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Trip Report Travel Report For Vietnam: Amazing If You Go Off The Beaten Track!

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here you find our Travel Report for our last trips to Vietnam (5 weeks over December 2014 & January 2015, with a link to our 4 week trip in July 2003).
Check our website for more information:
We have also added a detailed budget part and a short selection of pictures (our 42 best pictures)
Do not hesitate if you have specific questions.

Itinerary And Time Of The Visit
We visited Vietnam twice: in 2003, we spent 4 weeks there, discovering the main highlights of a country that was already popular but not overrun: Ho Chi Minh City, Cu Chi Tunnels, the Mekong Delta, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, Halong Bay and last but not least SaPa.
In 2015, Gilles spent 5 weeks there alone, and tried to visit, along with the main “highlights”, some lesser known parts of the country: Can Tho, Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Danang, Hue, Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, Tam Coc, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Sapa & Bac Ha.

Why Travel To Vietnam?
• It is extremely cheap, actually one of the cheapest countries we ever traveled, and this has changed little between 2003 & 2015, except maybe the prices for organized tours: those have more than doubled.
• For food-lovers, Vietnam has one of the most diverse and tasty cuisines in Asia, served from mobile food stalls or in expensive restaurants set in beautiful colonial buildings. Again, a “Foodies” paradise.
• The country has quite a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites: Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, My Son, Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park…
• Those loving to explore traditional way of lives - That’s your place! Farmers tend their fields like centuries ago, old traditions and cultural peculiarities are held alive.
• The outdoor fans will find stunning landscapes, with great opportunities for hiking, caving, biking…
• Photographers as we are will find a number of rare opportunities to get some great shots.
• Last but not least, if you like riding a motorbike, whether it is an old Minsk or a brand new automatic scooter or an off-road machine, Vietnam is the place to test your skills. The options are numerous: windy dust roads in the north or in the crazy, bustling, congested traffic of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, for the ultimate kick of adrenaline …
All these great reasons have turned Vietnam into a country overrun by international tourists, Westerners and Asian alike. No, you won’t be alone!

Challenges Organizing The Trip - What Would We Have Wished To Know?
• Organizing a trip to Vietnam is easy, even though Visa-On-Arrival are still not available, which is surprising for such a popular destination (almost all countries in Southeast Asia do). But Visas are easy to get, either in your home country or in one of Vietnam’s neighboring countries (the cheapest way).
• Beware that you can only withdraw 2.000.000 VND at most ATMs (90 USD). This can be costly if your bank charges fixed fees for each withdrawal. A few ATMs allow withdrawals of 3, even 4.000.000, but these are the exception. So bring some cash in USD or Euros.
• The country is huge and has a lot to offer, so you might want to focus on one part of the country if you have less than 3 weeks at hand. Do not underestimate travel time, and consider flying some legs if time is an issue - You can find very cheap domestic flights.
• Last but not least, Vietnam is very, very touristy. Tours are funneled to a limited number of places, at the same time, all offering the same activities. If you want anything slightly genuine, AVOID THE CLASSIC TOURS ON OFFER AT MOST GUESTHOUSES AND TRAVEL AGENCIES AT ANY COST! More on that matter in “How To Go Off The Beaten Track” below…

Highlights Of The Trip
• Street Food
Vietnam’s Street Food is amazing, extremely diverse and cheap, the perfect way to experience the country in a more genuine way, among locals. Hanoi probably is the food-capital, with a wide choice of excellent small restaurants and food stalls specializing in one or two dishes. We must admit the Lonely Planet did a superb job pointing out a few great ones, like Pho Tin, Bun Cha Nem Be Dac Kim or Banh Cuon. We “only” tried those three, all absolutely delightful! Also a must-visit in Hanoi are the local restaurants and street stalls selling a light beer brewed daily, called Bia Hoi Ha Noi. A glass is as little as 8.000 or 9.000 VND or 0,4 USD! Best enjoyed outside the tourist ghetto of the Old Quarter. There, locals thrilled by our presence invited us for drinks. Having had a few beers themselves they were eager to make the most of their 3 English words…
• Quiet and laid-back villages, where visitors are warmly welcome and where the pushy “Buy from me” is completely unknown… Jump on a motorbike and get lost in the surroundings of the city where you stay. You will find a more genuine Vietnam, one of extremely friendly people, pleased to see foreigners that venture out of the tourist ghettos. We were invited for coffee, tea, even for lunch. This way we got to see a rooster fight. Although we understood very little of what was being said, we had a great time…
• Bac Ha & Luong Phin Sunday Markets - A photographer’s dream, a festival of bright colors! Locals come for their Sunday shopping dressed in their finest traditional garb. Be there before the masses arrive! That’s is usually around 9:30am: busloads from SaPa then spill into the market. Time to jump on a motorbike (or a motorbike taxi) and head to Luong Phin, a smaller but even more Off The Beaten Track Sunday Market. There are also Saturday Markets in other villages near Bac Ha - a fellow traveler raved about them…
• Phong Nha - Of course there are the caves! Soon a cable car will be built to the entrance of the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong. Then tourism will pick-up very, very quickly, so hurry! A trek in the nearby National Park is equally exciting: learn about the challenges of conservation from Hai, a guide who runs the BamBoo Café. Or ride a mountain bike or motorbike through the beautiful karst-landscape surrounding Phong Nha. Make your pick! Most probably you will stay longer in Phong Nha than planed!
• Danang - Yes, we loved Danang… First, most tourists ignore Vietnam’s third largest city, making of it a great retreat from the tourist ghettos. Besides, the Champa Sculpture Museum is reason enough for going there, one of the finest in Southeast Asia. There is also the “China Beach” for beach bums or for those enjoying long strolls along the ocean. Marble Mountains and the Monkey Mountains are easily reached on a rented scooter. Last but not least, bring your tripod for a stroll along the river at night: the lit bridges are spectacular.
• Tam Coc - This karst landscape is also known as “Halong Bay On Land”, near Ninh Binh. Ladies take you around the rivers and swamps in rowing boats, gliding through the karst landscapes, with only the sound of the paddles hitting the water is so captivating. You want to be completely on your own? Get lost on your motorbike or bike along the rice paddies. And there is most bizarre experience in Chua Bai Dinh…
• Halong Bay - Probably the most famous place in Vietnam, with 7.5 million visitors annually. There are no less than 1.000 cruise boats in Halong City and 100 on Cat Ba Island! Read our suggestions on how to discover Halong Bay differently!
• Ho Chi Minh City - We hated Ho Chi Minh City when visiting it for first time in 2003, and loved it when we returned in 2015. The tourist ghetto has turned into a wild place, but as soon as you leave this area, you find a city of contrasts, changing at the speed of light, bustling! It is a mix of wide avenues and generous parks, as well as a labyrinth of small streets and traditional houses. Modern shopping malls and vivid traditional markets, luxurious restaurants and food stalls, all in the same city… Ho Chi Minh City really invites for long walks. Take a few days and get lost, and simply enjoy the crazy atmosphere surrounding you!
• Hoi An’s Full Moon Festival - Yes, there is something special about Hoi An’s Old City. Nobody leaves without having some dress or shoes made at one of 300 tailors all pushing their services. Countless travel agencies, cyclos, touts also want your Dollars… Its new semi-pedestrian zone makes it the perfect place for breathing in the unique colonial charm of this ancient town. Stroll past lovely one-story buildings (most painted in dark yellow) with quaint pillars and balconies, and shiny roofs made of tiles. Try to be in Hoi An for the full moon. On these particular evenings, Hoi An switches off its lights, only colorful Chinese lanterns light up the city. Together with the small lantern gliding down the Hoai River, they turn Hoi An into a flickering magical place. A very special atmosphere and a great photo op!
• Can Tho - There again, do not book a tour in HCMC to go to the Mekong Delta! Head directly to Can Tho, a very pleasant city, where boat trips to the Floating Market and through the maze of small channels on the Mekong can easily be organized. Although the markets are still the touristic highlight, in reality they are dying. Too many roads and bridges have been built in the last decade. It is very likely that more tourist boats cross your way than local boats selling fruits & vegetables… Also stroll the streets in search for local food and pleasant streets café. Just leave the waterfront, and you will most likely be the only tourist there. You want to know more about Vietnamese Cuisine? Join the nightly food walk organized by Thoai (ask at the Hotel Xoai). This young gentleman, who speaks excellent English, takes tourists & travelers to various local restaurants and explains the diverse local cuisine. If you are the more adventurous type, Thoai can help you finding snake, frog, or mice…

How To Go Off The Beaten Track?
Check our website for more information

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