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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Dos & Don’ts in Vietnam: 6 Tips for Travelers

 Vietnam is a diverse and fascinating destination, offering a range of experiences that are worth exploring before your visit. In this article, seasoned traveler Ronan O'Connell shares valuable tips on what to do (and what not to do) in Vietnam, cultural etiquette, weather conditions, currency, and transportation options.



Spanning 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from north to south and home to over 50 ethnic groups, Vietnam is the epitome of diversity in Southeast Asia. With China, Cambodia, and Laos as its neighboring countries, Vietnam offers a unique blend of cultures and landscapes that continue to captivate visitors. To fully appreciate the country, it is advisable to gain some knowledge about Vietnam before embarking on your journey.

Explore Beyond Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam’s cities are so lively, so captivating, that I didn’t venture outside them on my first three trips. When I finally delved into its countryside I was transfixed – not just due to the natural splendor of its misty mountains, dense forests, photogenic rice terraces, and sun-laced beaches, but also the wonderful heritage that’s preserved in its villages and towns. While Vietnam’s cities have modernized greatly in the past 20 years, becoming increasingly Westernized, beyond those metropolises are many communities which showcase unique and ancient architecture and lifestyles. For example, Duong Lam, a charming 1,200-year-old farming village of mud brick homes which lies about 37mi (60km) west of Hanoi. Perhaps you want a simultaneous dose of heritage and scenery? Then visit Lao Cai, a rugged province in the far north of Vietnam that hugs its border with China. This is one of the first places I ever traveled solo, and I still have daydreams about its colorful hill tribes, spectacular hiking trails, and historic mountainside villages.

Etiquette when visiting religious sites in Vietnam

Encompassing gilded Buddhist temples, colorful Taoist pagodas, and stately Christian churches, Vietnam’s regal religious structures are among the country’s finest attractions. I highly recommend Hanoi’s lakeside Tran Quoc Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh City’s flamingo pink church, and Hue’s ancient Thien Mu Pagoda.

Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue. Image credit: Getty Images / rchphoto

Although visitors to these religious sites aren’t directed to cover up, there is an unwritten dress code. These are, after all, places of solemn worship, so don’t wear anything too casual or too revealing. Vietnamese people are so polite they likely won’t confront you even if you’re dressed inappropriately, so take it upon yourself to be neat, tidy, and reasonably modest in appearance, to keep your voice down inside these complexes, and not to be intrusive with your photography. I’ve never had anyone object to me taking a photo inside a Vietnamese religious site, but while doing so I keep as much distance as possible, so as not to disturb worshippers.

Vietnam currency advice – be prepared to become a millionaire

Changing just USD $50 in Vietnam will make you a millionaire – that’s because $1 normally converts to more than 20,000 Vietnamese Dong. I’m good at math, but even I struggle mentally converting a Vietnamese price tag of, say 1.4 million Dong, which is why my phone’s calculator gets a lot of use. Further complicating matters is the fact Vietnam has 17 different varieties of coins and notes. The lowest denomination is 100 Dong, which comes in both coin and note form, and is worth about USD 0.5c. So, your wallet could bulge with 200 of those bills, yet combined they’d only amount to USD $1. Because of the bulk of notes, I don’t carry any denomination less than 10,000 Dong (worth nearly USD 50c) and leave the remainder in my room as part of my daily tip for the hotel cleaners.

Managing the weather in Vietnam

One of the few things I dislike about Southeast Asia is its year-round hot and humid weather. So, I treasure the fact that Vietnam actually has a real winter. Home to some of the northernmost points of SE Asia – including national capital Hanoi, stunning hilltribe town Sapa, and spectacular Halong Bay – the upper third of Vietnam can be refreshingly cool.

A member of the Red Dao hill tribe near Sapa, Vietnam. Image credit: Brian Rapsey

From November to February, maximum temperatures there typically rest in the friendly 66°-77°F (19°-25°C) range, compared to 86°-93°F (30°-34°C) in places like Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In the wonderful mountain villages of northern Vietnam, temperatures can drop as low as 39°F (4°C) in winter.

You can buy brand-name clothing for next to nothing

Southeast Asia is famous for markets which sell fake versions of popular clothing brands. In Vietnam, though, you can buy real brand-name clothing for as cheap as those copies. That’s because Vietnam is a hub of manufacturing for many leading clothing brands, and their factory seconds end up being sold for one-quarter of retail prices in places like the Old Quarter of Hanoi, or Ho Chi Minh City’s Russian market. These factory seconds are not torn or stained or misshapen – typically they just have tiny blemishes, like interior labels that are off-center or smudged. Over the past decade, I’ve bought dozens of these brand-name shirts, jackets, shorts and pants in Vietnam which looked perfect from the outside, and over years of wear proved to be the genuine article.

Unless you’re experienced, don’t ride a motorbike in Vietnam

It strikes me every time I arrive in Vietnam – the remarkable volume of motorbikes, which outnumber cars by more than 20 to 1 in this nation. It’s tempting to join in because motorbikes are very cheap to rent, it’s legal for foreigners to hire versions that are 50cc or less, and Vietnamese scenery is splendid and begs to be explored on two wheels. But, as explained in our guide to motorcycling in Vietnam, this is not a country for novices. If you’re a veteran motorcyclist, then by all means, savor the ride (be sure you’re properly licensed, and always wear a helmet). But amateurs can easily get into trouble due to the swarming and unpredictable traffic, often uneven road surfaces, and their lack of familiarity with Vietnam’s road rules.


Tuesday, March 7, 2023

HOI AN TRAVEL GUIDE


Hoi An was my favorite destination in Vietnam.

When I backpacked Hoi An, I fell in love.

I loved spending time by the river, watching the sunset, strolling through the narrow streets of the Old Town strung with colorful lanterns, and drinking cheap beer. The city is packed with picturesque historical homes, pagodas, and street-side cafes.

It’s amazing.

Hoi An is an extremely popular place for buying handmade clothing and is one of the main reasons why people come here. The garment industry is the city’s main non-tourist industry. You can get anything made here, from custom-made suits to gowns to sundresses to leather boots to sneakers. The tailor shops will even mail all your goods home to you.

But, even if you don’t want to shop, Hoi An makes for a relaxing destination in an otherwise hectic country as the beach is only a 15-minute bike ride out of town.

This city was also my favorite place to gorge on Vietnamese food (don’t miss trying the cau lao that Hoi An is known for!).

Use this Hoi An travel guide to figure out how to make the most of your time in this amazing city. You definitely shouldn’t miss it.

Top 5 Things to See and Do in Hoi An



1. Explore My Son

My Son is one of the most important sites relating to the ancient Kingdom of Champa and is said to have been Vietnam’s religious and intellectual center. Even in their ruined state, the remaining Hindu temple structures are impressive. Over 70 temples and tombs were constructed at the site between the 4th and 13th centuries by the former Kings of Champa in honor of the Hindu god Shiva. The temples are in a 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) wide valley surrounded by mountains, and the mouth of the sacred Thu Bon River flows past them. Excavation and restoration began in the 1930s and the area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Admission is 150,000 VND per person. You can easily get to and from the site for less than 235,000 VND round-trip.

2. Relax on the beaches

An Bang and Cua Dai beaches are both close to Hoi An and are great places to spend an afternoon. Cua Dai is a 3-kilometer (2-mile) stretch of coastline that is part of the Hoi An Ancient Town UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Vietnam. It provides a gorgeous retreat from the bustling streets of the city. North of Cua Dai, just 10 minutes outside of town, you’ll find An Bang. This laid-back beach and village attract artistic types and there are plenty of bars offering lively places to party. Both beaches offer soft white sand, bright blue water, and excellent beachside restaurants.

3. Take a cooking class

Many places in Hoi An offer lessons where you can learn to make tasty local dishes. You start off by picking the raw ingredients — such as sprouts, herbs, bamboo shoots, cucumber, and other fresh veggies — at a market. Then, you learn how to prepare the food. During your class, you get to prepare traditional dishes like spring rolls, banana flower salads, Pho, and Vietnamese pancakes. Prices vary, but most cost between 700,000-1,100,000 VND. The Hoi An Eco Cooking Class is the best option for lessons and classes.

4. Take a bicycle tour

On a guided tour around the city you’ll get to explore rice fields and see some of the neighborhoods that you wouldn’t normally venture through as a tourist. A morning of bicycling around in a small group starts at around 300,000 VND. Many of them are guided by local students who offer unique perspectives on the city. Tours usually last a few hours with stops at local businesses along the way. I recommend Heaven and Earth Bicycle Tours or Grasshopper Adventures.

5. Shop at the Central Market

Hoi An’s Central Market is one of the best in Vietnam. The market sits on the riverside and is packed full of excellent food at rock-bottom prices. If you’re looking to experience the flavors of Vietnam, this is the spot. Hoi An has always been a thriving center for trade and commerce and the market has origins in the 15th century when the city was part of the empire of Cham. The market gets going as early as 6am and quickly gets busy. If you want to beat the crowds, get there early. This is the place to pick up spices and souvenirs, try local food, and have your tailoring done.

Other Things to See and Do in Hoi An

1. Cross the Japanese Covered Bridge

This bridge is thought to have been built by Hoi An’s Japanese community in the late 16th century and roughly translated from Vietnamese, its name means “Pagoda in Japan.” NOTE: Nearly all of the attractions in the Hoi An Old Town are covered under the ticket price of 120,000 VND, including the bridge, the Old Houses, and the Museum of Folk Culture.

2. Visit Quan Cong Temple

The temple was built in the early 17th century to honor the Chin Dynasty, but nowadays it serves as one of Hoi An’s most spectacular architectural accomplishments. Inside there are two huge wooden statues, one of Quan Cong’s protector, Chau Xuong, and the other of his administrative official, Quan Binh. Of course, between them is the imposing statue of Quan Cong himself (also known as Zihuang), one of China’s most famous generals.

3. Experience Da Nang city

Located about 30 minutes from Hoi An, Da Nang is a bigger city famous for its Marble Mountains, sandy beaches, and active surfing scene. There is also an extravagant party scene here that is good for a night out once in a while. Most hostels can help groups of guests arrange transportation to and from Da Nang for the night.

4. Attend the Full Moon Festival

Hoi An’s Full Moon Festival is held on the 14th day of the lunar cycle each month and is probably the best time to visit the city if you don’t mind the crowds. The streets are shut down to all traffic and are lined with brightly colored lanterns. This is a fun time to party with locals as the streets come alive with folk music, plays, and dancing!

5. Take a trip to Cham Island

Cham Island lies just 21 kilometers (13 miles) from Hoi An in the South China Sea. The diverse marine life around Cham Island draws lots of divers, and because you’re in Vietnam, it’s very cheap to dive here (dives start from 000 VND). Most tours include lunch and free time on the beach, and it’s also possible to include a night dive in your excursion. If you are not into diving, a snorkeling tour costs around 1,060,000 VND.

6. See the Fujian Assembly Hall

Built in 1697, Fujian is the grandest of the Chinese assembly halls and is a first-rate example of Chinese architecture. The main colorful temple is dedicated to the goddess of the sea, Thien Hau, while the statues of Thuan Phong Nhi and Thien Ly Nhan are said to protect sailors in distress. There is a scale model of a sailboat inside too.

7. Visit the Museum of Folk Culture

This small museum aims to preserve the traditions and dress of rural Vietnamese culture. It is filled with plaster statues of figures in costumes that highlight life from here the past few centuries. There are almost 500 items in the collection and the museum is housed in a 150-year-old building. You can purchase a ticket that includes five sites of your choosing (including this museum) for 120,000 VND.

8. Head to the Marble Mountains

The Marble Mountains are a series of five mountains located 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Hoi An. Besides the natural appeal, they also have many pagodas, and some also served as a base for Viet Cong fighters during the Vietnamese War. To get there, take the bus from Hoi An towards Nha Trang and get off at the Marble Mountains stop. It costs 40,000 VND to access the mountains.

9. Enter the Old Houses

Some of the houses in Hoi An have had their interiors turned into museums, giving tourists a glimpse at what life was like for wealthy merchants in the colonial and pre-colonial period. The Tan Ky and the Duc An homes are two of the more popular ones to visit and shouldn’t be missed if you’re a history buff.

Hoi An Travel Costs



Hostel prices – Hostel dorms with 10 or more beds go for about 117,000 VND per night while dorms with fewer beds cost 200,000-300,000 VND per night. Keep in mind that most of Hoi An’s main attractions are in the Old Town, so if you want to spend most of your time there, make sure your accommodation isn’t too far away. Private rooms start at about 352,112 VND for a double. Most hostels include free Wi-Fi, breakfast, and bicycle rentals.

Budget hotel prices – A night in a two-star budget hotel costs around 470,000 VND for a double room. A number of hotels have pools, and most have air-conditioning. Some even include free breakfast.

On Airbnb, you can find a private room for around 275,000 VND. Entire homes or apartments (some with swimming pools) are available starting from 470,000 VND per night.

Food – Vietnamese cuisine is fresh, flavorful, and uses a lot of herbs and vegetables. Rice and noodle dishes are common, as are various soups such as the iconic pho (a beef noodle soup). Wonton soup, meat curry, fresh French bread (known as banh me, and grilled fish are just some of the popular dishes you’ll encounter. Standard ingredients include fish sauce, lemongrass, chili, lime, Thai basil, and mint.

Street food starts at 15,000 VND per meal. Meals in restaurants start at about 30,000 VND and go up from there. You can get delicious banh mi at Bahn Mi Phuong for less than 46,440 VND. Wine is expensive so I would skip it (especially in restaurants).

Fast food (think burger and fries) costs around 120,000 VND for a combo meal. If you want to splash out, a nice meal at a mid-range restaurant costs around 175,000 VND.

Beer costs 20,000-30,000 VND. Coffee costs about 20,000-30,000 VND.

Food is so cheap here that I would not recommend cooking your food. Just grab street food, eat cheap, and you’ll save. It will cost you more in time and money to make your own meals.

Note: If you’re at the beach, restaurant owners will offer you a chair to sit on if you order food or drinks from them. You can relax in the sun while you wait for your pho, fruit platter, banh cuon, or fresh coconut to arrive.

Backpacking Hoi An Suggested Budgets

On a backpacker budget, you can visit Hoi An for 600,000 VND per day. This budget covers a stay in a hostel dorm, eating street food for all of your meals (pho and banh mi are very filling!), limiting your drinking, walking or cycling everywhere, and doing mostly free activities like enjoying the beach. If you plan on drinking, add another 20,000-40,000 VND to your daily budget.

A mid-range budget of about 1,125,000 VND per day covers staying in a cheap hotel, eating street food and at the occasional sit-down restaurant, enjoying a few more drinks, taking the occasional taxi to get around, and doing more paid activities such as museum visits and river tours.

On a “luxury” budget of 2,460,000 VND, you can stay in a nice hotel, eat out for all your meals anywhere you want, enjoy lots of drinks, and more taxis, and do whatever tours and activities you want. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit! 

Hoi An Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips

Your dollar goes a long way in Hoi An (like it does in the rest of Vietnam)! That said, it never hurts to save even more money! Here are some ways to save in Hoi An:

1.   Camp on Cham Island – If you’re heading to Cham Island on a diving trip, it’s possible to save money on accommodation by camping on the beach.

2.   Shop around for handmade clothing – There are hundreds of tailors in Hoi An. If you’re having clothing made, check prices with a few places before settling on one. Asking a local to bring you to a tailor they trust is also a good suggestion.

3.   Skip the SIM Card – Hoi An is highly connected to Wi-Fi. You can access the Wi-Fi in just about every hotel, shop, restaurant, and convenience store for free!

4.   Eat at the market – Market stalls are some of the cheapest food you can find. Enjoy everything from Vietnamese donuts, banh mi, to soups and food with more substance — all for super cheap!

5.   Rent a bicycle – Bikes can be rented starting from 30,000 VND per day. This is a great way to leisurely explore the city.

6.   Drink in hostels – Lots of hostels have bars, cafes, restaurants, or something that acts as all three. Hostel owners know their audience, so they keep their prices down to keep people in their space. Win-win!

7.   Pack a reusable water bottle – The tap water here isn’t safe to drink so bring a reusable water bottle with a filter. It will save you money and thousands of plastic bottles. My preferred bottle is LifeStraw as it has a built-in filter to ensure your water is always clean and safe.

Where to Stay in Hoi An

Hoi An has some of the most affordable accommodation options in Vietnam. Here are some of my favorite places to stay in the city (if you want to be close to the Old Town make sure to check the distance from these hostels before booking):

·         Sun Paradise Villa

·         Tribee Bana Hostel

·         Mad Monkey

·         Fuse Beachside

How to Get Around Hoi An



Everywhere in central Hoi An is within walking distance, so it’s unlikely you’ll spend much on transportation here. The city is small (there are just 152,000 people here) and walking the Old Town is part of the experience.

Bicycle or Motorbike – If you choose to explore, you can rent a bicycle for about 30,000 VND or a motorbike for 165,000 VND per day. The Old Town is closed to motor traffic during certain hours of the day, but you’ll be able to take your bicycle in there. Many hostels/hotels have bicycle rentals available as well.

Cyclo – Cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) are common within the Old Town, and they make a leisurely way to get around. The cyclos can hold up to two people at a time and the drivers are super friendly and often keen to point out landmarks. You can negotiate a fixed hourly rate, or expect to pay about 22,000 VND per kilometer.

Taxi – The taxis are metered (and cheap) here. They start around 20,000 VND for the first kilometer and around 27,000 VND per kilometer after that. Grabbing a taxi from the airport to the center of the city should take about 30 minutes and costs about 200,000-330,000 VND. Don’t go in an unmetered taxi.

Car rental – You won’t need a car to get around Hoi An, and I wouldn’t recommend driving here as the roads are very hectic and the rules are almost never followed. Accidents are common so skip the car rental here.

When to Go to Hoi An

Hoi An is warm the whole year round, with an average daily temperature of 29°C (84°F). It rarely ever goes below 19°C (66°F) here. Unlike Northern Vietnam, Hoi An only has two seasons: rainy, and dry.

February through May is the best time to visit Hoi An thanks to pleasant daily temperatures and endless blue skies. If you want to hit the beaches (like Cua Dai and An Bang) this is also an excellent time to come.

June through August are the hottest months, with temperatures soaring as high as 38°C (100°F). Humidity can be high as well.

Hoi An’s rainy season lasts from September to January, with frequent heavy rain showers. These showers typically do not last long, but Hoi An has been prone to flooding in the past. Tourism traffic is also slowest during this time so expect lower prices.

If you want some excitement during your visit, plan your trip around the 14th day of the month’s lunar cycle. This is Hoi An’s Full Moon Festival and the city comes alive with music, dance, and celebrations.

How to Stay Safe in Hoi An

Hoi An is a very safe place to backpack and travel – even if you’re traveling solo or as a solo female traveler. Violent crime against travelers is infrequent, and petty crime isn’t a huge deal here either. In crowded places (especially the markets) you’ll want to keep your purse/wallet close and be mindful of the activity around you.

Be on the alert for scams. Most people are really just going to try to nickel and dime you and try to get you to spend extra money since they know, as a tourist, you have more than they do. Just keep an eye out.

If you’re worried about getting ripped off you can read about common travel scams to avoid here.

Solo female travelers should generally feel safe here, however, the standard precautions apply (never leave your drink unattended at the bar, never walk home alone intoxicated, etc.).

 

If you experience an emergency, dial 113 for assistance.

The most important piece of safety advice I can offer is to purchase suitable travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:

Hoi An Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources

These are my favorite companies to use when I travel. They consistently have the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the companies I use the most and are always the starting point in my search for travel deals.

·         Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.

·         Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.

·         Agoda – Other than Hostelworld, Agoda is the best hotel accommodation site for Asia.

·         Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.

·         Get Your Guide – Get Your Guide is a huge online marketplace for tours and excursions. They have tons of tour options available in cities all around the world, including everything from cooking classes, walking tours, street art lessons, and more!

·         SafetyWing – Safety Wing offers convenient and affordable plans tailored to digital nomads and long-term travelers. They have cheap monthly plans, great customer service, and an easy-to-use claims process that makes it perfect for those on the road.

·         LifeStraw – My go-to company for reusable water bottles with built-in filters so you can ensure your drinking water is always clean and safe.

·         Unbound Merino – They make lightweight, durable, easy-to-clean travel clothing.