I’ve been on two big journeys in my life: a five week trip to the U.S. where we drove by car from west to east and a four week trip to Vietnam where we travelled from north to south. All these trips have one thing in common: a good preparation. An essential ingredient here is gathering information about the country you’ll be visiting. I’ve always been a big fan of travel reports, because they give you a detailed overview of somebody’s opinion about a country. So I’d like to share our experience with the amazing and beautiful Vietnam as well. I’ll write it in English so that non-Dutch speaking people are also able to read this report. I’ll write it in a chronological way, which is a bit easier for me.
(Some pictures below)
We prepared a bunch of things before we left. The first thing you should make sure is okay, is your visa. We’re from Belgium so we could go to the embassy in Brussels and give them everything they needed, then go back a second time to pick up our passports. The cost would be around 90 EUR per passport, not counting fuel or train tickets to Brussels. We went for the second option: visa on arrival. Just go to www.myvietnamvisa.com and apply for your visa. They’ll e-mail you a letter of approval and also a form you need to fill in. Print the letter and the form. For each person take the letter, two forms and two 4 x 6 cm official pictures of yourself with you to Vietnam. When you arrive, go to the visa desk at the airport and get your visa. In total, the cost was about 90 EUR for two passports, a lot cheaper. Take 45$ with you to the airport, because you’ll have to pay them 45$ per passport in cash dollars. We were the first in line, but getting your visa shouldn’t take more than an hour. Make sure to arrange an airport pick up with your hotel. The cost usually is around 20$ for Hanoi and around 12$ for Ho Chi Minh City. You can also take a taxi, but don’t just take any taxi. Go with Mai Linh or Vinasun. They are known to be reliable and cheap.
The next thing you need to make sure is alright are vaccinations. For Vietnam, you need the standard stuff that you probably already have. Make sure you’re up-to-date with your DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus and usually also polio) vaccine. Also make sure you had the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, and rubella). These are vaccines that you also need for just living in Belgium. The ones you need for Vietnam in particular are Hepatitis A and Typhoid fever. Hepatitis B is recommended but most Belgians already have this one. Hepatitis A is a two-shot vaccine. After you get the first shot, you take the second one about 6 months later. Then you’re protected for life. The Typhoid fever vaccine only holds for 3 years. Don’t mess around with this stuff and make sure you’re alright. Always ask your doctor. Also don’t forget to take the usual medication for stomach ache (e.g. Motilium), diarrhea (e.g. Imodium), insect bites, some painkillers (e.g. Ibuprofren) and other stuff like that. Don’t think you won’t need it. You will almost surely get diarrhea over there. Vaccines and medication was (don’t be too shocked) over 400 EUR for us. About 200 EUR for the vaccines and about 200 more for the medication. A big part of the medication is stuff we can also use in Belgium, but most of it is the pills against malaria, which I will talk about next.
There is malaria in some parts of Vietnam. We decided not to protect ourselves with pills, because there can be serious side effects such as vomiting, fever and stuff like that. I don’t want that on my trip. Another reason is that Malarone is so damn expensive. Malarone can be used to protect yourself (1 pill per day from day -1 to day +7) or can be used to cure yourself (4 pills per day for 3 days). We just took one package of 12 pills in case one of us got malaria. The cost was 88 euros for 12 pills. This stuff is expensive! Now, I regret ever buying those pills. I also regret buying a mosquito net for 50 euros. You don’t need that stuff. Even the most basic hotels or homestays have mosquito nets for their visitors. And remember now: the Vietnamese themselves don’t protect themselves against malaria. I would recommend just using a strong insect repellent whenever you are in a risky area. But if you travel from city to city, you don’t really need it. Only if you take tours to more remote areas and definitely in the jungle. To be sure, just ask your doctor. Just so you know: we never took any malaria pills, we never used our mosquito net and we used our insect repellent on maybe 4 or 5 days in a total of 28 days. Luckily we were able to sell it all quickly when we got back. The pharmacy was even kind enough to buy back the Malaria pills.
Also make sure you take a credit card with a limit that won’t get you into trouble. Most ATMs in Vietnam have a maximum of 2 million VND (70 EUR or 95 USD). I’ve seen ATMs with limits of 5 million (AgriBank and HSBC). The costs are not that high. In Hanoi I remember getting 5 million VND from an HSBC ATM and paid about 100.000 VND in costs (about 5$), and of course you’ll also pay your own bank (2.5 EUR per transaction in our case). In Nha Trang I entered an AgriBank office to get 10 million VND in cash, for which I paid 200.000 VND in costs. Normally I don’t need that kind of cash, but we had to pay for a tour in cash. Don’t walk around with too much money in your pocket, but also don’t visit an ATM every day. It’s too expensive. Just get a couple of million VND and use those until you run out. Then get some more. Try to pay with MasterCard or VISA whenever possible, since it’s cheaper that way, although they’ll charge 3% extra for paying with a credit card. The banks always win.
We didn’t plan everything in advance. Just our first two hotels and some tours. So we took a small second-hand laptop with us to make some bookings here or there, to contact our family and to store pictures. You’ll find this useful as well. There’s Wi-Fi in every hotel, in every bar, practically everywhere. There’s more Wi-Fi in Vietnam than you’ll ever find in Belgium. All hotels we’ve been to had computers in the lobby and in Hanoi they even had laptops in the rooms. The airports in Vietnam also have free Wi-Fi.
Hmmm, anything else you need to know? Don’t pack too many clothes. All our hotels had good, quick and cheap laundry services. You won’t need socks and closed shoes, unless you go on a trek. I took maybe 10 pairs of socks and only used one. Take good sandals, you’ll be wearing them all the time. Most people there wear full-body ponchos when it rains. You can buy these everywhere at good prices. Don’t think an umbrella or a regular raincoat will keep you dry. You haven’t seen the rain in Vietnam, have you? If you are not spending a load of money on expensive 4 or 5 star hotels, you might run into some hotels that are not clean. Especially if you’re planning to do a homestay or two. In those cases you might find it helpful to take a pillowcase and maybe a thin liner (the ones you normally put in sleeping bags). Not all hotels have shower gel but you can find it in the stores.
Let me summarize our trip. Our planning looks like this:
9/9/2013 Fly from Brussels to Hanoi
10/9/2013 Ha Long Bay
11/9/2013 Ha Long Bay
12/9/2013 Ha Long Bay
19/09/2013 Hoi An
20/09/2013 Hoi An
21/09/2013 Hoi An
22/09/2013 Hoi An
23/09/2013 Hoi An
24/09/2013 Nha Trang
25/09/2013 Nha Trang
26/09/2013 Nha Trang
27/09/2013 Central Highlands: Nha Trang to Dalat with the Easy Riders
28/09/2013 Central Highlands: Nha Trang to Dalat with the Easy Riders
29/09/2013 Central Highlands: Nha Trang to Dalat with the Easy Riders
30/09/2013 Fly from Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City
1/10/2013 Ho Chi Minh City
2/10/2013 Mekong Delta Tour
3/10/2013 Mekong Delta Tour
4/10/2013 Ho Chi Minh City
5/10/2013 Ho Chi Minh City
6/10/2013 Fly from Ho Chi Minh City to Brussels
We arrived in Hanoi in the afternoon. Somebody from the hotel was waiting for us at the airport. Prepare to be dazzled when you enter the Vietnamese traffic for the first time. It seems as if there are no rules. There is chaos, a lot of honking, light-flashing and zig-zagging. Don’t worry, this is just the way traffic is in Vietnam. Don’t be afraid. Drivers in Vietnam are real heroes. Just watch out when you’re crossing roads. Look at the Vietnamese and just imitate what they’re doing. We arrived at our hotel around 4 or 5 pm. We went out for some food and back to bed. At 8 am the next day, our guide would pick us up for the tour to Ha Long Bay.
Ha Long Bay
We booked a tour with Indochina Junk (www.indochina-junk.com), the nr. 1 on Trip Advisor. There’s several options for boats; we chose the Dragon’s Pearl. It was a 3 day 2 night cruise with 15 other people. In short: it was amazing. I can really recommend these guys. It was really the first real experience we had in Vietnam. The staff on the boat was amazing. So friendly, so helpful. The Vietnamese food is amazing as well, and there was more than enough food on this boat. And of course: the scenery is stunning. Don’t even think about missing out on Ha Long Bay. If you visit Vietnam without going to Ha Long Bay, you’re crazy. It’s one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. We went kayaking, swimming, visited a floating fishing village and had a BBQ in a cave. It was just amazing. We slept pretty well since the water is very calm in the bay. There’s almost no waves, so the boat is pretty steady. Maybe a practical tip: if you’re going to the toilet in Vietnam, it’s a good idea to throw the paper in the bin and not in the toilet. Some toilets can’t handle toilet paper, hence the bin. All in all, Ha Long is an amazing experience. On day 3, they brought us back to Hanoi and we arrived there in the early evening.
Back in Hanoi and some time to discover the city. In my opinion Hanoi is nice, but not for too long. To our experience, there aren’t really a lot of interesting things to do in Hanoi. There’s a lake everybody talks about, Hoan Kiem Lake, but it’s really just a dirty pool with some spotlights and a tree in the middle. There’s a couple of museums or temples but we don’t really like that kind of stuff, so we skipped most of it. In my opinion, two full days in Hanoi is more than enough. The city is rather dirty, old-fashioned and extremely active. Some people like that, but we don’t. Just look up things to do on the internet and do whatever you’d like to do. We had some great food in Hanoi. I can really recommend the restaurant Little Hanoi. Great food at good prices. The next day, in the evening, we asked our hotel to bring us to the train station, where we took the Sapaly Express train to Lao Cai.
The night train to Sapa
Going to Sapa is simple: first you go to Lao Cai by train or bus, then you drive on to Sapa. We booked our train tickets through the Sapa Sisters, our guides in Sapa. It’s really a funny system. They mail you some vouchers, with these vouchers you need to go to some people in the station, after which you get the tickets. Make sure the tickets you get match the information on the voucher (train and hour of departure). You can also just ask your hotel, no problem. The Sapaly Express train is the second best train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. You’ll be in a comfortable four bed soft sleeper cabin. Note that all the different “trains” to Lao Cai are basically just different wagons attached to one big train. On the internet you’ll find some bad stories about Sapaly, but it was actually quite nice. The beds are clean, comfortable and large enough for me (I’m 1m82). The pictures of the cabins you’ll find online are accurate. The toilet is clean, there’s a washbasin where you can brush your teeth and wash your face. But don’t be surprised when you find somebody washing their feet in those basins. Cultures differ… You’ll also get some slippers and a bottle of water. Just don’t expect to sleep like a baby, unless you’re an easy sleeper. Otherwise, be sure to take some earplugs. The tracks in Vietnam are pretty old and not that wide. As a consequence, only old trains are able to ride those tracks. So expect a slow ride and a lot of bumps. But it’s a nice experience, so make the best of it.
We arrived in Lao Cai around 6 am. We booked a 3 day 2 night tour (including two homestays) with the Sapa Sisters, which was great. I can really recommend these girls! They’re a group of sisters and cousins that organize tours around Sapa. Little Chi, our guide, picked us up at Lao Cai station to visit the Bac Ha market (only on Sundays). It was a great experience. You really see the traditional life here. Unfortunately, Sapa and the surrounding cities and villages are infected by tourism, so the locals will try to sell you everything but their hair. Just say no and keep smiling. After the market, we moved on to Sapa. Here we did a trek. Most farmers were harvesting the rice, which happens only once a year in Sapa, around the middle of September. Afterwards they burn the plants, so it’s nice to see all the fire and smoke in the valley. The valley is just like the pictures: amazing. We did two homestays. These are very cozy and we had a lot of fun, but be prepared: you won’t sleep very well. You’ll always get a mosquito net, but the matrasses are nowhere near Western standards. Also don’t expect clean sheets. I had lice or fleas in my sheets, so I woke up at 4 am to go wash my hair which was full of little black dots. Horrible. So take your own sleeping bad and pillowcase. Sapa was very tiring for us since we weren’t prepared for these rough nights, but it was a very nice experience all in all.
From Sapa back to Hanoi for one more day. We actually planned for two more days but changed our Vietnam Airlines tickets for a small fee so that we could fly to Hoi An one day earlier. We had seen most of Hanoi, so time to move on. On our last night, we had diner at the Gourmet Corner Restaurant, above the Hanoi Elegance Emerald Hotel near the lake. You go up to the top floor and get a beautiful view of the city. You can have a nice diner for about 50 dollars. All hotels from the Elegance group are great hotels. Not as cheap as others, but absolutely great hotels.
We flew with Vietnam Airlines from Hanoi to Da Nang. I can’t say anything bad about these guys. The flights are short and cheap, you get a bottle of water and a refreshing tissue. It’s over before you know it and it’s the best way to travel long distances in Vietnam, sometimes even short distances. Hoi An is really an amazing little quiet town. Well, quiet compared to everything else in Vietnam. Cars are not allowed on the three main roads. One of those roads was flooded when we arrived, since there was a storm the night before. But they’re used to this in Hoi An, so no worries. You’ll find a load of nice shops where you can mainly buy tailor made clothes. My girlfriend bought a dress. She showed a picture of a dress she wanted, and 8 hours later, it was ready. Some more adjustments had to be made, and we were ready to go. At that time I decided that I would have a suit made. I paid about 250$ for a three piece suit (including a waistcoat), two shirts and a couple of ties. Everything was tailor made and could be adjusted on request. We did this at Yaly Couture. They have three shops around Hoi An and are a bit more professional than the other shops. I was a bit afraid about taking this suit home in my backpack. But I just folded the bag and took it with me as hand luggage, which was never a problem on the next three flights that we had coming. Of course, this results in a lot of folds, but just let somebody press your suit at home to get rid of those. I also had two belts made at one of the smaller shops in town. Hoi An is also the reference point to visit My Son sanctuary, which is nice to do for a day. Ask your hotel for tours and bring your insect repellent. We also spent one day on the beach, which is very nice in Hoi An. Big waves, warm water, just great. And lastly, we also took a cooking class with Green Bamboo, which I can really recommend. The price is 35$ per person, there are never more than 10 people, so it’s cheap, cozy and not too busy. When you subscribe, you can choose one dish from a big list. In the morning, they pick you up at your hotel. You then go to the market to buy all the ingredients you need. You’ll see how the market really operates and you’ll discover great food. Then, you go back to the house to prepare all dishes and eat them as well. It’s a great experience.
Time to move on from Hoi An to Nha Trang. Again, this is best done by airplane. We soon discovered that there was no need to book those Vietnam Airlines tickets weeks or months in advance. A couple of days in advance is good enough around September or October. Nha Trang is supposed to be the beach capital of Vietnam, but I can’t really say I enjoyed this city very much. It’s a bit dirty, the Vietnamese are remarkably less friendly (although we could have had bad luck), and the beaches are not as nice as you would expect. Actually the beach in Hoi An is ten times better. If you want to go to a beach to relax, do it in Hoi An. However, we did have a good time in Nha Trang. One day, we went snorkeling with a tour company recommended by our hotel, which was great. Three locations, a lot of beautiful fish, a funny guide and afterwards a great meal on the boat. But don’t forget your sunblock! And don’t forget that your back will be facing the sun most of the time, not your front! The price was around 300.000 VND per person, which is ridiculously cheap. We did this instead of a tour to Monkey Island, because those tours involve shows with dancing bears and monkeys and all kinds of crap that we didn’t want to support. I’d love to see an island full of monkeys, but it’s not worth it. Don’t support those idiots!
The next day we went to the Thap Ba Spa, which is ranked pretty high on Trip Advisor. Your hotel can arrange cheap transportation. The spa is not very expensive but also not cheap. It’s nowhere near Western standards. There’s absolutely no aura of relaxation. Buying tickets is hectic, the mud baths are quite busy and close to each other, and so on. It’s also not as clean as you might want it to be. Not that it’s dirty, but it’s in the details. Everything could look so much nicer if they just took some time to clean it. All in all, it’s a nice way to spend the day, but the owners of the spa need to pay more attention to the details. Don’t expect full relaxation. It’s more like going for a swim in a fancy pool. Apart from some excellent restaurants, everything else in Nha Trang is rubbish, I’m sorry to say. Can you imagine that we went to three bars and all of them didn’t have cocktails? Well, that’s not fair… One of those bars had “Cocktail” in their menu, so yeah… Another one had wine, beer, whisky, … on their menu but as soon as we sat down, all these things were not available. C’mon! This is supposed to be the beach capital, for crying out loud. Compared to all other cities in Vietnam, Nha Trang is really not that nice, apart from some restaurants and activities.
Nha Trang to Dalat with the Easy Riders
We now arrive at the best part of our entire trip: a 3 day tour with the Easy Riders. My girlfriend found out about the Easy Riders months before we left and she really wanted to take a trip with them. The Easy Riders is a group of bikers located in Dalat. The concept is simple: they take you from A to B on the back of their motorbike (a real one, not a scooter). The only thing you have to choose is A and B. Of course, they take the scenic route. There is absolutely no reason to fear being on back of their bikes, but you can always go by car if there’s no other way. But I would really recommend to go by bike. There are a lot of Easy Riders in Dalat, so we had a lot of choice. The current number 1 on Trip Advisor is www.easy-riders.net, which is the group we contacted. These guys are simply amazing. Don’t even bother looking for others. In short: this was the best part of our entire journey in Vietnam.
We booked the Nha Trang to Dalat route. Our riders were Bao and Terry. We visited giant waterfalls, rubber plantations, coffee plantations, silk factories, rice wine distilleries, and much more. We had amazing drives in the highlands. Our guides were funny, friendly, super nice guys. The drives were safe and the luggage that these guys can take along is crazy. We had 2 big 70 liter backpacks, 2 small 25 liter daypacks and two extra bags. No problem to take that along on two bikes. The rides are comfortable and we never felt uneasy on the bike. You can lean back against your luggage. We had two hotels, Hotel Eden in Buon Ma Thuot and Hotel Lak in Lak. Eden is a nice hotel, clean and quiet. Lak is also good but we didn’t have hot water in the morning and the sheets had some stains here or there, but apart from that everything was OK. The guys also take you to authentic Vietnamese places to eat. These places are great and charge almost nothing for amazing food. Really something different from the touristy Vietnamese restaurants that we usually visit. If there is one thing you do in Vietnam, let it be a tour with the Easy Riders.
We only stayed in Dalat for a little bit so we can’t really say a lot about it. The weather is nice, a real refreshment. It feels like a better-than-average summer day in Belgium. The Easy Riders dropped us off at our hotel (Thien An Hotel, recommended budget hotel!) in the early evening. We went out for some food and then went to the Easy Riders bar for a night of drinks with our guides. Officially the tour was over, but we had a good time at the bar. The next day, we walked around a bit in the city, had some food, drank some coffee, nothing special. Our next stop was Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon) and we were wondering (before our Easy Rider tour already) how to do it. There’s a train, a bus and an airplane. Train or bus take about 10 hours. Mind you that Dalat is less than 300 kilometers from Saigon. The airplane cost us 80 euros and the flight took less than an hour, so to hell with it, we’ll go the easy way. Note that if you do stay longer in Dalat, or not at all in Nha Trang, there’s also a lot of Easy Rider tours available. Just take a look on their website. You can basically start and stop wherever you want. The price is always 75$ per day.
Ho Chi Minh City
Our last stop is Ho Chi Minh City, former Saigon. Many of the southern Vietnamese still call it Saigon. Again, a big city, so I wasn’t really looking forward to it. We didn’t have a lot of time on the first day, since we arrived late in the evening and the next morning we left for a 2 day tour in the Mekong Delta.
We booked a tour with Handspan. The tour was great, but in retrospect, the price was just too high. Go elsewhere. The first stop is My Tho, where we took a boat to a small island in the Mekong. We took a small bike ride there, which wasn’t really that fun at all. Then we took a smaller boat to row quietly along the thick mangroves, which was nice. We had some local fruits and moved on to Can Tho. From there, the next day, we visited the floating market, which was a bit of a disappointment. It’s mainly medium sized boats that sell in large quantities. It’s nice to see, but it’s nothing like a real city market on the water. After the floating market, we headed back to Saigon. The tour was nice but I wouldn’t spend more than 75$ per person. We, unfortunately, paid 149$ per person, which is just too much. Our hotel had similar tours for about 30$ per person. The only disadvantage is that you’ll be in a bigger group. The Mekong is nice but there’s not a lot of new stuff to discover I you have been in Vietnam for 20 or more days already.
Ho Chi Minh City
Back to Saigon for our last days in Vietnam. We stayed in a hotel in District 1, a district that will blow your mind. It’s so different from the rest of Vietnam and it seems to be reserved for the rich. Large skyscrapers, expensive shops and five star hotels. It reminded me of cities like New York or Chicago, but a little different. Don’t expect traditional life here. Saigon, of course, is very busy, but the roads are much wider and pedestrians can comfortably walk around. In Hanoi, where all sidewalks are littered with parked motorbikes, it’s a different story. We visited the War Remnants museum, which is a nice and informative way to spend the morning or afternoon. You can also visit the Cu Chi tunnels, but we didn’t really feel up to another car ride after our Mekong tour. These car rides are so damn tiring because of the bad condition the road is in. We just spent the rest of the time being lazy. A little bit of food here, a little bit of a drink there, and so on. There’s a nice market called Ben Thanh Market. We bought a lot of nice souvenirs here, like some chopsticks, some monkeys carved from marbles, and so on. After a couple of days, it was time to head back to Belgium.
Vietnam is an amazingly beautiful country. If you visit, take your time. Don’t miss Sapa, Ha Long Bay, Hoi An or a tour with the Easy Riders. Enjoy the food as much as you can, because you’ll never find it anywhere else again. I strongly recommend Vietnam as a travel destination. It was the best journey I ever made.
Some pictures (from left to right: Halong Bay, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Hanoi, Sapa, Sapa, Hoi An, Easy Riders, Central Highlands, Mekong River Delta)