Tan Son Nhat International Airport
This is where you’ll arrive if you’re visiting the south of the country. We decided to split the country in two: north and south. This time our base would be Ho Chi Minh City, and we’ll come back and see the rest of the country another time, basing ourselves in Hanoi. The country is just too long to see both parts in as short a time as twelve days. Ho Chi Minh City’s airport is modern but small, there isn’t too much on the airside of the terminal building and only a few coffee shops and small restaurants on the landside. You can get a meal, but there isn’t a lot of choice. On your flight home Big Bowl in the departures section of the international terminal does a decent bowl of phở. There’s one in the domestic terminal too.
Vietnam is not an easy country to walk in, at least not in the urban areas I visited. Thankfully, taxis and busses are cheap and plentiful so you don’t have to even think about walking to the city from the airport. The 109 bus from outside the domestic terminal takes you into the city centre for 20,000 VND (£0.65) – buy tickets from the person selling them on the platform.
However, if like me your first stop is not Ho Chi Minh City, you might need the domestic terminal. It’s a short, sign-posted walk from the international one, and is mostly in shade which helps shelter you from the persistent heat. Ho Chi Minh City has a range of bus and train options and they’re all very cheap; travel in this country is really, really affordable. But due to the shape of the country, many journeys by bus or rail can take a long time. For this reason I opted to take domestic flights – something I’d never really done before – and they too were extremely affordable. Budget airlines VietJet Air and Jetstar Pacific fly all over the country many times a day and the prices are very competitive. You can pay for Vietnam Airlines’ increased legroom, but the flights are all pretty short and even for a tall man like myself it wouldn’t have been worth it to upgrade. By all means, if you’re in the country for a while then take the train and bus – I would have, but the plane lets you get to your destination in one hour rather than fifteen.
Hội An/An Bang Beach
Our first stop was the delightful white sands of An Bang Beach. We flew into Da Nang International Airport were the hosts of our homestay (An Bang Beach Dolphin Homestay – Booking.com) arranged for us to be picked up for the thirty minute drive for 300,000VND (£9.80). The airport is a while away but if this is your first stop its an eye-opening opportunity to see the way the Vietnamese drive. Their interpretations of the rules of the road are a sight to behold. To their credit, I didn’t see a single accident in the twelve days I was there.
This homestay is one of the nicest places I’ve stayed. This is mostly due to the accommodating and sweet nature of the owners. They give you a thorough intro the area, explain how you can get around everywhere and cook you an amazing breakfast in the morning. Get the Vietnamese iced coffee. I drank this concoction (Vietnamese coffee is strong and made with condensed milk) all over the country, but the one at Dolphin homestay might have been the best. The breakfast menu is varied and has both western and Vietnamese options. There’s a small pool in the courtyard of the homestay too which is inviting after a hard day in Hội An or in the heat of the shoreline sunshine. The owners were genuinely some of the nicest people we met in Vietnam (they gave my girlfriend a bracelet when we were leaving – there were hugs, it was like saying goodbye to family).
The area itself is quiet (by Vietnam’s standards) and things tend to shut down at about 9 or 10p.m. We were refused entry to a restaurant before 8p.m. because they appeared to be trying to close it down soon. So eat earlier than you would in the rest of the country here. That being said, it’s a charming area and the restaurants away from the beach are all cheap and the food is good. There isn’t one that particularly stood out, but the seafood grills on the edge of the beach were always packed with locals and Vietnamese tourists, which is a good sign. The beach is a delight. After a long-haul flight it was a joy to walk the few minutes up the sandy path from the village to the sea. The sand is pure and white and they’ve done a good job of keeping it relatively litter free. The sea is warm. Almost bath-water warm. There are a wide range of beach bars (some which are just cool-boxes with a menu) that serve up Saigon beer for 15-20,000 VND .You can sit in the deckchairs under the umbrellas for pretty cheap (the Dolphin homestay will tell you where you can sit for free if you’re their guest). There are also a number of beach “clubs” which sell slightly more expensive food but are set back off the sand and provide a good amount of comfort. Worth it for a snack in the afternoon as nothing is as expensive as you’d pay in Europe (Saigon beer 30,000VND).
After the jet-lag had begun to wear off we decided we would take the trip down into Hội An. By taxi this is a ten minute drive from An Bang Beach, and the homestay (and plenty of other places) offers very cheap scooter or bicycle rental. However, given that I like a stroll, we decided we would set out against the Vietnamese traffic on foot. Getting out to the main road that takes you to Hội An is no problem, it’s very close to the village itself, but once you’re on it you begin to get a better idea as to why you don’t see many people walking. There are no pavements on this long main road. Google maps suggested it would be an hour walk, and given the extreme heat and U.V., the lack of pavements and the cars and motorbikes that use the sides of the roads for anything from parking to overtaking, it was a tough one. Still, it was a way of seeing some of the countryside that splits this two close-together locations. Lots of lovely fields and water-logged land used for (I presume) growing rice. Farmers working on their land in the traditional conical hats. The walk is by no means hard, all flat tarmac, but you have to keep your wits about you, as people pull out of side roads without looking and often drive down the side of the road going the wrong way. Once you’re used to the heightened effort it takes to keep from being struck by a family on a motorbike, you’ll get along fine. The heat did make it hard at times and I became quite a sweaty mess with about fifteen minutes to go. Thankfully we then found one of the gems of the trip.
Quán ăn Hoài Linh is a small restaurant that is on the main road just before you get into the proper touristic area of Hội An. It’s not much to look at, and if I wasn’t severely dehydrated, we never would have stopped in. Plastic chairs abound and the open-air area is cooled by electric fans. Originally we were just going to have some water and maybe a beer or two while we caught our breath, but the menu looked inviting so we ordered a couple of bowls of phở – beef and chicken are both great. The soup was plentiful and very subtle in its flavours, and the salt from the stock restored me back to health. The owner then came and introduced himself. A very friendly man, even by the high-standards of the Vietnamese. He showed us the rear of the restaurant where he was planning on expanding it. The place was busy with locals and a few wandering tourists while we were there, which was well after lunch time, so I’ve no doubt that he’ll keep doing well in the future.
The town of Hội An itself needs not too much of an introduction. It’s well regarded on the backpacker scene as a place worthy of a day or two. It has many monuments and sights including the famous covered bridge. Ostensibly, these sights require a ticket to be purchased, but other than the covered bridge we found ourselves more taken with wandering the streets and the riverfront. The monuments and buildings were fine to look at from the outside. It is not worth buying a ticket for the covered bridge alone, but nobody asked to see one, so you can get away with not. The city is charming to wander through, with its myriad restaurants and bars and bright colours. There are nice places to sit by the river (bring mosquito spray) and the lively night market is great for a snack (or six). There’s a free toilet in a tourist information centre near the river on the north side. Dinner options are plentiful and all pretty cheap – just see where the locals go. Alternatively grab a few cheap snacks from the market and a couple of cans of beer from a shop and sit and watch the people go by. Do not attempt to walk back to An Bang Beach at night. It’s hard enough to keep track of traffic in the day, but at night it would be a very foolish thing to attempt. Taxis can be had for 90,000VND if you can find a driver who’ll use his meter (it only took us two attempts to find one who would).
We decided quite late on to stop for a night in Da Nang. Most of the guides seem to suggest there wasn’t a whole lot to do. There was, however, a very Miami-like beach which had white sand and palm trees, cheap sunbeds and beer, warm sea and lots of restaurants and snack bars nearby. We checked into our hostel, the Secret Garden, in the centre of Da Nang (comfy but utilitarian, the “pod” dorm-beds look like a better bet than the private room, and the rooftop bar has nice views but is pricey by this city’s standards), and began an hour or so walk to the beach. Da Nang has some large bridges and hectic traffic, so you’ll need your wits about you, but crossing the bridge over the river you can look across and see the other bridges which makes a good view on a fine day.
Down by the beach you’ll pay about 40,000VND for a sunbed under an umbrella, and the beers are cheap. The restaurants near the water are either geared for tourists and pricey or serve only western food. Although they look decent enough, there are smaller snack bars at the edge of where the restaurants are where you can get a báhn mì for about 20,000VND, and you can watch the swell of the sea while you eat it. There’s also a free toilet near these snack bars.
In the evening we set out for dinner and a few drinks. Kim Dy is an unassuming restaurant: plastic chairs and tables, a mostly local crowd, but you get cheap delicious food and beer (15,000VND!!). Their menu was large and they were friendly, but it’s a small place and seems to close a bit earlier than others so give it a try for an early dinner. There’s a lively, mixed Vietnamese and western bar scene on Bạch Đằng, where the neon lights from across the river make for an excellent backdrop to the loud music and reasonably affordable cocktails. Just south from the long row of bars is the dragon bridge, which breathes fire and water on Saturday and Sunday evenings at 9pm – we stopped for dinner, drinks then a stroll down to join the thousands of walkers to watch the golden bridge do its thing. It’s definitely worth walking all the way down to the end with the dragon’s head, as the fire-ball isn’t huge and you won’t see much from the west side of the river.
It’s a twenty minute walk from Da Nang centre where the Secret Garden hostel is to the train station. Although, in Vietnam it really depends on how long you have to wait before you can cross a road, journey estimations are never that accurate here. Buy your train tickets online or at the station. It’s easy and cheap – when you get to the station there’s a machine to scan your QR code (contained in your confirmation email) and you get printed tickets, scan these and then go through into the waiting room. The waiting room will be packed with people waiting for your train and there will be other tourists, probably getting on the same carriage as you, so keep an eye on them. They don’t open the waiting room doors until the train has arrived and then they put signs indicating which coach is which on the doors of the waiting train, so it’s pretty easy to find your way. The train ride itself was comfortable. Nice reclining seats and amazing views through jungle surrounding Da Nang. The trip takes between two and three hours. It’s painless and is definitely the way to get between the two cities. Our train was on time (and arrived into Huế early) but I’m told there is often delays.
The imperial city of Huế is all we came here to see, and were only staying one night too. We walked to the main city centre which is about forty minutes from the train station. Very easy walk: come out of the station and past the taxi drivers, go straight over at the intersection and keep walking. It’s one road to the town. Plenty of bars and hotels are around here. We stayed at Charming Riverside Homestay which was reasonable. Friendly staff who helped arrange our taxi to Huế airport the next morning and gave us a map of the town. It’s twenty five minutes walk through the main town to the Imperial City which is one of the more expensive things we did while we were in Vietnam (150,000VND for a ticket) and you can do it in about two hours. It helped that it was a bit drizzly, rather than the extreme heat and sunshine we had been having, as it might be harder to walk round the walled area since there is very little shade. You’ll probably come out tired and there are a number of bars and cafes serving up cheap food and drinks at the exit of the site.
Later that night we ate what was the greatest meal I have ever eaten. Ever. In my whole life. Better than anything in Italy, India, Thailand… Madam THU restaurant is cheap(ish) but modern and seems to cater mostly to tourists. But the menu was unlike anything we saw elsewhere in the country. My recommendation would be to try everything. The staff are friendly and will help create a menu that suits you, making smaller portions so you get to try everything on there. It’s so worth it. Out on the street after an amazing (but not overly heavy) dinner there are a number of bars to check out, including the crassly designed DMZ bar – a decent place to go (cheap beer) which doesn’t close until the last guest leaves (or so they claim). Traffic in Huế at night is nothing compared with other cities, so walking back, even if, like us, you had to go across the small bridge to the north-east, is a breeze.
Huế airport is a quick and cheap taxi ride away, but there isn’t much point in getting there early as there isn’t much to do. It’s the smallest airport I’ve ever been to (3 gates) and we were delayed in it for two hours. With a slight hangover, this wasn’t the most fun. We also knew that we would miss our connection in Ho Chi Minh City to Phú Quốc, so there was the added stress of working out what would need to be done about that. When the flight did eventually go and we landed in Ho Chi Minh City, the good people of VietJet air gave us seats on a new flight, no questions asked. Pretty soon we were up in the air for the forty-five minute flight to the island of Phú Quốc, where arriving to the green-covered hills felt like landing into Jurassic Park.
This was the portion of the holiday where we were just going to rest and recuperate. Not many better places to do it. It meant that we didn’t see much of the island, basing ourselves just outside the town of Dương Đông on the 20+ KM Long Beach. There are beaches and activities all over the island, and multiple tour guides who’ll take you to them. It’s also a pretty good place to give the scooter-riding a go, since the traffic is limited here due to the lower population. For us though, it was about sun, sea, good beer and even better food. We stayed in a treehouse complex called Sen Lodge Villas which had lovely treehouses with small balconies and a pool. It was about fifteen minutes away from the bustling main road, but worth it for the quiet at night. Some luxury for once, and at a pretty affordable price too. They did breakfast but we found the selection and quality was better at a café called Z Coffee, so we went there every day for breakfast.
Our daytimes were spent lounging by the beach. The prices for sunbeds on Long Beach was high! 200,000VND wasn’t uncommon for one sunbed. However, we found a place called JoJo Beach Restaurant which had sunbeds which were FREE to use if you bought a drink. Since we were planning on sitting and drinking all day, it seemed like a no-brainer. The sand was golden and the sea was even warmer out here in the Gulf of Thailand than it had been in the South China Sea. Pretty perfect. The food at JoJo’s wasn’t great, but the beer was cheap and there was a whole host of restaurants along the beach and on the nearby road which did affordable and delicious food. The top restaurants for dinner and drinks (by my reckoning) were Lemongrass (a bit pricey, but good grilled fish), Heaven (cheap and cheerful) and HIEU family restaurant (amazing, second best restaurant on this trip, have the stuffed squid). There’s also a night market that is vibrant and filled with delicious smells. We had a small, grilled pork sandwich type thing while walking about which was one of the cheaper things on offer. It’s an hour walk to the night market from the ‘centre’ of Dương Đông but it’s a good walk, alongside bars and a lot of liveliness. There are also some supermarkets here which sell souvenirs and (probably) fake designer clothes, as well as alcohol and food which you’re welcomed to enjoy on tables outside on the street.
Overall, with the exception of HIEU, the food wasn’t as good here as it had been in the other parts of Vietnam, but I put that down to the presence of more tourists than usual. The scenery and the very relaxed backpacker vibe that the place gives off was worth staying four nights for. I’d live here if I could.
Ho Chi Minh City
We flew out of Phú Quốc on the 11a.m. flight and found a taxi on the main street to take us there for about 100,000VND. This walk would actually have been possible, but walking seven kilometres in 30+ degree heat with big rucksacks, to save £3.29 wasn’t that appealing.
We arrived into Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it’s still sometimes known, where we met with a friend of mine who lives in Northern Vietnam and had taken a plane down to meet us. We took the 109 bus I mentioned earlier in the post, which for 20,000VND gets you a ticket (standing, normally) on a hot and sweaty bus which takes about thirty minutes to get you to the city centre. We dropped our stuff off at The Roost hostel (best hostel in Vietnam that we experienced, cheap, cool, big rooms, nice breakfast), and headed out into the heat and mad energy of Vietnam’s most populous city. It felt different to almost everywhere else. The roads were four lanes wide and the buildings were forty stories high. It was a strange juxtaposition to see modern skyscrapers which had ramshackle or crumbling pavements at their base. We immediately began eating and drinking in the city. There’s a great large green space called Tao Den Park which serves as respite from the gruelling pollution, we sat and drank some cold beers from a supermarket (Circle K – they’re everywhere) and watched Vietnamese jogging by without having to wear their facemasks. It was nice to be under trees and away from the roar of the roads for a bit. Drinking was on the agenda that night and we went to the famous Bui Vien Walking Street, where we avoided the more plush drinking establishments (who wanted to charge us 500,000-750,000VND for a pitcher of cocktails) for a small, local-filled, plastic chair set-up by the side of the road. The food and beer was cheaper than anywhere else and was delivered in polystyrene. We watched thousands march down the street for a few hours, amid hundreds of others who, like us, were happy to sit and watch the neon lights casting down onto the crowds. There were elements of Kao San Road in Bangkok but less in your face and with more of an emphasis on local tourism.
The following was a hot, hot day. We broke it up by waking late and heading straight for the heavily air-conditioned Asiana Food Town, an underground market with a couple dozen different cuisines all vying for your business. We tried the Vietnamese pancakes (which we had also had a variety of in Hội An) and they were just as good. Crispy and FULL of meat. For 70,000VND you get quite a meal. They offer a ‘special’ which contains chicken, prawns, pork, squid as well as the vegetables. For 120,000VND it’s good value but could have fed three people on its own. After lunch it was a twenty minute walk to the War Remnants Museum which is a detailed and harrowing look at the conflict that took place in the country between the 50s and the 70s. Everyone will learn something new here. It confronts your beliefs about what took place at that time. At 40,000VND it’s a must-do.
Later, as well as the next day, we explored the street food market around Ben Thanh. Like Asiana Food Town but better and open-air. The smells, the choices, the sound of sizzling meat was too much for us and we all ordered from three different stalls (in addition, we would return for both lunch and dinner the next day). Grab a beer from one of the Circle K’s around the market rather than paying the price that comes with the food and find yourself a bench on which to perch and gorge yourself! It was a great start to the night. After we wandered the Ben Thanh street market itself, which seems to come alive after 7p.m. (although the indoor portion closes then). There’s something for everyone here. I’m unsure whether they’re fake or stolen, but the designer gear one can pick up here is pretty incredible. The shame was that we only had hand luggage so there wasn’t anything we could really get. That night was the last with my friend from the north, and we found a bar simply by looking up. Above a Circle K near the market was a sign that said The Trees. It was clearly a bar, and had a balcony looking down over the market, but didn’t appear on google maps and had no front door. After asking around and some searching we headed into a residential building and found a door which opened after we were stood there for some time. They invited us in for drinks (the tables had full bottles of whiskey on them – it was evidently the kind of place people with money came). We stayed for one (50,000VND for a bottle of Tiger!! and then made our excuses).
Our last day in Ho Chi Minh City, and Vietnam in itself, we decided to take pretty easy. Lots of walking, but nothing too taxing on our livers. We saw Notre Damn Cathedral (which we couldn’t get inside for some reason), and then the post office over the road (which is a lot more impressive than it sounds). After, we took a longer walk up into a previously unexplored part of the Saigon map, to see a Buddhist temple which was well regarded. The Jade Emperor Pagoda is a long and tiring walk away from the centre but it’s well paved and reasonably easy to cross the streets. In fact, one of the best things about the increased volume of traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is the way its impractical not to follow at least some of the road rules; the use of the green man at intersections makes crossing slightly easier (although cars will still turn into the road from other directions). The Pagoda is small and full of people worshipping which adds to the peaceful feel that you get of being outside the city here (despite the thunder of traffic that’s never completely gone). The turtle pond to the right of the entrance is a nice distraction, but it’s worth having mosquito spray if you’re getting close to this. Finally, we headed back towards Ben Thanh where there was a Hindu temple that we wished to check out. It was welcoming and ornate and there were few western tourists in there. There are handy posters which explain elements of the spirituality in English as well as Vietnamese. As all of these sights are free, they’re worth a visit if religious buildings are things that interests you, but none of them were overwhelmingly impressive for what they were. I enjoyed them, but many would rather walk on, and that’s just fine. The street food market is right outside the last of them, after all.
We had to be up early the next morning, so we stayed for a couple of beers at the market and planned where our next long-haul trip might take us. Being surrounded by so many others on so many different kinds of trip made the situation seem full of more possibilities than the last night of a trip away might normally feel. We’d loved Vietnam, and will definitely be back.
Our flight necessitated us getting to the airport before 6a.m., so rather than fussing with the bus system, we took a ‘Grab’ taxi. It’s an app, like Uber, for use in Vietnam. You can get cars or motorbikes and the thirty minutes to the airport only cost us 100,000VND. They’re nice cars and you pay in cash unless you have a Vietnamese phone number, so make sure you’ve got enough on you.