I’d never been, but I was curious. I heard mainly positive and some negative things (there was one controversial article that lingered in my mind) beforehand – nevertheless, I was ready to experience it myself. Conclusion? It wasn’t love at first sight, but it really did win me over in the end. These are my ten things under the form of impressions & tips I wanted to share about Vietnam.
Get ready for… a few culture shocks. Even if you’ve been to other countries in Southeast Asia, visiting Vietnam won’t exactly feel the same. The people (in general) are more distant here, and it’s less likely you’ll be greeted with a warm smile or hello. That doesn’t mean they’re particularly unfriendly, but they’re certainly more reserved. The food tends to be more adventurous here – from intestines (think: pig uterus), to snakes, frogs, sea horses and… dogs. Things that may seem strange to us but then again, who are we to judge? In the end, it’s about cultural differences and what seems normal to you. Luckily the Vietnamese cuisine isn’t just limited to these choices if your Western stomach isn’t quite up for it.
Don’t miss… a visit to Ninh Binh, also called “Ha Long Bay of the land”. The latter might be the most famous, but Ninh Binh is also worth your time. You can spend your time biking or boating through the beautiful landscape and enjoying the peaceful setting. Make sure to stay somewhere in the Nam Toc area, which is way cozier & relaxed than the real center of Ninh Binh (P.S. Ninh Binh was one of the filming locations for the movie Skull Island – to give you an idea of the landscape, minus the crazy monsters).
Be prepared… for the crazy traffic. I’m sure you’ve heard rumours about the number of motorbikes in Vietnam (and particularly Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City), and the tales are true. It’s always a quest to cross the street, and you need eyes everywhere to make sure you’re not getting run over. It’s not just the cities – traffic in general is quite crazy and there seem to be almost no rules (or not a lot of people following them, anyway). Be prepared for motorbikes coming from every direction, and be extra, extra careful when you’re driving yourself.
Stay on… Cat Ba island if you want to do Ha Long Bay on a budget. The (overnight) cruises are usually quite expensive, and don’t always offer the best quality. Unless you’re really keen on spending the night(s) on a boat, it’ll be more fun, varied and cheaper if you’re staying on Cat Ba island. From here, you can choose several day trips to Ha Long Bay (most of them including a really nice lunch and kayak/swimming options) that won’t break the bank (think: 20 to 25 Euros per person). It’s really easy and quite fast to get to Cat Ba from Hanoi and back – we opted for Cat Ba Express and were very pleased with the service they offered.
Don’t expect… the most beautiful beaches in Vietnam. If you’re travelling through Southeast Asia, I’d suggest planning your beach time elsewhere. It’s not that the beaches are super bad, but they’re nothing compared to those in Thailand or the Philippines. Vietnam has more to offer when it comes to landscapes and greenery (particularly in north Vietnam) – so if you’re short on time, I’d definitely recommend to spend your time there. We visited the island Phu Quoc, but I found this to be the biggest dissappointment from our entire trip. The island is all about big resorts that are still being built and I found the landscape, beaches and food to be very “meh”. If you’re looking for a tropical vacation, there are so many other places that will give you a way better value and experience for your money.
Ho Chi Minh City versus Hanoi. Well, I wouldn’t know, because we picked Hanoi. From what we heard and read, Hanoi kinda wins by default for most people – it simply has more historic charm compared to HCMC. Since I can only share my Hanoi point-of-view, I can only say that I really liked it and am happy we went there. Expect tons of (motorbike) traffic, a historic feel in the old center, lots of foodie spots, plenty of Cong Cà Phê’s (basically the Vietnamese version of Starbucks), a train street and a wide choice of things to do and visit.
Don’t miss… the weekend night market in Hanoi. Speaking of Hanoi – this is a really fun thing to go to during the weekend. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening a big part of the Old Quarter turns into a big market / place of activity and it’s really a must-do when you’re there. It’s not just about shopping, it’s about being part of Vietnamese culture and it’s so fun to see how much fun they have here! Young and old people gather on the streets to sing, dance and just be creative in general. Oh, and the little kiddos driving around in all kind of toy cars are pretty funny too.
Don’t worry about… money. In case you didn’t know yet – everyone’s a millionare in Vietnam! Not because they’re all so rich, but because one Euro equals about 27,000 dong. When I say don’t worry about money, it’s because Vietnam is one of the cheapest destinations I’ve been to so far. Accomodation (a private (bath)room for two) is easy to find below 10 Euros per night, food is just incredibly cheap and it’s just really easy to live on a budget here without even trying too hard. Do pay attention when you’re paying- it’s not always easy to see the distinction between for example, a bill of 20,000 or 200,000 dong.
Make sure to visit… Hoi An. This picturesque place is loved by many tourists, and I can understand why – but it might not be for everyone. If you’re looking for a real, authentic experience in Vietnam, staying in Hoi An old town probably isn’t going to give you that. If you’re bothered by people trying to sell you things, and can’t deal with a crowd of people, Hoi An might also not be for you. Truth is, if I read my own text it doesn’t sound like anything I enjoy at all but we really did like our stay here. I guess it’s kind of like Venice – it’s super touristic, but so beautiful and charming you just end up loving it anyway. If you stay a bit outside the center, there are a lot of cozy and cheaper restaurants you can enjoy and you’ll pay less for accomodation.
Know what to expect… weather-wise. I can’t tell you how many tourists I saw walking around in shorts and flip-flops in Hanoi – overhearing conversations like, “I really didn’t expect it to be this cold here”. This surprised me, since I’m pretty much checking my weather app every day and it’s a pretty common fact that the north of Vietnam has a much colder climate than the south. Apparently, not everyone is as obsessed with the weather like I am but considered yourself warned when you plan to visit the north of Vietnam during European winter – you won’t find tropical temperatures here. It can really vary day by day (from a pleasant twenty degrees one day to a chilling eleven the next), but you’ll need to foresee more clothes than you might think. It can get really cold when you’re visiting Ha Long Bay – so bundle up!
During our stay, we visited Phu Quoc, Hoi An, Hué, Ninh Binh, Hanoi & Cat Ba / Ha Long Bay. Next time, I’d love to add Sa Pa, Da Lat & Ho Chi Minh City to the list. Hope you enjoyed reading!