You haven't told me you're going to Vietnam yet but I'm pretty certain you'll end up here soon. Vietnam has everything you love, climbing, kayaking, trekking, caves, scooters, views, interesting food and some excellent bars.
I have had a love hate relationship with Vietnam, probably because I had a bit of travel fatigue and less resilience to the rudeness/scams/hoking spit sound people kept making/rats, so keep that in mind while you're reading.
I've started with some general stuff and then gone on to what I loved/hated about various places.
Vietnam uses the dong (tehehe). It's around 23,000 to 1usd and 30,000 to 1gbp. I have had so many issues with the ATMs here. There are some reliable ones in the bigger cities - MBK is good and has no fees. Keep yourself an emergency stash in case you end up in a place where no ATM will accept your card.
We did Cambodia together so you know the drill, however Vietnam is next level. It’s basically the Boss Level when it comes to scams in South East Asia. There's a motorbike taxi scam which almost everyone I met in Vietnam had experienced:
You arrive somewhere after a long, often overnight, bus, and someone helps you with your bag and offers to take you to your hostel. It's probably 5am and you're tired, so you go with it. If you have the presence of mind to ask 'How much?' you don't get a proper response. You get on the back of a bike and what should be a 5 minute journey takes 20. The bike pulls up near, but not at, your hostel. The driver charges you 500,000vnd ($25) for what should be a 50,000vnd ($2.50) journey. Almost everyone argues it down but still end up paying far too much. These guys prey on tired, confused travellers.
Assume something like this will happen at every border, every airport and after every night bus. Don't try and 'wing it' with travel in Vietnam. That's how they get you. A friend got in a car taxi that took her money and then stopped on the motorway to put her on a night bus (going the wrong way). Another friend was convinced to get on a bike when she should have just been changing buses. Only the bus driver noticing and shouting saved her from being driven off into the night by this unscrupulous c*nt.
Other, less terrifying things, have happened like my hotel bill magically increasing. motorbike tour guides telling me that the attraction I am heading to is shut so I’ll go on his tour and restaurants producing a special tourist menu that is significantly more expensive than the first one we had.
Don't be put off visiting, just get prices in writing, do your research on how much stuff should cost and how to get places and NEVER take a motorbike taxi. I really hate those guys.
Download Grab (Asian Uber) and use that, most bus offices have wifi. Or pre-arrage a transfer with your hostel who should give you a reasonable price. Also do a quick search for the names of reliable taxi companies in the area you are going to.
I bought a 30 day sim with way more internet than I could use for 300k from a Post Office. My friend managed to get one for 250k. Access to Google is a godsend in Vietnam when you’re not sure if you can trust what people are telling you. It’s well worth getting a sim.
I did South to North, starting in Ho Chi Minh and ending in Hanoi. Lots of people do this, but if I'd known then what I know now I'd have done things differently, especially as I ran out of time/energy before getting to the north north (Sapa and Haigang).
I would have started in Hanoi, done the Haigang loop and Sapa, headed to Cat Ba, then Ninh Binh, then Phong Nha, then Hue then biked the Hai Van pass to Hoi An. I would have allowed three weeks to a month for this. After Hoi An I'd have flown to another country. You'll see this misses Dalat (which admittedly was fun), Mui Ne (meh) and Ho Chi Minh (boooo!). Obviously you'll make your own mind up on what you think you can miss. Either way give way more time to the north.
You were talking about getting your bike license and, if you do, biking Vietnam is something lots of people do. If you're not going to bike the whole thing (there are some very long journeys) there's a company called Motorvina who hire bikes which you can pick up somewhere and leave somewhere else. Practice before you get to Vietnam if you can. The cities in Vietnam are not the place to get on a bike for the first time. You can practice places like Cat Ba and Ninh Binh though. Even scootering around places made the difference between having an average time and an excellent time. I got on a scooter btw! On Cat Ba, my lovely friends Melissa and Patrick taught me and I scooted all the way to an attraction, quite slowly. It's pretty easy though.
A tip from the guy who rented our bikes in Cat Ba was if the police try and stop you, you should just keep going and they won't chase you(?!) Also there's a police scam near Mui Ne that targets tourists on bikes.
***Get your international driver's license before you come. It's cheap and fast and you can get it from the Post Office. I regret not getting one.***
Apparently tipping is only customary for massages and excellent service in a restaurant or similar. Everyone seems disappointed when you don't tip though.
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
Eurgh. Ho Chi Minh is literally the worst. Here I fell prey to the motorbike taxi scam AND I got really bad food poisoning and ended up on bed for two full days.
Good things about Ho Chi Minh...
Well I didn't die crossing its stupid roads so that's probably something.
Oh yes, crossing roads, there are no crossings and generally no breaks in the traffic, you just have to walk into the road at a steady pace and trust the scooters not to hit you. Try not to cross in front of a car or bus though, they can’t swerve round you. Ho Chi Minh is by far the worst for this, although you also have to do dodgy crossing in Hanoi. God Speed.
Accommodation: I stayed at Vietnam Guide Home which was fine. I did their food tour which I don't think was the source of my food poisoning. The hostel has amazing reviews and I'm not too sure why. It's pretty standard, clean, nice staff although they did keep coming to have naps in the room I was in. I have one of their keys, could you take it back for me if you do go? If you do ignore all my advice and head to (terrible) Ho Chi Minh try and stay close to but not on Walking Street, the backpackers area. Friends stayed here and enjoyed themselves.
Activities: I went to the Cu Chi War Tunnels on a tour with guide Mr Bing. Mr Bing was a character, talked for pretty much the whole two hours to the tunnels with a slightly annoying habit of asking 'can I tell you?' or 'do you understand?' every minute, which was exhausting. He was a veteran though so he had some fascinating stories. The war tunnels were interesting but the 'Come and shoot a gun where loads of people died' approach was slightly jarring following the excellently sad and horrific museum at S21 in Phnom Phen.
I also visited the Reunification Palace. This is a big house with state rooms decorated in the 70s. Go if you like 70s decor.
The Water Puppets show was probably my highlight of Ho Chi Minh. It’s a bizarre and brilliant production unique to Vietnam. It depicts several Vietnamese folktales in Vietnamese so it was a little hard to follow. I did have a lot of fun trying to figure out how they did everything though. They also do shows in Hanoi. Tickets were 250k from their ticket booth.
Food: Pizza4ps is an excellent pizza chain it probably has the best pizza in Asia, but it's also has a restaurant in Hanoi so just go there and skip terrible terrible Ho Chi Minh. Don’t pay for a street food tour have a look and see if your hostel does one for free. Don’t go to a posh looking noodle place near Vietnam Guide Home, I’m pretty sure they poisoned me.
Ho Chi Minh to Mui Me
I bought an open ticket with Hanh Cafe to Dalat for 250,000 vnd. Open tickets save money in theory but I met a lot of people who hadn't been able to use parts of theirs. Hanh Cafe's buses were nice enough but their staff were really rude. If you book through the hostel make sure you can pick your ticket up from the Hang Cafe office. I met a girl who got told to pick hers up on the bus and this caused a lot of confusion (and some shoving from the staff). The journey was a few hours and surprisingly pleasant for me considering I had been throwing up for the two days previously.
Accommodation: I stayed at Mui Ne Hills Backpackers. The dorm rooms here were silly cheap and really lovely. There were three pools and various games and theme nights put on. That said I'm pretty sure it’s evil. My theory is that it's pricing the other hostels in the area out of the market. They warn you not to visit places outside the resort at night - did I mention they have a bar on site? And the staff were the most miserable I've seen. Also the food was overpriced and sub-par. You'll probably have to stay here when you travel as they'll have destroyed all their competition. (Not linking to them, don’t like them).
Activities: I convalesced by their pool which was nice and tried to eat solid food. I also went on their dawn tour of the sand dunes (interesting), the Fairy Stream (highlight) and the fishing village (I couldn't tell you why this is on the tour.) If you have the option, visit the dunes and the Fairy Stream on your own. We didn't have enough time to finish the Fairy Stream hike on the tour which was disappointing.
Mui Ne has other beaches which are apparently nice. It is also the kite surfing capital of Vietnam. I was too sick to try this but some friends did and had a lovely time.
Mui Me to Dalat
The Hanh Cafe staff unnecessarily made me go to their office to get the next part of the open ticket. They were rude and the Mui Ne Hills staff were rude. I was 100% losing the will by this point.
The journey to Dalat was four hours up into the mountains. Our driver was good so it didn't feel too dangerous.
The beginning of the good times.
Accommodation: One quick horror story before the good times roll. I booked the private room at Dalat Friendly Fun Homestay and woke up at 1am with burning bites and bed bugs crawling on me. As you might imagine I was less than pleased about this. The owner, Lan, was lovely though. She convinced me not to leave and to take a dorm bed and then took my things and got them washed. The dorm bed was actually much nicer than the private so I stayed there - for free. I also saw them taking away the infested bed the next day so they were definitely dealing with the problem. They have good communal meals here which are a great way to get to know the other travellers. I can recommend the dorm as they're really comfy, but check for bugs before you settle in.
You can tell there might be bugs if there's blood spots on the sheets or what looks like then black biro marks on the mattress (this is their poo). There seem to be a lot of bed bugs in Vietnam, apparently Vietnam Backpackers Hostel (VBH) is notorious for them. Side note- VBH are all party hostels anyway so I avoided them.
Activities: Here we go, the actual beginning of the good times. I went on the hostel run 'countryside tour' for $15 which was very fun. It included a trip to a waterfall (wet), a weasel farm where they make weasel coffee (sad) and a cricket farm (crunchy).
I visited the Crazy House which was brilliant. You climb up and down stairs and round this gaudi-esque work of architecture. The Maze Bar is a must do, it was created by Đặng Việt Nga,the same woman who designed the Crazy House. It has five floors (I think) and it is a super fun health and safety nightmare. You climb up stairs and through holes and drink wine with new friends in various nooks and crannies.
We drank a beer at the Escape Bar. The Lonely Planet recommends it as a blues bar but it’s actually a dank little hotel bar with a band performing pop covers. Not great.
Dalat to Hoi An
Night bus booked by the hostel. It had a toilet! Which smelt! But it waylaid the normal pee anxiety I suffer on long bus journeys. Uneventful journey, arrived really early, motorbike taxis tried to scam my new friends Patrick and Melissa. In a twist from the normal end to the scam story Patrick and Melissa turned round and told the drivers off, telling them it wasn't nice and demanding a fair price. Strong work guys.
Beautiful, wonderful Hoi An!
Accommodation: I stayed in Tribee Cotu and it was excellent. Perfect location, great beds in a three bed dorm, lovely and quiet because this was the designated 'quiet hostel' in the Tribee family. There’s also a Tribee 'party hostel' and a Tribee 'swimming pool hostel'. They're all close together and you can use all the facilities.
Activities: Hoi An is a great place for a wander. The beautiful, lantern-decked old town is pedestrianised 9am -11am and 3pm -9.30pm. Wandering early is good as in the afternoon the tour groups arrive. Wandering in the evening is also excellent, it's crowded but when the lanterns along the river get lit it is gorgeous.
Other than wandering I also visited Hidden Beach. I highly recommend a day here. It's quiet and the beach chairs and restaurants are still run by the locals, rather than massive resorts. The chairs are free if you’re buying stuff from their bar as well. The beer is cheap and I had a very delicious shrimp curry there. You can swim, but be warned a jellyfish did float past me in the sea. You can also get a massage.
I could have stayed longer in Hoi An, this is the perfect place for a beach break if you're getting tired of travelling.
The Hai Van Pass
The Hai Van pass is the incredibly scenic road between Hoi An and Hue. You go through mountains and alongside the sea. They did it on Top Gear apparently. Off topic - but isn’t Jeremy Clarkson just the Saigon of people? (Using Saigon rather than Ho Chi Minh here as Ho Chi Minh actually was a person and is still revered in Vietnam…Unlike Jeremy Clarkson…Aren’t jokes funnier after a long winded explanation?)
On topic - I let myself be convinced that I would be able to scooter the Hai Van Pass having never been on a scooter before. Luckily the man from motorvina told me I was an idiot and I hitched a ride on the back of a friend's scooter instead, thank god! The ride was incredible but it included negotiating cities, dirt tracks off mountains and parking in a crystal shop (literally). The Hai Van pass is probably not the place to get on a scooter for the first time. I was team photographer and navigator though so it all worked out alright.
I highly recommend doing the pass, even if you book an easy rider (local driver). Use Motorvina who charge 350k for the bike and transporting your luggage. Leave early as there are lots of great places to stop on the way and driving in Hue in the dark is not easy.
Accommodation: I stayed at Why Not Hostel which had excellent beds and (for some reason) a cowboy theme. It was a quiet hostel even though the dorm was really big. The bar was fun and the food was fine, but expensive. It was recommended by a my Laos pal Esther and I enjoyed it too so it’s a safe bet.
Activities: I slightly failed at Hue and did not see the Imperial City, which is the thing to see (oops!). However I did see AN ABANDONED WATER PARK!!! We scootered to Ho Thuy Tien, the park, and reached a barricade where we were turned away, but we looked so sad the guard mumbled ‘out and left and left again’ to us. We found another entrance and another guard who we bribed a 20k each to get in. It was the most South East Asian day ever! There were abandoned slides and cows and an abandoned aquarium! The aquarium was the best bit. It’s well worth the journey and not that hard, we followed google maps and then went round the left hand edge. My friend got a Grab bike, she still had to pay 20k at the park but the driver took her around the park and waited while she took pictures.
Hue to Phong Nha
Short bus journey, uneventful.
Where my patience ran out.
Accommodation: Easy Tiger in Phong Nha was recommend by everyone and I don't know why. It has average dorms, a nice pool, a live band that are fun the first time you hear them, a cute puppy and some average food. It is also full of lads. Most of the good things about Easy Tiger (ie. the puppy) you can access without staying there.
I had another incident of someone keeping everyone else awake by having sex in the dorm. I stupidly didn't say anything before it started and felt too awkward to say something during. After lying with my pillow over my head for a shuffly, squealy hour I was furious with both myself and this lad, this epitome of the British lad who thinks he can act however he wants abroad and not suffer any consequences. So when I heard him and his lady friend leave the room I locked them out…
... When he kicked the door a couple of hours later I let him in... and we had a little argument where the excuse 'but it's a party hostel' was used, the exclamation 'Its not okay to act like that.' was used and we parted as friends. That is to say he apologised and avoided me until he left.
For every three people who recommend Easy Tiger I vehemently unrecommend it unless you're under the age of 22.
Activities: Accommodation aside, Phong Nha is really good fun. Getting places on a scooter is better than booking a tour.
Phong Nha cave: In the town, walking distance. You split 350k for a boat between up to 12 of you (make some friends) and go on a journey into a cave. It's a lovely trip down the river to a quiet cave that had barely anyone there when we went in the afternoon. There's also the cave entrance fee which is 150k.
Paradise Cave: Arrive early. Tickets cost 250k. It’s about 45 minutes from the town to the national park and the drive is beautiful. We got to the cave at 11am and it was already very busy. There were some massive tour groups with their leaders on megaphones. There’s fun, quite steep hike up and you walk through this cave for an hour. I’d lost all patience with big tour groups a while before (remember Angkor Wat?) so for this reason alone I preferred Phong Nha Cave to Paradise.
Dark Cave: Arrive REALLY early. We tried to go at 2pm and there was over an hours wait with no guarantee we'd get in. We came back as it opened the next morning and were the first people in. We had a group of seven (a great number for the tour), saw a snake (it was still asleep) and had the cave to ourselves for the swimming and mud-bath. We then played on the super dangerous obstacle course and zipline. Well worth the 450k entry fee if you get there early.
The restaurants in the national park (near Dark and Paradise) are mediocre and expensive. Try and take lunch with you.
Duck Stop: An utterly bizarre and really fun duck related experience. For 150k you hang out with the ducks, get a drink and some food. You definitely should go.
Sunset at the Farmstay: It’s near the Duck Stop and you get a really lovely view of the sun setting over the fields. It's possible to stay at the Farmstay too. If I ever go back I'll stay there and not at stupid stupid Easy Tiger, the Saigon of hostels.
The Indian restaurant in Phong Nah is expensive but nice. Was a lovely change to get an Indian curry!
My suggestion for Phong Nha in a day- 7am Dark Cave, lunch in town, Phong Nah Cave, Duck Stop and Farmstay for sunset. If you’ve got more time spread those activities out and check out the others, there lots to do, most of it cave related.
Phong Nha to Ninh Binh
Agreed amongst my Vietnam pals as one of the worst journeys ever. There were no seats left on the night buses due to a holiday so we got the train. There were no beds left on the train so we got seats. It was long and hot and uncomfortable and more expensive than the shorter bus journey. Don't bother with the train if you have a choice.
Captivating but you probably only need a day.
Accommodation: We stayed at the Riverview homestay, the dorms were average but the view was outstanding. Not much atmosphere but lovely for a day. They also let us go to bed when we arrived at 6am after the night train for which I'm eternally grateful.
Activities: the boat trip in Trang An is great. You get three options with varying numbers of caves. We chose route three which took us through three caves, to some pagodas and to the set of King Kong Skull Island (which none of us had seen). Trang An is stunning and we got involved in paddling our little boat too. We (four women and our driver) also had a race with a boat full of guys and destroyed them which was enjoyable.
Phong Nha to Cat Ba
The hostel booked the Cat Ba express for us which was lovely. 330k for pickup, ferry and drop off at our hotel in Cat Ba. Comfy bus with USB chargers, the bus comes onto the ferry so you don't need to worry about your bag and a friendly host/guide gave us lots of Cat Ba information.
Cat Ba Island.
Also known as Rat Ba.
Accommodation: We started at the Cat Ba Island Hotel where I had sprung for a private (£8pn). The beds were rock hard, there was construction going on in the room next to mine and the builder was smoking which seeped into my room, probably through the holes he was drilling in the connecting wall. Otherwise it was okay.
Over the weekend we ended up somewhere which was probably called Thang Truan. It seemed to have a different name on the blackboard every day. This is probably to stop people destroying them on Tripadvisor as the hotel is pretty bad. I was quoted 200k a night and then charged more when I checked out, the bed was probably made of concrete and, AND we saw a huge black rat do a swan dive from a high cupboard to the ground and then scurry away.
The hotels on Cat Ba all seemed to have fake reviews, or at least testimonials by apparently native English speakers that aren't written properly. The Cat Ba Island Hotel was fine if you need a recommendation.
Activities: Accommodation aside, I had a marvellous time in Rat Ba. We did the kayak and climbing day in Lan Ha Bay run by Asia Outdoors (the people you should work for) which was superb. It was £44 which sounds like a lot compared to other things in Vietnam but is actually really cheap for kayaking, lunch and climbing with all the safety equipment. It all felt very safe too. Highly recommended.
***You can do Cat Ba instead of Halong Bay*** Lan Ha Bay is apparently the same as Halong Bay but with less tourists and less plastic. We did have a plastic pick up competition whilst we kayaked which I am claiming I won as I picked up a welly boot.
Cat Ba is good to scooter around, I even had a go. The hike to the viewpoint in Cat Ba National Park is fun and the Hospital Cave is a short, but interesting trip. And Cannon Fort is great for sunset,
Beaches: Cat Co 1 is terrible and Cat Co 2 is also terrible. They are expensive, crowded resort beaches. However there is a walk between the two of them around the edge of the island that is stunning. You may see Cat Co 3 on your way round. I did not, I think it was underwater. For a brilliant beach day you may want to hire a kayak and go find one amongst the crasts, not on your own though okay?!
Food: Casa Bonita has a the best breakfast I had in Vietnam. A little pricey but the wake-up smoothie is epic. Mona cafe has an excellent view of the bay and is a good place to watch sunset. And the restaurant to the right of Asia Outdoors (if you're facing it) does spicy garlic beef that is so good we went back to have it for breakfast.
Cat Ba Island to Hanoi
We booked with Good Morning Cat Ba through Asia Outdoors for 250k. They picked us up from Asia Outdoors and do a few stops in Hanoi so will get you pretty close to your accommodation. This option was bus – speed boat – bus. It was quick, around three hours in total. You do have to lug your bag around between buses and boat but it was still pretty good.
I loved Hanoi which was surprising.
Accommodation: I stayed at the Babylon Garden Inn. It was fine. The pool looked a bit grim so I didn’t go swimming and the rooftop bar plays aggressively loud music from about 5pm. I’m holding a minor grudge because they wouldn’t let me get cashback when my debit card stopped working. They also wouldn’t let me use their phone to make a reverse charge call to my bank, so when they said stuff like ‘If you need anything just ask’ it felt a little fake. That said the beds were fine, the breakfast was excellent and it’s in a great location. It attracts a young crowd so maybe pay for a smaller dorm. Also check out Cocoon Inn which was highly recommended. I sort of wish I stayed there.
Activities: I read a blog on Hanoi which said that the people who enjoy it most are the ones that take it easy and I 100% agree with this. Hanoi is hot, busy and the traffic is insane. A couple of times I napped through the hottest part of the day and I regret nothing!
The Lake: It’s a lake. It’s pretty. There are lots of expensive bars and restaurants around it. We visited the Note Coffee, a café covered in post-its. It was very cute, lots of the notes people left were hilarious (I censored one that said ‘Make money/f*ck bitches/live life’ by sticking my own positive note over the top). The coffee there is also very good and reasonably priced. I tried egg coffee here, it’s really good!
Hanoi Social Club: We happened to be in Hanoi on a Tuesday which is when Hanoi Social Club have their Tiny Music Club. We saw an acoustic guitar gig in their tiny rooftop venue but apparently it changes. It’s worth the 70k entrance fee for the setting alone. They do good (pricey) food, get there early for food as they fill up. There’s other arts events on there too, check out their schedule.
Vietnam Fine Arts Museum: Enjoyable activity if it’s raining or too hot which are Hanoi’s two main states. It’s only 40k to get in and the art is organised in a timeline from prehistoric pottery to modern art. There’s some spectacular lacquer art too if you’re into it.
Hỏa Lò Prison: An ex-prison and state memorial to revolutionaries confined by the French. It is pure propaganda. It is a very interesting mix of ‘look how barbaric the French were’, ‘look how brave our revolutionary fathers were’ and ‘look how nice we were to captured Americans when we were in charge’. Lots of it is true, of course, but I found the way they used the facts more interesting than the place itself. It’s 40k and takes around an hour to wander round.
The Old Quarter: Try and stay here. It has topsy-turvy streets each dedicated to selling a particular item – like tape or metallic household goods or plastic toys. Fun to wander around with competitive prices from bars selling beer and western food. Keep an eye out for Leu Coffee, a circus themed bar with a lantern lit balcony overlooking the chaos.
Friends went and saw the Water Puppets in Hanoi and enjoyed it.
Totally missed Sapa (trekking) and the Haigang Loop (three day motorbike tour) which are supposed to be incredible. Learn from my mistakes and get these in early.
There we go.
I hope you love Vietnam when you go and I hope you’re having a lovely time in London just now.
See you soon xx
Ps. And always remember - Make money/ f*ck bitches/ live life.
Oh, also Kirsty-
(Context: One way or another I managed to make Kirsty, my long time friend and Cambodia travel mate, look at this picture of Mukki, the puppy, every single day of our Cambodia adventure. Hilarious right?!) Explaining jokes really is half the fun.
If you think my writing is interesting why don’t you check out my first book ‘Afterlife’? It’s like a really long blog with chapters and a thrilling storyline…
Also have you tried booking.com? I use them pretty much exclusively now as my ‘genius’ discount makes them cheaper than everyone else. Here is a link that gets you £15 off the first time you use them* Try booking.com.
*This is a genuine recommendation, but an affiliate link (I’ll make a little money)