This post was inspired by one of my Facebook friends. Elena is on a round-the-world trip and had been planning to spend time in Vietnam. However, she had heard “horror stories” about the country, so she is thinking of heading elsewhere. Like any normal person in 2012, she put the question to Facebook–should she still go to Vietnam, or should she skip it?
As you’ll see at the end of this post, I have a definite opinion as to whether Vietnam deserves a spot on Elena’s itinerary. Before I get there, though, here is a brief list of places in Vietnam as well as my (obviously biased) opinion as to whether someone should see it and skip it. Read on, and tell me what you think!
Halong Bay? Skip It. I know that Halong Bay is the Holy Grail of many travelers’ trip to Vietnam, but I just can’t recommend it. Yes, I had a blast with the people who were part of my mini-tour, and, yes, it was awesome to try rock climbing for the first time while on Cat Ba.
That being said, the bay is ridiculously crowded with tourist boats, the water is (sadly) littered with trash, and, unless you snap your photos early in the morning, the beautiful karst scenery that is the bay’s main draw will be most likely hidden by fog or polluted air.
Also, since I was naïvely expecting a more quaint experience, I was shocked by the level of Western-backpacker-centric commercialism going on. Enterprising Vietnamese vendors in small boats would pull up along the larger tourist boats and use long poles to retrieve money from travelers in exchange for Western products such as Coke, Pringles, and Oreos. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I just feel that Halong Bay is overrated.
Sapa? See it. I actually had one person, a travel agent, tell me to skip Sapa; according to him, once you’ve seen any alpine town, Sapa will have no particular charm. Maybe it’s because I have no “alpine town” experience, but I’m glad that I ignored his advice. Sapa was absolutely beautiful. Plus, it was the launching point for both a multi-day trek into northwest Vietnam (including a fun homestay with delicious meals and a taste of “happy water”) as well as a visit to Bac Ha market, both of which gave me insight into traditional life in Vietnam. This was one of the highlights of my trip, so I recommend it.
Hanoi? Skip it. Don’t get me wrong. I had a great time in the city, enjoyed a blissful lunch at the Green Tangerine, visited the Hanoi Hilton (i.e., Hoa Lo Prison), wandered the streets (as demonstrated by this post’s lead-in photo), and took in an OK water puppet show. Still, other than using this city as a more gentle introduction to Vietnam (over, say, Ho Chi Minh City) and/or as a jumping-off point to visit Halong Bay and/or Sapa, from my point of view, there just isn’t that much to do. In addition, you really have to schedule yourself well as various sites are closed on seemingly random days. If I were a long-term traveler, I would love living in Hanoi, but, if you only have limited time, a couple of days (when your desired sights are open) are all you will need before moving on.
Hue? Too close to call. Hue is beautiful and peaceful, and you will have a nice, relaxed time touring the Citadel and the Thien Mu Pagoda as well as cruising on the Perfume River. Nevertheless, those activities only take up one full day. Also, there is not as much going on here nightlife-wise as in other cities. In short, if you’re looking for more excitement on your Vietnam trip, Hue might not have enough to keep you entertained. On the other hand, if you’re willing to rent a motorbike and/or join a tour to explore outside the city, there are various tombs of Vietnamese rulers that are certainly worth checking out (my favorite being the Khai Dinh Mausoleum, as it has the most unique architecture and design). The decision as to whether to stop in Hue comes down to what piques your interest as a traveler. Either that, or a coin flip.
Hoi An? See it. The biggest draw here is made-to-order clothes. I literally had four suits custom-made for me for a total price less than that of an off-the-rack Theory suit. I had the best luck at the tailor who took my measurements and then cut the pattern based on my favorite Theory suit that I had brought from home as an example. You’re not limited to suits, though–any kind of shoes or clothing is fair game, and you can choose what you want from the tailors’ catalogs (though, it bears repeating, you should definitely bring an example if you want something specific). Check out different tailors, have a few of them each make one article of clothing, and then go back to the tailor you liked most and order more! The tailors work fast, so, as long as you order on your first day in the city, you can have a good number of items made and be on to your next stop in 3-5 days. (Side note: make sure that the quality of the material you choose is good, and pay more for this if necessary. I have heard others complain that their stuff didn’t last them all that long, but I have been wearing my Vietnam suits for years, and they are still in decent shape.)
While you wait for your bespoke items to be made, Hoi An has a lot to offer. In addition to just taking in the various cool sights in the city, I got to take a cooking class, try my hand at traditional Vietnamese fishing, and visit the ruins at My Son (Vietnam’s answer to Cambodia’s Ankgor Wat). At night, you can party as hard as you want. In town, you can hang out with newfound friends over drinks that come in buckets; outside of town, there is a killer dance club on the beach. I can’t remember the club’s name, and neither can anyone else that I’ve met who has been to the club, but it is awesome. Just ask around town, get into the white van with all of the other Westerners (preferably with a friend–safety first!), assure yourself that the situation isn’t as sketchy as it seems, and have fun! (Also, if you do discover the club’s name, please report back. Thanks!–Update: A reader, whom I actually met at this very club, informs me that the name is simply “Beach Club”. Thanks, Kaisa!)
Ho Chi Minh City? See it. You have to go. From the War Remnants Museum to the nightlife to the plethora of day trip options (e.g., Cu Chi tunnels, Mekong Delta, the Holy See), there is just too much going on for you not to stop here. There is literally something for everyone: nature lovers, history buffs, budget backpackers, luxury travelers, seekers of tradition, and lovers of modernity–everyone will find something interesting to do in and around Saigon. As an added bonus, you are just a short airplane ride away from the relatively unknown (to Westerners, anyway) island paradise of Phu Quoc. If you time your visit right, you will be able to enjoy great weather while still being amongst only a handful of tourists. The beach is gorgeous, you can get your own seaside bungalow, and the fish dishes are absolutely amazing.
So, the big question: should Elena see Vietnam, or skip it? SEE IT! There is a lot to do and see, the country’s prices will (overall) be kind to your wallet, and transportation connections are easy to navigate. Plus, because of the narrow shape of the country, everyone is either traveling south from Hanoi (like I did on my trip) or north from Ho Chi Minh City. This means that, especially, if you stay at the more well-known hostels, you’ll run into the same familiar faces over and over again. (True story: I met a girl in Halong Bay, trekked with her in Sapa, and ran into her again almost a week later in the middle of the night while we were both waiting in line for the bathroom on an overnight bus between Hanoi and Hue–good times! I ran into other “old” friends multiple times during the trip, too, but not in so dramatic a fashion.) Since I was traveling solo, I especially appreciated this kind of spontaneous, on-the-road, comraderie-building.
For those of you who have not been to Vietnam, I hope that the information above helps you make an informed decision about whether to visit!
For those of you who have been to Vietnam, feel free to let me know whether you agree or disagree with my assessment!
Update: Curious to know how the story ends? Well, Elena has been in Vietnam for over two weeks now, and she has reported back that she is “loving” it. Phew–I’m glad that my advice did not lead her astray!
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Still haven’t had your fill of Vietnam? Go to the following links to see photos of Halong Bay and Sapa, Hanoi, Hoi An and Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City and Phu Quoc. You can also check out last week’s Photo of the Week for a quick, funny story about my rock climbing experience in Cat Ba (in Halong Bay)!