Here comes another “10 Things…” post. As per usual, this is not meant to be a top 10 list or anything like that, rather it will be 10-ish random things, some good/bad/neutral, that we experienced during our trip in a particular country that we found interesting or unique. Usually we’ll write this post after we leave a country as a way of summarizing our experience.
We spent nearly a month in Vietnam and we really loved exploring this diverse and interesting country. From the people, to the landscapes, to the food, there is so much to experience while traveling in Vietnam. We could write a separate blog post for almost every item on this list and still not do it justice. However, since we are way behind on our blog posts, we are going to cram everything in to one epic “10 things” post. Well, actually, this post was so long we had to split it into two. Here are the first 5! Whenever you’re ready, the second half (#6 – #10) can be found here.
1. Crossing the Street is Terrifying
Traffic in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is wild. We don’t mean traffic in the sense that the cities are constantly gridlocked, though that does happen sometimes. We mean traffic in the sense that there are thousands of vehicles flying in every possible direction, all the time, everywhere, including sometimes on the “sidewalk”. It’s true that technically, Vietnamese people drive on the right-side of the road, but that doesn’t stop a steady stream of traffic from coming head-on in the opposite direction. It is also true that there are stop lights in Vietnam, but watch as the light turns red and the constant stream of motorbikes, thick as a swarm of flies, does not slow down at all.
Crossing the street, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City, is terrifying. As mentioned before, traffic never “stops” completely. Frequently, we would have to wade out into the mass of vehicles with feigned confidence and pray they would not hit us. A few times, we even changed our plans to visit a place, because we could not muster up the courage to cross the street to get there!
The prescribed street crossing method, which can be seen on tourist PSAs throughout the city, is to walk out into the street confidently, moving at a steady pace, and do a little hand-waving motion at eye-level. Surprisingly, using this method, we were never crushed by a vehicle, but it takes a leap of faith.
2. Karst Topography
Vietnam has a lot of a limestone, which forms many of the iconic mountains and caves you have no doubt seen in travel guides. Most well known is Halong Bay in northern Vietnam, where hundreds of karst islands jut out of the green waters of the bay.
However, this type of topography is not unique to Halong Bay. Many places throughout Vietnam advertise themselves as, “Halong Bay on Land” or “mini Halong Bay”, and in our opinion places such as Phong Nha, Ninh Binh, Lan Ha Bay, and Cat Ba Island were equally beautiful and worth the visit.
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular places to visit in Vietnam. Of course, with that popularity comes a high price tag. As we are budget travelers, we opted to visit the less-popular-but-similarly-beautiful Lan Ha Bay instead. We went on a fabulous (and affordable!) one-day boat tour which allowed us to take in the beautiful scenery, swim to empty beaches, visit a floating fishing village, and kayak through caves to secluded lagoons. Our guide was excellent and the food was superb.
One type of scenery that is often seen in central and northern Vietnam is karst mountains scattered among the rice paddies. The contrast between the perfectly flat, emerald-green paddies, and the sheer vertical walls of limestone is a stunning sight that never gets old. We spent several days in Phong Nha and Ninh Binh riding the farm roads between rice paddies, rivers, and limestone peaks.
Along with the highly erodible limestone, come caves of epic scope and size. The worlds largest cave is located in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Vietnam, and it wasn’t even discovered until 1991! In Phong Nha, we explored two other large and impressive caves. (Read more about Phong Nha in our Central Vietnam post.) In Ninh Binh, at Trang An, we took a rowboat through a complex of long, narrow grottoes, hollowed out by the river. On a boat tour of Lan Ha Bay (adjacent to Halong Bay), we were able to take kayaks through a claustrophobic network of caves eroded by the sea.
3. Motorbike Tourism
Vietnam has the second most motorbikes per capita in the world, just behind Thailand. In most of Southeast Asia, owning a car or truck is rare, and motorbikes are the primary way regular people get around day-to-day. Naturally, with the large number of motorbikes, decently maintained roads, and beautiful scenery, comes motorbike tourism. Many people we met had bought a motorbike in Thailand or Laos, and were spending weeks or months traveling throughout Southeast Asia with their bags strapped to the back of their bikes.
While we didn’t do anything quite so adventurous, we did spend a good amount of time exploring the countryside of Vietnam on motorbike. In one sense, it is a very convenient way to get around, many beautiful sights in Vietnam lie just off the beaten path and just outside of walking distance. The price of a motorbike for a day, between $4-8, is much cheaper than constantly taking taxis from place to place, and we found the freedom to be able to stop wherever we like to eat, take pictures, etc. was a big benefit. In areas frequented by tourists, foreigners riding motorbikes is a familiar sight.
That said, riding motorbikes on the lightly trafficked country roads is one experience, riding them in medium-to-large cities is another experience entirely. The few times we had to use our scooter in town, even just to get out of town from our hotel, were harrowing to say the least. As discussed earlier, traffic in big cities is insane, and the rules of the road are very much up to interpretation. Riding a motorbike in the big cities is not fun and not recommended, unless you are an experienced pro. We met several foreigners who had been involved in some pretty scary accidents.
4. Sleeper Buses
A popular way for tourists to get around Vietnam is on Sleeper Buses. They are much cheaper than flights or trains and if you can get past the negatives there are a lot of positives. Rides can take between 5 – 20 hours (overnight) and typically cost less than $15 per person. The interior of the bus is organized into rows of bunks where you can recline horizontally. We heard many people complain that unless you are shorter than 5′ 5″ you cannot comfortably lie down on the bus. However, we are both taller than that and were able to recline comfortably, often getting “real sleep” on longer journeys.
If you go on any travel website you will see thousands of 1-star reviews of various overnight bus companies decrying the experience as a nightmare. While we wouldn’t go out of our way to write a glowing recommendation of any sleeper bus we took, we thought it was a perfectly fine way to travel on a budget as long as you set your expectations appropriately. Most complaints fall into three major categories: (1) the bus was filthy, (2) the bus was too loud, and (3) the driver was driving like a madman. (Also, one person accused the driver of locking another passenger in the bathroom.) While the buses we rode were not spotlessly clean, we felt fine about the level of hygiene. We can understand how it can get much worse, particularly with the on-board bathroom, but again, set your expectations. The noise was not an issue for us as we travel everywhere with earplugs and eye-masks these days. Wearing an eye-mask also helps to reduce any anxiety you may have about the number of vehicles the bus driver is passing and speed at which they are travelling to do so.
5. The Vietnamese-American War & War Tourism
Growing up in United States, we learn about the war in Vietnam as a seminal point in our own country’s history. Travelling in Vietnam as US citizens, you face the fact that Vietnam was where the war actually took place. Further, and equally obvious in retrospect, you recognize that its impact on Vietnamese society was many orders of magnitude larger than it was on US society. Our first of many lessons in American ego-centrism was learning that what we call the “Vietnam War” is called the “American War” in Vietnam. Travelling in Vietnam, we did our best to educate ourselves on this period of history and the impact the war had in Vietnam.
While traveling in Vietnam, there are many opportunities to learn about the war, including the very popular and extremely depressing War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), the Củ Chi tunnels just outside HCMC, and DMZ tours in Central Vietnam near Hue.
There are also examples of war-themed restaurants, bars, and accommodations, mostly in Central Vietnam. We found these establishments to be a bit unsettling, but other tourists did not appear deterred.
Worth mentioning is that we expected there to be some animosity towards us for being from America, but we experienced nothing of the sort. The Vietnamese people we met were all friendly and we felt very welcome as tourists in their country.
This concludes the first half of our 10 Things… Vietnam! Feel free to get some coffee or take a break before diving into the second half (#6 – #10).