My Vietnam itenary and what I wish I’d known in advance
Contrary to my expectations Vietnam turned out to be a controversial place for travelling. After weeks and weeks of research prior to my trip I was more than excited about going there.All the right ingredients for a great trip were present. Rich culture, spectacular landscapes , plenty of history and tasty food!
However there were certain aspects I failed to anticipate and perhaps because of that and my already high expectations I was left a bit underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, it is a beautiful country and definitely worth a visit, but have a realistic expectation and you’ll be better prepared.
I like travelling independently, choosing my own mode of transport. I like taking as long as needed in each place I visit and for that reason organised group tours are just not my thing. There’s nothing better than talking to local people and getting a sense of the place for yourself without being rushed around by a tour guide.
And so, here is how Vietnam was a bit of a challenge for me. Independent travel is made virtually impossible in most of the popular tourist places, nowhere more so than when you head to Halong Bay. Unless you’re willing to skip your visit there altogether, you’re left with no choice, but to join an organised group onboard of one of the many competing sailing ships.
After arriving in Hanoi I spent a day walking around town, looking at different options on how best to see Halong Bay. And the reality is, I was given a list of travel companies that offer pretty much the same cruise options on ships ranging from the budget /party boats aimed mainly at gap year travelers to mid-range, to luxury vessels focusing on retired western tourists and newlywed couples.
So with a very limited choice I had to join one of those ships. Our time onboard was planned with military organisation and while some people may enjoy the activities organised by the tour companies, a lot of travellers found themselves having to explain to the guide time and time again why they do not want to join certain tour or cooking class and prefer to just sit and enjoy the view. If you enjoy experiencing a place for yourself you may struggle.
To me it was the definition of a tourist trap with literally nowhere to escape. The view from the top deck is spectacular and Halong Bay is not to be missed but be prepared for what’s in store while on board.
I was later told of an alternative way to see Halong Bay, it will probably take longer to organise the logistics but it sounds like a lot more authentic trip for those who like to take the road less traveled.
Make your way to Cat Ba first ( that’s the largest island in Halong Bay) From there you can organise trips to see Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay which is just as beautiful and not as crowded. Cat Ba Ventures came highly recommended. http://www.catbaventures.com
I reached Cat Ba on the afternoon of our second day on board and luckily had planned for a couple of nights there to explore by myself without sticking to any schedule. There are jungle hiking routes and plenty of kayaks to rent if that’s more your thing. One of the biggest water settlements is right by the island and so I rented a kayak and went there to see it for myself. Floating villages fascinate me and
I spent a couple of hours on the kayak exploring.You can also ask a local to show you around for a small fee.
Heading to Hoi An
After a week exploring Hanoi and Halong Bay ( and the worst food poisoning I’ve ever had from a meal on the cruise ship) my next stop was Hoi An.
I have to say, it is The place in Vietnam I would happily go back to. This ancient town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and can get pretty busy at times, but walk around the narrow streets before 11am and it will feel like you have this beautiful town full of history and atmosphere all to yourself. It’s only at midday when busses full of tourists arrive for the afternoon that the place gets very overcrowded. And this is when it’s best to just rent a bike and go exploring the area around. There are beautiful rice fields and herb farms around, not to mention Au bang beach, all accessable by bicycle. The place is small enough to explore on foot or by bike and that’s what I liked about it.
Another trip not to be missed is a visit to the nearby Coco Palm Forest. Again this can get quite touristy but if you like the idea of a fun afternoon, try it.
I also loved spending time in Tra Que Herb Village on a late afternoon. It’s lovely and peaceful there and you’ll come across some great friendly characters .
Next stop, Mui Ne and the red sand dunes
As I’m always in search of sun and sea, this was an obvious stop for me. The beach itself is nothing spectacular here but the place is popular for windsurfing and there are plenty of places to stay offering surf hire and lessons.
If you make it to Mui Ne, do visit the small fishing village with it’s many traditional round fishing boats. A short ride nearby you’ll also find an area with red and white sand dunes. Most people tend to visit early morning and at sunset and if you’re after some good photography moments you’ll have to get pretty creative to hide and avoid the spectators.
Photographers are always told to avoid midday sun but here it can be a great time to get some dramatic shadows and play with contrasts.
For an independent way to get around you can rent a motorbike or if you prefer not to be in the driving seat, get in touch with http://www.easy-riders.net
This is a great place to contact independent local guides and get a ride to any place you like. It’s also a good way to talk to a local and find out more about trips and destinations you may be thinking of.
Can Tho floating market
I am fascinated by people living on water and the close bond they have with rivers or the sea and so I had to make Can Tho my final destination.
Is the biggest city of the Mekong Delta, located on the south bank of the Hậu River, the bigger branch of the Mekong River, 3 hours drive from Ho Chi Minh city.
Again, this is a great place to explore by bicycle, especially if you are looking to get away from the city centre and see more of the quieter life along the canals and narrower river branches. Around Can Tho you’ll find beautiful countryside, rice paddies and sleepy villages where time seems to have stopped. I would recommend doing a homestay in one of those places and enjoy the atmosphere.
To see the floating market, get ready for an early start. It is at it’s liveliest between 6 and 7am and will be pretty much over by 8am. Most hotels and homestays will be more than happy to organise your personal boat ride, just make sure you ask them to sail at a slower pace with plenty of stops around the market boats if you want to take your time while taking pictures.