WHAT WE DID:
- Spent three and a half weeks at guesthouses, aside from a 3-day caving tour:
- Ho Chi Minh City (5 days)
- Transit – traveled by bus from HCMC to Dalat (1 day)
- Dalat (2 days)
- Transit – bus to Nha Trong; overnight train to Danang (1 day)
- Danang (1 day)
- Transit – traveled by train from Danang to Hue (1/2 day)
- Hue (3 days)
- Transit – traveled by bus from Hue to Phong Nha National Park (1/2 day)
- Tu Lan Cave System (Wild Tu Lan Explorer w/ Oxalis) – camping (3 days)
- Transit – bus from Phong Nha to Dong Hoi; train from Dong Hoi to Hanoi (1 day)
- Hanoi (2 days)
- Halong Bay (2.5 days)
- Hanoi (1.5 days)
WHAT WE LIKED:
- The incredible mountains and jungles of the central and northern regions – just breathtaking scenery.
- We met some truly amazing people throughout the country. Before traveling to Vietnam, we’d read a lot of travel blogs, and found the country to be really polarizing – a lot of travelers felt that the Vietnamese weren’t particularly welcoming to Americans, while many others had great experiences. Thus, we weren’t really sure what to expect. I’d say we definitely agree with the latter group. The people we met along the way were warm and friendly, wanted us to enjoy their beautiful homeland as much as they do, and (literally, at one point) tried to give us the shirts off their backs.
- Food prices are ridiculously cheap throughout Vietnam, even in the big cities (something that was not true in other countries). Street food was only a buck or two, but you could also eat at a reasonable restaurant, even in HCMC, for 70,000 – 100,000 dong ($4–5)/plate. One exception: Hanoi (both food & lodging were a bit pricier than anywhere else).
- Stephan loved northern Vietnam’s egg coffee. If we lived there, I predict we’d have to start an ‘egg coffee spreadsheet,’ much like the venerated ‘beer spreadsheet.’ We’re not at all obsessive or anything.
WHAT WE’D CHANGE:
- Spend less time in the south (Ho Chi Minh City, in particular) and more in the northern and central regions. I think an additional week would have given us enough time to explore the rice terraces of Sapa, in the far north, which we missed.
WHAT WE LEARNED:
- There are no tuk-tuks in Vietnam (and the backpackers rejoiced)! Instead, there are cyclos (man-powered tricycles that looked like an adult stroller), but the drivers offer a simple, silent wave and are content to leave you on your way after a smile and shake of the head.
- If you are interested in dying from a smoking-related illness, I highly suggest a move to Vietnam. While the smoking rate was extremely high throughout SE Asia, it seemed that everyone smoked in Vietnam. Furthermore, we noticed more women smoking here than in the other three countries. Given my [Jenn] absolutely disdain for cigarettes, I felt compelled to see if my hypothesis that Vietnam had a higher smoking rate was correct. According to the WHO (with data corroborated by several other health organizations and news sources), the incidence of smoking is roughly:
country % smokers (male) % smokers (female) Thailand 41 2 Laos 57 9 Cambodia 44 3 Vietnam 47 2
- Vietnamese is a super difficult language to try and pick up. I thought because it uses the Latin alphabet, it would be easier than Thai (an abugida, or syllabic alphabet) or Chinese (a logographic, or character-based alphabet). However, the language has six tones (and some 24 combinations of diacritical marks), and a tiny change in inflection can completely change the meaning of a word:
word meaning ma ghost mà but má mother mả tomb mã code mạ rice seedling
- Several of the city centers were some of the loudest we’ve been to in Asia, and karaoke seems to reign supreme here. In addition to hating smoking, we were really not into the extreme noise pollution.
- Food cooked with fish/oyster sauce became less of a concern here. Soy sauce seems to be more commonly used to sauté/flavor dishes. That said, holy cow is there a ton of salt and sugar in food here. It seems that these are the two most regularly utilized “spices,” and really made it difficult for me to find a lot of appealing dishes.
- If you love coffee, you’ve come to the right place; I’ve never seen so many coffee houses before – literally hundreds in HCMC & Saigon. In most cities, it seems that every third or fourth building is yet another place to get your java fix.
- Two new card games – binh and tinlen. Binh is a sort of modified poker game, which has some pretty fun strategy, and tinlen is similar to pig/asshole… only much more complicated and much more loud and aggressive passionate (at least with the guys we were playing with).
- Mailing an international package is quite an adventure. You have to fill out several forms, have the postal worker inspect each individual item you are mailing, and record the individual mass each item contributes to the total weight of the package (including things like cords and books).
- Transit is pretty good here. Most of the trains are quite good (a few are still in queue for refurbishing), although I’d say not as good as Thailand. They’re also a bit pricier than the Thai trains, especially for a sleeper berth. Buses were also surprisingly comfortable. We traveled three times with Phan Truong, and their big, orange buses have an interesting seat configuration (rows of almost pod-like, reclining bunk beds) that makes it easy to stretch out, relax, and enjoy your own little space.
- I’ve never felt like more a novelty as I have here. A (not insignificant) number of people wanted to snap a photo with me. We’d pose for a couple shots, flash the peace sign, and then they’d giggle, say thanks, and be on their way. I can only imagine how many times my face is plastered on Instagram and Facebook, with captions like ‘look at this hot, sweaty mess of a Westerner… she needs a freakin’ bath and a change of clothes!’
- The Vietnamese seem to be the most interested (or at least the most extraverted) in wanting to practice speaking English. We had a number of people approach us as we wandered around, and ask if we’d talk to them for a while. We’d talk about a variety of things – our lives, their lives, our travels, life in the U.S., families – typically for a good 20–30 minutes. We thought it was so admirable, not just that they had such a genuine interest in learning, but that they were so confident to approach a total stranger and ask to engage them in a second language. I have so much respect for that, and wish I was half as confident in doing that… truly inspirational. [Note: As I was typing this, a gentleman (a retired math teacher from Hanoi, we learned) came and spoke with us on our northbound train to Hanoi. It’s awesome to see the enthusiasm in their faces].
WEIGHTS & MEASURES:
AVERAGE PETROL COST: 17,000 dong/L
AVERAGE EXCHANGE RATE: 22,000 dong (₫) to $1.00 USD