#816. Traveling Vietnam

By Steffen Kamprath | Travel Photography

Feb 02

New Year’s resolution #173: Write more articles for DearSusan. So this one comes straight from my archive. I tried to avoid travel bucket lists and focus on inspirational personal anecdotes instead. Tell me if that works for you.

It’s the 30th of December 2010. We arrived in Hanoi with 18h delay due to a missed connection flight in Paris. It is my second time in Asia and my first time in Vietnam. All I know: We have a return-flight from Bangkok in about four weeks and a room in a small hostel for the next days. I’m super excited about this trip and our new way of traveling.

Street hawker in Hanoi


Our hostel picked us up at the airport. That is usual for Asia, specifically for Vietnam, because the owners want to make sure you arrive at their venue and not at some rip-off with the same name.

We spend the next days strolling through Hanoi’s old town and French Quarter, amazed by all the narrow alleys, buzzing street life, exotic markets and tasty local cuisine. Winter in Hanoi means cloudy sky and temperatures below 20°C. The grey-in-grey weather fitted greatly to the atmosphere of the old city.

At night, we set our further travel plans. We wanted to travel down the coast via Huế, Hội An, Nha Trang, Đà Lạt to Ho Chi Minh City, former Saigon. In a time before Airbnb, booking.com and Agoda (the Asian booking.com), and when broadband internet connection was not broad at all, we relied on our Lonely Planet guide, asked our current hostel to call the next one, and used local vendors for tickets and tours. We chose a two-day tour to the world-famous Halong Bay, a ticket for the night train to our next stop Huế, and flight and accommodation for Phu Quoc Island in the South (a recommendation from a friend). Luckily, a friend of the shop owner just recently opened a Eco resort in the north of the island, far away from the usual tourist locations. Fake or not, we’ll see … At worst, we just lost $250.

Night over Ha Long Bay

A couple of days later, we were picked up for Halong Bay (that worked already). Tours for the famous rock formations are very touristic because everyone wants to go there. And they’re amazing! Unfortunately, the weather is always an issue. In winter it is cold and foggy. In summer it is warm and extremely sticky, and mosquitos kill you. Choose your battle.

Small boat between Ha Long Bay rocks


Returning to Hanoi, we should be taken to the train station and meet the driver in front of the travel shop. After 30 min of waiting, the owner came back from lunch, surprised to see us still waiting. No five minutes later, we were sitting on the backseats of two of his friend’s mopeds (including baggage) and rushed through Hanoi’s afternoon traffic.

We must have looked quite confused on entering the station but only 5 m into the hall, someone approached us, took our tickets and hand baggage and guided us outside to the tracks, to a train and to our compartment.

On the night train to Hue

In our cabin were two more people: An elderly Vietnamese lady and one Canadian backpacker. The woman was accompanied by her daughter who told us that her mother is visiting her family in Huế but can only speak French and asked if we could take care of her during the trip. Of course we can but our French is very limited. Nevertheless we managed to use hands and feet for conversation, she showed us photos of her family, we shared sweets and watched the passing landscape. The Canadian dude, however, came right off a home stay in Sapa and smelled like a campfire. Sapa (or Sa Pả) is a famous region in the northern mountains known for is beautiful rice terraces and several ethnic minorities. But in winter, temperature drops below 0°C, and we didn’t wanted to carry extra winter clothes but travel light instead. Next time. He told us, he recently quit work, now travels the world alone, and showed us a video of him drinking fresh snake heart right before departure — that kind of guy. Later, right after I climbed into my bed and turned off the light, the air conditioning went on and blew icy, smelly air right into my face. I buried myself under my blanket … That’s gone be a long night.

But somehow I managed to fall asleep and woke up only minutes before arriving Huế the next morning. My girlfriend and the old lady were already watching the new landscape. As we arrived the station, a drizzling rain set in but our pick-up from the hotel told us it would be over in a matter of minutes. The rain didn’t stop for the next two days and the forecast showed it will stay that way for some more. Furthermore, it was also colder than it already was in Hanoi. And the cold, my girlfriend brought from Germany, was now in full effect — and we didn’t had tissues! Buying tissues is not something you just do in rural Asia. Pro tip: Always carry tissues when traveling. Seriously!

Hue’s Citadel in rain; and although many brave men died to hold or capture this place, I’m not in the mood for sightseeing

So I spend the days in Huế alone, weary wandering around the Citadel and Imperial City. Enough is enough! We have to get to a warmer place, asap. So I went to a travel shop and exchanged our train tickets for the next possible flight to Ho Chi Min City, which fortunately was the same evening — for the price of a Berlin taxi ride.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City: warmth and palms, finally

At midnight we arrived Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) at a cozy 34°C outside … Here we go! Again, pick-up from the hostel … and here’s something to know: When it comes to cheap city hotels in Vietnam (and maybe elsewhere), you can usually choose between two types of rooms: with and without windows. “Windows, of course!” Well, not so fast. In Hanoi we had a room with window. The alley behind the window was so narrow you literally could not open it, except maybe 10 cm — not to mention sunlight. Our first hotel in HCMC had a room with no windows. That means cool and quiet. When we returned a few days later, we had another hotel with a window room and a beautiful balcony view but all the noise and heat of the city around the clock. Just that you know …

Ho Chi Minh City is very different from Hanoi, a modern, bright city, same bustle and street life but different, more laid-back. The streets are wider, you see more Westerners, a small art scene … and it’s warm and you have palm trees. As you may have noticed in the photos, the sky is always overcast and it is very humid. Can’t imagine what it’s like in summer. And we also found tissues: Deeply buried inside a cosmetics booth in Ben Thanh Market we found an original German package of Tempos — for an insanely high price. My girlfriend recovered within days and we planed our further travel: Next up is Phu Quoc island and for our trip to Cambodia we found a great three-day boat tour on the Mekong River all the way to the capital Phnom Penh. We also booked a day tour to the colorful Cao Đài temple north of HCMC and the Củ Chi tunnels, the tunnel system used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

Phu Quoc

Flights for Phu Quoc depart from Ho Chi Minh International Airport. This airport is your regular international airport, and as we drove through all the large planes in the airfield bus, I spotted a small propeller plane near the edge. And I thought it would be really great to fly with one of them, until I realized we were directly heading to it. It was a small plane for 20-something passengers. I stuck to the window and enjoyed the whole shebang. My girlfriend not so much as you feel every air gap in these small low-flying aircrafts. After less than 45 min we landed on a very small airport in the midst of a jungle. The terminal building was literally no more than four walls and a roof. They pushed the baggage through one hole and that’s it.

As they said: Far away from any touristic spot.

About two weeks ago, we paid some guy in a small shop in Hanoi and when we left the terminal, our pickup was already waiting with a small bus and a big smile. We were taken to a small resort in a calm bay in the north of the island, far away from the touristic, surrounded by thick jungle. It was as lovely as described. We spend the next days totally relaxing, reading in hammocks, enjoying fresh fruits and local dishes, snorkeling and kayaking over the beautiful coral reef right in the bay and discovering secluded beaches nearby.

Wearing those pajamas as regular day clothes was quite common all over Vietnam. I can only guess: It’s colorful, comfortable, and light.

One day we decided to increase our action radius and rented a moped. I looked at the map, saw about 5 roads in the whole island and we decided to head to the Northwest coast, which was like: Follow the road, and on the crossway turn left. In reality, there were more than five roads on this island and, unfortunately, side roads were indistinguishable from main roads. A couple of kilometers into the jungle, we saw a car with a driver on the side. We stopped to asked if we were still on the right track. Unfortunately, the driver didn’t speak English at all, but immediately called his boss who translated. Yes, we were still on track but the road was much longer than expected. You can’t go fast on an unpaved road and keeping an eye out for potholes is very exhausting.

That famous crossroad we where looking for half a day or so. There were like six cows laying on the street right next to me, who did not even move when a truck wanted to get through.

At some point we made it to the crossway. But that was only halfway and it was already afternoon. I didn’t want to be out here after sunset. So we turned right instead, heading south and then have a round trip. As it turned out, the main road was still in progress and almost the entire stretch was a single, kilometer-long construction site. Just at sunset, we made it back to our resort and I noticed my skin was completely red. OMG, I burnt myself so hard! Luckily, after a refreshing jump into the sea, all redness was gone. We were just covered by red dust all over.

That sunset … that peace …

Mekong River

After a week or so we returned to Saigon (I really prefer the old name), spend some more days there and finally set out to our three-day boat trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Mekong River with skyline in HCMC

Now, don’t get me wrong, but I watched movies like Apocalypse Now as “preparation” for our journey. And I had this picture of me in my head, standing at the prow, cruising along the river with dense jungle to the side… And then reality hits hard: The Mekong River is the number one thoroughfare in the Mekong delta and for the 8 million capital HCMC. It is a dirty, muddy brew and frequented like the Berlin city highway with self-made boats of all shapes and sizes.

Ferry on Mekong river in foreground with huge bridges in the background spanning over the flat country

For the first night we docked in Cần Thơ and had the opportunity to visit the local floating markets the next morning. What you see in the picture are the bigger boats, that are the sellers, approached by smaller boats, which are the local buyers. And each seller has this long bar which they use to display what goods they’re selling, like pineapples, melons, potatoes, etc. A picturesque scene like out of a NatGeo reportage.

Floating market, Can Tho

Further on, as we were heading closer to the Cambodia border, the scenery changed. The jungle grew thicker, cities became towns became villages and at some point only isolated houses. Small children were playing on the waterside and people waved us while our boat slowly fought against the current. Deep inner peace settled, and we witnessed the most spectacular sunsets sitting on the bow of the ship.

Dramatic sunset over Mekong delta

On the third day, we crossed the border to Cambodia … and how we traveled there and finally made our way to Bangkok, Thailand, is left for a future (shorter) post. Stay tuned, dear reader.


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Steffen, when I opened up this posting I could scarcely believe my luck!

    This is a tourist guide to Vietnam, with a supercharger!

    Street photography like none other!

    Available light photography, which I adore!

    Beautiful sunsets!

    At first, I was sadly looking at the smaller photos, thinking you’d reduce the size to share more photos with us – then I started sharing them with my wife, and tried a couple to see if it was possible to view them on another screen – YES!!! – they all enlarge, so you can see all the detail and study each of them with the respect they command and deserve!

    I now have to wait for the next instalment – Thailand, here we come!

    And I think I am correct in saying this, to finish off – this is the first post I’ve put on DS where every single paragraph ends with an exclamation mark!

    • Thank you, Pete. I’m super slow in writing these articles, so don’t expect pt.2 soon-ish. This one took me roughly 1 month to complete. So this may be your time frame 🙂 Though, pt. 2 will focus mostly on Cambodia. I hope that is ok. But if this format is well received, I can then start with Thailand where I have been last year.

      However, I’m still researching if this kind of articles are wanted and appreciated by our readership. I personally do so. But depending on the feedback I could optimize the process and content (shorter/longer, more/less images, more/less gear, destinations, actual tips/prose/narrative …).

      For the small images: Pascal updated the backend and now I found this module “Gallery” which I found very suitable for dealing with my large amounts of images. However, it doesn’t work as intended (i.e. slideshow in an overlay). I’ll ask him if he can install a slideshow. But for a quick work-around, you can just hold cmd/ctrl or shift-cmd/ctrl and click on the image to open it in a new tab.

  • Pascal says:

    Nice post!
    My sweetheart being Vietnamese, I live part of the year here in Saigon, hence a few tips:
    – now, it’s easy to find tissues (and a ton of other stuff like toothpaste, coffee, whatever) in South-East Asia : there are 7Eleven or K-Mart everywhere… find one with Google and your are set 🙂
    – confirmed: the North, in the mountains (being Vietnam or Thailand) can be freezing; pack a pullover;
    – rain is a fact of life part of the year… advice: pack a very light raincoat.. you will sweat less 🙂
    – the South is very sunny in the dry season, from December to April… hence another tip: take at least one long sleeve shirt… I saw too many visitors with burned arms…
    – on the coast, Da Nang and Nha Trang are very crowded… the small cities along the coast offer a more authentic experience:
    – as a final note, tourism started late but is developing very fast and strong in Vietnam… places like Hoi An and Can Tho have sometimes more tourists than locals, unfortunately; one easy way is to book only one night then rent a scooter locally (max 6 usd per 24 hours), and explore the small roads; driving in Hanoi and Saigon is not for everyone, but in rural areas it is easy.

    • Thank you, Pascal, for your additional tips. A friend of mine traveled from north to south Vietnam just like two years ago and his experience was totally different then mine was 8 years ago. The cities change their whole face every once in a while, Phu Quoc is super touristy now but you have faster internet than we have here in Germany. There were no 7elevens and we only saw very few tourists actually. It either got much worse or you can still make your way around them.

      For the scooter: Great idea! We also did it a couple of times and it’s very easy and convenient in SEA. Though, in Hanoi and HCMC, I wouldn’t touch it at all. I guess most westerners have problems crossing the street by foot in these cities. Anyways, a friend is currently doing a 2-month trip with a motorbike he bought there and will sell afterwards. That is also not unusual.

      As I said in the beginning, this is not a travel bucket list and it’s 8 years old. This is supposed to be an inspiration of traveling without agenda, adapting the flow, and coming back with memories that feel like yesterday even after 8 years.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        One of my earlier sweethearts was an Italian and when she decided to return to her village, north of Udine, I went to make sure she was OK. I spent several months there and had a wonderful time. And although I’d sworn off EVER going on a mo’bike again after a disaster when I last rode my brother’s, she & I went all over the place on 50cc motobikes – not scooters, some other version of cross-breeding motor mowers with a bicycle. She had several of them, so we just used to grab a couple of them and set out for the country.
        And although I won’t say this generally, I did find they were safe on back roads. I suspect you guys are right in suggesting it as a means of transport around Vietnam.
        Pascal, I was surprised by the suggestion tourism is so recent in Vietnam. The impression from here is that as soon as the Yanks went home and the country was unified, tourism started all over again – and has snowballed, ever since.
        It’s well over 20 years ago that I helped a team of 3 doctors from Lyon to take over a hospital project there. They have one of the best cuisines in the world (OK, the french will probably claim some of the responsibility for that, but the fact remains that Viet cooking is superb!) They have an extraordinary range of things to see and places to go – as Steffen’s photos demonstrate. It’s relatively free of American tourists (LMAO – couldn’t resist that one! – just read some of the worst bilge I’ve ever seen, on how wonderful America is!) And the people are perfectly charming.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Hi Steffen… I agree on the whole things.. and yes, as I said it changes fast! I love blogs from all times… I keep my decades-old Geo Mags… so for me traveling in time is as precious as traveling in space 😀

    Hi Jean-Pierre, indeed by “recent” I mean this: Thailand has been betting on tourism ages ago, and is super organized for that; people forget it, but after the war Vietnam became (and this is so understandable!) very cautious… hence, “larger” tourism started later, and the figures for tourism are not comparable: last year Vietnam around 1 millions, Thailand around 30 millions! This while Thailand has 60M people, Vietnam 90M!
    Objectively, Vietnam has some real drawbacks: in Thailand, prices are showed everywhere, no local (except in some places n Bangkok and the south…) will try to rip you off… we live often in Chiang Mai, in the North, never felt treated differently. While in Vietnam, few places put prices, and everyone will try to sell for this highest possible price… even to other Vietnamese people!
    I have seen in the countryside my sweetheart bargaining for.. a bus ticket! That makes foreigners’s experiences rough sometimes; on top, the 98,5% buddhists in Thailand means that (again, at least in the North that we know well), you can leave your scooter with the keys on it and enjoy your meal… to be strongly avoided in cities in Vietnam… one of the reasons there are guards in front of shops, restaurants, our building’s parking… sad but true. Traveling in Vietnam is still a wonderful experience, mostly because it sill feels more intact in small places, but these points might also explain some reticences.
    At least, guides are there to help a lot… plus some web sites not so known from Westerners, like Agoda of FourSquare…
    I feel only one rule is absolute in Asie: be relax, smile, don’t get angry, and if you don’t like something calmly make your point… I see too many foreigners with a “tense” attitude… not well accepted here. Becoming angry is literally an insult…
    Happy travel to all!

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Oh, Jean-Pierre, you mention the Vietnamese cuisine… well, it’s one of the freshest ones on Earth, period.
    I have pics of the typical farmer lady sitting on the alley in front of a… street restaurant.
    Each time this one is in short supply for a vegetable, let’s say, they buy from the lady!
    Very different from the Thai one, less “colorful”… but their ingredients are impeccable.
    On top, their “banh mi” (the local sandwiches) are… phenomenal. For 50 cents, you can enjoy a perfect backpacker meal 🙂
    And the milk coffee (ca phe sua) is something too… coming from a coffee maniac with an expresso machine home 🙂

    And to insist, yes, renting a scooter is a wonderful way to visit Vietnam.
    One important precaution: you MUST possess an international driving license valid for a 125CC motorcycle.
    I see everyday tourists disdainful of that… and paying fines; the local polices “got enough” of it and chase tourists for that.

    To finish: yes, few American tourists… unfortunately, there is a new trend in South-East Asia: Chinese tourists… I love China, I studied sinology in my youth, but I am forced to say that these tourists often behave… well, bad. Noisy, careless… locals don’t like them much..New money… let’s hope that the real former Chinese education will make a come back…

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      “Chinese tourists” is the new “American tourists”. But while I know what you mean, they’re not all bad.

      On one trip, I found myself frequently confronted with ill-mannered chinese tourists around Paris. But then on my first ever overseas trip, I watched in horror as a bunch of drunken Australian tourists pushed through a street cafe in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, directly opposite the Palazzo dei Dogi, knocking tables over and worse. I was so embarrassed, that ever since then I’ve generally avoided telling anyone I meet in my travels that I am from Australia.

      I had to laugh when I read your description of the restaurant buying food as needed. Where I lived before buying this house, there was a vietnamese restaurant a kilometre or so from my house, and the guy who owned it also owned a fruit & vegetable shop in the same street. Being an older suburb, there was a laneway behind all the places in the street, from the days when the night cart used to trundle past and empty the cans in the toilets. And my restaurant guy used to run his shop during the day & his restaurant at night. So whenever he ran out of ingredients in the restaurant, he’d run up the alley to his shop, and come back a couple of minutes later with whatever he’d run out of. But greath food! – VERY popular! – always jam packed with people! And during the day his fruit & vegetable shop was legend, too.

      Good point about the scooters. I generally travel with an international licence – but I hadn’t thought about scooters (I wouldn’t drive one now anyway). When I rode them in Italy in 1974, 50cc mo’bikes did not require a licence. But that’s only one example, in one country. And different countries have different laws. We all need to check local laws, before we go to another country – restrictions on what we can photograph, for example, are fundamental for our purposes.

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