Backpacking in Vietnam Guide
Intro: Me love you long time - who would not want to go to Vietnam having heard so much about it and seeing it so many times in movies. However, it is full of crowds and package tours, running up and down a tourist trail which is very hard to get off (since the country is so thin). Distances are great and apart from the far North, attractions aren't that great, but you can easily relax and have a good time - if you don't mind being part of a production line - because travel is damn easy, with cheap pre-arrange tours for everything. Expect attempts to rip you off, a tough time getting off the tourist trail and loads of tourists rather than tracer fire, opera blasting from helicopters and the smell of napalm in the morning.
Highlights: Northern Hill tribes (great motorbike adventures), Hoi An, Ha Long Bay, Hanoi plus picking up cheap counterfeit books, guidebooks, CDs and tailored clothing.
Lowlights: Hassle, crowds, foreigner pricing, poverty, the tour factor (see below), distances and fixed tourist trail. Some war sites like the DMZ can be very boring if you have only a limited interest.
Visa strategy: You no longer have to specify entry and exit points as most guidebooks state and the process is now much easier than it use to be. Different embassies vary in regulations and complexities, the best place to pick up your visa at time of writing is in Phnom Penh.
Vietnam now has a limited visa on arrival facility but - it has to be arranged in advance; is restricted to air arrivals at Danang, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh (Saigon); and additional service fees (which may need to be paid in advance) appear to be inevitable. The 5-day visa-free stay scheme announced 2002 seems to have been wishful thinking and have never heard it used.
Typical tourist trail: One way or the other - Ho Chi Minh City - formerly Saigon (tunnels and delta), Na Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi and sometimes the north. A full tour (getting from top to bottom including the delta and far north) takes at least a month
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hill areas (Sapa) get very cold in winter, coastal areas can be very wet and the delta can experience flooding
Costs: Pretty good value for money, if you stick to the tours and avoid foreigner pricing such as on trains and internal flights
What to take: Some patience to deal with the Vietnamese
Getting around: Buy hop-on-hop-off bus tickets at bargain prices (like $25) for Saigon to Hanoi. As much as you may hate the idea of this, it is the way to go as you will stick with a set route anyway and public transport is such a pain - of course go with a good, established company. Roads from Hon Ai up are bad and in the north are terrible. Distances are large, you will probably need to travel overnight (buses get cold). Do not under estimate the time you will need to spend travelling. Trains (now foreigner pricing free and which you can put a motorbike on, say to Sapa) and internal flights are normally used by tour groups.
Guide book: Rough Guide. For a full list of regional guides and other reading please (including war reading material) click here.
Locals: In Saigon and the south, hassle is less, no is taken for an answer and locals are polite. However this is contrasted in the north where voices can be less welcoming.
Other travellers: Loads of tourists from all walks of life.
Tours: The Vietnamese are darn organized when it comes to making money from tourists and there are a whole host of tours available for everything you could ever want to do. These on the whole are very good and brilliant value. You just have to get use to this tour group mentality as it is normally cheaper and a hell of a lot easier than doing the same thing yourself. Shop around, after a day trying to choose a trip to Halong Bay I failed to see the difference between tours and went with the cheapest at $30. It was excellent, three days, two nights, nice hotel and I know I was on the same boat as many travellers paying more. Delta tours are fairly boring with a lot of driving, so are DMZ tours. Party boat trips in Na Trang are fun. For the far north it is better to spend the extra to hire a car and driver or motorbike rather than take a tour. Another good tip (this goes for the buses too) is to go to the agency you booked at rather than letting the bus pick you up at your hotel. That way you won't get picked up last and have to cram yourself in right at the back - very good advice when roads are bumpy.
Tourist factor: 9/10
Accommodation: Accommodation can be fairly grim concrete block type cells, but nicer rooms can be found in many parts of the country.
Hot water: Fine in major cities
Average cost: Under $10
Communications: Easy internet, post comparatively expensive
Books: Huge choice of cheap pirated copied books in Saigon (buy them there, the choice is limited at best in the north). Many great books on the war, highly recommended are 'Dispatches' by Michael Herr and 'Chicken Hawk' - forget author's name.
TV: Cable in mid-range hotels, cafes play films
Counterfeit goods: Buy CDs and CD ROMs in Hanoi, books in Saigon and clothes in Hoi An
Food: Loads of excellent choices. The 'Banana Split' Cafe in Na Trang highly recommended, but which one? (The lack of copyright law in Vietnam sometimes makes things complicated). Marvellous fruit and variety, delicious Dragon fruit alone makes a visit worthwhile.
Vegetarians: Lots or seafood. It is recommendable to memorize "no meat" sentence in Vietnamese. Count on a diet comprised of baguettes, fried rice with vegetables and fried noodles with vegetables. In Saigon in the touristy area there is a street with many (good and cheap) vegetarian restaurants. In Hanoi there are vegetarian restaurants are more fancy and expensive.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Difficult in the flustered south, a real pain in the north. Crossing the road is great fun and a good challenge for the day!
Women alone: Fine
Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: Party boats in Na Trang top even the 'all you can drink' Zambezi trips in Victoria Falls. If excess is your thing don't miss taking one. On the illegal side, grass as the US army discovered is normally available.