Trip Notes: 12 Days in Vietnam & Laos

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Apr 2nd, 2018, 01:00 PM
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Join Date: Feb 2012
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Trip Notes: 12 Days in Vietnam & Laos

We had a very interesting trip covering Hanoi, Saigon, Halong Bay, Ninh Binh the Mekong Delta and Luang Prabang. This trip was a good mix of big modern city (Hanoi and Saigon), beautiful scenery (Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, Mekong Delta), and charming old town (LP).

Vietnam was particularly fascinating because of all the Vietnam War related sites. This makes Vietnam unique among the various countries in SE Asia.

These trip notes are very extensive, but I hope to provide as much detailed info as I can to help others plan their own trips.

* BASIC ITINERARY *

Day 0: 9pm arrival into HAN. O/N in Hanoi.

Day 1: Hanoi Day 1. Citadel, Military Museum, Temple of Literature, Hanoi Hilton, Hoan Kiem Lake, Water Puppet Show, Night Market. O/N Hanoi

Day 2: Hanoi Day 2. HCM Museum, HCM Masoleum, HCM Stilt House, One Pillar Pagoda, Downed B-52, Old Quarter. O/N Hanoi

Day 3: Hanoi to Ninh Binh. Trang An, Tam Coc, Bich Dong Cave. O/N in Ninh Binh.

Day 4: Ninh Binh to Bai Tu Long Bay. Swan Cruise Day 1 (check-in 12pm). O/N on Cruise.

Day 5: Swan Cruise Day 2 (depart 12pm). Bai Tu Long Bay to HAN Airport. HAN-LPQ. O/N in Luang Prabang (LP).

Day 6: LP Day 1. Morning Market, Mt Phu Si, Waterfront, Wat Xiengthong, Royal Palace, Night Market. O/N in LP.

Day 7: LP Day 2 (half day). Chomphet District. LPQ-DMK-SGN. O/N in Saigon.

Day 8: Mekong Day 1. Saigon to Cai Be (Cao Dai Temple, Tan Phong Island) to Can Tho. O/N Can Tho.

Day 9: Mekong Day 2. Can Tho (Cai Rang Floating Market) to Chau Doc (Tra Su Forest, market). O/N Chau Doc.

Day 10: Mekong Day 3. Chau Doc (biking, floating village, Cham muslim village) to Saigon. O/N Saigon.

Day 11: Saigon Day 1. Dong Kohi Street, War Remnants Museum, Jade Emperor Pagoda. O/N Saigon.

Day 12: Saigon Day 2. Cu Chi Tunnels, Reunification Palace, Binh Tay Market, Cholon. O/N Saigon.

Day 13: Depart SGN early AM.

* A NOTE ON US-VIETNAM POLITICS *

Be forewarned that my discussions of the tourist sites do include what might be considered political biases. By writing this trip report, I’m trying to provide helpful information to future tourists rather than stir up political debates. Keep in mind that the Vietnam War and US-Vietnam relations are inextricably linked to the tourist experience in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese appear to hold very strong opinions on the war and America’s past actions. But they seem to like the present-day US and its people. We were warmly welcomed as Americans and didn’t at all feel the need to hide our nationality (as opposed to, say, in the Middle East, where we’d tell people we were Canadians).

* HANOI *

Hanoi is very impressive for its museums and historical sites. We saw the major highlights in two fairly action-packed days. We didn’t even get to a few things that were on our “maybe” list (e.g., Ethnography Museum, going inside the Military Museum, Women’s Museum). Two days is the bare minimum one should spend in Hanoi, and it worked well for us. One could spend an extra day (or possibly two) visiting the museums and sites in Hanoi and not get bored.

Beyond the sites themselves, Hanoi is a totally unpleasant city. The motor scooters are awful – noise pollution, air pollution, almost running you over, etc. The city is overcrowded, ugly and has no charm. The food was pretty bad, too.

The sites:

- HCM Mausoleum: Completely bizarre and creepy, but that’s the whole point. It might not be for everyone. I love this stuff; wife was a little weirded out. It’s only open in the morning from 8 to 11am. At 9am, the line looked insane – PRC tour groups winding around several blocks. We decided we’d skip it unless the line died down. Sure enough, at 10:30am, the line was down to almost nothing.



- HCM Museum: We really liked seeing all the communist and HCM propaganda. We enjoyed the museum much more to take in the overall propaganda experience than to get an objective historical lesson on HCM’s life. We spent a good 1-1.5 hours inside.



- HCM Stilt House & One Pillar Pagoda: All are right near the HCM mausoleum and museum, and definitely worth seeing. It’s one admission ticket to see the “Presidential relics” which includes HCM’s stilt house, cars, office, etc. The One Pillar Pagoda is free.





- Citadel: We thought it was very interesting and underrated. It’s billed as an ancient citadel, but it was much more interesting to us for its recent history than its ancient history. It served as the North’s military HQ during the Vietnam War. We liked seeing the bunkers, war rooms, etc. This site isn’t always on the top of the Hanoi lists of musts, so we found it underrated. Americans might find it particularly interesting for the Vietnam War connection.



- Military Museum: The Flag Tower is just outside the museum, as is a downed B-52 and a collection of other US and South Vietnam aircraft and tanks from the Vietnam War. We climbed up to the tower and explored the war artifacts. In the interest of time, we didn’t go inside because the exhibits inside seemed less interesting than all the things outside.



- Hanoi Hilton: We knew from our trip prep what we’d be seeing, but the anti-American propaganda still made our blood boil. Nonetheless, it was still quite the experience to see McCain’s uniform on display like a trophy, all the letters the US soldiers wrote about how they were having the times of their lives, etc. Lots of interesting anti-French stuff as well.





- Downed B-52 in Huu Tiep Lake: We found it creepy but fascinating. There’s not much to do besides look at it and go back, but it’s well worth the short detour.



- Temple of Literature: It’s pretty and the gardens were a nice change of pace from the heaviness of the recent war sites. In some ways, it’s just another temple in Asia that we won’t really remember. It’s worth a visit, but probably not a must see.



- Hoan Kiem Lake: We didn’t find it too pleasant. We thought a walk around the lake would be pretty and relaxing, but it was just crowded and loud. The pagoda in the center (Ngoc Son) so crowded that we couldn’t even walk on the bridge, so we skipped it.



- Old Quarter: It’s grungy and noisy and polluted, but very interesting once you get away from the main tourist streets. We really enjoyed walking around the street with the grocery vendors and seeing the locals going about their lives. The highlight was randomly walking into a small pagoda when a “len dong” (spirit medium) ceremony was going on.



- Weekend Night Market: Awful. Don’t even bother. It’s just a bunch of Chinese made garbage (electronics, junky clothes, etc.). All the shops are the same -- one after another. We didn’t see a single interesting stall. The shops and stalls and vendors in the Old Quarter during the day were much more interesting.



- Thang Long Water Puppet Show: Definitely worth seeing -- once. It’s unique and fun, and it’s impressive how the performers manage to pull it off. We couldn’t understand the stories since we don’t know Vietnamese, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the performance. This is super touristy (nary a local in the theatre) and we usually hate super touristy things, but it’s still well done and didn’t feel like a tourist trap. And the price is pretty cheap at 100,000 VND (less than $5).

We stayed at this AirBnB - https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/9493511 . It’s a spacious 1BR, and it’s very conveniently located in the Old Quarter. We paid about $35/night, and found AirBnB to be a much better value than a similarly priced hotel. The hosts were super nice, and even bought our water puppet show tickets for us before we arrived.

* SAIGON *

Saigon is a little lacking in sites in comparison to Hanoi. A half-day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels is the highlight of Saigon. Within the city, the only musts are the War Remnants Museum and maybe the Reunification Palace. One day in Saigon seems like it would be too rushed to squeeze in everything. But two days in Saigon seemed like almost too much time.

Saigon is slightly more pleasant than Hanoi, mostly because the pedestrian street (Dong Kohi) gives you some reprieve from the motor scooters. But overall, Saigon isn’t in any way charming and is just as chaotic and loud as Hanoi. The food is definitely better than in Hanoi.

The sites:

- Cu Chi Tunnels: A must see. The whole experience is bizarre and creepy, including not knowing what is real and what is a totally fake propaganda display. Wife climbed down 3 levels of tunnels and I climbed down all 4; the 3rd and 4th levels are *really* narrow, and it was a quite the adventure. The propaganda video highlights a “heroic” little girl who killed as many Americans as she could. We found the shooting range is totally offensive and inappropriate, but it adds to the overall creepy nature of the place. We arranged a private car and driver with Tonkin Travel for $40 for the half-day trip. They ended up giving us both a guide and a driver. We ended up going to the Ben Dinh site. We’d read that the Ben Duoc site is less touristy and wanted to go there, but our guide convinced us that Ben Dinh has more to see and said that Ben Duoc isn’t a secret because everyone reads about it on the Internet.



- War Remnants Museum: A fascinating experience. But, like the Hanoi Hilton etc., all the anti-America propaganda made our blood boil. Apparently the propaganda was toned down several years ago in response to US pressure; I’d be very interested to see it was like beforehand. The pictures of all the deformed Agent Orange victims were very vivid and sad. Unfortunately, we felt that all of the propaganda took away from the museum’s ability to tell a sympathetic story about the tragedies of the war. There is also an impressive collection of captured US planes and tanks in the front of the museum.



- Reunification Palace: Very interesting, and fairly underrated. This was the South Vietnamese “puppet” government’s presidential palace, and it’s much more interesting if you familiarize yourself with Vietnam War history. Without any context, it’s just mostly a bunch of old rooms. The bunker is particularly interesting, as is the US plane on the roof.



- Dong Kohi Street Area: It was just okay and a nice little stroll, but not particularly fascinating. The tree-lined pedestrian street provides for a very pleasant walk, and it was nice to get away from the usual motor scooter noise pollution of Vietnam. Notre Dame Cathedral was closed for renovations, so we couldn’t go inside. Anyway, it’s just a church. The Central Post Office is a pretty building, but seems totally overhyped in the tour books. Some of the Colonial buildings are pretty as well (Rex Hotel, Opera House, etc.).



- Ben Thanh Market: An awful tourist trap. All of it -- the day market, the night market, the “street food” market. Lots of annoying touts and other people hassling you. Stay away.



- Jade Emperor Pagoda: Very pretty at the time. But it felt like just another Asian temple and wasn’t really memorable.



- Cholon: An unnecessary detour. We thought seeing Chinatown would be interesting and thought the huge Binh Tay Market would be a good cultural experience. Sadly, most of the goods for sale are wholesale Chinese-made garbage rather than interesting local items. The original building is under construction, so it’s currently a chaotic mess in the area. We walked around several of the nearby pagodas/temples, and none were really memorable.



- AO Show: We were thinking of going, but decided against it. They’re hawking this show everywhere and we felt that it had to be a lame rip off at $25/pp, or they wouldn’t have to try so hard.

We stayed at this AirBnB - https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/16460953 . It was in a perfect location in District One, and very clean and spacious. We paid about $40/night. Again, AirBnB seemed to be a much better deal than a hotel.

* TIMING YOUR SITE VISITS IN HANOI & SAIGON *

Sites in Vietnam aren’t very user friendly because of the timing of their opening hours. They’re generally closed for lunch between 11 or 11:30 am and 1:30 or 2 pm. They also don’t reopen in the afternoons on some days (apparently Mondays and Fridays). If they do reopen in the afternoon, they might close again as early as 4pm. Times listed on the internet aren’t necessarily accurate, either.

So, “winging it” on a short trip is really difficult in Vietnam. It’s best to have a general plan for when you’re going to see the various sites. Otherwise, you may miss them.

* GETTING AROUND WITH UBER (HANOI & SAIGON) *

Uber was a life saver in both Hanoi & Saigon. With all we’d read about taxi driver scams and shenanigans in Vietnam, Uber completely eliminates that hassle. Rides are dirt cheap – a short ride was usually less than $1, and a longer ride around $1-2. Hanoi Airport to the Old Quarter was about $10. District One to Saigon Airport was $3-4.

Uber drivers don’t speak any English, but that’s not a problem because the app tells them where you want to go. They were all professional and safe. Though, about 3 of the 20-25 Uber drivers we used seemed less than competent and got lost. The Uber charges ended up being more than the quoted price, and Uber quickly refunded the difference by making an in-app request.

* BAI TU LONG BAY / HALONG BAY CRUISE (SWAN CRUISES) *

Both Swan Cruises and Bai Tu Long Bay were great. We heard mixed things about whether to skip Halong Bay, and we’re definitely glad we did it.

The bay is absolutely stunning and epic. We were impressed at the seemingly endless number of limestone cliffs. There isn’t just one signature photo spot with a few dramatic peaks. We sailed by one beautiful spot after another.

We really lucked out with the weather in December. We had clear blue skies both days of the cruise. We took somewhat of a risk doing this in December, but it paid off.

Bai Tu Long Bay wasn’t at all overcrowded or polluted. We were skeptical and worried about all the bad things we read about Halong Bay. We saw absolutely no pollution or overcrowding. There were maybe one or two other boats in sight at any given time when we were sailing. When we had our kayaking, we didn’t see a single other group from a different boat.

I’m not exactly sure what “Bai Tu Long Bay” is, but it seems to be a route that the nicer cruises use in a more quiet part of Halong Bay. The term “Bai Tu Long Bay” seems like a bit of a marketing gimmick, but it seems that not all cruises are the same and you can avoid the overcrowding and pollution by choosing a cruise with a better route.

We felt that 2 days / 1 night was the right call. The 2 days / 1 night trip is only 24 hours, and you probably don’t see much more than you’d see on a day trip. But the cruise and overnighting on the boat was a good experience overall and a fun splurge. If you have the energy for a long day of driving and you’re short on time or money, a day trip would probably be adequate just to “see” the bay. Some of the cruises are 3 days / 2 nights, and that seems excessive and a waste of time.

We went with Swan based on Tonkin’s recommendation for a mid-range cruise. Swan’s TA reviews were almost all impeccable. Tonkin charged us $230 (total for 2 people) for the cruise itself. I had emailed Swan directly, and they quoted us around $300.

Swan was very professional and organized, and the whole operation is a well-oiled machine. The crew does this every day, and they have the routine down. Check-in was smooth, the cabin was clean, and the staff is friendly and helpful. They provided TONS of food. It almost seemed like the entire trip was eating – 4 meals in 24 hours (lunch, dinner, breakfast lunch), plus a cooking workshop where we ate even more food.

We got off the boat twice for “excursions” – the first afternoon for kayaking, and the next morning to visit a cave. The kayaking was fun. The cave wasn’t particularly impressive; we’ve seen much better.

Swan’s boat is very nice and quaint. We wanted a small boat so it would be less crowded and more intimate, so we asked Tonkin to book us in the 8-cabin Swan ship (the smallest of Swan’s 3 boats).

The cabin rooms are cozy and clean, but very small. The bed was comfortable. The room isn’t much bigger than the bed itself, so it was annoying to get things in and out of our suitcases. We’re not ones to easily skip a day of showering, but we decided that it would be too unpleasant to bother showering since the bathroom was so small and unappealing for a shower.

Seasickness didn’t seem to be a problem in the bay. I get bad seasickness, so wife and I each wore a scopolamine patch. We didn’t ever feel dizzy at all. Not sure if that’s because of the patch, though.

* NINH BINH *

We enjoyed our day in Ninh Bin and thought it was beautiful. Ninh Binh is apparently referred to as Halong Bay on land. That’s a bit of an unfair comparison; Halong Bay is more epic and extensive, but Ninh Binh is different and a great experience on its own. We’re glad we went to both.

The highlight was a 2-hour private sampan ride around Trang An. It was peaceful and relaxing to row by all the limestone cliffs and under many caves. We didn’t see a single foreign tourist, but there were lots of Vietnamese – including several doing wedding photo shoots.

We also did a 20 minute bike ride from Tam Coc to the Bich Dong Cave / Pagoda. The bike ride was okay. The cave had pagodas on three different levels; it was pretty cool to climb up to the three levels and explore the caves.

We stayed at the Buffalo Eco Garden. This place was is brand new. The rustic setting is beautiful, and the service was great. Room was pretty comfortable and decently clean.

* MEKONG DELTA *

We found the first half of the 3 day / 2 night trip to be mediocre and touristy, and the second half stunning and remote. Overall, the Mekong Delta area is very pretty and a nice change of pace from the bustling Hanoi and Saigon.

We did a more ambitious itinerary than the standard 3 day Mekong trip. We’d read about Chau Doc and the Tra Su floating forest and was intrigued, but tour companies seemed to discourage the trip due to the long drives. I’m definitely glad we didn’t listen to them. If we had, I suspect it would have been three days of overly touristed places.

The Mekong Delta is stunning in December. Bright green rice paddies are all over. There aren’t the rice terraces as in the photos of Sapa, but it’s still beautiful. The scenery does look an awful lot like Apocalypse Now (which was filmed not in Vietnam but in the Philippines).

As for the sites:

- Cao Dai Temple: We found this entirely uninteresting. It’s a newly created religion that just didn’t seem to pique our interest. The temple itself isn’t so impressive, either.



- Cai Be / Tan Phong Island: The island is very pretty, but our program was fake and inauthentic. We took a rowboat around the island, and then rode bikes around the island. We made various stops that Tonkin had pre-arranged (a weaving shop, a farmer’s home to try fruit, etc.). All of Tonkin’s stops felt “cookie cutter”; the locals just saw us as a business transaction and had no interest in any sort of authentic cultural exchange with us.



- Can Tho / Cai Rang Floating Market: The floating market was disappointing. We’d read that the market is dying due to the new roads/bridges, and that’s definitely true. It almost seemed like there were more tourists than locals. Tonkin had us do another fake/inauthentic activity where we got on one of the pineapple seller’s boats and they carved a pineapple for us to eat. Then we walked around a village in Can Tho and went to a rice husking mill, which was another uninspired Tonkin stop.



- Tra Su Forest: Absolutely beautiful and majestic. We took a boat trip through the forest, and it was spectacular. Probably the highlight of the Mekong. We only saw Vietnamese tourists; no foreigners.



- Chau Doc: We loved it. It was the only place in Vietnam where we felt like we were off the beaten tourist path. Locals all said “hello” to us; they just seemed happy to see tourists and didn’t see us as bags of money. The local market was fascinating. We took a walk by the waterfront, and took a bike ride around the city to see the rice paddies. We also took a boat to see a floating village and also stopped off at a Cham (Muslim) village. Everything we saw was really untouristed and interesting.

Our accommodations:

- Can Tho - Mekong Rustic: Terrible. They consider themselves a “homestay” but there’s nothing “homestay” about it; it’s really just a hotel that happens to be in a rustic setting. The employees were apathetic and lazy. When we arrived, our bed was full of bugs/flies/ants. We showed a staffer, and he said to use the mosquito net. That doesn’t do much for the bugs already ON the bed. After a lengthy back and forth, they finally agreed to change the sheets and then put up the mosquito net immediately after. The porch light outside our room didn’t work; we pointed it out to the staff, and they shrugged their shoulders.



- Chau Doc - Murray Guesthouse: Wonderful, and the best place we stayed in on the trip. The owner Murray is a Brit, and he knows how to run a proper business. We paid about $25 for the room, which was a steal. It was immaculately clean by Western standards, the room was huge, and everything is brand new. There was an proper Western shower with great hot water, too. Murray was very nice and helpful. Breakfast was very good.

* TONKIN TRAVEL *

We arranged two separate 3 day / 2 night trips with Tonkin Travel. The first was Ninh Binh and Bai Tu Long bay. The second was the Mekong Delta. We have mixed feelings about Tonkin Travel.

The positive: Tonkin was great with the pre-trip process. Pham was organized, patient with many different iterations and changes, always replied quickly, wrote back in coherent English, was available by What’s App when necessary, etc. We comparison shopped our itinerary with other companies, and Tonkin’s price was within the lower range and seemed very competitive. Their drivers were all professional and punctual and had clean cars. Our trips were well organized without hiccups. They made sure all the restaurants and hotels knew about our dietary needs.

The negative: Our Mekong Delta guide was terrible. He was a nice guy, but he just wasn’t qualified to be a good guide. His English comprehension skills were awful. It was impossible to have a meaningful conversation with him about anything and learn about Vietnamese culture, history, etc. It was even difficult to communicate with him about basic logistical matters.

Most of the stops we made were entirely fake and inauthentic. For example, in Tan Phong, we stopped at a “local farmer’s house” for tea and fruits. It felt entirely like a business transaction, where the “local farmer” is paid by Tonkin to provide the same service to every other tourist who stops by. The “local farmer” has no interest in a dialogue with you (through the interpreter); it’s just a business for him and you’re the 50th tourist he’s seen that week. That’s just an example of how we felt like at most of places that our guide took us to in the Mekong.

I explained to both that we wanted authentic cultural experiences and to get off the beaten tourist path and to avoid fake touristy things. Our guide made us feel like we were on a program written for a big organized tour group, except that we were the only two people on the tour. Everything just felt too orchestrated rather than organic.

I’m afraid that Tonkin isn’t doing a thorough job vetting the guides that they’re using. Our guides in Ninh Binh and for the Cu Chi tunnels were much better, but unfortunately we had only one day in Ninh Binh and a half-day at the tunnels versus three days in the Mekong Delta.

* FOOD IN VIETNAM *

We were looking forward to the food in Vietnam, and found it incredibly disappointing. If you want good Vietnamese food, come to Southern California. We’re not too far from “Little Saigon” in Orange County, and the food there is much better – fresher ingredients, better quality meat, bigger portions, cleaner, etc. A number of Vietnamese-Americans we’ve asked have even said that the Vietnamese food is much better in OC than in Vietnam.

We ate a lot of pho. The pho has very little meat (low quality cuts), the broth is often bland and tasteless, and the herbs are low quality. We thought Saigon pho was a little better than Hanoi pho, which is a little strange because the locals would all say that Hanoi has the best pho. We love pho, but it just isn’t that good in Vietnam.

The banh mi is generally lame. You have to look hard to find a stand that grills fresh, hot meat. Most of the stands are using cold sliced/processed deli meat.

We were disappointed at how little variety there is in street food. The two main street foods are pho and banh mi. Street food is everywhere, but it’s all the same stuff.

Also, hot dishes are usually served lukewarm to cold. We couldn’t comprehend why most restaurants in Vietnam can’t figure out how to serve hot dishes hot.

Saigon had some fun Chinese/Taiwanese snack or dessert places, which was a nice change of pace.

The food highlight is the fresh fruit selection. Be sure to try the things you can’t easily get in outside of Asia for so cheap – dragon fruit, rambutans, longans, jackfruits, star apples, etc. Even durian.

* THE PEOPLE IN VIETNAM *

Overall, we found the people in Vietnam to be nice enough and generally helpful, but quite reserved. Outside of people in the tourist sectors, the level of English is pretty low, so we didn’t really get to have meaningful conversations with too many random locals. The people in Chau Doc were the most friendly and happy to see tourists; the people everywhere else we visited understandably weren’t fascinated by the idea of Western tourists.

We were very much surprised that the “hassle factor” in Vietnam was minimal. Perhaps this is because we were able to use Uber and didn’t have to deal with any taxi drivers (who we find to be among the worst people in any city or country). Also, nobody is peddling junk or begging right outside the tourist sites (or worse, inside the sites). It seems like the sites/police do a great job keeping these annoying folk away.

Overall, we had very few unpleasant experiences with the people. The touts around the Ben Thanh Market were really annoying and intentionally get in your way. But overall, most vendors don’t hassle you too much and generally leave you alone if you say no or ignore them.

* LUANG PRABANG *

We’re glad we made a short stop in LP. We seriously debated whether to bother with LP, given that mass tourism seems to have changed the place for the worse. But we still wanted to see LP for ourselves and check out Laos.

We felt that LP is what you make of it. LP still has a lot to offer if you plan your visit properly and take appropriate steps to avoid the tourist traps and get off the beaten path. The wats are beautiful, as are all the preserved buildings in town. It’s sad that the city is overrun with tourists and that the nice buildings have been transformed into hotels (forcing the locals out), but the town remains beautiful.

One full day is plenty to see all the main sites and walk around the town. A second day allows you time to do something else, like visiting Chomphet. We didn’t have much interest in Kuang Si falls or the Pak Ou caves, both of which seemed like major tourist traps. We wouldn’t have wanted to spend any longer than two days in LP given the hordes of tourists, but we’re glad we made the stop.

The sites:

- Royal Palace: Decent. The grounds are pretty, the Haw Pha Bang temple is beautiful, and the old car collection is weird. The place was full of PRC tour groups in the morning, and we decided to come back very late in the day. Hardly anyone was there.



- Mount Phousi: A must. Amazing views of the city. Try to walk different paths up and down to get more variety; there are lots of cool temples to stop by on the paths up/down. We intentionally visited in the day time in order to avoid the tourist stampede at sunset. The Mount Phousi sunset photos don’t even look impressive; we watched the sunset from along the river, and my photos are no different.



- Wat Xieng Thong: This is the most “famous” wat. The buildings are beautiful. It’s pretty touristed, so you’ll find way more tourists than monks.



- Walking around and visiting the minor wats: Underrated. You’ll often be the only ones at some of the smaller, less-famous wats. You can see the monks in real life.



- Night Market: Awful, and a total tourist trap. All the stalls are selling the same junk. The food portion of the market was depressing; there were buffet restaurants one after another where tourists would pay $1 to pile as much nasty food into a huge bowl as they can fit. We’re all for cheap food and street food, but this was repulsive.



- Morning Market: Very fun and interesting. It’s barely even mentioned in the tour books (unlike the night market), and we didn’t see very many tourists. Lots of interesting meats, fruits, veggies, spices, grains, etc. We also got to see the locals who are living normal lives and not involved in the tourist industry. We liked seeing the women in traditional dress.



- Morning Alms Ceremony: We skipped it. We chose to sleep in, rather than be part of what seems to be a spectacle ruined by mass tourism. There are plenty of better places in Asia to see an alms ceremony.



- Chomphet District: A great getaway from the center of LP. We took the public ferry (5,000 kips), which is a pretty ride. We walked for about an hour on the walking path, and headed back. We saw the daily life of the locals and stopped off at a several wats. Very few tourists make it across the river, and we really enjoyed the more authentic side of LP.

We stayed at the Lao Wooden Guesthouse. It was very centrally located, right on the main street and a few minutes from the palace. The staff and owner were very nice and helpful, and even let us check out at 2pm the day of our departure. We paid $45/night, which included a decent breakfast. All the hotels in LP are overpriced by SE Asia standards, and many have awful reviews. This place seemed to have the best reviews of the mid-range places we contacted, and we were very pleased.

Eating in LP is annoying. The main part of town is littered with rip-off tourist trap restaurants. Our best meal was in Chomphet, where we ate grilled fish from the Mekong River at an authentic place for locals. Good street food is hard to find, but we managed to have a really good omelet far away from the main drag.

* FLIGHTS *

- TPE-HAN on Viet Jet: VJ was just awful, even for a LCC. Check in at TPE took forever because they were finding all sorts of ways to nickel-and-dime their customers like neurotically weighing every single carry on at the check in counter. (What an dumb and illogical system; you can just add a brick to your carry on after they’ve weighed it and given it a sticker.) Seat pitch was as bad as it could possibly get and seemed worse than other LCCs. FAs seemed mean and hostile.



- HAN-LPQ on Lao Airline: Lao was very pleasant. Free checked baggage. Free meal and drink service on a 1 hour flight. Good seat pitch. Nice FAs.



- LPQ-DMK-SGN on Air Asia: Air Asia was tolerable. It’s a LCC; it’s fine if you know what you’re getting yourself into. DMK is an absolute dump of an airport, though. I was shocked to learn that this place was recently “renovated.”

* AIRLNE LOUNGES *

The only SE Asia lounge we had access to was the Rose Business lounge at SGN, departing on CX. At 5pm, they had a great spread – Vietnamese, Malaysian halal, and lots of other food. Real food, not just boring breakfast food.

* VISAS & ARRIVAL *

- Vietnam VOA: We paid Tonkin Travel $5/person for a VOA letter. We apparently were not permitted to use the e-visa system because we needed 2 entries into Vietnam; I couldn’t get a good answer online about this and called the SF consulate. Upon arrival at HAN, we walked right up to the VOA counter and handed them out VOA letter and forms. We thought we’d get our visas right away. Unfortunately, we realized there were about 40 backpacker types off to the side sitting around and waiting for their visas. It took us about 35-45 minutes for them to call us up to collect our visas. For US Citizens, the multiple entry visa was $50/person.

- Vietnam Re-Entry: Landing in SGN as an international passenger, already armed with the multi-entry visa, was a breeze.

- Laos VOA: Upon arrival, we were the first ones in the VOA line. Almost everyone on our flight was a tourist seeking a VOA. We presented our paperwork to guy #1, who handed it to guy #2 who played on his phone for 5 minutes and then took our paperwork and processed it and called us up to pay the fee. If we were at the back of the line on our flight, we could have been there for a while. The VOA was $35 for US Citizens plus a $1 service fee. (Why not just call it $36?)

* MONEY MATTERS *

ATMs are all over in Hanoi and Saigon. In 10 days in Vietnam, we spent about $100 in cash. That covered things like museum entry fees, food, and bottled water. We used credit card to pay for our tours with Tonkin, AirBnB, and our Uber rides.

In LP, there are a several convenient ATMs. We spent about $20 in cash in two days there.

* SIM CARD *

We purchased a Viettel SIM card at HAN airport for 200,000 VND (about $9) that included 3GB of data. Texting/calling are extra; you need to “top up” for this. We just wanted a basic data plan so we could use Uber and maps. Several booths at the airport were offering various packages. This was the cheapest. Viettel worked just fine, and I recommend it.

We did not buy a SIM card for our short stay in Laos.

* SAFETY *

We didn’t have any issues. Even Hanoi and Saigon felt safe enough, despite many warnings we read. We were on guard and took the usual precautions (money belt, dSLR camera always around neck, never leave bags unattended, etc.). It seems like theft is a crime of opportunity in Vietnam, and everywhere is so crowded that there was a low risk of someone forcibly holding you up for your camera.
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Apr 2nd, 2018, 08:12 PM
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IMO, the above itinerary is too rushed - Less is more.
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Apr 2nd, 2018, 08:42 PM
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LAX, thank you for your thoughts, detailed report and feedback on the sites, accommodations, and travel company!! Helpful for a possible future trip to LP and Southern VN, and interesting on places I too saw.

Great that your decision was correct and you enjoyed the overnight cruise on HaLong Bay into BaiTuLong . I loved the area's uncrowded sea, beautiful scenery, and the cruise itself. Interesting that Swan said you were sailing into BTL Bay because as of 2.5 yrs ago, only the Indochina Junk Company boats had a gov'tpermit to do so. So maybe as you say, the place has become a marketing tool. Also, thanks for noting the difference between Ninh Binh and HaLong Bay.

Re: the "American War"--interesting how everyone I met loves John McCain! Watching the video at the "Hanoi Hilton" with its "we treated the US prisoners so well" propaganda was bit hard to stomach. The guide told me the feelings of Vietnamese toward Americans and that war pale compared to intense, still present feelings about the Chinese and their invasion in 1978.
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Apr 3rd, 2018, 10:18 PM
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Originally Posted by DinHo View Post
IMO, the above itinerary is too rushed - Less is more.
To each his/her own, but I wouldn't consider our itinerary "rushed." Folks who like to travel at a slow pace shouldn't replicate our itinerary. But I think our itinerary is well suited for those with a lot of energy who like a full and action-packed trip. I thought it struck the right balance for us.

Originally Posted by CaliNurse View Post
LAX, thank you for your thoughts, detailed report and feedback on the sites, accommodations, and travel company!! Helpful for a possible future trip to LP and Southern VN, and interesting on places I too saw.

Great that your decision was correct and you enjoyed the overnight cruise on HaLong Bay into BaiTuLong . I loved the area's uncrowded sea, beautiful scenery, and the cruise itself. Interesting that Swan said you were sailing into BTL Bay because as of 2.5 yrs ago, only the Indochina Junk Company boats had a gov'tpermit to do so. So maybe as you say, the place has become a marketing tool. Also, thanks for noting the difference between Ninh Binh and HaLong Bay.

Re: the "American War"--interesting how everyone I met loves John McCain! Watching the video at the "Hanoi Hilton" with its "we treated the US prisoners so well" propaganda was bit hard to stomach. The guide told me the feelings of Vietnamese toward Americans and that war pale compared to intense, still present feelings about the Chinese and their invasion in 1978.
Good to hear from you, CaliNurse!

Our Bai Tu Long Bay cruise with Swan was definitely on a similar route as Indochina Junk. Our boat started at the same harbor as their boats, and they were among the boats we saw when we wre in the bay. It seems like a handful of companies, including Swan and Indochina Junk, are operating this Bai Tu Long Bay route. Looking at these route maps (Swan vs. Indochina Junk), they seem quite similar:

Trip Notes: 12 Days in Vietnam & Laos-5e4b148dc36f2ebee224ce73cca828744fce796d29d3f274e228-5epimgpsh_fullsize_distr.jpg

Trip Notes: 12 Days in Vietnam & Laos-halong-bay-bai-tu-long-bay-cruise-itinerary-2-day-1-night.jpg

There isn't good info about this online, and it's definitely hard for the customer to digest all this and figure out the difference between the various routes.

Last edited by LAX_Esq; Apr 3rd, 2018 at 10:20 PM.
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Apr 10th, 2018, 09:45 PM
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Join Date: May 2004
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Thanks for the maps, LAX. I think it's good that there is a bit more competition in the area. Indochina Junk had the price monopoly, so good that there's another option! Having been on a quieter trip to a less-visited part of HaLong Bay, you will probably agree: let's hope too many other companies don't get the permit to sail into that area, or it could end up as crowded as the other parts of HaLong Bay.

Pet peeve--- irrelevant comment about an itinerary being too rushed. In this case, you didnt ask!! It is one thing if presenting an itinerary pre-trip, and asking for feedback; another when it's an empty comment after the fact.
Besides, we don't all have the desire, time, or other resources to go on long extended trips, or the possibility of returning to particular areas. Some of us want to visit what we can in a limited time period, knowing that may be our only chance to get there. Ok, rant over!
I loved your take on what was "fake" vs what was worth your time. Great to know.
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