Wander Vietnam like a local

A month in Vietnam follow your own plan and budget

What did I do? How did I explore the country? How much it cost me? …


I’d like to share with you how I explored Vietnam during a month the way a local would explore it. Also as a budget traveler how was I able to save myself few bucks here and there without eliminating a destination but instead extended my trip, and what festivities I came across while I am there that is worth to plan your trip around it.

Why a month? 

I applied for a 1 month Visa, but did I plan to stay for the whole month? No, I thought 2 to 3 weeks in Vietnam and move on to my next destination. But 1 month was just enough and I was about to stay longer even, in fact I did stay 1 days after my Visa finished I just couldn’t waste a minute and left the last day of my Visa by bus so technically I left Vietnam borders to Laos 1 day after my Visa run out. Lovely Vietnam one of the countries that I would go back to again. Vietnam has many facades, rich colorful and full of sights to see and things to do. Traveling from South of Vietnam to the North was like traveling through different countries and cultures. The division  of the country to North and South in history gave the country a diversification that makes us travelers enjoy Vietnam even more and why not visit it more than once when we don’t get the time to stay for a month, but in my opinion a month is just enough to see Vietnam without a rush.

Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh or Saigon as the locals like to call it is the capital of Vietnam and it has every capital character:  big, over crowded and dirty add to it all the motocycles traffic.

IMG_5028Ho Chi Minh April 16, 2013

Except that Ho Chi Minh has the war museum I would call it a necessary stop.I thought I read and saw enough about Vietnam war until I walked to the War Remnants Museum.  Strolling around the 3-story building exposing war crimes, from photographs of war scenes to victims of Agent Orange and the horrible display of  jars of preserved human fetuses allegedly deformed by exposure to dioxins and dioxins-like compounds, contained in the defoliant Agent Orange, I have to admit was a horrible experience but necessary. Some of the rooms I couldn’t even stand in more than couple of minutes.

IMG_5193Photo taking by: Vu Ba, War Remnants Museum

My take away from the visit was that the blessing of not experiencing a war. But it can sometimes be an ignorance to the potential for it to happen at any time – we all want peace but this will definitely motivate you to champion it every day.

Delta Mekong- Can Tho and Cai Be market:

How to plan your trip to the Mekong your own without relying on a tour?

The best way to explore the Delta Mekong was to plan it my own rather than join in a tour. Sure it might cost a bit more or about the same but the experience is worth it. At the end of the visit I have my own story about the place.

I planned two days trip, the first was getting to Can Tho and spending the afternoon in a village and the second is going on a boat trip around the floating market.

I arrived to a village where I stayed in a guesthouse recommended by my hostel in Ho Chi Minh. The owner was not having a good day so she was a little unpleasant which put me off a bit off but at she offered me a bike to ride around the village, so I can’t complain.

I took the small path along the Delta searching for the hidden scenery and looking to come across some locals.

I started the ride and I captured one of the farmers loading his orange cultivation in a boat. While I stopped taking a picture of him, he didn’t hesitate to offer me to try, delicious sweet mandarins reminded me of the Mediterranean orange test.

IMG_5697Can Tho April 19, 2013

Biked a little farther and I was stopped by these 2 little kids waving and running around, I decided to stop and spend few minutes with them. Took some picture of them and I gave the boy the camera which made him all excited and happy. He was looking through the viewfinder following his sister who was posing from and smiling it was such fun moment. I wanted to take a break with them along the river after the photo-hooting session and I pulled my mandarin which I wanted to share with them. As soon as I handed them their part, both bowed with thanks that made my eyes water for all the politeness and joy that was expressed in that little spontaneous bow and sparkly eyes. How great is it to take the unbeaten path.

IMG_5709Little lovely moment with these 2 kids

I continued my ride after that little cute experience and found myself after 1 hour going back to the guest-house as it was dinner time, and as part of the stay in the guest house I was to make my own spring rolls.

Also was great moment of sitting around a table with other travellers, Korean, German, French and Tunisian, all of us struggling to make nice looking rolls but delighted to share our travelling roads and stories.

IMG_5916Getting ready to make the Rolls 

The second day started with negotiation and search for a small boat instead of taking one of the tour boats. After few negotiation here and there, I was able to agree with lady to take me in a complete tour of the Cai-Be market, the noodle factory and around the Mekong river back to Can-Tho, a full 4 hours tour for just 5$.

Nha Trang

It is a nice stop to make up from the south to the North. It is about 1 night trip by bus or train from Ho Chi Minh. The beach is very nice and enjoyable.

Here in Nha Trang, you can start experiences the French colony influence. I arrived in the morning went out for a walk and I was stopped by a smell of the croissant coming out from this French bakery. The owner, hardly speaking any English, was relieved when I spoke to him in French “ croissant aux amondes s’il vous plais” Smiled and served me and come to have a small talk with me and told me about his 10 years adventure in Indochina, from Cambodia to Laos to Vietnam. It was a nice way to start the day I felt like in a coffee shop at home. It’s amazing how during a long trip small details transfer you back on time to home, those instant makes me feel like I never left and do give me more energy to keep going.

To experience the non touristy Nha Trang I rented a bike and wander around the streets and came across the local market where I had the best food experience from the local ladies who were happy to have me in their little small street stand. They were happy to see a foreigner trusting their place and eating what they are making. As soon as I reach these places I feel that my trips started, although the language barrier we both communicate and know about each other. They ask about what I am from, I hear their language I see their smile and happy eyes.

From there to the Long Son Pagoda, the buddhist temple in the city.

IMG_6954The resting Buddha of Long Son Pagoda, Nha Trang, Vietnam

As much as in the touristy places I feel the distance and the barrier built against foreigners, off-the-beaten paths I feel I am part of the locals’ lives and that alone make want to spend more time in a town.

Nha Trang, for example, in the district where most of the hotels are, if I don’t see some of the Vietnamese signs in restaurants I feel it could be anywhere, it just look like any beach town nothing authentic. Even for food you mainly can get Pizza pasta and a non tasty noodle soup. I went to this market and it’s like I was in another country, different colors of food, different setting and of course different prices, in fact prices were half or third the price I would’ve paid the bar or the restaurant that cash all tourist money.

IMG_6890Only in this local market in Nha Trang I had this dish 

I wish that everyone take a step out of the touristy area when they travel to spread the little expenses they make over the people of the town and not just give it all to one person.

Hoi An 

Milan of Vietnam, such a pretty town. Hoi An is the town where all tourist stop to make custom made all sorts of cloths, jackets, dresses, suits and even bras within 24 hours.

I got to experience it differently. I was lucky to be there during the Full moon festival. The streets at night were lighted by colorful lanterns and tables in front of shops filled with food, milk money and burned scents as a given to the gods on the full-moon night, to bring prosperity and wealth to their doors.

Walked down the old town to the Japanese bridge on the Mekong river and the scenery was stunning. The river was covered by candles and people where standing lighting up their candles making their wishes and landing them smoothly on the water and watch them spread all over the river.

IMG_7190Best time in Hoi An: full moon festivity

Some had taken boat rides to avoid the cluster of all the candles by the sidewalk.

Hanoi 

Hanoi Hanoi Hanoi , the beautiful Hanoi full of colors that makes your head turn in all directions walking streets.

Hanoi is the old capital of Vietnam and had been for about 70 years, it still keeps the charm and the craziness of a capital until today.

Hanoi is a nice city for shopping. If you are looking for some cheap fashion cloths, from European to American brands you can hardly resist.

IMG_7610

Hanoi also has great museums that can educate you about Vietnam Ethnicity, history and even Vietnamese women, in fact the women museum is a very sophisticated one that I highly recommend to visit.

May Son: a day trip from Hanoi

The best way to get there on your own is to rent a motor bike. About 1hour drive but you pass many small typical villages which makes the trip to May Son interesting and rich of discovery of Vietnam’s country side.

Sapa

The beautiful Sapa that took my breath away with it’s marriage of colors of the green mountains and the bleu, red, green, yellow and red of the H’mongs cloths and hand made goods.

As soon as I stepped in Sapa I felt I am in a different Vietnam, a Vietnam that has different stories and history than anywhere else in the country.

The day started with a walk in the village to the center where all the H’mongs are spread all over the streets chasing tourist to buy from them bracelet, small bag or even take them for a home stay and trekking tour around the rice terraces, chanting in every ones ears : “Buy from me, cheap cheap” and once you tell them you will come back they  will make you promise. You have to know once you promise a H’mong you have to hold your small finger up and if you don’t fulfill your promise they will cut your finger. They use it as a joke and I thought it’s the cutest way to chase a tourist.

Hmongs don’t chase you just to get your money, they are actually very curious to know who you are, where you are from and what you are doing in Sapa. They know if they make a dollar out of you they will put a meal on their table but they wouldn’t force you to it, once you tell them you are not interested they walk away or talk to you about something else. The town has really a great vibe, the people have great smile and the mountains have spectacular view.

IMG_7775Sapa H’mong market

Again if you are looking to take a tour in the rice terraces, don’t just rely on tour companies. The H’mongs offers plenty of trekking options.

Spread the wealth among the people, I think it’s not fair to just have a monopoly of 1 or 2 agencies especially that what’s offered is about the same from everyone. Everyone needs food on the table and not much source of income in small towns.

I personally took a tour with a Hmong lady: lady ShouShou Sapa Tour, you can look her up in facebook. The tour was 25% cheaper than the cheapest tour offered by any tour company and a lot more enjoyable cause this lady did her best to make me enjoy the tour. Provided all my snakes for the first day. We arrived to her hut, not a touristy cabin nicely prepared for me and served by an employee. Rather I was in a big terrain with few huts. At night the whole family come to gather in ShouShou’s hut which was the biggest . We sat around a low table full of food, which we would call an organic meal in the city. As everyone knew that we were there (we were 4 foreigners staying there that night) they came to share a drink with us and know more about us.  Faces were filled with curiosity and admiration and it made all of us enjoy the night and feel spoiled even that we were in the simplest place that any of us had been in in their lives.

IMG_7938ShouShou trekking H’mong guide: 

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Shoushou-Sapa-guide/178990938926160

Bac Ha

Organized 1 day tour from Sapa are around 15$ but again plan it your own is much better experience.

As the market happens on Sunday and start from 6am it is worth it to make the trip to Bac Ha on Saturday. Knowing that Bac Ha region has few treks easy to find with no need for a guide.

Around the town, on the opposite to Sapa, you will not see H’mongs but rather Vietnamese people who are happy to see new face in town to charge double the price for a coffee or a meal.

The Sunday market’s vendors, who are mainly Vietnamese, will start setting up their stands starting from 6am but the H’mongs will start coming to the market only around 8am. The H’mongs come to the market to sell their animals and their hand made cloths but most of them come to make their purchases of cleaning products, tabacco, which they try before they buy.

IMG_9042H’mong making their purchases in Bac Ha Sunday market

Halong Bay:

Halong Bay as much as touristy but you can make the visit worth it. On my opinion and for the fact that is over crowded with all the tourists, you can make the most of it in a day.  1 day tour from Hanoi can be arranged starting from $25 (Friendly Backpackers hostels can book it for you) that included transport from Hanoi and back, boat cruise, lunch in the boat and the best part of the trip: the Kayak rental or Boat once the boat anchors inside the 1000 islands of rocks.

For whoever have the time and want to do it themselves, well it is most likely cheaper and of course you will end up spending more time and it will be much relaxing. The boat tickets to Halong Bay start from 3$ to around 10$, it depends on each route you choose to do (the more stops you make of course the more expensive the tickets will get) Kayaks and small boat…. Tour can be arranged from one of the islands where the floating market is.

Reality check

There are other parts of Vietnam that I didn’t have the time to visit. Never enough time to see it all, there is always a place left during a visit but I take it as the part that motivates me to go again to Vietnam and see that other façade of it.

Now, having said that if you don’t have a month to see Vietnam I think you can always skip some stops.

Vietnam Itinerary if staying less than a month:

1.   Ho Chi Min if you are doing the Delta-Mekong floating market,

2.   Hanoi,

3.  Hoi An

4.  and the lovely Sapa to see the H’mong and rice terraces are stops you want to make

As transport in Vietnam is convenient buses and train can take you from South to North of Vietnam I would say two to three weeks can be enough.

For more picture of Vietnam: https://www.facebook.com/WanderTheWorldsWonder

I welcome any question about detail on recommendation costs or itinerary suggestion

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