This was originally posted by Shahmatt here, but I've reposted it here. Somtam2000
Hi everyone. My brother and I spent 5 days in Vietnam last week. Here is a review. Warning! Long read ahead :-)
We landed in Hanoi on Thursday night at around 8pm and took an airport shuttle bus (30,000 Dong each) to the Hanoi old quarter where our hotel was booked.
This was the Hanoi Cozy hotel. On arrival the hotel manager informed us that he had our booking but the room was on a "high floor" and there were no lifts. He offered to accommodate us in Grand View Hotel, owned by the same company. I was resistant at first since this seemed highly unorthodox, but he assured us that the rate would be as quoted for Cozy hotel and he said it was a much newer establishment and only a minute's walk away. So we went over to have a look. The Grand View Hotel did seem a much nicer establishment, better lit and definitely newer (I wasn't thrilled about Cozy hotel). We liked what we saw and agreed. The rooms were comfortable and for $25 twin bed a night was good value with wi-fi, hot water and breakfast.
One thing to note though, they requested our passports for a night's keeping. Apparently this is law in Vietnam. I did not expect this, but I found out later (over my wi-fi connection) that this is normal. However I resisted and got a receipt for our passports. If you are compelled to give away your passport to hotels for safe keeping, make sure you have a photocopy yourself (actually try giving that), and definitely get yourself a receipt.
Day 1 and Day 2(Friday and Saturday):
We did the 2D/1N Halong Bay tour with Handspan on the Aloha Junk. The tour office was just 10 minutes away from where we were, so we checked out of the hotel walked with our bags. We registered with them and got on the bus to Halong bay, along with many other tourists like us.
The tour bus stops halfway on its 4 hour journey for refreshments. We boarded the Aloha junk. Our room was well maintained and clean and we have no complaints about the accommodation on board. The first day and night we got Chinese seafood on board the boat, and they served us huge quantities of the stuff in an unending stream. I am South Asian, and Chinese food is a little bland to me, so I avoided some items, but in general this was a very filling meal. On the second day they served us a Western Continental breakfast and lunch and no complaints here at all.
The tour itself consisted of a visit to the floating village where pearl farms may be seen. This may or may not be interesting depending on your point of view. The second day we visited the Sung Suat (Amazing cave) in the morning. I liked this one much better.
Overall, it seemed as if we didn't do very much at Halong bay except soak in the scenery. If you are a busybody like me you might feel impatient and may want to choose a tour with a more packed itinerary. To be honest I was a little bored.
We got back to Hanoi on Saturday night. We went back to the Grand View Hotel and booked another night there. For the evening we found an Indian restaurant just a few doors away and had our dinner there. Afterwards we walked towards Hoan Kiem and discovered that it was the Flower Festival in Hanoi. Huge crowds and a variety of Vietnam’s flower pride. This was an unexpected bonus to the entire trip and was quite enjoyable.
Day 3 (Sunday):
The next day we awoke early in order to catch a 7a.m domestic flight to Hue . We took a car (arranged by the hotel for $12) to the airport. The trip was only around half an hour at around 4.45a.m since the roads were quite empty. The Vietnam airlines flight was quite good on the A320. We reached Hue at 8a.m in the morning.
We took the airport bus (I think it was 40,000 VND per person) to Hue town. We dropped ourselves off at Tran Cao Van Street and made our way to the Mandarin Café at No. 24. We had read about this place over the net and it fully deserves its reputation as a comfortable stop over place when at Hue. The owner Mr. Cu is quite friendly and loves to show off his excellent photographic skills. The café walls are covered with his work. The food was really good with a mix of Western dishes and local stuff. We had a really solid breakfast with eggs and we also returned there for a seafood lunch. The rates seemed reasonable too. Mr. Cu gave us a “walking tour” map of the Citadel which we followed, and kept our bags for us while we walked about.
We really liked Hue. It had a nice busy country town sort of feel to it. We visited the Citadel and Imperial city (55,000 VND entrance). There were plenty of ruins and interesting architecture to see and you can spend at least 3 or 4 hours just walking around. We returned back to the Mandarin Café, had lunch, got back our bags and pushed off to the railway station around 2km away for a 4pm train to get to Dong Hoi (140km North). Mr. Cu bought us our railway tickets for the soft air-con seat at 80,000VND each from the cafe. We paid him a commission for this though, so I reckon it’s better to make this booking if possible through the internet. It is definitely necessary to book at least a few hours in advance to get your seat.
Our train from Hue to Dong Hoi was not as clean or as efficient as we expected. The train was a little late, and the seats were old (though comfortable). Do not expect to get the seat that is marked on your ticket, as it becomes a free for all once you board your coach. The seat numbers are not clearly marked anyway. Just try getting on before anyone else and pick your seats quickly. I do not know if it’s the same situation with the soft sleeper bunks though. Also there is no announcement of station, so you really have no idea where you might be especially in the pitch dark of the Vietnam evenings. Just remember the rough time of arrival. If you are trouble, try to get the attention of a conductor and point to the station name on your ticket and get him to write down the time on a piece of paper for you so that you can work it out. Well, that’s what we did at least as English isn’t spoken very much.
We arrived at Dong Hoi at around 8pm and got a taxi from the station to Ke Bang hotel. It’s around 5km away and cost us 50,000 VND by taxi (expensive) to get there, but it seemed quite deserted and I really thought we’d see more tourists.
Ke Bang Hotel is a neat establishment. I believe it used to be a house of sorts. Our rooms were old but clean. However, there were no towels in the room and the hot water did not seem to work properly. But we got our towels and the hot water was fixed in a jiffy when we complained. At 200,000VND per night and free wi-fi I would say that this is good value. The lady who runs the reception could manage very basic English and actually spoke Malay (which we knew a little bit of since we work in Singapore). I found myself in the unusual position of using a few Malay words I knew in between to clarify my point.
Day 4 (Monday)
The next morning we arranged a car to see Phong Nha Ke Bang national park. It took us around 45 minutes to get there. In order to see the caves you need to buy tickets which include a boat. The boat to the caves is 200,000 VND and can hold around 10 people. We were advised to wait around for a group to join up with. That didn’t take very long though.
The boat ride and cave expedition were fascinating. I found them more interesting than Halong bay, and I highly recommend this site for a visit. We visited Phong Nha cave and Tien Son cave (which requires plenty of walking up stairs). Make sure you carry a torch to see better inside. Also try to get an English speaking guide. Ours did not speak any English unfortunately. The entire expedition took around 4 hours in total and we were back at the park office by around 2pm. After this we took our car back to Ke Bang and spent the evening walking around Dong Hoi town. There isn’t very much to see in this place though. I found out later that there is actually another tour of about 1 hour at Phong Nha called the ‘Eco Trail’. We unfortunately missed seeing this.
Day 5 (Tuesday)
The next day we took another car south to the demilitarized zone to see the Vinh Moc Tunnels. This was not part of our original plan, but we had a morning to kill anyway. These tunnels are supposedly similar to the Cu Chi tunnels close to Saigon, but were intended as living quarters as opposed to military use. The tunnels are supposedly preserved in the original state, with no tourist modifications except some timber strengthening to prevent a collapse.
We were quite impressed with the tunnels. I guess it’s pretty amazing that people actually lived, worked and even procreated in those tiny passages. This place is well worth a visit also.
After this, we traveled back North to Dong Hoi to the airport, and got on the flight to Hanoi at around 2pm, and then soon after out of Vietnam on an international flight.
#1 Shahmatt has been a member since 30/6/2009. Posts: 17
That's a great report -- thanks! (I reposted it in the Trip Reports section as I think it will get lost on the other page.
#2 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,770
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Hi. That's fine. Glad you liked the review.
#3 Shahmatt has been a member since 30/6/2009. Posts: 17
I'm going to be in Vietnam in a couple of months and I picked up some good tips from reading the above! Thanks!
#4 craigdon has been a member since 23/2/2009. Posts: 6
#5 Shahmatt has been a member since 30/6/2009. Posts: 17
hi, may I ask you a question? We are going to Vietnam in a few weeks and are staying in Dong Hoi (flying in from Hanoi) can you tell me if tours are readily available to Phong Nha and Vinh Moc. I have tried to be organized and have emailed various companies and either they haven't bothered to reply or have quoted me in excess of $120USD per person which seems very expensive, one company actually told me it was easier to travel from Hue with a 3 day package (I don't think so, I had already booked and paid for hotels/flights, working north to south)seemed a bit stupid to backtrack!! So if you could just let me know if its 1.easy 2.reasonably priced 3.readily available? I much prefer to give my business to small operators and share the $ around!!! Any help you can give me would be very appreciated!! thanks
The truth is, we couldn't find any reliable information on tours to the Phong Nha prior to our visit. The park is quite a new World Heritage Site and is somewhat underdeveloped for tourism. But, on the positive side, there seems to be some dedication to improve accessibility in recent times - e.g: the airport, so perhaps you will be lucky.
We sort of went there without a plan. On arrival at the Dong Hoi railway station, we asked for a good hotel to stay the night. The railway officials set us up with a car. The man driving it spoke little English, but took us a to a decent establishment.
Take note - people living North of the demilitarized zone speak much less English than South, even in hotels. You will be better understood in Hue or even in Dong Ha, rather than in Dong Hoi.
Eventually, it was the hotel that did the organizing of trips to Phong Nha and Vinh Moc for us. We arranged transport through the same car that dropped us there initially. There was also a taxi service advertised at various billboards and at the hotel counter. The taxi service prices were fairly reasonable for the travel distances.
The overall costs did not seem exorbitant (even if they were), and we were happy to finally have plans made on our behalf by the hotel staff - who seemed honest folk after all.
For both destinations, you just need to get there and things will fall into place. The Phong Nha park office made all arrangements for us. Nobody on our boat spoke English but the World Heritage Staff were competent and kept an eye out for us "foreigners", waiting for us even when we lagged behind, and making sure we didn't get lost.
Vinh Moc is also well organized. Being close to the demilitarized zone English is much more widely spoken. It won't take you too long to get through the tunnels - an hour would be enough I reckon.
So I gather than you want to keep going South, meaning Dong Hoi (Phong Nha) -> Vinh Moc -> Hue?
Landing at Dong Hoi isn't a bad idea. I suggest you arrange your trip to Phong Nha through the hotel you are staying at. This would be the most straightforward method. Worst case scenario, just hire a taxi to take you there. Don't spend too much time at Dong Hoi - It's a rather uninteresting town and too quiet for my liking.
You can travel South through taxi to Vinh Moc, about an hour's ride I guess. From Vinh Moc, I suppose there should be buses heading towards Hue. A visit to Vinh Moc + travel to Hue can be done within a day I think. Once you get to Vinh Moc, ask the staff there about the ways you can try getting to Hue - I am sure that there must be many methods, by rail or by car, and they should be able to help you. Or send an email to these guys: http://www.thesinhtourist.vn/ (the famous Sinh Cafe)
Aim to spend the night at Hue if you can as it is seemed to me to be a interesting town.
#7 Shahmatt has been a member since 30/6/2009. Posts: 17
Thanks that helped heaps, I we don't have a problem travelling on the fly but just wanted to make sure it was easy as we only have 2 days in dong hoi before taking the train to Hue...and we didn't want to miss the caves or tunnels as that was the only reason we are going there.
Right. Traveling on the fly is fine I think. But do try to make an effort to find a hotel where English is spoken. I think this would be critical to the quality of your stay in the town.
If you can't do this, at least have an English to Vietnamese dictionary handy, or get someone to write down a few critical words in a book for you. E,g: lunch, dinner, hotel, taxi, car, railway station, bus to Hue, etc.
#9 Shahmatt has been a member since 30/6/2009. Posts: 17
Tours to the caves and the national park are available.
Google Phong Nha Farmstay or email firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a new bussiness operated by australian and vietnamese management.