The next destination won’t disappoint. That’s plainly impossible, according to the fellow backpackers I meet alongside the road, particularly around South East Asia. And to be honest, it did not disappoint, indeed.
One question I often get asked is ‘what’s your favourite country?’. I mean, I’ve only been to Asia and Australia so far (and some countries in Europe), so my spectrum is not so wide. While I don’t really like this question myself and don’t ask it, people will say it anyway. Vietnam is most often the incontestable winner on all grounds, whether food or landscapes (maybe not so much people, but that is apparently not so important for the people I meet). Even Dante (not Alighieri) put Vietnam first in his rank. While Vietnam might not be my absolute favourite, I really liked it too (and the North is among my favourites so let’s not diminish it!)
It is a beautiful country, but, if one wants to compare, people are not so welcoming compared to some of its neighbours. Then, after a glimpse on History, I guess I can understand. Anyway, I am going to write two articles about Vietnam, the second will leave me star dust in the eyes for a really long time (and will be much more positive than this one).
Practical guide (more or less useful)
Getting there (as a French)
In order to go to Vietnam, French people need a visa. That’s not so hard, nor so uncommon as we can even ask for it online and then receive a confirmation that will allow us to get the visa upon arrival by providing the required documents and ID pictures. Or so I think… Because yes, without even checking myself, I believe Aurélie who tells me that we can just get into the country and get the visa there directly. Therefore, on the very day of our flight, I just want to make sure it’s how it’s going to work (a bit late to make sure, I have to admit). So I check online and read that not only we need to ask for it online, but we also need to wait 4 or 5 days before receiving any confirmation.
This throw us into a panic state and we start brainstorming our options and even think that we should maybe book a plane ticket to somewhere else until we receive the confirmation. South Korea seems to be not so expensive but we eventually think that it might be not the wisest. With some further reading, we realise that we can get an exemption for 15 days as French people. Aurélie finds the address of someone who could extend our exemption for 15 more days. Though I don’t know how legal it is so it doesn’t make me happy at all to proceed this way, plus it’s a really expensive option. But we don’t really have a choice as Samuel (Aurélie’s boyfriend) will join us at the end of the trip at Hanoi for a week… Anyway, everything works fine in the end.
To travel around, we are mostly using these amazing sleeping bus, where we get some ‘real beds’, that’s so great! However, not all the companies are of equal quality so read thoroughly beforehand.
Indeed, we had some really bad experiences, one girl even had the aircon dripping on her the whole trip and there were not other available seats…She ended up crying.
Sometimes it is also a real hassle to compare the companies, read reviews, ask prices, bargain etc. so if you want to avoid this, you can book your trips on Bookaway (and you can click on the word to go to the Vietnam homepage!).
As for the money, in Vietnam you pay in vietnamese dong (VND).
As of April 2020,
1€ is about 25,682 VND
1USD = 23,463 VND
or 1 AUD = 14,973 VND
You can eat for less than 1USD a meal, if you do spot the restaurants with the plastic chairs. You’ll have the best experience there and the closest from how the locals live and eat. If you do want to eat a some occidental restaurants, you still can do so but be prepared to pay 7USD a meal.
For example, in my next article in Ha Giang, I will mention one special meal. As we were starving we stopped in a very ugly place (yet pretty in its own way), a hangar with just some tables and chairs (all plastic!). We didn’t know when was going to be the next restaurant so we asked if they could cook lunch for us so the very sweet lady showed us a pack of noodles and an egg. We were not expecting much but we were still happy. She came back with some amazing noodles, crazily beautiful and SO TASTY! It’s even the best noodles I ate in my life!
So, give them a chance, you may be surprised!
A glimpse at the food!
To counterbalance my pretty negative article to come (I’m a really bad person…but I like Vietnam! I actually plan to go back sooner than later) food is AMAZING and healthy. And I told you already, it is also CHEAP. Food porn right there!
You’ll have mainly ‘Phở‘, a noodle soup where you might find two pieces of meat, mostly made out of fat or bone (positivism is my motto).
Also anything with rice is ‘Cơm‘.
An unfortunately ‘happy’ heritage of French colonisation (let’s make it clear: I despise colonisation) is any ‘Bánh mì’, a sandwich made out of baguette (I would love to add some glitters around the word) with sometimes even some pâté inside !! Something I longed to eat for a really long time as I didn’t go back to France since close to two years, so that was a really happy discovery.
Finally, of course, the outstanding spring rolls, Gỏi cuốn.
My experience (with Aurélie)
At the risk of deceiving some, Aurélie and I didn’t go to Halong Bay, which is often the picture people have from the country. After being disappointed so many times about some places or some practices, now before going anywhere, I try to read as much as I can. Well, about this place, we read that not only the load of tourists was pretty unbearable (which you can expect), but it generates an amount of trash rather impressive. Which is far from my dreamy magazine view.
Anyway, here we land in Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon), where we stay only one night. I am pleasantly surprised by the city (however it is a city, which I’m not fond of, so the joy is not so great either). While I was expecting something much dirtier, busier and uglier, it’s actually rather clean, spaced and animated (you can enjoy some street perfomances at night!). However, I do not have pictures to share so you’ll have to figure out by yourself!
To keep it short, as writing this article takes me too long (I was there in June 2019…), and let’s not mention the translation which took even longer, let’s say that some places of the country leaves me indifferent. Da Lat is one famous place but, apart from the amazing food we have at our guest house, nothing interesting. Hue is another example, and like Yoda would say in his better days: skip it you can. In fact, I don’t even know why it is on the infamous “Vietnam bucket list” (but to each their own)…
Not so South but equally not so interesting, in my opinion, Hanoi, the capital city. Which looks much more like the image I had of Saigon: ugly, smelly, busy, unpicturesque, repugnant and I could keep going, even though some places are worth visiting. I will not mention them as we do not get into places where you have to pay, while most of them have an entrance fee.
The only one we pay is the Imperial Citadel, which, I have to admit is interesting. You even have underground parts used during the wars.
To be fair, we probably do not visit the right places to enjoy Hanoi, especially as I mentioned, we do not want to spend much money.
Another thing pretty nice in Hanoi is the indoor market where you can find anything or useless things for pretty cheap!
Of course, some places are gorgeous, like the town of Hoi An, famous for its night views with the lanterns in the streets. It is magical but overly busy, especially by Koreans who all seem to gather there (no offence as I am always please to hear Korean language).
Phong Nha surroundings
One place I really like even though it was also loaded of tourists is Phong Nha, famous for its caves. For once, we go to the Phong Nha cave where a group of locals invited us in their boat, which means that we don’t have to pay for the boat rental, only for entering! That’s very nice.
Nonetheless, the cave is so full of boats that we hit the edges (I doubt that’s a good thing if you want to preserve such a wonder…) and the sailors paddle back and forth using their torsos, which hurts to see.
Karsts mountains in the area are so wonderful. Exploring by scooter there is relaxing, fun. One experience I’ll remember for a long time is our excursion to the Ban Arem minority village at the border with Laos, despite the fact that our guesthouse host adviced against going there, saying there was nothing interesting to see. Maybe, she advised so to avoid people just turning this minority into a human zoo, but we had an interesting time there, trying not to be too invasive. Still, if she really meant that nothing was interesting (it’s been too many times that I wrote this word already…), then we clearly don’t have the same meaning for the word. And to say the truth, we were actually kind of lost without fuel as we were arriving at the Laos border without realising and the military guy guarding the place told us to go give a look, while refueling our scooter (for free)!
(For further reading about the Ban Arem take a peek at our long time friend wikipedia, and don’t scroll down when it’s asking for some donations, you punks!). This once semi-nomadic minority living in caves, that has been more or less unsuccessfully forced to become farmers, belongs to the ethnic group Chứt, which members inhabit both Laos and Vietnam territory. Its population consists of barely a hundred people. Their language is disappearing and in the village we can see a sign warning people not to roam too freely as some bombs from the war are still scattered around… Actually, I read that still to this day, the Vietnam war casualties grows in number because of that.
Our experience there feels like time itself has been suspended. Surreal. Locals are very curious about us and also very welcoming.
Also, I mentioned in the previous articles the dreadful state of some roads in Bali or the Philippines…Vietnam also wins here! Remember how I talked about these unspoken rules in Bali? Forget them. Here, the bigger the better, which means that even if one truck wants to overtake on the other side of the road, you’ll have to move, even if it means to end up in the ditch.
To conclude our Vietnam trip, before writing about the amazing adventure in the North of the country on motorbike, for our last few days before taking a plane to Laos, Aurélie and I decide to escape the ugly walls of Hanoi and starts a completely improvised roadtrip for 4 days, where we slept at family houses in the countryside, got lost in the middle of nowhere while trying to get closer to Cuc Phuong, but still avoiding it as we heard that this park was full of tourists and trash, like Halong Bay, which is the reason why we decided not to go there: not to participate in this harmful tourism I already mentioned in many of my articles before.