Peaceful, bustling, and utterly enchanting, Vietnam is a special country uniquely influenced by its recent history. Today, it is left with the remnants of a special fusion: ageless border disputes between it’s neighboring countries and struggles to overcome French colonization well into the 20th century followed by two decades of war and invasion by the United States. Learning at least part of Vietnam’s history is inescapable and provides context to better understand its cultural norms and current events.
Many travel bloggers seem to be divided between loving or hating Vietnam. As for me? I found it full of surprises. Some anxiously shook me, others I marveled at. Here are ten things that caused marvels and anxiety, and which the guidebooks did not prepare me for:
1) Great Divides
People are generally divided between their love or hate for Hanoi, Hoi An, Ha Long Bay and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). I heard accounts of extreme static love and/or hate for each of these places.
Hanoi vs. HCMC
Being from New York, I am repelled by big, busy, industrial cities. I was told HCMC would be dangerous, dirty, crowded, fast-paced, and with little to do or see. To me, HCMC was a special French-Asian fusion, modern metropolis, adorned with tree-lined boulevards and cosmopolitan architecture. It has a superior aroma of poshness, yet it retains Hanoi’s down to earth character. In one day, HCMC became one of my favorite cities in the world. I left the city feeling light and fluffy as a feather.
Hanoi, on the other hand, shook me to my core. I left Hanoi wishing someone would cradle me back to normality. But most travelers will tell you the extreme opposite of what I experienced. Weird, huh?
Hoi An vs. Ditching Hoi An
For us, Hoi An was a magical wonderland. A sweet respite from the hustle and ceaseless bustle of Hanoi. Yes, Hoi An is often full of crowds, bikes, and tourists learning to ride their newly rented motorcycles. But who cares when you’re too busy being swayed by the euphoria-inducing sounds of traditional dan bau music, admiring beautifully restored architecture and gawking at the beautiful hand-made clothes? It is the Vietnamese version of Disneyland. They even have a gorgeous lantern festival about once a month during the full moon.
While I’m usually repelled by the idea of overcrowded tourist resort destinations like Cancun, Punta Cana, and Varadero–Hoi An just seemed different from your usual tourist trap even while still being a major tourist attraction.
I suggest renting a bike and biking across the bridge to one of the islands if you need a break to breathe. Even if it’s just for coffee with a good book along the river.
Ha Long Bay vs. Lan Ha Bay
We skipped Ha Long Bay for Cat Ba island, Monkey Island, and Lan Ha Bay. Per regional law, you cannot do a cruise that will do both. You must choose one over the other. Since we were told Ha Long Bay was polluted and overcrowded, we did our own individual excursion. Though I can’t compare it to Ha Long, I found Cat Ba island to be meek and deserted, yet full of tourists with very little to do after a day or two. Really just a jump off point for a Lan Ha Bay excursion.
Lan Ha Bay was quaint and peaceful, but all in all, it was OK as are most one day excursions. The real highlight was kayaking under a cave where no boats could fit through and coming out on the other side of a beautiful closed-in bay.
The junk boat taking us around Lan Ha bay itself was scary. Please be careful with the boat you choose, some have been known to capsize.
Also, the sugar-high, junk food addicted monkeys on Monkey island are memorizing to watch.
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The extreme divides of popular opinion for these Vietnamese cities can be part of the fun and excitement of traveling through Vietnam: which will you come out loving or not loving so much? You really may be surprised!
2) SURPRISE Roommates
Roaches. Everywhere. In the shower, on the streets, by the curtains, behind the couch…
If you are particularly sensitive to the thought of sharing a bed with a roach the size of your palm, you may want to consider bringing a portable mosquito net with you throughout your travels. It can provide excellent relief for any anxious concerns about waking up to a flying mutant roach. And they seem to be everywhere nowadays, from NYC to Cuba to Argentina to your 5-star hotel paradise in Vietnam. So long as there is warm water, they’ll be there!
3) NOT Like Frogger
The first time we were confronted with the horrifying task of crossing the street was at a five-way intersection in Hanoi. Hundreds of motorbikes, cars, bicyclists, trucks and rickshaw motorists were zooming left and right from five different streets. I stood paralyzed in shock wondering how it was at all possible to cross.
Finally, I saw an Australian couple across the street begin to walk towards me at a slow and constant pace. The automobiles seem to gracefully swirl around them. If they had walked one step too fast or one step too slow, or froze they would have been hit. This wasn’t Frogger where you run and stop, run and stop; this was a reversed psychology. This was more like poker, or Vietnamese roulette. I gawked, “How did you do that?” The man shrugged boastfully, “Just start walking into the street and don’t stop.”
Crossing the street in major Vietnamese cities is NOT like what you’ve ever been taught. There are often no traffic lights, no defined crosswalks, and usually, everyone has the right of way at the same time.
Vietnamese, unlike tourists, have a mission. They are not strolling down the streets looking to explore or discover. They know where things are and where they are going. They hop on their motorbikes and go.
There are no city trains, and the public bus transportation system is not as reliable as hopping on your motorbike to a desired destination. Vietnamese are ready and geared up (a hoodie, sunglasses, and a face mask to avoid skin darkening) to go. Thus, there are massive ant army-like waves of bikes and motorcycles on the roads and little infrastructure for pedestrians to get by.
4) Beware Taxi Scams
I was warned about taxis that scam tourists by using broken meters. One scorching hot afternoon, we desperately leaped into the first taxi that finally stopped for us. I noticed the meter didn’t really say a number, it was as if the meter box had been put in water and was having an electrical glitch. The numbers were jumbled up but if I stared hard enough I could make out a number. It was like the Rorschach Inkblot test of numbers. When we arrived after a 5-minute drive, our taxi driver charged us the Vietnamese dong equivalent of $5 dollars. This should have cost us at most $2 dollars. We took his picture, a picture of the taxi, and a picture of the meter. He quickly drove off knowing we were onto him. I had also been warned not to start fights with Vietnamese. I figured $3 wasn’t worth ruining my vacation. So I snapped, paid, learned my lesson and rolled.
The reliable taxies are Main Linh or Vinasun.
5) Getting a Good Buzz: Vietnamese Coffee Culture
Vietnam is famously known for it’s traditional, phin-filter-brewed, sweetened condensed milk, dark roasted coffee. Other fun and famously known variations include the egg-white foam coffee (Ca Phe Trung – sort of like eggnog) and their body-gasmic coconut smoothie coffee– arguably the best coffee I’ve had in my entire life.
It’s thriving coffee culture never stood out to me until Vietnamese friends showed us this seemingly underground cafe world in Hanoi. Hidden because they would have otherwise blended in with the rush of the city, had I not been guided to find these shops. A favorite of mine was Nhac Cafe in Hanoi. Get that coconut coffee smoothie. Bet you’ll order a second!
6) Rooftop bars in Ho Chi Minh City
The surge of glamorous rooftop bars in Ho Chi Minh City are a must see. Here, you can witness the burgeoning capitalism of a city that lost its name in the Fall of Saigon to the communist north. Just like the post-revolutionary Cuban government, upon winning the war, the Vietnamese government banned private enterprises. A ban that led to disastrous results which ultimately forced the Vietnamese government to finally re-embraced the very system it fought to eradicate: the market economy.
Before private enterprise was allowed, being flashy or ostentatious was shunned in the name of communist conformity. Now, there is a strong flourishing of high-end, luxurious businesses throughout the city. These rooftop bars have poetically become a beacon of Ho Chi Minh City returning to its Saigon-roots.
That warm breezy night, we watched the city zoom in a blur of bright lights from high above. It felt like another country. No. It felt like being on another plane. This was heaven and for a few hours that night, we felt like gods sipping on $4 ambrosia (cocktails), high off shiny lights and the hypnotic smell of passion fruit.
7) Hoi An Custom tailored royalty: Preparation is key
From tuxedos to beach dresses — you’d be surprised how much you can get custom tailor-made for your body. You become a fashion designer and the tailors are at your service to weave your imagination into life.
Unless you have a lot of time on your hands in Hoi An, you should research the best tailors and have a structured idea of what you want before you arrive. Bring photos and know exactly which clothes shops you want to check out. There are what seems like an infinite number of tailors in Hoi An. Some tailors have extremely similar names. Be extra-prepared to make sure you arrive at the correct one.
Remember to be wary of cheap tailors. I found that it was better to pay a little more for places with strong reputations than those with lesser known reputations and risk getting poor quality items. How did I learn this? Because I did both. The $40 work pants and skirts I got were incredible. I’ve never owned such amazing pieces of clothing in my life. The $15 items of clothing I got done, have ripped and/or weren’t made logistically for body movement.
In a small and touristy city like this, there are hundreds (will feel like thousands) of tailors. Your head will spin with options. Every night in Hoi An, I would close my eyes to sleep and there were images of dresses and skirts imprinted on the back of my eyelids. It’s so overwhelming that it’s easy to cave and say “OK whatever!” But if you do your research beforehand and go straight to the right place, your money will go far and your mind won’t spin. Come prepared.
8) The C word
Vietnam is one of the five communist countries left in the world besides China, Cuba, Laos and North Korea. This alone is a unique quality that can draw a traveler’s curiosity. Yet, to the naked eye, it didn’t seem so communist. But by talking to Vietnamese people and doing a little deeper research, you can start to find many things that remind you you’re in a communist country. For one, I could not log onto WordPress or any WordPress blog. It was blocked. Measures against free speech became blatant.
During our time in Vietnam, our new Vietnamese friends explained to us a recent Taiwanese power plant incident that had polluted and poisoned much of the water in the Vietnamese coast of the South China Sea. Thousands of dead fish and birds were washing up on shores. Even more alarming, locals and tourists alike were getting sick from eating locally caught fish. Other locals I asked did not know a thing about this, but when I went online, international news outlets had published reports about the incident.
Later, in HCMC, the internet was turned off in our district for reasons unbeknownst to us. People could not connect to data. Finally, I was told by some that due to certain protests the internet was purposely restricted by the government to limit larger congregation of protesters. I realize this is simply anecdotal evidence, but I find it hard to disagree.
For a communist nation, however, there were plenty of small and large businesses across the entire country. Commercialism was abundant, cheap consumerism is available everywhere as well as high-end shopping malls, and (unlike Cuba) nearly everyone seemed to have automobiles. This abundance of resources, I can only assume is thanks to trade with it’s bordering semi-communist neighbor, China.
9) Being on time means being early
The most popular airlines in Vietnam are (1) VietJet, (2) JetStar and (3) Vietnam Airlines. Vietnam Airlines provides the best quality of service, but can cost over five times the price of the first two. But sometimes, you get what you pay for. VietJet and JetStar are notorious for never leaving on time, canceling or sometimes even leaving before the scheduled time!
- Don’t just get there on time, get there early enough to avoid the lengthy check-in and security lines.
- If you miss the cutoff time for checking in (usually one hour), you will not be allowed to board the plane. This sounds reasonable until you see how long the lines are to get to the counter/through security.
- Pay careful attention when paying for your flight on the airline’s websites. They automatically add extra services without your consent.
- You have to remember to uncheck what you do not want (this is easy to miss with all the ads).
- Pay in advance for your second carry-on, or it will cost double at the airport.
- Or check-in at the machine (if there is one), so they don’t see your second carry on.
- Buy ONLY early morning flights. The earlier the better. This way, if your flight gets canceled (a common occurrence) you still have 5 other flights you could try to get switched on rather than having to wait until the next day to fly out.
10) Time vs. Money
Our $15 all-day excursion through Lan Ha Bay had me contemplating several times if we’d end up on the news: “Another Junk Boat Capsizes in Vietnam’s Lan Ha Bay, Killing Two American Tourists.”
The following advice can likely apply to almost anywhere in the world, but more precisely in Vietnam because of its relatively weaker currency. Unless you have all the time in the world and it is safe, do not cheap out.
Don’t refuse a much-needed service and risk your health or safety just because they are overcharging you $2 for being a tourist.
- Going an unsafe walk at night (man or woman) because you don’t want to lose 45,000 dong ($2) on a taxi.
- Choosing a really cheap and unclean place that’s selling $0.25 cent meals over a place you know is safe but costs $2/meal, when you’re only in Vietnam for a week. Don’t risk your health/vacation over pennies.
Yes; Bargain as much as you can, negotiate as much as your schedule can afford, but in the end, if time is of the essence, and/or your safety or health are at risk, do not cheap out.
Once you’re abroad, it’s easy to fall into this mentality of fighting over $1 because it translates to 22,300 dong and you know how much a local could get for that amount. But in the end, you are not a local and you’re probably not in Vietnam for very long. Don’t risk ruining your short stay in paradise over pennies.