A couple months ago when I knew I had to do a visa run on March 5th, I decided to begin looking into my next trip. Initially, I was thinking of heading to Bangledesh and India, but after procrastinating and not being able to contact my friend there, I decided to go to somewhere a bit closer. Not long after I returned from my trip around Thailand in late February, I booked my flight to Vietnam in early March. Since I had been traveling pretty much consistently for the last 6 months, I decided to make it a relatively short trip such that I could come back to Bangkok and spend some time here working and relaxing with friends. I decided to head to Ho Chi Mihn City for 4 nights, and then up north to the Hanoi area for 4 nights, before returning to Bangkok on the 13th.
It was a very last minute trip. The flight was booked very last minute, as was the accomodation. I tried to couchsurf, but since I only gave 24 hours notice, there wasn’t much chance. After sending some requests and waiting 12 hours, I decided to book my accomodation at 2 different hostels, only to wake up in the morning of my flight to see that all the requests I sent to couchsurf had been accepted. So, in Ho Chi Mihn City, I stayed at the Vietnam Inn Saigon hostel, but I ended up hanging out with 2 locals most of the time I was there. Both were excellent people.
About 4 hours before leaving my condo on the 5th, I realized that I had completely spaced getting a visa. A visa is required to enter Vietnam for most foreigners, and I began to worry that I wouldn’t be able to board my flight that evening. However, after researching online, I discovered that I could pay for a 2 hour service, have a “visa letter of approval” emailed to me, and then upon arrival get a landing visa. This ended up working out, and the letter of approval cost $39 (normally costs $8). Upon arriving in Ho Chi Mihn city, there was a large line of people waiting to get their landing visa’s. It ended up costing another $50 to get the visa itself, but considering I almost made the mistake of not even being able to travel, I couldn’t complain about paying $80 when most people pay $60. The fee for the “landing visa” was supposed to be $45, but because I didn’t know the conversion, they charged me $50 (because they could). Lesson learned – always know the exchange rates prior to going to a country.
I arrived late on the 5th at my hostel after being picked up my the shuttle service my hostel provided ($15 each way), on the 6th I woke and toured the city by myself including the sky tower, and in the evening I met up with Nhat (local Vietnamese jouralist) and went to have frog for dinner (had baked frog with cheese, steamed frog, and fried frog curry – all very tasty). Nhat was very kind and picked me up from the hostel on his bike, and also dropped my off.
The next day I met at the War Museum with another local named Anna. She checked out the museum with me, showed me around the city, toured the Reunification Palace with me, took me to the finest brew house in HCMC, and also showed me the best and cheapest food in town. It was great. In the evening we played pool and had a few drinks. The War Museum was 15k VND (like $0.75) entrance, and was basically lots of photos and stories talking about the Vietnam War. It was certainly very anti-American, which is understanable. The Runification Palace cost similar, and was basically a self guided tour through the building where the former president lived (prior to 1975, and also where he was forced to surrender at the end of the war).
My last day in HCMC we met at the reunification palace again, met a random guy from Indonesia who toured with us, and we went to the zoo. It was also 15k VND entry, and was actually very cool. Had lots of animals on display, was very open and clean, and overall well worth the trip. After the zoo, we headed to the brew house again, Hoavien Brauhaus, for some excellent dark beer. We then grabbed dinner, and later met up with Nhat again to go to a nightclub. After the night club, we explored the backpackers area near the 23-9 park, and had a few drinks before calling it a night. In that area, we probably had 3 different people come up to us and ask us if we wanted to buy marijuana or cocaine. I felt like I was in Amsterdam all over again.
I woke my last day in HCMC a bit tired, and skyped with my brother for awhile and relaxed, before heading out to checkout another part of the city. I had to leave to the airport around 4pm, so after a late lunch which included a Vietnamese pancake, a mixed fruit dish, and a banana smoothie, I
headed back to the hostel and caught a taxi to the aiport.
I arrived in Hanoi around 9:00pm, and got to my hostel around 10:00pm. After checking in, I brushed my teeth, checked the internet briefly, and as I was about to sleep 2 others came in. One girl from Scotland (who has been teaching English in Thailand for the last 10 months), and a guy from LA walked in. We ended up chatting for about 45 minutes about all kinds of topics, and it was awesome to meet them.
The next day we met for breakfast and decided to walk around the city together. We first walked down south to the revolution museum, which was closing for lunch, and then went to the war museum, which was already closed. So we grabbed a snack and walked to down to Lenin Park, which had a massive lake in it. We paid 4k VND entry, saw a statue of Ho Chi Mihn, and then walked along the train tracks north, past the train station. Near the station we randomly ran into a Filipino guy from our hostel, and he ended up walking with us. We grabbed lunch at an upper-class restaurant (overrated), where I ate eel soup (excellent). After lunch, we went to the Temple of Literature, which took about 1 hour.
In the evening we ate lots of grilled meat, had a few beers, and negotiated the Halong Bay cruise. I was told by my friend to book through the hostel, but after talking to a few people they suggested negotiating elsewhere. I found a shop in Hanoi that offered it for $70, while the hostel was charging $120 for the exact same thing. So a couple of us booked the cruise (but on different dates). After booking that, we had a few more drinks. A couple of us stayed out late into the night, met some cool people, while the rest of the people headed back to the hostel.
I woke early the next morning to go on the Halong Bay cruise. The cruise was a 2 day, 1 night ride through Halong Bay, sleeping in the bay on the boat. After eating breakfast, I browsed the web and waited for the pickup (which would take us to the bay – about a 3.5 hour van ride). The van arrived 1 hour late in the morning, but once there, it was well. Out of the 15 or so people, I was one of the youngest. It made me feel confident in my choice – I mean, if they can do it and enjoy it, I’m sure I would! About half way there, we stopped at a souvienere shop, where lots of diabled people were stitching photos and building some really cool things. I bought a nice stitched photo for $13.
Once we arrived at the bay, we hoped onto a shuttle boat that took us out to our boat (around noon). The boat itself didn’t look good as we pulled up, but once on it, it was fine. I had a room to myself since everyone else on there was a couple. Shortly after dropping my bags in my room, we ate lunch, and began talking with one another. Our first stop was a floating village where around 45 families live (there is even a small police station). We kayaked around for about an hour, which was awesome. After getting back on the boat, we drove for another hour. We ended up stopping and they let people jump off the boat into the water. Me and one other guy were the only ones interested in jumping in, so I did it a few times while everyone else watched. After showering, it was already time for dinner. We learned how to make spring rolls, and then relaxed and ate dinner/had a few beers. Before I knew it, I was with 2 German girls, the Australian guy, his young Vietnamese girlfriend, and the 2 Vietnamese tour guides. Late into the evening the tour guides offered free beer, while we played some card games. Everyone ended up going to sleep, aside from the 2 guides and the Vietnamese girl. We were playing games until about 2am, and then the 2 guides slept. Since I had an extra bed in my room, I offered that to one of the guides, while the other guide slept in the chair. The Vietnamese girl and I went down and fished for squid for a couple hours. We ended up catching about 5 squid, and netted another 5 small fish and 1 crab. We went back into the kitchen and cooked them up. Shrotly after eating, we called it a night. 2 notes: on the boat was also an older man from Colorado (small world!), a guy and his wife from Napa Valley (who own a vineyard), an older couple from Birmingham (near where I used to live in England), and one of the German girls lives in Prague – she can speak 6 languages fluently.
I woke around 7am to grab breakfast, then showered and began chatting with a few others on the boat. There was the older couple from Birmingham, England that I ended up talking to a lot about English stories and life lessons. In the early afternoon, we got off the boat and hiked into a massive cave and toured it for about an hour. After touring, we grabbed some lunch on the boat, and continued to head toward land. We made it to land around noon. One of the fellow passengers has slipped in his bathroom (Napa Valley guy), and perhaps broke his rib. So I helped him on and off the boat, and into an ambulance. Once that was sorted, we all got into the van. I got dropped off at my hostel around 5pm, the last one to be dropped off (I was the last one picked up in the morning originally). Overall, excellent trip.
That evening I was using my laptop in the game area and ended up meeting a Chiliean guy (JP), played a few games of pool with him, then met an 18 year old American girl and the 3 of us played. Shortly after, the Chilian and I headed out for dinner and a few drinks, met some random Vietnamese and Japanese people, all who were very friendly. I also bought a fake print of Lonely Planet’s “Laos” book for $5, which was great. Around 9pm, JP had to head off to a puppet water show, so I headed back to the hostel, chatted with the receptionist for a bit, and went to sleep. I woke around 5:30am the next morning to catch my flight back to Bangkok.
Vietnam was absolutely spectacular. Prior to going, I hadn’t heard too much about traveling there (compared to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia), but after going, I’ve realized that most people spend 3+ weeks backpacking it. I only saw 2 cities, and both were great (and I even missed a lot of Hanoi since I ran out of time). There are so many more great places, such as the world’s largest cave, countless other beaches, Da Nang, and more. I was recommended a lot of places by the locals, and I’m certain I will have a couch to sleep on when I go back. I will certainly go back – I really want to try dog and cat meat, and the fresh snake blood/meat that I missed in Hanoi. Both of the hostels I stayed at were excellent, and all the people I met were very very great. Though it is nice to be home in Bangkok, I am excited to travel again soon.
Vietnam Inn Saigon (Ho Chi Mihn City, Vietnam): They don’t have a website (yet), but I booked through hostelbookers.com. It is a very new hostel, just opened in early 2013 – located in the central part of town – within walking distance to all main attractions, and lots of good food/drinks right across the park (next to it). The staff is very friendly, the rooms are clean (have outlets/shelves/lights near each bed in the dorm), the bathrooms are great (w/ hot water), and the game room was great. There is a rooftop restaurant with great, cheap food, and drinks are very reasonably priced. The cost for the dorm was $6/night. The only thing I could complain about is the cost of the shuttle to/from the airport. I paid around $15 each way, which was by far the most expensive thing I had to buy during my entire time in HCMC. Overall, excellent hostel, and I would highly recommend it.
May de Ville Backpackers Hostel (Hanoi, Vietnam): I was recommended this hostel by my friend who stayed here. It is a great hostel, very big and clean, the game room is very nice. The staff was friendly, it was located in a very active area, and the price was very reasonable ($6/night). They also offer all kinds of tours. I would not suggest booking through the hostel though since they are more expensive than other vendors out on the street (for the exact same thing). Aside from the high prices for tours, the airport shuttle was also very expensive ($15 from the airport, and $18 to the airport). With that said, I would gladly stay here again, and I would recommend it to anyone, assuming they are aware of the high tour prices.