I've been back for six weeks already, so it is time to post.
Itinerary: 9 days in mid-October - 3 Nights Hanoi, 3 nights HCMC including a day trip to My Tho, 2 nights in Ninh Binh and the last night back in Hanoi. The original plan was to spend the whole time in the north, but then I had a last minute craving for Saigon. Skipped Halong Bay since I've heard lots of mixed things I've already seen the karsts in Thailand and China, and the weather was cloudy much of the time anyway.
1. Vietnam is very intense, particularly in terms of the noise, the humidity, the guys offering "young girl, boom boom", and especially the motorcycles. Walking around Hanoi or HCMC or even Ninh Binh really takes a toll on you. Getting to the smaller villages is a huge relief and highly recommended.
2. The people are very, very nice and service everywhere is always great. With one small exception, I had no problems at all with hotels or taxi drivers or anyone else.
3. I knew Vietnam was a popular destination, but had no idea just how popular. Outside of Thailand and Cancun, I've not seen so many tour groups or so many backpackers with Lonely Planets anywhere in the world. This is both good - plenty of choice of hotels and restaurants at good value - and bad - the backpacker quarter of Saigon is absolutely hideous.
Asiana from JFK-Seoul-Hanoi. Certainly better than United or Delta, but didn't really live up to its five star rating. Crew is very nice, website is terrible, food is decent and there seems to be a religious like obsession with duty-free shopping among Koreans. And while I have nothing against Pat Benatar, listening to her greatest hits for 14 hours is not my ideal choice of inflight entertainment.
Vietnam Airlines from Hanoi to HCMC and back. Pretty decent. Going directly to their website offers much better value then using Kayak or Expedia.
The first five-six days were oppressively hot and humid. I was soaking wet all day. And then, fall seemed to arrive and it got much nicer. There were a couple of sunny days, but much of the time was cloudy.
Tripadvisor steered me right again.:
- The Art Hotel in Hanoi was an excellent option. $35 US for a queen-sized bed, flat screen TV, good hot water, refrigerator, free internet, excellent service and one or two hairs in the Pho Bo. The location is perfect, in the old quarter, within walking distance of the sites, but a few blocks away from the most intense streets.
- Kingston Hotel in Saigon. Ended up here after my first choice right next door did not want to let me keep my passport and insisted that I pay in full in advance, even though they already had my credit card number. $50 for a large room, nice bathroom, frig, not great A/C, excellent staff, bad breakfast. Perfect area near the Ben Thanh market and the museums, away from the expensive district where the chain hotels are and equally far from the backpacker district (see above).
- Ngoc Anh in Ninh Binh - $30 which is their priciest room. A very friendly family run place, with excellent staff, particularly the manager Phuong. A bit basic, but it includes an in-room computer. Food was decent, particularly their stir-fried chicken.
In Hanoi - Little Hanoi, Highway 4 with great deep fried noodles, Petit Bruxelles, and a place near the cathedral that I can't remember the name of that I went to with a student from Hanoi Kids. In HCMC - Pho 24, a chain with good deep fried noodles and excellent service, and Momtaz, an Indian place admittedly in the backpacker area. Also, the Boniva chocolatier, near Ben Thanh market is excellent.
Hanoi: Hoa Lo Prison, the water puppets, walking around the lake, both day and night, and the Tran Quoc Pagoda. I thought the Temple of Literature was overrated. The Emperor Foot Massage, is amazing , slightly seedy looking, but about US $8 for an excellent 90 minute foot massage. I paid a whopping $22 dollars on my last day to use the pool at the Sheraton, but desperately needed a peaceful afternoon in the sun.
Saigon: Reunification Palace (English tours are free and highly recommend), War Remnants Museum (though extremely crowded), and there are some pretty pagodas scattered around.
Ninh Binh: Kenh Ga was my absolute favorite place in Vietnam. There is a 90 minute motorboat ride through the village, with some time to walk around and see the colorful houses and everything from cows, to chickens, water buffalo and pigs. On a Monday morning, I was the only non-local there. Nearby, the Van Long nature reserve is also excellent. No houses, just river scenery, and here the boats are simple rowboats, so on a 90 minute ride you hear nothing but the sound of the oars meeting the water. Again, I was the only one there. The Trang An grottoes are also pretty and riding through the caves in which you must frequently duck down to avoid hitting your head is a nice experience. They are more popular, so I shared a boat with a chain smoking German and his Vietnamese friend, who were yelling back and forth to another German in a nearby boat (one was named Hans and I think the other was Franz). The Phat Diem Cathedral is also worth a visit and the town is a nice no-touristy place to walk around.
- At the Ho Chi Minh City bus station, looking for the bus to My Tho, a tout appeared and pointed me to a waiting mini-van. I got on and someone approached demanding 400,000 dong. I said no. He then dropped to 200,000. I got up to get out and a few guys briefly tried to block me from getting out but relented. Another tout pointed me toward the ticket window where I got a 60,000 dong ticket to My Tho, except that the ticket didn't say My Tho, they just wrote it on the back. After a while the tout walked me over to a bus, took the ticket from my hand and handed me another ticket, a real one to My Tho for 30,000 dong. I pointed out the price difference and he first played dumb, then gave me back some and then all of the money.
- A local guy on the bus from Ninh Binh to Hanoi tried told me I was sexy, then told me about his wife and two kids, and then invited me back to his hotel. I politely declined, but he was kind enough to help me find a cab to my own hotel.
- The Saigon airport sells fresh pre-packaged snake, for those who are so inclined.
Vietnam was good, though not my favorite place in the world. For those looking for a destination, I'd recommend China or India first.
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I've been back for six weeks already, so it is time to post.