Travel stories from Vietnam
If you ask a travel agent or your hotel tour desk what the differences are between the various cruises to Ha Long Bay, they will all tell you the same: the more expensive it is, the better the boat and the better the food. But how different are they and what's going to suit you and your budget?
While all the talk is of visiting Ha Long Bay on an organised tour, it is sort of possible to visit it independently. Sure you'll still end up on a tourist boat, but you won't be a part of the group onboard. Is that close enough? We thought it was and here is how we did it.
If you're travelling independently through Vietnam but you've a bit more cash to flash than the norm, you still want to know when it's worth spending that bit extra or not. When it comes to Ha Long Bay, tours are priced from very cheap through to reasonable, then there's the splurge take.
For those who are put off by the tales of woe from the cheapest of the Ha Long Bay cruises, but don't want to pay top dollar for a luxurious boat, there is a selection of mid-range vessels to choose from. For our flashpacker tour of Ha Long Bay we went with Dugong Sails, the most commonly recommended boat offering tours in the price range of around US$75 to $85 -- we paid $75 for our two-day, one-night trip.
Vietnam Tourism have outdone themselves in making sure that Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is regularly cited by travellers as their "must visit" destination whilst visiting Hanoi. And it is, but for most backpackers on a budget, the most relevant question is "How cheaply can I do it and what do I get for my hard earned (and more easily spent on booze) money". Well, read on.
Blue Dragon's Street Outreach team recently took in three homeless boys, one of whom was living in a precarious position under a bridge in an attempt to stay safe. The other two had previously been sexually assaulted. Fortunately the harrowing stories are usually balanced by positive and uplifting news: Blue Dragon kids have done well at school, a child who was living on the street has been re-united with his family. The list goes on.
One child drowns every 45 seconds in Asia. For Vietnam, the estimated daily death rate sits anywhere between 10 and 32 children a day, making drowning one of the leading causes of death for children under the age of 10; for the under fives, almost 90 percent of drownings take place within 100 metres of their homes.
Sapa is one of Vietnam's premium attractions, enticing both foreigners and Vietnamese with its mix of stunning scenery and culture. The heart of the town, near the market square and church, is now almost entirely devoted to tourism services with hundreds of visitors arriving every morning, mostly off the overnight train from Hanoi.
Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam (HSCV) was founded in 2002 to help orphans, homeless children and other children living in poverty in Hanoi and surrounding areas through the provision of food, shelter, clothing, health and education.
The Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, in Tam Dao near Hanoi, escaped a threat of closure earlier this year after an extensive campaign. While this means the centre will be able to continue its excellent work, bile farming shows no signs of letting up and it needs all the support it can get.
After four tours, approximately 13 kilometres of walking, three portions of banh cuon, a kilo of extra weight and enough sugar to dissolve a few dozen teeth, my food tour adventure in Hanoi is over. It's reinvigorated my love of street food and inspired me to try a few new places, but which was the best?
Known for its university, floating market, and interesting old architecture, this deceivingly-small looking city of more than a million boasts vibrant youth culture, tasty South Vietnamese food, and interesting and interested locals eager to engage with foreigners.
You thought you could relax with the Western new year celebrations out of the way? Think again. The whole of Vietnam is now warming up for the Tet holidays -- noticed all those police stop points and fields full of lucky trees recently? If you're heading this way February 10 to 14 this year, consider what this will mean for your trip. The whole country will be on a go-slow for at least a week either side; Vietnam becomes gridlocked, garish and glorious and contrary to most traveller stories it is in fact an amazing time to be here. That is, so long as you're armed with a little knowledge on customs, protocol and a calm smile.
Hanoi may not be the bargain it once used to be, but there are still some great deals to be had, from budget right through to luxury. It's a jungle out there, with so many options; here are our picks for the best spots to stay in Hanoi to help you narrow down what might be best for you.
Way back last century when it "re-opened" to tourism, travelling Vietnam by motorbike was one of the offbeat ways to explore the country. Then, a few years ago, the BBC's Top Gear programme did it and the sight of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May vrooming down Vietnam's back roads did more for British tourism to Vietnam than anything short of free bia hoi would have.
When I visited Vietnam's commercial capital of Ho Chi Minh City while travelling in 2009 I didn't warm to it. Possibly that was due to the bout of food poisoning I had been living with since Mui Ne, but I think there was more to it than that: it seemed to lack any charm or character, falling into the categories of 'business centre' and 'big city' rather than having any great tourist, or cultural, appeal.
'Eating the streets' of Southeast Asia is regularly described in the mainstream media as an experience that is exotic or adventurous, sometimes tacked on to the food pages of guidebooks as a kind of appendix after the list of travellers' restaurants, bars and cafes. Tales of suspect food handling, scary ingredients and remedies for upset stomachs are usually part of this discourse. But surely traversing the footpaths, alleys and, indeed, the gutters of countries in this region in search of authentic food experiences should be championed rather than marginalised?
What comes to mind when you think of Hoi An? Beautiful ancient buildings? Fabulous hotels? An overwhelming number of tailor shops? An abundance of dining options? Let me add one more that should be on that list: socially responsible businesses. For some reason, Hoi An has attracted quite a wealth of restaurants and shops that cater to those of us who like to feel a bit better about shopping-till-we-drop and over-indulging in Hoi An's specialities. Let's start with the shopping.
Hanoi is often, sadly, just somewhere visitors stop off for a night or two en route to Ha Long Bay, mountainous Sapa or a dash down the coast to Ho Chi Minh City. But for those who do want to take a look around, however fleeting, Hanoi can be a fascinating destination in its own right. So, if you just have one day in Hanoi, how do you make the most of it?
Apart from tourist hotspots such as Mai Chau and Sapa, the so called Dien Bien Phu loop, through northwest Vietnam, is relatively untravelled territory. There are reasons for this: primarily, it takes time — whether travelling by bus or motorbike you need to allow a week or so — and that's time that many tourists don't have; secondly, it's tough — the roads are exceedingly bad in places, English is rarely spoken, it's hot and dusty and the buses are crammed and uncomfortable.
There's something undeniably sexy about seeing Vietnam by motorcycle. Regardless of your level of riding experience, a trip by motorbike is doable if you're determined and patient. The Central Highlands route is still considered way off the beaten track; you'll encounter few English speakers and will need to brush up your Vietnamese (or acquire a phrasebook). It's a rewarding experience that can astound and inspire.
I am writing this from a chair barely inside the doorway of The Cart - a small coffee and sandwich place in a narrow alley not far from St Joseph's Cathedral. My laptop tells me I have a choice of six different WiFi options courtesy of the surrounding hotels. My coffee, on this occasion, is Italian but during warmer seasons I'd choose the more ubiquitous iced Vietnamese variety.
There's been plenty of discussion about the best way to explore Vietnam's famed Ha Long Bay, and Travel Fish's five-part series definitely examines the most common ways in excellent detail. However, if you're tired of pre-booked tours, cramped buses, and a stressful time-schedule, than travelling independently by bicycle is a truly relaxing way to experience the natural glory of Ha Long. Even still, surprises and mysterious conspiracies seem unavoidable, but being in control of your own destiny is very rewarding in and of itself.
After cycling, sweating, and occasionally slogging through over 1,600km of SE Asian roads, we've experienced more than a few epic rides. While consistently beautiful beaches, the stunning temples at Angkor, and a myriad of rural towns that we've cycled through were all certainly impressive and scenic, it's the challenging hill-climbs that remain the most memorable.
The Saigon sun blasted me awake mid-morning in Pham Ngu Lao, where it was iced coffee with a Laughing Cow omelette for breakfast. The micro-sized chairs looked far less tempting than standing, so a cheesy baguette-in-a-bag was juggled along with a lidless cup of ca phe sua da: easier than it sounds when everything tastes so delicious.
Suggesting travel to a family with a teenager often results in a less-than-eager response. Take a teenager to a foreign country? With no iPod? No Wii? No text messaging? Sure, not everyone will think it's the most fun they've ever had, but give it a try. Parent and teen may find the experience better than they could have ever imagined. This is part seven of a ten-part series on travelling with kids in Southeast Asia. A new story will appear on Travelfish every Monday with a new installment.
Being something of a culinary adventurer, I decided to try dog meat, and brought a Vietnamese guide along with me to share the experience. Afterall, eating dog is so much friendlier with two. Approaching the restaurant, I was in for a bit of a shock: a sign outside advertising Thit Cho, with a blown-up photo of a healthy-looking German shepherd prominently displayed. As if this were somehow appetizing. But then, when you think about it -- back in the US, a jolly cartoon pig on a sign outside a pork barbecue is not unheard-of. This was the same thing, right?
Many visitors in Vietnam find themselves scratching their heads at some stage, wondering "What on earth am I doing here?" Vietnam tends to elicit the most varied reactions among travellers to the region. While Cambodia (too poor), Laos (too boring) and Thailand (too touristy) each get their share of mediocre reports, Vietnam often gets a far more hostile report card. It's the only country in Southeast Asia of which we've heard people say they would never, ever return, alleging it’s a veritable snakepit of scams and hassle. Yikes!
With warm turquoise waves and coconut palm lined beaches, Vietnam's Phu Quoc is easily one of the most idyllic islands in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, not every hotel takes advantage of the island's beauty and tranquillity -- too many resorts offer lacklustre rooms and crowded beachfronts. While it isn't advisable to show up in peak season without having booked a room, getting around the island is tricky, and dragging your luggage around muddy roads would be an awful start to your vacation. So how do you avoid booking a mildewed room at an unfriendly resort? To help you out, we've complied a list of our favourite hotels and guesthouses on Phu Quoc Island.
For years, Vietnam's Phu Quoc Island has been one of the region's better kept secrets -- and while the secret is well and truly out, it will be a few years yet before the developers really get stuck into it. In the meantime, you've got a tremendous opportunity to see one of the region's prettiest islands without needing to share it with the tourist hordes. Phu Quoc boats some massive stretches of undeveloped beach, some with glistening white sand, diving and snorkelling opportunities, outstanding seafood and a range of accommodation from $10 backpacker havens right through to boutique resorts. If you're planning an itinerary for Vietnam and Phu Quoc isn't on it, we'd say that plan need some re-planning -- and here's some photos to hopefully swing the deal. Enjoy.
Hoi An is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam. Famed for its tailors, cobblers and historic buildings, Hoi An boats both a UNESCO World Heritage Centre listing and a splendid range of eateries, cafes and other tourist distractions. Hoi An is also nearby the fascinating Cham ruins at My Son and the jumping off point for diving from Cham Island -- one more could you want in a destination! The following photos were taken in and around Hoi An and complement our newly updated coverage of Hoi An town. Enjoy.
Da Nang is best known for the outstanding Cham Museum that can be found in the southern reaches of town and few visitors see much more of the city than that -- afterall, the tourist mecca Hoi An sits just an hour south of town. While the museum is a monument to the region's history and an excellent primer for those planning on a visit to My Son, there is far more to Da Nang and for those with time on their hands, it's more than worth a night. Following are some photos of Da Nang, My Khe Beach and the Marble Mountains -- hopefully they'll have you pencilling in a night -- or two. Enjoy.
Every man and his dog runs a travel agent in Saigon offering tours to the Mekong Delta and there are all manner of options available from one-day tasters to week-long extravaganzas. With so many options on offer and the prices often so ridiculously cheap, it's easy to think, hey maybe I should just do a tour too... Before you sign on the dotted line, remember the Mekong Delta is really easy to travel independently -- and inexpensively. So, if you've got more than a couple of days up your sleeve and don't mind spending a little more than the cost of a package tour, read on.
One of the best ways to travel in Vietnam is by train. Vietnam's rail network extends to most destinations of interest to a first-time visitor in Vietnam and it's safe, comfortable, not too expensive, and allows you to see the countryside at a leisurely pace. What more could you ask for? Read on to find out just how Vietnam's train system works -- where the trains go, what they cost and how long they take -- along with a swack of other useful information.
The war between Vietnam and America is, thankfully, long over but the struggle goes on between would-be tourists and would-be guides in Vietnam's demilitarized zone. Happily, the only casualties these days take the form of disappointment and a depleted wallet. If you read our companion feature, Doing the DMZ from Hue you'll know how we feel about the cheapie tours out of Hue. Our strong advice: spend some time and a little more money on a small-group, private tour with a good guide. This is easier said than done, so here are some rules of engagement.
With the 2007 opening of the Prek Chak / Xa Xia border crossing between Cambodia and Vietnam it's now possible to travel from Ko Chang in Thailand all the way along the Cambodian coastline and into Vietnam. For beach and boat lovers, this is a great trip as from Ko Chang you're able to visit Ko S'dach, Sihanoukville, Ko Russei, Kampot, Kep, Ko Tonsay, Ha Tien and Rach Gia, before finishing off on the glorious Phu Quoc Island. Here's a step by step guide taking you through the entire trip, commencing in Trat and finishing on Phu Quoc.
By far, the best way to experience Vietnam is by motorbike. As with elsewhere in southeast Asia, here, the motorbike is king. They are cheap to buy, easy to repair, and they can take you places the tour bus would never dare to go. What's more, there are no restrictions on foreigners buying motorbikes. All you need is a passport and valid visa, and you'll receive a title of ownership and a deed of transfer. Rentals will suffice for most, but if you plan on serious bike time, buying is more economical -- you can even sell the bike before you leave and recoup most of the expense.
An oddity of Hoi An is the bizarre ticket system where, in order to see all the museums, old houses, assembly halls and so on you have to buy three tickets. This leaves people in a fix -- should they splash out on the tickets or just take pot luck and see what they score. We decided to save you the trouble, buy the three tickets for you, see it all for you and let you know what is worth seeing and what isn't. Guess what? You won't be needing more than one ticket -- read on to find out why.
Ho Chi Minh City may look like an unforgiving urban jungle, but resting just below the surface are dozens of wonderful hideaways, where an ice cold fruit blend, a sumptuous salad and a sparkling cocktail create a welcome distraction from the world outside. Our man in Saigon, Jon Hoff, twirled the caffeine dial to 10 and delivered this list of his top ten spots to chill out in Saigon.
So you're in Kon Tum with a bit of time to burn, but you're not interested in throw-backs to the French period, nor another deserted battlefield that was picked clear by scavengers a decade ago. That's good, because Kon Tum offers some of the least-known but possibly most rewarding trekking in Vietnam.
Only a couple of hundred miles lie between Ho Chi Minh City and Con Dao -- a small group of islands in the South China Sea. Considering its proximity to the backpacker hub of Saigon, very few people make the journey, probably opting for Phu Quoc as their primary island getaway choice -- but labelling both islands with the same 'short break' brush would be unwise.
The Vietnam War was one of the defining events of the second half or the twentieth century. No matter where you live in the world, you're bound to be aware of the impact that conflict had on culture and society. No matter what you believe, that belief has been inevitably shaped by the lessons learned, and not learned, as well as the lives lost, and the lives forever changed by that one, singular event.
Two night/three day mid-range tour Cost: US$74 Operator: Saigon Cafe Tours As with the budget tour, we kicked off with a packed minivan, but unlike the previous tour the staff were better trained, spoke better English, and were more informative. Again we stopped off at the crafts centre for the victims of Agent Orange, but were spared the confusion of any more stops and delivered straight to the pier.
Two night/three day budget tour Cost: US$40 Operator: Open Tour and Travel Crammed into a jam-packed minivan, our tour commenced with us circling the block a few times to avoid getting ticked by the cops for illegally stopping to pick up some of our passengers, but then we were away and our guide introduced himself. In his quite decent English, he explained that the 160km journey to Ha Long City would take three hours -- apparently the slow going was due to the police -- not to worry, if there were no cops around, we were assured, our driver would attempt to speed whenever possible.
The first thing you need to know about Ha Long Bay is that it's beautiful and well-worth seeing. The only real question for the traveller in Vietnam is how best to see it and, like many things in Vietnam, things are never as clear a they could be.
Hoi An on Vietnam's central coast is a town that time forgot, writes John Rowell. We're halfway over Hoi An's famous covered Chua Cau bridge before we realise that we are treading carefully. Legend has it that an underground dragon stretching from India to Japan caused earthquakes by lashing out when in a really bad mood.
You can find a fully updated for 2012 version of this story here: The best places to stay in Hanoi in 2012 When it comes to finding a good guesthouse in Hanoi, making the right choice is a bit like making an omelette -- one mistake and you've landed in a right sticky mess with egg all over your face. What follows are some of our favourite Hanoi picks to hopefully make finding the right guesthouse that little bit easier for you.
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