In our 54 days we crossed Vietnam from south to north. We travelled 4400km on our old fake Honda Win, often leaving the beaten path and looking for the “real Vietnam”. These are our top 8 reasons why we recommend other travellers (not) to go there.
You SHOULD because:
1. The nature is incredible
No doubt about it, the karst mountains that define the Vietnamese landscape are surrealistic, dream world material. Halong Bay is recognized as one of the 7 natural world wonders and cannot be missed, but we enjoyed the Dong Van Karst Plateau and the Truong Son National Park even more. Although most of the country seems to be protected by Unesco the time to visit is now because construction works are everywhere. I’ll quote Lonely Planet on what seems to be a typical Vietnamese mentality: “Why leave nature as it is when you can improve it?”.
2. It is very cheap
Very recently prices have gone up considerably for most touristic attractions, often doubled in the last 3 years, but it still remains cheap compared to western standards. In the Mekong Delta we hired a private boat with captain for 7hours for 35EUR. Having a professional mechanic work for 2 hours on our motorbike: 2EUR. Noodles as breakfast, sandwiches as lunch: 0.80 EUR each. A glass of homebrew beer: 0.20EUR. Staying in an air conditioned private double room: 10EUR. When you are prepared to travel with local busses and eat local dishes, this can turn out to be your cheapest destination yet. We managed to get around with 23,7EUR per day, including the cost of our motorbike.
3. There is no bureaucracy
The government is trying hard to attract more tourists and therefore obtaining a visa is a mere formality. Many countries even no longer require a visa for a stay up to 14 days (check the updated list here). Also once in the country you’ll get around easy. Vietnam is the only country in South East Asia where you can buy a second hand motorbike and easily take it across borders (to Thailand and Laos), all you need is the “Blue Card” that comes with the motorbike. Officially you will need a local insurance and driver license too, but this law is not enforced to tourists. The police is not corrupt towards foreigners and will leave tourists alone. We passed countless of police stops during our journey and were not stopped once.
4. Once is enough to see it all
Busses, trains or private transport get you around very easily and the main attractions can be reached within 2 days from Hanoi. This makes it possible to visit Vietnam’s main highlights in a packed 2 week holiday. Since the attractions don’t tend to change much (not for the better at least) once is probably enough to visit. 94% of the tourists don’t return after their first visit. Although the reasons for that can also be the following…
You should NOT because:
1. The people
In short: we didn’t feel welcome. Nowhere in the world we have been ridiculed or overcharged as much as in Vietnam. More than once the attended at the gas station “forgot to return the change”. One time we had a heavy discussion involving the manager and other customers for a full hour before they gave up. Probably the worst experience was the hairdresser in Hanoi who didn’t feel like working for tourists. Leslyn fixed the worst hairdo ever and millimetered my hair with an electric shaver and a fork.
They are everywhere and they swarm around tourists like flies on a fresh turd. It might seem rude at first but learn to ignore them completely. Don’t answer their questions, don’t look at them, don’t look at their products, even if that means (gently) pushing them aside. I failed this once in the market in Saigon where the sales lady then grabbed me firmly by my arm and refused to let go until I bought something. I then bought a fake wallet. Be also weary for people who “want to practice their English skills with you”. Two teenagers approached us with this excuse in Can Tho and while the first hadn’t finished his sentence yet the other was already reaching for my new wallet.
3. Everything is fake
I literally mean everything. Why does one helmet fit and the other one not, although they have the same size label and you are standing in the “official store”? Because they’re fake knockoffs. Fresh fruit smooties were just milk with syrup. That coffee? Probably syrup too. Not kidding, 30% of Vietnam’s coffee has no caffeine in it. It is a general practice to mix soya beans, fish sauce and some chemicals to reproduce the taste of genuine coffee. It is easier and a lot cheaper to produce. Even hotels get copied. Malafid taxi drivers will tell you the hotel you booked is full and take you to hotel “number 2, same same”, which is a building designed to temporary use as fake hotel and rip off tourists. Once they draw too much attention they will move to a new building and copy another hotel name.
4. Road safety issues
When you spend much time on the road like we did chances are big you’ll witness one of the 14000 deadly accidents happening every year on the Vietnamese roads. We saw a toddler getting hit by a scooter (luckily without much hurt!), two guys crashing into eachother around a corner, one person lying moveless in the ditch, and one unfortunate idiot got hit by a massive truck as he ran onto the highway without looking… that last guy was miraculously still in one piece, but not sure if he survived. More than ones busses seemed to wait until the next blind corner to overtake one another on a narrow passage. We called them “suicide busses” and always tried to keep a safe distance from them, although one almost succeeded in driving us off the road.
Besides the traffic there is the smog. Definitely in the south the air was irritating as hell. The roads are dirty and the exhaust fumes intoxicating. After a day of driving I looked like I entered the hotel trough the chimney.
If you are travelling with kids, I don’t recommended bringing a stroller. The footpaths serve as parking in Vietnam and you simply cannot walk on them. We’ve seem young parents struggle a lot here.