Vietnam is, of course, a well travelled backpacker route and for very good reason. If you are looking for a first taste of Asia, solo travel, the most delicious food or just a phenomenal country – then this is your place! Vietnam was the 2nd country I visited on my solo tour around Asia, and my favourite country from the trip.
I spent 12 days exploring this amazing part of the world, on another G Adventures tour, so I wanted to share my tips for where to go, what to see and what to eat for the perfect introduction into Vietnam.
Vietnamese Dong is the main currency in the country. At a current exchange rate of roughly 32,000 to £1, getting my head around the maths was quite the struggle! US Dollars are also widely used for tours, tipping etc, so make sure you get a selection of both.
I did feel very safe in Vietnam, particularly in the smaller towns of Hue and Hoi An, but as common sense dictates, it pays to keep your wits about you. This isn’t specific to Vietnam, but travelling in general! The one issue I did have was when my card got cloned and my bank account emptied, with all my savings for the entire trip. It was the not the best realisation.
I did get all my money back, but I learnt a few very key things here. Always check the security of the ATM machine. By tracing back I worked out it happened in a stand alone machine – always use a bank. You can usually feel with your finger if there is something in the card reader that shouldn’t be there.
Make sure you have a back up travel card with you, why I did not is beyond me!
Having some spare US dollars was a life saver, I was able to exchange some in Cambodia which got me through until I sorted it out.
I know this isn’t specific to Vietnam, but as a popular place for tourists it does happen a lot in this country. It actually happened to 5 people in our group and all from the same ATM.
Time of Year to visit
Always plan your trip carefully and do some research, which I slightly failed to do (can you see a theme here?). I arrived in Hanoi in early Feb, it definitely wasn’t as warm as I thought it would be, and I was quite cold walking around on my first day.
It was also the very end of Tết, or Vietnamese New Year. This meant all the celebrations were over, but a lot of attractions were still closed.
Vietnamese food is now my absolute favourite cuisine and for me, the best food I had was in Hanoi. The cuisine changes as you travel down the country so make sure to try different things in each region. Obviously you can get them all over the country, but this is where it is best!
Hanoi – Bun Cha and Pho
Hoi An – Spring Rolls / Bánh Xeo
Ho Chi Minh – Bánh mì
This may be a little controversial but Hanoi wasn’t my favourite place in Vietnam. I arrived alone, and made the poor decision to stay in a hotel and so didn’t immediately meet people. I was a little overwhelmed as to how far this city pushed me out of my comfort zone. Having said that, I am most proud of myself for what I achieved here and remember my time most fondly.
I did my first bit of haggling, got lost in the old town, ate alone a few times, had coffee over looking the lake, navigated my way solo across crazy traffic and went to the museums. I then met some lovely companions I was to travel with and had a wonderful evening getting to know the infamous Hanoi nightlife.
Three things not to miss:
Cheap beer on tiny plastic chairs in Old Town
Hoan Kiem Lake
The Puppet Show
An absolute must for any trip to Vietnam. 1969 ‘islands’ rearing out of the water and full of so many legends. Spending a night in the bay on one of the many junk boats and waking up to this view is something else. Pinch me, bucket list moment.
I was amazed by the little floating villages dotted around everywhere.
I adored this town and I believe it absolutely must not be overlooked. We hired motor bikes and had a tour, that took us out into the countryside. Zipping along with views of the paddy fields around me – it was one of my highlights of South East Asia. We visited the Hue rice museum and the Thanh Toan bridge, learnt how to make incense, and saw a view point of the Perfume river all before lunch.
The penulimate stop was a visit to the Imperial Place, a must do in Hue.
Finally we finished the day with the Celestial Lady Pagoda, where we saw monks and novice monks praying. It was a fantastic way to see the area and perfect if you are short of time in Hue.
Stay: Asian Ruby Hotel – good location for the centre of town.
People often say this was their favourite place in Vietnam and I can totally understand why.
The main place to head is the Old Town of Hoi An – a UNESCO World Heritage site. Beautifully preserved and lovely to wander around. At night the place is lit up with lanterns. You need to pay an entrance fee, but only once – so if you are staying for a few days you can use the same ticket.
Hoi An is also renowned for its tailor shops – I picked up two beautiful and made for me dresses from Yaly. As well as some shoes and lots of pairs of trousers.
There is also a lot beautiful countryside surrounding the area. A great chance to hire a bike and cycle out of the city to see a bit more of Vietnamese life.
Make sure you check out a cooking class. If you love Vietnamese food as much as I do, then this is something not to miss. I spent a fantastic morning learning to cook some of my favourite dishes and then, getting to eat it! Have a look at Herbs and Spices, who were fantastic hosts, made everything clear and even accommodated my request for no fish.
Stay: Vinh Hung 2 Hotel, located just outside of the Old Town.
Ho Chi Ming City
I have to say HCMC was my least favourite place in Vietnam. The traffic was even more crazy than other places and it lacked the same charm I found in the the rest of the country.
There were a couple of places I did enjoy – a bowl of Pho, from the famous Pho 2000 where Bill Clinton visited back in 2000.
The War Remnants Museum was one of the most harrowing museums I have visited, but I do think it is important to learn about the bad and the ugly of a country. This museum depicts the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but be prepared for some very shocking sights.
HCMC is well placed for day trips which I throughly enjoyed:
Chu Chi tunnels
These were used by the Viet Cong during the war, and it was fascinating to see how they used them. I saw a entrance to one of the tunnels, if it was pointed out you would not be able to see.
There is also the opportunity to crawl through one of the tunnels. I did the larger, expanded, first section and then chickened out for the part where you had to crawl along on your stomach. Not one for the faint hearted or claustrophobic!
As part of the tour, we spent one day in this area, but I would have loved to have spend more!
This part of Vietnam used to belong to Cambodia and has four islands: Unicorn, Dragon, Turtle and Phoenix, the four scared animals. During my day here we visited two: Unicorn and Turtle and had the opportunity to meet people who lived here, see some of the local animals, try some food and wander through gardens.
You get around between the islands on boats that make their way through beautiful palm treed lined rivers.
If you get the chance to stay over here and spend more time – definitely take!
This blog post doesn’t provide much in the way of getting off the beaten track of this country, but it is a fantastic itinerary for a first trip to this wonderful country.
Have you been to Vietnam? I would love to hear more about your trip. Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org