I recently visited Vietnam for the first time for 2 weeks, and it still was not enough to cover this interesting South East Asian country, which is filled with lots of history, breath-taking landscapes and cultural sites.
I have always wanted to visit Vietnam, after hearing countless rave reviews from people including my mom who highly recommended I add it to my list of countries to travel to.
After much convincing and encouragement from my mom, I decided to do a Contiki tour whilst in Vietnam as a way to meet fellow solo travellers and tour the big country without the stress of organising it myself. And yes mom you were right, it was the best decision.
I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City 3 days before the Contiki tour began, as I wanted to see the city on my own and get some rest before the madness of the tour. I booked myself into a hostel (Saigon Smile Hostel), which was value for its price, as breakfast was included and had a great free WiFi connection.
- For a South African, to get a Vietnamese visa you will be expected to fill out a form upon arrival and then pay $25 to get the visa.
- To get to your hotel/hostel from Tan Son Nhat International Airport to the city centre, it’s approximately 45 minutes. A metered taxi will cost between VND200,000 and VND250,000. Make sure the taxi meter is turned on & working! The airport exit toll fee is 10,000 VND, so the driver will always add 10-15,000 VND to your metered fare.
Exploring Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is Vietnam’s largest city with millions of scooters wheezing and speeding through the streets. It can be overwhelming at first but fear not, before you know it you will be enjoying the thrill of chaos. The best way to get around is by foot, unless you like to live on the edge, then hiring a scooter will be right up your alley.
The Ben Thanh market is a must-do for some good old-fashioned bargain shopping. Since Ben Thanh is every shoppers dream, I had to avoid it, because knowing the shopaholic demon in me would not be able to hold back and would end up having to buy another bag for all the new stuff. So, unless your funds are unlimited, shop with a purpose to avoid getting carried away.
Before departing for the coastal city of Nha Trang with my fellow Contiki travel comrades, I had a day of site-seeing, which included visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the few remaining strongholds of Catholicism in Vietnam. Unfortunately it can only be seen from the outside. After the cathedral, it was off to the Saigon Central Post Office. There is not much at the post office, but as one of the oldest buildings in the heart of the city, it is worth seeing for its beauty. The nice thing is that both sites are across the road from each other, so you can tick both sights off at once.
If you’re a history fan like me, then the War Remnants Museum is just the place for you. The museum offers more insight about the tragic history of the country – including the devastating effects of the Vietnamese war on the people of Vietnam, from their perspective. The museum includes photographs taken by world famous photographers; documents; uniforms worn by soldiers, original helicopters and tanks, and more.
Ho Chi Minh City is filled with many rooftop bars, cafes and lounges to enjoy a drink while soaking in the city’s views and skyline. Pham Ngu Lao (district 1 and 2) is the best area to hang out and party. Also many hostels and fellow solo-travellers/foreigners will be found in this area. If you are a coffee lover, Vietnam will be your paradise. To find nice cafés can be a bit tricky, as many places are hidden in buildings which look like an office, or abandoned, but don’t let that stop you from exploring.
Ho Chi Minh City was definitely and by far my favourite city in Vietnam. The energy, buzz and hustle was electrifying and reminded me of home (Johannesburg).
Kicking back in Nha Trang
The coastal town overlooking the South China Sea was one of my favourite destinations in Vietnam, as the golden sand beaches, turquoise oceans and chilled vibe reminded me of home, specifically Durban. There is not much to do in Nha Trang except unplug, unwind and spend the two days relaxing and chilling at the beach. The Contiki trip manager organised a dinner for us on the beach at The Sailing Club restaurant, which had great food for the price and a fire-show for entertainment.
- Food is cheap in Vietnam and often cheaper to just eat street food. Most sit-down restaurants are also inexpensive at around VND45,000-120,000. The fancier (and more touristy) the restaurant, the more expensive. Western food will also be more expensive. A litre of water at a convenience store is about VND15,000, while beer or soda at a restaurant is about 20,000-35,000 VND.
Time travel in Hoi An
The canal town of Hoi An is filled with beauty, charm and ancient history, with Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and European influences. The best way to explore the small town and enjoy the architecture, is to hire a bike and ride around the old quarter. If you’re obsessed with fitted clothing and tailoring, then Hoi An is just the place for you, as it is known for its tailoring and custom made clothes.
Hoi An was a great stop in the trip, even though, it is a small town, the nightlife is like any other big city, so, worry not, there are plenty of bars like Tiger Tiger to get your groove on along the river.
- There is no real need to get a local sim-card if you don’t need your phone all the time, as many places have WIFI. Most hostels will offer free WiFi
The old town of Hue:
After two days in Hoi An, it was off to Hue, a four hour bus ride. Hue is known for its intricately decorated pavilions, lotus flower ponds, and colourful artworks. We got a short city tour on the local rickshaws, with our first stop at the Imperial Citadel, which is a must see. However,I would advise you to only do it when you have time, as, there is a lot of ground to cover. After the Imperial Citadel, we visited one of Vietnam’s most distinctive architecture Thien Mu Pagoda, where we got a history lesson of the horrific history of the Hue Buddhist massacre. Pagodas are used as shrines and temples and are treasured by the Vietnamese people.
After a day of history and site-seeing, we relaxed with some good old fun at a karaoke restaurant, DMZ. I enjoyed Hue for its relaxed and quiet atmosphere. Also there are not as many tourists here as there are in Hoi An.
Hanoi and Halong Bay
The final stop of the Contiki tour was Vietnam’s time capsule capital, which has influences of French, Chinese & Vietnamese. Hanoi is one of those cities, you either love it or hate it. After a day of adjusting to it, I began to understand those who love it. After wrapping my head around the bustle of the maze of 36 trading streets filled with colourful goods for sale, I began to appreciate the juxtaposition of the old colonial remnants and ancient history existing amidst the modern and commercialism.
A must see in Hanoi, is the Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, which is the resting place of Ho Chi Minh, the former President of the Communist Party of Vietnam, and The Temple of Literature, a tribute to education and literature. Fortunately, the temple is well preserved and is an excellent example of traditional Vietnamese architecture.
In between the Hanoi stay, Contiki took us to Halong Bay for a night on a Chinese-style junk boat at the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site (4 hour bus ride from Hanoi). The serenity kicked in immediately as we drifted past the limestone island seas of the Gulf of Tonkin, passing hidden lagoons, thick forests and dreamy grottos, and a stop to explore the Sung Sot Caves. The fresh seafood dinner and sunset at our docking spot made the bay experience simply unforgettable.
All in all Contiki was fun and would recommend it. It was good to have people to share the experience of Vietnam with. However, I honestly doubt I would do it again because it felt too rushed (understandable as there is a lot to get through), unless I wanted to visit many countries in a short amount of time.
I would highly recommend Vietnam. The best part is that it is quite a safe place to backpack and travel, even if you are traveling solo or even as a solo female traveler.
- Be sure to always count your change! The money is similar looking here so often times people will mistakenly give you the wrong change hoping you won’t notice that the VND 200,000 bill you just got is actually only 20,000. Always count your change!
- English for Vietnamese people is often a 3rd or 2nd language if it all. So it is highly advisable and recommended you download a translation app to help you translate whatever you are asking for. It saved me more times than I could count. I use Translate Now.