So you’ve got a date with Vietnam, now what?
How long? 34 days- definitely could’ve spent longer
First Impressions: If you could only do one thing in Vietnam….. Trekking in Sa Pa
Will there be a second date? Maybe someday, but not anytime soon. While I could’ve spent longer in Vietnam, I still felt like I got to see a lot. With the visa prices for Americans and my bucket list longer than ever, it just isn’t in the cards right now.
Climate: Because of the geography the weather will vary at different times of the year in different parts of the country. If you’re planning on traveling the whole length of the country this means that there is no time where the weather will always be perfect. But it also means that the weather is always going to be good somewhere in the country! My favorite part was trekking in Sa Pa and so I would try to plan my trip around Sa Pa weather if possible. From October-April the north is a bit cooler and monsoon season starts in May and lasts until September. But always come prepared for all. I used everything in my backpack throughout my time in Vietnam.
Things to keep in mind:
Visas- Americans need a visa and you’ll have to sort it before showing up at the border. For more information take a look HERE
Always check with your government’s official website on visas, vaccinations, and safety for the most up to date information. You can find US’s info HERE.
Hello- xin chào (sin-chow) Goodbye- tạm biệt Thank-you- cảm ơn (kam-uhn) Please- làm ơn (lahm-uhn)
Yes- Vâng No- Không (really soft k)
rice- cơm (kum- but with an inflection going upwards) noodles- mì bread- bánh mỳ
Chicken- gà Beef- bò Vegetarian- ăn chay
Other: Even though the war ended over 40 years ago, you can still see the country rebuilding. I know people who have had negative experiences due to certain prejudices that are still around. Just be aware and polite both for the respect of the people there and for the representation of your own country.
The Great Debate: North to South or South to North?
There is much talk about which direction to travel in. The good news is, there is no right answer! I went from South to North because I was coming from Cambodia but found it to be mostly split half and half. I think there is more to do in the North and so I enjoyed things getting better and better as I went, however the weather got worse and worse. I would also take your before and after destinations into account. How are you planning on getting in and out? If you’re flying, check prices at Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi airports. If you plan on crossing the border overland then obviously take into consideration your start and end points.
The Great Debate Part II: To bike or not to bike?
Motor biking through Vietnam is iconic. It’s the thing to do. You buy a bike in your first city (Saigon or Hanoi) and have an epic adventure seeing the country in a unique way while having countless adventures along the way. At the end you sell your bike, hopefully breaking even and leave with stories to last you a lifetime. But, it’s not for everyone. Here are a list of pros and cons to consider when making your decision.
- The beautiful scenery. Biking Vietnam you’re going to get a much more personal experience and you’re going to see many more unique things that you would if you were just sleeping on a bus.
- The community of other riders you’ll meet on the road.
- The experience. I have not met one single person who completed the trip that had any kind of regrets. It never goes quite as planned but it’s an adventure of a lifetime.
- Time. You shouldn’t really be riding at night and many destinations are 8+ hours apart, if not farther. Your travel days are going to be full days whereas buses are usually overnight, allowing you to maximize your time and save money on accommodation.
- Bike issues. What will you do if your bike breaks down on the highway in the middle of nowhere? Do you know how to fix it? Do you have the time to wait for someone to help you or to have it fixed? If you’re traveling in a group, consider that it’s not just your bike, but if anything happens to another person’s bike you’re stuck waiting for them as well.
- Safety. There’s no other way around it. It’s dangerous. Driving in Vietnam is not like driving anywhere else in the world that I have been. It’s more hectic than China and Thailand combined. While bumps and bruises from motorbike accidents are one of SE Asia’s quintessential souvenirs to take home with you, an accident on the highway is a lot more dangerous and a can be really scary. I’ve met a few people and heard many stories of people having to finish their trip because of injuries, some even having to cancel their entire trip, and fly home. Please, please, please just be careful! Even if the accident has nothing to do with you or your level of driving, there are so many outside factors.
For those keen to do it- DO IT. I do not feel comfortable driving and my butt can’t handle it and therefore I opted out. There is also a compromise to consider- between Hoi An and Hue you can take a bike tour where you ride the one day on one of the more famous stretches of highway. You have a group and a guide and they’ll even bring your luggage for you.
How did you travel instead? There are a number of hop-on/hop-off buses. We took Sihn Tours and were very happy with it. You will have to decide your route at the beginning, which is a downside, however your timeline is still totally up to you. As long as you inform the company 24 hours in advance you won’t have decide dates when you purchase your pass.
My favorite part: Meeting travelers. Yes, I know, you meet travelers everywhere you go, but Vietnam is special. Because of its shape people either travel north to south or south to north- which means everyone going your same direction has a similar schedule. After a while, meeting travelers and making a connection only to leave after 2-3 days can start to take a toll. It meant a lot to me seeing familiar faces in every new place and made it easier to build lasting friendships.
What did I miss?
Mui Ne- Didn’t have the time and the beaches in Thailand are much more beautiful.
Nha Trang- Heard mixed reviews along the way and decided to skip it. A lot of large Russian tour groups (this is nothing against Russians- all large groups of humans can be a bit annoying) and beaches were meh.
Nin Bihn- Heard it was similar to Phong Nha, which I had already been to.
My takeaway: Vietnam is a wonderful place. The food never gets old, the language is more legible than its neighbor’s counterparts (Thai, Laos, Khmer and Chinese), the history is rich and the landscape is beautiful! I enjoyed my five weeks here and was not ready to leave. I felt like I actually learned a lot during my time here, which is pretty important to me.