Welcome to the first post in my Explore Vietnam series. Explore Vietnam is meant to be a resource for travelers to Vietnam, which is based on my own travel experiences in the country and personal interest I have in the region. But why did I decide to put all my thoughts and observations in writing?
Choose Vietnam – it is a great option for virtually any type of traveler
Firstly, I want to help my friends (who asked me repeatedly) and others (who didn’t know they could ask me) to plan their journey. Actually, I write this for anyone who finds themselves in any of the following three scenarios:
- Going to Vietnam has always been a dream of yours and you finally made a decision to book that ticket => you only have two weeks and there is so much so see
- You are heading out in the general direction of Southeast Asia and you are wondering for how long to stop in Vietnam => you are flexible to enjoy more offbeat locations in a less hectic manner
- You need an inspiration for your next holiday destination, but you just care about the beach and good weather => you will look at seaside resorts and good food (Vietnam has both)
I am absolutely certain that, regardless of how much time and money you have, Vietnam is a great option for your holidays. That is true simply because: a) the country is extremely diverse geographically b) the country is a mix of cultures (which means all types of sights, food etc.) c) the infrastructure caters to both the upscale and the backpacker demand. Vietnam offers a wide array of possibilities for beach enthusiasts, nature lovers, history freaks, foodies, resort fanatics and independent wanderlusters. Anyone can find something for themselves. It’s just about doing the research beforehand.
Secondly, I want to provide up-to-date information that you simply can’t find in your Lonely Planet, because of the fact that Vietnam (and Asia in general) changes really fast. Like, last year’s edition of the guidebook can recommend a restaurant that doesn’t even exist anymore. Imagine setting your mind on some delicious food for dinner and then ending up walking around in darkness in an unknown town, with an empty stomach, in search of a place that is not there anymore (yup, that happened to me more than once).
Avoid tourist traps
Thirdly, I want to provide authentic and realistic advice, having been disappointed many times by the low-quality of recommendations I found in guidebooks and online. I don’t have anything against Tripadvisor, but whenever I went to a restaurant that had an official Tripadvisor recommendation (which was always clearly displayed on the front doors, of course) – I frequently ended up disappointed. The value was very good, but not for the price I ended up paying (I could have found cheaper substitutes behind the corner – but no one told me so!). I therefore started to prefer to explore Vietnamese cuisine on my own – a good way to do that is to search for restaurants that are full of locals, not full of tourists 🙂
Many of the travel discussion boards and popular travel websites are like big tourist traps, but, oddly enough, fueled by tourists themselves. They hear it’s good, so they say it’s good. Because they can’t really compare it to anything else. For instance, before I met my friend and had a chance to explore Vietnam according to his suggestions, I frequently went for lunch to “the best Vietnamese place in Warsaw”. From the perspective of time and travel, I can say with clear conscience that the food was neither authentic nor served the traditional way. And then, when you are traveling to a distant country like Vietnam, online reviews is something that’s most easily accessible. Naturally, one tends to rely on those even more, since it is harder for you to ask a local, if you know none and don’t speak the language. Note that many of the reviews online are also written by the people who get paid to do so.
How do I know better?
So, what entitles me to put myself above that? How am I different than the next affluent, guidebook-brainwashed traveler, who falls for and reinforces tourist traps?
Well, I had a huge luck to be able to travel with a friend, who has visited the country many times. He spoke the language, kept close ties with Vietnamese culture and traditions and was happy to give me really good suggestions. He was also quick to point out my lack of experience in certain matters like: bargaining, handling taxi rides and finding good cost-to-value seafood (so top mistakes made by Western tourists). My friend also loved to watch me struggle in my misery and hopelessness (especially when I tried to cross a busy street alone or when I paid 2 bucks for something that was worth maximum 20 cents). But this is how I learnt to think while traveling, to keep and open-mind and seek authenticity. I frequently felt bad for other (mostly white) tourists making very basic mistakes and relying on very superficial and generic advice that caused them to a) miss out on interesting sights b) miss out on good food c) massively overpay.
But I also like to think of myself as pretty courageous when it comes to trying different things and stepping outside of the comfort zones (yup, I did try those embryo eggs). Or maybe I have a comfort zone that’s just constantly growing (at least geographically, haha). Nevertheless, I wish to write about travels in Vietnam from a “Western tourist” perspective (since I am pretty much a Western tourist), but embracing as much of the place as I can and seeing how it differs from my own world. I am not judging every new place according to my own world’s criteria (that’s why I will now bargain down for that 50 cents if something is overpriced – even though I would be able to afford it anyway). I am also not trying to reproduce “a perfect holiday plan” or someone else’s itinerary and neither should you.
I would like to give you a general overview of what places you should research before drafting your own Vietnam itinerary. To explore Vietnam to the fullest, a solid plan can be very helpful, especially if your time is limited. The itinerary will probably include a fair amount of travel on the road. Major cities have airports (here is a map for you), but you can’t fly in to all of the destinations worth visiting (for instance, there is no airport in Hoi An or Sa Pa – you have to commute to those places by a bus or a train anyway from the nearest airport that can be 50 miles away). The bus also gives you much more flexibility in case you are running late or the transport gets delayed because of bad weather. That happened to me when I was flying out of Haiphong – the flight got cancelled and I wasted six hours total commuting to Hanoi and figuring out my transit, in order to catch another flight. Besides, buses are much cheaper, they drop you off in the city and some of them have wifi. It’s too bad.
Note one thing: because of Vietnam’s fairly long (over 1600 km!) and thin shape, it’s best to travel either from South to North or from North to South of the country. The direction should depend on the time of the year, when you plan on traveling to Vietnam. Remember that the climate is a bit different in the South than it is in the North. The more North you go, the less hot and humid it will be (in January – March period it will be straight out cold). So, plan accordingly. My advice is to travel sometime between November and March, because from April to October the weather is way too hot and humid in the South and not really pleasant in the North either.
North – South/ South- North is also the direction of the National A1 highway (see the picture to the left, that’s the longest road) which is, naturally, the road that most of the long-distance intercity buses take. Travel by train looks very similar because there’s only one rail way from Saigon to Hanoi (multiple trains, but on the same route) to take you across the country (plus some shorter trains in the North e.g. to Sa Pa). Look up the Reunification Express, if you are interested.
What this means: You can hop off your bus or train and continue on the same connection a couple of days after, until you reach the next destination. This is an option if you are into exploring Vietnam entirely – if you decide to head to just one particular resort or island, it doesn’t really matter.
I spent a month independently traveling from South to North of Vietnam and below is my route. Feel free to get inspired and modify it according to your own needs.
In the upcoming posts, I will describe some locations in a bit more detail-oriented fashion. Hopefully, the entire series will not only encourage you to go to Vietnam, but also make the planning process and the following travel smoother, cheaper, more enjoyable and more insightful.
In the meantime, feel free to check out my friend’s overview of some of the top destinations in Vietnam.