What should I do in Vietnam?
July 13, 2008 2:32 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone have suggestions for me regarding my 14 day trip to Vietnam? I am in my late 20s, I am traveling alone, and I have never traveled in a foreign country before. I am flying into Ho Chi Minh City and would like to explore as much of Vietnam as possible. I was considering traveling by train and heading north. How easy/difficult is it to navigate the train system in Vietnam? Please, any suggestions, destinations, tips, etc. would be greatly appreciated.
posted by misterL to Travel & Transportation around Vietnam (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Read Catfish and Mandala by Andrew Pham. It's an intimate account of a young Vietnamese-American's travels through Vietnam, and it won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. A must-read for anyone traveling there, in my opinion.
posted by halogen at 3:13 PM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

We went the opposite direction a couple of years ago, flying into Hanoi and by train, mostly, to Saigon (nobody seems to call it Ho Chi Minh). You'll have a great time. People are friendly and especially in the south a lot of English is spoken. I don't have my trip notes here but I'm sure there is stuff on line (and that others here will chime in). We loved side trips to the Mekong, Hoi An, etc.
Be careful crossing the street in Saigon!
Lonely Planet has this to say about trains:
While sometimes train travel can be slower than bus travel, it is safer and more relaxed, and you're likely to have decent legroom. There are several types of train, including the famous Reuinification Express ; but think twice before you take a crowded, snail-paced local train. Petty theft can be a problem on trains, especially in budget class. Children throwing things at carriages, everything from rocks to cow dung, is another problem, and you're advised to keep the metal shield on the window in place.
And I wouldn't disagree but we had a great time. I read something about new high-speed service coming in but I'm not sure if it happened.
We also traveled happily by bus, taxi and hired car.
posted by Mngo at 3:19 PM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was there two years ago.

I thought the train system was just fine. It's a bit slow, but I found it fairly dependable. I did the over-night trains, which were really nice (especially if you upgrade). The system is really simple.

You should at least see Saigon, Hanoi, Cu Chi, Ha Long Bay, Hué & the DMZ.
posted by einarorn at 3:33 PM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Vietnam is a fantastic country with a lot to offer, I was there just short of a month a few years ago, and didn't really feel I had enough time. I wouldn't know much about navigating the train system there, I arrived right at the beginning of Tet (new year, major holiday ~2 weeks long) and trains weren't running their normal schedule for most of that time. However, buses got me everywhere I wanted to go.

What you do there really depends on your interests. If you prefer to/intend to/must stay on the tourist path... There is a lot to see right there in HCM, and all along the outskirts (Cu Chi tunnels come to mind). You might also consider taking a trip into the Mekong Delta, I didn't do this myself, but I've heard great things. You could also take the train/bus up north to the Hoi An, Hue, Da Nang area where there is quite a bit more to see.

Vietnam is such a huge country, 2 weeks won't feel like much time. And don't get me wrong here, I'd love to have 2 weeks to spend in Vietnam. As a proponent of slow travel, I encourage you to avoid trying to make this a whirlwind tour, and enjoy your in just a few places. "Saigon, Hanoi, Cu Chi, Ha Long Bay, Hué & the DMZ" are all great places, but very spread out. Unless you fly domestically (which you can do for not too much $$) you will spend a lot of your time on buses and trains. That being said....if you are certain you will never return to Vietnam you really should see these places. I'd also add Sapa to the list as it is one of my favorite places on earth (not everyone feels that way), though that'll cost you in travel time. When planning you should know, Cu Chi is close to Saigon/HCM city. I didn't visit the DMZ, but I believe it's tours operate out of Hue. And tours to Ha Long Bay and Sapa both operate out of Hanoi. But the closest city to Sapa is actually Lao Cai.

These forums also have a wealth of information.

If you want to get off the tourist path...well, that's something you need to figure out how to do on your own really, but some of the stories on Brave New Traveler may help get you started.

Enjoy your travels!
posted by NormandyJack at 3:48 PM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

The My Son ruins of the Cham dynasty era seem pretty cool.

I really envy you, having recenly read *a lot* on the american involvement in the war I would love to revisit the major battlefields . . . the Ia Drang battle of 1965, especially the Chu Pong massif & LZ X Ray -> LZ Albany hike, Khe Sanh, Danang, QL-19 from Nha Trang to Pleiku, plus the whole central, mountainous coast of what was SVN seems to be rather beautiful in pictures.

Cu Chi itself looks way too tourist trappy for me, since for the most part the 25th Division that had its cantonment there didn't really uncover the tunnel complex at all.
posted by yort at 4:50 PM on July 13, 2008

The train system in Vietnam is slow but dependable. You can (and should) book train tickets through your hotel or a travel agent (there are thousands in Ho Chi Minh city). Also, GO TO SAPA. It's awesome.
posted by jozzas at 5:04 PM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd visit Hoi An and rent a bike there to chill for a few days and escape the madness of Saigon. Also highly recommend going to Sapa (you can get there by train from Hanoi).

Air travel inside Vietnam is not too expensive and will save you time.

IF you have a chance I'd also recommend going to Siem Reap (in Cambodia) as visiting the Angkor temples is not to be missed.
posted by ig at 8:48 PM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I spent a couple of weeks in Vietnam a couple of years ago and found that the train system was easy enough to use, though I only used it once (I took an overnight sleeper which was convenient and comfortable). Mostly I used the long-distance tourist coaches which are cheap and a bit more flexible.

The things I enjoyed the most of my time there included the Mekong Delta (a multi-day guided tour from HCM which takes in a lot of excellent sights and experiences isn't that expensive, and is handy if you haven't much time), a fun day out with the Easy Riders of Da Lat, wandering around Hue, the Cu Chi tunnels, and a sobering experience at the War Remnants Museum in HCM. Though obviously there's a lot else to see - it's a deep, beautiful and welcoming country
posted by thoughtless at 1:56 AM on July 14, 2008

Oh yes, and My Son is cool also, though most traveller types will remind you of how it pales in comparison to Angkor Wat.
posted by thoughtless at 1:58 AM on July 14, 2008

To add to NormandyJack's comment. Yes, the places I mentioned are far apart, but you can easily do 2-3 overnight trains to cover most of the distance, especially if you think this might be the only time you go to Vietnam. Sapa really adds a lot of time to the trip.

I did a one-day tour of the DMZ (I normally hate organized tours) out of Hué, which was great.
posted by einarorn at 2:26 AM on July 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I went from Saigon to Hanoi. I used the bus, which has a one-time fee (which is pretty cheap) and you can get off at any of the 6 or 7 towns along the way and stay there for a few days, then get the next bus, which came by daily. Be warned, though: the first bus was a decent enough middle-sized passenger bus, and they promised these big busses only, but for one leg of the journey, I had to stuff myself into a freakin' minivan for 8 hours. Not fun, that. After it was all done I wished I had traveled by train instead.

The landscape is beautiful, the mountains, the jungles, the beaches, all amazing (of course outside the cities). People are very nice...and then there's the touts. You will get harassed by touts selling you everything from t-shirts to taxi rides. Touts pop up in unexpected places, too, like the beach in a tiny little hamlet. Again, people are very friendly, but can be on the aggro side of things, so keep your cool when you tell someone for the fiftieth time that no, I don't want a necklace, they're nice, but no.
posted by zardoz at 3:04 AM on July 14, 2008

In summary: Don't waste your time in the cities! They are an experience, but much of Viet Nam still is in the countryside.

My experience is in the North. Ha Noi is lovely, but you need maybe 2 days, tops. Definitely visit Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay areas. I haven't been to HCMC but get the impression it's not a tourist mecca.
posted by whatzit at 4:05 AM on July 14, 2008

I went to Vietnam about 7 years ago and the highlight was an organised, 3 day, tour of the Mekong Delta (main rice production centre). I think the company was called Sinh Tours (they seemd to have outlets everywhere.

I would normally avoid an organised tour, but it just seemed like the easiest way to get into the countryside. It turned out to be fantastic - there were 3 of us and a french couple taken all over the Mekong Delat by an old Vietnamese guide who was a mine of information - we took numerous forms of transport (minibus, various boats) and saw things that we would never have seen if we were travelling independantly. Truely unforgettable and I think it cost us about $50 for 3 days including all transport and hotels.

Now, it was about 7 years ago, so not sure how much things will have changed, but i'd definitley recommend it.
posted by mairuzu at 5:20 AM on July 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

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