Where We Be
Key Phrase: kahm uhn = thank you
Transport: Transport in Vietnam is definitely a step up from Cambodia
and Laos; the roads and vehicles are more modern, and near Hanoi and
Saigon in particular the highways are in good shape.
The overnight train we took from Tam Coc to Hue wasn't too bad. Since it
left at 9:30 pm, we reserved a hotel room at half price in Tam Coc for the
day, which gave us a place to relax beforehand -- a good idea. It was a
12-hour train ride. Our compartment had six beds total, three bunks on
one side and three on the other. I got the bottom bunk and Robin the
middle bunk. It would have taken some serious gymnastics to get to the
top bunks. The trains can be crowded, so it's wise to reserve a bed ahead
of time. Sleeping was difficult at first, especially with the stops and train
whistles and occasional jolts, but in time we got used to it and fell asleep
for maybe four or five hours.
If you're taking an overnight bus, we recommend you eschew the included
van transport to the bus and pay for a taxi instead. That way you can
arrive a little early at the overnight bus and claim a decent reclining seat
(your bed for the night) before they're all taken. We speak from hard
experience: the van picked us up last, we arrived late, and all the good
seats were taken, so I got the dreaded middle seat in the back row of five
joined seats. Not a wink of sleep that night from Hoi An to Nha Trang.
Note: many overnight buses don't assign seating ahead of time, but if you
CAN reserve your seat ahead of time, be sure to do so.
Lodging: Lodging in Vietnam is good value; you get to stay in Western
style hotels with AC, western bathrooms, central location, etc., for a
reasonable price. Our lodgings typically ran $20 to $30 per night, and that
was without trying very hard. English was spoken everywhere we stayed.
Clothing: Temples and pagodas consistently frown on shorts and tank
tops and such. Dress conservatively if you want to fit in and not offend. A
pair of zip-off pants can be a great answer.
Best Time to Go: Vietnam in April was pleasant overall -- comfortably
cool in the north, bearable in the central regions, but too hot by the time
we reached Nha Trang and Saigon in late April. The rice paddies were
lush and green -- quite the contrast to Laos just over the mountains. Dalat
was a welcome respite from the heat with its Central Highlands setting.
Hanoi: Embrace the chaos! Cross streets with the locals and keep pace
with them whenever it feels intimidating. You'll find higher limits on ATMs in
places like Hanoi and Saigon. It might make sense to stock up on cash in
these cities before heading to other places in Vietnam. Be sure to venture
out at night for street food and bia hoi (draft beer) in the Old Quarter.
Halong Bay: Consider a cruise to the nearby area of Bai Tu Long Bay if
you're put off by crowds; Halong Bay is heavily touristed. That said, if you
do a 3-day/2-night cruise, you can visit less touristed parts of Halong Bay
on the second day and go kayaking, etc., which we particularly enjoyed.
Tam Coc: We recommend visiting this beautiful area not as a day trip from
Hanoi but as an overnight. There's plenty to do in the area and you'll be
able to beat the tourist crowds by touring in the early morning. Tam Coc is
the perfect place to try motorcycling on your own as it's rural and quiet.
Hue: An "easy rider" type motorcycle tour to the royal tombs lets you go at
your own pace. If you go by dragon boat, it's slower, you have to keep to
their schedule, and you have to negotiate with tuk tuk drivers at each stop,
which seems less relaxing. We thoroughly enjoyed our motorcycle tour and
would recommend a professional driver unless you're a confident motor-
cyclist yourself. It's busy and can be confusing getting from place to place.
Hoi An: This is a great place to have clothes made. Consider bringing
magazine photos with you of what you'd like custom-made. As noted at left,
if you take the overnight bus from Hoi An to Nha Trang, hold out for a
reserved seat/bed on the bus if at all possible. It's worth paying extra.
Nha Trang: Get up at dawn when the beach is hopping with locals. It's also
a cooler time of day for a walk. Take a siesta in your AC room during the
heat of the day.
Dalat: It's best to do your touring in the mornings since thunderstorms are
commonplace in the afternoons. Dalat is big enough that you may want to
take an inexpensive taxi between tourist destinations.
Saigon: If you go to the war museums or Cu Chi Tunnels, be prepared to
hear the Vietnamese perspective on the war, which doesn't typically paint
the U.S. in a very good light. Check out Bui Vien Street at night -- it’s THE
place to hang out in the evenings. You sit on mats, drink cheap Saigon
Beer (60 cents), and snack on inexpensive Vietnamese street food. Fun!