Vietnam Travel Tips

Visited: November 2006 (Volunteer work); March 2012 (Business)
Hello:  Xin Chào (sounds like seen chow)
Thank you:  Cảm ơn bạn (sounds like Cam unn bahn)
Currency:  Vietnamese Dong (VND)

I arrived in Saigon late at night and felt lucky to have a ride waiting to my hotel.  I remember the  brutal humidity hugging me tight even around midnight, especially after a long flight with packaged air.  With the time change, I felt uneven, as expected, and I was hungry but it was best to sleep and wait for breakfast to try to adjust my internal clock.   

The next morning I introduced my waiting appetite to that magical potion known as Pho and I was hooked.  I still have to make periodic visits to a local Vietnamese restaurant for a fix.  The concept of hot beef soup with scallions and chilies for breakfast is probably a conflicting exercise for some people, especially in the heavy heat of Vietnam.  But I found it to be delightfully addictive.  

Since it was my first day in a new country, my reaction was to immediately venture out into the streets of Saigon.  But I wasn’t going anywhere until I had mastered how to cross a street in Vietnam.  And this is why you buy travel insurance.  If you can’t manage to replicate the most successful execution of Mario brothers, at least the insurance will help to manage your hospital expenses.  It takes strong fortitude to charge across a six lane road with the conviction that you will arrive on the other side in one piece, despite the visual evidence that you have the green light.  Silly human!!  Green, in this case, means “Go for it!” 

I found the people in Vietnam to be curious and interested in talking to someone from the U.S. despite the history of the Vietnam War (known as the American War there).  As in most places, our commonalities rise above our differences.  

One of the best moments was hiring some bicycle rickshaws late one night in Hue (late meaning 9 or 10 p.m.) to tour around the city.  There were only three of us, each in our own rickshaw, each with our own young man as a driver asking us questions that are typically off limits in the U.S.  (How old are you?  Are you married?  How many children?  Why no children?)  Surprisingly, the streets were relatively empty at 10 p.m. and the heat had backed off just enough that we could enjoy the ride through the quiet dark streets, the only interruption was that of us talking to each other and laughing with our young guides.


Tips:  

  • When crossing a street, especially the large multi-lane boulevards in the city, I tried to attach myself to some locals and carry on with commitment.  
  • WiFi seems to be ubiquitous so don’t worry about being connected. 
  • You can have clothes made in just a few days from an area tailor.  If you have something you love, you can take it as a pattern.
  • Take a hotel card with you when you leave on any excursion, as they usually have the hotel address and directions in Vietnamese that come in handy with taxi drivers.
  • Try the coffee even if you are not a coffee drinker.  It is quite a treat as the strong substance is mellowed with condensed milk.
  • As in many Asian cities, the residents wear face masks to guard against the pollution.  
  • Motorcycle taxis - Do not wrap your arms around the driver (could be misinterpreted).  Hold on to the back of the seat behind you.


Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City)
Two visits separated by only six years left me shocked at the progress in such a short time.  For instance, when I pulled out my smart phone in the taxi, I was able to get Wifi!

To See/Do:

  • War Remnants Museum – The main focus of the museum is the Vietnam War.  I found the photos to be quite engaging as they documented the Vietnamese viewpoint of the war but also quite disturbing as many documented the horrors.  I certainly was exposed to a side of the war that I had not previously known.
  • Reunification Palace – Worth walking through as it was the home of the President of South Vietnam during the war and the site for the ending of the war when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates during the fall of Saigon.
  • Saigon Notre Dame Basilica and Saigon Central Post Office - You can visit both easily as they are across the street from each other and great examples of the French colonial architecture in the city.
  • Cu Chi tunnels - You will be treated to a boat ride up the river to the complex and learn the history of the tunnel system and how it was used during the war.  You can even climb into and through some of the tunnels to truly experience the conditions at that time.
  • Shopping - Walk along Dong Khoi Street as there are many shops in this area with crafts and gifts as well as many of the nice older hotels.  For more inexpensive shopping, there is the local market in Ho Chi Minh City (and I am still wearing a pair of sandals I bought there).  I found numerous boutiques and other shops (one of my favorites is Ipa Nima) close to my hotel.
  • Tailors:  There are many tailors available and you can usually get clothes made within a few days at a reasonable price.  


 Where to stay and eat:  The Intercontinental is a beautiful hotel in a great location.  There are shops, great restaurants and the market just blocks away.  The Temple Club restaurant had great food and chic decor.  
With so many tourists visiting, there are many good choices for food and the authentic Vietnamese cuisine is interesting and delicious.

Hoi An
My favorite city in Vietnam, we were based in Hoi An while I volunteered with Global Dental Expeditions.  The actual clinic was about 40 minutes away but Hoi An was a great place to spend our evenings after a long day at the clinic.  UNESCO recognizes it as a World Heritage Site and the charm of the ancient city will quickly draw you in.  It was small enough to walk or bike around (bikes were provided free at the hotel) and you felt like you could see everything.  If you prefer, you can hire a bicycle tuk tuk and leave the driving to a local.  
We were close to the ocean and a stroll to the beach left us a bit puzzled to see the young men and women playing in the ocean fully clothed.  Modesty is the rule in southeast Asia, so be prepared to only see Westerners in swimsuits (swimming costumes, togs, etc.).  For the young Vietnamese men and women, being fully dressed did not seem to have any effect on the fun while running through the waves.  

Dental Clinic, Volunteer Work:  The dental clinic was a special event for many of the children who had never visited a dentist before.  We had young girls show up in their best clothes - sometimes dressed as little princesses in pastel dresses with ruffles and sequins.  But most arrived in their school uniforms, hesitant to participate in this new adventure.  My role was to act as assistant to one of the dentists, wielding the suction wand and providing the amalgam, condenser, and other instruments as needed.  The local staff was incredible to work with and they were experts at their jobs.  We were completely dependent on generators for power - subject to random stops.  There was an outhouse behind the school and with every visit, you were sure to praise indoor plumbing, toilet paper, and air conditioning.  I was there in November and the heat was a constant drain on energy.  I kept imagining what it would have been like to be 18 or 19 years old and fighting a war in full military gear and boots with no refuge from the sun and humidity.   
Children were quick with “Hellos” but couldn’t participate in much English beyond that.  It didn’t matter as their smiles were the only conversation we needed.  Lunches were beyond expectations with bountiful dishes to try and relish, leaving us feeling stuffed and sleepy for the afternoon dental sessions.

Where to stay:  Although our hotel for our volunteer trip was a nice hotel, one day we treated ourselves to lunch and some spa treatments at The Victoria, a luxury hotel by the ocean.  Take advantage of the wonderful foot massage offered by the pool while taking in a view of the beach and the ocean.  After working for six straight days in the dental clinic it was a much needed treat.

To See/Do:
In the ancient part of the city, you will want to cross the quaint and beautiful Japanese Covered Bridge.  There are a few museums you may want to wander through but I enjoyed walking around the old part of the city poking into the little shops looking for truly unique souvenirs.  

  • My Son - Located outside of Hoi An and it is worth a trip to see the Hindu ruins.
  • Tailors:  There are dozens of tailors in the village. I had several things made at 50 Le Loi and they did a nice job but I didn’t have anything too complicated.  Some of the other women had several things made at Yally – I think they have about 3 shops and they have some really nice things on display and some great fabrics.  They cost a little more but all are very affordable and they usually can make items in a few days.  If you are having things made for others (such as robes) take measurements.  You can even take your own fabric as you might not have the same taste as what is offered.
  • Art:  There are many little shops with art and collectibles.  I found myself walking among the many shelves of one-of-a-kind bowls, handmade boxes and bags, and various other  items, marveling at how beautiful something as simple as a brush holder could be. The central market has much more in one place but some of the items are not as nice.  And if you have a purse fetish, you are in luck.  There are purses everywhere and they all seemed to be made of silk.  As to original art, I was able to buy an oil painting on canvas for about $20 which they conveniently rolled and inserted into a cardboard tube for me. 
  • Food:  While working in the dental clinic we were lucky to have two Vietnamese born doctors with us and their command of the resident language led to our supreme enlightenment and enjoyment of the delights of the Vietnamese cuisine.  They knew what to order based on the foods they grew up eating and the locals were very happy to accommodate their requests. I was never disappointed with a meal.  Café Des Amis, 52 Rue Bach Dang, was very good - I broke my own rule by eating at the same place twice in one week.


Hue
We arrived in Hue to enjoy a break from the humidity but not from the heat.  Midday temperatures left us thirsty and seeking shade.   A really fun thing to do in the evening (when it’s not so hot, or during the day if it’s not so hot) is to rent a bicycle taxi and have them take you around the city, around the market and over by the Forbidden City. 

To See/Do:  

  • Forbidden City
  • Thien Mu Pagoda
  • The Citadel and Imperial City 
  • Tomb of Tu Duc 
  • Take the famously painted Dragon boats up the Perfume River


Hotel:
We stayed at the Hotel Saigon Morin.  It was really nice and the rooms were HUGE - bigger than some apartments I’ve lived in!  They had a little spa there and it’s always worthwhile to treat yourself to a foot massage, a manicure, and a pedicure.

Food:
As in the rest of Vietnam, there were many good choices for food.  One night we all had a craving for pizza (what could be more American?) and tried the Little Italy restaurant.  It provided satisfaction to our craving and we even found some sorbet down the street for dessert.

Hanoi
When we arrived in Hanoi, I felt like I was in a new country - it was somewhat cool and rainy and residents were bedecked in winter coats.  The actual temperature was what many Americans would consider “jacket” weather but compared to the heat and humidity of the south or the summer in the north, it was quite a bit colder for them.

To See/Do:

  • Ho Chi Minh’s house and tomb complex – It is worth a visit and having a local guide was worth it just to hear the local impressions of Ho Chi Minh.
  • Hanoi Hilton – The famous prison from the Vietnam War.  Definitely go on a guided tour so you can hear the history.
  • Temple of Literature – Definitely take a look at this.
  • Water Puppets – Everyone talks about this theater and it was interesting from a cultural perspective.  It was somewhat intriguing to watch the puppets and try to figure out how they were moving them.  But it is not for everyone.
  • Vietnam Museum of Ethnology – This is a really great way to see all the different aspects of the Vietnamese culture.  They have several exhibits that address the introduction of communism and the life people endured as well as exhibits on the ethnic minorities and several traditional homes constructed outside of the museum.  Give yourself at least 2 hours to thoroughly enjoy the exhibits.


Food: 

  • Green Tangerine — Very yummy.  48 Hang Be
  • Press Club – Very good but I felt like I was at the old boys club in Chicago or NYC.  59A Ly Thai To
  • Indochine –– Hidden down a little street but the food was great. 16 Nam Ngu Street
  • Mondo gelata – Good for pizza and gelato. 30A Ba Trieu-Ha Noi


Shops:  
Investigate Nha Tho street, Hang Gai street, and Nha Chung street in the Old town district for unique and interesting little shops.   Some of the shops I found:

  • Nagu – 20 Nha Tho 
  • Wonder Shop – 11 Nha Chung 
  • Coi – 8 Nha Chung
  • VanLoi – 87 Hang Gai


Halong Bay

According to Lonely Planet, Halong translates as “where the dragon descends into the sea.”  You can imagine the scaly back represented by the thousands of limestone karsts (islands) - humps of hills covered with forest.  Maybe it was the time of year, but Halong Bay seemed to be a very bleak little village until our boat ride into the famous bay.  Our ride lasted all morning as we circumnavigated around the “dragon”.  We visited one of the caves, motored around the bay, and then had a wonderful seafood lunch on board – one of the best meals I had there.
The hotel was not great and there was really not much to do there except the boat ride through the bay.  I don’t know that I’d recommend spending more time than necessary in the small town but Halong Bay itself, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is worth the trip.  The site is about a 4 hour bus ride from Hanoi so it will require an overnight stay for a proper visit to the bay.

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