Submitted by Alison Winward May 2004
Travelling through Vietnam is pretty straightforward: it's a long, narrow country, and most of the places of interest to travellers are on one side of the country, the coastal side, and most are on the train line.
The most comfortable way of travelling in Vietnam is by train. It used to be that foreigners paid about twice the price locals paid, but since January 2002, fares should be the same. There are several standards of train; the most expensive, obviously, are the most comfortable, and the fastest. Most trains have sleeper compartments as well as seats, not surprising as many of them are so slow! Guesthouses and backpacker cafes can book tickets, but it's sometimes just as easy to book them yourself from a train station.
The most popular way of travelling in Vietnam, for backpackers at any rate, is on tourist buses, run by backpacker cafes such as Sinh, which has branches in practically every city of interest to travellers.
The fares are (or were in early 2002) a bit more expensive than the public buses, but they take travellers where they want to go, and you don't have to share a seat with four other people and a couple of chickens and a hundredweight of cabbages. Oh yeah, and you're less likely to have someone try to rob you, as can happen on the public buses.
Don't get me wrong, it's only a minority of people in Vietnam who want to rob you, but, in my experience, if you're going to have someone try to rob you anywhere in south-east Asia, it will be in Vietnam. You can understand why. At the risk of generalising, Vietnamese people work really hard - the girl working in the bakery at 10pm is the same one you saw at 4am that day - yet no matter how hard they work, most will never earn more than US$1 a day. It must be difficult for people who never have even a day off to see Western travellers enjoying the kind of extended holiday they will never be able to afford.
Attitudes to Westerners are interesting, particularly in the north. Expats who understand Vietnamese have told me about buying stuff from locals who, while smiling broadly at them, are saying insulting things about them in Vietnamese to their neighbour, such as: "How much should I charge the stupid Westerner?". Then you'll meet men in the south who are sooo proud to have worked with the Americans in the 1960s and 70s.
There are supermarkets, primarily in Saigon and Nha Trang; I hate to deprive locals of income, but 'foreigner' prices are often so ludicrously high that I always felt more confident buying from the supermarkets instead.
It is possible to travel independently, but it's often much more economical to take a tour, especially if you want to explore the Mekong Delta and the like, because it works out pretty expensive to charter a boat.
Colder than you might expect in Winter, warmer than you might expect in Summer. The "Old Quarter" has loads of character: narrow streets, dinky, Chinese-inspired shophouses; it's great for shopping for stuff such as lacquerware and beaded items. There are museums such as the art museum, and others devoted to Ho Chi Minh and the Communist revolution etc. And you get to see pickled "Uncle Ho" in his mausoleum. I went to a water puppet show expecting it to be a twee nightmare, but it was actually very sweet and terribly clever. I can't remember where I stayed, but Tamarind Café did nice, if a touch expensive, Western food.
Up in the mountains north of Hanoi. The city itself isn't exactly pretty, but the location is gorgeous. It's also the place to go if you want to check out minority hilltribespeople. We stayed at Green Bamboo guesthouse, which cost around $15 for a comfortable room with two beds. Café Mimosa did good food. You can get there by taking a train from Hanoi, then a minibus from the train station; Sapa is a one-and-a-half hour or so drive up in the mountains.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, a bay of around 3,000 limestone islands that rise abruptly from the emerald sea. A popular way of seeing the bay is to spend the night on a boat there, but be warned… I met someone who knew some people who had had to sleep on deck because of the rats making merry in their cabins! I went with Handspan, a Vietnamese company based in Hanoi, and had no ratty problems. I spent a couple of nights on Cat Ba Island and, if I had had to shave a few days off my trip, these are some of the days I would lose.
Once a royal capital. Worth seeing for the "Forbidden Purple City", where the emperor used to live. Not as overwhelming as the Forbidden City in Beijing and shot pretty much to bits during various wars, but still atmospheric. I rented a bike and cycled round the forbidden city and the surrounding Citadel, and it was a lovely experience.
If it's still there, the Café on Thu Wheels (plugged in the 2001 Lonely Planet, up an alley which I think is off Duong Nguyen Tri Phuong) is worth checking out. Thu runs the backpacker café and her 10(!) brothers run, or used to run, motorbike tours of places of interest outside the city centre, such as pagodas and imperial tombs.
Hué is also one of the starting points for tours of the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone), the area that divided the north from the south after the 1954 Geneva Accords. It's a long, long, day out from Hué, and, unless you read up on your history beforehand, most of the sites don't really mean that much. Most interesting bit? The three-foot high tunnels at Vinh Moc, which became the underground home of the Viet Cong. These are less touristy than the similar tunnels at Cu Chi, near Saigon.
I stayed in the Le Loi Hué Hotel because it was the first I came upon when I stumbled out of the train station after a night on a hard - and I mean HARD - sleeper berth. I paid around US$4 for a basic room with cold water bathroom and small balcony, but I think this was a special offer price and it should have cost $6. They had more expensive, nicer rooms as well (Saigon FC football team was staying while I was there!). I can't recommend the laundry highly enough: my well-travelled socks went into it a murky grey and came out as white as the day they were bought, and I still haven't been able to work out how they managed that!
Has, apparently, the world's largest collection of Cham artefacts (Chams were Muslim Indians who controlled what is now central Vietnam more than 1,000 years ago). Sure, there are lots of artefacts, but they aren't explained properly or put into context. I can't remember where I stayed, but it was cheap, recommended by Lonely Planet and near the harbour.
Marble Mountain: Five marble hillocks riddled with caves and decorated with pagodas, easy enough to do as a day trip from Danang or Hoi An. I rented a motorbike and driver.
Chock-full of character: tiny streets of 200 year-old shophouses, built by merchants who got rich trading with China and Japan before the Perfume River silted up. Hoi An is very popular with tourists - three visitors for every one resident in 2000 - so accommodation is a bit more expensive than other places in Vietnam. However, during Tet (Vietnamese New Year) in February 2002, I got a very decent room, with fridge, hot water bathroom, aircon and comfortable bed, for US £10, in the refurbished Trade Union Hotel. I also stayed a few nights in Thuy Duong II, and paid $6 or $7 for a room with bathroom, but the $10 at the Trade Union Hotel was much better value. Hoi An has loads of restaurants, most of them really cheap, (I loved Hai's Scout Café on Duong Tran Phu - cappuccino, apple-cinnamon muffins and tacky celeb magazines, yum, yum yum!) but if a building isn't a restaurant, chances are it's a tailor's shop. Hoi An is the tailoring capital of Vietnam; every waiter, hotel receptionist and market stall-holder has a cousin who has a shop who will do you a special deal "because you are my friend". Hmm. Sometimes the fabrics aren't always great, but the tailoring's usually pretty good. I had an ao dai (Vietnamese traditional dress) made-to-measure in silk, for US$16. It took a couple of hours to make and fitted like a dream. Amazing! There's a beach about five miles away, which is OK, but not great.
I had expected Tet to be a crazy experience, and it was, in a way, but only because it was such a non-event. The city was full of activity during the preparations, but by midnight on New Year's Eve, the place was pretty much deserted, because the locals preferred to be indoors celebrating with their relatives rather than entertaining the tourists. Most places were closed on New Year's Day, although most hotels were open, and some restaurants, so I didn't starve.
The most important Cham ruins in Vietnam, but they were severely damaged in the 1970s when they were a base for the Viet Cong and attacked regularly by American forces. The ruins are nice enough, but, obviously, they aren't anything like as impressive as they would have been in they hadn't been bombed to bits, or pillaged by various invaders before that, but they're worth visiting, if only to check out the lush jungle setting. I went there on a tour organised in Hoi An. The 'tour' also included a 'Vietnamese cookery lesson' during a cruise on the Perfume River, and visit to local 'craft villages', but it was really rather rubbish. The 'cookery lesson' was nothing more than watching the boat crew make spring rolls, in less-than-hygienic conditions, and the 'crafts' being demonstrated in the villages weren't particularly impressive. Mind you, things might have changed in the two years since I was there.
The site of the infamous My Lai Massacre is now a peaceful park with a thought-provoking museum. It's about eight miles or so from the city of Quang Ngai. From Hoi An I got a tourist bus bound for Nha Trang but got off in Quang Ngai, where I got a motorbike and driver to take me to My Lai and back, then I got a train from Quang Ngai to Nha Trang. There are places to stay in Quang Ngai, though, should the fancy take you.
Vietnam's premier beach resort. If you're familiar with the beaches of Thailand, you probably won't be impressed, but some people like it, and it's a bit of a party town as well. It's also a good place to go diving. Miles better than the beach were the hot springs about two miles north of the town centre. I just had a 'bath' in warm mineral mud and a swim in the thermal pool, but it was possible to have a massage and other treats for around US$5. The Cham Towers on the road up from Nha Trang are worth a brief visit too.
If you get bored with the beaches, there are a couple of interesting pagodas, such as Long Son, which is beneath a hill dominated by a huge seated Buddha.
The Pasteur Institute and Yersin Museum on the beach-front road of Duong Tran Phu is a more cerebral way of passing an hour or so; it's dedicated to scientist Alexandre (I think that's his first name) Yersin who researched some of the tropical diseases that cripple Vietnam.
I arrived in Nha Trang on Christmas Eve and had a crazy time wandering through streets packed with Vietnamese people wearing Santa hats and squealing: "Happy Christmas!!!" at me.
On Boxing Day, I signed up for one of the island tours one is supposed to do when one is in Nha Trang. I think I had a choice of three operators: I can't remember one, but one was the legendary Mama Hanh Green Hat tour, famed for enabling backpackers to get very drunk, very stoned and very sunburned during a day drifting round the islands. I opted, though, for a tour run by Mama Linh because I thought it would be quieter, just what I needed after the excesses of Christmas Day. Unfortunately, though, our Australian tour leader tried (and failed) to imitate the livelier Mama Hanh tour, by blasting out loud rock music and trying to get us up and dancing and partying when all we really wanted to do was vegetate. Someone told me Mama Hanh is no longer operating; you can probably get up-to-date information through Lonely Planet's thorntree.
There are other beach resorts further north and south of Nha Trang, but I don't really know much about them; I think you can get information about them from thorntree.
The beach here is nicer than the one at Nha Trang, but I couldn't help feeling a little bit trapped. One end of the beach is given over to resorts and hotels, some posher than others, while the other end is occupied by a working fishing village, and offering little in the way of evening entertainment for visitors outside the hotels and resorts, so it all felt a little claustrophobic.
Me and my mate rented bikes and cycled to these atmospheric sand dunes about four miles from our resort, which was good for a 'Lawrence of Arabia' moment. By the time my (now ex) boyfriend went there in late 2002, some enterprising soul had come up with the idea of 'sledging' down the dunes. My friend and I stayed in the fancy Palmira Resort, paying US$40 for a room on the beach. The resort was nice enough, but it didn't have much atmosphere. Plus, we had something in our room one night. I was too scared to look, and flashed my torch to make it go away then covered my ears so I wouldn't hear it leaving; the following morning I noticed a hole in the skirting board that I hope was made by a big cockroach…
Probably the most cosmopolitan city in Vietnam. There are loads of Chinese-inspired pagodas, which are nice to visit, but if you're pushed for time, well, when you've smelled the incense at one pagoda, I suppose you've smelled it at them all…
War-related stuff is everywhere. There's the Revolutionary Museum (worth going if only to read comments such as: "The youths' mind of south Vietnam was poisoned with pornographic literature, films and music."); 'Reunification Palace', once the home of the President of South Vietnam, and The War Remnants Museum, with exhibits about the suffering endured by Vietnamese people during the Vietnam/American war. There's a Ho Chi Minh Museum in District 4, but if you've seen the one in Ha Noi, you can possibly give this a miss, and the Fine Art Museum, while OK for passing part of an afternoon, isn't really unmissable.
Saigon is a lovely city just to wander around though, as the streets are well maintained, and there are some gorgeous colonial buildings, such as the post office and Notre Dame Cathedral. For a bird's eye view of the city, check out the café which is (or was in December 2002) at the top of (I think it's called) The World Trade Centre. Whatever, when I was in Saigon, it had a massive "Prudential" (as in the insurance company) sign on it, and it was visible from all over the city.
If you're travelling on a budget, the best thing to do is head straight to the backpacker area of Pham Ngu Lao, as there are LOADS of places to stay, as well as practically everything else you'll need: backpacker cafés and travel services, lively bars, internet cafes, souvenir shops and hairdressers.
Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Dai temple:
A popular day trip from Saigon is a visit to the three-foot high tunnels where the VC hid for many years, and, fairly close by, the main temple of the bizarre Cao Dai sect, which regards Victor Hugo, Marie Curie and other unexpected historical figures as saints.
You might feel like a total tourist, but joining a tour is probably the cheapest way of seeing the delta. Yes, you can get there yourself really cheaply, and you can get budget accommodation, but it's when you come to charter a boat to explore the waterways that the costs start to rise. Some of the 'tours' from Saigon are sometimes little more than marketing exercises. The itinerary will include, say, "A visit to a coconut candy factory", so you'll go and watch people stirring sweet sticky stuff in big bowls, then get asked to pay twice the going rate for packets of toffee. OK, so it tastes really nice, but watching someone mix stuff in a bowl isn't going to be the most unforgettable experience of your trip, is it?
On the subject of things coconut, some trips include a visit to the island of the 'Coconut Monk', a recluse or similar who created some kind of magical kingdom on his island. Anyone who has been to this sad, dilapidated little place will realise that it's now trading on past glories…
Chau Doc/Can Tho:
I did a Sinh Café tour that included stops in Can Tho and Chau Doc, but I arranged to spend an extra night in each. In Chau Doc, I rented a motorbike and driver for the day so I could go to Ba Chuc, a village where the Khmer Rouge brutally massacred 3,000 people, and Tuc Dup, a cave complex in a mountain, where the VC withstood being held under siege by American forces for 128 days.
Back on the Sinh Café tour, we went to Sam Mountain, for a view of the border with Cambodia. I met someone later who recommended a guesthouse near Sam Mountain, called the Mekong Guest House, Mui Sen, run by a British man. We spent the night in Can Tho; there wasn't much there at all, but we were dragged to a flour mill and a rice noodle factory and to Cai Rang floating market, which wasn't as picturesque as you might think.
Back 'off tour', I took a public bus to the town of Soc Trang, to see the 'Clay Pagoda' and the 'Bat Pagoda'. I couldn't understand what was notable about the clay pagoda, but it was quite fun watching the massive fruit bats who live at the bat pagoda. The one-and-a-half hour bus trip cost me 8,000 dong each way, and the journey was pleasant enough, but it was also when some low-life woman managed to ease up my t-shirt and unzip my money belt, although she didn't get my wallet because it was wedged in so tightly.
Used to be the haunt of Soviet engineers working on the offshore oilrigs. The city is spread over a triangular peninsula, which means it's quite spread out. The beaches are OK, but not brilliant by any means, polluted by oil from the rigs. The main attraction has to be the Rio-de-Janeiro-style statue of Jesus on a hill by the ocean. It looks amazing from the road, but what's great is that it's hollow, so you can climb up and admire the view from Jesus' shoulders. And read the notice warning you: "Do not climb on the hands or the halo"! I also visited Bach Dinh, the 'White Villa', a former royal residence in peaceful gardens. It wouldn't rank among the great houses of the world but it was pleasant enough.
I got to Vung Tau on a public minibus from the bus station near Ben Thanh Market in Saigon. I think I paid 25,000 dong each way.
Vietnam's honeymoon capital, apparently, which probably explains the tasteful swan-shaped boats on the lake there. Sights in Dalat include Emperor Bao Dai's winter palace, a restful Art Deco place in a pleasant garden, and, nearby, the 'Crazy House' a guesthouse that looks like something from a fairy tale. We stayed there, paying something like US$45 for a night in the 'Tiger Room'. My friend and I joined an organised tour which took in the Datanla waterfalls, a nice place for a dip; Lang Dinh An, the 'Chicken Village', a minority village dominated by a massive concrete chicken (there's some sad love story connected with this chicken, but I can't remember what it is) and Lam Ty Ni Pagoda, the home of the 'crazy monk', who produces several works of 'art' every day. He was nice enough, but I get the feeling he was getting a bit fed up of having tourists traipsing through his pagoda, even if they do buy his artworks as souvenirs.
My friend and I also took the cremailliere railway to the village of Trai Mat. The journey's only about seven miles each way, but it was interesting to see mountainside after mountainside of vegetable terraces.
Central Highlands/Buon Ma Thuot/Pleiku/Kon Tum:
Home to lots of minority tribes. I wanted to go to Kon Tum. It seemed easiest to go to Buon Ma Thuot then find transport from there, but after a load of faffing about, I lost the will to live and gave up. So you don't make the same mistakes as me, I'll relate what happened.
I heard I could get a bus from Dalat to Buon Ma Thuot, so I went to Dalat. But once there, I was told that the buses left at 2 or 3am and went down a very bad road miles away from anywhere. It all sounded rather dodgy, so I decided to give it a miss (now I'm a more experienced traveller, I would probably have said 'sod it' and got on the bus!). Instead, I went to Nha Trang, because the route from there to Buon Ma Thuot was supposed to be safer and buses more frequent. The woman at Nha Trang bus station told me I'd have to 'negotiate' my fare with the bus driver, so a tour I'd already spotted for US$65 seemed a more sensible choice. The tour, run by Mr Vu at Café des Amis, didn't go to Kon Tum, but it did hit Buon Ma Thuot and went near to Pleiku, plus some other places. We had lunch in Buon Ma Thuot - lunch seemed about all it was worth! - then had a (painful!) elephant ride in Yok Don national park (it's possible to stay at the park headquarters, but I think you have to fix it up independently). We spent the night at the Virgin Falls (which wouldn't have been worth a trip on their own) then checked out Draysap Falls, which were more impressive. We had a night at a minority village at Lak Lake (a Ratwatch nightmare because we stayed in a grass house!), where our guide got major hassle from the police because two girls in the group, Americans, didn't have their passports. The region is very sensitive because the minorities claim the Government is still making them pay for working with the American forces during the 1960s and 1970s (this might also explain why the bus companies were so unhelpful when I tried to get a ticket to Buon Ma Thuot). However, Mr Vu said he had a similar experience the previous year, again just before the financial drain that is Tet.
Everyone else seemed happy enough with the tour, but I still hadn't made it to Kon Tum, so I went to Danang, in search of transport from there. My guesthouse said they could book me on a minibus for US$10 each way, but something happened to make me get to the guesthouse too late to book the minibus, and I decided the fates were telling me not to go, and gave up.