelled with a good bus company or if it’s simply a function of arriving during the day. We’d previously always arrived at dawn, when it was still dark or close to it. Result: a busload of disoriented passengers, ripe for scammage from local drivers. Here, just a few drivers clustered around the doorway, and half-hearted would be too kind a word to describe their sales efforts.
Admittedly, Vietnam isn’t the most welcoming country for tourists. Visas are required for most nationalities, and they’re expensive. English signs/menus are few and far between, though I actually really like and respect that.
What really elevated the experience for me was the people – the friendly hotel staff in Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi (not Saigon, though) and the equally friendly couchsurfers we met all through the country. While not many are in a position to host visitors, most are eager to meet up for a coffee or to show you around. Heck, most seem to use Couchsurfing to meet travellers at the local meetups and practise their English – in Hue, I found a local student through her post offering herself up as a free tour guide to tourists. If it weren’t for them, I don’t think I would have rated Vietnam quite so highly. It made all the difference. Little things, like learning what the giant red building you pass every morning is (their high school), or their instinctively taking your arm to guide you across the road, because even after two weeks of acclimatising, getting from one side to the other is still a scary proposition.
Monkeying around at Halong Bay
As for the eating, I found Vietnamese food surprisingly enjoyable, and downright sublime in some of the central regions. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised by the subtle yet full-bodied soups.
That said, two weeks was enough. Enough of the noodles, the traffic, the sickness, the heat, all of it. I must admit we did very few of the typical touristy things in Vietnam, but I still feel I got as much out of it as I could. (I don’t say ‘we’, because the whole country was a bit of a bust for T, who was under the weather for most of the time.)
No, Vietnam wasn’t the easiest, but it was a one-of-a-kind experience, and I’m thrilled to have the memories.
2000 islands in Halong Bay – the mind boggles. The varying shades of mountain give you an indication of distance
The Amazing Cave, which well and truly lives up to its name.
We didn’t know exactly where we were going when we stepped off the train in Hue.
I did know that we should head straight into town, which was just a few minutes away, and find ourselves a place to stay. After dodging a few taxi/moto drivers, we paused to adjust our backpacks. That’s when a couple of young guys approached us with a card, encouraging us to come and check out their hotel. “No obligation,” they reiterated several times. Hardened from a month of travel, I was sceptical. Nothing is free!
But for all their exhortations to “come and have a look” at their cheap, centrally located hotel, complete with free transfer, T made the call to go along with them. Into their minivan we went, and surprisingly, it paid off.
At the Binh Duong 2, we stayed in style. For US$12, we enjoyed a huge room opening onto a private balcony with table and seats, a king bed, a bathtub, air con and ceiling fan, even crown moulding. Pretty solid.
As for Hue itself? It was a little dull, to be honest. We decided to skip the DMZ stuff and just check out the Imperial City and a tomb (Tu Duc). There were walks along the riverside, rides over the bridge and around town, a brief beach excursion, a morning at the local shopping centre and some confusion around the parking protocol.
Along with a couple of local Couchsurfers (who backed up our view that the Citadel etc were somewhat underwhelming), I also got to sample amazing local coffee and fresh fruit smoothies, and wander around a bucolic temple hidden away amongst a bush setting, where we spotted a group of monks halfway through a game of soccer.
All in all, a good place to wind down and take it easy.
You might be in two minds about Hoi An, dithering about whether it’s worth a stop or not. After all, it’s not the easiest town to get to.
Sure, there are open tour buses that stop there, and fares are crazy cheap – maybe $10 – but the horror stories online, combined with your experience of long distance bus rides and what you’ve seen so far of Vietnamese roads, might seriously put you off.
The train from Saigon to nearby Danang doesn’t come cheap, at more than $50 a ticket, and a berth split with two elderly Vietnamese women who don’t look overly impressed by having to share with these foreigners and spend most of their time ‘whispering’ to each other. (It’s okay; we have no idea what you’re saying, so covering up your mouths and speaking into each other’s ears without dropping the volume one notch makes zero difference, ladies.) But at least it’s comfortable, and that is (almost) priceless for your 6’2 husband.
Then there’s actually getting to Hoi An from the train station. As per usual, we seem to be travelling the wrong way; the trip to Hoi An apparently costs twice what it would if you were travelling from Hoi An. I’d armed myself with all the information I could find about catching the cheap public bus, but with comfort and convenience in mind, we end up forking over $20 for a taxi.
Once you reach Hoi An, though? It’s completely, unquestioningly worth it.
True, while the ancient buildings have been physically preserved yet turned into rows of “same same” (to borrow a phrase) shops, there’s still an overarching old world charm that permeates.
Women (always women) presiding over their clothing shops and restaurants. Dogs ambling down the streets, or sitting dead still on the sidewalks. Vibrant galleries and bins of broken porcelain. Soothing music piped through the streets, punctuated by late afternoon public announcements that the motorbike ban is about to end.
Cheap delicious food abounds, especially the local specialty, cao lau (noodles). Oddly, the eateries seem to either embrace you, doing all they can to reel you in, or practically ignore you, leaving you to find your own seat and wait 10 minutes for service.
At night, they come out to play. The bridge is a beacon in the dark, packed with tourists jostling for photos and local kids on blades and bikes. Candles, lanterns, and portraits for sale all along the riverbank. Public performances at the corner pavilion. Music from the moored boats, where you might be able to make out singalongs to old English tunes.
It’s all a show, really, but it doesn’t make it any less magical.
My Hoi An recommendations
Where to stay
Phuong Dong Hotel. Book directly through the website. It’s inexpensive yet clean and airy, located reasonably close to the action. Our last hotel in Saigon was meant to have a bathtub but didn’t; finding one in our room here was an unexpected surprise.
Where to drink
Buy drinks from street stalls, your room fridge, even restaurants. For some reason, water, fizzy, and iced tea actually costs more at the minimarts.
We also found a bar along the riverside that sold 65,000 dong cocktail buckets (under $4). Bargain.
Where to eat
Tran Cao Van is home to Lucky Cafe, which is run by Aussie NGO MAD Indochina and works with Vietnamese youth, serving up a mix of Western and Asian food. The menu is massive, though I really only went there for bacon baguettes on T’s behalf.
Across the road, you’ll find the Banh Mi queen, Madam Khanh, who claims to be the best in Hoi An. I went straight there and never had banh mi anywhere else. Freaking fantastic. And for some reason, I got extra meat added to mine after they found out I was from Malaysia. The downside? You won’t be able to stomach banh mi in any other town afterward – inferior versions that don’t hold a candle to the Madam’s.
Around the corner on Thai Phien are some streetside food stalls. I tried two different ones, both of which served up amazing bowls of fresh noodles. Take a look, see what tickles your fancy.
Toward the river, Trung Bac on Tran Phu was also excellent, and be sure to grab a scoop of homemade ice cream at the Art Cafe and Pizzeria right on the waterfront.