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Vietnam

Your Guide To Vietnam

Motorbikes, Markets, and the Mekong

The Vietnam of today has moved on from the narrative of its war-torn past to become one of the most sought out destinations in Southeast Asia. Officially known as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Vietnam is only one of four remaining Communist countries in the world. East of Cambodia and Laos, and south of China, you’ll find a nation with natural splendors galore, high-powered cities, and a strong street food culture. A visit to Vietnam is a multi-sensory experience; an assembly of scents, sights, and sounds that can be, all at once, disarming and enchanting.

Vietnam is divided into three parts: the north, central, and south. To the north is Hanoi, Vietnam’s political capital, with its stalwart citizens, quiet lakes, and incense-perfumed temples. Hanoi is also the gateway to Vietnam’s most notable natural wonders: Halong Bay, a constellation of emerald karsts; Sapa, the mountainous homestead of many of Vietnam’s ethnic tribes; and Han Son Doong, the world’s largest cave system. Snaking down the coastline into central Vietnam, you’ll find Hue, Danang, Hoi An, and according to the locals, the best food in all of the country. This region appeals to history lovers, foodies, and beach bums. And last but not least, at the bottom of the serpentine country is Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon. This name has been yet abandoned by southerners. Despite being ground zero during the American War—what the Vietnamese call the Vietnam War—Ho Chi Minh City is glamorous and energetic, with flashy skyscrapers and networks of alleyways hiding surprises at every turn. No matter where you are in this stunning country, in my personal opinion, Vietnam is best enjoyed on small plastic stool, in the middle of a sidewalk, with a tall glass of iced coffee in hand. Or, if you’re up for the ride, you can see life in motion from the back of a motorcycle. Just don’t forget your helmet.

THE HIGHLIGHTS

Kayak past the limestone formations of Halong Bay
Motorbike from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by way of the Hai Van Pass
Fill up on a steamy bowl of pho for breakfast
Canyon down a waterfall in Dalat
Trek through dreamy mountainscapes with local H’mong guides in Sapa
Hire a cyclo to take you around The Old Quarter in Hanoi
Go caving in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Order custom-made clothes at one of Hoi An’s many tailor shops
Crawl around the Viet Cong tunnels of Cu Chi just outside of Ho Chi Minh City
Buggy down the white sand dunes of Mui Ne
Stroll along the picturesque Golden Bridge connecting the Ba Na hills near Danang
Go beach hopping on the island paradise of Phu Quoc
Step back in time at the Imperial Citadel in Hue
Paddle down the muddy backwaters of the Mekong Delta on a wooden canoe

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT VIETNAM

Language – Vietnamese. Note: there are regional differences in the language. For example, the word áo dài (the Vietnamese national dress) is pronounced “ow-yai” in the south and “ow-zai” in the north.

Currency – The unit of currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). There are no coins, only paper bills in denominations of 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, 100,000, 200,000 and 500,000 VND. Some tour operators take payments in USD. You can exchange USD to VND at the daily exchange rate at jewelry shops and money exchange kiosks.

Transportation – Taxis are the preferred method of transportation in Vietnam, although scams are rampant. To avoid any scams, like rigged meters, stick with reputable vendors like Main Linh or Vinasun (in Ho Chi Minh City) or Hanoi Taxi Group and ABC (in Hanoi). Make sure your meter starts fresh and if your driver attempts to negotiate a flat rate, leave the cab and hop in another one. If you have mobile data and a working phone number, you can order a Grab taxi. Grab is the only ride-sharing app available in the country and the cheapest way to get around. You can even opt for a Grab bike (ie. a motorbike) to beat traffic. Grab accepts both cash and credit. Note: Grab drivers have limited English skills and tend to get lost so having a map of your route on your phone, as well as Google Translate in Vietnamese can assist with language barriers.

Climate – There is a wide regional variance in weather, making packing a bit of a headache if you’re trying to travel light. Southern Vietnam is always hot and partially wet. May to November marks the rainy season. The dry season is December to April. This is the best time for sightseeing, but March and April are unbearably hot and being outside can be inhospitable. In central Vietnam, the rainy season lasts from September to January. June to August is when you’ll see the best beach weather. Hanoi experiences all four seasons, although snow is a rare occurrence in the city. But you can find snow in Sapa. The best time to visit Saigon is December and January, while April is your best chance for clear skies in Hanoi and Halong Bay.

FoodVietnam has become a leading culinary destination thanks to an abundant use of fresh herbs and aromatics. In Vietnam, all dishes are served with a mountain of herbs, known collectively as “rau thom,” meaning fragrant leaves. This basket usually includes mint, cilantro, and basil. Noodle dishes are typically eaten for breakfast, and street food

Safety – Vietnam’s primary safety issue is petty theft. The country is rife with pickpockets and foreigners fall victim of theft on a daily basis. Exercise extreme vigilance with your personal belongings, especially with things like purses, bags, and smartphones. For example, do not pull out your cellphone on a busy road.

Health – For those with sensitive stomachs, stay away from ice and street food. Poor air quality due to unregulated motorbike emissions can irritate those with respiratory conditions. Invest in filtered masks if you plan to stay in major urban areas for a long time. Use bug spray when traveling to the countryside, especially if you are visiting the areas of Hoi An and the Mekong Delta. Heatstroke and sun poisoning is a common ailment for those traveling during the dry season, so wear sunblock, drink plenty of water, and stay indoors as much as possible. If you find yourself suffering from heatstroke, purchase rehydration salts at a local pharmacy.

WIFI/SIM Card – Wifi is readily available across Vietnam, making it an ideal location for digital nomads and location independent workers. Click here for a map of all the free hotspots around the country. A head’s up — Halong Bay is a dead zone for cell service. If you have an unlocked phone, you can purchase a month’s worth of data for 200,000-250,000 VND (less than $11 USD). The top mobile carriers are Mobiphone and Viettel or Mobiphone. The only place to pick up a Simcard is at the airport. Vietnam is also on the KeepGo mobile hotspot list.

What To Bring Home – Laquerware, Marou chocolate bars, coffee and drip-coffee (phin) filters, fruit teas, tailormade clothes, tribal textiles, conical hats (nón lá), propaganda posters

Travel Tips for Vietnam

COST PER DAY

Meals: $10-12
Single dorm room: $10-15
3-star hotel: $25-40
5-star hotel: $120 – 200
Taxi: $7-15
MotorTaxi (xe om): $1-2
Beers: $1-4
Massage: $15 for 90min
Museum: $1 – 5

TOTAL = $30-40 USD

MUST PACK

During Rainy Season
Durable Sandals
Hooded poncho

Anti-theft bag
Air pollution face mask
Breathable clothes
Sunhat
Daypack (for tours)
Padlock
Airy sneakers
Reusable straw

GOOD ADVICE

Download the Grab App – One of the best ways to avoid getting scammed by rigged taxis is to use Grab (Uber or Lyft do not exist in Vietnam). The app takes cash, as well as card, and you can opt for either a Grab Car or Grab Moto (xe om) to bypass traffic. The driver will give you a helmet. Some Grab drivers may have trouble finding an address so it’s best to preview your route beforehand.

How Do You Say... in Vietnamese

Hello – Xin chào (sin-chow)

Thank you –  Cảm ơn (kahm-ugh-n)

Goodbye Tạm biệt (tahm-beet)

How are you? Ban khoe khong? (ban-kway-khom)

Sorry  – Xin lỗi (zin-loy)

No Problem – Không có gì (khom-koh-zi)

Yes – Vang (vahng)

No – Khong (khom)

What’s your name? Tên bạn là gì? (ten-bang-la-zi)

My name is…  – Tên tôi là… (ten-toy-la)

How much? – Bao nhiêu? (bow-new)

Too expensive! – Mắc quá (mak-kwa)

Where’s the bathroom? – Nhà vệ sinh ở đâu? (nya-vay-sing-ugh-dow)

Oh my gosh!Ói trời ơi (oy-chuy-oy)

Do you speak English?Bạn nói được tiếng Anh không? (banh-noy-tyen-an-durkh-khom)

Navigating A Menu in Vietnam

PHO

The rice noodle soup pho (pronounced “fuh”) is a gateway dish to Vietnamese cuisine. While the original recipe came from the north, this dish is widely eaten around Vietnam. The aromatic stock is simmered for hours before it is joined by flat rice noodles, a protein like beef or chicken, chopped white and green onions, and topped with bean sprouts, mint leaves, and spritz of lime.

BANH MI

A chewy rice and wheat flour baguette, sliced in half, slathered in paté and packed with pickled daikon and carrot, form the base of the world-renowned “banh mi” sandwich. A banh mi can be stuffed with anything, but popular fillings range from barbecued pork to pork floss to a breakfast version with two sunny-side up eggs. Finish with sprigs of fresh cilantro and slices of jalapeno for added heat.

BUN BO HUE

Bun bo hue remains a celebrated Hue dish. Slippery spools of rice vermicelli (known as “bun”) swim in a red-tinged, citrusy-elixir, whose tangy properties are achieved by simmering lemongrass and spoonfuls of the funky, fermented shrimp paste known as mam tom. Throw in some pork hocks, tender brisket, cha lua (ground ham sausage), and flashboiled banana flower and morning glory curls, and you get a wonderfully wrought noodle soup fit for royalty.

BUN CHA

A Hanaoian staple, bun cha is a multi-faceted dining experience. The dish is served in two parts: 1) as a plate of cold bun (rice vermicelli) and 2) a bowl of cha (charcoal grilled pork patties) floating in a tangy fish sauce marinade laced with vinegar, kumquat juice, carrot, green papaya, garlic, and sugar. Bun cha is also served with grilled pork belly and mountains of herbs, and a side of nem cuon (fried spring rolls) if you’re extra hungry.

COM TAM

The direct translation of this meal is “broken rice,” alluding to the nubs of imperfect rice farmers couldn’t sell. What began as an effort to combat food waste quickly became a dish of the masses. Com Tam is typically served with a barbecued pork chop, a fried egg, some picked vegetables, a steamed egg and pork cake, and a side of nuoc cham, the quintessential Vietnamese condiment made with fish sauce, sugar, lime, and bird’s eye chili.

BANH XEO

Akin to a French crepe, this folded savory pancake is stuffed with bean sprouts, shrimp in-shell, and slices of pork, before being rolled in a lettuce leaf and dipped in a pool of nuoc cham, a fish sauce-based condiment paired with most meals. The egg-y looking batter is actually completely vegan⁠, made from a mixture of rice flour and coconut milk, and colored by turmeric powder. You’ll find banh xeo mostly in central and south Vietnam.

CAO LAU

One of Vietnam’s greatest culinary treasures, cao lau and its mystical noodles are not to be missed. But you have to travel to Hoi An to eat a bowl as authentic cao lau noodles can only be made from the well water of the millenia-old Ba Le well mixed with the ash of trees native to the region. The thick noodles are lightly doused with Chinese five-spice-essenced broth, before being fanned with pork cracklings, braised pork, and fresh herbs.

VIETNAMESE COFFEE

When one thinks of Vietnamese coffee, they are probably thinking of Vietnamese iced coffee or ca phe sua da. Vietnam is the 2nd largest producer of coffee in the world and has built a cult following in situ. Ground Robusta beans are added to the iconic tin drip filter (known as a “phin”), which sits on top of a glass, pre-poured with sweetened condensed milk and ice. As the coffee slowly steeps, it creates a creamy, caffeinated concoction. This is best enjoyed at a sidewalk cafe.

Plan Your Trip

WHERE TO FLY INTO

Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) is the largest airport located in Ho Chi Minh City. A taxi from the airport to city center takes 15-25 minutes depending on traffic and costs 120,000 – 200,000 VND max. Click here for a full guide to navigating the airport.

Noi Bai International Airport (HAN) is the second largest airport in the capital of Hanoi. It is located 45 km outside of the city. A taxi from the airport to city center takes 30 minutes and costs roughly 300,000 – 350,000 VND.

VISAS FOR AMERICANS

Americans traveling to Vietnam will need a valid visa. The cheapest and most convenient visa is the single-entry e-visa, valid for 30 days. It takes 3 business days to process and costs $25 USD. For more information, click here.

If you are planning a multiple-entry visit or a stay of more than 30 days, you will want to apply for a visa on arrival. This can be arranged through a third-party visa organizer like Vietnam Visa.

SUGGESTED TRAVEL DAYS

The majority of first-time visitors to Vietnam greatly underestimate the time it needs to cover the whole country. If you invest in a one month visa, you can slowly make your way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, but if you’re working with a limited time frame, flying by plane is your best bet for capitalizing on time. Although Vietnam Airlines is more expensive than the well-known budget airline, VietJet and JetStar, they are the most reliable when it comes to punctuality. If you focus travel on one region, you can take intercity sleeper buses, trains, and even taxis from city to city.

LOCAL TRANSPORT

Sleeper buses: $6 (from 4 hours) to 20 (from 17 hours) USD
Overland trains: $38-45 USD from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh. Book trains on Baolau.
Domestic flights: $30-75 USD (one-way)

For those with a month’s stay, design your itinerary around the outlined route on the map. For those with about ten days, here’s your condensed trip (flying strongly advised):

  1. Touchdown in Ho Chi Minh City (1-2 days max) *its cheaper than flying into Hanoi
  2. Hoi An (3 days) *if you want to get any custom-made clothing, you need to allow yourself at least 3 days
  3. Hanoi (2 days)
  4. Ha Long Bay (2 days, 1 night)

 

Also known as Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the mover and the shaker of the industrial cities. In the last four decades, it has become a force to be reckoned with, pegged as the fastest growing city in Southeast Asia. Saigon welcomed 8.5 million foreign visitors last year, who use Vietnam’s second city as port of entry to the country. But Saigon is an urban playground begging to be explored. Go on a motorbike street food tour, zigzagging your way through lesser-known food streets, like Vinh Khanh Road in District 4. Sample-award winning craft brews at the many breweries popping up in the city, such as Pasteur Street Brewery. Find solace from the unrelenting heat at the trendy cafes hidden inside 42 Nguyen Hue Street, a complex known as the Apartment Cafes. To see the impact of the American War on the Vietnamese, visit the War Remnants Museum. You can also crawl through the guerilla tunnels dug and utilized by the Viet Cong during the war in the area known as Cu Chi, two hours outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Whatever you do, don’t dismiss Ho Chi Minh City as just a pitstop on your larger route. This is a location that deserves your time and attention.

Getting Around

The most reputable taxis in Ho Chi Minh City are Mai Linh (green) or Vinasun (white with green and red stripes). A ride into the city from the airport should be around 150,000 VND (at most 180,000 VND depending on traffic) and take around 20 minutes. Taxi meters start at 12,000 VND.  If you have a working simcard, use GrabTaxi or GrabMoto for a more inexpensive way to travel around the city.You can pay in cash, as well as card, although Grab Moto drivers prefer cash. There is no public transportation. Walking is not advisable, mostly due to the chance of getting heatstroke.

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The capital of Vietnam

Hanoi

As foreign investors set their eyes to the south, the northern capital of Hanoi remains steadfast in preserving the old ways. Hanoi is the seat of Vietnam’s political power and maintains a reverence to tradition. It is the gateway to the ethnic tribes of Sapa and to mystical limestone islands of Ha Long Bay jutting out of the Gulf of Tonkin. For visitors with a short amount of time, Hanoi is your safest bet to seeing as much of the country as possible. Hanoi is considered the birthplace of Vietnam’s most notable dish, pho, and is also the final resting place of the late Ho Chi Minh, whose body you can actually see on display perfectly preserved at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Unlike Saigon, Hanoi is a more pedestrian-friendly city, with the area around Hoan Kiem Lake closed on weekends to automobile traffic. Hire a cyclo to pedal you around the confines of Old Town. And at night, don’t forget to order a frothy cup of ice cold bia hoi, fresh beer that costs less than $1 USD. For the perfect weekend in Hanoi, check out my two-day itinerary written for the Vietnam Tourism Board.

How To Get Around

The best taxis in Hanoi are Hanoi Taxi Group (white with red and blue stripes) and ABC (white and pink). A ride into the city should be around 370,000 VND (~$16 USD) and take around 30 minutes. Taxi meters start at 10,000 VND.  If you have a working simcard, use GrabTaxi or GrabMoto for a more inexpensive way to travel around the city.You can pay in cash, as well as card, although Grab Moto drivers prefer cash. There is no public transportation. Walking is advised in the Old Quarter, as the roads are closed off to cars at night and on the weekends. You can also bicyle around the much larger West Lake and watch old Vietnamese men fishing in Tay Ho.

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The charming, historic town

Hoi An

At Vietnam’s narrowest point, you’ll find the darling town of Hoi An. From canary yellow buildings draped in bougainvillea, to bowls of refined cao lau, discover all the ways to fall in love with one of Vietnam’s finest cultural escapes. Years ago, Hoi An welcomed the likes of Chinese, Japanese, and French merchants, to its shores, who never ended up leaving.The Japanese imparted their knowledge of silk lantern making, glowing on the banks of the Thu Bon River. The French brought their architecture, which can be seen in the houses of Ancient Town. And the Chinese brought their culinary inclinations, influencing the likes of fabled cao lau, a bowl of noodles believed to have magical properties. The historic city is also home to a dizzying amount of tailors, my favorite being Bebe Tailors. As the number of tourists begin to overwhelm the Ancient Town’s small confines, pedal your way towards An Bang beach to decompress, or better yet, hop on the back of motorbike to the nearby ancient Cham ruins of My Son.

How To Get There

Fly to Danang International Airport, by way of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, or a regional Asian destination. Once you arrive in Danang, take a taxi to Hoi An. Typically, making transportation arrangements with your hotel or hostel in advance will give you a bit of a discount. The normal fare a one-way trip is 370,000 VND (~$16 USD). Look for properties that offer free bike rentals so you have the freedom of exploring. Also, taxis are hard to come the closer you get to Ancient Town.

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A retreat in the mountains

Dalat

Concealed in the misty mountains of the central highlands is a place where you can find spring year-round: the city of Dalat. What was once a much loved escape for the colonials living in French Indochina, Dalat continues to be a popular retreat for those looking to escape the oppressive heat. Dalat is a city of pleasantries: idyllic nature escapes, refreshingly brisk air, and an unhurried way of life that sets it apart from the rest of Vietnam.The waterfalls of Dalat call to adrenaline junkies looking to soar down the rushing rapids with nothing but a strong core and a safely-prepared rope course. Tea crops blanket the bucolic areas surrounding the city center. At night, head to the Dalat Night Market for your pick of the most succulent strawberries, or order a crispy, folded banh trang nuong, a Vietnamese hybrid of a taco and pizza made with rice paper instead of wheat flour dough. Dalat is also home to architectural wunderkinds, like the Crazy House and 100 Roofs Cafe.

How To Get There

Despite having a famous railway station, there are no trains that go directly from Dalat to Saigon or Danang. The best way to get to Dalat is via sleeper bus, which takes roughly 6 to 8 hours depending on your bus operator. I recommend Phuong Trang (also known as the Futa bus line) for their comfortable sleeper buses that depart every 30 minutes, all throughout the day. The cost of the journey is 210,000 VND from Ho Chi Minh City and they provide you with a blanket, water bottle, and cold towel. Buy snacks at convenience store before you board.

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Watch My Highlight Reel

MY PACKING LIST FOR VIETNAM

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Millette Pulido is a Bay Area-based, Boston-bred Filipina who loves to vagabond. At 29, the former expat has traded in her nomadic ways for a semi-grounded life in San Jose, CA. Recently married, she's focusing on balancing travel with a full-time job and a destination wedding side hustle, all while planning her honeymoon in 2020. She lives for good times, good food, and good peeps. Find out her #wheretonext on Instagram @thenextsomewhere.

Comments:

  • kellie

    November 16, 2019

    DANG this is a BEAUTIFUL, helpful and thorough guide!!! :0 awesome work, Millette!

    reply...

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