Vietnam made us nervous.
Not because my wife and I thought we would be in danger or anything, but this was the first trip we ever took where we didn’t plan anything in advance, other than the plane tickets to enter and exit the country. As novice travelers, the prospect of a blank itinerary was a bit nerve wracking.
It turns out that we had nothing to worry about; moreover, I’m now convinced that traveling without an itinerary is actually the best way to travel.
Vietnam is the perfect country to visit without any plans. As a Western tourist, you can get by very comfortably here: decent hotels can be found for under $20 USD/night; meals are normally under $5 USD; transportation is cheap-ish (less than $100 per in-country flight); and Vietnamese people are quite friendly and helpful. We had no problems booking transportation and accommodations on the fly, mostly through the smart phone we brought along. We thought that last-minute planning would stress us out, but it actually allowed us to feel more freedom.
The two-and-a-half weeks we spent in Vietnam went by in snap. We started in Hanoi in the North and slowly made our way down to Saigon in the South. My wife and I saw some amazing stuff along the way.
Here are the highlights of our Vietnam trip.
Hanoi is the heart of the Vietnamese Communist movement. The government and people still very much identify as Communist, and you’ll definitely get an earful about the “American War” (which we refer to as the “Vietnam War” in the States) from any citizen living here. In short: Americans committed unspeakable atrocities during the war according to the Vietnamese. It’s hard to dispute. War is hell.
While the Vietnamese government spews negative propaganda against the US even today, the Vietnamese citizens—who are now a generation removed from the War—seem to genuinely like Americans. We were treated well by strangers up here.
The best place to stay in Hanoi is the Old Quarter. It is a neat section of town featuring cramped and very busy streets. Hanoi is a fun introduction to Vietnamese culture. Two observations I picked up from our first days here in Hanoi:
- Vietnamese people are entrepreneurs and hustlers through and through. Small businesses are driving 90% of this economy. And given the cash-only nature of most of these slightly illegal shops (like the roving fruit monger), I doubt the government is collecting much tax revenue.
- I desperately need to improve my flexibility. The best Vietnamese food you’ll eat will be restaurants serving you food right on the sidewalk. Vietnamese people have mastered the sitting squat, where they can enjoy a meal or have a smoke in that position indefinitely. I can only last about 2 minutes in that position.
Sapa was a night-and-day contrast to the busy urban life of Hanoi. Situated in the northwest of Hanoi, you’ll find this amazing community of rice farmers. One of the coolest things we’ve done in Asia so far was a 19 km trek along the rice paddies over two days, with a home stay at a villager’s one-room house over night.
This may have been the most beautiful hike I’ve ever taken. You get some amazing views of the country along the way and there is a persistent fog that hangs over you in the morning that makes the whole region look heavenly. Along the hike you’ll trek through several small villages, where you can peer into people’s modest homes and see how rice farmers live. It’s humbling and eye opening.
One of the things that impressed me most were the Hmong women. Hmong are hill tribe people. The moment you get off the bus to Sapa, these short and cute little ladies will swarm you to peddle their goods. Being the awesome hustlers that they are, several of them will follow you along on your trek (our two grandmas hiked with us for 6 km), talking to you and slowly melting your heart until you agree to buy something from them. My wife and I bought two hand-knit wallets for $5 USD.
Ha Long Bay
Four hours drive from Hanoi is Ha Long Bay, where my wife and I embarked on a 2-day cruise. Here we saw some of the most unique set of islands I’ve ever seen. There are thousands of these super verdant and tiny humpbacked islands all along the sea. Each island was full of birds, fruits, and monkeys.
The highlight here was kayaking into one of the larger islands and going into a secret cove. Very Jurassic Park-like inside, with high cliffs and clear water. I didn’t bring a camera inside unfortunately, but there is something delightful about leaving technology behind to just enjoy the beauty in front of you.
Hue was our next stop as we began to move south in Vietnam. It’s a mellow riverside town.
The tombs here are really awesome. When we were visiting palaces and historical buildings in China, my wife and I felt super restricted to stay within certain boundaries and observe from afar. Not so here in Vietnam. In Hue there are several amazing tombs scattered in the area and you can crawl all over them without supervision. I had mixed feelings about that; on the one hand, it was badass to just walk and touch anything that we wanted. But on the other hand, I did feel a bit guilty knowing that tourists like us will eventually destroy what remains of these tombs.
Quick tip: beware of the Cyclos (aka, bicycle rickshaws). My wife and I were suckered into a tour with two Cyclo drivers for a day, which ended up costing $50 USD. That’s really expensive here in Vietnam. I was fuming for a while for being ripped off (we didn’t know the final price until the end of our ride), but then I reminded myself that I should stop being such an asshole. $50 USD is trivial for Westerners, but really meaningful to these hustlers.
Moving further south we spent a few days in Hoi An, which is more or less in the middle of Vietnam. Hoi An was an interesting transition because the cities from here on south start to feel more Western. We stayed near the Old City, which is awesome because this section of town does not allow motorbikes or cars.
Hoi An offered the best eating we’ve done in Vietnam. For lunch every day we went into a janky little market and sat down at a small counter to eat incredible local Vietnamese food. Meals were usually $2 USD per person. For dinner, we went to a French restaurant called “Cargo Club” and ate pizza.
Don’t judge us, we had been traveling Asia for 40 days at this point; we were dying for some good Western food! Surprisingly, the pizza was awesome.
Night time is the best time in Hoi An. Locals and tourists are hanging out, listening to music, and just milling around Old Quarter. We were pleased to find that Hoi An is also a popular tourist destination for Vietnamese people. About 50% of tourists here were from Vietnam. That was a welcome change to some of the other places we had visited in Vietnam, where it can sometimes be close to 100% Western tourists.
Our final leg of Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), which is the largest city in the South. I felt like Saigon was really Western. It felt fairly similar to a developed world large city.
Saigon is a great staging area to do small day trips to places like the Cu Chi tunnels (the vast underground tunnel network developed by the Viet Cong during the War) and the Mekong Delta.
The Mekong Delta was definitely the highlight for me in South Vietnam. For some reason I’ve always loved swampy environments. I really enjoyed exploring the quiet and windy Mekong river; it’s peaceful and creepy at the same time.
Lessons learned from travel so far
A few things I observed from Vietnam and our 40+ days of travel so far:
- Always have an unlocked smart phone with you. As I said before, traveling without an itinerary is awesome and much easier than I thought. As long as you have a smart phone with Internet access, you can book activities, accommodations, and transportation easily. TripAdvisor, Google, and Lonely Planet are your best friends to figure out what to do next.
- Sun block sucks so much in Asia. Before you travel to Asia, pack plenty of American sun block. Once you get to Asia, you’ll find that sun block isn’t easy to find and when you do find it, it’s a disgusting, milky liquid that is difficult to apply. Gross.
- Making friends is easy and important. When you meet other Western travelers, in general they are very excited to speak with you. It’s really easy to strike up conversations with fellow travelers and it’s important to do because these folks will often have tips about the places you are planning to visit. Also, always be nice to other travelers, even when they are jerks. You will see them again and again. This is a well-known phenomenon with long-term travelers that you just keep running into the same people around the world.
One final thought about Vietnam (or other developing places): don’t stress too much about being ripped off. At the end of the day, being ripped off means paying a few more US dollars for stuff. It’s easy to lose perspective and get angry about the unfair treatment. But remember that a few extra dollars do not mean anything to a Westerner, but can mean a huge difference to a local person.
Some quick math to illustrate: $20 USD represents 1% of a Vietnamese person’s annual income of $1,960. Think about that the next time you and your significant other blow $50 for sushi!
Next stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia.