Well, my month in Vietnam is winding to a close. Here's a recap of the specifics for how I did Vietnam! I don't think you need a full month to see this country; I probably could have planned better and finished this all in 3 weeks. And if I had planned it a little better, I could have definitely squeezed in two places in the south that I thought sounded interesting, Mui Ne and Da Lat. (I intentionally bypassed Nha Trang, the popular beach city, because I heard it was overrun with Russians and discothèques blasting cheesy dance music.) By flying from Ho Chi Minh to Da Nang, I sped up the trip a bit, then have kind of lagged with blocking off too much time in Hanoi as "down time" in between side trips to Cat Ba and Sapa. However, one of the things I've enjoyed most about this trip is having time to actually sit and write for the fun of it, and having the opportunity to do this here has been nice, especially since I found a great café with air con that hasn't seemed to mind me camping out in it for hours on end.
All right, without further ado, let's get down to business.
Where I Went
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): Once I figured out how to cross the street in Ho Chi Minh, I really enjoyed the city (and, in fact, I found it easier to cross the street in HCMC than in Hanoi!). My first day was kind of a wash as after arriving on the bus from Cambodia in the afternoon, I basically ventured out to get cash from an ATM and fled back to my hotel in fear of getting my bag ripped off me by motothieves (a huge problem there, apparently). The next day, I checked out the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace, both of which were very interesting. The following day I wandered around checking out some French Colonial architecture (including the post office), stumbled upon a Hindu temple, and treated myself to a cheap 75-minute Thai/Vietnamese massage (only $20!).
Train from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City: Giant Ibis, $18
Mekong Delta: I did an overnight tour that I found online at getyourguide.com. Locally, it was operated through TNKTravel; I don't know whether it would be cheaper to book online or just go through a local travel agent (I'm guessing it would be better through a local travel agent, but I think the others in my group paid about the same despite booking in person). We left early in the morning and drove down the Mekong Delta, stopping in Ving Trang to visit the pagoda, then visited several islands in Ben Tre, where we boated to lunch, visited a coconut candy factory and a honey farm. From there, we drove another hour, then the small group of us doing the homestay were boated off to bungalows and enjoyed some homecooked food, some of which we helped prepare. The next day we wandered around the Can Tho market, then joined the group on a larger boat to visit the floating market at Cai Be, and checked out a rice noodle factory. From there, we got back on the bus and headed back to HCMC, arriving back in town around 4pm.
Overnight tour (incl. homestay): $50
Hoi An: I flew to Da Nang, then had a taxi transfer take me to Hoi An (about a 45 min drive). I loved Hoi An, despite the fact that it was a bit contrived and touristy. I found the architecture so interesting to look at that the time just seemed to drift away each day. My hostel offered free bike tours every morning, so on the second day, I biked with a small group out to the beach through rice paddies -- a really lovely experience. Yes, Hoi An is touristy but it is a sweet relief after the rush of HCMC and while three full days might be excessive, it is a nice place to spend a while despite being small. To visit the various museums and old museums, btw, you buy a book of 5 tickets for about $10, then can use a ticket to visit each place (tickets don't expire for a few days). There are about 30 places to visit in all, but I checked out about 9, in part because 3 places I stepped into let me in for free! Yay! On my third night at the hostel, a group of us went to Da Nang to check out the International Fireworks Competition, which was fun (but also a reminder that there is probably not a ton to do/see in Da Nang otherwise).
Flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang: Jet Star Airlines, $93 (I was travelling during the biggest Vietnam holiday, it's not normally this expensive, usually it's probably half what I spent)
Taxi transfer from Da Nang Airport to Hoi An: $23
Hue: I really loved visiting the Imperial City at Hue and was glad I had more than one day to check it out, especially because the first day it was totally mobbed with Vietnamese people visiting on Independence Day. The second day I had more time to really wander around and at that point, had done some reading on the place (and Vietnamese history), which gave it some more context. I think a ticket was 150,000D (so about $7).
Minivan shuttle from Hoi An to Da Nang Train Station: $7
Train from Da Nang to Hue: $3 (I took the TN2 train, which is one of the slowest, oldest and cheapest trains in Vietnam; wooden seat, no a/c)
Demilitarized Zone (day trip): My hostel in Hue arranged for a DMZ tour which I found interesting for the most part, although the guide did not speak super great English and most of script was obviously reiterating the 'party line' on events that happened in the war. We started early and drove to Dong Ha, from there visited the Dakong River, Khe Sanh, and the Vinh Moc tunnels. I can't remember what I paid for the tour, but I think it was around $20. If it was not in the middle of the Vietnamese Independence Day holiday, I would have been able to get dropped off somewhere to take a bus immediately to Phong Nha after the tour, but had to go instead by train to Dong Hoi and take a bus the next morning.
Train from Dong Ha to Dong Hoi: $6 (SE3 train, soft sleeper in a 4-bunk compartment)
Dong Hoi: I came here for the night just as a pitstop before heading on to Phong Nha. The city seems super spread out and was very, very, very hot the day I was here, mad worse by the fact there seem to be about zero trees planted along the huge concrete boulevards. After a pretty much sleepless night in Hue at my backpacker hostel, I was glad to have a quiet, clean room to myself, however.
Bus to Phong Nha: $4.5
Phong Nha: Visiting the caves here was one of the highlights of my time in Vietnam. They were a much more expensive visit than anything I had planned for my trip, but one of those things you just deal with and pay for because, well, you're here and probably won't be back for a long time. One of the smaller caves was used to store ammunition by the US Army during the Vietnam War (although I didn't visit that one), but some of the larger ones were only recently discovered about four years ago. Paradise Caves was absolutely massive, both in height (70m in some places) and length (I think it's around 31 km), although we only walked in the first kilometer. (We did have to walk up to the cave for quite a while, which was hot and muggy and tropical, so the coolness inside the cave was a welcome relief.) Dark Cave was super fun to visit too, as that one we got to by ziplining across a river, swimming to the entrance, walking a ways in, then swimming more, then exploring barefoot through very narrow muddy passageways, until at one point we were submerged up to our waists in muddy water. Then we returned and washed off and swam in the dark in a different direction. A very cool experience, although kind of scary swimming in the dark.
National Park Tour: $70 (included the $15 entrance fees to each cave, minivan with a/c, driving around the National Park, temple visit and lunch)
Bus back to Dong Hoi: $4.5
Train from Dong Hoi to Hanoi: $26 (SE3 soft sleeper in 4-bunk compartment)
Hanoi: I have spent a ton of time in Hanoi. After Phong Nha, I took the night train to Hanoi and arrived very early in the am. The next day I visited the Fine Arts Museum and Hoa Loa Prison, then set off the following day for Cat Ba Island. I spent a full day in Cat Ba, then headed back on Sunday, and spent three more days here before heading to Sapa on the night train on Wednesday night. I spent one day running errands and writing, the next day visiting several museums and historic sites with my guide from Hanoi Free Tour Guides, then the following doing a day trip to Hoa Lu temple and Tam Coc which is in Ninh Binh province. I'm back here today and tomorrow. I have a street food tour with Vietnam Awesome Travel planned for tonight and absolutely nothing but indulgence planned for tomorrow! I spotted a fancy French restaurant with a $12 prix fixe lunch menu so my "big plans" are to have a nice lunch and get another massage before heading off to more expensive places.
Day trip to Hoa Lu & Tam Coc: $30 (incl. entrance fees, minivan and lunch)
Street food tour: $25 (incl. all the food at six restaurant/food stall visits)
Cat Ba Island: Even though I had heard Halong Bay was really beautiful, I had also heard it was kind of polluted and you needed a longer cruise to get out to the "good parts" of it. I had also read that with the cruises, you'd get what you paid for, so the cheaper cruises really need to be avoided because of things like rats running around the ships (no thanks). Honestly, the idea of being trapped on a boat for a night was not something that I found very appealing, so, I decided to head to Cat Ba Island instead and do a day tour of the bay from there. It's a bay adjacent to Halong Bay so it looks very similar, and instead of paying hundreds to go on a cruise, I paid $17 for a day tour, which included two hours of kayaking, boating around the various islands, including a stop at a beach, and lunch.
Bus-bus-ferry-bus ticket to/from Cat Ba Island/Hanoi: $12-$14 (I paid $14 for my ticket there and $12 for the return)
Sapa: I arranged a 3-day, 2-night trek with Sapa O'Chau, which a friend back in SF had recommended. It was just amazing, truly the best experience of my entire time in Vietnam and one of the most stunning places I've ever been. The region is just spectacularly beautiful, and this trekking organization is run by real Hmong women, so the money is going back into the community and not to outside people. The cost ended up being $75 for a 3-day trek (2 nights), in part because other people signed up for the trek which brought the cost down (the original quote was for $160 for just me). They arranged overnight trains to/from Hanoi for $40 each (which is super pricey, given that my sleeper train between Dong Hoi and Hanoi was $26, but whatever, it got me there). The train only goes to Lao Cai, so they arranged a minivan to bring me to their office in Sapa, which is about an hour away. Their office has showers and lets you leave your big bag while you trek, which was great. If you're looking for a good group to arrange trekking, I highly recommend them.
Sapa Trek: $161 (included night trains to/from Lao Cai, transfers between Lao Cai train station and Sapa, trekking guide, entrance fees to villages, and all food while on the trek)
Where I Stayed
Ho Chi Minh City: Little Saigon Boutique Hotel This was a solid hotel, although maybe a bit expensive for the facilities. I've had a hard time gauging what's normal here in Vietnam in terms of quality and cleanliness. This hotel was at least clean and had a separate shower, unlike many bathrooms here where the shower is sort of in the same vicinity as the toilet and you get water everywhere. It was down a super cute alley and was actually pretty quiet at night. ($35/night)
Ho Chi Minh City: Townhouse 50 Hostel I stayed here for one night before heading on to Hoi An. I opted for a bed in an 8-bed female dorm, which was teeny tiny and windowless. At least it was clean and safe. The overall building was nicely maintained and modern, too, and the guy at the front desk was super helpful. ($11.45/night, incl. breakfast)
Hoi An: DK's House I spent four nights here, two in a 4-person dorm and two in a 2-person room, which I shared with a girl I'd met at the hostel in HCMC. I actually really liked this hostel; it was well-located in the town, offered good food and a great happy hour, and was social without being the center of the party. ($11/night, incl. breakfast)
Hue: Hue Backpacker's Hostel This place is owned/run by the same folks as DK's House, so I figured why not? I dunno, maybe my patience for the backpacker scene was beginning to run thin, or maybe this place was just too much of a scene. Even though I'd booked an 8-person female dorm, they put me in a mixed dorm anyway. The bathroom was absolutely disgusting, with a ceiling that dripped and no window/ventilation, and the rooms were super cramped and small. I get it, the way these places can offer beds for cheap is to cram as many bunk beds as possible in a room, but at a certain point it's just claustrophobic -- impossible to move or unpack a thing. The second night was spent sleepless as one guy stayed up late watching a movie on his iPad, then two Scandinavian guys came back super drunk and made a ton of noise talking and banging around getting into bed around 3 am, then around 4 or 5, another guy arrived at the room and made a bunch of noise unpacking and going to bed. I had to get up at 6:30 am, and had decided that going forward, the hostels need to be used sparingly (I have to for Singapore, and will use them in Malaysia and Myanmar where I think it will be a little less of a 'scene' and I'd like to have the ability to meet fellow travellers to see the sights with). ($8/night, incl. breakfast)
Dong Hoi: Sunshine Hotel Quang Binh Maybe it was because I hadn't slept the night before (and had been on the go doing a DMZ tour all day, then took the train from Dong Ha to Dong Hoi), but this hotel was everything I needed. Clean, quiet ... really, this is all I need. Personally, I prefer the hard Asian mattresses so I was fine with the bed here, at least there were clean sheets and a working air con. The bathroom was typical Asian-style (no separate shower), but it was clean and there was hot water. I give the Sunshine Hotel Quang Binh two thumbs up. (I have no idea why you would ever need to stay here, but if you find yourself in Dong Hoi, give it a go.) ($20/night)
Phong Nha: Easy Tiger Hostel This was another great hostel, especially since the only reason people are staying at this place are to visit the caves (meaning, they're getting up early and not out drinking bad alcohol with their fellow Westerners). Again, it was totally functional and basic, but clean (for the most part, the bathrooms could have been better). There were some weird design flaws, such as an open vent between neighboring bathrooms which meant if your next door neighbor's bathroom light was on, it flooded light into your bathroom and room. Whatever it was two nights and I got to sleep, unlike my previous hostel. ($7/night, incl. breakfast)
Hanoi: Madam Moon Guesthouse Maybe my expectations for hotels in Vietnam have just been way off but I was hoping for more with Madam Moon Guesthouse. However, it was thankfully a clean place, although it smelled moldy upon entering the room. The a/c worked, although the bathroom's water heater made a dripping noise constantly that was like Chinese Water Torture. Shutting the bathroom door kept out the noise but meant the bathroom never dried out (again, back to one of those showers-over-the-toilet combos). But, I loved the little street this hotel was on, right north of Hoan Kiem lake in the Old Quarter. ($20/night, incl. breakfast)
Cat Ba Island: Thao Sinh New Star Please, never stay here. It had all these glowing TripAdvisor reviews, like it was the greatest place on earth, which had to be bogus. And I am not alone, because I ran into this couple I'd met on my Mekong Delta tour who happened to be staying there too, and we commiserated over falling for the gushing reviews! I booked a hostel for 2 nights, thinking that if it was a good place I'd upgrade to a single for the second (or possibly third) night. The hostel room (4-bed female dorm) was cheap and very basic, with another gross shower/toilet room, akin to the Hue Backpacker's Hostel (and, to a lesser extent, Easy Tiger Hostel). Although, the couple I ran into said that their toilet literally had mold growing on it, therefore making it impossible to sit on the toilet, so I guess it could have been worse. I took a look at a single room to see if it was worth switching and the one they showed me had thin, dirty sheets with cigarette burns in it on top of a foam mattress. For $13 a night. The real thing for me though was that there was a balcony running across the front of the building, right in front of my dorm-room window. So that other guests of the hostel plunked themselves down to smoke and drink all night long. After all, the town had shut down by midnight, so where else were they going to go? By 3 am, I was annoyed. Go to your own room? Annoy your own roommates? Or just go to bed? I banged on the window and asked them if they could please lower their voices, which was met with stares of disgust. Thankfully, the girl I'd met on the bus to Cat Ba offered me the second bed in her room the following night, which was a lifesaver. Hers cost $10 for the night and her place had an elevator... not sure who is leaving the fake reviews on the Thao Sinh New Star Hotel but hopefully TripAdvisor can delete them. Anyway, if you are looking for a bargain and a balcony party, the hostel bed was $3/night. (Note: I think there are two Thao Minh hotels in Cat Ba, one of which has the glowing reviews and the other is the hostel dorms above the fish restaurant. But the room I was shown was in the actual hotel part and was just as inferior as the dorms, so I have no idea what the reviewers are talking about. Maybe some people are just impervious to inferior conditions.)
Hanoi: Hanoi Old Quarter Hotel Definitely a disappointment, in part because the hotel had come very highly recommended to me. My room was very dirty, just the kind of residual grime that comes from things not being properly washed off regularly. Stuff like brown stains on the bathroom tiled walls, which I removed simply by wetting a piece of toilet paper and rubbing to see if it was permanent or just a result from not being cleaned ... ever. Soap scum on the shower walls, all kinds of dirt on the walls, and dust on the doors. To top it off, the bed was on the floor! Not in an Asian way, more like a we-can't-afford-a-bed-frame way. Just a box spring and mattress sitting on the floor, like the room of a college student ... or a hobo. I found this so off putting, especially given the smell of mold upon entering the room (the reason for a bed frame is to get the bed off the floor to help it ventilate). The other major issue is that when I booked the room on Agoda, it said I was getting a 73% discount, which would price the hotel at over $70 a night! There is NO WAY this hotel could be $70 a night, that amount of money in Vietnam would get you very, very far. So having my expectations set so high did not help matters; were this hotel normally priced at $15 a night, it might seem like a nice place. But a three-star hotel it was definitely not. (I get it, the stars pertain to amenities like elevators and having the shower separate from the toilet. But there are certain standards, such as a general sense of cleanliness, that need to come along with those amenities and pricing.) Right near the freeway, but my room was thankfully quiet. Despite the noise and traffic, it was at least near the famous "coffee street" of Hanoi so I had ample choices for my morning coffee! ($20/night, incl. breakfast)
Hanoi: The Artisan Lakeview Hotel Hanoi has saved the best for last. This hotel is just a few doors down from Madam Moon and the two share the same restaurant across the street for breakfast. I walked by while staying at Madam Moon and thought it looked really nice, so I hopped online to see if it was in my price range. Big hooray, it was! I got a room for my last two nights here in Hanoi. It meets every criteria you'd be looking for as a traveller (or, at least, a budget traveller, like moi): it's well-located (but not in the heart of the chaos), quiet and, most importantly, clean. My room has a bed on a bed frame, an actual desk, an actual shower, and two windows (OK, so one looks out at an air conditioning unit and the other into the back of the building, but whatever). This hotel isn't just the best out of the three I've stayed at in Hanoi, it's also nicer than the hotel I splurged on in HCMC. The Artisan Lakeview Hotel for the win! ($20/night, incl. breakfast)