When We Were There: July 9-22, 2009
Places We Visited: Mekong Delta (Chau Doc, Can Tho), Saigon, Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay, Hoi An, Hue
View all of our posts about Vietnam here.
Exchange Rate: $1 = 18,000 Vietnam Dong
See a breakdown of our Vietnam budget here.
WHAT WE DID
We visited the Mekong on a Delta Adventures Tour, arranged in Phnom Penh. We would not recommend them as the tour itself was poor. The Mekong Area was pretty interesting though. We enjoyed wandering the market in Chau Doc, where the people were so friendly and you could try all kinds of food for pennies. The “floating village” in Chau Doc was a tourist trap bust. The floating market in Can Tho, however, was pretty cool and worth a stop.
We really only had one day in Saigon, so it was a busy day. After being sidetracked by a very amusing Scout festival in a park, We first visited the Reunification Palace (15,000 dong), which was HQ for the south during the war. We then wandered around town, making quick visits to Notre Dame Cathedral and the Main Post Office (architecturally interesting). Our final stop was at the War Remnants Museum (10,000), a very interesting (and propogandic) look at the Vietnam War (or the War of American Imperialism if you’re Vietnamese).
As it rained nearly nonstop our first day in Hanoi, we spent most of it organizing our trips to Sa Pa and Halong Bay. In the evening, we did go to see the water puppet show, which was really fun. On day two, we tried to go see Uncle Ho in his mausoleum, but it was closed though we were clearly there before the stated closing time (an early 10:30 am). Instead we went in the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which was an odd and fascinating place. Our afternoon exploits included a trip to the Temple of Literature and the temple in the middle of the city lake, as well as a stop at the Hanoi Hilton.
We took an overnight train to Sa Pa, so we took it easy the first day, with a 3 km walk to the nearby Can Can Village. Though people do actually live there, it’s rather touristy, and everyone wanted to sell us something. On day two, we hired a local Hmong girl, who led us on a trek to her village, where she cooked us lunch, and then later led us through the surrounding villages.
Probably one of the most touristed spots in Vietnam, we did the typical overnight Junk Boat trip. We’d heard all kinds of horror stories about bad boats, so we went with the reputable Kangaroo Cafe, and had a nice time. We sailed around the bay, went swimming in the turquoise waters, and hiked to the top of one of the karsts for a view out over it all.
People come to Hoi An to have clothes tailor-made, and we weren’t any different. Jeff had a suit and two dress shirts custom made, while I had a jacket made. It’s not as dirt cheap as people make it ought to be, but on some items, it’s a good deal, and it’s fun to feel rich enough to have your clothes made to your exact measurements. The town itself is really pleasant, and a stroll through the old town and along the river is a good way to pass the time between fittings.
Our stop in Hue was also a short one, so we made the most of it by hiring two moto bikes with drivers from Mandarin Cafe. They sped us around to the Citadel, Thien Mu Pagoda, Tomb of Tu Duc, and Tomb of Minh Ming.
WHERE WE STAYED
Floating Hotel (Chau Doc): Our hotels in Chau Doc and Can Tho were arranged as part of the tour. Neither were worth remembering. The floating hotel in Chau Doc was hot as hell. A nice breeze kept the front of the hotel cool, but the rooms on the side were left to roast. Also, the boat traffic will keep you up all night, as the motors on the fishing boats are insanely loud.
Ngoc Phan (Saigon): A couple we met on the bus from Can Tho had stayed in this hotel before, so we followed them to it. Family-run, it’s a friendly place with very spacious and clean rooms. It seems to book up though, so you may want to call ahead. Just off the main road in the backpacker area, it’s quiet but convenient to everything. $16 for a double with private bathroom, TV, Internet, refrigerator, AC, and breakfast.
Hotel Phoenix (Hanoi): Our first night here we were upgraded to a deluxe room, which was very large and nice. The regular room was a bit crowded but also okay. (Ask to see more than one room though as some are better than others). It was within walking distance of pretty much everywhere we wanted to go. The staff is very friendly too. They’ll keep your bags, and let you use a communal shower they have before you catch a night train or after you come back from Halong Bay, even if you don’t book through them. $16 for a double with private bathroom, TV, wi-fi, refrigerator, AC, and breakfast.
Queen Hotel (Sa Pa): We checked out a number of hotels in Sa Pa and found most of them to be so-so. The Queen Hotel met our needs with a decent room and bathroom, as well as wi-fi (not so common). It had nice (but interrupted) views. The TV only got one channel, and they charged us to take a shower before we took the night train, but it was still good value. $7 for a double room with view with private bathroom, TV, and wi-fi.
Binh Duong III (Hue): Though we usually don’t do it, in Hue we followed a tout from where our bus dropped us off to the Binh Duong III. He told us prices ran up to $25, so when he showed us a nice big room with balcony and a large bathroom, we assumed this was the highest priced one. When he said it was actually only $15, we were pleasantly surprised and took the room. It was convenient, quiet, and comfortable. $15 for a large double room with private bathroom, TV, and wi-fi.
PLACES WE ATE
Street Food (Chau Doc): We filled our bellies with banh mi sandwiches, buns, shakes, and pastries, all purchased from street vendors in Chau Doc. It was all good and all cheap.
Pho 24 (Saigon): This national chain serves up a pretty good bowl of pho, the noodle soup that is basically the national dish. They have set meals that come with beef balls, dessert, and tea for pretty much the same price as just the soup. Though good, the street versions of pho are better (and cheaper). If you’re in the market for pho, be aware that it’s considered a breakfast dish in Vietnam, so most street sellers offer it before noon and late at night.
Kangaroo Cafe (Hanoi): We had two meals at the Kangaroo Cafe. The burgers, sandwiches, and soups were all pretty good. It’s a bit pricy, but no more than the average Western food meal. Service can be deadly slow though. We ate there the second time because it’s where we got dropped off after our Halong Bay trip, and we were headed on to the train station. We didn’t want to waste time looking for somewhere else to eat, but probably would have been better off had we done so. We literally had to go in the kitchen and beg them for our food after an hour or else we would have missed the train.
Truc Vien (Hoi An): This family-owned cafe was one of the friendliest places we ate on our trip. The young woman who worked there would wave and yell hello to us every time we passed (it was right by our hotel). Service was obviously quite good, and the food was excellent. We loved their Cao Lao noodles and their fried won tons (both local specialties) and ate here two or three times.
Market Stalls (Hoi An): We grabbed dinner one night at the market stalls in Old Town. The food’s not bad, and you can get beer ridiculously cheap, but we prefer Truc Vien.
Mandarin Cafe (Hue): This popular tourist spot is owned by an excellent photographer, and his artwork livens up the space. The food is good, but not all that memorable, though not too expensive for being a tourist haunt.
Cafe in Hue: We can’t remember the name of the place, but if you walk up the alley from the Binh Duong III hotel and turn right, you’ll find a little local place that serves really amazing food. Their make your own pork and lemon grass spring rolls are awesome and highly recommended.
*Vietnam has a serious problem with copyright/trademark issues in that they are not respected at all. Just try to find a book that not’s a photocopy. For travelers, the major problem with this is the fact that a million and one different institutions can have the same name. If a business does well, lots of people steal its name and set up similar style businesses (but usually don’t deliver a good product). We saw at least 10 Sinh Cafes and at least 5 Kangaroo Cafes (two of the most popular travel agencies) in Hanoi. If you’re looking for a place, make sure you have its address and don’t just go in the first place you see with the name.
*People we met who were on vacation only to Vietnam seemed to find the traffic unbelievable, particularly the amount of motorbikes racing down the road. We, honestly, expected worse for all the hubbub. I guess that means we’ve been to too many places with a lack of road rules. Anyhow, you’ve just got to weave your way through. They’re not going to stop for you.
*I would strongly advise against taking overnight buses in Vietnam unless you are the size of a Vietnamese person. On our daytime trip from Hoi An to Hue we were on one (because the bus continued overnight all the way to Hanoi), and it was miserable enough for that ride. The bus has three rows of bunks, separated by two aisles. The beds are terribly short and terribly narrow. And if the squish factor isn’t enough, you have to put up with the incessant honking, which we’re told doesn’t stop once it gets dark.
*As for trains, the soft sleeper class is the best option, but hard sleeper really isn’t that bad (unless you have bad luck and end up with a family with lots of kids sharing your compartment). To Sa Pa it’s pretty much impossible to get soft sleeper unless you overpay at a travel agent. We took hard sleeper and found it be comfortable enough.
*If you’re American, be prepared to see your country constantly referenced as “the American imperialist”. While a visit to the various museums about the war is definitely worthwhile, don’t expect a fair and balanced story. Vietnam is still a communist country (though seriously I’ve never seen such capitalism!), and they take their propaganda seriously. Just remember, we don’t tell the full story either. The people, however, are warm and friendly and won’t hold history against you.