Wet Market Hoi An, central Vietnam
Wet Market Hoi An, central Vietnam

One of the most frequently asked travel questions I get is about Vietnam…when to go, where to go, what to do, etc. So I thought I’d take my next few blogs and share with everyone a few of my favorite things. First, it’s hands-down one of my favorite places to travel! Perhaps I’m a little biased…oh yes, I’m definitely biased. But besides for that, the country is beautiful, the food is AMAZING, and it’s bloody cheap!

To start, a few general tips to whet your appetite.

When to go?

A few years ago, my really good friend G and I decided to take a girls-only adventure trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. We went at the end of October/beginning of November. Weather-wise, I think we lucked out. We’d just missed the rainy season (barely) and the cooler, wintery season was moving into northern Vietnam. Perfect. I’ve also been over the Christmas season, which is just as great. I don’t recommend going in the middle of summer (June-Septemberish). Call me a wilting daisy. I just can’t take the heat and humidity! Even in November, G and I were constantly crossing the streets just to find shade!

Red Bridge, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi
Red Bridge, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

Finding hotels

I have a confession to make. I love spreadsheets. Yes, I do. Planning for a trip is almost as fun as the trip itself! And that’s what I love about G. She’s just as neurotic as me. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those anal-retentive, schedule-makers who flips out when we digress from the scheduled daily agenda. Not at all. As long as I know where I’m going to lay my head at night, I’m happy as a clam. But I do love the research. I want to know what my options are! While we were going to play it by ear for most of the trip, we wanted to make sure to have hotels and travel between cities booked before leaving. Especially since we only had two-and-a-half weeks for Vietnam and Cambodia, we definitely didn’t want to waste precious time hunting for hotels and transport in-country. If you really just don’t care and all you need is a cheap room, a clean bed, and a convenient location, skip the next few sentences and book in-country. But if you’re like me, and are pickier about cleanliness, reputation, and location, read on. I would recommend booking hotels ahead of time. First, because it would have been a huge waste of time wandering around trying to find hotels when we had so little time in the first place. Second, we ended up getting much better rates than what was advertised. I wonder if others found the same to be true? Third, if you already have reservations, you don’t have to deal with the hassle of the ubiquitous touts trying to lure you to their hotel. They’re totally annoying, a huge pain in the ass, and you never know what they’re really selling. Once they know you already have reservations, they completely back off. Otherwise, they will follow you. Everywhere. Even to the bathroom. Trust me. You don’t want to deal with it.

I thought Tripadvisor was an invaluable resource for hotels.

Tours

Now, I’m all about doing my own thing, but booking with a tour definitely has the advantage of getting you from point A to point B with the least amount

Our "punishment" for lolligagging at the Perfume Pagoda was to sit and eat with the bus drivers rather than with the rest of the tourists. The others were green with envy!
Our “punishment” for lolligaggle-ing (I made that up. Sounds so much better than lolligagging, doesn’t it?) at the Perfume Pagoda was to sit and eat with the bus drivers rather than with the rest of the tourists. The others were green with envy!

of hassle. Especially important if you’re pressed for time and your language skills aren’t stellar. But it’s really important to do your research ahead of time to find the type of tour that works best for you. In our case, as hands-off, bare-bones, and small as possible. The anti-tour tour. Really, just the transport, thank you. G and I ended up doing a little of both – booking from the U.S. and booking in-country from any number of tour groups you find on the streets.

From the U.S., G and I arranged all our travel through:

NEW DESTINATION TOURISM SERVICES CO,. LTD.

5/32 A Nguyen Van Luong, Ward 16, Go Vap District, Hochiminh City, TEL:(08) 2441063 FAX:(08) 9842755. Email: info@newdestinationtour.com

They were super accommodating and helped us arrange hotels, tours, and in-country and international (to Cambodia) travel. We certainly weren’t their typical travelers (we gave her an itemized list of specific hotels and tours we wanted and just asked her to make it happen!), but they didn’t bat an eyelash. This small company usually deals with locals and overseas-Vietnamese, so the customer service is not always as polished as what we’re used to in the U.S., but they’re so nice and deliver great personal service.

Our experience with in-country booking was horrible! Sure, it was cheaper, but you definitely get what you pay for. The in-country tours turned out to be the epitome of tour-nightmaredom. They promise you everything and deliver very little. They cram as many poor tourists in as possible (despite promising small tour sizes), they rush you through the tour because they have time schedules to meet, people! We were rushed, corralled, and forced to eat crappy food. Try to revolt and they’ll turn on you. They became rude, impatient, and forced us to eat with the bus drivers (which actually wasn’t a punishment at all since we didn’t have to eat the bland tourist food they served everyone else!).

We also did a ton of stuff on our own. And we relied heavily on travelfish.org. Travelfish has really great recommendations for things to do and sights to see. Lonely Planet is also a pretty good guide (although I like travelfish better).

Food

Don’t be afraid! Be adventurous. Get out there and hunt down the good stuff. It’s the best way to meet the locals and to explore the depth and breadth of Vietnamese food culture. Find out how to eat well and safely.

I don’t recommend using the Lonely Planet food recommendations. The ones we tried were all kind of meh. The Rough Guide, surprisingly, has quite a great list of recommendations. However, the best food resources are taxi drivers. Depending on how well you like your hotel staff, they are also a good resource. But remember, sometimes they’re paid to recommend specific places. Just remember to ask, “where would you go?” Not “where should I go”, which is a very different question. Their first instinct will be to point you to very sanitized, tourist-friendly (read: bland, boring) restaurants. Stick with the taxi drivers. And trust your nose!

Money

Cash is the name of the game in Vietnam. But I don’t recommend carrying wads of cash around with you. It is very easy to find ATMs all around large cities. If you travel to more rural areas, make sure you have enough cash with you. Many/most hotels will take credit cards.

Things to know about money before you go:

  • American Express is not widely accepted. Maybe at the higher-end international hotel chains (maybe??). As much as I love my AMEX, just leave it at home.
  • If you want to change U.S. currency to Vietnamese dong, do it like a local. Most jewelry stores will exchange currency for you at much better rates than a bank or a currency exchanger. You can’t miss the jewelry stores — wall to wall gold — and the exchange rate will be posted. Don’t be afraid to do a little shopping around. Jewelry stores are usually grouped together, so check with a few neighboring stores. In Hanoi, head to Hang Bac (Gold Street).
  • If you prefer not to use credit/ATM cards, bring cash in crisp, new bills. $50- and $100-dollar bills will get a better exchange rate than lower currency, old bills.
  • You get the best exchange rate from using an ATM. However the savings are negated by banks charging exorbitant fees to make foreign transactions (a foreign transaction fee plus a fee the bank/ATM charges because you’re not their customer plus a fee your bank charges you for not using their ATM). I got around this because I hold cards with both USAA and a local credit union. Policies may change, so always check with your banking institution.
    • USAA (credit card and ATM debit): charges a 1% foreign transaction fee (versus 3% standard with most cards), but no foreign ATM fees; they refund up to $15 in ATM fees per month when using a non-USAA ATM. Oh, and you don’t have to be a military member to open a bank account. It is awesome and customer service is amazing!
    • My local credit union (credit card and ATM debit): No foreign transaction fees, however, you must pay for all ATM fees. Not all credit unions are the same, so check first.
    • For those who don’t have a great credit union option and don’t want to open a USAA bank account, try the Venture One Rewards Credit Card from Capital One. No foreign transaction fees. However, no debit options with this card (you can do cash withdrawals, but why?)

      Example of an ATM enclosure with secured entry
      Example of an ATM enclosure with secured entry.
  • Use ATMs attached to banks or in enclosed ATM facilites (like in the picture) rather than the one-off ATMs on any street corner. Those are more easily corruptible and vulnerable to hackers. Always follow safety tips.
  • Use internationally branded ATMs. There are tons of Citibanks in Hanoi and Saigon. If you can’t find Citibank, try to find Australia New Zealand Bank, Vietcombank, or Incombank. This way, if there is a dispute, it’s always easier to work through these large companies with international reach.
  • Before you go, make sure you call all banks and tell them you will be traveling overseas so that they do not freeze your cards when you try to use it overseas. Make sure you have a contact telephone number for your credit card companies with you just in case something happens and you must contact them. Despite calling ahead of time, my sisters always have problems with this so it’s always good to have a phone number handy. I’ve never had an issue with USAA.
  • Change the daily withdrawal limit on your debit card to the minimum amount you think you will need to withdraw per day. This way, if your card is compromised, this minimizes the hurt a little. I also budget and make sure I don’t have too much money in my account anyway…just in case.

Shopping

Cafe sua da. Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk.
Cafe sua da. Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk.

Wow. Where do I even start? Shopping in Vietnam is almost as fun as eating in Vietnam! There is just so much to explore where shopping is concerned, but here are a few things I really loved bringing home:

  • Silk sleeping bag liners. Super warm and lightweight. Serves as a great travel blanket. These were a lifesaver on the frigid trains in Vietnam!
  • Tightly woven bamboo platters
  • Custom-sewn clothing
  • Whole Saigon cinnamon sticks! I’ve never seen the whole sticks before, only ground. There’s such a high oil content that when struck against each other, they spark! When possible, always buy whole spices. They last longer and you know there are no “additives.”
  • Jasmine blooming blossom tea. The tea leaves are intricately wrapped around a core of jasmine flowers. When brewed (in a glass teapot!), watch the blossom “bloom” exposing the jasmine blossoms inside. Very fragrant and delicious!
  • Trung Nguyen coffee. It’s kind of the Starbucks of Vietnam. Sure, you can buy this brand in the U.S., but Trung Nguyen has special blends that are not exported outside the country. Unlike other countries that grow coffee, but export the best stuff, Vietnam has a huge coffee culture and they keep the good stuff right at home. (In Indonesia, all I ever found was instant Nescafe. Ditto for Kenya. What a travesty!) Disclaimer note: my uncle’s small coffee plantation is part of the Trung Nguyen coop of grower/roasters. My dad always brings back a few precious bags that are specially roasted. In the final stage of roasting, butter and sugar are added to  brown and caramelize around the bean. It’s not by any means sweet; the caramelization burns off the sugar sweetness leaving behind a unique deep and rich caramelized flavor. Because this makes the beans more perishable (and expensive!), it’s generally not exported (the exported stuff you can buy in the U.S. uses a butter-oil blend).

Stay tuned for city recommendations!

Abrazos! Anah.

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