Vietnam – Phở, Family and Flat Tires

I visited Vietnam for only ten short days in 2012.  I knew immediately that it wouldn’t be enough time, and that I wanted to return someday to explore it more extensively.  So when I met Bianca in Malaysia this past Spring, I was really keen to hear about her two-month journey from north to south, mostly on a motorbike.  Below, she tells us about her favourite experiences in Vietnam, as well as some great tips on purchasing and riding a bike through this incredible country.

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Bianca Einemo is 23-year-old living in San Diego, California. She graduated from San Diego State University with a Bachelors of Science in Psychology in 2012. Quickly after graduation she left on a solo trip lasting 13 months, visiting 29 countries on four continents and using 23 different currencies. She has returned home and is now saving for another trip to South America.

What made you decide to travel to Vietnam?

After graduating from San Diego State University I decided to treat myself to a six-month trip. I quit my job, gave up my apartment and put everything I owned into storage. I started in Europe and moved into Southeast Asia. When six months had passed, I knew I wasn’t ready to go home, and I had no responsibilities tying me down preventing me from making this a once in a lifetime trip. Needless to say, I extended my travels.

From the beginning, Vietnam was always on my list of must-see countries. My dad is a pilot for United Airlines and was chosen to fly the first commercial flight from the United States into Vietnam in 30 years. Ever since that trip, my dad has been returning to Vietnam for work and loves the country more every time he goes . Hearing such positive things about the people of Vietnam, I knew I couldn’t miss it.

Your mom joined you for a large portion of this trip.  Had she travelled much before?  What was that this experience like? 

At my seven-month-mark I invited my mom to travel through part of Vietnam with me. This is one of many travel adventures we’ve taken together. Being an airline family has its perks, so my mom was already well-travelled before this trip.

I told her before she arrived that I wanted to show her how I had been living my life for the past half a year, meaning we would be keeping to a budget and staying in hostels. This wasn’t a problem for her – she loved the atmosphere of shared accommodation and we were able to travel more as friends than mother and daughter.

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How long did you spend in Vietnam and what was your route and timeline like?

I spent two beautiful months in Vietnam. I flew into the crazy city of Hanoi and stayed at the famous Hanoi Backpackers on Ma May. After a weekend in Halong Bay I went up to Sapa in the north of the country. From there I made my way south through Hue, Danang, Hoi An, up into the mountains through the Ho Chi Minh Trail to small towns, Nha Trang, Dalat, Mui Ne, then Saigon (Ho Chi Minh), the Mekong Delta, and ended in Phu Quoc. From there I made my way into Cambodia.

What was involved in the preparation for this trip?

When traveling to Vietnam you need to plan your visa before arriving in the country. They want to know when you are coming and more importantly – when you are leaving. Should you sneak into the county somehow, you wouldn’t be able to find accommodation anywhere because all hotels, hotels and guesthouses check your visa when you check in. You have the choice of a one-month or three-month visa. I got a three-month multiple entry visa through MyVietnamVisa.

I sent in a copy of my passport, paid my processing fee online and within two days I had my Visa on Arrival approval letter. When you   arrive to Vietnam you show your approval letter, pay another visa fee and receive your full-page visa.

As far as planning, I decided to take it day by day. I planned by talking to other travelers and making my route as I went.

You began in Halong Bay.  What was this experience like? 

Halong Bay is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Hanoi Backpackers offers a two night/three-day party boat tour into the bay for about $250. I was with a group of 14 solo travelers I met in Hanoi so we decided to look around for a cheaper tour. There are tour agencies around every corner in Hanoi so it didn’t take long to find a similar weekend trip to Halong Bay for only $60. This included all meals, tour of caves, kayaking, and hiking on Cat Ba island.

Bright and early in the morning we drove four hours to the port and boarded our “luxury” boat.  Luckily we didn’t expect much because you rarely get what you expect in Vietnam. Problems began for the group when they gave us a hard time about having copies of our passports and visas instead of the originals, which were locked away safely in Hanoi. We finally reached an agreement that copies would be acceptable and proceeded onto lunch and kayaking, which was the highlight of the trip for me. After visiting some caves we celebrated the evening with drinks and card games on the top deck of the boat, parked in the middle of the bay. Tensions mounted when a guy in our group got a little too friendly with the Captain’s hat then accidentally broke a glass. The Captain came with arms flying and a crew behind him. Luckily our tour guide jumped in so nobody got hurt. We all quickly called it a night.

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The tension at breakfast the next morning was so thick you could cut it with a knife. When we jumped off the boat for hiking we persuaded the tour guide to get us a new boat for night two because we didn’t want a rumble round-two. When we went to grab our stuff off the boat we encountered another showdown. The captain wanted $25 for the broken glass, and they were not going to let us leave until it was paid. That being a ridiculous price, especially in Vietnam we settled on $5 and high-tailed out of there. Night two went off without a hitch and we arrived safely back in Hanoi.

The moral of the story is:  absolutely go to Halong Bay, but never touch the Captain’s hat while sailing with Vietnamese pirates!

Halong Bay is a UNESCO protected area.  From your observations, how well do you think it is has been preserved?

Two things that struck me when in Halong Bay were the amount of trash and the poor conditions of the caves. The Vietnamese are beautiful people, but they have little regard for the environment. They will toss any trash they have into the water, which is heartbreaking for the natural beauty of Halong Bay. A better waste management system should be implimented to keep the area clean.

After Halong Bay you spent some time in Sapa. What can you do there?

Sapa is very easy to get to, an overnight bus or train from Hanoi will put you in the centre of town. There are no hostels but you can easily walk around to find a guesthouse from $3-10. I stayed at a guesthouse called Mimosa Guesthouse inside the central market. Do not be confused by the other Mimosa Guesthouse a little out-of-town which is a brothel. You can find all kinds of food in Sapa. I had the best western style burger I ate while in Southeast Asia  as well as the cheapest and most delicious pho, the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup.

Renting motorbikes is extremely cheap, the whole day will cost you $4 and the winding roads are free of traffic to go explore the outskirts of town and stop by a roadside tea stand. Trekking is what brings most travelers to Sapa and I was no different. There are two prominent hill tribes you will see in Sapa, the Black H’mong which wear colourful pink, yellow and blue scarves and the Red Dzao which wear large red headdresses. A man working in Hanoi gave me a tip that the H’mong will approach you and be very personable about trekking but to go with the Red Dzao is a much more traditional experience and less common. As I walked through the market I met a tiny Red Dzao lady who radiated warmth so I asked if she would take us trekking to her village. Without hesitation she said yes and gave me a gold toothed smile. For $10 a person she would walk us five hours to her home, feed us three meals, shelter us, and walk us another five hours back.

If you ever make it to Sapa, look for Lo May in the field at the top of the central market. Her generosity and warm heart changed my life.    

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You took several train journeys.  What is train travel like in Vietnam? 

Trains in Vietnam are very affordable. They have multiple sections so that you can pick a seat according to your budget. I opted for the nicer four-person cabin for my overnight journey. The small cabin had two bunk beds along the walls, a table in the middle and a window.

Compared to an overnight bus trip I was extremely comfortable and having access to a bathroom was a plus. I sat down for a bowl of pho before getting on the train and brought a bottle of Tiger beer to enjoy for the journey. When I woke up the next morning I was at my destination!

You and your mom bought motorbikes.  Had you had much experience with motorbikes before?  

Before Vietnam I had never been on a motorbike but when I arrived at Hanoi Backpackers I saw multiple postings for used bikes and felt like I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I was planning on gently bringing up the idea to my mom of buying the bikes and driving them through the county. When she arrived in Hanoi the first thing out of her mouth was “I heard you can get bikes here for cheap, LETS DO IT!”

Why did you buy them instead of rent?  What were the costs involved in doing this?

Renting motorbikes in Vietnam is extremely cheap compared to some other Southeast Asian countries. I chose to buy my own motorbike because I wanted to drive it from city to city as opposed to taking public transport. We did a little research through travel blogs about reliable models and went shopping. We settled on two 100cc Honda Waves for $250 a piece. Petrol is just a few dollars every time you fill up and it will get you about 200km per tank.

Things to check for:

  • ·         Registration card (will be registered to a Vietnamese family)
  • ·         All lights and indicators work
  • ·         Tires are not bald
  • ·         Bikes starts easily when the motor isn’t already warm
  • ·         Your horn works (you will use this more than anything else)

Something to keep in mind before starting this journey, it is technically illegal for a foreigner to drive a motorbike in Vietnam. This law is not enforced but if you are pulled over you need to have the registration card or your bike will be taken from you. Vietnamese police would rather not deal with you, so if you run into any issues always speak English and say you are just borrowing the bike.

From Danang, you had your first leg of travel on your motorbikes.  Did you have any  issues?  Describe a typical day on the bikes.

Our first real ride on the bikes was from Danang to Hoi An. What should have taken around two hours took us about four hours. Following a map in a foreign country was harder than we anticipated and we had to stop for a few repairs along the way. The repairs were easy, there are roadside bike shops and if for some reason we weren’t able to go any further just about every motorist knows how to fix minor issues. We learned that having a written plan of the cities we would be passing through was the easiest way to navigate. We had to stop every 200km for gas and rest stops were about every 50km. The roads and the drivers are crazy and staying alert was the number one priority.

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You were in Hoi An for the Lunar New Year.  Describe this experience.  What is Hoi An like?

Hoi An is a beautiful city and a great place to get tailor-made clothing any time of the year. Being there during Tet which is the Vietnamese New Year was wonderful. Tet eve is a huge party, art lines the streets and bridges and you pass families drinking rice wine in alley ways yelling “Chuc mung nam moi”, which is Happy New Year, to everyone who passes.

If you decide to spend the newyear anywhere in Vietnam, please do not be in a rush to go anywhere. Public transport is almost non-existent and booked far in advance. The whole country takes a week off to celebrate with family so most shops will be closed.

You followed the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  What is this?  Where did you go and what did you do along the way?

The Ho Chi Minh trail was a supply route that runs through the mountains of Vietnam and neighboring Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. This is the part of the Journey that made me fall in love with Vietnam. From Hoi An we rode inland to small cities and villages where nobody spoke any English. With a little picture book and a book of maps as our guide we drove to Kham Duc, Dak To, Kon Tum, Pleiku, Ea, Drang, Buon Ma Thout and finished in Nha Trang.

We didn’t do any sight-seeing while in the countryside because none of these places were touristy. The attraction for us was the driving. For six to eight hours a day we were riding and every day was completely new terrain.

You spent some time in Nha Trang.  Would you recommend people go there? 

Nha Trang is a party town. We stayed at the Backpackers house and after a week of noodle soup and no English it was great to have some western food and good conversation. There is a lot to do in Nha Trang, there is a water park, booze cruise and we especially liked the mud baths. Great was to nurse the hangover you will have after a night out at Why Not bar.

Vietnam is not exactly known for its wine, but you decided to try some in Dalat.  How was it?  What would be the best thing to go to Dalat for, if not the wine?

Time and time again I would convince myself that the Dalat wine was going to be a good idea, I can now tell you with confidence it is nothing to write home about. I’m glad I didn’t let a little bad wine stop me from visiting the city of Dalat. There is a huge central market, some nearby waterfalls and plenty of budget accommodation.

We were celebrating a birthday of a friend I met when in Hanoi so we decided to go canyoning and spend a night in the crazy house. Canyoning was terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time. We here hiking through the woods climbing down waterfalls and flying through rock slides. The crazy house built by a local Vietnamese architect is on the outskirts of town and definitely worth a visit. For $2 you can explore this plot of land that looks like its inspired by Disney on mushrooms. We felt like it was a special enough occasion to splurge and book one of their larger rooms for about $15 a person. We had the whole place to ourselves to enjoy our awful Dalat wine and birthday cake on the roof.

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You saw the Fairy Stream in Mui Ne.  What exactly is this?

Mui Ne is a touristy beach city known for kite surfing. I only spent two nights here and the highlight was a tour booked through Mui Ne Backpackers for only $8. Leaving at 2pm you go to visit a small fishing village for a picturesque ocean view then head to the fairy stream. Our driver didn’t speak any English so we still don’t know the story of how it was named. You take your shoes off and walk in the ankle-deep water. I was a little hesitant but there weren’t any rocks in the soft red sand water. The stream takes you to these small sand cliffs of red and white sand with the water slowly trickling out underneath the dunes. It’s beautiful to say the least. When you’ve taken all your pictures you’re off to see the red dunes and then the white Sand dunes for sunset.

For anyone that has ever been to Vietnam, it’s obvious when I describe the traffic in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) as absolutely mental.  How did you cope with this?  Did you fear for your life?

Ho Chi Minh was at the end of the bike tour. We were now a bike gang of three bad-ass, somewhat experienced drivers. We got into the city about 3:30pm and found it quite easy to stay together as we tried to find our hostel. We had a little trouble with one of our clutches so we stopped at a street side mechanic to get the part exchanged for a new clutch. Once the part was replaced we got into an argument with the mechanic because the price he quoted originally had become five times higher. We refused, made him take the part off and went looking for another mechanic. We were walking the bikes at this point with all the luggage on the back. After about 15 minutes of searching we found another guy willing to change the part for a decent price. Within the 30 minutes he was working the streets filled with motorbikes. With no idea which way to go to find the hostel, we set off as slowly as possible so not to lose each other. Once on the road it wasn’t as scary as I expected but we narrowly dodged the police multiple times while doing circles around the city. We finally found the hostel after dark and decided the time had come to sell the bikes because we weren’t up for another joy ride around Saigon.

Let’s talk food and drink.  What are your favourites in Vietnam? 

Vietnam is a country unlike any other that people of all social classes eat from the street venders. A traveller who doesn’t try the street food is missing a huge chunk of the culture. A rule I lived by was, if they are busy with locals the food must be delicious.

A few of my favorite dishes:

·         Bun Cha in Hanoi: served with grilled pork, vermicelli noodles and a bowl of fresh greens

·         Bahn Bao: steamed bun dumplings typically filled with garlicky pork and a quail egg

·         Banh Xeo in Hoi An: crispy crepe stuffed with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts wrapped with lettuce in rice paper

·         Bahn Mi: A French influences baguette with a variety of options to stuff inside, don’t forget a little bit of spicy sauce

Other things to try:

·         Rice wine, the local moonshine … If you make it up to Sapa ask for the corn whiskey, you will know if you found some because its neon yellow

·         Pastries throughout the country

·         Regional specialties, they are popular for a reason.

·         The kebab stand right outside Hanoi Backpackers is delicious and cheap.

·         When in Hoi An ask for the row of food stalls along the water on the peninsula. Third stall down is the best

·         Mui Ne has an area where you can pick your own seafood to be grilled along the ocean. Keep walking until you see the outdoor restaurant with a cobra on the sign, you wont be disappointed.

Would you recommend motorbikes as a primary means of transport in Vietnam?  What are some tips you would give to someone wishing to travel through Vietnam on motorbikes? 

I would absolutely recommend motorbike as a means of travelling through Vietnam if the person has enough time to really enjoy the experience. It is hard work driving for hours and trying to navigate through the country so you need to give yourself time to rest and enjoy the scenery. If you like to have your trip scheduled day by day you should look into other options for getting around the country because a lot of things come up. You may not know how far you will get in a day so planning accommodation ahead of time is not possible.

For those who want to do it, do it 100 percent. You will need a comprehensive book of maps for the whole country. Start driving early in the day because you don’t want to be driving after the sun goes down looking for accommodation. A realistic distance per day is about 200km, you can give yourself a goal destination for the day based on cities populations, as the bigger cities will have lots of accommodations.  Most importantly always drive safely and defensively, the buses will not move out of the way for you!

Still interested but don’t want to commit to buying a bike? Take a look at Easy Riders – they have tours and smaller trips with a guide.

Not everyone is as lucky to have two entire months to explore a country.  What are the top five must-sees and do’s for someone planning to visit Vietnam?

1.       Trekking in Sapa
2.       Sand Dunes in Mui Ne
3.       Halong Bay
4.       Canyoning in Dalat
5.       The crazy city of Saigon

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How did you find the Vietnamese people to be like towards foreigners?

I had always heard that the Vietnamese are kind people, and I was not disappointed. Being an American I expected a bit of reluctance from the locals. I was overwhelmed with how outgoing and curious they were about why we were visiting. As I rode my motorbike through the country people would pull up next to me and just flash me a smile and give me a thumbs up.

One time in particular on my way to Dalat I had some trouble with my bike. I told my mom to go ahead to find some help. As I was walking my bike a man pulled over and speaking no English tried to offer to push my bike. I was a little nervous because my bike was top-heavy with the bags so I thanked him and declined. I soon came up on my mom with a family having a picnic that had come to help me. The men started tinkering with my bike while the ladies were feeding us tea and cookies. Then guess who shows up, the man who had originally tried to help me. He was carrying a bag of petrol. They all worked together to tweak my bike back into working order. None of them would accept any money they just sent us on our way with what I believe were charades of warm wishes.

What challenges did you experience specific to travelling in Vietnam or Southeast Asia in general?

I found that getting from place to place is generally quite easy. There are plenty of other travelers to give you good recommendations and locals will help you if they can. What you need to accept at the beginning of your trip is that everything takes longer than you think it will. Transport that should take eight hours may take up to 14 hours. An empty restaurant may take 45 minutes to serve you food. Remember that you are in a country where the people aren’t in a rush.

What was your favourite thing about your time in Vietnam?

I spent a long time in Vietnam because of the people. While staying in hostels I met some of the coolest travellers, many of whom I still talk to regularly. And the Vietnamese people were so friendly and open-heartedly welcomed me into their country.

What did you learn about yourself during your time in Vietnam and Southeast Asia?

The most important thing I learned while travelling is just how much control I have over my life.  Almost everyone I talk to after travelling claims, “I could never do that”.  Those people are probably never going to try for themselves, which is a shame.  I had a few rough patches that showed me how strong I was when there was nobody else to count on.  The most important thing is that I now have a pretty good idea of what makes me happy.  Taking a year to focus on what I participated in and declined to do, taught me a lot about myself.

What advice would you give to those going to Vietnam? 

In each country I go to I take the time to learn a few phrases and common pleasantries. As soon as you ask them about themselves,  they are proud to tell you about their families and businesses. Some of the locals have done their best to learn some English to make it easier for travellers, so a little effort on your part will go a long way.

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For you, what are the major differences between travelling solo, with friends, and then with your mom?

I have found that if I am travelling with another person – friend or family member, I am less open to making new friends. When you are travelling solo you can either sight-see by yourself or go out of your way to make a friend. This had pushed me to approach people I might have never met had I been with someone else.

Why do you think young people should travel?  Or older people for that matter.

When you step out of your routine to go somewhere new, you learn a lot about yourself and your limits. This could be as small as learning to enjoy free time or as grand as being able to immerse yourself into the culture of a far away country. As I travel to more countries and learn about the way different people live, I believe that my mind becomes more open and tolerant.

What is next on your travel list?

I am saving now saving for South America, my goal is to be in Brazil for the World Cup!

Thank you to Bianca for all her helpful advice on travelling by motorbike through one of my favourite countries, Vietnam!

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