Monday, May 14, 2018

An overwhelming but equally incredible country, it's time to Vietnam

Destination: Vietnam
Travel Companion: Anthony & Pia (Ha Long Bay & Hanoi), met up again with Kate - from Laos (Hanoi), Gayle (Hoi An) and met Sue (Ninh Binh)
Duration: 14 days
Budget: $1,500 - $2,000 pp (including internal flights - they're as cheap as $25 one way)


I did everything I could to get the chance to visit Vietnam, including working with an agency that charged me triple the price of what I would have paid if I planned the whole trip by myself, just because that was the only way I was able to get a visa. Vietnam, will overwhelm you, whether it's its past or its present. But spoiler alert, when you leave Vietnam, it will leave a mark on you and you will remember moments from your trip at random.

Warning: this is a very long post, but well... it's because there is a lot to say about Vietnam. To make it a bit easier on you, you can see below the different sections I am covering, so feel free to jump to the section that is the most pertinent to your ask!

In this post I will cover the following:
  • Duration & Budget
  • Visa Info
  • Location & Itinerary
  • Accommodation
  • Transport (Bus, Train, Plane, Tour or Car)
  • Money (Cash or card)
  • One to Two Day trips in and out of Hanoi
  • Places to Visit in Dong Hoi
  • Places to Visit in Hue
  • Places to Visit in Hoi An
  • Food & Drinks
  • Vietnamese words you can use
  • Fun Facts about Vietnam and Vietnamese people 
Ninh Binh - Vietnam

Duration & Budget

Recommended duration is 2 weeks. Vietnam is quite a huge country with a lot to offer so you're probably going to want to cover many different parts of the country.

Pagoda


Some people just go to see Ha Long Bay. Despite the fact that Ha Long Bay is gorgeous (when it's not raining), there are plenty of other beautiful places for you to see the real Vietnam. Vietnam has rich and various types of nature; they're not something to miss out on. If you can't do two weeks, next best option is 10 days.


Ninh Binh


In terms of budget, Hanoi hotels can be a bit expensive for a South East Asian country (night rate around100$ for a double bed - so if you're two people, it's reasonable). Experiences such as Ha Long Bay 2 days/1 night or 3 days/2 nights (including transport from and to Hanoi) are around 150-350$ a night, depending on the cruise type / activities included. More on that later in the itinerary section.

Should you book completely with a travel agency?

A friend of mine booked a group tour, and it was quite flexible in terms of changing transport methods (so long so she is willing to pay for it herself, so for example, she switched the night train - highly NOT recommended - to a flight or sleeping bus).


My experience was a bit annoying, because I had to go through a travel agency for my whole trip as unfortunately this was the only way I can get my visa (thank you Lebanese passport).
Cons: They force you to stay in 4* hotels, and they take a lot of markup on them. They also booked me a lot of private tours, evidently these are more expensive than group ones. Let's just say, there was a lot of things I would've done differently if I planned my own trip. And this is what this blogpost is about, to help you build your own itinerary at a great price. It's actually extremely easy to plan transport between cities.

In general, I would say Vietnam needs around $1,500 for two weeks (including internal flights).

Hanoi

Visa Info

  • You can do as above, go through an agency. There are a lot of online websites that offer visa services, be careful, some are scam.
  • You can check if you are eligible for visa on arrival, but you have to apply online first here: http://www.vietnamvisa.govt.vn.
  • You can apply through your consulate or embassy (Lebanon and UAE)

Location & Itinerary

I would recommend to start with Hanoi (as opposed to ending with Hanoi), use Hanoi as a base to do the close by towns from there and then start moving south. I also highly recommend you end your Vietnam trip with Hoi An, as it was my favorite and it's always great to leave a country on a good note.

Avoid ending your trip in Hanoi (or Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon - which I did not visit but heard it's even busier and more crowded than Hanoi). Reason behind that is that Hanoi can be overwhelming, it's one of the busiest cities I have ever been to. I know you could be reading this and thinking: "Oh, come on, it can't be that bad!". It can! It will drain your energy and mess with your mental balance! I am not exaggerating. It's quite interesting and enjoyable the first night, yet even when using it as a base, we were still coming in and out of Hanoi, getting stuck in traffic and surrounded by thousands of mopeds can get a toll on you. The honking never stops!

Hanoi


I did the following itinerary:

Day 1: Hanoi
Day 2: Hanoi to Ha Long Bay (arrange tour with agency, who will manage transport)
Day 3: Ha Long Bay then back to Hanoi
Day 4: Hanoi City Tour (arrange tour with agency, usually includes lunch)
Day 5: Sleeping Bus to Sapa, afternoon in Sapa Trekking (arrange trekking with agency)
Day 6: Sapa Morning Trekking, then Sleeping bus to Hanoi
Day 7: Ninh Binh (arrange tour with agency, includes boat ride + lunch)
Day 8: Hanoi City Tour (museum / art / culture) then flight to Dong Hoi
Day 9: Paradise Case / water caving (arrange tour with agency)
Day 10: Drive to Hue, afternoon city tour (I arranged this with the hotel I booked in Hue)
Day 11: Monuments to see on the way to Da Nang / Hoi An (also arranged with Hue hotel reception)
Day 12: Hoi An (more on activities below)
Day 13: Hoi An
Day 14: Hoi An

Fish Market - Hoi An

Accommodation


In Hanoi, two hotels I highly recommend (100$ per night might be a lot, but you get a 5 star service in 4 star hotels, better than so many 5* European hotels I have stayed in - for work - and which cost 300-400$ / night in comparison to the Vietnamese ones):


  1. O'Gallery Premier Hotel & Spa
  2. Hanoi La Siesta Diamond Hotel & Spa (booking.com link) - also 2 minutes walk from the Bus company (more on that in Transpot).

I had to check-in and out of this hotel 3 times! And they kept doing these kind of things on every check-in :)



In Hue, stay in "Hue Serene Palace Hotel" (booking.com link), it's very well located and is around 25-30$ / night. The best thing about them is they were able to arrange transport for me from Dong Hoi to Hue, and Hue to Da Nang / Hoi An while making all the visit stops on the way (more on that below) for a very reasonable price - around 135$ which includes all the stops, fuel, driver and road tolls. There was around 5 hours drive the first day, and full day driving the next day, and again if you're more than two people, it's well worth it.

The experience in these hotels was excellent, and the staff were super friendly staff, but also, extremely efficient and helpful. La Siesta in particular, has the best service I’ve received so far in my life. Rate is 100$ per night which for Vietnam is not cheap, yet for Hanoi it’s normal. You’d pay 170$ per night in Paris for an extremely mediocre service / small room. In this hotel, they remembered I was sick, so when I called room service to order food and ginger tea, they gave me the tea complimentary as I was sick. Later on I called to check breakfast time, they said my dinner was also complimentary as they wanted to apologize for not being able to accommodate me for another night (I asked and they were fully booked), they even offered transfer to airport, I said I have that sorted out already so they gave me a voucher for a massage. All staff knew my status and what I needed so I can talk to anyone and they would just pick up the conversation. Excellent service!

Sleeping Bus - best invention ever.

Transport (Bus, Train, Plane, Tour or Private car)



To Sapa: Sapa express (you can go and book directly with them, no need to go through an agency or tour company on the street that much overcharge you). When you get to Sapa, you can find many guides there, if you want a contact for my guide, happy to provide it, she was very nice!

To Ha Long Bay: you can find many tours when you are walking in Hanoi, so that can be easily arranged, or you can do that online. They always offer transfer from and back to Hanoi.

I do not recommend the night train, I have not heard any good things about it. I definitely recommend the Sleeping Bus, very clean and comfortable, and 30$ for 5 hours is quite affordable! Specially if you're going to Sapa, bus is actually quicker than the train.

You can also arrange for a private car, and this could easily be done with the hotel you're staying in. Moving from Hanoi to Dong Hoi or Hoi An, it's better to take a flight, anything above 5 hours in a bus / train, is a waste of your time. Internal flights can be as cheap as $25. I used Vietname Airlines.

During the history tour outside of Hanoi

Money (Cash or Card)



Both available, it's better to have USD on you, easier to convert and better to pay in local currency because as usual they're going to charge more if you're paying in USD.

One to Two Day trips in and out of Hanoi


Accommodation tip: One challenge that arises when using Hanoi as a base, is that you will have to check-out of hotels, and check back in after two days (as you will have 1 or 2 nights in Ha Long bay, and 1 or 2 nights in Sapa). If I was planning my own trip, I would've stayed in a cheaper hotel and booked the same place for a whole week in Hanoi, it was quite tiring to keep packing / unpacking.

  • Ha Long Bay (look for cruises with budget around 200$ per night), and check activities they will offer. You should expect kayaking / swimming / visiting a cave. Anything more is great
  • Ninh Binh (Restaurant: Nha Hang Truong An)
  • Sapa (for one or two nights). Book the sleeping bus (see Transport section) as it’s quicker than the train. You can book trekking once you get to Sapa (happy to provide you with the contact of my guide and you can also go on the cable car for better views.
  • Traditional villages tour (includes silk village, ceramic village, etc..)
  • Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi (it sounds boring, but if you get a guide, you're in for a lot of interesting learning, I recommend it)
  • Hanoi Street Food Tour in Hanoi: Evidently Vietnamese cuisine is quite delicious, so such a tour can be quite interesting. I didn't get the chance to do it though.
  • Egg Coffee is a must try, go to Giang Cafe 1946
  • Dong Xuan (market
Ha Long Bay - Vietnam

Heritage House in the Museum of Ethnology

Beautiful trekking in Sapa.

 

Places to Visit in Dong Hoi



There isn't much to do in Dong Hoi, my hotel was right on the beach, but we were surrounded by nothing. So when the weather is nice, you can enjoy the beach and the swimming pool. Other than that, it's mostly convenient because it's relatively closer to the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park - Quang Binh (an hour's drine) where you can visit Paradise cave that is incredibly beautiful and I highly recommend and Dark cave which is inside a sort of water park where you can do zip lining, kayaking, etc... It's a fun activity if there's more than one of you.
 Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park




On the second day in Doing Hoi, you can go to Phong Nha cave, however if you're short on time, I recommend you skip it and head straight to Hue from the early morning so you get at least a night there. Hue is a very pleasant city, specially at night as it's super chill with many restaurants, it's so much different from Hanoi.

Dong Hoi
Dong Hoi


Paradise Cave

Places to Visit in Hue



For some reason, the agency that I booked with, hadn't mentioned Hue for me. I only learned about it when I was in Hanoi and people recommended it. The good thing is, Hue is between Dong Hoi and Hoi An. The arrangement I had with my Hue hotel, was that my driver would pick me up from Dong Hoi and drive me to Hue; we arrived in that afternoon, I went to Thiên Mu Pagoda by boat for sunset, and then came back to the city for a nice dinner. There are plenty of restaurants in Hue's city center, and I was lucky that night as there was some sort of music festival.
Sunset in Hue - Vietnam


As a proxy of where you should stay, check out Hue Serene Palace Hotel.

I didn't get the chance to try this place, but it had great reviews! Madam Thu - Hue



On the second morning, the driver picked me up again to take me to Hoi An. On the way we had 3 stops in Hue. On your first stop, buy a combo ticket as it's a better deal. The three stops are:



  1. Citadel Imperial City
  2. Khai Dinh Tomb
  3. Minh Mang Tomb

Khai Dinh Tomb


Places to Visit on the way to Da Nang / Hoi An




On our way from Hue to Hoi An, the driver stopped at multiple places for me to either visit or take photos of including Da Nang:
  • Lang Co Beach
  • Lap An Lagoon (fishing area)
  • Hai Van Pass (longest pass in South East Asia)
  • Marble Mountain (best to visit before arriving to Hoi An)


A post shared by Liliane (@funkyozzi) on


A post shared by Liliane (@funkyozzi) on


 

Places to Visit in Hoi An


    • Nguyen Thai Hoc street (lamps everywhere - see photo below)
    • Night / Morning Fish market
    • A lot of art galleries with different types of art (lequer, silk, painting, drawing etc...)
    • Walking tours (Ancient house, Chinese temple, Japanese bridge)
    • Great restaurants (e.g. Morning Glory, Miss Lÿ, Green Mango...)
    • Cooking classes (I did My Grandma's Home Cooking) - Photos below. What I liked about it is the morning tour at the market learning about Vietnamese vegetables and fruits, the boat ride, Island visit, learning from Gramma how to make rice cake, and then the actual cooking!
    • Cycling tours
    • Kayaking
    • Boat trips (long-tail boat cruise)
    • My Son Holy Land: Sanctuary and UNESCO World Heritage. Between the 4th and 13th centuries a unique culture which owed its spiritual origins to Indian Hinduism developed on the coast of contemporary Viet Nam. This is graphically illustrated by the remains of a series of impressive tower-temples located in a dramatic site that was the religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom for most of its existence.
    • Tailors: they're famous for their silk and you can pretty much get anything tailored for you. You need to give it few days with the few trials you need to do, and the cost is not expensive at all.

      Beautiful Hoi An at night

      From Left to Right, Top to Bottom: Papaya Salad with Shrimp, Rice Pancake with Shrimps (others had it with Pork), and the last one is Grilled Eggplant.

      I can't believe I cooked these! It was a very nice experience!



      Hoi An is such a beautiful city. It reminded me of Bruges, and we all know how perfect Bruges is. Hoi An though, is poorer, it endured much more, like floods almost every year that invade shops and houses, that themselves are quite old. You will still get a bit of Vietnamese street chaos, even if the city is chill compared to the rest of Vietnam.


      When you enter the ancient City, you have to have a ticket. It can mostly be done by walking and sometimes bicycles and mopeds are allowed, moreover in many spots smoking isn’t allowed. On the other side of the river bank you have the other part of town, connected by a pedestrian bridge; on this side you can enjoy the night market, and more restaurants.


      The restaurants, pubs and cafés scene is quite hip, dare I say even hipster-y (In a good way). So yes, Hoi An might not look like Bruges, it looks like Hoi An and nothing else you’ve seen in your life. It has a minimal chaotic scene, beautiful art galleries, very nice (and curious) people, great food and some creative places, like “reaching out” teahouse for example.

       

      Food & Drinks


      I mean, almost everything Vietnamese is amazing! But the below were my favorite:
      • Pho (Noodle Soup)
      • Banh Cuon (Dumplings)
      • Egg Coffee
      • Morning Glory (stir-fried vietnamese plant, that will be the best thing you can ever taste in Vietnam)
      • Banh Mi (with beef or chicken etc...)

       
      Banh Cuon (Vietnamese Dumplings)


      Words in Vietnamese you can use

      • Njong Qua - very delicious
      • Dep Qua - very beautiful
      • Sin Tchao - good morning / Hello
      • Cam on - thank you


      My guide Chai in Sapa

       

      Fun facts about Vietnam


        • French brought Latin letters to describe the sounds Vietnamese make when speaking (originally they wrote in Chinese alphabet). In the last 200 years, they've been writing using Latin letters thanks to the French.
        • Viet Nam refers to Viet people in the south (of China)
        • 70% Buddhist, 70% Viet, rest are around 40 ethnic groups that have their own language.
        • Saigon used to be the capital of south Vietnam.
        • Ho Chi Minh united south and north Vietnam and made Hanoi its capital when it was almost 1,000 years ago.
        • Vietnamese believe in Confucius as a teacher (even though he comes from China).
        • Originally education was only for men.
        • Vietnamese have been occupied by China, France and have also been invaded by Americans.
        • They have temples (worshiping ancestors and people) and pagodas worshiping Buddha.
        • Black teeth are considered a sign of beauty, they're the outcome of eating bitter nut and bitter leaf every day for 3 months.
        • My guides in Ha Long Bay and Sapa were from black h’mong. In the below photo you will see the Traditional dress with the Tanjara hat, this is worn by the Baha Vietnamese people.

          She was selling handmade fans :) Observe her black teeth!

          Trekking in Sapa and stumbling on Vietnamese women in traditional Baha clothes.


          Vietnam was truly awesome and something different.
          #FROMVIETNAMWITHFUNK (instagram)

          2 comments:

          1. This was very helpful, I actually read it all. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience. Am planning to travel for a while in Asia and Vietnam is on my list. Have a great day

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            Replies
            1. Glad to hear you found it helpful! And actually read the whole thing :)

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