Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Vietnam: The SE Asia ‘Can’t Leave Your Self Behind’ Guide

From A to B – Getting Around


The trains were fully booked when we were in Vietnam which was a real shame as travelling North to South, or vice versa, is both a logical route and well supported by the train network.  The best I can do is direct you, once more, to the Man in Seat 61 website.


A little known fact is that Vietnam uses 92.6% of the world’s motor horn allocation.  Drivers honk to clear the path, honk to express alarm, honk to express recognition, honk to say hi, and honk when they haven’t honked in the last five seconds.  Sometimes they forget to honk so do a double honk to make up for their oversight.  Bus drivers have the most impressive horns in Vietnam, and the largest predilection to use them.  Biggest vehicle wins in Vietnam so riding a bus is akin to riding in a tank, scattering mopeds and pedestrians hither and thither as the bus motors on down the road, all accompanied by a near constant HOOOONK!  Take some earplugs.

The buses are OK in Vietnam.  We took a 20 hour sleeper bus from near Hanoi to Hue.  It was an experience.  I noticed that westerners were often placed at the back of the sleeper buses.  This could have been coincidence, but perhaps not.  The upside to being on the back row of a sleeper bus is that you get to put your travelling bag down behind the back row and, well, that’s it.  The back of a bus is bumpier, and in our case had five beds lined up next to each other.  Each berth is perhaps two foot wide, and six foot long. I struggled, sandwiched between Helen on one side and a kindly Vietnamese bloke on the other.  Sleeping etiquette in these cramped conditions is quite a skill.  Sleeping on your side requires that you face away from the person next to you so as not to snore into their face.  If everyone does the same then it happily morphs into a strangely intimate five person spooning configuration.

You can avoid this intimacy by not getting a berth on the back row.  Even better, get one on the lower level as clambering up into the upper level decks requires some climbing skills.  Whatever you do, avoid berths near the toilets, for obvious reasons.

To summarise:

  • Use earplugs
  • Avoid upper level, back row sleeper berths, unless there’s five of you and you’re swingers
  • Avoid a berth near the toilet
  • Pass the hours by purchasing a child’s toy steering wheel with horn to attach to the seat in front and pretend to drive

You have to be a bit mental to hire a scooter and drive around a big Vietnamese city.  The riding is hard, with few recognisable traffic rules.  Navigating is even harder.  If I’d have known where I was going I’d have done it for shits and giggles.  I didn’t, so I didn’t.

Hiring mopeds outside of the large cities is more realistic.  Just remember; size wins.  You are at the bottom of the vehicle pecking order so be prepared to get out of the way.


Flying domestically in Vietnam is a feasible proposition; especially with the great value fares Jetstar offer.  The obvious downside is that you miss a large part of the country.  We flew from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City because all the trains were full and I couldn’t face another night of awkward intimacy on a sleeper bus.   

Where the Magic Probably Won’t Happen – Sleeping

Huenino Hotel, Hue: This was probably the best guesthouse we stayed at in SE Asia.  Reasonable rates, slightly above average (approx $18 USD per night), but worth the extra outlay.  This place does very well on Trip Advisor for good reason.  The rooms are small but nicely designed.  The breakfast is excellent but what really sets this place apart is the staff, all members of the same family.  The one act of service that exemplifies this is that they give you a cool fresh fruit juice every time you come back to the hotel, and a cooled flannel.  This is five star stuff at guesthouse prices and I got the feeling that one of the family had been trained in an international luxury hotel.  Or they were just naturally hospitable.  Either way, great place, worth booking in advance.

Beach Club, Phu Quoc Island: If you’re going to this island (and you should) then you may as well stay on the beach.  This place is at the southern end of the long beach and offers beach cottages.  We paid $30 per night for the beachfront bungalow, and $20 per night for a bungalow slightly set back from the beach.  Both were good.  The food is average, but the setting great.  Beautiful sunsets, good swimming.  It’s a bit out of town so you need a moped to get around, but this is a sound investment anyway, and it’s worth negotiating a rental rate for your entire stay.  Take it easy when riding out of the hotel and up to the main road – this dirt track can easily throw you off balance. Not that this happened to me, oh no.

Nmm nmm nmm – Eating and Drinking

Iced coffee – wasn’t expecting this at all, but the iced coffee in Vietnam is delightful.  Rich and chocolaty coffee, sweetened by condensed milk, it’s available pretty much everywhere.

Nina’s Cafe, Hue.  This is another winner on Trip Advisor, and again it deserves the plaudits.  A small place run by the eponymous Nina it offers great food at low prices.  Nina herself is delightful; friendly, kind and thoughtful.  She is also smart, and realises that word of mouth, or of internet, is the best way to make her business a success, along with running a tight ship.  I admired her for this, and urge you to go to experience the great food and to support someone who has justifiably earned a good reputation. 

Random fish restaurant, Rach Gia: Can’t remember the name of this place, or give you directions, or remember the price (it was cheap) yet despite these Michelin-guide levels of information I would urge you to track down this local restaurant.  They seemed to serve only one dish; a huge fish that comes with rice pancakes and other stuff to make your own fishy delights.  I’ve included a picture so that if you cross this place you can dive in.  They were surprised to see us there, which is always nice, and amused at my attempts to squeeze my frame into the tiny child-size plastic chair.  They were even more amused when I tried to get out of it.  

Night market, Phu Quoc Island: This is the place for seafood on Phu Quoc.  Stalls line both sides of the road offering up a wide range of sea treasures.  Pick the busiest place.  We’d befriended some fair dinkum Aussies on Phu Quoc who came from a long line of fishermen and they assured us that the quality of the fish was top-notch.

Other stuff

Riding the Hoi An pass, from Hue to Hoi An

This route was recently made famous by Top Gear’s Vietnam special and though the programme manages to fake pretty much every scene they shoot they can’t fake the splendour of this magnificent stretch of road.  We completed the day long trip with a company called Hue Riders, our guide Mr Dung ushering us through the hairpins and city madness.  I rode myself on an automatic scooter and Helen rode pillion on Mr Dung’s motorbike. Our heavy packs were transported separately to Hue and we picked them up at the end of the day.

The ride takes in several stops along the way including Elephant Falls; a chance to have a dip and wash the dirt away.   Motoring along this stretch of road, Arcade Fire blasting through my headphones, was one of my happiest times in all of SE Asia.

Video footage of us riding this road is available on my YouTube channel

Riding around Phu Quoc Island

To continue with the biking theme, renting a moped and taking off around Phu Quoc Island is a great way to spend a day or two.  The north west of the island boasts the most beautiful scenery as you hug the coastline.  The ride up the north east coast road is the most fun as a rider as you need to cross some eroded sections of road, using impromptu bamboo bridges.  It takes a little experience, and some conviction to ride this, but I’m an amateur and we managed it, with Helen riding pillion.  And spanking my bottom, like a racehorse, to get extra thrust up the steep sections.

Again, video footage of this road is available on my YouTube channel.

Tour into the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City

I’m in two minds about this.  On the one hand, it’s a very good value way to see the Mekong, and meet other travellers.  On the other hand, it’s incredibly touristy and there is a significant amount of herding that goes on.  I’d definitely recommend against doing a one day trip as the vast majority of your day will be taken up with travelling to and from the Mekong.  I wrote more about it in this previous post.

What I didn’t mention in this post was the charming Singaporean man we chatted to on the tour.  I’d just been reading about Singapore and in particular the suffocating surveillance society that seems to be the price Singaporeans pay for a prosperous, safe and clean home.  Conscious that this was an opportunity to ask about his perspective on this, away from government snitches, we had a fascinating chat on the subject of ‘what price freedom?’  It was his response, however, to my explanation of our year long career break that really made me chuckle, and stuck in my mind.  That’s a very European thing to do, he said, sounds like a mid-life crisis.  I loved his bluntness, his jovial taunting, and we both giggled when I sheepishly added that I had just biked the Hoi An pass so maybe an early mid-life crisis was an accurate summary. 
Early morning at Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi

Get up early and take a walk around the lake before the humidity takes hold to experience how Hanoi wakes up, and to see the most eclectic mix of people exercising.  This experience is so in contrast to the craziness of Hanoi that it left quite a mark on me.

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  1. I liked Hanoi when i visited, a few years back. I tried the local food vendors at lunch time to savor the customary diet; delicious and cheap. I also found that many Viets saw the white westerner as someone very rich, and therefore a target for high prices and thievery. I will go again, hopefully soon.

  2. Hi anonymous, welcome to the blog, and thanks for reading and commenting. Hope you enjoy your next trip to Vietnam, and that the above gives you some ideas.

  3. My husband and I would like to go to Vietnam and Cambodia in December for our honeymoon. The travel agent we reached out to said they only do high end travel. We would like to do this trip on a budget (not 200/night resorts every night). Are there travel agents who book those types of trips, or do you know of a good online site we could book it all through (would you even recommend that)?

  4. Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials Anonymous.

    We used a travel agency to book our flights only, due to the complex route (Trailfinders in UK, who are excellent).

    The rest we did independently and in situ, meaning we organised all accommodation and transport when we were actually in SE Asia.

    Travel agents rarely touch budget accommodation because there's no margin in it for them.

    With this in mind and if you're prepared to be flexible I'd make the following suggestions:

    1) Book your airline tickets (perhaps in to Hanoi and out of Bangkok, or vice versa)
    2) Do some research on where you'd like to go in the respective countries (you're one step ahead on this as you're reading this blog)
    3) Compile a couple of accommodation options for each place you want to visit. There are some in this blog, Trip Advisor is pretty good if you add the price per night filter, and also try Hostelbookers and HostelWorld.
    4) If you're absolutely certain about your dates you can normally book in advance via the sites mentioned above, or through the hotel's website.
    5) However, the other option is to do your booking when you're actually there as this will give you the flexibility to change your plans. Even if you don't book there is a LOT of budget options in Vietnam and Cambodia so you won't go without a bed. We only booked maybe 5 places during our 10 weeks in SE Asia, and this was always at the last minute, and normally when arriving into a town from the airport or late at night.

    I realise this may sound like a lot of work considering you also have a wedding to plan. But SE Asia is well set up for the budget traveler so even if you arrived with absolutely nothing planned you'd probably still be OK.

    And think of it like this: every piece of accommodation you research and book yourself will end up saving you at least $170 per night. You can do an awful lot of fun stuff in Vietnam and Cambodia with that kind of dough.

    Best wishes for the big day.