Newbie in Vietnam?

So… I booked a flight to Ho Chi Minh from Taiwan because it was cheaper to go through Vietnam and then back to Spain than it was to fly from Taiwan to Spain. However, it was not a backpacking adventure in South East Asia, it was a stop by destination for me. Bear in mind that I was carrying a carry-on suitcase with wheels and a small back-pack for my laptop and few more things. My clothes were for city-life in Taiwan and the weather was similar(ish). Spoiler alert: I was NOT ready or prepared.

If you are planning to visit Vietnam, here’s a list of things I wish I knew before I set foot in Vietnam:

  • Money: VND (Vietnamese New Dollar). ATMs charge a high commission, so I would suggest to take out what you are going to spend in one go so that you are not charged twice. In some hostels and touristic places you can pay by card, but cash is the most common practice (local markets, restaurants, museums).
  • Traffic: There are motorbikes EVERYWHERE. Beeping, screaming, speeding, stopping, people sleeping on them on one side of the road… There are traffic lights, which cars generally respect, but not motorbikes. So, I personally waited to cross the street until a local Vietnamese person was standing next to me. I did not feel safe to cross by myself until after 5 times. You need to start walking really sure of yourself, don’t make eye contact with anyone, and never go back. I was told this by another traveller and it kindda worked.
  • Pavement: Vietnam was literally at war 50 years ago, so even though it is open now, you will see broken pavement and buildings often. On top of this, there is no walkable pavement. Well, yes, but full with people selling fruits, vegetables, food trucks, motorbikes, badly parked cars… My little stop by Vietnam just went to level 10000000000…
  • Luggage vs Backpack: Vietnam is a city made for backpackers. Between the traffic and the streets, wheeled luggage was the WRONG choice. Unless you are going to a resort where you don’t leave the place, be smarter than I was and take a backpack.
  • Shopping: Clothes are really cheap in Vietnam and there are plenty of stands and markets where you can buy stuff. However, you have to bargain with them. When they see a foreigner, they immediately assume that you will have a lot of money, so they will ask for a very high price. I didn’t buy anything, so I don’t know how low you can go, but it is a matter of trying.
  • Weather: Depends on where you go, you will need more or less warm clothes. Ho Chi Minh was 30ºC and Hanoi was 20ºC in March, 2019.
  • Exploring: I wouldn’t recommend the cities, but the country side is breath taking. I went to Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi and Halong Bay. The highlight of my trip was Halong Bay. If you have the chance, I heard amazing things about Sappa.
  • Culture: I read several articles on Vietnamese culture and etiquette and it helped understanding where they came from in all sorts of situations. For instance, I learned that they take very seriously when they host someone, so in hostels and hotels they will treat you really well. If you have an issue, they will smile and nod, even if they don’t agree, which can be frustrating if you are angry. But they generally aren’t confrontational and find it embarrassing to have an argument in public. I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough to list all the cultural differences, so feel free to ask Google.

Hanoi & Halong Bay

I leave my luggage packed, I have breakfast and ask for a taxi to the airport. I find it hard to believe that I will be able to do the trip back to the airport in time, so I don’t risk it. After a short flight to Hanoi, the second biggest city in Vietnam at the north of the country, I arrive to the hostel in bus. This time the GPS on my phone is working, thank God and all the dragons in Taiwan. In reception, I ask about different day trips that you can do from Hanoi and I pay for one of them.

Since there is a day in the middle, I try to explore the city, as much as traffic lets me and I discover a lake with activities going on as well as local markets and a Chinese temple, which I did not visit. I walked to a park and went for a coffee. Vietnamese coffee is quite popular and famous. I don’t think it’s because of the coffee itself, but for the way it is prepared. The most usual ways were iced black coffee (with sugar added) and iced coffee with condensed milk. Condensed milk was first used because during the war period there was no fresh milk. Following the same principle of using condensed milk instead of fresh milk, there is the “egg coffee”. At the beginning, it tasted too much like egg and it was not that popular, but the recipe has been improving and it became a thing in the 80s. I personally think it is like an espresso with a thick cream on top.

After the exploration day in Hanoi, a bus picked me up to go to Halong Bay, which is an area in the coast considered World Heritage by UNESCO. The hostel made it really easy to cancel a night so that I could do the tour of two days-one night.

After a 4 hour ride, we get to a port, where we take a small boat that will take us to a bigger boat where we would be staying the night. We leave our things in the room and we get lunch. After that we get an hour break and they took us to see some caves and a beach. The caves are inside the big mountains that come out from the sea. The guide told us two of the theories. Legend has it, a dragon landed on that area and that is why there are so many mountains. According to Vietnamese (and Chinese) mythology, dragons don’t spit fire, but energy. With that energy, stalactites and stalagmites were formed. Now, from a more scientific point of view: tectonic plates and a little extra info; I heard other guides saying that some scientific think that there might be some fossils of monkeys or trees in the caves.

When we got back, we had another hour and a half break and then dinner. With a full belly, we went up to the upper deck of the boat that had a terrace where we sitter and talked: three Spaniards, an American girl, a Turkish guy, two Swiss and two Germans. Most of them were backpackers travelling South-East Asia. Each had started before or after and from one side or the other. Some were starting and some were finishing. It was a really awesome night getting to know like-minded but all sorts of different people.

Honestly, the tour was a bit expensive, but waking up to that freaking paradise was kind of priceless. Looking back, I would have liked to do some research on the company because the guide told us very few details, in my opinion and they took us to very crowded touristy places. After breakfast they took us to the Pearl Museum, which I thought was interesting, but I wouldn’t have gone, should I had had the choice. Specially because at the end, they led us to a pearl shop in case we wanted to buy something for our family and friends. We went kayaking for an hour after that. I was paired with an old German man, so we went really slowly and relaxed taking in the breathtaking scenery.

Back in the boat, we took our things and waited in the terrace for lunch and the small boat to get back to Hanoi.

Ho Chi Minh

I land in the airport of former Saigon surrounded by Vietnamese people who put their feet up in the plane’s seats. Instant cultural shock, just after leaving Taiwan. After more than an hour waiting to go through passport control, I go out and see a few bus stops. In the airport’s website it said that two of them, were the ones that locals used, so there I went. A girl picked the money and the driver helped people with their luggage. The more we were into the city, the more horns we could hear and the more motorbikes we could see surrounding the bus. There were so many that the girl would take her arm out and shout at the motorbikes to tell them the bus was about to stop. Slowly, they would go by and the bus would be able to eventually stop to let people in and out.

I already knew I was not going to have internet on my phone in Vietnam, but I didn’t expect the GPS on Google Maps to not work at that time. I found myself at my bus stop, with the phone and google maps on my hand but no idea where to go. I asked in a ramdon shop and they told me to go through a street with people buying and selling with their bikes, motorbikes, trolleys, clothes in the floor… fruits, veggies, clothes, Vietnamese hats, etc. All of these in the actual street where people are supposed to walk. Also, I was carrying a cabin luggage, with wheels. Yay.

I arrive to my hostel and after a shower, I go to have a quick dinner and go to sleep. Tomorrow will be another day and I won’t have to take the luggage with me.

I have breakfast at the hostel and ask what to see in Ho Chi Minh city. I get out of the hostel and find myself in such a heat and humidity that neither my black leggins neither I predicted. I start walking and I have the same feeling as the day before. I’m anxious and uncomfortable. In my head, I was like: I do not know the language, the culture, the city… What am I doing here alone? How on earth did I think this was an okay idea? Not good, just okay? How? Okay, I’m here now, I’m just going to wing it and enjoy and discover new things.

I go to the most famous local market, where most tourists buy all their souvenirs. I also think it is the best place to see how locals interact with each other. I realise that they are not as smily as they are in Taiwan. If they do smile, it’s cause you are doing a transaction with them. There is a part with food and another with clothes and ramdon stuff. Since my luggage is full already, I just look around and repeat as if it was a mantra “no, thank you”.

I keep walking and arrive to the War Museum, where they showcase the point of view from the Vietnamese people. I don’t know anything about this topic, so I am surprised and sad to learn the amount of people that died, both Americans and Vietnamese, that the reason why the war started was for the fear of the US of Vietnam becoming a communist country, that a gas called “Orange Agent” was used and caused several generational illnesses; also the way they tortured people and more details.

The next day I don’t feel like going out and being uncomfortable with the city’s traffic, but I meet two girls at the hostel and we go for lunch and to see the Notre Dame Cathedral of Ho Chi Minh city, which was underconstruction, but we just went for a walk and I got to talk to two awesome girls.