Before heading to Vietnam, I met several people who have been there before and most of them were very unimpressed. They described the country as unfriendly, a place where people just want to scam you and where you don’t feel welcome. I have been told that Saigon is the worst place and I could skip it, I could actually just skip the whole country according to many. The only point that everyone agreed on was that the food is the best. I listened to their advice, but decided to check it out on my own. At the end of the day, many people considered Cambodia very welcoming and I didn’t.
After about 8 months on the road, my approach towards traveling changed.
When I first left I had a plan, one that I kept changing until I just gave up and decided to go wherever I felt like going at that moment. Even as I became more flexible, once I picked a country I would study where to go and decide how many nights to spend in each town. This time I used a different approach. I checked Trover, saved my favorite pictures and off I went, without my Lonely Planet!
I’m going back to the north of the country later on to catch up with a friend for her birthday, so my month was entirely dedicated to the south.
Let’s see where Trover and the inspiration of the moment took me.
First Stop: Saigon
Saigon is a mess!
When you spend a lot of time in Southeast Asia, you get use to seeing swarms of motorbikes taking up the road, carrying the most unusual things, but Saigon is another level of craziness! I have never seen something like that, and I’m not going to lie, my first time crossing took a long time! I was staring at the never ending flow of traffic wondering how to approach. It’s actually really easy! You just need to be aware of cars and buses because they are less flexible, all the other vehicles will avoid you! Do NOT stop and do NOT accelerate, just proceed at a normal speed and they will find a way around you, predicting your movement. Good, that’s sorted out!
Sightseeing wise, maybe Saigon doesn’t have much to offer, but as far as people watching goes, Saigon has plenty! Walking around, you will always find someone carrying massive things on a motorbike, ladies with conic heat and heavy baskets, markets, new food to try, a nice park for resting and coffees! Vietnamese coffee is strong and very good, but if you prefer your western coffee, there are plenty of hip cafes all over town (Nomadic Notes knows that)! It reminded me of Bangkok, a smaller and less built up version of it.
All this refers to district 1 and 3 where I spent time during my stay.
There is a backpacker hub, just south of the 23-9 Park which is heavily targeted by pickpockets, so be aware of your belongings and don’t use your phone while walking on the street! People from the shops, hostels or restaurant will warn you about this constantly, so you will not forget that.
Bui Vien is the busiest street and in the evening, bars will do a Tetris with the small plastic stool where you can sit, enjoy a cheap beer and do some people watching. The place is packed and there are street vendors passing by selling mainly dried squid. The best thing to do is to get some of the squids and wash them down with some beer. It’s super fishy and it gets fishier with every sip! I’m normally not keen on busy backpacker places, but this was actually really fun and many of the locals hangouts there as well. It’s unbelievable how many they can fit in the small talk path!
Oh, another really cool thing about Saigon is 23-9 Park! This park is very active: there are machine for workout and many people doing different sports. There are also many student that want to practice their english, so you can sit there and have long chat about Vietnam or whatever subject you like. Is there a best way to learn something of a new culture? I don’t think so. Generally speaking, people use a lot the parks and there is always some kind of activity going on, from working out to dancing.
Saigon is also the best place to experiment with some street food, there is an incredible a amount of options! But I’m not a foodie and, even though I love food, I never remember the name of what I eat. The Legal Nomads guide to Saigon street food, have been my Bible during my stay in the city and you can find the best eating spots in there!
I had a very good time in Saigon for the first couple of days. I met very helpful people and never was scammed, but I spent the other 3 days in bed with a high fever and tonsillitis…
When I was still healthy in Saigon, I met someone that was coming back from this paradisiac island. I checked with the hostel to find out how much a flight ticket would have been, and after finding out that it was $60 return, I couldn’t resist!
Considering that I was sick and taking antibiotics, all the packing and catching my flight drained me! Once I got there, I set myself on Long Beach and barely moved for 5 days. I didn’t even rent a motorbike to explore other places on the island, I just rested and walked along the beach. Long beach is several Kilometers long so you can find many different things. There are busy parts packed with su sun beds and bars, and other quieter areas. The sand is soft and beautiful, but the water is not clear and overall not that nice. If you rent a motorbike and go to more remote areas, you might have more luck. Maybe I didn’t go to the right places or maybe I became a beach snob, but I wasn’t impressed with the island.
Third Stop: Mui Ne
When I saw the pictures of sand dunes and red canyons on Trover, I had no doubt that I had to pay a visit to Mui Ne, and it didn’t disappoint! I wrote a whole post about Mui Ne and you can read it here.
Fourth Stop: Nha Trang
Oh, Nha Trang, you are actually better than what I thought.
After accidentally ending up in Pattaya, I’m now scared of every heavily Russian populated area in Southeast Asia. After hearing rumors comparing the two places, I decided that it wasn’t for me and I would have been more than happy to skip it. The problem was that the bus ride from Mui Ne to Hoi An was way too long, so I decided to break the trip in Nha Trang, hoping to be able to catch a train from there.
I didn’t consider something very relevant though – Chinese New Year. I arrived in Nha Trang just a couple of days before the big celebration and all the transports going up north were fully booked for the next 3 days. Oh well, Nha Trang, I guess I have to give you a chance.
I spent the days between the beach, market hopping, mud bath, temples and catching up on some writing. I have to say that it wasn’t too bad. There is barely anything Vietnamese left and everything has been build up for tourists: flashy lights in the street, all sorts of restaurants, as well as a new and spacious strip along the beach. You could be anywhere really, there is no personality. On the bright side, the beach and everything else is very clean and I guess that it could be good for a family holiday.
Last Stop: Hoi An
Hoi An stole my heart
Many consider Hoi An a big tourist trap, with expensive restaurants and tourist prices for everything. The good thing is that you will find many young locals wanting to practice their English and tell you everything about the beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage city. Once again, I found incredibly welcoming people and ended up spending New Year day with a local family. Was it just the festive spirit? I can’t tell. What I can tell is that, touristy or not, it’s impossible to resist the beauty of Hoi An.
The ancient city that developed along the river, it’s a beautiful mix of Chinese, Vietnamese, European and Japanese culture with perfectly maintained historical buildings. The streets are dotted with colorful lanterns that light up at night, creating an incredible atmosphere. Everything is really picturesque and you feel like you are in a postcard. The restaurants are more expensive, but you can still find cheap food in the street or at the local market.
About 5 Km from the city you have a white sand beach. Again, the water is rough and not clear, but the beach itself is beautiful and so long that you can find parts just for yourself.
Between the beach and the city, you will find incredibly green rice fields and organic farms with water buffalo hanging around. If the natural and historical beauties of this place are not enough for you, you can always spend your day shopping in one of the many inexpensive tailor shops or sipping tea in one of the many tea houses.
That’s it! I’m not going to add anything else otherwise I will jump on a plane and go back there.
I think that Vietnam is my new favorite country.