Started in Singapore - first time there, very nice city, great food... The mixed Asian buffets around Bugis are outstanding, including the vegetarian ones. Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple in China Town is exquisite. Singapore subway is nice and easy. Stayed at Asphodel Inn one night (don't recommend). Ended up at Fragrance Hotel - Emerald, and found great accommodation for U$30/night.
Flew Jetstar from Singapore to Saigon for around U$60. Used www.guidevietnam.com for visa on arrival service and had fine experience with the whole process. Take a metered taxi after arriving at the Saigon airport - lots of scammers trying to give expensive rides. Saigon is the most head-spinning city I've ever been to. Lots of good eats on Bui Vien St., which runs parallel to Pham Ngu Lao in the traveler area. One Indian restaurant in particular was phenomenal - Mumtaz, 226 Bui Vien. Came back to Saigon twice later on, and found great value rooms at Thai Nhi Guesthouse on mini hotel ally off Pham Ngu Lao.
Took public bus to Tuy Hoa , which was comfortable and breathtakingly scenic at times.
I went to Tuy Hoa with my girlfriend who has family there - it would have been difficult without a native Vietnamese speaker. If you do go, try the seafood spots on the ocean, and the restaurant at Thuan Thao, which is a big amusement/karaoke/cafe/restaurant complex... Best Ban Xeo in Vietnam, and just 6000 dong per each plate of four!
Took public train from Tuy Hoa to Hue . Again, would have been difficult w/out Vietnamese speaker. Train ride near Hue very scenic along the ocean cliffs.
Hue's pagodas and monuments are a must see in Vietnam. Don't skip out on the Imperial tombs out in the countryside - they're stunning. Somehow, we never found a good meal in Hue, and I picked up a rough stomach illness after an expensive sandwich at DMZ Bar.
After back-tracking to Tuy Hoa first, next stop was Hoi An . Loved it so much we spent 5 weeks there total, returning twice. Very friendly people; charming town; nice beach. Did motorbike trips to My Son and Marble Mountain, both of which I highly recommend as day trips. Wonderful Buddhist pagodas may be found throughout the area, and we ended up becoming involved with several of them. Some of the best countryside scenery in Vietnam may also be found all around Hoi An... Get out to the country on motorbike or bicycle. (Hint - on Hai Ba Trung heading out of town toward the ocean, look to your left just after the road goes over a tiny bridge where the rice fields meet the small river. There’s a small paved road there - if you can call it that - marked by a red and white sign for “6t” - go down there for a while!).
For a real fine dining experience, we found a gem of a restaurant right on the river in the old town that's run by a Frenchman (forgot to write down the name but you can’t miss it)... try the home made banana ice cream, feta salad, garlic bread and seafood spaghetti there. For vegetarian, there's a great, cheap place called Dam Vegetarian Restaurant down an ally near Chua Phap Bao Pagoda just off Hai Ba Trung (going towards ancient town, take a left off Hai Ba Trung at Chua Phap Bao; the ally is on the right just before the blue hotel called Le Ba Truyen). At the central food market by the river, a great tourist meet up area, I highly recommend Anh Hung's food stall. For accomodation, we stayed for a while at Hop Yen and later at Nguyen Phuong next door. While both were fine, I’d go with the latter again.
Flew Jetstar from Da Nang to Ha Noi for around U$30. Da Nang airport feels more like a bus station than an airport. No need to arrive more than an hour before the flight. Hanoi airport's taxi scammers are worse than Saigon's. Our driver seemed legit at first but then tried adding 60,000 dong to the price we’d negotiated before leaving, and we had to fight with him to get taken to our hotel of choice (not his).
Despite the many scams, Hanoi is a lovely city, and one of the best in SE Asia for sightseeing... I especially recommend the Vietnamese National Art Museum and surrounding area. Found a great, cheap place to stay in Phu Hoa Guesthouse, across from Minh's Jazz Club. Late February in Ha Noi was a constant cool, cloudy and rainy.
Took hard seat day train to Lao Cai , a long, uncomfortable journey, although scenic at times. Some drunken old guy kept trying really to get me to drink rice wine with him. Took night train on the way back - far faster and more comfortable. Note - Ga Ha Noi is big, and finding our train was a little difficult before sunrise, even with a native Vietnamese speaker.
Lao Cai has that weird country out post redneck vibe. Stayed one night at the guesthouse directly to your left when leaving the Lao Cai station (to the right of the big expensive hotel). Can’t remember name - basic, cheap room, but the restaurant there, while looking identical to the ones next store, was far better... real, authentic Vietnamese cuisine for cheap.
Watch out for a sketchy mini bus group plying the windy, 45-minute Lao Cai - Sapa run. I saw them try to scam a Japanese tourist out of 270,000 dong. The agreed price was 30K, but the guy scammed it last minute by nonchalantly upping it to 300K. When the Japanese guy immediately asked for his money back, the mini bus guy said, "No, we're mafia" and refused. I protested by saying I wouldn't take their bus, and eventually the Japanese guy got his dong back. But these mini bus guys were not good people - beware.
Sapa town was foggy but exquisitely beautiful up in the mountains. Stayed at Friendly Hotel, and had fine experience. Also booked a one-day Hmong village trek through them and had fine and memorable experience with that as well.
We decided to go to Ha Long Bay but didn’t book a tour in Hanoi. Instead, went to Gia Lam (eastern) bus station just across the river. Taxi from Old Quarter cost 100,000 dong. From there, had no problem finding a bus to Ha Long City for 60,000 dong, which took 5 hours. It was a little confusing when they hurried us off the bus on the side of the road in Ha Long City, but we found a cab to take us to the hotel area by the ocean for 25,000 dong.
Had fresh seafood by the ocean, and then asked around at a few guesthouses for a boat to Cat Ba Island the next day. Booked a one way jaunt on a nice tourist junk for 160,000 dong. Ha Long Bay is a tourist zoo - seemingly no rhyme or reason to the docking system for the boats. I watched one boat accidentally smash out a bunch of windows on another boat, and an ensuing shouting match between the 2 captains. Also watched a boat dock several feet off a stairway and force its customers to walk a tiny, thin, frail plank several feet up and over water to the boat. I’ll never forget that chubby, older European woman pause in the middle and nearly lose her balance.
On the boat, seafood lunch was an extra U$3, but the price included a bus across Cat Ba Island after arrival. Spent 3 days on Cat Ba... why not? Had a great room with balcony over looking the bay for U$6, fresh seafood abound, and interesting island culture. Motorbike is a must. Bicycle not so much because of the many hills. For the way back to Ha Long City, we asked our guesthouse and they sent us out on a 7AM bus to another boat, this time the total price cheaper. Ha Long Bay was rather cold in March, but misty, and beautiful. After arrival at the dock on land, we found a bus in the pier parking lot for 100,000 dong, which included a drop off directly at our guesthouse of choice. My take on Ha Long Bay is: no need for the pre-booked Ha Long tour when you can do it your own way.
Flew from Ha Noi to Da Nang, same price, on Jetstar. This time, split a cab to Hoi An from the airport with an older tourist couple to save 140,000 dong.
Eventually, arranged a bus to Vientiane through our guesthouse. Paid U$25, and thought we were getting sleeper at least from Hoi An to Vinh , but actually only got it to Hue, which is only two hours. My girlfriend didn’t like that very much, especially when we found a bunch of rotten bananas had been squished on the floor of our seats for the 8 hour trip from Hue to Vinh. We switched busses in Vinh in the middle of the night, and drove into the early morning toward the border. Arrived early, at 3:30AM, and slept on the bus until the checkpoint opened. ........... Checkpoint is among the most unorganized I’ve been to - lots of shouting and no lines for the understaffed immigration office. I was glad I’d arranged for my visa before hand. Bus trip through central Laos very scenic.
Finally arrived at Vientiane bus station some 27 hours after departing Hoi An, and tuk tuk’d to the Mekong for U$6. There, we had trouble finding decent accommodation for what we were used to in Vietnam. Tried Joe’s Guesthouse - wasn’t impressed. Ended up at a family run place called Wonderland 2, which was ample, clean and comfortable at U$15/night. I liked its location next to That Dam as it was in between the visa offices and the riverfront area.
Stayed in Vientiane far too long, and, overall, wasn’t very taken by the city. Riverfront is beautiful at sunset, but I found the city to be rather seedy and expensive. Note - if going to Vientiane for consular services, remember not to arrive late on a Friday. We ended up having to wait until Tuesday to get into the Thai consulate (Monday happened to be a Thai holiday), and the place was a zoo after being closed for 3 days - took 7 hours to get processed, although the 3 month visa was free during that time. Had to come back the next day to pick up the visa, and then wait another day to get through to the Vietnam consulate, and another day for that to get processed... So it was an unexpected and unwanted week in Vientiane.
Terrific report -- many thanks. Especially interesting your take on doing Ha Long Bay solo. In getting the boat to Cat Ba Island did you still get to jaunt around the bay a bit? Just wondering what people who are doing a tour would have got (aside from kayaking) that you didn't.
Greta info - thanks!
We got a full 4 or 5 hours cruising the bay, a stop at a cave (along with countless other tourists), and a really good lunch for $3 extra (I think it was $3, but it may have been $5 - can't quite remember now). On the way back, the trip was a little faster - maybe 2 or 3 hours - and we cruised through a floating village with the option of taking a small boat through a water cave and around the village itself. I didn't feel like we missed out on anything except a night sleeping on a boat and a lot more time sitting around with a bunch of strangers cruising around. If we had wanted to kayak, I'm sure we could have booked a kayaking trip from Cat Ba too.