We have been contacted by a number of community members and followers of A Wandering Memory asking for some hints and tips about Vietnam. Your wish is our command!
I was enthralled by Vietnam ever since I studied history at school. The tales of how a small third world nation rose up against the most powerful country in the world, were just too enticing. I soon found out that there was a lot more to the story than what i knew.
All that study just made me more determined to know what this nation was truly like? So I visited and here are our recommendations
- Fly into Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City from virtually any international airport, however the main international hubs nearby are Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. Numerous well-known airlines fly this route regularly including Emirates, Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Thai, Vietnamese and many of the chinese airlines.
- Travel through the country is easiest on train, that runs the length of the country. Some of these journeys can be very long so sleeper trains are available. The last time we travelled it was around $90 for a soft birth from Hanoi to Ho Chin Minh – check it out here. We never saw the need for booking in advance, but that’s a personal choice.
- Some bus and boat journeys are essential – especially to get to the remote locations inaccessible by train. Roads in Vietnam were ok but not great and with the amount of mopeds in the cities I wouldn’t recommend it personally.
- Within the cities some would hire mopeds (which I would highly advise against) but I would always take the local Tuk Tuks. Just make sure you negotiate a fixed price before agreeing to take one.
- Whale Island
- Ha Long Bay
- Cu Chi Tunnels
- Hoi An
- Mekong Delta
Traditional Vietnam can still be witnessed in a number of places, I found that Hanoi was a real example of this. Although the capital of the united Vietnam, this was the centre of the rebel forces in the war and home to the country’s founding father – Ho Chi Minh. The centre of this capital is very traditional with winding streets and traditional markets still very much alive. The buildings still show the united patriotism of the Vietnamese people with many flags and communist symbols throughout the centre.
The cultural palace is still standing as is Ho Chi Minh’s tomb where the father of the modern Vietnam can still be viewed (pickled in time). The squares and architecture doesn’t feel that it has significantly changed, however I am sure as commercialism has taken a hold, the city has now expanded since our last visit.
Another extremely traditional location is that of the Mekong delta in the far south. The delta is a maze of rivers, swamps and inlets in which traders/farmers trade on a daily basis. This can be anything food, grains, textiles, pottery and even more electronics. The region is also heavily industrialised with traditional factories and homes lining the river sides.. The surrounding country is mainly swampland with dense jungle in between. A trip on this eclectic river especially on farm days is a wonder, simply hail a farmer’s boat and they will come to you to sell.
Ha Long Bay, now a UNESCO World Heritage site is a wonder but very much a tourist trap. The towering limestone pillars and many islands litter the gulf of Tonkin which also glimmers a turquoise in colour. If here I would recommend taking a sail trip into the bay for a day or two, one of the favourites is the traditional Indochina boats with a beautiful sails.
If it is commercialism and glitz and glamour you are after Ho Chi Minh city, formerly Saigon definitely fits the bill. The city is Vietnam’s largest and has all the modern conveniences you would expect of a metropolis. Restaurants, bars and clubs are very easy to find, and we found it pretty safe in groups but I would definitely keep to a group while out. There are still other cultural highlights such as the war museum and traditional markets to visit. The museum in particular is pretty heart wrenching but depicts the war and the Vietnamese struggle.
A real highlight close to the city are the Cu Chi tunnels – a vast network of tunnels used by the communist Vietnamese during the war to evade capture. The attraction allows you to view the old tunnels and even indulge your senses and scrape though one yourself. Here you can witness some of the horrors of the war, with some original booby traps and weapons still available to view. You can also take your chances and experiencing firing a number of weapons, not usually available to the general populous, AK47, MK16, a range of rifles and handguns. Well worth the experience!
Another serious tourist trap is the quaint town of Hoi An, but it is an essential stop over. The town itself is home to a huge number of tailing shops who will measure you and make pretty much anything you desire within 24 hours, suits, dresses, jeans, shirts – you name it! It’s an incredible experience especially for those who have never had handmade or tailored clothing. At a fraction of the price of western countries it really is worth the visit alone. However the town also boasts some great traditional restaurants, that offer cooking classes and some beautiful river views.
Lastly, Vietnam is also home to a number of beautiful beaches ranging from remote beautiful yellow sand (Mũi Né) to hidden island treasures. One of the treasures is called Whale Island which is just off of NHA Trang is home to a beautiful white sand beach and a very cheap but comfortable little hostel. Its well worth a few days just to chill out!
- Eat local – As in many Asian countries you will find the best food is the local food, not the big restaurants we are used to. Grab a seat on the road order from a piece of paper menu and enjoy the salt of the earth food. Fish and rice are the lifeblood of many stalls and numerous alternative options are available.
- Chat to the locals – We found the Vietnamese extremely friendly and although many that will approach you are trying to sell you something – they are still happy to engage in friendly chat.
- Check out a beach – Not really known for its beaches we were thoroughly impressed by some of them. They range from golden & white sands to rocky outcrops and hidden bays. The weather can be so warm that a quick dip in the ocean is always recommended.
- Educate yourself – Not all of Vietnamese history is as horrifying as its recent encounter, there is an incredible ancient culture to be discovered.
- Tuk Tuk drivers – Always agree a price upfront and walk away if it is not suitable.
- Moped rental – Although it sounds like a great idea and is cheap you can find that either are not insured or the standard of rental is not up-to safety codes (i.e. brakes, heating, fuel).
- Scams – As with any Asian country, scams are rife and you just need to be mindful. The ones we usually hear about all seem to occur in the big cities and can include taxis to the wrong accommodation, overcharging or being lured into unscrupulous shops/bars where you have to pay to get out.
All in all Vietnam is an Asian wonder, and has a lot to offer even the more experienced travellers. Its eclectic mix of tradition, culture and consumerism makes it a gold mine for experiences. If looking into south East Asia, don’t be automatically drawn to Thailand every-time – take a chance and visit Vietnam – we promise you wont regret it!