Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Vietnam - The affordable luxury

Did you know few of the most Instagram worthy places are located in Vietnam? Did you know that the locals have a different perspective on what happened during the Vietnam War? Did you know you can be a millionaire in Vietnam with just 45 USD (INR 3000)? Did you know Vietnam has some of the most popular UNESCO heritage sites? Did you know both Coffee and Beer is available for under 1 USD (INR 70)? So no matter what your reason for travel is, Vietnam will surely not disappoint. Of all my personal international trips, Vietnam was the one that was planned in the shortest span of time and let me assure that it was the most economical trip too!
So, why Vietnam?
During the first week of December we realized that we could manage to take time off from work between 25th December and 15th January. This gave us 2-4 weeks to plan out a maximum of 10 days trip. Pulling off a long haul trip was tough as it was peak travel season and prices for flights/hotels were through the skies. So we had limited options. To be really honest, I have this tendency to not go to places where everyone else around me is going to at the time. So that ruled out Bali, Singapore, Thailand and the Middle East. We initially shortlisted Malaysia-Vietnam or Vietnam-Cambodia with the idea that we cover two countries (one for 2019 which did not see any International Trips and other for 2020).

On reading further it occurred to us that Vietnam alone has so much to see that we would not be doing justice to it by including a second country in the short time that we have. Also I have visited parts of Thailand and Laos in 2014 where I had met a lot of backpackers who had mentioned how economical Vietnam was for them.

So what exactly is in Vietnam?
Vietnam is a developing country like India. But honestly it looks more developed than India, the infrastructure in the cities at least. Vietnam has about 3000 km of coastline. During our research we found that Vietnam largely has 7 tourist zones. I did not visit most places mentioned below but thought it would help understand what each place has to offer. The cities mentioned are in the order of South to North Vietnam.

Phu Quoc - An Island south of the mainland of Vietnam/Cambodia which has luxury resorts and white sand beaches. 

Ho Chi Minh City - Formerly known as Saigon, this city has a lot of stories to tell about the Vietnam War, the French colonization, the reunification and their Independence. The Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels are the touristy places at driving distance from the city.

Nha Trang - The popular beach destination known for its amazing beaches, scuba diving and other water sports. There are also some interesting places if you wish to do a day trip from here.

Da Nang / Hoi An - The cultural town of Hoi An (also known as the lantern town) complements the upcoming ultra modern town of Da Nang (skyscrapers and developed country feels). Being primarily a Buddhist city, Son Tra Peninsula and Marble Mountains have stories to tell about Buddhism. My Son Sanctuary contains the ruins of past glory for those interested in archaeology and the Hue Imperial City looks like the KungFu Panda city. BaNa Hills is a resort near DaNang which has the famous golden bridge and an amazing 5 kms cable car through the hills.

Ha Noi - The capital of Vietnam is known for its street food, shopping and the famous train street. The Egg Coffee is best in Hanoi.


Halong Bay - The UNESCO heritage site with over 2000 islands is known for its overnight luxury cruises. Kayak through the caves or swim in the bay for a unique serene experience.

SaPa - This mountain town is famous for trekking and staying with the the various minorities and ethnic groups of Vietnam.

Backpackers easily spend 2-3 weeks exploring Vietnam however knowing the time and budget constraints you can mix and match between the above based on your interests. 

Wow, that does sound like a unique set of choices. How did you decide where you want to go? 
Being well traveled, we wanted to see something which we have not seen or experienced before. While researching we ignored everything that looked similar to our experiences in other places. Also our purpose of the trip was to take a break and relax so we ignored anything that messed with our comfort :)

Hmm, vague but ok. So where do you recommend we start? 
Ho Chi Minh (catering to South Vietnam) and HaNoi (catering to North Vietnam) have the major international airports. So it would make sense to enter/exit from these airports. As of Jan 2020, Indigo operates direct flights to both cities from Kolkata. VietJet and Vietnam Airlines have flights to/from Delhi. For people in North India, Delhi/Kolkata is ideal to travel to Vietnam. If you are in South India then AirAsia with a transit in Bangkok will be cheaper if you decide to start from Ho Chi Minh and exit Vietnam through Hanoi in Indigo. 

So say I decide on 3-4 cities from your list above, how to travel between them?
The best way to travel between cities is to use flights. VietJet is Vietnam's low cost carrier (comparable to Indigo) and they also have Bamboo airlines (probably like SpiceJet). You also have trains that look luxurious but are slow and go at a speed of around 35kph. But if you get an overnight train where timings match your schedule then that might work out better than the flight. You also have luxurious overnight sleeper buses with a 1+1+1 layout which can be booked once you are in the country.

And within the cities? 
Each city has a specific area for tourists. Hanoi has the Old Quarter, DaNang has City Center, Ho Chi Minh has District 1 and so on. If you stay in those areas then almost everything can be covered by foot. Grab is the local cab aggregator (like Uber/Ola) which allows you to book rides and pay in cash. It works a lot cheaper than local taxis. You also have Grab Bikes in cities where you can sit behind a bike while someone else takes you through the traffic. If the tourist location is outside city limits then better book a private taxi or group tour from your hotel travel desk as it works better. Alternatively you can also rent bikes. Gear less scooters are popular and renting them by the week is cheaper. Most information I found online said that you might get into trouble if you are stopped by the police when not having an international license. However I don’t think the people renting you the bikes do not care much about it. We did not risk it :)

Sounds reasonable so what about stay options? 
You have hostels which provide you a bed in a dorm, breakfast and WiFi for as cheap as Rs 500 per night. If you wish to stay in a good hotel then prices start from 1.5 k per night including breakfast. So you can decide based on your budget and purpose of your visit.


So how do I get to know about activities and booking them?
While you could always book package tours from India, booking hotels and flights on your own gives you control over your vacation. All hotels have travel desks which get you day tours in a day’s notice. If you wish to book in advance then Klook is an app that will help you book day trips or group tours. You can book only activities through them based on their inclusions. Do use my referral code mentioned at the end of this post if you are new to Klook and would like to give them a try!

And food and drinks?
Vietnam is famous for its street food, sea food, coffee and beer. Fresh spring rolls, BunCha, BanhMi and Pho are some of the local dishes that you can try. Do not forget to try the Egg Coffee (Yes! coffee with Egg Cream). You also get Continental and Indian food if you are staying in the tourist districts. If you have booked group tours through your hotel or klook it usually comes with a meal where you can indicate your dietary requirements. If you go for traditional Vietnamese food then you get snakes, frogs and crocodiles. Being mostly vegetarians, we didn’t try those but that should not stop you from experimenting. (In the recent incident of Virus scares, I recommend avoiding any kind of exotic meat). If you are someone who likes partying then go around the beer street in Hanoi or the walking street in Ho Chi Minh City. There are sky bars which are expensive but I guess affordable considering how much it would cost to party at fancy places in Bangalore :)


Got it. Would language be an issue?
Yes and No. Tour guides and Grab drivers can speak and understand English but street side vendors mostly don’t. However everyone has a smartphone and they have access to Google translate. So if you are stuck, open Google Translate and type in your query and show them the Vietnamese translation. They will do the same for English :)

Grab, Translate, Klook and all need the internet. How do we arrange those? 
While most places have free WiFi, India is not the only country with cheap data packs. You can purchase a SIM card with unlimited 4G data with 1 month validity for as low as $10 at the airport when you land. Travel agents/websites provide you with cheaper options if you purchase SIM through them.

Speaking of prices, what about currency?
This is the best part. One INR fetches you about 320 Vietnamese Dong. But sadly I did not see any exchange accepting INR so you will need to carry USD or Euros for good conversion rates. 1 USD fetches you between 22500 VND (at airports) to upto 24000 VND at travel agents or paying at hotels. Most places accept USD but it is better to convert to VND at some place near your hotel. Though 24000 VND for a dollar looks like a lot, thanks to inflation it is not. The minimum denomination is 1000 VND and maximum is 500,000 VND. So you can be a millionaire in Vietnam if you have $45 (conversion rates as of January 2020).

So how much cash do I need to carry? 
Well a 1L bottle of water will cost you 10k VND and a coffee starts from 20k VND. The local beers have a price of 25k VND and street food starts from 10k VND. A good 3 course meal costs you around 120k VND. Account for some amount of entry fees and I would say $15 per person per day is a safe amount to have on you (Excluding shopping). Some places do accept credit cards but they will charge 3-5% card charges over the amount so better to carry cash.

Wow Vietnam sounds good, what about Visa?
Unlike other countries, all you need to get a Visa is Passport and passport size photograph.
You have Visa on Arrival options available for most countries including Indians. However you need to get a travel authorization letter which can be obtained by hundreds of travel agents and will cost between $8-$20 depending on where you obtain it from and all are perfectly valid. There will be an additional $25 stamping fee that needs to be paid in cash after completing the paperwork at immigration. The second is the recently introduced eVisa option. You can login into the Vietnam Immigration website (https://evisa.xuatnhapcanh.gov.vn/web/guest/trang-chu-ttdt) and apply for a eVisa by paying an upfront non-refundable fee of $25 using your credit card. Unless you are on some international no fly list you are sure to get visa approved in 3 business days. Carry the printout and directly walk through immigration without the hassle of Visa on Arrival paperwork.

Anything that you think we have to know?
Yes. You need to know about the climate. Just like India, Vietnam has different weather across the country.. So while the south is hot and humid, the mid section might be raining and the north Vietnam will be cold and windy. So check weather details in advance and pack accordingly. If you are someone who gets sick quickly then carry proper medications. 

You missed shopping, what can I get from there and where can I buy?
HaNoi night market happens in the old quarter every weekend and you get souvenirs, clothes and jackets for cheap. It is cheaper if you bargain. If you want to shop in Ho Chi Minh city then you can get good and cheap souvenirs at the Post Office. If you loved the lanterns in HoiAn then buy them at the night market in HoiAn. It is very expensive in other cities. As a rule of thumb bargain for everything that does not have fixed prices mentioned. One of our tour guides told us that we can get stuff for 30-40% cheaper when we bargain.

I guess that covers most of the things. Can you share your itinerary and costs please?
We kept plenty of free time for relaxation and decided places with ideal travel time.
Day 0 - Depart from Bangalore to Vietnam via Bangkok in AirAsia
Day 1, 2 - Ho Chi Minh City
Day 3 - Fly to DaNang on VietJet and HoiAn
Day 4,5 - DaNang / HoiAn
Day 6 - Fly to Hanoi and visit places inside the city
Day 7 - Leave to Halong Bay and spend the night in the cruise
Day 8 - Return to Hanoi and shopping
Day 9 - Depart from Vietnam to Bangalore via Kolkata in Indigo. 

Hotels: (All booked through Booking.com with my membership discount and paid using credit card at the hotel)
Ho Chi Minh - Cosmo Park Hotel. At INR 2000 per night, this place is at the heart of the city just behind the walking street.
Da Nang - Binh Duong Hotel. At INR 1800 per night, this hotel was more than comfortable. The location however is not so ideal if you do not rent a bike or have a dedicated cab with you.
Hanoi - Holdiay Center Hotel. At INR 1650 per night, this hotel had a warm staff with decent breakfast. The rooms however were small and the location has narrow shady looking roads. It is right near the backpackers street though.
Halong Bay - At an attractive 50% offer price of INR 14,000, we stayed in the luxurious Dora cruise which provided us the 5 star experience with 2 lunches, 1 breakfast, 1 dinner, sunset party and included Kayaking and sightseeing by the bay for the two of us.

Flights: (per ticket price including seat and baggage)
Bangalore to Ho Chi Minh City via Bangkok (AirAsia) - INR 12,000
Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang (VietJet) - INR 2500
Da Nang to Hanoi (VietJet) - INR 2400
Hanoi to Kolkata (Indigo) - INR 10,000
Kolkata to Bangalore (AirAsia) - INR 3800



So anything more about the experiences and places you visited?
Well, yes but there is already an information overdose here. Search for #GshnyTravels #Vietnam on Twitter and Instagram for my live posts. I hope to write another blog or make a video about the trip. So keep an eye out on my social media :)

Our final thoughts:
  • When accounting for flight cost, look up the baggage limits. Indigo gives 7kg cabin + 15kg free check-in baggage. AirAsia gives only 7kg cabin free and charges 3.5k for the check-in luggage. Always book directly on airline website and buy baggage when you book tickets as they are a lot cheaper. If the number of people traveling is more, combine your bags and buy baggage together.
  • Buy travel insurance. It is like India where anything can go wrong anytime. Better spend a few bucks here than pay a lot more there.
  • People like to put fish sauce in everything and garnish with dried fish. So if you are a vegetarian then make sure you keep a translation of “I am vegetarian, no meat” handy when you are buying anything.
  • MTR ready to eat upma/poha and Knorr soup packs will help you keep your stomach in check if you do not like the outside food.
  • Halong Bay has a lot of cruises depending on your budget. Please stay overnight on a cruise for the best experience.
  • Do a YouTube search of the places you want to visit. It will either spoil your expectations or you will get motivated to visit (Do at your own risk)
  • Klook worked the best for us in planning the day trips. Use my referral link to install the app if you have not used it in the past - https://www.klook.com/en-IN/invite/67B7LA?c=INR

Special Thanks: 
Geetanjali & Chandini for all the information while planning our trip.
Klook & PayPal for giving us amazing offers which got us around INR 16,000 discounts across all bookings.

If this helped or motivated you to travel then please like/follow my social media accounts :)

You might also be interested to read about planning trips to other places: Ladakh, Bhutan, California, Europe



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