On a recent short trip to Vietnam I had the chance to explore the country anew, after having not visited for over 7 years. The Vietnam Lunar Festival Tết Nguyên Đán was just in its last few days, when I touched down in Ho Chi Minh or Saigon.
Over the course of almost 2 weeks I commuted between Saigon and Vung Tau, a beach holiday destination just 125 km south of Vietnam’s largest city.
The overall experience was quite positive, it’s surprisingly easy to get around and make the most of your trip. Vietnam is quickly becoming a modern Asian country, after having suffered so much just a few decades ago.
Here is what were the highlights of this trip, good or bad:
This article is a part of the series ‘The Best, The Good, The Ugly’, if you are more interested in other destinations, like Bali, Philippines or Goa in India, please click the respective link to get to those articles.
But now about Vietnam.
The Best for me in Vietnam is without any doubt the Food. Affordable street food from French-inspired baguettes with Duck Pate, Cold Cuts, Cheese, Eggs, fresh vegetables are available at almost every corner. The standard price for a rich baguette seems to be around 15.000 Dong, which is around USD 0.70 or 0.55 Euro.
Delicious Spring Rolls (raw, cooked, fried) come in a close second. In Vung Tau and other beach destinations fresh seafood rules. You have many stalls offering everything from clams and shells, sea fish to octopus or squid. You can choose and it’s been cooked right in front of your eyes to perfection.
Especially in Ho Chi Ming or Saigon you have countless of small and affordable restaurants, famous here are Pho, the Beef or Chicken Noodle Soup, served with fresh mint, lime and bean sprouts. If street food isn’t your thing or you are afraid of belly troubles, head to Vietnamese Franchises like ‘Pho 24’, ‘Pho 2000’ or similar chains for your more cultivated version of the same.
International restaurants are abound and offer food from all around the world for small money. In Ho Chi Minh you have countless Bodegas, Tapas, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Italian and German restaurants, most offering healthy and delicious cuisine of its origin countries.
Also, the globalized fast food chains show a refreshing lack of market penetration here, besides a few KFC or Pizza Hut I didn’t came across not even a Mc Donalds or Burger King (okay, one at the airport) but many Japanese Chains like ‘Lotteria’ or also Korean franchises.
The Vietnamese Coffee is a strong brew and famous among the locals, celebrated in a cafe house culture, where you simply sit at the side of the road on cheap plastic chairs and slurp your fresh coffee, hot or cold, black or with lots of condensed milk, but usually with lots of sugar.
You have many Coffee House Franchises, local ones like ‘Highlands Coffee’ as well as the occasional Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Gloria Jean’s Coffee and others.
Beer is another ‘Best’ subject, with the local brands ‘Saigon’, ‘333’, ‘Zorak’ readily available and costing between 10-20K Dong per Bottle or Can only. Be aware that prices in restaurants for beer is around 3-4 times more than in stores like ‘Shop and Go’ or ‘Circle K’.
On top of that, international brands like Heineken, Carlsberg, Singapore’s Tiger, Japan’s Sapporo but also Beer Laos, Corona and lots of Czech Beer like Gambrinus, Staropramen, Pilsner are available. In restaurants those come at a price, with a bottle costing anything between 50K-100K Dong, but at least you have the choice.
From the local brands I found ‘333’ and ‘Zorak’ the most drinkable, the others were a bit thin and watery for my taste. Beer ‘333’ is available for as low as 10K Dong in ‘Shop & Go’ or other supermarkets.
Definitely Internet Access in the country is on a decent level. Wherever you go, sit or stand – a free WiFi Hotspot isn’t far – just ask for the password and you are all set. The speeds are usually very good up to phenomenal fast, something I’m not used to residing in Bali, Indonesia.
Here in Vietam, 2 Mbps and up are not unusual to experience, while in Bali that’s mainly as fast as it maximum gets.
Mobile Internet is similar, just get a SIM Card of Vinaphone, Viettel or mobiphone, read the intructions or ask the friendly vendor to set 3G up for you and you are ready to go.
I used Vinaphone during my trip and it was almost always running on HSDPA (the faster 3G version) and it was incredibly cheap. They have volume packages which can be activated daily, weekly or monthly. Some examples for Vinaphone: 250 MB, consumable in 1 day: 12K Dong or for 30 day: 120 MB = 25K Dong, 550 MB = 50K Dong, 1.2 GB = 100K Dong.
Internet here comes with a caveat though. And it’s about Facebook. Facebook is blocked almost within the whole country and by most providers. Youtube sometimes also. I didn’t find a single WiFi spot that allowed access to the Facebook page.
Mobile Internet on Vinaphone didn’t block Facebook at all though, so I’m not sure, what it is about Facebook in Vietnam. If you must use Facebook during your trip, better educate yourself about Web Proxies or set one up for yourself, if you have a server running elsewhere.
Hotel Standards and Prices are very good. You can get simple and clean hotel rooms (2-3 stars) in abundance at all price levels and in general your room will be equipped with mini bar, cable TV, Wifi Access and breakfast included. Prices start at 250K Dong per night, slightly higher in Ho Chi Minh’s District 1 (around 450K Dong) or around 550-650K Dong in the City Center.
Transportation is readily available and affordable. You can go the 125 km from Ho Chi Minh to Vung Tau in 90 minutes by Hydrofoil boat for just 200-250K Dong (return is cheaper). Buses cost only half the price but take about 1-2 hours longer. Taxis are everywhere in abundance and usually affordable, if the meter works and the drivers knows which way to go. On top of that plenty of motor-bike taxis offering to bring you wherever you want for a fixed price. So if you know direction and destination and carry not much luggage, that could be your cheapest option, if you don’t want to drive yourself.
You can also rent Motorbikes, which are usually Honda Airblade or similar Chinese Models for anything around 150K Dong per day or 50K per hour. In the hourly rates usually the Gasoline comes included.
The Visa Process is simple and painless, if you get your Visa in advance. There are countless Visa Agencies on the internet, I used VietnamVisaPro, which got me my Visa Approval Letter within 2 working days, after payment of USD10 via Paypal. With the Visa Approval letter you can simply show up at the airport and get your Visa on Arrival, typically it costs USD25 for a single-entry 1 month Visa, but longer options are available also.
Then there are small annoyances that could make your trip not so pleasant, but call it an adventure and you still should be fine. None of the points below are a serious deal breaker, but better read through them and decide if they are bearable for you.
- Communication: English is not very commonly used in Vietnam, despite what other people are saying. I had a hard time communicating with local people or even taxi drivers for that matter. The staff in smaller hotels doesn’t talk English much – if at all – or if they do, they are very hard to understand. Even in shops or restaurants in Ho Chi Minh that can be a problem, but as long as you know what you want and how much you want to spend for it, that shouldn’t be a problem. Asking for directions can be tricky, I would recommend a smartphone with Google Maps as an alternative.
- Curfew Hours: Shops, Bars and Restaurants close early. In Ho Chi Minh that meant it was difficult to find anything to eat for dinner after 10pm, as most restaurants were closed already. Even Night Clubs and Bars close around 2am, like in Saigon’s most notoriuos Club ‘Apocalypse Now’ they simply played ‘This is the end…’ by the Doors at 2am and all patrons ran outside and the Club closed. Ouch! Coming from Party Island Bali that is pretty unusal, especially if you are in a big city.
- Pickpocketing/Theft: Vietnam is notorious for that. While I got away lucky this time here (I ‘lost’ my old camera during Sinulog in Cebu instead), I was robbed during my last visit on Phu Quoc Island while sleeping in the hotel – camera, phone and all cash. There are countless tales of travelers being pickpocketed or even robbed in broad daylight, so better be aware of your belongings or leave luxury items at home or deep inside your pockets.
- Rudeness of people: It maybe isn’t meant as rudeness, but Vietnamese people come across sometimes as rude. As a pedestrian nobody will give way for you, hawkers will grab you when they want to sell you something, people spit wherever they go, urinate in road corners (the stench of urine in Saigon at night is unbelievable) and plastic and other garbage is littering the streets (although in Saigon is cleaned up every night and it’s basically cleaner here than in the countryside). The beaches and streets of Vung Tau for instance are littered with all kinds of garbage and nobody seems to care. Motorbike or even Car Drivers will make a fun out of it to speed up, when you are crossing the road and trying to pass you as close as possible while honking wildy. The horn is used here in a very aggressive and offensive manner, even if you don’t stand any chance to get out of the way. Disturbing!
- Taxi Scams: There are dozends of Taxi Companies and they all are charge different. While competition is always a good thing, here it seems to be a bit weird. From the pier of Vung Tau to my hotel at Back Beach I paid anything from 50K, 120K to 150K Dong with no traffic or delay whatsover. 2 times in Vung Tau I had Taxis with rigged meters and also Taxi Drivers pretending to understand where you want to go (repeating your destination in good English) and bring you somewhere else instead. In Vung Tau I wanted to go to the Dog Racing track and and after we went in circles for 20 minutes, I finally had to bark at the driver to make him understand where we should be going. The most reliable Taxi Companies I found were Vinasun Taxi and Mai Linh.
- Clubbing/Partying: While there is a certain party scene in a beach destination like Vung Tau or also in Ho Chi Minh, it’s pretty low key. The Disco Clubs in Vung Tau had a female to male ratio of about 20/80 with 90% of the female being prostitutes. In Ho Chi Minh, the female/male ratio was maybe 50/50, but there didn’t seem to be much ordinary girls partying. All girls I chatted up, wanted to go back to my hotel with me for money within 5-15 minutes, but maybe I didn’t go to the right clubs. Disappointing! Drinks while Clubbing are expensive, with beer starting at around 60-80K Dong and cocktails 100K until the sky is the limit. If you prefer wild and long parties into the early morning hours, head to Bali or Thailand instead.
All in all the trip was rather exciting and positive, although it may look from the list of annoyances that is wasn’t so pleasant. But consider that those were really minor issues, I just wanted to list them here for others to be aware and to make up their own mind about it.
But what do you think? Do my experiences of Vietnam match yours? What mistakes did I do or what are your recommendations for enjoying Vietnam? Write away in the comment section below!
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