Vietnam is an up and coming (or has become by now) a touristic hotspot for those daring hipster backpackers who want to tap into the ‘untapped’ destinations that offers both natural wonders and exotic cuisine at an affordable budget. It’s the new alternative to Thailand, a fellow Southeast Asian country that also offers exceptionally beautiful beaches, natural beauty and food but is comparatively more commercialized and saturated with tourists.
Are you planning a trip to Vietnam? Well consider this first as you plan. Vietnam is a communist country so it has stricter visa requirements than Thailand so depending on your country, you’ll probably have to add in visa costs to your budget, which ranges around $20-$60. Visa prices are always changing so you’ll have to look up your local Vietnamese embassy! ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Laos and Cambodia can enter visa free for up to 30 days. Except for Filipinos, who only get 21 days and Myanmars are only welcome visa-free for only 14 days. Vietnam has established better more flexible visa agreements with Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Russia and Belarus, so those from these 8 countries can stay 15 days visa free. Also, Vietnam has increasingly attracted many tourists from Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the UK (and because tourists bring money!), they also get visa-free stays of 15 days.
For those of you who are interested in Vietnam as potentially your next travel destination, I’ll share with you the journey I took where I covered the entire country for 3 weeks and I’ll be brutally honest about it–from everything awesome to everything terrible. However, I speak Vietnamese as a native language so I do have that comparative advantage in communicating with locals but if you cannot, it’s really not that big of a deal if you stay street smart. You probably won’t need to converse with locals that much anyways since you will definitely encounter backpackers and travelers from other countries everywhere who are well versed in English and open to share tips and recommendations.
If you’re still unsure whether to commit to ‘Nam, maybe this can help you decide if it’s worth it. You can also treat it as a helpful guide on how to plan your travels: from where to start, which places go, how to plan those routes, how long you should spend in one place, the best sites to see, best places to eat, and most importantly, how to be cost effectively when planning everything.
Vietnam’s geography provides an easy, linear travel route, from north to south or south to north.
This is the route I took. There are two major cities in Vietnam from which you can choose to begin your journey, Hanoi (the capital) and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, former capital of South Vietnam, also called Saigon and the largest city in VN). I actually landed in Saigon first and started from there since I have family there to see but it’s a bit more complicated and time consuming. I’ll show you how to start from Hanoi instead.
Chapter 1: Hanoi, 1000 years of mixed cultural influence
Vietnam remains one of the last 6 countries today that is still communist. Upon arrival, the entire country will greet you in propagandistic slogans, banners, memorials, and relics of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). Hanoi is the capital so naturally you will see VCP’s presence everywhere from government buildings to imageries of Uncle Ho Chi Minh, the revered revolutionary leader that led Vietnam in their victory for independence from French colonialism. If you’re a historical buff, then you should read up on the history of Ho Chi Minh because you can’t possibly truly know or understand Vietnam at its essence without knowing him. You also wouldn’t want to accidentally destroy or do anything insulting with his face on it or you might get in big trouble with authorities there…
Where I always stay:
Before you arrive, book a stay with Hanoi Golden Moment Hotel, a 4.5 star luxury hotel that is extremely affordably. This was my second time staying there and for two people, we only paid $35 per night, with breakfast included. For more luxurious rooms, it definitely won’t go past $80-$100 (I guess unless it’s peak demand). Staff hospitality is great and they all speak English. The hotel is located in the French quarters, which is very central to all the famous sights.
I don’t always go for luxurious hotels when I travel because I usually find hostels or any kind of cheaper accommodation when I was traveling in Europe but in Southeast Asia, I can afford to treat myself a little bit since I can get good quality hotels at at much cheaper price below what I’m used to.
How to get to your hotel:
You’ve probably going to arrive at Noi Bai International Airport if you’re coming from another country. From there, don’t just take any taxi or you’ll get scammed for sure. There are several informal taxi drivers waiting around for naive tourists to charge outrageous prices. If you’re confident with your bargaining and negotiation skills, then take any of these informal taxi drivers but they may take the long way just to ramp up the total bill. I would recommend to take only the official taxi companies, Mai Linh (green taxis) or Vinasun Taxi (white with a some red and green stripes) in order to avoid all that unnecessary stress and uncertainties but the language barrier might be challenging in explaining the destination. If you have Uber on your phone, then I would recommend this as the best option because it’s comparatively cheaper, no scams, no haggling, and the destination should already be on the driver’s app, which can avoid the whole language barrier.
Vietnamese traffic will scare you:
You’ll notice the traffic is a chaotic eclectic mix of various vehicles, from trucks, cars, motorcycles, and bicycles and they do not follow any traffic laws at all. It may seem frightening from the taxi window but it will be worse. You’ll be very scared when you have to cross the streets in Vietnam for the first time because no vehnicle will stop for you. The secret technique of crossing Vietnam’s crazy streets is to just take a breath and walk slowly, but boldly straight into traffic–confidence is essential. I will assure you that it’s very unlikely you will get run over by anyone. Unlike the orderly, rule abiding traffic environment in other countries, there lies a “natural order” in the traffic chaos that is not guided by traffic laws but by intuition and instinct. The local drivers have intrinsically learned to adapt to respond to the general rhythm of the traffic. You have to learn how to trust this natural order!
For first timers, I wouldn’t recommend you to rent a motorbike in the big cities. Statistics have reported that automobile accidents are the number one cause of deaths in Vietnamese cities so unless you are an experienced motorcycle driver, don’t risk it. I’ve seen way too many tourists with serious cuts and bruises all over their face and body. There’s actually laws forbidding anyone to ride motorcycles unless they have a valid license but foreigners still rent one without proper identification anyways. If you plan to go vigilante on this, you won’t have to worry about the police since they don’t like to monitor foreigners because they can’t communicate with them anyways. But if you get into a car accident without a license, you’ll probably have a difficult time with the authorities and not all hospitals are of quality. Make sure you have good travel insurance.
- The Temple of Literature isn’t actually a temple, as in, no deity is being religiously worshiped here. It was the Imperial Academy back in 1070 for those who wanted to pursue various higher education degrees. The core focus was on Chinese literature and poetry so students learned the Chinese language, as well as Chinese philosophy and history that were taught in both Chinese and Vietnamese. This Imperial Academy was extremely Confucius in their teachings and method in studying that everyone were to memorize textbooks and regurgitate it back during final examinations. Basically, useless blind memorization, which actually sounds pretty challenging if the topic is extremely dry. From reading a few words, it bored me to death. But a lot of people did pass and they get their face and name on the wall of fame! Now tourists like us can visit and awe in admiration at their tedious academic lifestyles.
But you’re not there to study! It’s a great area to stroll and take photography if it’s not too crowded (usually it’s never that over crowded like Versailles or Rome). The premise of the temple is decorated in traditional Chinese architecture so you can get the sense of just how Vietnam is highly influenced with the culture of its Northern neighbor, especially after 1000 years of rule under China.
2. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Uncle Ho Chi Minh has been dead for 52 years by now but you can see still his preserved dead body! The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (Vietnamese: Lăng Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh) at the center of Ba Dinh Square is the historical setting for the Declaration of Independence (from France). The communist inspired architecture of this building has elevated this Mausoleum to top 6th place in CNN International’s 2012 World’s Ugliest Buildings. But it’s ok–it’s hard to stay beautiful when you’ve been dead for 5 decades.
You may think it’s only some dead old man’s body, but you’re in Vietnam and to the Vietnamese, this isn’t JUST some dead old man. If it wasn’t for him, you’d see a very different Vietnam today, or maybe not even the existence of Vietnam. This man is equivalent to Mao Zedong to the Chinese or Che Guevara to the Argentines so you can check ‘met world leader’ off your bucket list.
There are security guards and some military personnel strictly guarding the area so you cannot take untimely selfies with the dead leader. Opening times are only from 7:30am to 11:00am and open year round. It’s extremely popular so lines actually queue super early and could very well be wrapping around a few blocks by 8am.
3. Night Stroll at Hoan Kiem Lake
If you’re traveling alone, you might feel a bit third wheeled when you see the volumes of young lovers hanging out at the lake. Vietnam’s not exactly a place where public display of affection are the norm since affections or any sign of love should be behind closed doors of one’s home than to be in public according to the Vietnamese. But when they’re young and unmarried, they’re still living with their parents, who are usually traditional and strict about dating so the second best place is making out at Hoan Kiem Lake. And it has to be at night so no one can see (except me apprently). It’s become quite the romantic place for couples. If the singles don’t mind that, it’s incredibly scenic and fun at night with street vendors everywhere. If you love coffee, Vietnam is one of the fewest Asian countries that has a very profound coffee culture (introduced by the French). You can stop and relax with a cup of the famous Vietnamese iced coffee while observing Vietnamese public life. During the day, you’ll see the middle age aunties doing their funny exercise routines and even some tango and salsa. It’s also within walking distance of the Hanoi Moment Hotel if you have decided to stay there.
Hoan Kiem Lake is “Lake of the returned sword” and there is a legend behind it where you can read it here. The funny thing I discovered is that there are large, soft-shell turtles dwelling inside the lake but there is one famous one that the locals adore with intense passion. It’s believed to be the turtle that helped the emperor in the legend so it’s worshipped by nearly everyone in Hanoi. However, it died on January 19, 2016 and the entire city was crying. They believe this will bring them years of bad luck to come.
- Bun Cha Huong Lien – Where Obama ate
Where soft diplomacy and exotic culinary travels meet! This is the famous place where Obama met Anthony Bourdain to eat Hanoi’s famous dish, bun cha, which is grilled pork with rice vermicelli noodles. This dish is typically served at room temperature unless the pork was just fresh off the grilled, so it’s great to eat in the hot summer.
When Obama was eating here during his State visit to Vietnam, the locals eating around him hilariously had no idea he was the President of the United States and wondered only a little bit as to why there was so much security… You can see the oblivious locals here in this video where Bourdain teaches Obama the art of the noodle slurp. Even after everyone found out Obama ate here, everything pretty much stayed the same although there’s some pictures of Obama eat there on the wall. They even created an Obama Combo set (80,000 VND, $3.50), with a bowl of bun cha, fried seafood roll, and Hanoi Beer. It’s quite affordable and there’s no waiting line!
2. Street food in the French Quarters
Street food might scare you due to hygienic concerns so you should be careful. At the same time, if you’re not experiencing any street food, you’re missing out on everything about Vietnamese food. There are food stalls where the recipes have been with the families for decades and they’ve only specialized in making that one particular dish. As long as you drink water bottled (not from the faucet) and everything is cooked, you’ll be fine. I had no problem but I’m quite used to this kind of food and have a stomach of steel. Street food has a range of everything from noodle dishes, hot pot, barbecue (seen above), soups, rice dishes, and even deserts. Like the coffee culture, Vietnam is one of the fewest countries in Asia that eat bread like Europeans. The baguette is eaten during meals as seen above, also an influence from the French. For example, Vietnamese curry is often eaten with a fresh baguette. I can’t write a whole blog series about Vietnamese but let’s focus on the travel recommendations first.
3. Cong Cafe
The most hipster cafe I’ve ever been too. If Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin, and the rest of the commie leaders were young, intellectual hipsters living today, they would all convene here for a cup of coffee and indulge in some philosophical talk. The walls of Cong (short for Viet Cong) Cafe are polished in a distressed olive color paint, ornate with pictures, old photos, and posters of communist slogans and leaders. The rustic, military chic decor is very unique and even the servers are all sporting communist wardrobes while serving your drink in what looks like, old recycled war materials. The menu is actually a communist manifesto book where the selection choices are written over the text. It’s a very cool, communist themed cafe but the menu isn’t very cheap. It’s almost western prices for drinks from a whole range of drinks (juice, tea, coffee, smoothies, etc.) and some small snacks (cake, cookies, ice cream, etc).
These are just some of the key highlights that I believe you must try to see and try! Of course there’s several other things to do not mentioned here but you can easily find it a list of it on Tripadvisor. Overall, I think 3-4 days in Hanoi is enough to hit all the big spots, but if you want to try everything, of course that involves staying longer.
Next stop, Ha Long Bay!